A "Little Britches" ATF story
Disclaimer: I still don't know who owns the Magnificent 7. One of these days I will make an effort to figure it out. I promise. It isn't me.
I loved Chris Gantt's LB story Smarts and I hope that she doesn't mind that my story sort of follows along after hers.
I don't recall who came up with idea for the boys' puppies and their names, but I borrowed them because they are too cute. Thank you whoever you are.
One more thing. I have no medical knowledge and cannot vouch for the accuracy of anything that I say here in that regard.
Main Characters: Vin and Ezra
He couldn't find Vin. He knew he was close by, but something was wrong. A dog was barking and someone was crying. Where was Vin? Chris pushed open the back door and ran out into the yard. But wait. This couldn't be his backyard, could it? It was full of tents and animals and people. The circus? What was the circus doing in his backyard? And why was Buck in the middle of that ring playing catch with a seal? It was the seal that was doing the barking- every time it tossed the ball back to Buck it clapped its flippers together and gave a rasping bark. At first it was funny, but the longer the barking went on, the more the noise grated on his sleep- deprived nerves. Someone in the crowd didn't like the barking either, and the little voice that had been crying in the background got louder and louder until Chris could bear it no longer. He gave voice to his displeasure and stuck his head under his pillow. His pillow? Thank God, he'd been dreaming. But wait, oh no- the barking and crying were real. He rolled out of bed with a weary moan and stumbled bleary- eyed out into the hall. There he collided with an equally sleep- addled Buck and together they staggered in the direction of the boys' room.
"O.K. That's it. Elvis and Ringo are bunkin' in the barn. I knew it wasn't a good idea to let them sleep in with the boys." Buck rubbed his eyes.
"Uh, Buck..." Chris nudged his friend and pointed to the two puppies who, at the mention of their names, came rolling out of the den and down the hall toward them.
"Yeah." Chris sighed. "Yours or mine? Any bets?"
"Well, let's see Pard... Vin ain't much for cryin' so it's my guess he's doin' the barkin'."
Chris moaned and thumped his head against the door jamb. A nasty virus had made the rounds in the office a couple of weeks ago, and Chris and Buck had managed it to bring it home to share with the boys. It started innocently enough, just some sneezing and runny noses, but over the course of the last week it had morphed into a full- fledged monster of a cold, complete with sore throats, aching heads and the ejection of all manner of bodily fluids. The boys had been home from school for two days, confined to their beds and nursed with unflagging tenderness by their faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Potter. Unfortunately, she had left on Friday, watery- eyed and sniffling, and called on Saturday to say that she and her brood had fallen ill and there was no way she would be in to work the following week. It was now Sunday night, and Chris and Buck had the Florence Nightingale routine down pat.
"Let's go check it out. "After you, I'm sure."
Buck snapped on the light and Chris pushed through the half open door. It was a sorry sight that met their eyes. J.D. was sitting in his bed, tears running down his flushed cheeks.
"Buck," he sobbed, "make Vin stop. 'M tired and my ears hurt and he keeps makin' that noise. I telled him to stop, but he won't."
"Don't cry, Lil' Bit." Buck bent and scooped the dark- haired boy out of the lower bunk. "Vin's not feelin' good either. He's not doing it on purpose. C'mon, let's go to the bathroom and wash your face, maybe have some more Tylenol. You can sleep with me, how's that sound? Chris'll- whoa!"
Buck had straightened up and was now at eye level with Vin's bunk. The little blonde was lying on his side, struggling to breathe. Every intake of air was punctuated by a high- pitched rattling wheeze that triggered another bout of coughing. Vin's blue eyes were wide with panic as he fought for each breath. He had been sick and vomit covered his pillow and his blankets. Chris gently rubbed the narrow back as the little boy convulsed.
"It's O.K., Buck. You take care of J.D. I'll get Vin in the tub and strip the bed. I'll take him in with me. We'll deal with the rest of this mess tomorrow."
Buck nodded and left the room as J.D. whimpered on his shoulder. Chris helped Vin to sit upright, thinking that might help him breathe, but Vin immediately leaned across the bed and wound his thin arms around his foster father's neck. Chris pulled him out of the bunk and was heartened to feel Vin nuzzle into his chest. Chris reached up to stroke the blonde curls and pulled his hand away to find it covered with a gelatinous substance that he guessed had resided until recently in Vin's stomach.
"How about a nice warm bath and some clean pyjamas?"
Vin nodded and Chris carried his trembling bundle down the hall to the bathroom. He thought about calling Nathan, but it was three o'clock in the morning. Vin was a little on the hot side, but Chris didn't think his temperature was much higher than it had been all week, so he decided to let it go and call the Team medic in the morning. Vin was obviously exhausted, but he didn't complain as Chris ran the water and cleaned him up and washed his hair. Half an hour later, the two were wrapped in the quilts on Chris's bed. Chris had tried giving Vin some Tylenol and cough medicine, but they hadn't stayed down. He seemed to be a little more comfortable sitting up, so Chris propped himself against the headboard and settled the boy in his arms.
"How are ya doin' there, Bud?" He smoothed the fair hair away from the tiny face to see two blue eyes staring drowsily up at him.
"Chris-" Vin's eyes widened as he was caught up in another round of hacking coughs that ended, again, with Vin hunched over the bucket Chris had placed beside the bed. Vin finally gave the slightest of moans and slumped back against Chris's chest.
"Thanks fer takin' care 'a me," he whispered as he turned his face into the soft fabric of Chris's shirt. A 'M' O.K. You'll see. I'll be better in the mornin'."
Something was holding onto him and wouldn't let him go. It had him by the arms and twined around his legs and he kicked and thrashed, desperate to get away. It was hot and he couldn't breathe, and the more he tried to free himself, the tighter the thing held on. He couldn't stand it any longer, and just when he felt the scream growing in his throat and climbing toward his lips, he heard Chris's voice.
"Hey there, Pal, you've got yourself all tied up in knots."
Vin cautiously opened his eyes to find himself in bed, caught in a tangle of bed sheets
and blankets with Chris standing over him, smiling.
"Is it morning?" His throat was scratchy and it hurt to talk.
"It's early, but yep, it is. How are you feeling?"
"I's not so bad." Vin could feel his eyes drooping shut and Chris's cool hand on his forehead.
"The truth, Bud."
Vin forced his eyes open and stared hazily up at the tall blonde.
"I guess I ain't all better yet, but I's comin' along."
He was puzzled when Chris's smile widened and he bent and kissed him on the forehead.
"That's my little trooper. How about some breakfast? In bed or at the table. What's your pleasure?"
Vin's tummy did a slow, sickening somersault when Chris said the word 'breakfast'. Now would be a good time to change the subject.
"He's out on the couch watching cartoons with Buck. Let's go out for a bit and see what's going on." Chris wrapped Vin in a blanket and lifted him into his arms.
"I ain't a baby," Vin whispered as he settled his head on the big man's shoulder and let himself be carried out of the room. "I kin walk..."
Vin hoped Chris would just ignore him. He hated to admit it, but it felt good to be carried. He was glad he didn't have to go to school today. He didn't think he had the energy to go anywhere, and he sighed gratefully as Chris lowered him onto the cushions.
"Hey, J.D. Are you still sick?"
J.D. glared at him accusingly from the other end of the sofa.
"You're not gonna make that noise anymore, are ya?"
"Sorry I waked you up. I'll try ta be quiet today."
Buck came into the room just then and set a plate of toast and a mug on the coffee table.
"Morning Cowboy. Can I get you anything? Want some toast? There's lots."
"Nah. Thanks. I ain't hungry jist now. Mebbe later."
They all looked up as Chris came back into the room with his cell phone at his ear.
"How can that be, Nate? They just had all those needles. Yeah, I guess- well, we will if we have to. Ten o'clock? See you then."
Chris closed up the phone and laid it on the table.
"Nate wants to see you both. Now don't' worry, he's just going to listen to your chest and look in your ears- nothin' serious."
"Chris, have you looked outside lately? It's pouring- I don't like the idea of taking these two out in that."
"I know Buck, but Nate wants to keep on top of things. We've got the Seattle trip coming up on Wednesday- he wants to keep close tabs on them. We've got to drop by the office anyway to sort out what's going to happen this week. And there's some business with Ezra- Nate wouldn't tell me what's goin' on over the phone, but that darn fool has gotten himself into some kind of a mess."
Vin had been drowsing on the couch, half listening to the conversation going on over his head. His eyes shot open. He had forgotten that Chris and Buck were going away this week! They were leaving and Mrs. Potter was sick! What was to become of him and J.D.? He could probably have looked after J.D. himself if he wasn't so sick. He could feel his heart racing. He couldn't catch his breath, and before he knew it, he was wheezing with the effort and the dreaded coughing started again. Then Chris had him sitting up with one hand across his chest and the other rubbing his back, while Buck held the bucket in front of his mouth. He wanted to tell Buck that there was no way he could be sick, because he felt about as empty as a pumpkin at Hallowe'en, but the thought no sooner entered his head than he found himself vomiting something into the bucket with ferocity that made him want to cry. He could see J.D. at the end of the couch with his fingers in his ears, and even over the sound of his own misery he could hear J.D. whining:
"Vin! Ya said ya wouldn't do this no more!"
"One more crisis dealt with." Buck smoothed the blankets over their now sleeping charges, then picked up his mug and dropped into a chair. "Remember the days when you could actually sit and enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee, you know- drink it before it got cold?"
"No, I don't think I can." Chris ran his hand through his hair and sighed.
Buck put his cup to his lips, took a mouthful and made a face.
"I'll make another pot. We've got at least thirty minutes before we have to wrangle these two into the truck. I can't believe they forgot about our trip."
"Yeah, well, at least we convinced Vin that we'll take care of things and he and J.D. will be O.K. I wish we could get out of it- I tried, but Orrin...it'll work out. I'm sure Ms. Nettie or Mary will give us a hand." Chris leaned back and closed his eyes. "Maybe Vin will make a miraculous recovery and be able to babysit for us. Can you believe that kid? It would be funny if he wasn't so serious. How many times have we told him that he and J.D. are our responsibility? I guess one of these days it'll sink in."
"Yeah, he does kind of tend ta take the weight of the world on his shoulders, doesn't he? I told him if he kept on worryin' the way he does, there won't be nothin' left for the rest of us ta worry about. Ain't likely he's ever gonna grow out of it either- that boy's got an old soul."
"That he does, Buck, that he does."
"Yeah, definitely whooping cough. He probably picked it up at school. Kids are usually more susceptible if they've already got a cold. Sometimes we can head it off with antibiotics if we catch it in the 'cold' stage, but Vin's past that now- he's in what we call the 'paroxysmal' stage. Erythromycin might still help- I'll write you out a prescription. And J.D.'s O.K.- just a bad cold." Nathan dug through his desk in search of a pen.
"How long's this going to last? You should have seen him last night- he could hardly breathe. And what about the vomiting? He can't keep anything down. I still can't understand how he even caught this. I thought all that 'immunizing' was supposed to protect him from things like this." Chris shifted the drowsy boy on his lap as he straightened in his chair.
"Immunization isn't one hundred per cent protection. It prevents, in most cases, but even when a child falls ill with a disease, it still helps because the symptoms are much milder. You have to keep in mind, Chris, that we have no way of knowing whether Vin ever got any of the vaccinations he should have had when he was a baby. It's quite possible he didn't get any of them, and therefore he's more susceptible. I'm sure he'll be all right. We have to watch out for dehydration, though, especially since side effects of this antibiotic can include stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea."
"Oh, great. How long will this last? When will he be able to go back to school?"
"Classic whooping cough can last for several weeks. Don't panic, the symptoms lessen in severity as time goes on. I guess I don't need to tell you they're worse at night, but things will get better, I promise." Nathan found a pen and dug a yellow prescription pad out of the pile of paper on his desk.
"I really think while you're away, the boys should stay with us. I want to keep an eye on J.D.'s ears, and with the weather getting colder and the roads the way they are- well, I'd just feel better if they were in town. Don't worry, I talked to Rain, and she agrees."
"Now, Nate, we appreciate the offer, but it's too much. You're on loan to Team Six this week and Rain's got her practice..."
"We can handle it, Chris. Rain and I will trade off, and I'm sure Josiah and Ezra will help out."
"Well, we've still got a couple of days. We'll see."
Vin was getting tired of being dragged around. First they had to go to the clinic, then it was off to the drug store, then the truck had a flat tire and they had to go to the garage, then J.D. was hungry and they had to get him something to eat. He had been in and out of the truck so many times it made him dizzy just thinking about it. It was good to finally be lying in one place for awhile, even if it was the couch in Chris's office. J.D. was asleep- he could feel the weight of his little 'brother's' head on his hip, but he was too tired to push him off. So he lay there on Chris's couch with his eyes closed, hurting too much to fall asleep, and listened as the noise of the office buzzed around him. The office was pretty noisy place. The phone was always ringing, machines were grinding, people were coming in and out and banging the door behind them. And the talking! No one was ever quiet, and even Chris seemed louder than he did at home. No, Vin decided, when he grew up there was no way he was going to work in an office. Still, it was nice to lie here half asleep and be able to hear his foster father's voice, even if it was a bit louder than he'd like. He felt safe when Chris was around, and a couple of weeks ago, when Vin had been so sick and in the hospital, Chris had even said he loved him. Vin was quite sure Chris would not have said so if it wasn't true. Chris had said they were going to be together forever, but, still, Vin couldn't help worrying that someday he would do something to cause all the good things he had in his life right now to be taken from him. It had happened to him before, and he had no doubt that it would happen again. But it wasn't going to happen today. Chris assured him that he knew Vin hadn't got sick on purpose, and that he and Buck would make sure that the two boys would be well cared for while they were away. Vin really wished that the two most important people in their lives weren't going away while he and J.D. were so miserable, but he was the big boy. He knew had to help J.D. understand that their 'fathers' didn't want to go away, and that sometimes even grown- ups had to do things they didn't want to do. Vin relaxed as he snuggled into the blanket that Buck had tossed over them and finally allowed himself to drift off to sleep.
"Damn it, Ezra, would it kill you, for once, to do what you're told?"
Chris's voice was a low growl that reached through the hazy fog in Vin's head and shook him awake with a start. He slid one eye open without moving the rest of him to see that the light in the room had faded and Chris and Ezra were bathed in the solitary glow of the desk lamp. He cold see Uncle Ezra's eyebrows lower, but the undercover agent simply tugged at the cuffs of his jacket and said nothing.
"We discussed this, not once, not twice, but three times. You had your orders, and once again, you chose to disobey them and do what you wanted. I have threatened to suspend you for overruling me, and obviously, as far as you're concerned, that's all it is. A threat. Well, this time, it's the real McCoy. You're suspended. I don't want to see your face in this office for at least a week. Have I made myself clear?"
"Oh yes, Mr. Larabee. Captain. Sir. Crystal." Ezra's voice was low as well. "As far as not seeing my face around here, well that shouldn't be too hard to accomplish. We manage to avoid each other quite readily as it is. You haven't been all that visible around the office of late, and while it might make your life easier to avoid having to deal with me, I cannot say that it works both ways. Believe it or not, I did try to contact you last week when things were going to hell in a handbasket, but you had already left the office with strict instructions that I wasn't to bother you, and I quote, "Unless your hair is on fire." It would have been nice, while I was out there, undercover, on my own, with my life on the line, if I could have called you and begged your blessing for trying to make the best of a situation gone bad. But, I found myself rather occupied with the thankless task of trying to hold things together in the hopes that two months of field work would not turn out to be a total waste, and that we could come out of this fiasco with our reputations intact. I did what I thought was right in the circumstances, and now, in retrospect, if it transpires that I acted badly, then I am prepared to take the consequences."
"Consequences!" Chris snorted. "That's your problem, Ez, you think 'consequences' are things that happen to other people. This is exactly the kind of behaviour that got you in trouble while you were with the FBI, isn't it? Going off, doing your own thing, bending the rules, ignoring your orders. In case you hadn't noticed, around here, for the purposes of work, we're divided into teams. You've gotta start showing me that you're a team player, Ez, because lately I haven't been so sure."
Vin saw Ezra push back his chair and stand up, ready to head for the door. He paused for a moment and turned back to Chris. The look in Ezra's eyes scared Vin, and there was an edge to his uncle's voice when he spoke.
"While I do not believe that any of my decisions or my actions have been careless or ill- considered, you may be correct in your assumption that I have become too accustomed to relying on no one but myself. I have suspected for some time that you have very little faith in me, and perhaps the time has come for us to review the nature of our professional relationship." Ezra shrugged and continued toward the door. "I'll just get a few things from my desk, pick up a couple of files and I'll be on my way. If you wish to discuss the matter further with me, you know where I can be found."
The door closed noiselessly, and Vin saw Chris's shoulders slump and a hand rake through his hair. Just then, Buck stepped into the office, crossed the room and dropped into Ezra's recently vacated seat.
"Well Cowboy, we best be gettin' these little dogies rounded up and head back on out to the ranch.
"How many times do I have to tell you. Don't call me Cowboy."
Chris shook his head, pushed himself away from the desk and leaned back in his chair.
"I swear Buck, that man could try the patience of a saint."
"I take it you're referring to Ezra."
"Who else. He's the best undercover agent in the state- hell, he could go up against the best in the country. I still remember when he agreed to come and work for us- I couldn't believe our luck! One of the FBI's top agents- and he's ours. He's smart, he's thorough, he's dedicated, but sometimes I wonder if he's a team player. He's too independent for his own good, and I think he disobeys my orders just to drive me crazy. I trust the man's instincts, but I always get the feeling he's holding something back. I know he can handle anything the job throws at him and he can be counted on to do the right thing, but... I suspended him. For a week."
"C'mon, Chris, don't you think that's a little harsh?"
"I don't want to talk about it. The man makes me nuts. Change the subject."
"So...what are we doin' with the boys this week? Here's a thought- Ezra's not goin' to be busy. Maybe he should take them. Let Vin puke all over those beige- no, sorry- those 'champagne' coloured carpets of his. Would serve him right."
Buck snorted and Vin squeezed his eyes shut when the two men rose from their chairs and left the room.
He didn't want them to know he was awake. Poor Uncle Ezra. Whether or not his uncle had done something on purpose to make Chris mad at him didn't matter. Vin definitely knew what it was like to have people mad at you. He hated it. It made him worry. Worrying made him feel scared, and lonely, and sick. Uncle Ezra was worried. He could see it in his eyes. Vin should know. He was the master of worry.
He had to see Uncle Ezra. "All he had to do was get himself out from under J.D. without waking him, cross Chris's office and then go through the outer area to his uncle's desk. He had forgotten how dizzy he got when he stood up, and he had forgotten how much energy it took to walk. He clung to the arm of the couch, praying that the room would stop spinning and that his stomach would stay where it belonged. Finally he let go and took his first shaky steps toward the door. He felt awful! He couldn't do this- his tummy was all mixed up and his head felt funny- he had to lie down. He sank to his knees, then stretched out on floor. That was a little better. He'd just rest here for a minute and try to regain control of his uncooperative body, then continue on his way. He stared across the carpet and focused his attention on a shiny object lying on the floor in front of Chris's desk. He was so engaged in trying to figure out what it was that he didn't hear the door open and the soft footfall as someone entered the room.
There was no doubt about it, Chris Larabee was the most aggravating man on the planet. He was everything Ezra admired in a man and a leader- intelligent, strong, compassionate, highly principled- Ezra had jumped when he was given the opportunity to be part of the man's team, but now he was beginning to wonder if he had made the right decision. The two of them were unable to converse for even two minutes before an argument broke out, and he was getting the distinct impression that Chris was having second thoughts about hiring him. Ezra had spent most of his life alone, and he had never cared what people thought of him. He was good at his job, that much he knew, but he had never felt it necessary to seek anyone's approval or good opinion of himself or his work. Until Chris. Much as he was loathe to admit it, he did care what Chris thought of him, and that was an unnerving admission for a man such as himself to make. He dropped into his chair with a grunt and swung his briefcase onto his desk. Even though he was trying to hide the fact that he was perturbed, he was failing miserably. He could see it in the way that both Nathan and Josiah were avoiding his eye and judiciously giving him a wide berth. He finally abandoned all pretense at civility, threw some files in his briefcase and slammed it shut. Discs went flying as he rifled through his shelves in search of the ones he needed in order to work on his cases at home. He couldn't wait to get away from this place. A week with no interruptions, no phones, no unreasonable bosses, no aggravating co- workers- who was he kidding? Work was the only good thing in his life right now. Maude had been especially needy lately, calling daily and complaining that he never had time for her. Of course, she expected him to drop everything and jet half way around the world to enjoy the pleasure of her company. When he tried to point out to her that this was somewhat more than a minor inconvenience, given the fact that he had a job to do, her response was "Then quit."
"Ah yes, Mother dear, then my existence could be just as pointless and trivial as yours," he muttered as he pawed through his desk.
And then there was Olivia. She would choose the worst week of his life to break up with him. Not that he really felt all that badly about it, but it was just one more irritating event in a week brimming with irritating events.
"Where's my pen?"
It came out louder than he meant it to, but he raked his lowering gaze around the office, unrepentant.
"Well, brother, you were in Chris's office..." Josiah offered mildly.
Oh, hell. He really didn't want to go back in there- no wait- Chris had gone out to the secretary's desk a minute ago, with Buck. The coast was clear. He stepped carefully into the lion's den, not much reassured in knowing that the lion wasn't there, and spied his Waterman Carene Deluxe lying under the chair in front of the desk. The room was gloomy in the late afternoon light, and he was halfway to the object of his quest before he noticed a small figure huddled on the carpet. He felt his heart leap in his throat as he rushed to Vin's side.
"Mr. Tanner! Are you all right? Whatever are you doing on the floor?"
The cloudy blue eyes looked up at him, and a faint smile lit the fine features.
"I's goin' ta see you, Uncle Ez. Jist got a little tired. Thought I'd have m'self a rest. I got a favour ta ask ya."
"Well, let us situate you in a more comfortable location." Ezra lifted the boy into his arms and sat in the nearest chair. He settled the slight bundle on his lap and kissed the top of the blonde head that rested on his shoulder. "O.K. Ask away. Your wish is my command."
"C'n I - may I- come and stay with you while C-Chris 'n B-Buck's in Skedaddle?" Vin was out of breath by the time the sentence was finished and he had to take another breath before he could go on. "Please?"
"Skedaddle?- Oh...Seattle." Ezra smiled down into the mop of curls. "Well, Mr. Tanner, I don't know whether that would be the most advantageous situation for you in your present state. I understand you have been feeling somewhat under the weather of late. I'm not certain I would be the best..."
"Please, please, I promise I won't throw up in yer champagne."
"My champagne? That is very considerate of you, no question, but when you are a guest at my humble abode, you may feel free to vomit wherever you please." Ezra gave the slim body a small hug. "Mi casa, su casa. I am certain, however, that in your delicate condition, there is no way Mr. Larabee would ever consider placing you in my care. I fear he does not have that kind of faith in me."
"You have no idea how it warms my heart to hear you say so. But..."
At that moment the door banged open. Chris flicked on the light and strode into the room. Ezra looked up in time to see his eyes squint, then widen in surprise when he caught sight of Vin nestled on Ezra's lap.
"Is everything O.K.?"
He dropped to his knees beside the chair and peered into Vin's face.
"S' fine. Me and Uncle Ezra's havin' a talk. I's askin' him a favour. He said iffen it's O.K. with you, I kin stay with him while you and Buck's away."
"Now Mr. Tanner, that's not exactly what..."
"C'mon Pard, I don't think that's such a good idea."
"What's not a good idea?" Buck's tall frame filled the doorway.
"Please Chris, please? He kin call Uncle Nathan if I gits any sicker. I think I's feelin' a bit better anyhow. Please?"
Vin leaned toward Chris and Ezra heard the whispered plea.
"I really need fer Uncle Ezra ta take care of me."
Chris rocked back on his heels.
"Buck? C'mere. Take Vin for a minute. I want to talk to Ezra outside."
Ezra got up and followed his boss out of the room. Chris spun to face him as soon as they were alone.
"Where'd he come up with that bright idea? Is this some scheme on your part to win brownie points with me? 'Cause if it is, it's not gonna work."
"Why does it fail to surprise me that you would think that? It was his idea, and I was actually in the throes of trying to dissuade him when you came in. You know I would never do anything to jeopardize that child's health, or J.D.'s either. I only, like you, want what is best for him. If you believe nothing else about me, believe that."
Chris stared at Ezra closely and said nothing, then turned on his heel and re- entered his office.
"That went well." Ezra sighed and followed him. "After all, his pen was still in there, and he really wanted it back.
Much to his amazement, Chris did let Vin come to stay with him. Vin had a private conversation with Nathan before leaving for the ranch on Monday, and Tuesday evening found Ezra welcoming his young roommate into his home. Chris had arrived with Vin's antibiotics, assorted over the counter medications, a case of Pedialyte and a list of instructions as long as Ezra's arm. Nathan was going to drop by twice a day and again before bedtime to check on his patient, and Josiah was going to spell Ezra off as well. Chris was obviously apprehensive when the time came to leave his tiny charge, and Ezra couldn't help but smile when the big, mean ATF agent clung to the little Texan until Vin finally had to ask him to please stop 'squooshing' him. Chris straightened up and cleared his throat.
"You be good. Do what Uncle Ezra tells you. I'll be home before you know it." Chris ruffled Vin's hair. "He's all ready for bed. He's had his antibiotics and he's had some Tylenol. He seemed a little warm before we left. Call Nathan first thing if he's any hotter tomorrow- the thermometer's in the bag. He was up sick quite a bit last night and he slept most of the day. When the coughin' gets bad, sometimes it helps if he sits up. He hasn't felt much like eating, but keep trying. Make sure he gets lots to drink. I think that's everything."
Giving Vin a final kiss on the cheek, Chris was gone. Vin tucked cat under his arm and turned to face his uncle.
"Could I please go t' bed now? I's feelin' a mite tired."
"Yes, Mr. Tanner, you certainly may retire now if you wish." He scooped the little boy into his arms and carried him to the guest room. He turned down the covers on the queen- sized bed and laid Vin gently on the pillows.
"Thanks Uncle Ez." Vin gave a grateful sigh. "P'raps ya should give me a bucket or somethin'- you know, jist in case."
Ezra went to the bathroom and returned with the wastebasket. He looked down at the tiny figure lost in the huge bed and sat down beside it. He laid his hand on the blond head.
"You call me if you don't feel well, O.K.? Or if you need anything. My room is just at the end of the hall. I'll leave the light on out there so you won't be in the dark." He leaned over and kissed the warm forehead. "Good night, Mr. Tanner, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite."
"Mmmm..." Vin mumbled sleepily. Then the blue eyes widened. "Ya got bugs?"
"No, Vin, go to sleep. It's just a silly saying. See you in the morning." Ezra rose quietly and left the room.
Ezra sat up late, later than he normally did, listening for any sound that might indicate his guest was experiencing any discomfort. Even after he went to bed, he lay awake for an hour or more, staring at the ceiling. He had set his alarm clock for three, knowing that Vin had to be given his medicine at the time prescribed. He wasn't aware he had even fallen asleep until he suddenly came awake with a start. He listened closely and heard the unmistakable sound of muffled coughing coming from the guest room. He slipped out of bed and down the hall to the now closed door and pushed it open. The bed was empty, and when he looked more closely, he could see that it had been stripped of its sheets. The light was on in the bathroom and he went to the door, knocked softly and went in. Vin was sitting on the toilet, hunched over the waste can, vomiting noiselessly. He looked up through watering eyes as Ezra entered the room.
"Vin..." Ezra knelt before the heaving body. "Why didn't you awaken me?"
"Sorry," Vin gasped. "Didn't want ta bother ya'll. I throwed up in bed. I throwed up on cat." Vin looked sadly at the vomit encrusted toy on top of the pile of soiled sheets lying in the bath tub. "I hate throwing up."
Vin took several wheezing breaths before he was caught up again in another bout of violent coughing.
Ezra sympathetically rubbed the thin back .
"It is a most unpleasant experience. Whenever you think you are ready, I'll help you clean up and you can return to bed."
"I think I's..." Vin leaned forward and retched miserably once again. And again. "I cain't stop barfin'." He took a deep breath and wiped his hand across his mouth. "There..." The word was no sooner out of his mouth than the heaving started anew.
Ezra had never seen anyone so sick in his life. The little boy continued to convulse without a word of complaint or a single tear. Ezra could do nothing to ease the discomfort and nausea assailing the tiny form, so he simply held the sweating forehead and pushed the damp curls away from the tiny face until finally the gagging dwindled away into a case of violent hiccoughs. Ezra cleaned Vin with a damp cloth and got him off the toilet and onto his lap. He leaned back against the cold tile of the bathroom wall and held Vin as the hiccoughs jolted through him.
"I's too tired ta do this anymore," he sighed as the tremors continued. "My tummy hurts and I wanna go t' sleep."
"Here," Ezra rubbed the hollow stomach with a gentle hand. "How does that feel?"
Vin flinched and pushed Ezra's hand away.
"Don't... it's jist... my tummy's so sore..."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you." Ezra rocked the little figure gently.
"I know... S'O.K...." Vin relaxed and his breathing calmed and he finally drifted off to sleep.
Ezra had never spent the night on a bathroom floor, and if it had been entirely up to him, he could have happily lived the rest of his life never having done so. He had planned to move Vin back to bed once he was positive his slumber was real and not just a brief respite from his stomach's spasms, but he must have fallen asleep himself, because he was now awake with Vin curled on his chest and the faint light of a new day shadowing the curtains. He moaned as he slowly got to his feet and stumbled to his own room with his houseguest in his arms. He grabbed up a blanket from the foot of the bed and peered at the numbers flashing on the radio. Five forty-seven. God, he had never been up this early in his life. He laid Vin carefully on the bed and stretched out beside him. Vin stirred sleepily and nestled closed. He seemed to sense that he was in unfamiliar surroundings and his eyes suddenly flew open as he awoke with a start.
"It's all right, Vin, it's all right..."
As recognition dawned in Vin's face, his eyes drifted shut once more, and Ezra, without meaning to, fell asleep himself once again.
When he next awoke, it was to the unwelcome sound of someone pounding on his door.
"O.K., O.K., I'm coming..." He wrenched the door open to be greeted by Nathan, who simply stood open- mouthed and stared at him.
"Sorry, come in. Didn't hear you out here."
Finally, Nathan spoke.
"Rough night, Ezra? Don't think I've ever seen hair like that on anyone. Ya actually look- um- disheveled."
"I feel disheveled. Mr. Tanner had a most unpleasant evening. If there's a category in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest bout of non- stop retching, our young friend deserves the crown. I trust Mr. Dunne's evening passed in a more salubrious fashion?"
"Yeah, J.D. seems to be on the mend. Where is Vin? I want to check him out."
"He was sleeping as of five minutes ago. What time is it, by the way?"
"It's just after nine. I'm on my way into work and I'm runnin' late, so I'm afraid I'm gonna have to wake him up."
Ezra led Nathan into the bed room and the medic lowered himself to sit on the bed beside his groggy patient.
"I'm just going to put some coffee on. I'll be in the kitchen if you need me."
Ten minutes went by before Nathan joined Ezra at the counter. Ezra waved to the coffee pot, but Nathan shook his head.
"Thanks, but I don't have time." Nathan pulled out a stool and perched on the edge. "He's got a fever. His temp's up to 100.8. Perhaps you could get him into the tub later and try to cool him off a bit. I'll give him his medicine and some Tylenol- it should help. Hopefully, he'll be able to keep it down. He'll probably go right back to sleep, but when he wakes up, get him to drink as much as you can, and I'll be back at six. Just let him sleep for now, but you'll have to wake him at three for his next dose if he's napping."
Ezra went to the fridge and got the bottle of antibiotic.
"I couldn't give him this last night- he was too sick. He says it gives him a pain in his stomach. Is that normal?"
"Yeah, unfortunately, it is one of the possible side effects. Keep giving it to him for now, and I'll try to find something else that won't be so hard on him." Nathan got up and headed back to the bedroom.
Ezra sat for a moment with his head in hands. He should never have offered to do this. He hated being helpless, and that's exactly what he was. How could he spend the next three days knowing that poor little soul was desperately ill and there was nothing he cold do to make it better? He sighed and followed Nathan down the hall. Vin stirred at their approach and looked up at them with a faint smile.
"And how are you feeling this morning, young Mr. Tanner?"
"I think I's not too bad, Uncle Ezra." The muddled blue eyes blinked at him from the pillow. "I can't find cat."
"Ah, yes, the hapless Mr. Cat. I'm afraid he's met with an unfortunate accident. But, never fear, I will immediately take the necessary steps to return him to his state of former glory, and he will be back in your arms posthaste."
"Oh, yeah. He got barfed on."
"Not to worry. While Mr. Jackson tends to your medical needs, I shall tend to cat."
Ezra was as good as his word. By the time Nathan left, cat was shampooed and scrubbed and had endured a session under the hair dryer. Ezra propped Vin up slightly at the head of the bed, and was gratified by the contented smile that lit the pale face when the treasured toy was returned to his master's arms.
"Now, Mr. Tanner, I believe sufficient time has passed since the administration of your medication that we might now think about breaking our fast."
"I don't think I's hungry, Uncle Ez."
"Well, I'll prepare a little something and we'll see."
Ezra went into the kitchen. How was he going to tempt his charge to partake of the sustenance he so badly needed? He got out his breakfast tray and set to work. When he was done he stood back and admired his handiwork.
"Martha Stewart, eat your heart out." He tied a towel around his waist, draped another over his arm and balanced the tray on his shoulder. He went into the room and set the tray on the bureau with a flourish.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra bowed, "my name is Ezra and I will be your waiter this evening."
Vin managed a small smile.
"I have taken the liberty of choosing some items from the menu that I thought might tickle your palate." He took up the tray once again and set it before his guest. "First we have the toast, which, I might add, was grilled to perfection by yours truly. And, from our wine cellars, Chateau Neuf du Pedialyte, 2003. A very good year." He lifted the short- stemmed crystal goblet to Vin's lips. "I trust it will be to your liking."
Vin shook his head.
"I's sorry, but I cain't."
"Vin, I know you don't feel like eating, but you have to try. Just take a sip or two, and bite of toast and we'll take a break."
Ezra held the cup out to him once again, but Vin gagged and turned his face away. Ezra set the tray on the floor.
"Let's just sit for a minute." Ezra sat on the bed, leaned against the headboard and snuggled the frail little body to his side. Vin gave a tired sigh and curled against his chest. Ezra kissed the top of the blond head. "I wish I could make you feel better, Vin."
"Ya do." Vin's voice was a whisper. "Ya make me feel good. I done had lots a uncles before..." Ezra felt a faint shudder go through the small frame, then the soft voice continued. "But there weren't none a them ever made me feel good. I ain't never felt so good in all my life as I bin feelin' since I come ta be with Chris and Buck and y'all." Vin shifted and gave a small grunt of pain, then stilled once more.
Ezra could have cried, and he was not one given to crying. Vin had only been part of their lives for five short months. In that time, he had been sick with the flu, had pneumonia and food poisoning and now whooping cough. It broke his heart to think that in spite of all the sickness and misery the little soul on his shoulder had recently endured, that in his mind, life was good.
"Is you afraid 'a anything, Uncle Ezra?"
The question surprised him.
"Hmmm. Well, Mr. Tanner, I am not partial to spiders, or snakes. I don't think I was ever meant to share..."
"Don't mean stuff like that. I mean, of, you know, stuff happenin'."
Ezra wasn't sure where Vin was going with this.
"Do you mean, things like- dying?"
"Not like that. Iffen I was ta die, I'd be with my Mamma and that wouldn't be so bad." Vin was quiet for a moment. "I's afraid a losin'stuff."
"You mean like cat, or your shoes..."
"No. Like Chris and Buck...and you."
"What makes you think you'd ever lose us? We'd never let you lose us."
"Ain't nobody ever cared about me b'fore. Ain't never had much good stuff. I ain't never deserved it." The voice grew hushed and distant. "And someday Chris and Buck and ya'll are gonna find out I don't deserve it- that I's bad and stupid and cain't do nuthin' right and I's gonna lose... I'm afraid."
"Vin..." Ezra was at a loss for words. Why was this child incapable of understanding what he meant to the people in his life? How could he not know what a treasure he was? How could Ezra make him understand that those people who had mistreated him, neglected him and passed him by were the ones who had 'lost'? How could he make this selfless, gentle soul realize that if life was simply a matter of getting what you deserved, he was more deserving than most of everything that was wonderful and good?
"Vin, everyone has things that they are afraid of losing."
"What are you afraid 'a losin'?" Vin turned so he was now looking into Ezra's face.
"Well, I'm afraid of losing the love and respect of the people I care about. I'm afraid of disappointing people that count on me. I'm afraid of making mistakes that hurt other people. I'm afraid of losing you, and J.D., and Chris and Buck and Nathan and Josiah. And my job. I'm afraid..."
Vin reached up a thin, pale hand and placed it over Ezra's mouth.
"I know." He yawned and blinked sleepily, then nestled into the crook of Ezra's arm and fell asleep.
And now, finally, Ezra knew too.
"After awhile, Ezra dozed as well. The unpleasant activities of the previous night had taken their toll, and he woke several hours later to find Vin's hot little head heavy on his chest. He tried to maneuver his watch out from under Vin's body without disturbing him, but he felt the small boy stirring and rolled him gently onto his back. Without being entirely awake, Vin pulled his legs up to his chest and moaned.
"Vin." Ezra tapped the flushed cheek. Vin groaned again. "What's wrong? Is it your stomach? Show me where it hurts."
Vin moved his hand down over his pyjamas to rest on his left side. He still had not opened his eyes, but seemed more aware.
"S'okay," he whispered. "Jist as long as I don't move none."
"Just lie still. I'm going to make a phone call."
Vin nodded and Ezra went into the den and dialed Nathan's number. He gritted his teeth when got his friend's voice mail, and left a message asking that he return the call as soon as possible. He went to the fridge, retrieved the bottle of medicine and was surprised when Vin opened his mouth and swallowed the liquid without any disagreeable repercussions. Ezra was too worried to sleep, so he spent the next two hours sitting in the armchair by the bed, willing the phone to ring.
Ezra snatched up his cell from the night table.
"I'm concerned about Vin. It's his stomach. He seems to be in a great deal of discomfort."
"Have you been able to get him to drink anything?"
"No, I gave him his medicine, but I couldn't persuade him to take anything else."
"How's his temperature?"
"Well, he seems hot, but we spent most of the afternoon tangled up together asleep. I'll get out the thermometer and check him."
"Listen, it's almost five. I should be along shortly. Take his temperature and call me right back if it's any higher than it was this morning. Just hang in there. Try to get him to drink something."
"All right. See you soon."
Ezra scrubbed his hand over his face and picked up the thermometer. He laid his hand on Vin's hair, and when Vin looked up at him, eyes half open, he slid the instrument under his tongue. He rubbed the damp forehead with his thumb until the thermometer beeped, removed it and looked at the numbers on the little screen. 101.7 Was that high enough to warrant another call to Nathan? Vin wasn't delirious, and there wasn't much Nathan could do over the phone. He would just get Vin to have a drink for now, then perhaps he would sponge him down again. He picked up the glass and gently shook Vin's arm.
"Vin, don't go to sleep yet. You have to try to drink something."
Vin shook his head.
"Come, Vin, Nathan said so. You don't want to end up in the hospital, do you?"
Vin's eyes widened. He grasped the cup and before Ezra could stop him, he took a long swallow.
"Just take it easy. We don't..."
But it was too late and Ezra managed to pull Vin over the bucket just in time.
It was in the middle of this latest bout of sickness that Ezra heard his phone ringing once again. He couldn't leave Vin, so he listened as the answering machine picked up the call.
"Ezra? It's Nathan. There's been an accident on the 723-a bad one- and I'm stuck in traffic. I'm gonna pull over and see if I can do anything to help. I'll be along as soon as I can."
Oh, great! He needed Nathan and he needed him right this minute! Vin was panting now, each exhalation of breath a small grunt of pain. Ezra bit back a growl of frustration and continued to comfort the small Texan.
"Vin, just lie back for a moment. Show me again where it hurts."
Vin ran his hand across his stomach and this time, it came to rest on his right flank.
"Here, just let me- I won't hurt you-" Ezra laid his fingers over the spot Vin had indicated and pressed gently. "Does that hurt?"
Vin shook his head, surprised. When Ezra removed his hand, Vin gasped and curled around his stomach once more.
"Just one more thing." Ezra stretched Vin out and tapped the heel of Vin's right foot. Vin yelped and, once again, his hands flew to his right side.
Ezra tried to control his racing heart. Deep breath. Stay calm. Don't panic. Get dressed. Get to the hospital.
He managed to get Vin into his coat and into the car. Now they were stuck on the access lane to the freeway, probably in the same snarl of traffic that Nathan was tangled in. They had been there an hour, not moving, while Vin lay on the seat beside him, face white, teeth clenched. He had to be in agony. The strangled whimpers and groans of pain that the little boy was trying so hard to hold back tore at his heart, and Ezra kept his hand on the trembling form as he mentally screamed at the cars to move. "After a time, Ezra noticed that Vin had grown quiet, and this was alarming in itself.
"How are you doing, Mr. Tanner?"
"It's better, Uncle Ezra. Don't hurt near so much."
Ezra should have been happy to hear that Vin's pain had eased, but he knew this wasn't a good sign. He didn't know how many times he had tried without success to raise Nathan on the phone, but he pressed the speed dial once again as the traffic began to crawl forward at last.
Ezra outlined the events of the past hour, ending with Vin's assurance that the pain in his stomach had abated. He could hear Nathan suck in his breath.
"You're right. It sounds like appendicitis. And he said all of a sudden, the pain stopped? Sounds like a rupture. How far are you from the hospital?"
"The traffic is just now beginning to move."
"Well, all we can do is hope it continues. I'll meet you there."
Ezra's knuckles were white on the steering wheel by the time the stark grey shape of Mercy General finally came into view. He saw no sign of Nathan as he rushed into the Emergency Room with Vin in his arms. He had called the hospital while on the way, so the doctor was expecting them. He laid his precious bundle on the waiting stretcher, ignored the nurses' protests, and followed the gurney as it rolled down the corridor and through the swinging double doors.
Nathan arrived after Vin was taken into surgery, and joined Ezra in the small waiting area outside the operating theatre.
"God, Ez, I'm so sorry." The medic dropped an arm over the smaller man's shoulder.
"Not to worry, Mr. Jackson, it couldn't be helped."
"How did you ever figure out that he had appendicitis?"
"I was afflicted with this very same malady when I was a child. I remember it well." Ezra drew in a breath. "It was most unpleasant."
The two men settled in to wait. Nathan picked up a magazine and Ezra watched every second of the next ninety minutes tick past on the big clock above the door. He fairly flew out of his seat when the surgeon finally appeared..
The doctor held up his hands and smiled.
"That's one very lucky little boy. His appendix was perforated, and he was showing the first signs of peritonitis. Not to worry, though. A week or so in the hospital with IV antibiotics, he should be just fine."
"Thank God." Ezra felt his knees go weak and he dropped into a chair.
"He's not likely going to wake for several hours, and the nurses will be monitoring his condition closely to ensure that everything is proceeding the way it should. But you are welcome to remain with him if you wish." The doctor turned to leave. "The nurse will come for you shortly."
"Nathan, could I impose upon your good will and generosity and ask that you apprise Mr. Larabee of the day's developments? I shall stay here."
"No problem, Ez. I'll come by in the morning."
Nathan made no move to leave.
"Are you O.K., Ez?"
"Pardon? Of course I'm all right. Why do you ask?"
"Well, it's just that I had an interesting conversation with Vin the other day. He said he was worried about you. He said that's why he had to stay with you- he was very particular to be sure that my feelings would not be hurt- but he insisted that there was something wrong with you and he had to help you fix it. Do you have any idea what he was talking about?"
Ezra smiled slightly.
"I think I do."
Nathan stared at him for another moment, then shrugged.
"O.K. Call me if anything comes up."
"Certainly, Mr. Jackson. I will see you on the morrow."
"Chris? I gotta get myself a coffee. These overnight flights are killers. You go ahead. I'll be up in a minute." Buck hefted their suitcases out of the trunk as Chris rifled through his wallet in search of money to pay for he cab.
They strode through the hospital entrance and split up, Buck heading for the cafeteria, and Chris for the elevators. It was just after six o'clock as Chris stepped into the lift and leaned tiredly against the wall. He and Buck should never have left. He should have known something like this would happen. It was hard enough to leave the boys when they were well, but this... He knew he was being ridiculous. No one cold have foreseen that Vin would come down with appendicitis. No one. Well, no one but him. Should he have foreseen this? It was Vin, after all, and nothing ever went the way it should where that child was concerned. Not that he was complaining, mind you. He wouldn't have given up a single angst- ridden moment, and there had been many, that had been life with Vin for the last five months, for anything. The doors slid open and he stepped out into the hall. Room 203. He examined the sign in front of him and made his way down the corridor. The door was ajar, and he could hear voices. He peered through the narrow opening to see his foster son retching miserably over a kidney bowl while his urbane undercover agent held the little boy in his arms. When Vin finished, Ezra laid the sweating form gently on the pillow. He wiped Vin's face with a tenderness Chris would never have guessed he possessed, and he was further surprised when the man eased himself onto the bed, gathered Vin in his arms and kissed the top of the blond head.
He cleared his throat, pushed open the door and went in. Vin's hazy blue eyes widened slightly and he held out his hand.
"Hey there Pard." Chris moved to the bed and sat on the edge. "I hear you've been havin' a rough time of things."
"Nah, s' not s' bad. Uncle Ezzzra's t-takin' real g-good care a me." Vin's voice was slurred and he was having trouble staying awake.
"Mr. Tanner has had an unfortunate reaction to the anesthetic. It doesn't seem to agree with him."
"I's O.K. I had... I's..."
Ezra looked at Chris over the top of Vin's head and raised his eyebrows.
"I l-like Uncle Ezzz- a lot... D'ya like Ez, C-chris?" Vin was mumbling and disoriented, but there was obviously something on his mind he wanted to say.
"Yes, I do."
"How come's ya...act like ya d- don't..." Vin had taken a deep breath and was making an effort to make himself understood. "Me and Uncle Ez, we's both scared a doin' somethin' ya won't like an...and... then ya won't want us no more..."
"Shh, Vin we can talk about all this stuff later. You just go to sleep."
"O.K...." The curly head nodded and the blue eyes slid shut.
There was an awkward silence.
"Well, Mr. Larabee, now that you have arrived, I believe I shall take my leave."
"No, Ez, just stay where you are. Vin looks pretty comfortable there. No need to disturb him yet."
"I want to thank you, Ez, for what you've done. Nathan said things would have turned out a lot worse if it hadn't been for you."
"No need. I am glad to have been of service."
Chris took a deep breath.
"And I think I owe you an apology. Nathan told me about the chat Vin had with him the other day. I guess he overheard us talking in the office, and... I was wrong, about what happened last week. And about other things too. I do trust you, Ezra. I trust your judgment, I respect your ability, I admire your dedication- I guess I don't show it often enough. I'm sorry."
Ezra was blushing and shifting uncomfortably.
Vin shivered and whimpered softly, and Chris reached down to take a small hand in his own. He looked over to see that Ezra hand done the same, and both men gently soothed the little boy until the trembling ceased.
Ezra cleared his throat.
"I am certain, for my own part, that I could make an effort to be somewhat more co-operative when it comes to matters concerning my employment. You, Mr. Larabee, possess all the qualities that I most admire in a person, and I am honoured to be a part of your team."
He held out his free hand to Chris, who reached across the bed and grasped it warmly in his own.
"Out of the mouths of babes, eh, Ez?"
They both looked down at the child sleeping on the pillow, his angelic face framed in a cloud of golden curls.
"Indeed, Mr. Larabee, indeed."
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