Growing Pains

by Angie

This story is set about ten years from when Chris and Buck found the boys. Many thanks to the other gifted writers whose coat tails I have snagged and ideas I borrowed for this story.

"I hate you! You're not my dad! I wish you'da never found me in that warehouse!"

Harsh words flung in anger, impossible to recall and leave unsaid. Vin threw himself down on the hay bales and scowled at the patch of sky he could see through the loft door. He had a date that night with Sarita, the pretty girl who worked at the coffee shop. All year, he had been juggling his classes, trying to get enough credits to graduate. He was going to make it; the teacher had given him the extra credit work that would bring his grade up high enough to pass. And then Chris found out about how close he was to failing and took the keys to the little truck he had given Vin for his birthday when he turned 16. It wasn't fair!

Chris looked out the kitchen window toward the barn debating whether he had been too harsh on the boy. Vin would turn 18 in a few months and would be free to come and go as he pleased. Sighing, he sorely wished that Buck and JD still lived at the ranch, Buck always acted as a buffer and sounding board for him.

A year after the adoptions were final, Buck had finally achieved his soul's desire, Inez agreed to marry him. They had bought a small spread a few miles down the highway, close enough for the boys to continue to go to the same school and visit, usually riding on the dirt bikes they had rebuilt. Inez had immediately become pregnant and Buck asked for Chris's blessing to name the boy Adam Vincent after his best friend's sons.

Picking up the phone, Chris called one of the other people he trusted, Josiah. The profiler had retired nearly seven years ago after a quadruple bypass operation. With his pension from the government, he was able to pursue his heart's desire and become a student again, studying the human condition. The team had disintegrated pretty quickly after Josiah left. Chris himself had taken over four years ago for Judge Travis when he retired due to the cancer that was ravaging his body. Nathan took over teaching and certifying all the employees in the Midwest section, frequently spending weeks in other cities. Ezra was working in the forensic accounting department, going over the books of liquor stores, gun shops and places that sold tobacco products. He was almost as feared as the IRS, he liked to brag. Only Buck was still working in the field. He took over the team that was formed after the dissolution of Team 7. He was a good leader, his team loved and respected him.

Josiah answered the phone and his booming voice warmed Chris's heart, it had been too long since the two of them had spoken. Drawing a deep breath, he launched into the reason he called. After outlining the situation, he paused for a moment.

"I can't believe he's rebelling like this, he's always been so easy going," Chris said in a slightly softer tone of voice.

"Frankly, I'm surprised it's taken this long," Josiah replied.

"Why do you say that?"

"Chris, he's almost 18 years old. He's becoming an adult and he's trying to find his place in the world. If his grade in social studies is the only thing you can find wrong, you should count your blessings. Vin's a good boy, you raised him to be a strong, intelligent, caring, young man. Most parents would give an arm and a leg to have a kid like him. You need to sit down and talk to him, listen to him."

Standing in the kitchen doorway, he looked up the hall to the wall of pictures. They had changed over the years but he could still see the scared, broken little boy he had first found in a warehouse ten years ago. He still wore his hair down on his shoulders, though it had lightened due to his constant outdoor lifestyle. The thin, hollow body had filled out, becoming strong and well built. Vin had struggled to overcome his early hardships, educationally and emotionally. He now rarely had any problems with his reading or writing. All of which made the fact that he was failing social studies even more confusing.

"You're right, I need to discuss it with him instead of yelling the way I did," Chris said as he returned to the kitchen. "I'll call you later and let you know how it goes."

Time had taken the edge off of his anger and Vin turned onto his stomach. It was his own fault that he was failing that class, it just didn't interest him. Other teachers made the tedious subjects at least marginally interesting but Mr. Stokes had a voice like a buzz saw, it was impossible not to tune him out. Combined with the fact that Sarita sat in the next row and two seats up from him and there was no way he could remember anything. The counselor had gotten him transferred to a different teacher and he was doing much better. It was the new teacher who gave him the extra credit work. Knowing of his love for Native Americans, she assigned him a report on the Incas. It was almost finished, complete with a scale model of a village. Fat lot it mattered, Chris still wouldn't let him go out in the truck.

It was hard enough, coming from the background that he did. But everyone knew his dad was a Fed and he was a 'goody two shoes.' It wasn't that he wanted to party and use drugs like the other kids but he definitely wanted to fit in. The truck had gone a long way toward making him 'one of the guys.' He hung out at the coffee shop and went to the show with the other kids from time to time. That was how he met Sarita. Thinking of his girlfriend caused his anger to build again and he rolled over and jumped to his feet. Descending the ladder, he tossed the tarp off of the dirt bike and rolled it out of the barn. When he reached the end of the driveway, he put on his helmet and kick started the motor. Chris said he couldn't use the truck but he hadn't said anything about the bike.

With the air blowing in his face, Vin once again began to feel calm. Turning onto the other blacktop, he headed for Buck's place, he needed to see JD. In the time since they had moved from the ranch, he and JD had drifted apart some. Adam adored his older brother and JD returned the sentiment. It was lonely at the ranch all by himself; he realized that he had been missing JD for quite a while.

Walking into the barn, Chris called for Vin. Not hearing any response, he climbed the ladder and checked out the loft. As he was climbing down, he noticed the tarp and the missing bike. All the warm, comfortable feelings he'd had melted like a snowball in Hell.

"Vincent Michael Tanner, you are in so much trouble!" Chris growled at the space where the bike should have been. Digging the keys from his pocket, he headed for the truck.

Vin parked the bike alongside of JD's little car and hung the helmet from the handlebars. Dragging his fingers through his hair, he approached the house. Inez opened the door before he knocked. Her smile was warm and welcoming; obviously Chris had not told them of his failure.

A small, dark haired boy burst from another room and Vin knelt to catch him. Adam had just turned seven a few weeks ago. He and Chris had gone into Denver for the party at the kiddy pizza place.

"Hey, super brat, whaddaya know?" Vin asked as he tickled the child.

"Come see my new pet turtle! JD said you guys had a turtle when you were my age," Adam said. Vin put the boy on his feet and followed him to his bedroom. In an aquarium very much like the one they had kept Torkus in, Adam's turtle sat munching on a piece of lettuce. While he was listening to the youngster extol the intelligence of his new pet, JD walked in.

"Vin! What are you doing here? I thought you had a date tonight. What happened, did Sarita finally wise up and decide to go for the cuter, younger brother?" JD teased his oldest friend.

"No, Chris took my keys. I can't drive the truck until the end of the month."

"Bummer! What'd you do?"

"Failed Stokes' class. He got the mid-term report and grounded me."

"And now you're grounded for another two weeks," Chris said from the doorway behind JD. "Get the bike into the truck and let's go. Now!"

Hatred blazed in the sky blue eyes as he stepped calmly around JD. Vin stood toe to toe with Chris for a moment before turning and walking out, striking the blond with his shoulder as he passed. Buck and Inez stood in the living room, clearly not wanting to get into the family dispute. Vin nodded to them as he left the house, gently closing the door. Storming across the lawn, he kicked at the gravel. Jerking the truck tailgate down, he grabbed the bike and flung it into the bed, not caring that he scratched the paint and dented the bike's gas tank. Snatching the passenger side door open, he got into the truck and put on his seatbelt.

Chris apologized to Buck and Inez before slipping out of the house. JD had kept Adam away from the angry blond. Stalking across the porch, he got in and started the truck. He was so angry that he didn't say a word all the way back to the ranch. When he parked the truck, he decided to speak.

"Take the bike to the barn and bring me the key."

Dragging the bike out of the truck bed, he rolled it down to the barn and covered it with the tarp after yanking the ignition key out. Giving the bike a kick, he headed for the house. Chris was sitting on the couch with a half empty beer in one hand. Vin stormed into the kitchen and snagged a Dew before coming in and flopping down on the recliner.

"You knew better than to take the bike, didn't you?"

"You never said I couldn't! When you gave me the bike, you told me I could ride down and visit JD any time I wanted to."

"Not while you're grounded."

"Oh, so now I can't even see JD? What's next? You going to take me down to the station and throw me in a cell? You going to start searching me when I come home? Install a few metal detectors or something? I can't believe you're freaking out like this! It's one lousy class!"

"It is not one lousy class. It's the difference between graduating and not graduating this year. I thought you wanted to go to the University for those classes next year. You have all these plans for your life."

"It's my life! Why can't you let me live it? You've been in control of my life from day one. Do you know what it's like to be 'the Fed's son'? Not that I ever wanted to do any of the stupid stuff they're doing but I'm so tired of being different!"

Chris's hearing cut off after 'Fed's son' and he never heard the rest of Vin's statement. A red curtain descended on his vision and he came to his feet. "Is that it? You're ashamed of me? After everything I've done for you and the sacrifices I made for you, you're ashamed of me?" Before he completely lost control, he stormed out of the house and got into the truck.

The dodge had only just made it to the end of the drive when Vin reached his decision. Grabbing a handful of trash bags, he headed for his room. He dumped his clothes into the bags. He grabbed his book bag and dumped his books on the floor. Stuffing his mementos into the bag, he looked around the room one last time. His eyes fell on Cat. The stuffed animal had been loved until it was threadbare in places. He could see the spots where Mrs. Potter had fixed it all those times. He grabbed the toy and tucked it under his arm, gathering up the trash bags, he left the house. He tossed the bags into the back of the truck and pulled the extra set of keys out of his pocket. Racing the engine, he fishtailed on the driveway as he left.

The cemetery was quiet as Chris sat back against the tree. He came up here when he was especially troubled. Talking to Sarah's headstone helped, usually. Right now, the only thing he was feeling was despair. Vin had been the catalyst for pulling him out of his depression over the loss of his first family. Vin had been the reason he took care of himself. He thought about what Josiah had said, that Vin was growing into a caring young man. He was inordinately proud of the person he was becoming. Deciding that he had been unreasonable, Chris headed for home, he had to apologize to his son.

It was nearly dark when Vin walked away from the truck and snuck back to JD's car. The kid never locked the doors; he didn't figure anyone would bother it. Opening the driver's side door, he laid Cat in the seat. Closing the door soundlessly, he walked away. Starting the truck again, he drove into the night. He had nearly a thousand dollars in his savings account; he would get it out in the morning when the bank opened. He drove until he found a safe place to pull off of the road. Sliding to the passenger side, he stretched his legs out across the seat and tried to sleep. After an hour, he was still wide awake, every little sound amplified by the absence of other sounds. Turning the ignition key, he turned on the radio and was soon snoring softly.

The truck was gone and Chris felt a hand of fear close around his heart. Racing into the house, he tossed open the door to Vin's room. The picture of him and his mother was gone from the bedside table, along with the pictures of his biological father. The ribbons he had won growing up were also gone. In the bathroom, all of Vin's toiletries were missing, along with several towels and washcloths. Turning hard on his heel, he ran from the house and back to his truck.

Two hours later, he still hadn't found Vin. He had searched all of his son's usual haunts and had even stopped some of his friends. In desperation, he stopped by the coffee shop where his son's girlfriend worked.

"Excuse me, Sarita, have you seen or spoken to Vin this evening?"

"No, Mr. Larabee, we were supposed to go out but he called and said you grounded him because of his social studies grade. Didn't Miss Clark tell you about his extra credit project? It's totally cool. When she sees that, he'll get a passing grade for sure!"

"What extra credit project?"

"The one he's been working on for the past few weeks. It's in the garage at your house, you have to have seen it. The Inca village model he built?"

Turning away, Chris felt sick at heart. He hadn't known about the extra credit work, he hadn't taken the time to sit down and listen to Vin. Stumbling from the coffee shop, Chris headed for the only place he could think of, Buck's house.

Buck dressed and went with Chris back to the ranch to see for himself that Vin had really gone. While he was standing in the bedroom looking at the empty dresser, Chris found himself in the garage. Sitting on a pair of saw horses was a half sheet of plywood with a model built to scale on it. The buildings were made from cardboard and foam blocks, carefully cut and assembled to make a realistic village. Everything had been painted to resemble the natural rock.

"You find something out here?" Buck asked, snapping Chris out of his reverie.

"Just his social studies project. I didn't even know he was working on it."

"Wow! Who'da thought Junior could do work like this?"

"Anybody who knows him," Chris snarled.

"Okay, Chris, calm down. I know you don't want to hear this, but he'll be back. He's just got his dander up and he's showing you that he has some power of his own. He's probably holed up with a friend. He'll turn up in a day or two."

"I can't wait that long!"

Buck nudged Chris back into the house and placed a good stiff drink in his hand. He could see that the blond was worn out from the search. After a third drink, Chris leaned back in the recliner, tears rolling down his face. Buck pulled the blanket off of the back of the couch and draped it over his former boss.

"Where's Da?" JD asked the next morning, as he grabbed a plate and dished up some scrambled eggs from the pan on the stove.

"Chris came by late last night looking for Vin and your dad went up to the ranch with him," Inez said as she pressed a glass of orange juice into his hand.

"Vin's missing?" JD yelped.

"Not so loud, you'll scare Adam. Why don't you swing by the ranch and see if Vin came back before you go on to school?" Inez said, her tone reminding him that she intended for him to go to school.

"Yes, Ma'am." JD wolfed down his food and tossed back the juice before grabbing his lunch and car keys. As soon as he got to the car, he knew Vin was really gone. He picked up the stuffed animal and looked toward the sky. Sliding behind the wheel, he backed out of the driveway and headed for the ranch. Parking behind Chris's truck, he raced into the house. "Da! Da! Where are you? Vin? Chris?"

The voice took Chris back, to a time when the boys were young and things were simpler. Opening his eyes shattered the mental illusion, as did the stuffed cat that JD handed to Buck.

"This was in my car this morning," JD whispered. The kid still couldn't manage to whisper without everyone hearing what he said.

"He left Cat?"

A sick feeling took hold of Buck's stomach. Vin now had most of twelve hours lead on them. Pulling out his cell phone, he began making the necessary calls. Chris took the toy and sank back into the recliner. JD stood, feeling very confused and all alone. Buck came over and slipped an arm around him and pulled him close as he gave the police a description of Vin's truck and of Vin.

"JD, son, you need to go on to school, there's nothing you can do here," Buck said.

"Go to school? Are you out of your mind? Vin is out there somewhere and you want me to go sit in a classroom and diagram sentences? No way! I'm going to help you find Vin!"

"You'll do as I say, young man! Now go to school! I'll call you if we find him."

"Don't you mean when you find him?" JD challenged. At his words, Chris gasped.

The police car sat in front of the house until the rest of the team arrived. Ezra had begun making calls as soon as he heard the news. He called the bank to see if Vin had accessed his account, he hadn't yet but they would call when he did.

A Harley roared down the blacktop and Vin startled awake. The radio was still playing and the announcer gave the time before starting another song. He got out of the truck and took a leak behind a tree. Pulling out the bag with his shaving kit in it, he brushed his teeth and then combed his hair. Pulling a can of Dew from the six-pack in the floorboard, he popped the tab and drained the contents. His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn't had any supper the night before.

"Gotta get into the bank before he freezes my account," Vin said aloud.

Starting the truck turned out to be a problem. Listening to the radio all night had drained the battery until the engine wouldn't turn over. After cussing and stomping on the floorboard for a couple of minutes, he decided to try pop starting the engine. There was enough of an incline that he ought to be able to get it rolling fast enough to start it.

Josiah called the school and told them to call home immediately if Vin showed up. Nathan was calling around to his friends on the police department and asking them to be on the look out for the truck. Ezra was calling in favors from former informants. Buck had found the left over school pictures to give to the police. He called Inez and told her that he and JD were going to stay with Chris until they found Vin.

Getting the truck moving was harder than he thought. Vin cursed aloud as the little Chevy rolled back into the ruts in the road. Turning the wheels, he threw all of his weight against the door frame and pushed. The truck rolled free and he steered it carefully onto the blacktop. Jumping inside, he pushed on the brakes and came to a stop. Turning the wheels without power steering was hard when the tires wanted to hold on to the road. Vin pulled and pulled until he thought he had the wheels straight. Opening the door again, he pushed the truck forward. The little tan Chevy rolled slowly for a few feet and then began to pick up speed. Vin's attention was so riveted on getting it moving that he didn't look to see which direction it was going. When he felt the first tire drop off of the blacktop, he panicked. The truck picked up speed and his foot got hung on a root as it rolled down the embankment. Even as Vin thought to push away from the truck, it dipped into a deep rut and shifted, pinning his leg between the open door and the frame. He felt and heard the bones break and managed a scream of pain before the world went dark.

Chris drew a deep shuddering breath and looked around the room as if looking for Vin to come in. Buck and Nathan went to his side immediately. The blond pushed up from the chair and went to the front door, his face taut with expectation. Yanking the door open, he stepped out to the porch.

"Chris, what is it?" JD asked as he looked up from his seat on the steps.

"Didn't you hear it? Vin called for me," he answered.

"I'm sorry Chris, I didn't hear anything."

The morning passed in agonizingly slow minutes. Chris paced for a while before dropping into the recliner again clutching Cat. Josiah made breakfast and then lunch for them. Ezra contacted the state patrol and asked them to keep an eye out for the truck. Buck's entire team was out combing the city looking for Vin. Buck thought that the teen might have returned to the warehouses where they were found. He hoped not because the warehouse district was especially violent and dangerous now. Pushers and dealers inhabited the area in spite of the police effort to catch them and put them away.

Pain drove away the sleep of unconsciousness and Vin jerked. A startled gasp was wrung from his lungs as the motion traveled down his broken leg. The front end of the truck was wedged in a deep crevasse and a tree held the door closed on his leg. Tears leaked from his eyes as he thumped his head against the back glass. "Stupid, stupid," he told himself. Turning carefully, he looked to see how far he was from the road. Thick tree limbs obscured his view and he knew they would prevent anyone on the road from seeing him. Despair washed over him and he pounded on the steering wheel in his frustration.

School let out and several of Vin's friends showed up at the ranch. The news that he had gone missing spread like wild fire throughout the student body. Sarita peered in at Chris as he sat on the foot of Vin's bed, still clutching Cat.

"He told me that's how he knew you loved him. You gave him that cat. He was scared of you at first but when you brought him that stuffed animal, he just knew that you cared about him ... like his momma did. He couldn't even really remember her but he said you searched until you found pictures of her and of his, how did he put it, his 'borned' daddy. He'll be back. If he wasn't coming back, he'd have taken that with him."

Chris looked up at the young woman. Tears blurred his vision as he held out his arm. Sarita came and knelt beside the bed, wrapping her arms around him and drawing his head to her shoulder. Another of Vin's friends, from the football team, came in and sat beside Chris and draped an arm around him. JD came in and sat on the other side and tried to comfort the distraught man who was like a second father to him.

After an hour or so, the teens left, promising to check all the hideouts and 'necking spots' to look for Vin. The police shifts changed and the next group of officers started the search. Buck's team continued to search, hitting the churches and shelters. Ezra checked with the bank again and Vin hadn't touched his account. Nathan made supper, with Inez's help. Adam played out in the yard, he loved the tree house. Buck and Josiah turned the horses out into the pasture so that they wouldn't have to keep dealing with them. While they were watching the horses spread out, Buck spoke.

"Do you think we'll find him?"

"I have to think there is always hope," Josiah answered.

"Why would he run away like this? Doesn't he know what this will do to Chris?"

"He knows. He also knows that he hurts inside. Every son rebels against his father, it's only natural. Adam rebelled against God and was ejected from the garden. It's part of growing up, figuring out your role in life. Separating yourself from your parents is an important part of finding out who you are."

"Then where is he?" Buck said, his fist tightening on the top of the rail.

"God knows, and He will watch over him."

Vin tried the starter and it was still dead. The horn worked, but he would have to listen for a car to come and try to get their attention. He was so hungry that he was trembling. He remembered the soda that had been in the floorboard and felt around for it. The pain of his moving made him sick and he retched over the edge of the seat. Pulling himself back to sitting up, he leaned on the wheel and dozed lightly.

A car went around the curve and Vin's eyes popped open. He hit the horn, three short, three long and three short again, SOS. The car was going too fast to hear. Fatigue and low blood sugar were taking their toll and he slumped against the wheel again. Shudders wracked his frame as the temperature dropped and the chill air came in through the partially open door.

Darkness fell slowly at the ranch. As much as he hated to, Buck made JD go home with him. Josiah and the others promised to stay with Chris. The blond refused to rest, pacing the length of the house repeatedly. He'd barely eaten anything all day. When he went to the liquor cabinet and started on the bottle of Jack Daniels, Nathan nodded at the others to let him have a couple so he would pass out. Unfortunately, Chris's alcohol threshold was higher than the average man. He was well into the middle of the bottle before it slipped from his limp fingers to the floor.

Vin wakened off and on throughout the night. The throbbing in his leg wouldn't let him rest. It left him with a lot of time to think. The angry, hurtful words he'd flung at Chris echoed in his mind. He couldn't believe he said them. He loved Chris; he had almost from the beginning. He'd had to rely on JD and Buck's recollection of his dad actually finding him; he had no memory of that day. Looking back, JD had described the desolation in the blond man's face as he'd pulled the limp body from under the mountain of crates. Chris had always been there for him, taken him to the therapist so he could learn to deal with everything that had happened to him. As Vin got older, Chris had taught him the things a young man should know. The used truck he got for his 16th birthday spoke volumes about the trust they had together. Another wave of nausea struck and he leaned over as the dry heaves wracked him. The sodas sat, neatly contained by the plastic rings, just out of reach. Tears mingled with the bile on the floorboard as he wept.

Pain, throbbing, aching pain, drove Chris from sleep. He looked around in confusion for a moment at finding himself sleeping in the living room, then he remembered. Getting up quietly, he walked to the sliding doors and looked out at the starry sky. Vin was out there somewhere. A soft cough alerted him that he wasn't the only one not sleeping and he turned to find Ezra standing just beyond arms' reach.

"I see you, too, are having trouble remaining in Morpheus' embrace," Ezra said quietly. "Would you like a cup of coffee or a sandwich? You haven't eaten much today."

"No, thanks Ezra. It's just ... I can't explain it."

"You and Vin have always shared an unnatural connection. Even from the very beginning you were like two halves of the same whole. He's out there and we'll find him. Now, come in the kitchen and eat something."

It was easier than arguing with him, so Chris went. He watched, detached, as Ezra made him a sandwich. Usually, they just had cold cuts and cheese with mustard but the southerner made a sandwich with lettuce and tomato. His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he really was hungry and he gratefully accepted the plate and the cup of coffee.

Ezra sat down with his own cup and filled the silence with his voice. "He still hasn't accessed his bank account. All the law enforcement within a hundred miles of here is on the look out for his truck. I also took the liberty of contacting the Texas highway patrol in case he's headed for his father's grave."

Sharp hazel eyes burned across the table. Chris swallowed hard and reined in his glare slightly. "I hadn't even thought of that, thanks."

"It was actually Josiah who suggested it. He said that in light of the things you told him that young Vin might be seeking his roots. It's a long shot but we wanted to cover all the bases."

Finishing the sandwich, Chris felt a wave of lethargy sweep over him. As Ezra was picking up the dishes and rinsing them in the sink, he got up and went to the front door. Staring up at the pale new moon, he did something he hadn't done a lot of in recent years, he prayed.

Ezra hung back for a while until the other man started to sway slightly in the open doorway. Taking Chris by the arm, he steered him back to the recliner. Within minutes, he was sound asleep. Alone again with his thoughts, Ezra returned to the front door and looked at the glittering specks of light. He also prayed for Vin's safe return. In his mind's eye, Vin was still the adorable eight-year-old he had lost his heart to. Ezra had never been around children much as an adult. He knew that they liked him, he entertained them with tricks and sleight of hand, but he had never had a child touch his heart the way Vin and JD had touched him. He allowed those kids to do things that he would have shot an adult for doing. He remembered all the times he had taken the boys in his car and to his condo. He remembered helping Vin with his writing by encouraging him to do a diary of sorts on the computer. He still had a copy at home, tucked away in his safe along with the other truly important things in his life.

"Be safe Master Tanner," he whispered.

Morning came and the search resumed. Buck and JD arrived with bags of groceries. Buck's team was back on the trail. Chris showered and called the office to take a few days off. He spoke to the leaders of each of the teams, offering encouragement for their various assignments. He went down to the barn and found that the horses had already been tended to. Climbing into the loft, he stared at the depression left from where Vin had been laying in the loose hay. Sinking to his knees, he began to cry.

"How long are you going to let him be alone down there?" Nathan asked.

"There isn't anything he can do from up here," Buck answered.

"He shouldn't be left alone, though."

Alone. Vin had never felt so completely and utterly alone. He was so weak and exhausted from not being able to rest that his mind started to wander. He saw the apparition step out of the tree and recognized Chris. Stretching out his hand, he pressed on the windshield.

"Dad! Help me! Please!"

"I can't help you, Vin. You said it yourself, I'm not really your dad," Chris said sadly.

"I didn't mean it! I didn't mean it! Dad please ... don't leave me like this!"

"I'm sorry Vin. There isn't anything I can do," the apparition said before disappearing behind a tree.


Chris's head snapped up and his eyes scanned the trees. He descended the ladder and raced across the yard to the truck. Turning the engine over, he gunned it, throwing gravel from the four rear tires as he turned around and headed down the driveway.

"Where's he going?" Ezra asked as he heard the Ram roaring down the drive. Immediately, the entire group headed for Buck's extended cab Ford F350. They followed Chris as he raced up the little blacktop road.

"He's going to kill somebody if he doesn't slow down," Buck growled. The posted limit on the road was 45 but Chris was pushing 60.

The odd tingle in his chest grew stronger as he topped the hill near the old Nichols' place. The widow had died a few years ago and left the place to her boys and they had yet to decide what to do with it. Knowing there was a hairpin curve up ahead, he slowed the big truck. He rolled down the window so he could scan the drop off that lay on the other side of the road.

Vin collapsed against the steering wheel, sobbing in anguish and agony. His hand came up and gripped the wheel, pressing on the horn. It didn't matter that there was no one around to hear, he figured that he would die here and his body wouldn't be found until later in the fall when the trees were bare enough to reveal his presence.

Chris heard the thin wail of a horn and slowed even more. His eyes noticed a spot of white through the thick foliage and he stopped completely. Buck's truck stopped some yards back, his emergency flashers blinking rapidly. The doors opened and the others climbed out. Chris stood on the edge of the blacktop, trying to locate the spot of white again.

"What is it Chris? What did you see?" Buck asked as he reached the blond man's side.

"Do you hear it?" Chris asked. The thin wail of the horn was almost gone. The men looked at each other before heading down the hill.

"There he is!" Josiah shouted as he spotted the truck. The white Chris had seen was the trash bags Vin had stuffed his belongings into.

"JD, go back to the truck and radio search and rescue and tell them where we are," Buck said. His reasoning was two fold. One, JD could make it faster up the hill and two, he didn't want the kid there if Vin wasn't alive when they reached him.

Racing to the passenger side of the truck, Chris pulled the door open. The sour smell of vomit and human waste assailed him as he climbed inside the cab. He stopped. It was impossible to tell if his son was alive and he was afraid to touch him and find out. Nathan grabbed him, drawing his attention.

"Let me check him, Chris," the medic said gently. He didn't want Chris to be the one to find out if the boy was dead. He didn't want him to have that memory on top of everything else. The blond got out and Nathan carefully got in. Stretching his arm across the cab, he rested his palm on Vin's back. Feeling the shallow breaths, he smiled. "He's alive!"

From the other side of the truck, Josiah called out. "Don't be moving around in there a whole lot. His leg's trapped in the door!"

JD slipped and slid down the hill with the portable radio in his hand. Search and rescue said they would dispatch a team but it would still take a while to get there. There wasn't any place close for the chopper to land, so he sent them to the field at the Nichols' place.

"Da, give me the keys to the truck and I'll go wait for the chopper to arrive," JD said. "How is he?"

"Alive son. He's alive and that's all I know for now. Here, you be careful. It won't help Vin any if you get in an accident. And turn on the four-way flashers in the Ram when you get back up there," Buck said as he pulled the keys from his pocket.

"I'll throw down some flares. They're still behind the seat, right?"

Buck nodded and watched as JD climbed back up the hill. Ezra was coming back down with the first aide kit from the truck. He hadn't even seen Nathan throw it in. The medic was lying on the ground, feeling around the tree to see how badly Vin's leg was hurt. He clenched his teeth and hoped that they wouldn't have to amputate the limb.

"Lots of swelling, but he has good distal pulse and his calf is still warm," Nathan said as he came to his feet and brushed his hands against his pants. "We need to wedge something in there so that it doesn't compress the leg any more while I get inside and check him."

Josiah spotted a rock and picked it up. He and Buck carefully forced it in between the door and the frame, Buck using his heel to wedge it in tightly.

"What if we tie on to the truck and pull it back?" Chris asked.

"Have you got tow chains in the truck?" Nathan returned. Chris shook his head.

"How about using a jack to lift it out of the rut?" Buck suggested.

"Might help but if it slips off of the jack, that door'll sever his leg. Let's just wait for search and rescue and do what we can for him right now," Nathan said as he took the kit from Ezra and went around the truck again.

While Nathan was climbing in on the other side, Ezra threaded his arm into the opening and began to lower the driver's side window. That way, someone else could help Nathan. The medic carefully pulled Vin away from the steering wheel after checking to see that he had no broken ribs or other injuries that could be complicated by moving him. His first concern was dehydration; they didn't know how long he had gone without water. He quickly set up the IV and started it in the back of Vin's hand. Hanging the bag on the rear view mirror, he checked Vin's pupils.

JD divided the flares in half and ran up the road well past the curve before activating them and putting them down. Running back to the truck, he started it and carefully passed Chris's truck. On the other side of the curve, he stopped and put out the rest of the flares before heading for the Nichols' place. His heart was pounding in his throat as he worried about Vin.

Parking the truck, he got out and stared at the sky. While he waited, he remembered. He would always be thankful for the day the older boy rescued him from the car where his mother had died. A bittersweet smile curled his lips as he remembered Vin telling him that his momma was listening to the angels tell her all of their secrets. He remembered the lean times, when they had gone without food. He remembered how Vin always gave him a larger share of the food he brought for them. As the tears fell uncontrollably from his eyes, he thought about the day Chris and Buck had found them and how frightened he was. The memories came faster and faster until he was sobbing so hard he didn't hear the chopper until it was only a hundred yards away. Wiping the tears from his face, he waved his arms, as if there was someone else in the area needing their help.

The chopper touched down and three men leapt from it, pulling out gear and piling it on the ground. When the rotors stopped, JD ran over to offer his help.

"Load all of this in your truck and take us to the site. Can you do that kid?" Lance Coleman looked at the teenager who had so obviously been crying and he wondered if they were too late. The kid picked up the bundle of ropes and one of the plastic boxes and carried them to the truck. When they had unloaded everything, the three men got into the truck and JD drove them back to where they had found Vin.

Ezra had pulled the bags of clothing from the truck and carried them up the hill, just to be doing something useful. Chris was hanging through the open window and Nathan was in the cab of the truck, there wasn't any place for him to stand where he could see or touch Vin. He was alive and that was the important thing. Pulling the blanket from behind the seat, he carried it back down the hill.

"Can you use this, Nathan?" The blanket was plucked from his hand and spread over Vin, covering him from his shoulders down. Chris smiled his thanks and Ezra nodded in acceptance. They had heard the chopper and knew that help was on the way.

JD parked the truck in front of Chris's so as not to block the road. The search and rescue team leapt out and began unloading the equipment. The bundle of rope was tossed to JD to carry down, along with a soft sided bag bearing the Red Cross symbol. Buck and Ezra met them part way down and took some of the equipment. Nathan moved aside to make room for the paramedic, giving him a rundown on what he had already learned. One of the others quickly checked to see how badly Vin's leg was pinned.

"You guys put this rock in here?" he asked.

"We didn't want to take a chance of the door closing any more on his leg," Buck answered.

"Good thinking," the paramedic complimented.

It took them only ten minutes to decide that they needed to pull the truck out of the rut so they could free Vin. The rope JD had carried down was rated to four thousand pounds and they decided to use it rather than wait for the rescue truck with the chains. They unwound the rope and doubled it before attaching it to the undercarriage of the small truck. Since Chris's truck had four wheel drive, they decided to use it to pull Vin's vehicle out. Lance pulled the seatbelt across Vin's body and secured it before giving a thumbs-up to the others.

Chris and the others were told to go sit in the other truck. Larabee immediately began to protest.

"I'll ride in the truck with him. You can't leave him all alone in there."

"Sir," Lance said firmly, "For your safety, please, stand up there out of the way. We will take good care of your son but we can't begin until all bystanders are out of harm's way." Buck wrapped an arm around Chris and began to steer him toward the F350. When they were all safely inside, Jeff, the guy driving Chris's truck, began to tighten the rope. The third paramedic, Roger, stayed close to the truck. His job was to keep the rock wedged in the door in case the rope broke.

Slowly, carefully, they pulled the little truck out of the deep rut. When it was settled on the ground away from the rut and the tree, they stopped pulling it. The paramedic carefully opened the door and pushed the emergency brake to the floor. Motioning to the man driving the Ram, he watched as the tension was eased off of the rope. The little truck settled on the brakes and didn't move. Lance and Jeff ran back down the hill to get their patient out of the cab and onto the canvas stretcher. A foam collar was placed around Vin's neck and a Velcro brace carefully wrapped around his leg before he was gently pulled out and lowered to the ground. Lance and Roger took up the ends while Jeff carried the IV bag and started up the hill.

The rescue unit arrived just as they were easing Vin out of the truck. A stretcher was unloaded and waiting to receive him as soon as he reached the road surface. Vin was immediately secured and placed in the ambulance. Chris followed the stretcher and climbed in.

On the drive to the hospital, Chris got a good look at his son. Vin had dark circles under his eyes and his skin looked taut, no doubt from the dehydration. The paramedics attached a cardiac monitor after splitting the material of Vin's tee shirt. Chris noticed the slight bruising where the steering wheel had hit his ribs. Below the faint bruises, he saw the scar.

Like a truck, the memory slammed into his head. Holding the thin, bloody body in his arms as he climbed out of the stack of crates, he had been angry. It wasn't fair for a life so newly begun to end like that. He remembered the surge of emotion when they found that he was alive. Through a blur of tears, he remembered going to the hospital to see Vin that first time, how different he looked all cleaned up lying in that bed, so pale.

"So pale," he whispered.

"His coloring is good, Mr. Larabee," Jeff assured him, unaware that the older man was not seeing the same person on the stretcher as he was seeing.

They rolled into the emergency ambulance bay and the rear doors were opened. Two orderlies waited to receive the stretcher as soon as it was released from the clamps on the floor. Chris followed the stretcher like he was tied to it. Upon reaching the exam room, Vin's clothing was cut away so they could survey his injuries. Chris was forced from the room while they took X-rays and cleaned him up. When allowed back inside, the doctor questioned him at length about his son's habits. Blood was drawn to see if he had been drunk at the time of the accident. Chris bristled with rage at the knowledge that they thought his son would do something so stupid. A catheter was inserted to try to get a urine sample to check his kidney function. When the doctor had done all he could, he sent Vin for a head CT.

In the waiting area, Buck called his team to cancel the search. Ezra called the local law enforcement and his contact at the Texas highway patrol. JD borrowed Josiah's cell and called Sarita. Nathan hovered outside of the exam room, checking every chart that came out and every result that went in. Vin's blood sugar was pretty low, but not dangerously so. His kidneys were still functioning, although the lack of liquids didn't leave them much to do. Josiah sat with his forehead resting on his folded hands as he prayed.

The doctor came in to tell Chris what he had found. He was surprised to see the man hold up a hand to stop him.

"Let me get the others in here, so we only have to do this once," Chris said.

"Vin is in a coma. It's highly unusual because we can't find a reason for it. He's in surgery right now, having pins put into both the femur and patella. There doesn't appear to be any arterial damage or muscular damage, thankfully. When he regains consciousness, he should be fine."

The next few hours were tense as they waited in the surgery waiting area. Sarita called several of her and Vin's friends and they all showed up at the hospital. Buck's team also showed up. Inez came after dropping Adam with a sitter. When Vin came out of surgery, only Chris and Buck were allowed back to see him. Some of the rules that Team 7 used to regularly break had firmed up in their absence.

When Vin was finally settled in a room, it was in the ICU. He didn't waken from the anesthesia after surgery and they were highly concerned. The ward nurse remembered them, well, remembered Buck, fondly and agreed to bend the rules just a little. Chris would be allowed to remain with Vin while the others were limited to ten minutes at the top of the hour. They also placed Vin nearest the glass wall and let the curtain open so that the others could still see him.

Josiah touched Chris on the shoulder, stirring him from the light sleep. "Vin?" he immediately asked.

"No, just me. Why don't you go get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, I'll stay with Vin."

"I'm not leaving him. Not until I can tell him that I'm sorry and that I love him," he said as he tightened his grip on the limp, pale hand.

"Buck brought the food. You really need to go eat something."

"I can't, Josiah, I can't leave him," Chris answered, his voice tight with emotion.

"Alright, I understand. We're praying for him, you know."

"Thanks, Josiah."

At the top of the next hour, it was Buck who came in. Unlike the others, he wasn't hesitant to touch Vin and talk to him in a normal voice. Ruffling the long, sun-blond hair, he joked the way he usually did.

"Hey, Junior. That was a hell of a place to park your truck. Hey, that little girlfriend of yours is hot! Kinda reminds me of Inez when she first took over the Saloon. Whooey, I'll bet she knows a move or two."

Chris huffed in disgust as he looked at the other man. For the first time, he noticed the sprinkling of gray in Buck's dark hair and the laugh lines around his eyes. In his mind, they were always the same as they were when they found the boys, young and carefree.

"Thought you'd like to know, his tox screens came back negative all around. He wasn't drinking or using any illegal substance."

"Thanks, Buck. I never thought he was but it's good to know."

"You need to eat something before you fall out of that chair. We brought you a sub sandwich. I'll stay with Junior while you grab a bite and take a trip to the john."

Not that he didn't trust the others, he did, with his life, but he couldn't leave his son with anyone else watching over him. Slowly forcing his aching back into motion, he stood and leaned against the bed rails. He stared at Vin, as if he could make him whole by the power of his mind. Breathing deeply, he nodded to Buck and left the room. In the lounge across the way, JD was asleep on the small couch, his head cradled on Ezra's thigh. Ezra was also asleep, his chin resting on his shoulder and his hand resting on JD. Nathan was asleep in another chair, his long legs stretched out and his feet on the small coffee table. Josiah was not in sight which most likely meant that he was in the chapel bending the ear of 'the big guy upstairs.' Chris went to the restroom first and then picked up the sandwich sitting on the table beside Nathan's feet. He managed to choke down four or five bites before he rolled the paper around the sandwich and put it back in the bag. A nurse met him at the door with a steaming cup of coffee, black, just the way he liked it.

Vin's despair pulled him down deeper and deeper. He kept hearing himself, over and over, screaming at Chris that he wasn't his dad. His mind sobbed as he realized how deeply he had hurt the man who had taken him into his home and his heart. A soft voice came to him and he searched for it.

"He still loves you, Vin. Nothing you said can change the way he feels about you," the glowing apparition said as it floated closer. "You filled the empty place we left in his soul."

"Mrs. Chris? Sarah? Is it really you?"

"He's right there, holding your hand. He loves you, son," another soft voice whispered.

"M-m-ma? Ma? It that you? Are you here too? Am I dying?" A cold fear gripped Vin as he thought about all the things he still wanted to do with his life, the things left unsaid. "I don't want to die!"

The cardiac monitor recorded the increase in beats per minute and a nurse came in to check. Chris had returned to his chair and was asleep, his arm draped over the rail and his head resting against Vin's pillow. She checked everything, Vin was fine, his heartbeat leveled out and he didn't appear to be in distress. She made the notes in the chart and left the room.

"I wish you'd never found me!" The phrase echoed in his mind until he thought he would scream. Chris always secretly suspected that he would hear those words during the onset of puberty, when things were supposed to be the hardest between father and son. He remembered the difficulties he'd had with his own father at that age.

Emptiness began to swell in him, filling his chest until it hurt to breathe. He couldn't imagine his life without Vin. His mind took him back to the days following Sarah and Adam's funeral, when he wanted to die. He remembered the terrible, aching loneliness. Chris felt like an iron band was tightening around his chest. He startled awake and struggled to his feet. Looking down at Vin, his eyes swept over the monitors. A cloud of confusion enveloped him and he staggered toward the door.

"Chris?" Nathan looked up from the cup of coffee he was stirring when he saw the blond leaning against the door frame. He came to his feet and rushed across the hall, catching Chris as his knees folded. He eased his former boss to the floor and began checking his vitals. Two nurses rushed over to help. Buck stirred and looked around just in time to see Nathan lifting Chris onto a gurney and a nurse pressing an oxygen mask over his face. Leaping up, he ran to the door.

"What happened?"

"I don't know. He came to the door and then he collapsed. His heart rate is a little fast and his blood pressure is elevated. It could just be a panic attack but at his age, we're not taking any chances. They're taking him to the emergency room and calling a cardiac specialist down to take a look at him. Stay with Vin, I'll come back up as soon as I know something."

In the ER, Chris was hooked up to a cardiac monitor. They drew a blood sample and kept him on the oxygen while they waited for the specialist to arrive. Nathan remained at his side, closely monitoring the machines. The cardiologist reviewed the records and listened to Chris's heart for several minutes. He decided that it was probably a stress attack and recommended that Chris be made to lie down and rest for at least twelve hours. He scheduled an appointment for a cardiac stress test in a couple of days. While he was explaining his reasoning to Nathan, Chris began to stir.

"Vin ... Vin don't go!" Chris mumbled as he tossed his head from side to side. Since the nurses had yet to remove the leads on the monitor, they could see that his heart was racing and his blood pressure was climbing again. Nathan rushed to his side and began to talk softly.

"Chris, calm down. Vin isn't going anywhere. Calm down. Nice easy breaths," he coaxed as his friend opened his eyes.

"What happened?"

"You collapsed in the hallway outside of Vin's room."

Panic flared again in the hazel eyes, "He's dying!"

"He's not. He was fine when you left. The doctor wants to give you something to help you rest."

Instantly, Chris began to try to sit up. He grabbed the leads for the cardiac monitor and ripped them from his chest, wincing as a couple of them pulled out hair. Nathan and the nurse were at his side, trying to get him to lie back down.

"I have to be there for him! I have to tell him!" Chris protested. He didn't see the doctor as he moved behind the nurse and slipped the needle into the IV line. "I have to be there when he wakes up."

The hazel eyes went unfocused and Chris topped struggling against the restraining hands. Nathan guided him back to the pillow. Chris was confused; the medic could see it in his eyes. "Just rest for a while. Buck is with Vin. We won't leave him alone."

Since it was late at night, the doctor suggested leaving Chris in the ER to sleep off the sedative. Josiah came down to find out how his former boss was doing and took the information back upstairs to the others.

"Just like the good old days, huh?" Buck asked when the former profiler told him the news.

"I don't recall our visits to the hospital being especially good," Josiah returned with a slight grin.

Ezra and JD peeked into the room where Nathan was sitting with Chris. "Can I get you anything Uncle Nathan?" the teen asked. A fond smile lit the medic's face, it had been a while since either of the boys had referred to him as their 'uncle.' He didn't even know when they stopped doing it, it had happened so gradually.

"No, thanks JD. How's your dad doing?"

"He's still in there with Vin. He told me to get him some coffee," JD answered as he swayed on his feet. He was torn between the need to go to Chris and the desire to appear adult enough not to have the need. In the end, he stood beside the hospital bed and picked up one of Chris's hands. He remembered the times when those strong, calloused hands had held him. "I can't believe you used to scare me," he said softly.

Ezra edged forward and touched JD on the shoulder, "We should see about acquiring the coffee and sustenance your father requested."

In the ICU, the hours dragged by slowly. Buck consumed a couple of pots of coffee and paced five or six miles along the side of the bed. The nurses assured him that Vin was improving, his vitals were stronger. His eyes kept going to the open cast on Vin's left leg. He remembered the time Chris had broken his leg shortly after the boys came to live with them. So many memories came to him as he stared at the steady drip of the IV fluids.

"I'll bet we've had enough of those things to fill a swimming pool," he said softly as he picked up Vin's hand and studied it. "You gotta wake up, Junior. Chris and the rest of us are worried about you."

Around midday, the nurses came in to change the IV bags and check the surgical incisions. They remarked that he was still improving, although you couldn't tell by looking at him. Buck saw Inez standing at the window looking into the unit and he got up and went to the door.

"I brought you some lunch and a change of clothes," she said softly. "How is he?"

"The same. How's Adam?"

"He misses his daddy and his brother. He's worried about Uncle Chris and about Vin. He doesn't understand why he can't come up and see them," she replied. Buck wrapped his arms around Inez and pulled her close, burying his face in her neck and inhaling the comforting scent. As he nuzzled her jaw, she pushed him away. "You could use a shave."

From the edges of consciousness, Vin heard Inez's comment. Raising one hand, he felt along his cheek and chin. "Don' need to shave," he mumbled softly. "Peach fuzz," he finished with a smile. It was an old argument, started when Vin felt he was old enough to shave. Chris had told him that a good washcloth would take off the peach fuzz he had on his face.

"Vin? Are you back with us?" Buck asked as he returned to the side of the bed. "Talk to me!"

"Buck? Where's my dad? Where's Chris?" Vin asked as he looked around at the empty room.

"He's resting. He was worn out from searching for you," Buck hedged. Not an outright lie but he didn't want to panic Vin so soon after waking up. "How do you feel?"

"Leg hurts ... is it broken?"

"Yeah, you broke it but good. The doctor had to operate to pin it back together. I'm going to ring for the nurse. Are you in a lot of pain?"

"Not too bad. How'd you guys find me? I figured I'd be there 'til the leaves fell before anyone would see the truck."

"Chris found you. He was out in the barn and then he just took off."

While Buck and Vin were talking, Inez stopped in the lounge and told JD and Ezra the good news. JD rushed to the window, not daring to go into the room while Ezra went to tell Nathan and Josiah.

In the ER, Chris was beginning to stir. He had nearly rolled out of the bed twice, so Nathan had been forced to put up the side rails. Chris was lying on his side, snoring softly when Ezra slipped into the room. Josiah was sitting in the corner of the room, his head leaning against the wall as he dozed.

"Good news! He's awake!" Ezra said quietly. "He's talking to Buck."

"Thanks be to God!" Josiah intoned.

"Has the doctor been in to see him?" Nathan asked.

"Buck rang the nurse, I'm certain that the doctor cannot be too far behind. How is our esteemed leader?"

"I honestly can't believe he's still sleeping. He must have been more worn out than I thought," Nathan said. "He stirred about an hour ago, just enough to turn over."

"And I'd still be sleeping if you people would shut up," came a disgruntled voice. "He's awake? He's really awake?" Chris asked.

"And asking for you," Ezra said gently.

It took a few minutes to disconnect the IV from Chris and get him a wheelchair. "I don't need that damned thing, I can walk!" he loudly announced. As soon as he slipped off of the hospital bed, his head spun and he swayed unsteadily. "Or not," he added sheepishly. "What the hell was that he gave me anyway?"

The doctor examined Vin and announced that he could be moved to a regular room in the next few hours. He answered all of the teenager's questions about his injury and recovery schedule. He wasn't too happy to find out that he'd have to miss most of a month of school. Vin was sitting up and trying to cajole the doctor into putting him in a regular walking cast sooner so he could go back to school when Chris arrived. The sight of his father in a wheelchair caused his heart to skip a beat.

"Dad? What happened to you?"

"Vin ...," was all Chris could manage as he pushed himself out of the wheelchair and staggered to the side of the hospital bed. The doctor had lowered the rail so he could examine Vin and Chris sat on the side of the mattress when his wobbly legs threatened to fold. "Son, I'm sorry," Chris said as he reached for Vin.

Seeing the tears in his father's eyes brought it all back, the argument, him leaving, the visions he was having in the woods and the dreams. Vin wrapped his arms around Chris and sobbed. "I'm sorry Dad, I'm sorry," Vin said as he burrowed into Chris's shoulder.

The others suddenly found other things to look at before slipping silently out of the room. JD and Inez were still at the window, JD crying as Inez patted him on the back. The teenager stepped back into the lounge where he'd left his bag of things from home and pulled something out. The others smiled and nodded as he slipped into the room and placed Cat on the foot of the bed.

After spending five more days in the hospital, Vin was discharged to go home. To his dismay and embarrassment, Mrs. Potter returned to stay with him for the first few days while he was still unable to be up on his broken leg. As soon as he got his pins removed and the first cast on, he was allowed to return to school as long as he agreed to use a wheelchair. JD volunteered to pick him up and drop him off.

A few weeks after Vin returned to school, Chris got a call from Miss Clark. She wanted to tell him that Vin had gotten an excellent grade on his extra credit project and would have the credits he needed to graduate at the end of the year.

Chris's doctor noticed some blockage in his heart and recommended some lifestyle changes to try to get him in better shape to avoid bypass surgery. With his wings effectively clipped by his cast, Vin spent a lot of time at home. It gave him and his dad a chance to get to know each other again.

Their close call with Vin and Chris caused the others to realize how they had slowly drifted apart and they decided to make a change. The first weekend of every month, they got together and did something as a family, the way they used to when the kids were small. Adam discovered that Josiah was a wealth of interesting information and could often be found bending the former profiler's ear. Ezra renewed his relationship with the boys, bringing little mementos to remind them of their tenuous beginnings. Sarita was frequently included in their gatherings and discovered that Vin had a very eclectic, interesting family. She took their good-natured teasing about marriage with a grain of salt. Buck pulled Vin aside and grilled him mercilessly about how far their relationship had gone. The teen assured his 'father' that he and Sarita had decided to wait. JD snickered from close by and Vin got even by tattling about Delaney, the cheerleader Buck's son was seeing regularly.

Chris sat in the Adirondack chair watching his extended family. He sipped the iced tea and laughed as Buck lit into JD about his girlfriend. Vin had only recently had his cast removed and he still had a little bit of a limp. They had both taken to walking, Chris because he needed the exercise to keep his cholesterol level down and Vin because he needed to build up the muscles in his leg. Adam ran across the lawn, squealing about something Nathan was holding in his hand. A smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he realized how lucky they were, and how very necessary listening to his son was to their relationship.