by Estee

Cub & Kit AU

Thanks to Debra Noellert for coming up with this Sentinel X-over.

And thanks to Marnie for all her help. J

Jim Ellison walked toward the bullpen, donut in one hand, coffee in the other. When the donut lady had made her rounds earlier, he'd been in the captain's office, so he'd had to chase her down - which was probably the most action he'd seen in a while. Things were quiet in Cascade, something that never lasted for too long.

As he approached the bullpen, he noticed two familiar figures in front of the door. A spotted puma cub, pacing anxiously in front of a red fox kit. The kit's eyes were narrowed as it watched the pacing puma cub. Jim smiled when the cub rubbed against his leg and gazed up at him with its big blue cat eyes. "Long time no see, guys," he whispered, hoping that nobody heard him talking to himself. And then they were gone.

When he entered the bullpen of Major Crime he spotted his partner, Blair Sandburg, right away. It wasn't hard to miss the long haired guy, even if he hadn't been seated in Jim's chair, at Jim's desk, talking on Jim's phone.

Blair glanced up and noticed Jim, waved a hand in greeting then kept right on talking. Jim set his coffee and double chocolate donut on the desk in front of the kid, then stood over him, arms folded across his chest, waiting for him to take the hint.

"Yeah, man. I have to run it by Jim, but things have been pretty quiet around here," he took a moment to rap his knuckles on the wood laminate desktop, "so, I don't think it'll be a problem."

Jim thought about eavesdropping to see who the person on the other end of the line was, but then decided against it. Unlike some people, he had at least an iota of respect for things personal.

"Okay, I'll give you a call later." Then Blair hung up the phone and smiled up at the looming figure above. "Hey, Jim."

"Sandburg, you're in my chair. Again."

"Oh, I guess I am. Sorry," he said, not sounding the least bit apologetic.

"I know I've mentioned this before, but you seem to need reminding. This phone," he pointed to the phone in question, "is for official police use only."

"Yeah, yeah. Like placing emergency donut calls to the bakery across the street?"

"What can I say, Chief?" Jim shrugged. "Cops need sustenance, too."

"Right, anyway, that was--."

"Agent Larabee?" Jim motioned him out of his chair.

"How'd you know?"

"Just a guess."

"You were eavesdropping."

"No, I wasn't." When Blair kept looking at him with doubt, he held up a hand. "I swear. Scout's honor. Now, outta my chair."

Blair complied, after rolling his eyes. "I guess they've been having some problems with Vin and Ezra - well, mostly with Vin, I guess, but it affects Ezra, as well. Anyway, they're concerned and he was wondering if we had any advice."

"And you offered . . .?" He made sure to sound put out, even though, in truth, he liked Larabee and his team of agents. They were okay for a bunch of Feds. He'd actually gotten pretty attached to the kids, too. He felt both sympathy and empathy for them, and would do anything he could to help them out. Not that he'd ever admit that to Blair.

"I was thinking maybe if we could get the time off," which he knew they could, "we could all go camping this weekend. Do a little hiking a little fishing; just get out of the city for a couple days. Whatever is bothering Vin, it has something to do with people getting in his space, and Ezra's. He's getting in trouble at school and apparently is on the verge of being suspended. I thought maybe we could help."

Jim took a bite of his donut, and nodded thoughtfully. "Okay." He knew just how the kid felt. He'd been there before.

"Man," Blair said with disgust. "How can you eat that?"

"What?" Jim asked, his mouth full.

"That." Blair shuddered and pointed at the double chocolate donut. It was huge and dripping with glazed chocolate frosting. "Just watching you is making my teeth hurt."

Jim took another bite, licked some frosting from his fingers then shrugged. "So, don't watch."

Blair sat down in the chair beside Jim's, shaking his head sadly. "Okay, Jim. But, I want you to know that when you stroke out from all that trans fat blocking your arteries, and end up in a vegetative state, being fed by a tube, wearing diapers and drooling. I'll be there for you, man."

Jim grinned and patted him on the shoulder. "Thanks, buddy."


Vin lay on his bed, arms folded behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. Chris would be home anytime now, and then the crap would hit the fan. Chris was as fair as they came, but Vin had been warned before. This hadn't been the first time he'd almost gotten into a fight in the lunchroom, and they hadn't even lived here, in Cascade, for a whole school year. No doubt about it, he was going to be in big trouble.

Not only was Chris going to be mad at him, but Ezra was already mad at him. That was kind of hard to take, especially since the whole thing happened because he was trying to stick up for Ez. Apparently Ezra didn't appreciate having his little brother stick up for him. But, Vin couldn't understand what the big deal was. He was a sentinel, and Ez was his guide, so didn't that make it Vin's job to look out for him? It shouldn't matter that Ezra's older.

Besides, Danny and Zeke were losers. They were bullies who liked to pick on rich kids, and even though Ezra wasn't a rich kid, he sometimes acted kind of snobby like one. Vin knew all about bullies. Their reputations depended on everyone being too scared to stand up to them. More often than not, though, once someone did stand up to them, they backed down. Vin had been just edgy enough to stand up to them, today. Unfortunately, there had been so many people crowding him that he hadn't even noticed the assistant principal standing so close.

He tried to think of ways he could have handled things differently, but nothing came to mind. Maybe he should have just ignored them. Like Chris always said: 'Don't pay them any mind and they won't get any satisfaction in bothering you'. But that wasn't always true, and besides, at the time, he'd been too wound up and the two boys taunting Ezra had been all that was needed to set him off. It was too late to go back and change things, now, but at least he hadn't actually gotten into a fight. That should have been worth something, although apparently Ezra didn't think so.

The thing that was hardest to take was that he knew Chris would be disappointed in him. Even worse, though, this might be just the thing to make him rethink the whole adoption. Chris had promised that Vin could stay there with him forever, and even call him Dad if he wanted, but at the time he'd said those things, he hadn't known about all this sentinel stuff. He hadn't known that Vin would be so much trouble. There were things that Vin did, things that just seemed to happen, that he just couldn't seem to control. Ezra could usually help him when those things happened, but not always.

Sometimes it scared Ezra when Vin zoned, or when he got sick over a smell, or some food, or maybe some medicine, and Vin always felt guilty about that afterwards. And, truth was, Vin had a hard time letting himself rely on others, even Ezra. He was used to taking care of himself. He didn't like being a burden.

A knock on the bedroom door startled him out of his thoughts. Here it comes, he told himself, taking a deep breath to steady himself. Maybe Chris would understand. He wouldn't be happy, but he might be able to forgive Vin, this time.

Chris opened the door and looked inside. "Vin?"

"Hey, Chris."

"Can you come out to the living room? I need to talk to you and Ezra."

At first Vin almost panicked, but then he nodded a little less afraid because Chris didn't look angry. Vin could tell when he was angry, he'd seen it before. Chris could look a little dangerous when he was mad. His eyes would get hard and glittery, and sometimes the vein on his forehead would throb. But now, Chris's eyes were calm, kind and gentle and Vin was surprised to feel a strong hand squeeze his shoulder and slide down his back as he preceded Chris out of the room. Could it be that Chris hadn't found out yet?

In the living room, Chris urged him to sit down on the couch, beside Ezra. Seemed Ezra wore the glare that Chris had been missing - maybe Chris had been giving him lessons?

Chris sat in the chair across from them and leaned forward. "As I'm sure you're aware, I got a call from the school again."

Vin just sighed. He was actually glad that Chris already knew about the incident at school, because he didn't think it would be much fun being the one to tell him about it. He knew also that he deserved to be scolded, but he'd much rather Chris yell at him in private. Why do it out here, with an audience?

"Vin, I know you've been having some troubles, I'm not sure what's going on, but I thought maybe—"

"I'll tell you what's going on--" Ezra interrupted.

"Ezra, I'm not finished." Chris said, halting the interruption.

Ezra sat back, folded his arms with hostility.

"I think this might have something to do with all this," Chris waved a hand vaguely, "sentinel business."

"Oh, please. You use that to excuse everything he does wrong."

Vin turned to look at Ezra, his blue eyes wide with hurt. What was Ez talking about? He didn't do anything wrong. Well, hardly anything. Not like all the things Ezra did, anyway. He was an angel compared to Ezra! Boy, the things he could tell -- if he had a mind to.

"Ezra," Chris looked at him pointedly.

Ezra huffed and rolled his eyes, waving a hand in resignation. "Please, do continue."

Chris almost cracked a smile. "Gee, thanks. Like I was saying, since I have the feeling that this might have something to do with the sentinel business," he always called it that, because he wasn't sure what else to call it, "I called Mr. Sandburg. He agrees with me," he said mostly to Ezra, "and we've decided that it might be helpful for all of us to get together this weekend."

That wasn't so bad, Vin thought. Not like punishment or anything. He liked Mr. Sandburg - Blair. And he liked Detective Ellison a lot, too. He'd found that most of the things that happened to him had happened to Detective Ellison at one time or another, too.

"So," Chris continued, "we're all going camping this weekend. Buck's going along, too."

"Camping!" Vin shouted, jumping up from the couch with a whoop.

"Camping?" Ezra repeated dubiously. "You mean . . . in the wilderness? With insects and wild animals and no plumbing or electricity? That kind of camping?"

"Yes, that would be the kind of camping," Chris answered, nodding with amusement.

"Yay!" Vin pumped his fist in the air then launched himself toward Chris and grabbed his arm. He had expected to be in trouble for the rest of his life, and here Chris was, taking him camping! "D'ya think we'll get to go fishing, too?"

Chris ruffled his hair, and pulled him into a hug. Vin didn't mind, even though he figured he was getting kind of old for that huggin' business. He couldn't remember ever feeling so happy! "Oh, I'm sure we'll be able to get a little fishing in while we're there."

"Oh, joy." Ezra didn't sound the slightest bit happy. "If it's all the same to you, I think I'll pass."

"Sorry, pal, that's not an option."

It took only a few seconds of thought for Ezra to come up with an excuse. "Well, you know, I'd really like to comply, but there is the matter of homework."

"Bring it along. I'm sure Mr. Sandburg can help you if you run into any trouble."

"Well, then," Ezra cleared his throat, and looked at him his eyes filled with regret. "there is the small matter of . . . my allergies."

"Allergies? You're so full of it, Ez! Ya don't got any allergies," Vin declared, pausing before he added, "Except maybe to work."

Ezra sat forward at that. "I'll have you know that I have been diagnosed with several allergies."

"Like what?"

"Well . . . for instance, hay fever."

Chris and Vin both snorted. "Okay, Ezra," Chris assured him, "We'll be sure to pick up some Senadryl before we go."

Ezra took a deep breath then sighed heavily. "Fine. Whatever."

"It won't be that bad, Ezra," Chris tried to reassure the boy. He really did think Ezra would enjoy himself, if he'd loosen up a bit. "Who knows, you might even have fun."

"Fun, yes well, perhaps if I'm allowed to take the Game Boy?"

"No, you may not."

"The MP3"

"I'll think about it."

"Does Detective Ellison, by chance, have a camper - perhaps one of those motor homes, with real beds and a lavatory?"

Chris shook his head, a wry grin on his face. "Nope." Actually, Ellison had somehow managed to come up with a cabin, with two bedrooms, spare cots, electricity and indoor plumbing, but he thought it'd probably be more fun to let Ezra fear the worst -- for a while yet, anyway.

"Oh, lovely." Ezra looked thoroughly disgusted. "I just have one more question, Mr. Larabee."

Chris chuckled at that. Whenever he was on Ezra's bad side, he became Mr. Larabee. "What's that?"

"Whatever did I do to deserve this cruel and unusual punishment?"

Chris could only grin. He predicted Ezra would have a good time - just like he'd had the last time they'd gone, probably more so when he found out about the cabin. For some reason, the older boy could never simply enjoy himself without putting up a fuss. At least when it came to doing the ordinary things in life.


Chris and Buck took that Friday off to get ready for the trip, so they could leave as soon as the boys got home from school. The location of the cabin was two hours away, so by the time they got there, they'd be able to unpack and hopefully have a little daylight left.

Ezra was allowed to bring the MP3 player, but only after he agreed that he would only use it after asking permission once they got to their camping spot. Chris told him that in the woods, he needed to pay attention to what was going on around him. Before they'd even left the city, Ezra had put the ear buds in, relaxed and closed his eyes.

Vin, on the other hand, was practically bouncing in the seat. One minute he was leaning forward to chatter directly to the men up front, and the next, he was sitting back and gazing out the window, pointing out and commenting on things he'd catch sight of - things nobody else managed to see. Half the time, Chris wondered if he was pulling their leg, but even so, his constant, uncharacteristic, chatter had both adults grinning for most of the trip.

At one point, he asked the inevitable question: "Are we almost there?"

"You're joking, right?" Ezra said, with disdain. "People don't really ask that question. I thought that was just an urban myth or something."

Vin tilted his head and glared at Ezra for a moment, then quickly swung back towards Chris. "When we get there, do ya think we can go fishin' right away? Are we gonna eat fish for dinner?"

"Well, little pard," Buck answered, "I reckon that depends on whether we catch any fish."

"I'm gonna catch lots of fish, more fish than anyone."

"Really? Would you care to wager?"

"Ezra . . .."

"Sorry, Mr. Larabee."

Chris just smiled and shook his head.


"Detective Ellison!" Before Chris was even certain he'd come to a complete stop, Vin was out of the truck and rushing toward the two Cascade detectives. "Hi Mr. . . uh, Blair!"

"Oh, he's Blair, and I'm Detective Ellison?"

Vin blushed, and gave the detective a shy smile. Jim Ellison was always a little intimidating, at first.

"Chris said there's a lake, and we get to go fishing. D'ya think we can go today? We brung our fishin' poles. I helped pack 'em, so I know just where they are, so it won't take long to find 'em. Do you think there's enough daylight that we can still go today, because--"

"Whoa! Whoa!" Blair cut him off with a grin. "Did you have a lot of sugar on the ride up here?"

Vin tilted his head, thought about it for a second then answered, "No. Chris don't let us have alotta sugar."

"Vin's just a bit excited," Chris explained, grinning as he joined them, putting his arm around Vin's shoulders. He held out his free hand to each of the detectives, "Good to see you, boys."

"Chris, Buck," Jim Ellison greeted both ATF agents. "Good to see you, too."

Vin stood as quietly as he could for a few seconds while the adults made small talk. Just as he was about to burst with excitement, Ezra joined them as well, walking as if heading toward the gallows. He batted a hand at the air, frowning. "I think I'm already being stalked by mosquitoes."

"Well, we can't have that, now, can we?" Chris replied amiably, putting his other arm around Ezra.

Blair smiled at the young guide. "Hello, Ezra. How are you?"

"Oh, just peachy."

"You don't look quite as happy as your brother."

"Well, nobody in their right mind—" Chris squeezed his shoulder, just hard enough to cut off whatever he'd been planning to say. He started over, "I'm overjoyed to be here," he forced a smile, "not quite as overjoyed as the mosquitoes are to have me here, but thrilled, nonetheless. I'll probably have encephalitis by the time the weekend is over, but no sacrifice is too gr--"

Jim cut him off, "Why don't we head up to the cabin and get unpacked, I'll see if I can find the bug spray."

"Cabin?" Ezra questioned, his expression suddenly brightening.

Chris tried unsuccessfully to keep a straight face. "Oh, did I forget to mention that?"

"Yes," Ezra narrowed his eyes, "I believe you did, Mr. Larabee."


Inside the cabin there were two bedrooms, each with a double bed. There were no spare cots, as they'd thought, but the couch in the small living room space, folded out into another double bed. It would be cramped but they'd manage. There was a small kitchen, and dinette, that was basically part of the main living room, and a small bathroom with a very small shower. Ezra didn't care how small the cabin was; in his opinion, anything was better than living in a tent.

After they'd unpacked, Chris, Buck and Jim took Vin on a little hike down to the lake. They wouldn't have time for fishing that night, but the nature hike seemed enough to appease the boy, for now.

Ezra stayed behind at the cabin, with Blair, who'd offered to figure out something for supper. As they stocked the refrigerator and cupboards with the groceries they'd brought, Blair nonchalantly questioned Ezra about Vin's recent behavior problems.

"He gets very anxious whenever we're in a crowd, especially when we're in the school cafeteria. He barely eats at lunch because he's too busy pacing and growling. I've tried to calm him down, or distract him but nothing seems to work. It can be quite embarrassing, at times."

"Wow," was all Blair could say. He'd seen Jim get territorial at times, but this was no less amazing, and he had to admit, it must be very strange and difficult for the boys to deal with. "Have you tried having him sit in a corner, facing the crowd so he can keep an eye on things?" Jim did that from time to time, even in the bullpen. Whenever he was feeling particularly territorial, Blair would notice that he'd move his desk to a corner so he could guard his space.

"Yes, we've tried that. It helps a little, but not enough. And it doesn't stop him from glaring and growling at anyone who walks toward us. Is Detective Ellison ever so irrational, overprotective . . . paranoid?"

"Oh, yeah," Blair acknowledged. His partner was the king of irrational, overprotective paranoia. "I'm fairly convinced that it's a sentinel instinct, you know? Something they have no control over. Especially where their guides are concerned."

"Yes, well, my sentinel just happens to be a child," Ezra tried to explain, as if he were talking about a toddler, when in fact, Vin was only two years younger, and only an inch or so shorter. "If there's any protecting to be done, it should be me protecting him, not the other way around. I don't need him to defend me. I assure you that I'm quite capable of taking care of myself."

"I hear you, man." Blair knew how annoying it could be to have an over-sized mother hen hovering over you, even though there were obvious differences. He tried to picture a younger, smaller version of Jim, trying to protect him and keep him safe, but it was hard. The concept, however, was no less fascinating to him. Apparently no matter the size and age of a sentinel, they had these same primal instincts.

Of course, he'd only been actually able to observe two sentinels, but Alex Barnes seemed to have had the same instincts, the difference being the things she was compelled to protect. The things that had been important to her were not the same as the ones that were important to Jim Ellison and Vin Tanner. He wondered again if it was nature or nurture that had made her so much different.


Vin had come back from the hike rambling on about something he called Stink Bombs that he'd found along the trail. Mr Sandburg had said they were actually Gingko fruit, and then proceeded to lecture Vin in detail on the species and origin of the trees, and the amazing medicinal properties that could be obtained in the leaves. The lecture was not given the proper appreciation, because Vin only cared that the fruit smelled atrocious. Thankfully, Chris insisted that Vin leave them outside, on the porch.

After Vin scrubbed his hands until they were pink -- and still kinda smelly, according to Vin -- they all sat down to eat.

"Dinner is served," Ezra proclaimed, setting a casserole dish on the table.

"MmMmm!" Buck rubbed his hands together, eagerly. "Smells delicious."

"What is it?" Vin asked, studying the dish with apprehension.

"Vegetarian stew." Blair joined them, setting a plate of dinner rolls on the table, and smiling with satisfaction. "Go on, try it. You'll like it."

Chris nodded, lifting the serving spoon and scooping out a portion for himself and one for Vin.

"What's in it?" Vin wondered, wrinkling his nose, as he poked at the ingredients in his bowl with suspicion.

"Well, there's tomato sauce, some spices and herbs, and vegetables, of course . . .."

"No meat." Jim added, not seeming too sure about this dish, either.

"Nope, no meat," Blair acknowledged, cheerfully.

Chris took a small bite, just to show he wasn't afraid. He chewed, decided it was edible then turned expectantly to Vin.

"I ain't real hungry."

"Really?" Chris reached over and laid his palm against Vin's forehead. "Maybe you're coming down with something? Maybe you should stay in bed tomorrow?"

"No!" Vin cried immediately. "I ain't sick!"

"Well, that's good to hear." Chris took another bite and gestured for Vin to follow his lead.

"Be thankful it isn't tongue," Jim told them, taking a bite himself. After a thoughtful moment he nodded, "Not bad, Chief."

The two boys were staring at him uncertainly.

"Did you say tongue?" Vin asked, hesitantly, not sure he wanted to know.

"Yeah," Jim took another bite. "It's Sandburg's favorite dish."

"Tongue?" Vin asked again, now sounding alarmed. He quickly closed his mouth, feeling a need to protect his own tongue.


"How degotante," Ezra muttered, but took a bite of his food.

"It's pretty good, actually," Blair tried to convince the boys, "You have to know how to make it. Naomi has the perfect recipe."

Vin looked appalled. "Your momma cooks tongues?" He couldn't imagine it.

"Cow tongue."

"Cow tongue?" Vin repeated, imagining herds of tongueless cows, unable to moo. "Poor cows."

Blair gave him an odd look, then shook his head and laughed, waving a fork in dismissal. "This is a tongue free dish, and I'm not planning to make it anytime soon, so don't worry."

Vin sighed, looking with dread at the small portion of stew before him. It smelled kinda funny and the thought of cow tongues made it even less appealing. After a few seconds he forced himself to take a spoonful, closed his eyes and slowly, hesitantly put it in his mouth. Yuck, he thought instantly, but made himself chew then swallow, then quickly chased it down with a large gulp of milk. "I knew it. There's zucchinis in it," he accused Ezra, who only shrugged and took another bite of his own.

Thankfully, Chris took pity on him, and only made him eat four bites. And there was enough bread, and fruit to help fill him up.

After they finished supper, Jim and Chris called them outside where they had a campfire going not too far away from the cabin. "S'mores anyone?" Jim asked, with a big smile on his face.

"You know, I brought some carob bars and organic granola crackers," Blair offered, hesitating on the steps. "I'm afraid there's no way to make marshmallows healthy."

"What's carob?" Vin asked, wondering if it had zucchini in it, too? Next time they went camping with these guys he'd have to talk Chris into bringing more of their own food.

"Well, it's like chocolate," Blair started to explain, "except it--"

"Has no flavor," Jim supplied.

"Oh." Vin looked glumly from Chris to Blair to Jim. "Don't we got any of the regular kind of chocolate?"

"Yes, we do," Jim assured the boy, then turned to Blair. "How 'bout we save the healthy stuff for some other night, Chief?"

Blair gave in gracefully, even though in his opinion, carob had lots of flavor. Maybe not the quite the same as chocolate, but if you went long enough without sugar, carob was a nice little treat. But that was beside the point. This little outing was mainly supposed to be for Vin and Ezra, so it probably wouldn't do a lot of good to start things off by taking away the boys', or Jim's, chocolate.


They sat around the fire for a long while after they'd all, even Blair, had a couple S'mores. The men all chuckled, and Vin laughed out right, as Ezra tried to eat his without getting any melted chocolate or sticky marshmallow on his hands. They didn't get much other than that accomplished. The few times they'd tried to bring up the topic of school, Vin had seemed reluctant to talk. Probably, because he didn't really understand what was going on.

They had gotten enough out of him to know that he sometimes felt closed in and even panicky at school, and that most of the time it happened in the middle of the crowded lunchroom. And he'd admitted that whenever those feelings came upon him, his first thought was to protect Ezra, keep him away from the danger - even though no danger had been established.

Blair wondered if Vin could be having some strange sort of prescience, but kept that to himself for the moment, and only asked if it was possible that he was just a little claustrophobic, because that would make the territorial imperative factor all the more overwhelming.

"Yes, he is claustrophobic," Ezra informed them, seeming to have no doubt.

"Am not," Vin denied, glaring at his brother.

Ezra just stared back at him, evenly.

"Hey, it's no big deal, kiddo," Blair said in a light voice. "Everyone has their hang-ups." When Vin looked at him doubtfully, Blair grinned. "For instance, I have a thing about heights. If I get too far up," he gestured upward, expansively, "I panic. If you don't believe me, ask Jim."

"It's true. A while back he ended up getting shot, and we had to medevac him out of the woods. You should have heard him scream."

"I wasn't screaming, I was yelling. At you."

"Well, that's not how I remember it, Chief," Jim said with a glint of humor in his eyes. "I could hear you for miles, you were screaming like a little girl."

Blair flipped him off, momentarily forgetting he was in the presence of minors. He quickly tried to cover the gesture by motioning toward his partner, who was licking marshmallows from his fingers with a smug look on his face. "Mr. Black Ops Sentinel Tough Guy, here, is afraid of water."

"That's not true, Sandburg."

When Blair gave him a stern look, he shrugged. "I'm not afraid of water; I just don't like getting too far away from the land."

Vin nodded, apparently thinking things over. Then he glanced at Chris then Buck.

"Well, I've been told I might have a problem with control," Chris admitted, which made Buck laugh. Chris glared at him.

"What he means is that he can't handle not being in charge," Buck clarified, still grinning.

Chris didn't actually consider that a problem -- it was just the way things were.

"What about you?" Vin asked Buck. "Do you got a 'hang-up'?"

"Hell," he began and Chris cleared his throat. "Heck, you know me, Junior, I'm near as perfect as a man can get."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Right, big dog."

Vin couldn't really think of anything that could be wrong with Buck. He was almost always calm and strong and friendly - well, maybe a little too friendly with the ladies. But, Buck would consider that a good thing, not a hang up.

"It would appear that Mr. Wilmington has delusions of grandeur," Ezra commented, with a smirk.

"Hey, now!"

Vin didn't put Ezra on the spot, he already knew Ez had some 'hang-ups' of his own. For one, he didn't like getting close to people, and he hardly ever relaxed and let down his guard, but he didn't say anything because he didn't want to embarrass his friend and brother. And Ezra was already a little bit mad at him.

Finally after thinking about it for a while, Vin spoke up. "Well, I reckon I do get uncomfortable in a crowd, or in small spaces. Mostly, it feels like there ain't enough air, or that there's so many people something could happen and I wouldn't know it, or I wouldn't be able to move to do anything. And then there's all those smells and sounds and . . . well, sometimes it's too much."

It hadn't been that long ago that Vin's senses had come online, and he was still very young. Blair figured there was no way, right now, to guess whether Vin's recent difficulties were due to claustrophobia or not. Unfortunately, only time would tell if it was more than that, like whether or not he was sensing danger, or even sensing another sentinel or a sentinel who wasn't aware of their abilities, yet. The possibilities were endless, in Blair's opinion, and whatever the reason, it was worth keeping track of.

They sat outside a while longer, then decided to call it a night so they could get up early. They put the fire out and went into the cabin, having already established who would be sleeping where. It really wasn't much of a surprise to any of them, though, when Vin grabbed his sleeping bag, laid it out in front of the cabin door and announced, "I think I'll sleep here."

Chris shook his head, chuckling. "Think again, pard."

Vin scowled, eyes wandering around the cabin before coming to rest on the sofa sleeper where Ellison and Sandburg had planned to bunk. "Okay, well, I reckon I'll take the couch, then."

Jim just smiled at him. "Not happening, Junior."

Vin folded his arms across his chest and glared at the detective, which only made all of the men grin more.

After some debate, they were able to come up with a compromise. Chris and Buck would take one bedroom, Sandburg and Ezra the other, and the two sentinels could 'keep watch' on the sleeper sofa.

Vin seemed satisfied, and although, Chris wasn't sure about the arrangement, he figured with the bedroom doors left open, he would be close enough to intercede in the case of bad dreams or anything else, if necessary.


Vin got a good night's sleep and was awake at dawn. He was a little startled to find the man who'd slept beside him wearing a mask over his eyes, but he got up as quietly as he could. After using the bathroom and splashing some water on his face, he went into the kitchen and put a pot of coffee on, hoping that the smell would wake everyone up so they could start the day. It worked, for the most part; everyone came out of their rooms, bleary-eyed and yawning, seemingly drawn to the smell. Everyone except Ezra, of course. Getting Ezra to wake up before noon, always took a little extra effort.

Vin helped Jim make breakfast, eggs and sausage and toast. When it was all set out on the table, Vin filled a plate and took it to the room where Ezra slept on. "Ezra," he called in a sing-song voice. "Oh, Ezra!"

After a few minutes of this, Ezra finally cracked an eye open. "Hm . . . ? What time is it?"

"I dunno," Vin admitted, not really caring. The sun was up and that's all that mattered. "Breakfast is ready."

"Oh," he glanced at the plate with little interest, then closed his eyes again. "I thought this was a vacation?"

"It is."

"Then we should be able to sleep in."

Even though his eyes were still closed, he was yawning and stretching, which Vin took as a good sign. "There's coffee."

"We're not allowed to have coffee."

"I'll sneak you some," Vin whispered.

"I heard that!" Jim called from the other room.

"Sentinels," Ezra said with disdain, but he was pushing the covers back, and rolling out of bed.

After breakfast, Jim and Chris began checking over their fishing gear, then they headed for a small bait and tackle shop they'd seen on the way up. Buck was still inside the cabin, making sure the boys got ready -- mostly making sure Ezra didn't go back to bed. Blair was as ready as he was going to get, so he took his cup of coffee outside and sat down in one of the two chairs on the porch. He inhaled the fresh mountain air, and slowly sipped his coffee, enjoying the peace and solitude of nature.

He was startled from his relaxing moment when the front door opened then slammed shut, and Ezra hurried past him and down the three stairs. A second later the door opened and slammed again, and Vin jogged out after the older boy. "Ez, wait up!" he called, catching up and then tagging along at his heels.

From the chair on the front porch, Blair took another sip of coffee, and watched the little drama unfold.

"Ez, where ya goin'?"

"None of your business."

"But ya can't go off on your own! Chris said!"

"He said no such thing."

"Well, Buck said to stay here."

"He said to stick close, which I am doing."

"You should stay here. Something might happen to ya."

Ezra turned suddenly, causing the younger boy to stumble to avoid running him down. "Something might happen to me?"

Vin nodded.

"Like what?"

Vin seemed to think on that for a moment, before blurting out an answer, "I don't know, a grizzly bear could eat ya. Or a mountain lion."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Or I could be abducted by space aliens."


"Leave me alone!" Ezra emphasized the command with a poke to the younger boy's chest.

"But Ez . . . wait-"

Ezra had turned and was stalking away again, leaving his brother standing there, looking confused. Blair wondered where Ezra thought he was going, and whether or not he should intervene.

"Ezra!" Vin sprang to life, and was jogging toward him again, when the older boy stopped and turned, looking like he was ready to do battle. Blair stood up, ready to jump in if needed, but he wasn't quick enough.

"I said, leave me alone and I meant it," and this time he gave Vin a shove that made him stumble backwards and land on his backside. It was immediately obvious that Ezra hadn't intended to push so hard. "Vin," he said, bending down and now looking more concerned than angry. "I didn't mean to do that."

But Vin apparently didn't want to hear it. He wiped his eyes - was he crying? - stood up and rushed back into the cabin, not even seeming to notice Blair was standing right there.

Ezra walked slowly back to the porch and sat down on the top step. With a sigh, he shook his head sadly. "Sometimes he makes me so mad, but I didn't mean to . . . He's my best friend, my brother. I'd never hurt him."

"Yeah." Blair smiled, understanding. "Sometimes sentinels can be a little overbearing, can't they?" He tried but couldn't picture himself pushing the immovable rock that was Jim Ellison on his ass. Sometimes he wished he could, but he imagined it wouldn't make him feel any better than Ezra felt now.

"Overbearing, yes."

Blair glanced over his shoulder at the door, then back to Ezra wondering what the boy was going to do. He half expected him to go after Vin, and was mildly surprised when he didn't. "Where are Chris and Detective Ellison?"

"They should be back any minute."

As if on cue, less than a minute later, they pulled up. "Anyone up for some fishing?"

Buck opened the cabin door and stepped outside. He glanced at Ezra with a wink and a smile of understanding, then reached behind him and pulled the other boy out the door. Slinging his arm over Vin's thin shoulders, he said, "Come on, little pard. Let's go show them fish who's boss."



"There are two boats," Jim informed them when they reached the dock. "Each boat is big enough to fit two adults and one kid. So, you two need to decide who's going with who."

"Whom," Blair corrected, and Jim rolled his eyes.

"Which one of you wants to ride with me and the nutty professor, here?"

Vin unconsciously stepped closer to Chris and Buck. He liked Jim and Blair a lot, but he wasn't sure he wanted to be separated from Chris.

"I'll go with you and Mr. Sandburg," Ezra volunteered, able to read the younger boy's anxiety and deciding to offer amends for their earlier altercation. .

Vin smiled gratefully.

They donned their lifejackets, over their regular jackets, Chris double checking the boys' to make sure they were secure. "Okay, let's see who can catch the biggest fish."

"Anyone care to wager?"

Chris gazed evenly at the miniature con artist. "What did I say about that yesterday?"

He hadn't actually said anything, but the boy shrugged seeming chastised. "It was only in jest, of course."

"Of course." Chris motioned for the boats. "Shall we?"

Vin immediately scrambled for the boat.

"Whoa!" Buck grabbed the younger boy before he could take a header into the lake. "Hold on, now." Buck climbed more carefully into the boat ahead of him, then held out a hand to help Vin.

Vin didn't think he needed help, but he took the offered hand, hopped into the boat and then stumbled when it rocked sideways. Thankfully, Buck still had a hold of the boy.

Chris rolled his eyes. "Vin, Buck's right, you need to slow down. The fish aren't going anywhere."

"Most likely they fled the minute Vin stepped onto the dock," Ezra murmured as he was assisted into the other boat.

"I heard that!" Vin shouted out to his brother.

With a big grin, Buck covered the younger boy's mouth with his hand, bent over and whispered in his ear, "Hush."

They pushed off the dock, the two boats veering away from each other. As they got further out, Vin suddenly wasn't so sure he'd made the right decision. For some reason he didn't understand, the thought of his . . . of Ezra in another boat with another . . . with Jim made him want to growl.

"Chris?" he said, starting to stand up.

"Yeah, pard?" Chris pulled him back down.

Vin licked his lips nervously. "C-Can me and Ez switch places?"

The other boat was already a pretty good distance away. Chris patted him on the shoulder. "It's a little too late for that, don't you think?"

After about an hour without so much as a nibble on his line, Vin was starting to get discouraged. He'd noticed that Jim, Ezra and Blair were faring much better, while no one in their boat had caught a thing - even though Vin was now being as quiet as a mouse. "They're catching all the fish," he finally complained.

"Yeah," Buck agreed, "looks like they found a good spot."

"I suppose we could move somewhere else," Chris suggested.

"Sounds good to me." Buck reeled in his line, then took hold of the oars and began to row.

As they moved across the water, they noticed Jim looking over at them with a big cocky grin, holding up his latest catch. "It's all in the arm," he called out to them, making a casting motion with his free arm.

"Don't believe a word, man," Blair told them, shaking his head. "He's cheating."

"Cheating?" Buck questioned, pausing in his rowing so they glided more slowly.

"Yeah, he says he can hear them." Blair rolled his eyes as if he didn't believe it.

"I can, and right now, you're scaring them all away, Sandburg."

Vin didn't say anything, but Chris could see the gears turning in his head. "So, buddy," he nudged the boy's shoulder. "Think you can hear the fish, too?"

"I dunno." Vin tilted his head, and tried for a moment. Then shook his head. "I don't think so."

"Oh, well," Buck reached over and ruffled the boy's curly hair, "guess we'll just have to catch 'em the good ol' fashioned way."

But Vin wasn't ready to give up trying. If Jim could hear the fish, he should be able to hear them, too. He tried looking into the water. It was pretty clean and clear, but a little too dark beneath the surface.

Jim, Blair and Ezra had rowed to another spot, too. Vin watched as Jim tilted his head for a moment, then nodded and the three of them cast out their lines.

Again, he tried to use his hearing. He listened for anything that sounded like a noise a fish would make - whatever that would be. He tuned out the sounds above: the birds, the breeze, the squirrels . . .. He focused on the lake and the sound of the water lapping gently at the shore, the dock, the side of their boat; the sound of something coming to the surface nearby, then a plop and a swoosh as it swam away . . . down . . . down . . ..

Ezra glanced over at the others, wondering if they were having any luck, yet. He felt a little bad for Vin, because he'd been so excited, but maybe this would teach him to be more quiet. The irony of that thought directed at his normally too-quiet brother made him smile. The next moment, his smile disappeared. "Something's wrong," he said, eyes narrowing as he studied the other boat, where Vin was leaning oddly over the edge, head tilted slightly to the side, eyes staring fixedly at the water.

"What do you mean?"

"With Vin," Ezra clarified. "Look at him, he's . . . "

"Uh-oh, I think he's zoning."


"Jim, I think we need to get over there."

"You got it, Chief," Jim already had his hands on the oars. He took them smoothly across the lake toward the other boat.

"Chris!" Blair shouted, and both Chris and Buck turned toward them, the shift in weight making the boat rock too far on the one side. Before they could warn them to grab Vin, it was already too late. In what seemed like slow motion the boy toppled head first into the water. Thankfully he was wearing his life-jacket, but the temperature of the lake water was probably close to freezing in mid-summer, and even colder now.

He was only under the water for a few seconds before the buoyancy of the lifejacket pushed him up to the surface. Buck moved to other side of the boat, to even out the weight, and Chris reached down to grab a hold of Vin by the collar of his life jacket and haul him back into the boat. Vin was coughing, shaking his head and clinging to Chris, while both Chris and Buck were trying to get a look at him. After a brief inspection, Chris motioned for the dock. "We're heading in!"

Ezra could see that Vin was already shivering violently and there wasn't anything else they could do, but get him back to the cabin.

"Good thing you picked up on that," Blair said, trying to reassure the young guide.

"Yes." Ezra couldn't take his eyes of the other boat. His heart was racing with adrenaline, as the scene played over in his mind. Ezra had pushed Vin away, annoyed by his constant, irrational urge to protect him. He'd been only thinking of himself and had forgotten just how vulnerable Vin was, too. He had to figure out a way to accept and deal with the younger boy's sometimes annoying behavior, without pushing him away, because he couldn't stand the thought of something terrible happening to Vin.

Ezra tried to wait patiently as Jim tethered their boat. Buck was already standing on the dock, and Chris was handing a soaked and shivering Vin up to him. And then Chris was out of the boat and reaching for Ezra. "He'll be okay," Chris said, sounding amazingly calm.

"There's plenty of wood," Jim said to Chris as they followed Buck toward the cabin, then he put a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "We'll get a nice big fire going and have him warmed up in no time."

Vin didn't remember exactly what had happened, but he was pretty sure he'd never been so cold before. Not even when he'd been living out on the streets. Buck was holding him tightly, like a baby, but he didn't care. He tucked his head under Buck's chin, and closed his eyes, trying to keep his teeth from chattering. He heard the others behind them, Chris asking how he was doing, and Buck answering for him, "He'll be okay. Won't ya, pard?" Then Buck squeezed him a little tighter and said, "Reckon this one counts as the biggest catch?" And Vin thought it wouldn't be much fun to be a fish.

Once they got inside the cabin, Buck handed Vin over to Chris and went to start the shower while Chris got him out of his clothes. He wanted to ask what had happened - how he'd ended up in the lake - but he was so cold he couldn't feel his lips and when he opened his mouth his teeth chattered even more.

Jim came over and knelt in front of them, wrapping a blanket around Vin. He smiled as he pressed his warm hands to Vin's cheeks then slipped them inside the blanket to feel his hands and legs and feet. "As long as we get him warmed up pretty quick," he told Chris, "he should be okay."

Chris nodded and lifted him again, and carried him to the shower. Vin had thought that Chris would just set him inside, but he didn't. He handed the blanket back to Jim, then actually knelt down with him in the small shower, keeping a hold of him while the warm water sprayed over them both. It was kind of embarrassing, but felt kind of nice, too. Vin leaned against Chris, more thankful than he could say to have someone who cared about him and his well-being as much as Chris did.

Once he'd warmed up enough, things got a little fuzzy. All he knew is that he felt so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open. Chris kept talking to him, maybe trying to keep him awake, but he felt so warm and safe that he finally just gave into it.


Chris tried to jiggle Vin awake, but the boy slumped against him, resting his wet head on Chris' shoulder. "Come on, partner, wake up."

"It's okay," Jim said.

Chris looked up at him through the steam. "You sure?"

"Yeah, he didn't hit his head or anything. Just had a scare, and now it's catching up with him." Jim smiled and turned off the shower. "Here, let me take him."

"Okay, if you're sure."

"He'll be fine." Jim wrapped a towel around the boy and lifted him up.

Buck was there, too, holding a stack of clean dry clothes for Chris to change into. "We got a fire started out there. We'll put him on the couch and he'll be nice and toasty."

"Alright, be out in a minute." Chris accepted the bundle from Buck then shut the door and slowly peeled out of his wet clothes. How could he have let the kid fall out of the boat? He should have noticed that something wasn't right. Shouldn't he have? Whenever he thought things were beginning to go well, something like this would pop up, seeming to punch him in the gut, and make him question his ability to raise two kids - especially these two.

Out in the small living room, they settled Vin on the couch. Jim laid a hand on his forehead and closed his eyes, trying to gauge his temperature. "His temp's a little low, maybe. Not enough to be concerned."

Blair tucked another blanket around the small body, then turned to the other boy who had been standing silently, out of the way of activity. "Hey, Ezra. You doing okay?"

Ezra blinked at him then nodded. "I'm fine."

Blair thought he looked a little pale, and couldn't blame him. "Why don't you sit down over here?" he suggested and guided him to sit at the other end of the couch then covered him with a brightly colored afghan.

"You should both take it easy for awhile."

Ezra didn't understand why they were concerned about him, but he wasn't going to argue. He felt compelled to stick close to Vin, so he snuggled into the corner and leaned his head back. He didn't mean to fall asleep.


When Chris came out of the bathroom, both boys looked to be sleeping. He hadn't expected Ezra to be sleeping, too, but of course he would have been pretty shaken up after everything that had happened. He should have seen to it that Ezra was okay, too, the thought, mentally adding that to his list of failures for the day.

Buck squeezed his shoulder and handed him a cup of coffee.

"So," Ellison stood up from the couch where he'd apparently been monitoring Vin, "anyone up to cleaning some fish?"

Chris took a sip of the coffee, unable to take his eyes off of the boys on the couch. "They okay?"

"Yeah," Blair answered. "They're just napping."

Chris nodded. He'd rather stay with the boys incase they needed him; he'd already let them down once today.

"They'll be fine," Jim assured. "We'll be just outside if they need you."

Finally, Chris nodded. "Okay."

They put on their jackets and went outside, following the trail down to the lake. "Hopefully there's still fish to clean," Jim said, only half kidding.

The fish were still there, hanging over the side of the boat, where they'd been left. "Good thing some of us caught some fish, today."

"Yeah," Chris waited on the dock as Jim climbed back into the boat. "So, did you really hear the fish?"

"Yep," Jim said, grinning as he handed the string of fish up to Chris. The grin faded as he climbed back onto the dock. "We picked a bad time to mention that to Vin, though. I should have known better."

"It's not your fault," Chris said, right away. "He's my son, I should have known better. Hell, I even encouraged him to give it a try. I should have kept a better eye on him."

Jim looked thoughtful for a moment, then shrugged. "I guess we'll all know better next time."


"Anyway, those are a couple of great kids," Jim said, with admiration as he turned his attention back to the fish.

"Thanks," Chris let out a long sigh. "I just hope I'm able to do right by them."

"Ah, you've got nothing to worry about."

"I don't know. It's tough enough raising kids these days, and those two . . .."

"Well, yeah," Jim nodded, understanding, "they're a special case. It'll be tricky."

"Tricky?" That was putting it mildly.

"Okay, how about," Jim raised his eyebrows, "challenging?"

"To say the least."

"At any rate," Jim continued, "they're lucky to have you. You seem like a man that doesn't back down from a challenge."

That was true enough, but still . . .. "Sometimes I wonder if that's enough, though."

"Well you shouldn't. They love you, they trust you. You're good for them." Jim looked at him, his features calm and sure. "Anyone can see that."

Chris nodded, grateful for the words. "They're good for me, too."

"Well, there you go. You're doing the best you can. That's all any of us can do."

"Yeah." After a few moments of silence, Chris smiled and said, "Thanks."


Vin woke slowly, feeling warm and lazy, with no urgency to even open his eyes. He was pretty sure he didn't have anything important to do, or anywhere he had to be. It was dark outside, and he was wrapped in warm blankets; his head nestled on a soft clean pillow. He wondered how he'd gotten here, the last thing he remembered . . .? That made him open his eyes, but even that moment of anxiety didn't compel him to get up. In fact, he wasn't really inclined to do anything but gaze at the flames dancing in the wood burning stove across from him.

"You awake, finally?" It was Detective Ellison, and he sat down on the side of the couch. "How are you feeling?" He laid his fingers on Vin's forehead and cheeks then tucked the blanket more securely under his chin.

Vin yawned pulling his hands out of the blankets to cover his mouth, then he blinked sleepily. "I'm fine."

Jim chuckled. "Well, that good. We got all those fish ready to grill, you think you're up to helping us eat some of them?"

Oh, yeah. The fish. He'd almost forgotten about the fish, probably because he hadn't actually caught any of them. He grinned a little. "That mean you're gonna share with us?"

Jim pretended to think it over, then he returned the grin. "We saved you their tongues."

That almost made Vin sit up. "Fish don't got tongues," he declared. Then not so sure, he added, "Do they?"

"They don't have tongues," came a voice from the other end of the sofa.

Vin sighed with relief, "Whew, I didn't think so."

"Actually," the voice continued, "I believe they do have tongues."

Vin scowled and sat up, pushing the blankets away. "Aw, Ez, how would you know?"

"I dare say that I know a great deal more about a lot of things than you do, little brother."

"Okay, you two," another familiar voice, "Can it."

"They're all yours," Jim said, standing up and backing away.

"How are you feeling?" Chris's turn to touch his forehead. "You don't feel too warm."

"I'm fine!"

"Okay, okay, well, why don't you get dressed and come outside then?"

Vin looked down, suddenly realizing he wasn't wearing a shirt. He pulled the blanket up over his shoulders, glancing beneath it quickly, thankful to see that at least he was wearing sweatpants.

"You fell asleep in the shower," Chris explained, one side of his mouth quirked up as if he were trying not to laugh.

Vin felt his cheeks burn. "You could have woke me up."


Not very hard, he thought, but didn't say anything. He just wrapped the blanket more securely around himself, glared at everyone in the room, and headed for Chris and Buck's room, and the duffle bag with his clothes in it.


By the time Vin had finished dressing, the others had gathered outside and were seated on the logs that encircled the brick fire pit.

"Come on over, partner." Jim motioned to the spot next to him. "Have a seat, right here."

With a shy smile, Vin climbed over the log and sat down. The air was filled with the aromas coming from the grill. Vin inhaled, and his stomach growled.

"Almost done," said Buck, who was standing over the grill, poking at something wrapped in foil, while Blair seasoned the fish.

It tasted even better than it smelled. The tinfoil wrapped food turned out to be potatoes, melted with butter and cheese. There was even toasted bread to go with it all. Vin thought the only way any of it could possibly taste better, was if he'd been the one to catch the fish.

"So, you feeling alright?" Apparently, it was Buck's turn to ask. Vin was ready to snap at the big man, but when he opened his mouth, to his horror, he sneezed.

Oh, great, he thought. Just what he needed. Instantly the grown ups were surrounding him, reaching for his forehead, arguing over what to do.

Except Jim, who seemed more interested in finishing his meal. "Hey, back off, everyone," the detective said, "Give a guy a little space."

Blair picked up on things immediately, Chris and Buck a few seconds behind. "Sorry, Vin."

"It's okay," he replied, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. He sent a thankful nod to Detective Ellison wondering if maybe he didn't much like being crowded either.

"We're just concerned about you," Blair said, showing it in his open expression.

"Well, I'm fine," he insisted, then promptly sneezed again.

"Okay, that's it," Chris stood up again, taking Vin's plate in one hand. "You're going inside."

"Aw, Chris . . .."

"Don't argue."

Reluctantly, Vin followed his dad into the cabin, a little surprised, but happy when he noticed that Ezra was trailing behind. Once inside, Chris set the plate on the table, and went into the bedroom. Vin wasn't hungry anymore, so he plopped down on the sofa, feeling burdened until Ezra plopped down next to him. "It's not so bad," Ezra said, trying to cheer up the other boy. "Do you want to play cards or something?"

Vin sighed. "Nah, well, maybe." There wasn't a TV or anything else to do, so a game of cards would at least help pass the time, since he doubted he'd be allowed back outside.

In the other room they could hear Chris as he ruffled through the duffle bags. Finally, after several minutes he came out reading the back of a package of some sort of medicine. "It has pain reliever, fever reducer and decongestant. Here," he said, popping one of the tablets from the blister package and handing it to Vin. "I'll get you some water."

"Chris," Ezra sat forward, feeling slightly alarmed and not knowing why, really. "Maybe he shouldn't take that. Mr. Sandburg said we need to be careful with his medications."

Vin glanced at Ezra, then Chris who had halted in his tracks. "Maybe you're right," Chris said, thoughtfully.

That was fine with Vin; he didn't like to take any medicine, anyway. Then, to his dismay, he sneezed again.

"I don't think there's anything these could do, but maybe I

should go ask Sandburg," Chris told them, heading for the door.

"I don't feel sick. My nose just feels tickly."

"Maybe you're not sick," Ezra said hopefully. "Maybe you're just sensitive to something that was in the water, or something else? Maybe it will go away."

"Hope so."

The two boys sat there quietly for a few minutes, before the party moved inside and Vin was once again surrounded by a wall of 'concerned' adults. He was just starting to feel a little panicky, when to his surprise Ezra stood up, forcing the men to back up a little. "You're crowding him again."

Vin sneezed.

Ezra turned to the younger boy with an exasperated expression. "If you're going to continue to do that, what do you expect them to do?"

Vin grinned up at him. "Sorry."

Ezra grinned back. "Just don't let it happen again."

Which, of course, it did.

Blair was reading the label on the medication. "I don't think it would hurt him to take just one. There's nothing in it to make him drowsy. And we're all here to observe him, in case he has a negative reaction."

Oh, great! Just what he'd always wanted -- to be the subject of a scientific experiment. "No thanks," Vin said, trying to smile bravely. "I think I'm fine."

They went on talking as if he hadn't said a word, as if he wasn't even there. Until he sneezed again. Damn.

"Okay," Chris had apparently come to a decision, "just one."

"I would like to state, for the record," Ezra declared to the room, at large, "that I do not agree with this decision."

Chris gave him a wry grin. "We're not keeping record, Ezra."

"Well, actually," Blair began, obviously the thrill of a potential experiment sending him into lecture mode "I do keep records of all of this. Well, mostly where Jim's concerned, of course, but I have been keeping track of the things we've learned about Vin and his sentinel abilities, as well. It's really the only way we have of learning anything about any of this."

"Once a professor, always a professor."

The more the adults went on, the more upset Vin became, but they were too busy discussing him to notice. Blair was blathering on about controlled experiments, and Jim was arguing that sentinels were not lab rats. Chris was concerned about his present health, and his future health, to which Blair tried to point out that by Vin taking the medication they'd have more insight into how to treat him in the future. Buck was the only one who seemed annoyed by the other three men, and after the 'discussion' had carried on for several minutes, he nodded for the boys to follow him to the bedroom.

Once in the bedroom they all let out sighs of relief. Buck closed the door quietly, and Ezra pulled out a deck of cards. "Anyone up for a friendly game?"

"Well, alright! Count me in."

By the time the others had figured out that the boys were gone, it was pretty much too late to experiment. Not that Chris had committed to anything, yet. He opened the bedroom door to find Vin sprawled across their bed, sound asleep as Buck and Ezra played cards. "Ante uuh—" Ezra stopped short when he realized they were no longer alone. He cleared his throat and started over. "As I was saying, Auntie Rain will be very disappointed to know Vin's health and well-being were being discussed without her input."

Buck grinned in admiration. "Yep, I don't imagine Auntie Rain's gonna be too happy."

"Auntie Rain," Chris replied, drolly, knowing full well what was going on, "would probably be thankful for any insight we could give her."

Ezra looked up at him, eyes filled with complete innocence. "Mr. Larabee, I didn't realize you were finished with your discussion." He smiled then, pausing to set his cards face down. "We were just playing a friendly game of cards, but I'm afraid young Vin has fallen asleep."

"Yeah, I see that." He shook his head, unable to stop from grinning. "Well, if Auntie Rain were here, I think she would agree with me that, it's past your bedtime, too."

"Really, Mr. Larabee, you do realize that I am a teenager, now," Ezra began.

Chris nodded, "Oh, I realize." How could he not when he was reminded at least twice a day.

Ezra continued, "And as such, I should be allotted less restrictions. For example, my bedtime should be set at an hour that is more appropriate for my age."

"And what would you consider more appropriate?

"Well," Ezra considered, "perhaps midnight on school nights, and 2 AM on the weekends?" He knew that was pushing it, but his mother had taught him when bargaining you should always start big.

Chris rubbed his chin, looking thoughtful for a few seconds, before he said, "How about 10:00 on school nights and midnight on weekends?"

"That hardly seems fair. Vin is allowed to stay up until 9:30 on school nights 11:30 on weekends, and he's just a child."

"Well, that's my offer. Take it or leave it," Chris said, grinning. He knew better than to bargain with this one. "By the way, it's 11:45, so you have fifteen minutes before bedtime."


The next morning, Vin woke early, just like he always did. He rolled out of the bed, careful not to wake Ezra and then wondered what he was doing in that bed, with Ezra? Apparently someone had decided to change their sleeping arrangements without his knowledge, but it didn't really bother him. The last thing he remembered was playing cards with Buck and Ezra. He didn't even remember falling asleep.

He inhaled deeply, feeling refreshed after all the sleep he'd gotten the day before. More importantly, he noticed, as he put the coffee on, his nose didn't feel tickly and he wasn't sneezing anymore. He just wished that they weren't going home later today. It seemed like yesterday was mostly wasted.

One by one, the men woke to the smell of coffee. All except Ezra, of course. It would take drastic measures to wake him up, and Vin knew exactly what measures to use. His 'stink bombs' were out on the porch, and if that smell didn't wake up Ezra, nothing would.

He endured Chris and Jim's attentions, as they made sure he wasn't feverish or congested, or that anything else was wrong with him. Once he was given the okay, and once he was sure the men were all too busy to notice him, he stood up and quietly headed for the door.

"Where you going, kiddo?" Chris asked before he got the door open.

Vin blinked his eyes innocently. "Um, I was just gonna go outside and get something."


Vin shrugged, looking up at him with an angelic expression. "Just something to help wake Ez."

Chris knew darn well what Vin was after, and he really wasn't in the mood to listen to Ezra complain for the next several hours. "How 'bout you leave the stink bombs out on the porch and wake him up without causing any mayhem?"

The angelic expression turned devilish. "My way'd be quicker."

"Oh, I know," Chris agreed with a wink, "but, why don't we do it my way, anyway?"

The boy shrugged, "If you say so."

"I do."

Vin's light laughter was infectious, and Chris found himself chuckling as well, as the boy ran for the bedroom. A moment later, Chris shook his head fondly, as he heard the older boy's raised voice, "Stop that! You Neanderthal!"


After they all eaten breakfast, the six of them went for a hike in the woods. Vin was in his element and mostly able to tune out Ezra griping and swatting at invisible mosquitoes in front of him. Chris had sprayed them both, front and back, with repellent and Vin hadn't seen a single bug anywhere near his brother.

"Look there's a grizzly bear," he said, just to get a reaction out of Ez. He wasn't disappointed.

Ezra stumbled backwards, his green eyes went round as saucers. He grabbed Vin's arm, looking around frantically. "Where?"

"Oh," Vin squinted, pretending to peer through the thick foliage. "Never mind, guess it's just a big rock."

Ezra slugged him in the shoulder. "Very funny."

Vin grinned, rubbing his abused shoulder. "Sorry."

Ezra leaned his face close to Vin's, and threatened the younger boy. "Yes, you will be sorry."

"Okay, troops" Chris ordered from the rear, before things could escalate, "let's keep moving."

Ezra mock saluted, "Aye aye, Captain!" and started marching forward on the trail again; Vin, with a big grin on his face, followed right behind him.

Chris nodded agreeably. "That's more like it."

The trail they followed led them gradually upwards until they reached the most amazing precipice overlooking everything, it seemed, for miles. Across from them you could see a waterfall that spilled down the sheer mountainside, and right into the lake below. "It's breathtaking," Ezra thought, not realizing he'd said the words aloud.

"Yeah," Vin replied, equally awed by the scenery.

"Whenever I start to feel a little closed in," Jim told them, inhaling the fresh mountain air, "I imagine myself standing right here."

Ezra glanced at Vin, then up at Jim, wondering if something like that could work for his brother. It didn't seem likely, but then again, Vin tended to surprise him when it came to dealing with his sentinel abilities. Except for the slip up yesterday, he hadn't zoned in quite a while. And yesterday, was understandable - as much his fault as Vin's.

When they got back to the cabin, they had a late lunch and then began to pack up their belongings and make sure the cabin was secured for the owners. Vin was in the bedroom packing his duffle bag. His wet clothes from the day before were still wet, but not dripping. He rolled them up and put them in a garbage bag, with the ones Chris had gotten wet in the shower. That memory made him blush. He was embarrassed enough for falling in the lake like a big loser, but remembering standing in the shower, naked! with Chris holding on to him made him feel like a big dumb baby.

He tied the bag shut and set it by the door. Chris, Buck and Jim had gone to the bait shop or convenience store, whichever you wanted to call it, to gas up the trucks. They'd secured the boats and stored the lifejackets and other supplies that they'd borrowed, and had the refrigerator cleaned out and most everything was loaded in the trucks except for their personal stuff. He'd have to remember his stink bombs outside, because it was a sure thing that nobody else would remind him if he forgot. And, he grinned, he had big plans for those stink bombs.

Ezra sat beside Blair on the sofa. They'd already packed their sleeping bags, and set them by the front door. He enjoyed Blair's company, enjoyed the intellectual conversation, and always appreciated any advice he offered for dealing with Vin. A lot of things he'd just figured out on his own, but it was good to hear that he was doing something right, and there were things that Blair had encountered over the years with his sentinel, that Ezra hadn't, as of yet.

And Blair had insisted that Ezra was helpful to him, as well. He'd told Ezra that there were some situations that he and Vin had dealt with that Blair and Jim never had. Mostly things that had happened to them while they'd been on the streets, but as Vin always said, it was good that the time they'd spent there was of some use, so they hadn't endured it for nothing.

He made sure not to mention all the money he'd won gambling, because of Vin's ability to discern a bluff by the speeding up of his opponents' heartbeats. That was sort of cheating, if you wanted to look at it that way, although he and Vin felt that when someone gambled they deserved whatever they got, or lost. Of course, the rat had turned that against him a time or two, as well.

"So, I always make it a point to remember that I need to watch Jim's back as much as Jim thinks he needs to watch mine," Blair continued, apparently unable to tell that Ezra's mind was wandering. "A sentinel guards and protects the tribe - and in a way, a guide has the same responsibility. It's his job to guard and protect the sentinel. Sort of like being the sentinel's sentinel."

Mr. Sandburg had a tendency to ramble, he thought, as he continued half listening to what had, at some point, become a full-scale lecture. Vin was still in the other room, supposedly packing. Ezra wished he would hurry, because otherwise Blair would continue lecturing, interminably.

It wasn't like Vin had much of anything to pack. Maybe some rocks and sticks and a few other 'treasures' he'd found out in the woods. Things of no value to anyone but Vin. Ezra hoped he completely forgot about the 'stink bombs' that Chris had made him leave outside, although, he had to admit, there were possibilities for those when they got back home. He was just about to interrupt the good professor when the front door burst open and two men he'd never seen before came stumbling into the room, nearly tripping over the rolled-up sleeping bags that had been set there earlier.

"Whoa, what are you doing here?" the first man asked, looking at them with complete shock. "Where's Scotty?"

"Scotty?" Blair questioned. "There's no Scotty here."

Blair stood up, smiling, as if he were going to politely show the two men out, but the second man fumbled in his jacket, pulled out a handgun and ordered, "Sit down!"

When the first man saw what his partner was doing, his eyes grew wide and he, too, fumbled in his coat and brought forth a gun. "Stick 'em up!" he said, his expression of surprise changing to one of malice.

Blair and Ezra stared at them, stunned. Both intruders were grungy looking, with filthy clothing, bloodshot eyes, stringy unkempt hair and beards. Ezra could smell them from half way across the room, and the odor - which was even worse than Vin's stink bombs -- made his eyes water. The first man was tall, very tall - taller than Chris or Jim or even Buck. The other man was much shorter, although it was hard to tell if he was extremely short or just looked it compared to his companion. Both of them appeared pale and very unhealthy; they were also very thin, almost skeletal.

"I said, stick 'em up," the tall one repeated, waving the barrel of his handgun back and forth, from Ezra to Blair.

Okay, thought Ezra, where's the camera? This couldn't be real. It had to be some reality television show or something. Nobody actually ever said Stick 'em up? Did they?

"Shut up, Eddie, nobody says stick 'em up, ya moron."

"Don't' be callin' me no moron, butthead."

Ezra felt like he was in a cartoon.

"Shut up!" the smaller one whacked 'Eddie' upside the head. "I thought you said Scotty'd be here."

"This is where he said to meet him," the man looked confused, using the barrel of the gun to scratch his head, "leastways, I think this is the place."

"Well, I don't see him here," the first man said, voice heavy with sarcasm, "do you?"

The tall man looked around the room. "Nope, I don't see him here, either," he said seriously, then tilted his head toward his partner. "Mack?"


"You just told 'em my name. Now they know me."

"Uh-oh," Mack looked at him. "Guess we gotta kill 'em, now."

Eddie's mouth dropped open. "Really?"

"You really are a moron." Mack elbowed his partner on the side. "There's probably a million bozos named Eddie out there. They ain't gonna be able to pick out just one."

"Oh," Eddie let out a breath of relief, "okay."

"Hey there, you, pretty boy," the one called Mack said, looking directly at Ezra.

Blair, for some reason - probably attempting to distract the thug -- answered instead. "Me?"

"No, not you," the man said, although he ran an appraising eye over the detective, "You are pretty, but I was talking to the kid."

Ezra didn't answer; he just glared at the man suspiciously.

"Maybe when we leave we'll take you with us," the man said with a leer, "what d'ya think about that?"

"I think that would be a huge mistake," Blair answered again. "Believe me, you don't want--"

"Shut up! I wasn't talkin' to you."

Blair shrugged. "Just sayin'."

"Yeah, well, just don't say nothin'!"

"Yeah," Eddie apparently wanted in on the show, "Just shut your yap."


Vin had been lying on the bed, arms folded behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. The sound of Mr. Sandburg's voice had been like white noise in the background, as he'd thought over everything they'd done - and hadn't been able to do -- on their short camping trip. The weekend had gone by so fast. He'd been wishing they could stay longer, and wondering if Jim and Blair would invite them again -- even though it wasn't Jim's cabin. Still, maybe Jim's friend would let them come up again sometime. As he'd been trying to figure ways to hint to the grown ups that he'd like to come back, a loud noise in the front room had almost sent him through the roof.

He'd sat up quickly, ready to go out and see what was going on, but something had made him hesitate. A voice - no two—that weren't familiar, and a moment later he'd been able to smell them. Sweat and filth, alcohol and some other chemicals - drugs, maybe? After he'd singled out those smells, it was easy to detect that at least one of them was carrying a gun.

Rolling off the bed, he crouched on the floor and listened, trying to figure out what to do next. He heard one of the men tell someone to shut their yap, probably Ezra, but maybe Blair. Both of them seemed to love the sound of their own voices. He focused harder, keeping in mind that this was important and he couldn't let himself zone.

"Now what are we gonna do?" Vin heard one of the men ask.

"Shut up for a minute, will ya?"

"Okay, but I.--"

"Can't you see I'm thinking?"

"Oh, okay. Uh, Mack?"


"Maybe we just got the wrong cabin? Maybe there's another one 'round here somewheres?"

Then he heard a slap, and an Ow!, and he wondered if a couple of the three stooges were out there?

"What d'ya do that for?"

"Because you're a moron."

There was a long pause of silence and Vin wondered what they were getting up to. He wished he was able to see out into the other room. Even though the bedroom door was half open, all he could see was the kitchen, not the front room.

"Mack," the voice said hesitantly.

"What, Eddie?" the voice growled.

"D'ya think we should at least go look around and see if there's another cabin?"

"I'll let you know when I'm done thinking. Now shut up."

If they just had the wrong cabin, maybe they'd just leave and go find the right one? Not that Vin expected things to go quite that easily. They had guns for a reason, and he could hear at least one of them pacing back and forth and cursing. Then he heard other voices, more distant. It was Chris and Jim, barely audible but definitely them. He tuned out the voices inside the cabin, trying to hear what was being said outside, but it was too hard. Maybe Jim had heard the strange voices in the cabin? He was a lot better at this, had more control over his senses than Vin did. He only hoped that the others wouldn't walk in unsuspectingly and end up getting themselves shot.


Ezra studied the two men in wonder. They were still arguing, and now the shorter one was roughly frisking the taller one, searching his pockets for who knew what. He'd seen druggies and criminals before, but these two were much dumber than any criminals he'd seen in real life, or even on TV. He wished he had a video camera. He could record these two and most likely make millions of dollars selling the tape to some drug or law enforcement agency. These two could definitely be the poster boys for Just Say No. Still, no matter how dumb they appeared, he had no illusion that they were anything less than dangerous. The short one, especially. The way the man kept eyeing him, scared him more than a little. He worried for Vin, too, but could only hope that his little brother had found a good place to hide.

Ezra was startled from his thoughts when the tall man gave his partner a shove, and practically shouted, "I said I don't have anymore!"

The short man stood there breathing heavily and running a hand over his sweaty face. Then he moved forward, grabbed the other guy and gave him a rough shake. "What did you do with it?"

The tall one leaned his face close to the other, and said, slowly, "I don't have any."

"Why don't you have any?" the second man asked, equally slowly.

"It's all gone. That's why we was comin' here, 'member? To get more."

"I know that. But, you said you had some left."

"Well I did, but that was . . . " Eddie shrugged, looking distracted - an expression he seemed to wear most of the time. He scratched his head then tugged on his shirt collar and started scratching the side of his neck. "Man, it's hot in here. Ain't you hot, Mack?"

"Yeah, I'm hot. In fact I feel like I could explode!" The short one gritted his teeth, looking furious. Then he closed his eyes and took several deep breaths while the other man just stared at him curiously. "Okay," he said, finally opening his eyes and sounding slightly calmer, "There's only one thing to do."

Eddie nodded vigorously, reminding Ezra of a bobble head dog.

"One of us is going to have to go outside and look around," he said, pointing out the window, "and see if there's another cabin around here."

"Yeah, that's what I said!"

Ezra glanced out the window just in time to see a flash of sandy colored hair. Jim or Chris, he wasn't sure which one, and it didn't really matter. All that mattered was that they were out there, and they had to know there was trouble in here. Thank God, he thought, glancing quickly to Blair who was already looking at him with a subtle smile. Apparently Blair had seen it, too. All they had to do now was: wait.


Jim, Chris and Buck had gassed up their vehicles and picked up a few items for the drive back to Cascade. They parked in the gravel lot, which was a hundred or so yards from the cabin, and then followed the trail through the woods.

Once the cabin was in sight, Jim paused, holding up a hand for quiet. He drew the other men back a few paces, and over to the side of the trail - out of view. Then with an intent expression he tipped his head and listened for a few moments before sighing and pulling out his back-up .38. "So much for our peaceful little retreat. "

"What's going on?" Chris finally asked, suddenly thankful he'd brought his weapon, too.

"One thing about guides, incase you haven't figured it out yet," Jim started up the trail, keeping low in the cover of the brush, "they seem to be trouble magnets." He glanced over his shoulder and gave the other men a bemused smile. "At least mine is."


Ezra was starting to get a little nervous. He was thankful that his guardian was outside, but it was hard to sit here and wait for something to happen.

The two junkies had searched the cabin high and low for money, or drugs, or anything else of value, and come up with nothing at all that caught their interest. Thankfully during their search, they hadn't found Vin. He was safe, for the moment, apparently well hidden.

They had mentioned one of them going out to look for the other cabin, but they had yet to do so. If only one of the men would leave, that would make things a little easier. The way they were becoming so nervous and frantic, he thought surely it wouldn't be long before one of them did leave. Maybe he could hurry things along?

He felt a little uncomfortable speaking up, and he wasn't too sure of Blair. If it were he and Vin, he had no doubt Vin would follow his lead, but he wasn't sure he could count on Mr. Sandburg. Well, he hated to gamble, but could think of no better plan. Taking a deep breath, he glanced again at Blair, and said, "I thought I saw a small cabin yesterday while we were out hiking. I wonder if that's the cabin they are in search of?"

Mr. Sandburg's eyebrows shot up and for a moment Ezra thought he was going to protest. Instead, to Ezra's relief, he replied, "Oh yeah, I remember that little cabin. It's on the other side of the lake. It didn't look like anyone was there, but," he shrugged, "who knows?"

Both men turned and were staring at them; the shorter one looked almost manic. "You tellin' the truth?"

"What reason would we have to lie?"

"You could be tryin' to get rid of us, so's you could escape and call the cops."

"Me? Call the cops?" Blair said. "No way, man. My mom always told me to stay clear of the pigs. Leave them alone and they'll leave you alone."

Both men nodded with amazement. "Yeah," said the tall one. "That's what my granny always said, too."

"My mother has always cautioned me to avoid anyone involved with law enforcement, as well," Ezra added truthfully. "Under no circumstances should you ever trust them."

"Everyone has their own issues, man," Blair said to the two junkies. "Whatever you're doing up here, it's none of my business."

The men eyed Blair and Ezra with suspicion, but Ezra could tell they were considering their words. And whether or not they had, indeed, seen another cabin.

"I dunno, Mack." Surprisingly, Eddie spoke first. "I don't know if we can trust 'em."

"Yeah, me neither, but we can't just sit here and do nothin'."

Eddie nodded again, staring at the short man, obviously waiting to hear the plan.

"Okay, here's what we're gonna do," Mack began to explain, "you," he pointed to Blair, "are gonna go with Eddie here, and show him where this cabin is."


"Yeah, and I'm gonna stay here with the pretty little one." He grinned lecherously at Ezra.

"No," Blair was already shaking his head. "I don't think that's a very good idea, man."

"Well, I didn't ask you," Mack smiled sweetly at Blair, "did I?"

"Yeah," Eddie leaned over in Blair's face, "he didn't ask you."

"Shut up, Eddie, and get goin'."

Eddie grabbed Blair's arm and yanked him up from the sofa. "Hurry up," he said, and pushed Blair toward the door. He paused to scratch at his neck again, then prodded Blair in the back with the barrel of his gun. "Get goin'."

Ezra knew Chris, Jim and Buck were right outside, but he couldn't help feel a surge of panic as Blair opened the door and stepped outside. When the door closed behind the tall man, Ezra closed his eyes waiting to hear gunfire. When nothing happened he opened them again, and felt the panic notch up at the look on the other man's face.

"Finally, we're alone."


Blair followed the path, walking right past Jim and Buck as if they weren't standing there. The tall man followed behind, apparently paying no attention to anything except where Blair was leading him.

"Hold it right there."

The man froze; his hands automatically went up in the air.

"Good boy," Buck said, reaching up to smoothly take the gun out of the tall man's hand.

"Aw, man, who are you?"

"Detective Ellison, Cascade PD," Jim answered as he slipped a hand cuff around one of the man's wrist. "You're under arrest."

Blair let out a breath of relief, "Man, Jim, am I glad to see you."

Eddie blinked, then turned accusing eyes on Blair. "I thought you said your mom told you to keep away from the pigs."

"She did," Blair answered, honestly, "Naomi's never been a big fan of the police force, well, except for Jim, here." He smiled and patted Jim on the arm.

"The feeling's mutual, Chief."

"What are you gonna do to me?" Eddie asked, looking uncertain when Jim didn't immediately secure the cuffs behind his back.

"That's what I'm trying deciding," he answered speculatively.

"I say we tie him to a tree and pour honey over him," Buck offered, with a good-natured grin. "He'd make a nice appetizer for that big ol' grizzly bear Vin saw yesterday."

Jim grinned back at him and led the man over to a tree. "This one look okay?"

"Looks good to me."

"You're gonna cuff me to a tree?" the man asked, his voice shrill. "And let the bears eat me?"

Jim didn't think the guy would be very appetizing, even to a hungry bear. "I can't put you in my truck, now can I? I'd never get the smell out of the upholstery." He secured the handcuffs so the guy was hugging the tree. "Now, if I were you," his voice went low, "I'd be really quiet. Bears have very good hearing, and they're pretty hungry, this time of year."

As soon as Jim stepped away from the man, Blair latched onto his arm, "Jim, man, we gotta get back in there."

"Don't worry, Chief," Jim tucked his gun away, and put his hands on Blair's shoulders. "Everything's under control."

"No man," he protested, trying to pull Jim along. "You don't understand. That other guy's a pervert—"

"Listen to me," Jim said with patience, "I heard everything going on in there. Right now, Larabee's keeping an eye on things. We're not going to let anything happen to the boys."

Blair nodded reluctantly, glancing from Jim to Buck, who seemed surprisingly calm and in relaxed.

"Now, what I need you to do is take the truck and head over to that bait shop," he put his keys in Blair's hands, "call the state police. Fill them in on what's going on and make sure they come in without the sirens. Got it?"

"Yeah, okay. I got it."


Ezra's eyes were watering. The filthy man was seated next to him on the couch, his arm around Ezra's shoulders, leaning close and sniffing his hair. He'd kept trying to inch away, but now he was plastered to the arm of the couch and had nowhere left to go. Please, he prayed, let them come now!

"Uh, Mr. . . .uh Mack?" he found the courage to speak. "I need to use the facilities."


"I have to relieve myself," Ezra tried again, hoping for a temporary reprieve. "You understand, don't you?"

"Ya gotta pee?"

"Yes, exactly."

"Oh. Well, I guess it's okay. When ya gotta go, ya gotta go."

"Thank you." Ezra stood up, only to have the man rise as well.

"I think I'll watch," he said, with a frightful gleam in his eyes.

Before Ezra could protest, there was an unmistakable and all too familiar sound from the bedroom.

"What was that?"

"What was what? I didn't hear anything."

Of course, Vin sneezed again. Ezra tried to cover the sound with a cough, but there was no hope of muffling the sound of Vin sneezing.


"I assure you, I didn't hear a thing."

The man's eyes narrowed. "Don't move," he ordered, then he was stalking toward the bedroom, gun held ready.

Ezra wasn't sure what to do, open the front door and shout for help, or go into the bedroom to help Vin, himself. Before he could decide either way, the man was back with Vin in tow.

"Well, well," he said in triumph, "look what I found." He tipped Vin's face up and studied it with a gleam in his eyes, then glanced at Ezra. "He's a pretty one - maybe even prettier than you."

Ezra might have laughed at the expression of his protest on his younger brother's face, but in the present situation it wasn't really funny.

"Such a very pretty little boy, look at this hair," the man's eyes were glazed with lust as he fingered one of Vin's shoulder length curls and held it to his nose. "So soft. So sweet."

Vin's eyebrows drew together in indignation and he turned to look up at the man, which made Ezra's heart pound in fear for what his brother might say or do next. But what did happen, was something that took him completely by surprise. Vin opened his mouth to say God only knew what, but what came out instead, was a large and very loud sneeze that sprayed all over the man's face.

"Oops." He heard his younger brother say, and then, in what seemed to Ezra like slow motion, Vin stepped back and launched himself into a powerful martial arts-like kick that landed directly in the man's groin. Suddenly, Ezra had a whole new appreciation for the Jackie Chan movies his brother loved to watch.

The man's eyes crossed, his mouth opened and the gun slipped from his hand as he reached for his groin. "Ahhhhh, Goddd . ..." he groaned, as he spiraled slowly to the floor.

Vin watched for a second, then crouched down cautiously and swiped the gun from the floor where it had fallen. He stood and turned to Ezra as if nothing extremely out of the ordinary had just occurred. "You okay?"

Ezra could only nod.

Vin looked a little worried for him, but didn't seem too sure about taking his eyes of the stricken man. "It's okay, Ez," he said, his voice calming. "I got him covered."

"Yes, you do," was all he managed to say.

"Ya can let Chris in now."

"Oh, yes, of course."

But the doorknob was already turning, and then Jim, Chris, and Buck were there, and Jim was ruffling Vin's hair, taking the gun from his hand. "Good work, big guy."


"So, who were they? Terrorists? Drug Lords? Double Agents?" Chris asked his voice filled with sarcasm. He watched as state troopers placed the two men into the backseats of two cruisers and shut the doors. He was pretty sure the men were nothing more than small time criminals, but he was starting to realize that just about anything was possible in Cascade.

"Nah, they're just a couple of two-bit junkies. There's a little shack about a mile or so away that someone named Gerald Scott has been using for a drug lab. I thought I caught a whiff of something odd last night when we were grilling, but with the smoke and everything, I didn't think anything of it. Anyway, Scott's in custody and the state police are over at the shack right now seeing that his lab's dismantled."

Ezra and Vin were sitting on the open tail of Ellison's pick up, Buck between them with an arm protectively around each boy. Blair stood in front of the trio, talking and waving his arms expansively. The boys' attention seemed focused on Blair, but Buck's attention was on the car that held Albert MacDonald. He glared at the man with a viciousness that was rarely seen in the normally laid back agent. He'd all but begged Jim and Chris to turn their backs and leave him alone with MacDonald for just five minutes. It had been difficult for Chris to say no.

MacDonald was an ex-con, no big surprise, but he'd only been out of prison for a few weeks and there was already a warrant out for his arrest. It seems he had forgotten to meet with his parole officer, or notify him he was leaving town. With these new charges: the breaking and entering, the weapon and the fact that he was a registered sex offender and had attempted to molest two minor children, well, much as Chris himself would have relished a few minutes alone with the man, he'd forced himself to hold back. The guy wouldn't be out on the streets anytime soon.

After the two boys had given their statements - Vin's carefully coached as to not give away his enhanced abilities -- Ezra had pleaded to take a shower. He'd claimed the odor of MacDonald on 'his person' was making him nauseous. At first Chris had asked him to wait until they got home. He was worried about Vin, who couldn't seem to stop sneezing, and besides, they'd already turned off the water in the cabin. But then Ezra had claimed that Vin's constant sneezing could be directly linked to the lingering scent of MacDonald on them, and Ellison had agreed that it was possible. So they'd turned the water back on and allowed Ezra and then Vin to shower. Since the shower and the change of clothing, Vin hadn't sneezed once.

They watched the state troopers drive away, then joined the others at the back of Ellison's truck.

"Well, you ready to head back, Chief?"

"Sure am."

Vin let out a sigh, looking clearly disappointed.

"What's wrong, kiddo?" Jim asked, with a knowing smile.

Vin shrugged. "Just wish we could stay longer."

Ezra looked at the younger boy, appalled. "You want to stay here?"

"Yeah," he said quietly. "I like it here. It was fun."

Ezra reached from the other side of Buck, and slapped a hand to his younger brother's forehead. "No fever," he said looking thoughtful. "Perhaps he's just sick in the head?"

Vin pushed his hand away and glared at him with steely blue eyes. "Ain't sick, Ez."

"Anyone who thinks that falling in a lake, and being held hostage by two crazed, perverted drug addicts is fun, is definitely," Ezra tapped his forehead, "not all there."

"Shut up."

"Boys," Chris said, lifting one eyebrow in a look of warning.

"Well, I for one, am ready to head back to civilization." Ezra hopped down from the tail of the truck.

Vin sighed heavily and hopped down after him.

They all took turns shaking hands with Jim and Blair, and then headed for Chris's truck.

Once Jim was in his truck, he rolled down the window and waited until Chris did the same. "Next month?" he asked with a boyish grin.

"Yep," Chris answered, returning the grin. "We'll see you then!"

With a final wave they followed Jim and Blair down the winding road toward the highway.

"What's next month?" Vin asked after a minute or two.

"Well, we were thinking about coming back up here."

"Yay!" Vin shouted.

"You've got to be kidding?" This from Ezra, of course.

"You think you can keep out of trouble for that long?" Chris asked Vin.

"Yeah! I won't get in any trouble! I promise!"

"Can't think of a better incentive," Buck said, mostly to Chris.

"If your idea of fun is camping in the backwoods, like a bunch of hillbillies," Ezra said in a voice filled with sarcasm. "Next time we'll have to remember to bring our banjos."

"We don't have banjos," Vin said, giving his brother a scowl. Then he brightened, "But, I got a harmonica!"

"Lord, help us," Ezra groaned. The truth was, he'd go along with just about anything to help Vin cope with his anxieties at school; and he thought the promise of a monthly camping trip just might do the trick. It was a wonderful idea - although, he'd never admit that aloud. "I suppose before long we'll be planning a river rafting excursion in the Appalachians?"

"Yeah!" Vin shouted again. He had no clue what Ezra was referring to, only that river rafting sounded even more fun than fishing.

"Ezra," Chris warned, glaring into the rearview mirror.

"Don't you pay him no mind, buddy," Buck said, glancing back to wink at Vin.

"If you want to go rafting in the Appalachians," Ezra went on, as if he hadn't been warned, "you'll need to practice squealing."


"Yes, like a pig."

"Ezra!" Chris's voice was sharp that time, and Ezra grudgingly closed his mouth. Then Chris glanced back at him with an evil smile and said, "Maybe next month we'll sleep out in the tents?"

Ezra sighed, but knew better than to say anything else.

Vin, of course, shouted, "Yay!"