Standard disclaimer: the characters actually belong to a large organisation. The AU universe of the Magnificent Seven team in the 21st century, was I believe, created by Mog, and the Little Britches ATF by Barbretta H..

 

Rating: PG-13, I guess, there’s a little bit of bad language, h/c, angst, action, thriller and happy endings. Primarily, Vin, Chris and Ezra with a goodly amount of Buck.

 

Acknowledgments: Marnie and Cindy were kind enough to beta the fic.  Their advice and edits were invaluable, and in light of their comments I have made changes. Any errors belong solely to me.

 

I have retained English English spelling rather than converting to American English spelling. Effort has been made, however, to map to idiom and American word usage e.g. torch/flashlight et cetera, and nobody asks for a delightful cup of tea or wears a woolly jumper.  

 

Comments? Email: sealie@trickster.org

 

Courtesy Gibbous

By Sealie

 

Part One

 

Chris totalled the column of figures in his head and came out with the same results as the computer spreadsheet. It was always best, in his opinion, to double check figures, especially when they related to the budget

He wrote the figure down on his hard copy and then copied the figure over to the summary spreadsheet. He wasn’t paid enough for this, especially on a Saturday.  

“You okay, pard?”       

“Yep.”

The sound of scribbling filled his ears. Chris pushed back slightly on his chair. Vin was happily ensconced in the footwell under his table. Ezra, displaying his lack of uncle-experience, a few weeks ago had given the seven year old a high quality sketch pad and a variety of professional B, HB and H, soft to hard, grade pencils in a wooden box. Crayons and a colouring book would have been a bit more practical, Chris thought.  Vin had settled under the table and began drawing.  He seemed quite taken with the different grades of pencil and was trying each one individually. The effect was quite surreal like a photo negative of a sunset.

He wasn’t too sure why Vin had chosen to play under the desk, his child psychologist would probably pull all sorts of reasons out. Chris thought that it was comfortable.

Vin twisted on his butt and held out the paper for Chris to view.

“Each pencil draws differently.”

“Yeah, you can use them to shade.”

“Shade?”

“It’s probably easier to show.” Chris pushed back his chair and joined Vin on the floor. “You got another piece of paper?”

The thrifty child turned over his masterpiece and offered the other side.

Chris drew a circle freehand. “What’s this?”

“It’s a circle.” Vin sat on his heels and wrapped his arms around his bare knees.

“K.” Chris rifled through the pencils and pulled out a soft tipped 2B. Carefully he drew a thin, dark line at the five to six o’clock position on the circle. Swapping the soft tipped 2B for a B pencil, he drew --shading a blob outside the dark line creating a shadow. Taking a lighter 2H, began to shade inside the circle from three to seven o’clock using his thumb to stop the lines going outside the circle. “What’s it now?”

“It’s a ball,” Vin said breathlessly, and Chris was suitably rewarded by his awe. “How did you do that?”

“Shading.” Chris pointed to the shadow under the ball. “The shading makes you think that the picture has depth.” He reached up and pulled down his desk lamp to their level.

“You want a ball?” Vin asked reading Chris’ mind. He scrambled to his feet and darted out of Chris’ office to get the nerf ball from Buck’s desk. He was back a heartbeat later.

Chris accepted the ball with a smile. He sat the ball beside the light and switched it on.

“See the shadow?”

“Yep.”

“I drew that and made the picture look real – more real. Realer?”

“More real,” a familiar voice supplied laconically.

Chris spun on his butt to glare up at his undercover agent.

“Uncle Ez,” Vin said, smiling. “Look, Chris can draw.”

“What are you doing here--” Chris made a production of looking at his watch, “--on Saturday morning?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“You could, but I’m the boss.”

“Ah.” Erza tugged at his shirt cuff. “I am missing a cufflink which has some sentimental importance. I had hoped to find it here before the cleaners descend on Monday morning. Imagine my surprise when I saw Master Tanner, apparently on his own, in the office.” 

“We was drawing.”

“Were drawing,” Ezra corrected.

“Were drawing,” Vin echoed. “You want me to help you look for your thingy?”

“Why thank you, Vin, that would be appreciated.”

“I’ll be back, Chris.” Vin patted Chris on his shoulder and then scrambled to his feet. “What are we looking for? Why do you think you lost it here?”

“You’ve obviously been taking interrogation lessons from your…” Ezra hunted for the appropriate noun. He shot an uncharacteristically unsure glance at his superior. “Foster father.”

Chris supposed he hadn’t really laid it down in stone what his role was in Vin’s life to his team. He was leery of using the ‘dad’ word and his empathic undercover agent had picked up on that unease.

Ezra was showing Vin a cufflink, Vin seemed quite intrigued and was checking out Ezra’s cuffs.

“Buttons work better,” was his considered opinion.

“Perhaps they are more efficient. But they lack style.”

Vin looked down at his white button t-shirt, navy shorts, socks and sneakers. “Is this stylish?”

“Style, Master Tanner, belongs to oneself. You have your own style. I think that the Shrek band-aid on your knee has a certain savoir faire.”

“What’s save..save…?”

Savoir faire is knowledge of how to behave in any situation. It pertains to style. A person with savoir faire has style.”

“You use big words on purpose, don’t you?”

Chris shook his head in fond amusement. Vin had his own style and Ezra had his style – together they certainly had style. He returned to his statistics, keeping one eye on his ward and agent. Vin was standing on Buck’s table scrutinizing the floor from his new vantage point as Ezra retraced his day.

 

 

              ~*~

 

“Found it!” Vin wriggled backwards out from under Josiah’s desk. He held it up exultantly.

“Excellent, Mr. Tanner.”

Vin handed it across. “It’s important, isn’t it?”

“Yes, my great grandfather, a cantankerous old gentleman of the fifth degree, gave me these cufflinks.”

“Do you like him?” Vin said getting straight to the heart of the matter.

“I liked him very much.”

Vin sagged reading the past tense accurately. “‘Am glad I found it.”

“Thank you for finding it. You have sharp eyes.”

“How old was ya?”

“Sorry?” Ezra paused in returning his cufflink to its velvet lined box.

“When your grandpa died?”

“Somewhat older than you are now. I believe I was eleven.”

“And he gave you cufflinks?”

“I received the cufflinks when I was nine.” Ezra smiled thinly. “They were a present that I had to grow into. A ZX-81 might have been more fun but the cufflinks are of greater value. Actually, the ZX-81 would have been a good investment. But I digress, the cufflinks are perfect.”

“I’m glad I found them, then.”

“As am I, perhaps an ice cream is in order to celebrate.”

“At your swanky place?”

“Yes, at Donatello’s Emporium.”

Vin lit up like the Fourth of July.  “Can Chris come?”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

Vin shot off as if fired from a cannon. “Chris, Chris, you wanna go for ice cream?”

Ezra craned his head to see into the superior’s office. Chris had an open smile on his face as Vin inveigled him to join them on their trip to the ice cream parlor. Prior to Vin’s appearance in their lives, smiles were not on the agenda and Ezra knew that he would not have gone anywhere on a social event with his boss without his other team members.

Vin rocked from foot to foot as Chris shut down his computer. Seeing agreement, Ezra collected his jacket and shrugged into it.

“Coffee, Ezra?” Chris asked.

“Yes, Mr. Donatello makes the finest Italian coffee in addition to ice cream creations including his world famous Knickerbocker Glory.”

“Which is?” Chris queried.

“An imported speciality of fruits, syrups, cream, ice cream.”

“I don’t think that Vin will go for that.”

 

 

 

              ~*~

 

Both adults could see that Vin was in a happy place. He hadn’t been too enthusiastic about the knickerbocker glory and its fruit base. The boy wanted chocolate. Eric Donatello had succumbed to a quiet request for the chocolate sundae but could he please not have the vanilla ice cream with the chocolate ice cream ‘cos the vanilla is a bit strange tasting and I really like chocolate and you’ve got lots of different types of chocolate and if the chocolate sundae comes with vanilla ice creams it’s not really chocolate sundae and I can’t try the other chocolate ice creams that are behind the counter if the chocolate sundae has vanilla in.

Ezra had been moderately impressed by the logic and the hitherto unknown eloquence of Master Tanner. The ice cream that Eric had delivered to their table had one small scoop of each chocolate flavour that was created in the store. Chocolate, chocolate with chocolate chips, mint choc chip, white chocolate with honeycomb, drizzled with rich chocolate syrup and dotted with maltesers. The child actually hummed contentedly as he dug in. Erza shared a smirk with Chris. They were content with espresso and almond biscotti.

Vin scraped the bottom of the dish and then, after glancing sideways at his guardian, resorted to using his finger to chase after the final dregs of chocolate syrup. Once every iota of chocolate had been hunted down and captured he settled back with a happy burp.

“Vin,” Chris said lowly.

“Excuse me.” Vin grinned unrepentantly.

“Go wash your hands.”

“’K, Chris.” He slithered out of the booth and scampered to the men’s room.

“Hmmm, I think that that was a success,” Ezra observed.

“You really can’t go wrong with Vin and chocolate,” Chris said.

Ezra drummed his fingers on the table as he mulled over his next words. He smiled inwardly at the uncharacteristic display of unease.

“If you need to return to work, I would be happy to take Vin to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. There is a display of Prehistoric Monsters from the Sea which I believe would appeal.”

Chris leaned back in the booth. “No, I’ve finished, but that sounds like something that Vin would appreciate. At the Museum of Nature and Science, right?”

“Yes, prehistoric dinosaurs and other animals which were predators during the Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous and other eras. It will also be educational.”

“Monsters, blood and gore, eh?”

“Essentially, yes.”

Vin walked out of the bathroom but made a detour to speak to Mr. Donatello, thanking him for the world’s bestest ice cream.

“That sounds like something that something that Vin will enjoy.”

“Do you require directions?”

“Aren’t you coming?”

“Ah. Yes. I am. But we have two cars.”

High on a sugar rush, Vin bounced over with a spring in his step.

“Would you like to go to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Vin?” Chris asked.

Vin looked left then right at the two adults. “What’s that?”

Somewhat nonplussed, Ezra finally spoke. “It has displays for you to look and play with.”

“Displays of what?”

Impressed by the desire to know everything before committing himself, Ezra answered, “Dinosaurs.”

Dinos’urs!” Vin’s eyes lit up. “Yeah. We looked at them at school. They were great.”

“Okay.” Chris stood and Vin was to the door before he could shift out of the booth. “Vin!”

“Vin,” Ezra called simultaneously.

Vin scampered out onto the sidewalk. A figure on the other side of the door tangled up with him and both went down, falling out of sight. A heartbeat later, both men burst through the door.

Vin lay sprawled, flat out on his back. A lady sat beside him, one leg twisted under her.

Chris’ attention was solely on his foster child, he dropped to his knees beside Vin. “Don’t move.”

“Chris!” Vin sat up.

“Your back; don’t move.”

Ezra moved to the brunette’s side. “Are you injured, ma’am?”

“The little boy? Is he okay?” 

Ezra spun on his heels. Chris was carefully helping Vin to his feet, guiding his movements with the utmost care. Vin was chaffing under his ministrations insisting that he was fine.

“Vin has something of a bad back. My friend is merely ensuring that he has not hurt himself. And yourself?”

The woman shifted carefully straightening her leg. She hissed with pain.

“Ma’am.”

Her face creased up. She rotated her ankle, hissing all the while.

“Ma’am.”

“I just twisted it, I think. Help me up, please.” Gripping on to his forearm, the woman stood. She tested her ankle before setting it on the sidewalk. “Oh.”

Ezra smiled winsomely, seeing lawyers and injury claims in Chris and Vin’s future. “Allow me to take you to the E.R.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary. It’s not too bad.” She smiled, and Ezra watched her lower her lashes demurely. “And you are?”

“Ezra Standish at your service, ma’am.”

“Ella Gaines!”

Ezra spun on his superior.

“Chris!” she gushed.

“Ah.” Ezra looked between them as if watching a tennis match. Chris held Vin against his hip and regarding the woman with something close to consternation, but tinged with happy memories. The woman, Ella, shrugged Ezra off and limped over to Chris.

“Oh, I haven’t seen you for over a year.” She flung her arms around him and kissed him soundly on the mouth.  

Chris was an icicle for a moment and then he relaxed into the caress, releasing Vin and entangling his fingers in the woman’s dark hair.  Ezra was somewhat impressed by the degree of tonsil hockey going on. Vin backed off shuffling to Ezra’s side.

“I think Mr. Chris knows the lady.” 

“I think you’re right.” Neither of the pair were coming up for air.

The display went on. Vin shifted at Ezra’s side.

“How long are they gonna do that for?” he finally whispered, loudly.

“They will run out of air eventually,” Ezra said clinically and mentally began counting.  

Vin let out a heavy sigh, and then tugged Ezra’s sleeve.

“Yes, Vin?”

“What time does the museum close?”

Ezra contained a smile by pure force of effort. “Not until much later – we have plenty of time.”

Vin let out another, heavier, louder sigh and it finally reached his guardian. Chris disengaged and blinked slyly as the woman tucked an escaped curl behind her ear.

“How are you doing, Chris?” she drawled.

“Very, very well.” He smiled. “How are you, Ella?”

“All the better for seeing you,” she said coyly. “So are you going to introduce me to your friends?”

Chris, still looking a bit sandbagged, turned. “Ella, this is Vin, my foster son, and my friend and colleague, Ezra Standish.”

“Ma’am.” Erza glided forwards and caught her outstretched hand. He bowed over it, and delicately kissed the back. “At your service.”

“Why YOU are a gentleman.” Her smile grew and she turned her attention to Vin.

“Hello,” Vin whispered, as he darted behind Chris shifting out of view.

Charitably, Chris allowed Vin to stay out of sight of the woman. Ella raised a finely plucked eyebrow in question. Chris shook his head.

Vin tugged on the back of Chris’ slacks. “Can we go?”

Ssssh, Vin,” Chris soothed, smiling down at him. “Be polite – we’ll go soon, I promise.”

Vin moved to Chris’ side to semi-glare at the interloper.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Vin. And I’m sorry for banging into you. Are you okay?”

Vin nodded, long hair falling in his eyes.

“Where are you going?”

Van glanced mutely at Chris asking him for help. Chris nudged him, directing the shy child to answer.

“We’re going to see the dinosaurs at the museum.”

“Dinosaurs? Where are they from?”

Vin shrugged.

“It’s a travelling exhibit on a world tour consisting of ‘Sea Monsters from the Deep’ – dinosaurs from the marine environment, pre-historic giant sharks and the ilk.”

“It’s sounds interesting.”

“You’re welcome to come, Ella. It would be nice to catch up.” Chris didn’t react when Vin grabbed his thigh.

“No, I’m afraid I can’t I have a business meeting in the Crawford Tower in forty minutes.” She rifled through her patent black leather purse. She pulled out a black and gold embossed card. “This is my number, Chris; give me a call I would love to, you know, connect.”

“Thanks.” A slight blush touched Chris’ fair cheeks as he handed over his own formal ATF card.

“Are we going now, Chris?”

“Vin,” he chastised, “that’s not very polite.”

Vin hung his head. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay, you want to spend time with your,” Ella stared at Chris, “guardian?”

Chris nodded sharply. “Yes, I’m fostering. Vin gets to stay with me, aren’t you, Cowboy?”

“Yeah, Mr. Chris,” Vin said brightly. “Forever.”

Chris ruffled Vin’s long curls. “Forever.”

Ezra watched as was his wont. The woman leaned forward and dropped a kiss on Chris’ cheek, and whispered a sultry goodbye. She spared no glance for Vin or himself – focussed on Chris.

“I have to run.” She sashayed off.

Vin slid a foot in the direction of the parked cars, eagerness vibrating through him. Monsters were a great attraction.

“Okay,” Chris said.

Vin shot off, racing to the cars.

“Vin!”

Vin skidded to a stop. Turning he scowled. His body language screaming ‘what now?’

“No running on the sidewalk,” Chris ordered.

“Why?” he held his hands out underscoring his frustration.

“What if you fall into the traffic? You don’t run on the sidewalk. Okay?”

“Okay.” Vin jiggled from foot to foot. “Are we going?”

“Yeah, we’re going.”

Vin half skipped, half jumped to Chris’s big SVU. He stood beside his side, waiting for Chris to open the vehicle.

Chris clicked the unit on his key ring and the doors unlocked. “Okay, Ezra, we’ll see you at the museum.”

“I am looking forward to it.”

 

              ~*~

 

“We saw orthocones, they’s giant squids. They’s great. They grabbed their prey wif their tentables and rip them apart. They’s bigger than sperm whales. And then we saw a Liopleurodon, they’re from the late Jurassic, that’s 160-155 million years, which is like older than anything ever. It’s the biggest, bestest, most greatest predator ever. They’s like giant crocodiles but they have flippers. And we saw a megalodon, they’re bigger than Jaws, they’d gobble us up whole. Gnash. Gnash. Gnash.” Vin mimicked the attacking jaws with his arms.

Buck stood stock still, awed by the display.

Chris chortled under his breath as he crossed to the refrigerator and pulled out a micro-brew.

“Where have you been, son?”

“Me and Chris and Ezra went to the Denver-Museum-of-Nature-and-Science,” Vin said sing song. “We saw the ‘Sea Monsters from the Deep’. They’s were great.”

Vin bolted off to tell J.D. all about it.

Theatrically, Buck staggered and fell against the kitchen counter. “What hit me?”

Chris handed over a beer. “A Sea Monster from the Deep called Vin.”

“Did ya have a good time?

Chris could only shake his head fondly.

“That good, eh?”

“Who knew that he would love dinosaurs so much? Did you hear him? He knows the names of every marine dinosaur and reptile that we saw, their ecology and life history. They had video and those interactive educational displays, he needed a little help, but you show him once and then he got it, memorised it and categorised it.” 

“You think we could go again and take J.D.?”

“Just don’t give him sugar for a couple of days before.”

“Amen, brother.”

Buck and Chris knocked their beers together.

 

End part one    

    ~*~

Part two

 

Life was good. A major operation with over six days of long days and nights had culminated in a perfect take down. Chris dotted the ‘i’s’ and crossed the‘t’s’ on the summary report. Travis would be pleased. This was worthy of a celebration. Perhaps Mrs. Potter could baby-sit for a couple of more hours so that the team could take a post mission trip to Inez’s? He would have to toss with Buck to see who would drive but if he borrowed Ezra’s double headed dollar piece…

The phone ringing jarred him out of his nice contemplations. He didn’t recognise the caller ID.

“Agent Larabee.”

“Chris,” Ella breathed.

“Oh, hi, I meant to return your phone call, but we’ve had a…” Chris began to apologise.

“I understand, Chris; I saw the news. Is everyone okay? You still work with Buck, yes?”

“Yes, it was sweet.”

“Perfect. How about a meal to celebrate this evening?”

“You know, that sounds like a damn good idea.”

“How about Rossilli’s?” Ella said, naming a high priced, but excellent, restaurant on the other side of town.

Chris leaned back in his chair. He still wanted to celebrate with his team. He could have one beer at Inez’s and then have a good meal before driving home a few hours later. It would mean leaving his SUV outside Inez’s and grabbing a taxi across town.

“Are you at the Crawford Tower?”

“Yes,” she said slowly.

“I’ve got a few things to finish up here. How about the Fisherman’s Lodge? That’s half way between our building and the Tower.” The restaurant was upmarket, but not as high priced as Rossilli’s – he had two foster children and mortgage to consider.

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Ella?”

“Sorry, my pager beeped. That sounds lovely. What time?”

“Seven?”

Again there was silence, then she spoke, “Seven it is.”

 

              ~*~

 

The house was in darkness so Chris crept. What a perfect end to a perfect day, he mused. Hyperaware of all noises, he was extra careful as he slowly turned the key in the lock. The house felt peaceful and he could hear Sarah’s rocking chair creaking. Hollowness touched him just for a heartbeat – that sound echoed through his life spelling comfort tinged with loss. He tiptoed to the living room. The television was on, sending low light into the darkened room.

“Hey, stud,” Buck whispered from the chair. “Did you have a good evening?”  Toe on the floor, his friend gently rocked the chair back and forth. Wrapped in the sweater that Buck had been wearing earlier, Vin was snug on his lap, eyes closed and mouth slightly open, deep in the Land of Nod.

Chris essayed a rich smile at the sight. “He seemed all right with me when I spoke on the phone.” When they spoke on the phone at five (in the office); six-thirty (with hellos from the rest of the team); eight (during dessert to share chocolate experiences) and half an hour later, just before Vin went to bed.

“He was being brave,” Buck said. He shrugged infinitesimally. “I mean, yeah, he was okay – but, you know.”

Yes, Chris knew, but their child psychologist said that they needed to sometimes rock the boat just slightly.

“When did he wake up?”

“About half an hour after he went to bed. I don’t think he was awake, he was sort of sleepwalking. He just wandered in, looked around – looking for you. I turned the television down. He stopped by the rocking chair and just stood next to it. I asked him if he wanted a drink of juice and he just stood there. I sat in the chair and he clambered onto my lap and flopped. Kinda nice, really.”  Buck smiled dotingly down at Vin.

Unconscious trust was better than nice it was perfect.  

“You want to put him to bed? Or shall I?” Chris asked.

“Nah, I’ll do it, if he wakes now, he’ll see you.” Buck stood smoothly with a supportive hand at his elbow.

They got Vin to his bedroom without any incident. As Buck settled him in the top bunk, Chris re-covered JD with his kicked off blankets, knowing that in half an hour or so their whirlwind would kick off his blankets again. JD might not like his brushed cotton footie pjs but they kept him warm through his nightly adventures.  As he brushed a light kiss on JD’s forehead, Buck tucked Vin and Cat snugly in.

“A-okay?” asked Chris

“Yup.”

They swapped places. Vin shifted, drawing into a tight curl around his soft toy. Chris gently stroked Vin’s blond curls. Judging from the photographs that they had seen of Vin’s mother eventually his hair would darken as he grew older, but now they shared the same bright hair, like father and son.

“Be happy, kid.”

 

              ~*~

 

The sounds of life woke Chris from the deepest, most comfortable sleep he had had in an age. Stretching in the double bed, he felt his bones turn to liquid. Completely relaxed he lay there, revelling in the luxury of freshly laundered sheets and a security in life which he had never expected to feel again.

He lay there relaxing into the zone, aware of the life around him, but nicely disconnected. A lifetime passed and he knew that he had fallen asleep before he woke again.

“You going to lay about all day in bed?” Buck boomed.

“Eh?”

“There’s coffee and bacon and French toast on the table. You going to get up? It’s too nice to be laying around in bed.”

Chris struggled to sit upright.

“You all right, Stud?”

Chris rubbed his stubbly chin. Buck stood in the doorway watching him. “Yeah, I slept like the veritable log. I feel great.”

“You gonna get up or stay in bed?”

“I’m starving.”

“Good thing there’s food on the table.”

Chris kicked off his covers and without changing or hitting the bathroom staggered into the kitchen to feed his stomach.  

“Saturday, you working?” Buck said in familiar shorthand.

“No, you?”

“All done and dusted on Friday.”

“Ranch?” Chris asked as he dug into the crispy bacon.

“Saw to the horses several hours ago,” he said pointedly.

“Hmmm, day off then.”

“You fancy a bar-be-cue?”

“Forecast?”

“Good.”

“Bar-be-cue it is.”

“Excellent.” Chris shovelled a forkful of eggs and bread into his mouth. Around the generous mouthful, he said, “Where’s the kids?”

“Watching cartoons.”

Stocking feet padded down the hall and Vin traipsed into view. He was still in his soft pyjamas. Buck’s sweater hung on his scrawny frame, sleeves hanging well past his hands and collar falling over one shoulder.

“Hi, Chris,” he smiled luminously.

“Hi, Cowboy. Not dressed yet?”

Vin cocked his head to the side. “No,” he reported.

Chris shook his head in affectionate humour. Vin trotted over to Buck at the stove. Enticing scents of cooking bacon filled the kitchen.  Vin waited patiently at his side staring up at the large man.

“What do you want, Scrappy?”

“That stuff was nice. Can we have some more?”

“Oh, you liked the bacon or my special egg bread?”

“Yeah.” Vin stood on his tiptoes and peered into the skillet. “You’re making more.”

“Guess I knew that you’d come when you smelled it.”

“We had breakfast hours and hours ago.” He quivered his bottom lip and made a credible impression of Oliver Twist.

Buck laughed heartily.  “It will be ready in two secs.”

“How long’s that?”

“A minute.” Buck dipped the bread in some beaten egg.

“We were thinking of having a bar-be-cue this afternoon,” Chris told Vin. “We’ll ask the guys over.”

“Uncle Ezra, Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan?”

“And maybe Mrs. Potter and her kids. Auntie Rain might be able to come. I don’t think that she’s working this weekend.”

“She’s not.” Buck plonked a plate of egg fried bread and bacon on the table. “See if JD wants a second breakfast, will you, Vin?”

“K.” Vin beetled off.

Chris snagged a piece of particularly crispy bacon. “Is there coffee?”

“How tired are you?” Buck asked, but he grabbed a mug and filled it with freshly perked coffee.

Vin and JD ran into the kitchen, slipping and sliding on the tiled floor.

“Hi, Chris.” JD barrelled into Chris’ side, snuggling in for a hug. He squeezed Chris tightly for a short time for an adult but lifetime to a kid and then dove into the bacon. “Vin sez we’re going to have a bar-be?”

“The weather’s nice. It’s a Saturday and we don’t have to work this weekend. Let’s have a party.”

“Party!” JD cheered.

 

~*~

 

“What ya doin’?” JD asked Nathan who was leaning over the bar-be-cue. “You’re not supposed to touch the grill without the special hat and that’s Buck’s hat.”

“He’s got special permission,” Buck yelled over from where he reclined on the grass on one of the boys’ floor pillows. Nathan might have permission but Buck hadn’t given up his ‘kiss the cook’ hat.

“I’m making dessert, JD.”

“Is it good for us?” asked JD suspiciously.

Snorts and laughs echoed around the yard. Nathan threw a good natured scowl at his colleagues and friends. “I’m baking bananas with honey and nuts.”

“Bacon, we had bacon for brekkie,” JD protested.

“No, little bit.” Nathan chortled. “I’m baking, it’s a way of cooking. I’ve wrapped…”

“I’ve wrapped?” Rain interrupted from the deck where she was keeping out of the late afternoon sun.  

“Auntie Rain was kind enough, because she’s a lovely person, to lovingly wrap bananas in foil after she’d drizzled them with honey (that she bought herself at the store) and finely chopped nuts (nuts that she had chopped herself to ensure that little boys would be able to eat them).”

“Thank you, honey.” Rain toasted him with her mint julep.

“Oh, you are so…” Buck started to say, but Chris lobbed a raw carrot crudité at his head, “happily married.”

“Is it going to be nice?” JD asked.

“It’s one of my favourite desserts.” Nathan leaned down and tapped JD’s upturned nose. “Once it’s cooked you drizzle the bananas with chocolate syrup.”

“Oh, that’s okay then.” Happy now JD ran off to join Vin who was crouched at the edge of the yard by the corral scrutinising something on the ground.

“What are they looking at?” Josiah leaned forward on his deck chair.

At his side, Chris puffed happily on a cheroot. “Don’t know – something gross probably.”

“Delightful,” Ezra drawled and shuffled further back into the softness of his padded deck chair.

Vin flopped onto his stomach, an action which defied any existence of a bad back, to better study whatever they were looking at. JD sprawled on top of Vin and peered over his shoulder.

“You seem content, Chris,” Josiah commented.

“Been a good, but tiring, week. Good food, good beer, good company, what more could a man ask for?”

Josiah simply knocked his bottle against Chris’ in salutation.

The phone rang inside the ranch. Chris rose from his contented slouch and moseyed into the house through the kitchen door. Ezra also stood, but sauntered over to the boys. Pulling on his smart dress slacks to maintain the creases, he squatted down to better see what had the boys so enthralled. Josiah looked left, looked right at the empty deckchairs. He’d been abandoned, he almost sniffed. Rain settled next to him.

“What’s got the boys’ interest?”

“I don’t know, but it can’t be that horrible or Ezra would have come back.”

“You know Nathan said that the boys have been good for Chris and Buck, but I think that they’ve been good for all of us, especially Ezra.”

“He does seem to have discovered new joie de vie.”

“He’s thrown himself into the Uncle business.  He’s certainly got the spoiling the nephews down pat.”

The threesome stood and eyes fixed firmly on the ground began to follow a meandering line alongside the corral.

“Ants,” Buck judged.

“What?” Josiah said for all of them.

“They’re following a line of ants.”

“Fire ants? They’re dangerous,” Nathan said.

“Vin knows what fire ants look like and knows better than to touch them. They’ll just be, I guess, common garden ants.”

Chris sauntered onto the deck, cell phone at his ear, his brow furrowed at the sight of Ezra, JD and Vin doggedly picking their way across the corral field. Peso and Pony were watching them curiously but continued munching on grass.

“Sorry, got distracted,” he said into the phone. “Continue down I-25, at the junction past Longmont, hang a left. Go through Four Corners, about hundred yards outside the town you’ll see a sign on your right for the ‘Highlight Stables’, continue past that…” Chris wandered out of earshot.

“Sounds like we’re going to have another visitor.” Buck sat up.

“Someone who doesn’t know the way to the ranch,” Josiah judged.

“Ah.” Buck twirled his moustache Machiavellianly.

“Buck?” Nathan asked.

Buck all but smirked. “Chris came in pretty late last night and he seemed pretty pleased with himself.”

“Ah,” all said.

 

 

              ~~*~

 

“Where they going?” JD asked as they traipsed along.

“Where are they going,” Ezra corrected.

“Where are they going?” JD stressed the ‘are’ heavily.

“They’re going to their new home,” Vin said.

“How do you know?” JD demanded.

“Saw it on Animal Planet. They were bigger ants but I guess it’s all the same. You sees those white pieces of rice?”

“Yeah,” JD bent over double to squint at the new mystery.

“Those are eggs, I reckon.”

“Babies?”

Vin glanced at Ezra. “I believe that I saw the same programme and, yes, those white grains are eggs from which young ants will hatch.”

“Perhaps we better not disturb them?” JD mused.

“We’re just following.” Vin loped ahead, eagle eyes easily spotting the ants amid the stalks of grass. 

JD pushed a warm, damp paw into Ezra’s hand and pulled him along. They followed the trail to the edge of the corral. Vin easily scaled the fence and dropped to the other side. JD simply ducked under it. Ezra paused a moment, reflecting on the pristine condition of his casual trousers and polo shirt then clambered over. The boys were now out of the area where Chris let them roam freely. The meadow curved down into a copse of trees through which the small creek that edged Chris’ property trickled. Water and boys were a volatile mix, and both had been instructed not to play in the creek on pain of month long groundings and other dire reprisals.  Vin’s head jerked up and he unerringly honed in on Chris standing like a dark shadow on the deck. Evidently reassured, Vin scampered into the stand of trees, JD on his heels. Ezra raised his arm and Chris waved back at him.

It was cooler under the trees, and the light was tinged with a soothing green. Small figures darted through the undergrowth. JD’s bright red t-shirt stood out like a flag as he struggled keep up with the fleet of foot older boy.

“Don’t get too far ahead,” Ezra warned.

Vin whooped and dropped to the ground. Ezra shivered, not knowing what manner of creepy crawlies abounded in the woods. Gingerly, he picked his way over a fallen tree to the boys’ side wondering about scorpions and snakes and tigers. Amidst the bracken, branches, tree roots and stones was a dark hole under a rotting log. The ants were crawling into the hole.

“They’ve found their home,” JD exulted.

Ezra basked in their happiness. Vin dropped a twig in front of the line and watched as the ants struggled to overcome the obstacle.

“Vin,” JD protested.

Acquiescing, Vin removed the barrier. “It was an experiment. I wasn’t going to leave it.”  

“You know.” Ezra settled on his haunches. “I do believe that you can build ant farms.”

Vin rolled onto his side. “A farm for ants?”

“Not with fences and barns. You build a box made out of glass and fill it with soil. The ants build a home.”

“Is it cruel?” Vin asked.

That threw Ezra for a moment. “I don’t think so.”

“Aren’t they used to being outside?”

P’raphs we can--” JD’s brow furrowed, “--re… res…research it at school?”

“Chris has a computer connected to the internet, we can do research from home.”

“I don’t want to make a farm if’n it’s bad,” Vin said solemnly.

“Can we look now?” JD bounced on his heels.

“We could,” Ezra began, “but perhaps we should eat Nathan’s dessert first.”

“Bacon bannans,” JD chortled.

“Bacon and bananas?” Vin’s eyebrows drew together showing his confusion.

“Rest assured there is no bacon with the bananas. They have been carefully heated -–baked -- on the grill with honey and nuts.” Ezra stood. “Shall we go have dessert?”

Vin cast a regretful glance at the nest and moved to join Ezra and JD. Once again, JD caught Ezra’s hand in a warm, moist grip.

As they emerged from the woods, a low slung Mercedes convertible was speeding along the drive, sending up puffs of dust. Pony shied away from the fence and ran to the far corner of corral. The driver immediately slowed down, moving at a more respectable pace.

“Who’s that?” JD demanded.

“I’m afraid I don’t know but that is a rather expensive piece of machinery.”

Vin climbed up the corral fence, planted one foot on the fence post and stood upright. He balanced easily.

“It’s Chris’ lady friend.”

“A lady?” JD said.

“From outside Donatello’s. The lady that Chris knows from a long, long time ago.”

“Hmmm,” Ezra vocalised. He knew that many children could see better than adults, fresh eyes and clear perception – rarely had he seen it displayed. The Mercedes stopped and out slinked Ella Gaines to be greeted by Chris.  Vin made ready to jump.

“No.” Ezra held out his hand.

“Uncle Ez,” Vin protested.

Ezra simply reached up. Signing dramatically, Vin gripped his hand and jumped with Ezra controlling his descent. JD danced around them, involved in his own internal world.

“I jump higher all the time.”

“Yes, but I’m not there. I would be beside myself if you hurt yourself when I could prevent it.”

Vin didn’t say a word, but he kept a hold of Ezra’s hand.

“What’s the lady come for?” JD asked.

“To join the party, I suspect.”

“Chris had a meal with her yesterday,” Vin announced.

“Really?” Ezra said.

“Yeah.” Vin dragged his feet at Ezra’s side. “They went to that place that you like: The Fisherman’s Log.”

“Lodge,” Ezra corrected as he sidestepped a Pony deposit.

“Mr. Chris went out with a girl?” JD asked, his voice rife with disgust.

“Yes, JD. I’m afraid that adults have been known on occasion to have pleasant meals with members of the opposite sex.”

Ain’t that a rude word?” Vin asked.

Ezra stopped dead and mentally reviewed his statement. Sometimes talking to JD and Vin could be like bouncing blindfolded on a pogo stick though a minefield.

“Which word?

“Sex?”

“No, sex is not a rude word.” Ezra waved at Buck with his free hand. JD saw his foster dad and squealed like he hadn’t seen him in an age and ran ahead. Vin pulled his hand free and ran after JD. Ezra wiped his forehead, appalled at the perspiration he felt; he hadn’t lost his cool like that when faced with gun runners.  Buck grabbed JD and swung him high and around and around. Vin skidded to a halt his posture screaming indecision, but Buck brought JD back to earth and then swooped, gently, on the older boy.

“Up high?” Ezra heard Buck say and Vin flew.

Ezra arrowed to his comfortable deck chair, he had had enough excitement.

Ez, you remember Ella?” Chris stopped him before he could laze in the chair.

“Yes, of course.”

The lady hung on Chris’ elbow as he introduced her to the team. Her makeup was impeccable and her coiffure was artfully arranged with a tumble of curls over her left shoulder. Buck sauntered over, Vin slung over one shoulder and JD tucked under his arm like a football.

“Hey, Ella, long time no see. How are you ya?”

“Buck!” Ella slid forwards and pecked him on the cheek.

“Joining us for dessert?” Buck said.

“Chris was kind enough to invite me.” She held up a large white cardboard box. “I brought goodies.”

Hiya!” JD said loudly from under Buck’s arm. 

“Well, hello.” Ella leaned forward and ruffled JD’s jet black hair. “And who are you?”

“‘Am John Daniel Dunne. I is five.”

“And are you Chris’ foster son?”

“Nah, I’s Buck’s. I’ve got a Buck.” JD wriggled happily.

“You’re fostering!” Ella asked astonished, then she blushed. “Sorry, I know it’s been a while since I’ve seen you; you’re probably married.”

“Nah,” Buck said jovially.

“How do you know Buck?” JD demanded in his stentorian voice. 

“We all met in college before your foster dad and Chris went into the Navy.”

“Buck, you went to college?” JD demanded, shocked.

“Of course I did. You have –- well, it’s best -- to have a degree to get in the ATF.” Buck jiggled his foster son a tad put out by his amazement.

Vin wriggled and Buck swung him down.

“Hello again, Vin.”

“Hello, Mrs. Gaines.” Vin looked at the floor.

“It’s Ms. Gaines, actually Vin – but you can call me Ella.”

Miz?” JD questioned loudly.

“Yes, John.”

“No. no. no. I’s JD for John Daniel,” he protested. 

“Sorry, yes, JD?”

Miz? What’s a Miz?”

“A Ms. tells you that I’m probably not married.” Ella smiled sadly.

“Ella?” Chris gently touched her elbow.

She essayed a tight smile. “He passed on a few months ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

Ella’s face crumbled, but she fought and won her composure “At the end, it was a -– to coin a phrase -– a blessed relief.”

Vin was watching and listening, cataloguing all the words and seeing behind the lines. Ezra reached down and ruffled his long curls, brushing his over long hair out of his eyes. Chris gently directed Ella away from the group.

Distracting Vin from mortality, Ezra said, “Perhaps a trim is in order.”

“What?”

“Next Saturday, I will introduce you to Armand, he is a master.”

“Eh?”

“Perhaps Donatello’s afterwards?”

“But? What’s a’ Armand?”

“He’s a hair stylist.”

“To get my hair cut?” Vin asked horrified, he clamped his hands on top of his head. “Does JD have to get his hair cut, too?”

Buck had JD held at arms length and was threatening to blow raspberries on his tummy. His jet black hair whipped about as he wriggled.

“I think that that is a good idea.”

“But… I like my hair long.”

Ezra crouched down. “As do I. But regardless of whether you have long or short hair, a trim every few months keeps it healthy.” He fingered the blond strands: the ends were split and over dry. A decent cut would improve its appearance dramatically.

“I’ve never had it cut.”

“If that was the case, Vin, you would have hair as long as Casey’s and Buck would put bows in it.”

Ew!” JD squealed as Vin looked horrified.

“You know.” Buck ambled over dangling JD by his ankles. “I’m handy at plaiting hair – learned it from my ma. I could do you a nice pair of pigtails.”

Vin’s mouth fell open. “No.”

“So trip to Armand’s next weekend?”

“Yes!”

 

              ~*~

 

Everyone was in post dessert soporific world. JD and Vin were curled up on their cushion, JD was half dozing in the early evening sunlight. Buck lay on his back on the grass idly scratching his stomach through his thin t-shirt as he starred up at the fluffy clouds overhead changing colour as the sun set. Chris and Ella sat on the deckchairs together talking softly. Josiah had his nose in a book. Nathan and Rain were sharing a deck chair halfway towards nuzzling, but settling for cuddling given the company. Ezra entertained himself by watching everyone.

Vin rolled off his cushion and padded over to Buck.

“Buck?”

“Yeah, Junior?”

He dropped down on the agent’s stomach, drawing a small huff out of the man. Knees on either side of the man’s chest, he fingered Buck’s top shirt button.

“What’s up, Scrappy?” Buck eventually spoke in the face of Vin’s abstraction.

Vin shifted and Buck sat up so Vin ended up on his lap. Buck curled around him, giving them both the illusion of privacy.

“JD introduced everyone to Miz. Ella.”

“And,” Buck prompted softly.

“He introduced her to Uncle ‘Siah, Uncle Nathan, Auntie Rain and Uncle Ezra--” Vin chewed on his bottom lip, “--and to Buck.”

Plainly confused, but fighting not to show it, Buck said, “That’s my name.”

“Buck.”

“Yeah.”

“You know that JD thinks that ‘Buck’ is ‘Dad’, don’t you?” Vin said seriously.

A faint grin touched Buck’s face. “I thought it might.”

Vin leaned back in his grip so he could look him in the face. “I just,” he struggled for the words, “I wanted you to know like. I reckon he doesn’t know what a Dad is, ‘cos he was just with his ma, you know? But you’re Buck so that’s what he calls you, but you’re his Buck.”

Buck nodded, and then he smiled like the sun breaking through clouds. “Thank you.”

Vin ducked his head down, but not enough that his happy, embarrassed smile could not be seen. “Buck,” he said rolling the word adding a whole world of intonations and inflections. 

“Yup.” Buck squeezed him tightly. “I’m Buck, a Buck and The Buck.”

“Hmmm, it’s good to have a Buck.” But that was enough mushiness, Vin rolled off his lap and set off at a dead run. Buck sat -- empty lap for a moment -- then he was up running, hooting and roaring. Vin shrieked and picked up his pace. JD awoke and seeing play in progress was up and joining them in a blink.

“How can they have the energy?” Josiah asked.

“Children have energy so that they can learn everything that they need to before they become old and slow,” Nathan said.

“So how does that explain Buck?” Ezra asked.

“He’s a big child at heart,” Chris said. Buck tagged Vin. He skidded to a halt, turned – Buck darted out of reach -- Vin focused on JD running towards them and arrowed in his direction. JD stopped on a pin and ran back to the dubious safety of the team.

“Protect me,” JD wailed ducking behind Ezra’s chair.

Vin skidded into Ezra falling over his lap. Ezra set him upright.

“Ha!” Vin slapped him in the centre of his chest. “You’re it!”

Ezra glanced at his chest feeling the warm hand through his shirt. His heart thrummed. Chase? Game? Run? It was unconscionable, it wasn’t delicate and refined. Vin laughed out loud and scampered away. Ezra stood up. Was he really going to do this?

JD grinned up at him, waggly front tooth and all. Ezra raised his arms, hands as claws and lumbered after a shrieking JD.

 

              ~*~

 

Chris padded through the house a fast asleep JD held across his chest and over his shoulder. It had been a superlatively good day. The game of tag had encompassed all the team, Rain and Ella had decamped to the deck, which had become an official safety zone. Tag had then metamorphosed to Hide and Seek and then what seemed to be a group wrestling match, with Josiah dubbed as Big Daddy. It was the sort of day that Chris wished that he could bottle. JD had slept through his bath, with the boneless unconsciousness that made him really difficult to handle, so the most experienced dad got the duty. Vin was sitting in a warm bubble bath, hair twisted into soapy spikes, idly playing with a tug boat under Buck’s watchful eye. Chris settled JD on the lower bunk. JD didn’t move a muscle as he was tucked warmly in.

“No bed time story tonight, eh Little Bit?”

JD let out a breathy snore.

Chuckling fondly, Chris planted a kiss on his forehead. Returning to the boys’ bathroom, he found a rinsed Vin, standing on a thick bathmat swaying tiredly as Buck dried him. Vin barely registered Chris’ presence as he sat on the clothes hamper.

“Good thing it’s Sunday tomorrow.”

“I think that maybe we’ll get a lie in tomorrow morning,” Buck said with a hint of hope in his voice.

Chris doubted it, but they could always hide under their quilts in hope.

“Foot,” Buck directed.

Vin lifted his foot and Buck wrestled on one pyjama leg over his foot and ankle.  

“Down.”

Vin lowered his foot, but flopped forward, landing in a semi drape over Buck’s wide shoulder.  

Chris chortled lowly.

“Are you going to help?” Buck almost whined.

“You’re doing such a good job.”

Buck rose up on his knees, holding Vin off the floor. It was easy then to pull up his pyjama bottoms. Settling back, he arranged Vin on his lap and wrestled him into his pyjama shirt.

“Pass the hair dryer over,” Buck ordered.

“It might be better to comb it out first. Did you use the conditioner?”

Sighing heavily, Buck held out his hand and Chris slapped the leave-in conditioner spray on his hand like a nurse handing out surgical instruments to a doctor.  Vin didn’t react a fraction of an inch as he sprayed on the cool liquid.

“Ezra’s taking Vin and JD to have their hair cut next weekend.”

“How did he manage that?” Chris asked.

“We figure if it gets any longer we’ll be able to put pigtails in -- that seemed to convince him.”

Vin blinked at them sleepily as Buck finger combed the tangles out of his hair.

“That could be interesting. What kind of hair stylist?”

Buck snorted and held out his hand for the hair dryer. Chris passed it over. Buck shifted Vin into a sitting position, head lolling over one arm and plied the hair dryer over the long curls. The warm air playing over his hair lulled Vin deep into sleep.

“I’m fairly sure that I never slept like this when I was little,” Buck said as he finished.

“Why would you remember?” Chris plucked Vin from Buck’s lap. “You were asleep.”

Leaving Buck to unkink his legs, he took Vin to his bunk bed.

“Chris?” Vin mumbled.

“Hmmm?” Chris pulled back the quilt and gently deposited the child on the mattress.

“Dark, sleep. Cat. Run. Run ‘round.”

Evidently Vin was sleep talking. Chris tucked him in securely.

“Night, son.” He dropped a gentle kiss on his forehead. “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

“Cat. Cat.” Vin shifted, moving under the quilt. Chris found the cuddly cat and set it on his pillow. Vin’s nostrils flared as he seemed to sense his most favourite toy. He grabbed Cat and curled up.

Chris retreated quietly, leaving JD’s night light on.

The group on the veranda had cracked open the bottles of fine Cabernet Sauvignon that Ezra had contributed to the festivities. Conversation was meandering as the ebbing sunlight faded and the glowing coals became dominant. Chris settled next to Ella on the porch swing.

 “Enjoy your day?”

Ella shifted closer and delicate perfume filled the air. “You have a lovely home.”

Chris liked the sound of that -- ‘home’. He could see the Hogback hills as dark shadows before the mountains as the sun set. It gave him a sense of space that his soul demanded.

“Are the boys asleep?” she asked.

“Out for the count.”  

“They’re very cute. I can see why you fostered them.”

“Well, Buck’s fostering JD and I’m fostering Vin, but it’s pretty much a ‘you get both’. Sharing, you know.”

“So who’s the mom?”

“Oh Buck,” Chris said easily.

Ella laughed.  

“So now that they’re asleep.” Ella sidled up against him. “How’s about you coming into Denver with me this evening?”

Chris sighed, as tempting as that sounded they’d been working long hours all week and hadn’t seen anything of the kids and he’d been out late on Friday night-Saturday morning. Plus Buck had been left with babysitting duties once this weekend.

Chris slung an arm around her shoulders. “Best not. But I have a late meeting on Tuesday, will you still be around?”

“Oh, my business will take a couple of weeks, at least.”  

 

              ~*~

 

Ezra swirled the fine Cabernet in his plastic glass, watching the low red light of the bar-be-cue swirling. He figured that he was just a little drunk. Not drunk – he was mellow. Across the yard, he watched without any surreptitiousness as Chris deftly guided Ms. Gaines into her Mercedes. Rain was pouring a superbly relaxed Josiah into the back of their SUV with Nathan’s less than adept help. Ezra toasted the young woman with his wine. You had to respect the medical profession -- always hope that the vampires would keep away from you – but you had to respect their dedication. Rain was committed, and as such rarely drank when she was on duty the next day. She was often the designated driver.

“So how long have you known Ella?” Ezra rolled his head on the headrest and regarded Buck flopped next to him on his deckchair. 

“Forever. She’s always had a thing for him. Came close to getting married once.”

Ezra listened intrigued.

“Chris proposed once but Ella wanted to see the world. She had a big year-long trip all planned.”

“I thought that Sarah…”

“Yeah, Sarah was for Chris the first time he saw her. But Chris and Ella were like fire and air, they blew like fireworks. Sarah was Chris’ earth.”

“How very poetic.” Ezra leaned over and topped up Buck’s glass.

“What is this stuff? It’s really good.”

“One would hope so.” Ezra hiccupped discretely. “It’s a French Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux – that’s France don’t you know – a St. Emilion. This is the finest suffusion of grapes and the vintners’ art. Can you detect the undertones of rich chocolate with the fine aromatic overtones of… uhm… cedar notes?”

Buck’s brow furrowed, he stuck his nose in the glass. “No,” he said simply.

“Philistine. Here have some more.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

 

End part two


              ~*~

 

Part three

 

Chris knew that Vin knew that something was up. His foster son had a fairly poor appetite at the best of times. Conflictingly he liked to hoard food when he was stressed. Vin pushed his cereal around the bowl, but an apple and a banana had ended up in the pockets of his fleece sweatshirt. An absent spoonful of fruit loops was pushed into his mouth. 

Chris smiled a bit too thinly and Vin was not reassured. They had a big takedown scheduled for the afternoon, and Ezra had intimated that his snitch was wiggly. The undercover agent had skirted around the edges of cancelling the operation. Signs indicated a massive shipment of explosives destined for a paramilitary group in the southwest was arriving. They simply couldn’t let it through their grasp on vague feelings that ‘something’ was up. But while Ezra had nothing definite it was enough to make Chris leery. They were going in full body armour and Ezra (over his protestations) was going to be wired.

“Chris?” Vin finally said.

“Yes.”

Vin stirred his cereal. “Nothing.”

“Vin…”

Vin pushed his bowl away. Chris marvelled at the perceptiveness of the boy; yet would he and JD have survived without Vin’s savvy? Probably not.

“You gonna be careful?” Vin whispered.

“As careful as careful can be.”

“Promise?”

“I promise to be careful.” Chris left his seat and crouched by Vin’s chair. “And Uncle Nathan, and Uncle Josiah and our Buck will be careful.”

“Uncle Ezra?”

”Uncle Ezra will be careful, or else.”

“Or else?”

“I’ll ground him.”

Vin’s mouth fell open. “Can you do that?”

“Oh, yes.” Chris ruffled his hair, keeping it light as Vin flinched. “I’ve put an extra sandwich in your lunchbox. It’s for you not JD or the school pets. Now go on, watch cartoons with JD before your school bus arrives.”

Vin slipped off his chair, bumping affectionately into Chris’ side but not staying still long enough to hug. He stopped at the door, weighing Chris who met his frank stare with his own. In that heartbeat Chris wondered if it was fair that he had fostered Vin and Buck had fostered JD given the inherent danger in their jobs. Yet where would the children be if they hadn’t taken them in? Another foster home?

He and Buck just had to ensure that they came back safely.

Vin read his intent and scampered away.  

 

              ~*~

 

Vin snarled at his letters, why couldn’t he tell ‘b’s’ from ‘d’s’? The teachers said that they were always different, but why were they sometimes the same and other times it was clear that they were different. He tried. He really, truly tried. Vin dug his pencil in the paper gouging the paper. If he was in charge ‘d’s’ and ‘b’s’ wouldn’t exist there would just be… he drew a cross. And ‘s’s’ would point anyway and they would still be ‘s’s’ and the same with ‘f’s’.

They were going to do math next – Vin wished that it was art from the bottom of his soul.

The swings in the playground were wafting back and forth in the wind. He wanted to be there not inside.

“Vin?”

Vin knew that his teacher had said his name more than once. “Yes, Mr. B?”

“Where were you?”

“On the swings,” Vin said honestly.

“It will come with practice.”

“Uncle Ez said that it’ll get better, but I’ll probably always muddle ‘em up when I’m tired.”

“Muddle up what?”

The bad letters, Vin thought, maliciously, scribbling them out from his work page.  He hated ‘b’ and ‘d’, bad, dad, baby, dady, babble, baddle, beb, bed…

“Vin, would you like to tell me what’s the matter?”

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

“I think it would be better if you tell me what’s wrong.”

Vin knew that he didn’t know everything, and he also knew that if he had a question or a problem he was supposed to ask his teachers or uncles or Buck or Chris, but he couldn’t tell Mr. B. cos’ this was about Chris’ work, and work was secret; if they let secrets out people could be hurt.

“I can’t tell, but it might be okay tonight and then tomorrow I’ll be good.”

 

              ~*~

Chris scrabbled at his blond hair, messing it into sweaty spikes. What a day. He leaned against the ER wall and thanked his team and colleagues that Buck was okay.

He was going to rip the man’s lungs from his body and then he was going to ground his ass into next week.  

The takedown had been a bust, they had got a few measly kilos of trinitrotoluene and C4 instead of the near tonne that had supposed to have been shipped through the network. Chris guessed that they had put a crimp in the paramilitary distribution system, but in a week or two they would have an alternate route. There was a leak somewhere in the ranks of the ATF or FBI.

The ER doors swung open and Buck was pushed into view.  

“Buck.” Chris surged forward.

“Sprained ankle.” Buck looked at his wrapped foot as if it belonged to someone else.

“You were fucking lucky.”

“Tell that to the rookie that would have walked straight into a crossfire.”

Chris squeezed Buck’s shoulder. “How bad is it?”

“Doc says it’ll be fine.” Buck smiled rakishly. “In a couple of days or so.”

“Let’s go home.”

 

              ~*~

 

Vin and JD were both sitting on the swing on the deck as Chris pulled his SUV to a stop. Vin stood and Chris could see him trying to see though the black glass windows into the vehicle. Normally both boys would run forward as soon as his or Buck’s truck came to a halt, but today Vin kept a light hand on JD arm. Somehow they knew something was up.

Quickly, Chris jumped out. “Hi, guys.”

“Where’s Buck?” JD demanded as Vin seemed to sag in on himself in relief.

“He’s here.”

JD ran down the steps. “Buck! Buck! Buck!”

“I’m okay, Little Bit,” he called. JD clambered straight into the front seat and stopped taken aback that Buck was not in the front passenger seat.

“What you doing back there?” JD peered between the two seats.

“Took a little tumble and I’ve sprained my ankle; so I’m sitting back here were I can keep my leg up.”  

“Hey.” Chris opened the passenger door at Buck’s feet, crutches in hand. “Ready to move?”

Buck shuffled feet first out the door. Chris supported him until he got the crutches under his armpits. Unpractised, he was a bit unwieldy as he navigated his way up the steps into their home. Vin stared up at him, eyes wide.

“I’m okay, Junior, it’s sprain – it will be as right as rain in a couple of days.”

“A week,” Chris corrected.  

“What do you need?” Vin asked breathlessly, taking in the awkward way that Buck held his wrapped foot high off the ground as he manhandled his way across the deck.

“If you put some ice in a plastic bag for Buck that would be great,” Chris said.

“Okay.” Vin darted away.

“Buck?” JD said near tears.

“I’m okay.”

Chris hovered behind him, waiting to catch him if he fell as they made their way into the sitting room. Buck collapsed on the sofa with a sigh of relief.

“Foot up.” Chris instructed.

Heaving a heavy sigh, Buck turned on his butt so he could lie along the sofa – foot resting on the cushions. Vin ran back into the room, clutching a plastic bag filled with ice to his chest.

“Is this enough?”

“More than enough.” Chris took the bag – it was almost too full; he might not be able to tie it off. “I need a towel. Can you get me…”

Vin was off before he finish. Chris grabbed an elastic band from the bowl of knickknacks on the sideboard and closed off the bag. Buck watched him with a great deal of trepidation.

“It’ll help, Buck.”

“I know, but why doesn’t something warm work?”

“Ask Nathan.” Gently, Chris laid the bag of ice over Buck’s foot. “I’ll get you some ibuprofen.”

“Beer,” Buck contradicted.

Chris acquiesced, he felt like they deserved a beer.  

JD hung on the arm of the sofa looking at Buck’s toes poking out from under the heavy bandage and bag of ice. “They’s look like hotdogs,” he decided.

Appalled Chris looked at them, but he had to laugh – they did indeed look like fat sausages.

“Can we have hotdogs for dinner?” JD asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Chris said. “I might give the ketchup a miss, though; it looks too much like blood.”

Buck shot him a dirty look.

 

              ~*~

 

Deliciously clean, Chris wandered through his bedroom towelling his hair. It was only Wednesday and he wished that it was the weekend already. He stopped dead; Vin sat on the floor hunched up beside the dresser silently watching.

“Hello, Vin,” Chris said carefully, reading deep unease in the curled up form.

“You promised to be careful,” he whispered.

Chris tossed his damp towel on the bed and plopped down on the mattress opposite Vin giving him all the space in the world.

“We were careful.”

“Buck got hurt,” Vin accused.

“Yes. Buck twisted his ankle when he helped a rookie who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“So the rookie wasn’t careful.”

“No, he wasn’t.”

“Is he going to work with you again?”

“Yes.”

Vin powered to his feet. “No! He can’t!”

Chris remained sitting in the face of the little tornado. His fury was a beauty to behold, stamping his foot on the floorboards, a pure picture of dedicated anger and protection.

“NO! No! No! He’s….”

“Vin.” Chris said sharply.

He stopped dead, eyes widening, and he shrank as muscles contracted ready for flight or fight.

“Vin,” Chris began, “Agent…Rookie made a mistake and he’s learned an important lesson. Because Buck was careful he simply twisted his ankle.”

“But…”

“Vin, people make mistakes. The agent won’t make the same mistake and he won’t be working with us until he’s over being grounded.”

“If it was dangerous, why was he there? He shouldn’t have been there!”

Chris finally reached out and gently cupped Vin’s cheek. The child leaned into the touch. “He wasn’t supposed to be there and me, Buck, Uncle Josiah, Uncle Nathan and Uncle Ezra dealt with the mistake. We were a team, we watched each other and kept each other safe while Buck helped Agent Rookie.”

“Buck still got hurt.”

“Yes. But Buck can twist his ankle walking down stairs wrong. He tore the ligaments in it when he was at college, and it’s always been a little sensitive, like your back. It was an accident. We were careful and we will continue to be careful every time we go to work.”

Vin pushed out his bottom lip. “Always?”

“Always,” Chris affirmed.

Vin heaved a heavy sigh, shoulders rising and slumping. Chris fought the impulse to tell him that everything would be all right, because he couldn’t make such a promise – only that they would always be careful.

“You okay, now?” Chris asked.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, I’ve got to make a phone call.”

Vin’s head shot up. “You going out with her again?”

“Vin,” Chris chastised, “it was a possibility, but I can’t now, because I have to stay and look after Buck and you two.”

Vin shifted uneasily and then stood up straight. “If you really want to go out…” he paused and then offered with great seriousness, “I could look after Buck.”

Chris maintained a straight face. “That’s very kind, but I think I’d prefer to stay in.”

“K.”

“Go on, skoosh, I need to make a phone call.”

Vin skooshed.

 

              ~*~

 

Chris leaned against the open freezer door, looking down at the shelves hoping for inspiration. Before Vin, JD and Buck had become permanent visitors in his life this would have been a toast night. There was food in the freezer but he couldn’t find any inspiration – anything that grabbed him. Anything that he wanted to eat.

“Hotdogs.”

There weren’t any hotdogs. JD would be devastated assuming he remembered. He could be mercurial that way. Chris would have killed for Chinese, but the nearest restaurant was a good half hour’s drive away.

“What we having?” Vin poked his head between Chris’ hip and the door.

“See anything that you like?”

“Josiah’s chilli.”  Vin ducked under Chris’ arm and opened the upper fridge door of the unit.

“Where?”

Vin pointed at a tupperware bowl on the bottom shelf tucked behind a wilting lettuce.

“Where did that come from?”

“Josiah brought it for the bar-be-cue.”

Chris mentally counted on his fingers. Three nights in the fridge? Given the amount of chillies that Josiah put in his special chilli, Chris doubted that anything nasty had had the time to grow in it.

“Chilli it is.”

Vin backed out of the way as Chris manhandled out the big bowl. The dark red concoction had coloured the clear plastic a lurid red. He cracked open the lid and sniffed; it smelled fine.

“Garlic bread?” Vin pulled a focaccia from the bottom of the freezer.

“Yeah.”

Vin opened the fridge door and grabbed the shredded cheese. Both were set on the table. Next he found the nacho chips to crumble on the warmed chilli. Chris smiled at his little helper.

“How’s about taking the cheese and the chips through to the sitting room so Buck doesn’t have to move.”

“K.”

Chris scraped the five alarm chilli into a pot to heat up and switched on the oven for the bread. Ella had not been pleased. He tried to train his thoughts onto the mundane and failed. He didn’t understand – their plans had been nebulous and they had caught a show and a meal last night after work. Chris kicked shut the oven on the focaccia and stirred the chilli. Ella had been a little bit more than annoyed at his need to cancel what hadn’t even been arranged.

Vin slid back into the kitchen sliding on the tiles, JD followed at his heels.

“What next?” Vin asked. “Knives and forks?”

“Cutlery, yup. But spoons will do.” He handed them to JD. “Take them and put them on the coffee table.”

“It’s like a picnic but in front of the television,” JD crowed and beetled off.

“What can I do?”

“Two glasses of milk for you and JD.”

“Chris,” Vin drew out the syllables.

“Milk is good for you, and it’s good with chilli.”

“Buck likes beer with chilli.”

Chris raised an eyebrow. “Milk.”

Dragging his feet to the fridge as if he had been asked to drink castor oil, Vin said, “K.”

 

              ~*~

 

Ezra was good at reports, an excellent memory – which boarded on the edge of photographic – allowed him to write reports which the DA loved and Chris genuinely appreciated. Ezra hit control-P then enter, and sent his report to the team’s printer. One day he would have his own printer. Ezra sagged at the travesty of his wishes. He wanted a printer when he should be asking for an office and a personal assistant.

Standing, he stalked over to the printer beside Nathan’s desk. Through the glass windows on the south wall he saw an unwieldy Buck tapping his way down the corridor. The door into their cubicle opened ahead of him as if by magic. Ezra blinked and then realised that it was JD.

“Hello.”

“Uncle Ez!” JD barrelled into him and wrapped his arms around his legs. Buck followed -- clickedly click --with Vin herding him.

“Hello, JD, I thought that your housekeeper was bringing you here. Buck?”

“I didn’t drive. I caught a lift with Mrs. Potter, I figured I’d come back with Chris and the boys.”

“Bored of lying around the ranch?”

“Chris has had a hankering for Chinese the last couple of days, I figure, you take the kids to your fancy hair stylist, I look over Wednesday’s reports with Chris then we go for a good meal when you come back.”

Vin was standing at the door glaring out into the corridor. He stalked off.

“Where you going, Vin?” Buck called.

He didn’t answer. Ezra caught a glance of Vin heading in the direction of the restrooms.

“You want me…” Ezra pointed after the boy.

“Buck, what are you doing here?” Chris demanded walking out of his office adjacent to the main work area.

“Needed some fresh air.”

“So you came to downtown Denver when we live on a ranch.”

Ez promised to get the kids’ hair cut. “

“Ezra?” Chris asked.

“I had arranged for their appointment for tomorrow, but I can rearrange it as I was going to have a trim after work. The boys can take my appointment, and I’ll go tomorrow. And then you can go for Chinese. But in the meantime, I think it best that I…” Ezra edged towards the door.  

Chris looked around the office. “Where’s Vin?”

“He went that way.” Ezra pointed and followed his finger. “Back in a moment.”

Vin wasn’t in the men’s room. Ezra stepped out into the corridor, pondering on his destination; he had certainly stalked off with intent. Chris stood at the far end of the corridor, arms crossed, posture demanding to know the whereabouts of his son.

“I’ll check down?” Ezra called. “You check up?”

Chris nodded curtly, moving to the eastern staircase. Ezra took the western, intent on asking any agents or staff if they has seen Chris’ son. He bumped into Dee, Special Agent Hill’s secretary.

“Have you seen Vin?”

“Agent Larabee’s son?”

“Yes?”

“Sorry, no.”

Grimacing, Ezra moved on, for the most part the building’s security was excellent. If there were any criminals being interviewed their movements were controlled, but it still wasn’t an area for a kid, even one as resourceful as Vin.

Slamming through the door onto the next floor, he came up against Agent Carl Davies, the tech specialist on team four. “Standish, I just ran into Larabee’s kid. Who set him on that wild goose chase?”

“Where did you send him? What goose chase?”

“I was going to take him up to Larabee’s office, but he ran down towards the gym. I was just gonna call Larabee and then round him up.”

“Call Larabee.” Ezra jogged away.

 

    ~*~

 

Vin forced open the heavy gym door. The gym complex smelled like old socks and sweat. Buck had shown him around the whole building on their first tour. The gym was one of Buck’s favourite places, and Vin knew that a lot of the agents spent time there. The locker room on the left was usually a hive of activity. Vin jogged around the banks of exercise equipment. He stopped at the threshold, looking for anyone that he knew in the changing room.

“Hey, Larabee, where’s your Dad?”

Ah, Vin spotted Buck’s loud friend, the funnily named Jon-boy Tinkler. He weaved between the agents in various stages of undress to the man’s side.

“‘Am looking for Agent Rookie.”

The man snorted loudly. “Agent Rookie?”

“Yep, he got Buck hurt; I got to have words with him.”

“Oh.” Jon dropped down onto one knee. “Agent Rookie, eh? Uhm, Agent Rookie’s…” His eyes slid left but back as quick as a flash.

Vin focused on a black haired man, standing stock-still next to an open locker. Slowly the man lifted his hand and rested it on the picture taped to the inside of the door. Then he turned, and Vin saw that he was pale and pinched and he was sweating.

Growling under his breath, Vin stalked forwards. “Are you Agent Rookie?”

Uhm, no… sorta, I guess.” He backed into the locker door with a clang.

“Did you get Buck hurt?” Vin demanded. “Chris said you got Buck hurt.”

 

              ~*~

 

Ezra coughed delicately as he entered the gymnasium. The stench was quite unpleasant. Hot, perspiring bodies were throwing themselves through exercise routines. Josie Caithness pedalling furiously on an exercise bike waved and pointed to the men’s locker room.

“Vin? That way.”

She nodded.

Ezra tipped a salute in her direction. The locker room was curiously silent. Ezra read rooms in an instant  -- he needed to in his field of work. This was a tableau of humour and seriousness.  Towards the rear of the room, back to him, he saw Vin with fists clenched at his sides. Agent Leigh was frozen, staring down at Vin as if he were a scorpion.

Ezra slid forwards.

“You gotta be careful,” Vin was saying, words hitting Leigh like bullets. “JD’s loves Buck, what if he died – what about JD?”

“I…”

“And what about the team? Chris sez the team is important. Don’t you get telled that at AFT school? Chris sez always teamwork. Always careful. Always watch each others backs. The team is family.”

“Vin.”  Ezra laid a gentle hand on the heaving shoulders. “Eloquently put. I believe that Agent Leigh would like to say a few words now.”

“I’m sorry, er, Vin, I turned left when I should have turned right and it all went to Hell in a hand basket. I’m sorry… I forgot my call…”

“You’re new, ain’t cha? Where’s was your team?” The firebrand turned on the other members of the locker room. “If’n he’s new why weren’t you looking after him?”

People shuffled uneasily. 

“What’s going on?” Larabee spoke and the rank of watchers parted.

“Vin was giving our assembled brethren a lecture on teamwork.”

“Vin?” Chris held out his hand and Vin tucked up against his side letting him rest his hand on a boney shoulder. “Agent Leigh?”

“Special Agent Larabee, sir?”

“Do we have a problem?”

“No, sir – I appreciate that Vin took the time to come and talk to me. I know that I made a mistake.”

Larabee extended his hand, slowly Leigh clasped it. “We all make mistakes, son, the trick is to learn from them.”

“The team is family, sir.”

“Amen, brothers,” Josiah’s voice rumbled through the throng.   

“Okay, break it up, do what you need to do.” Chris turned Vin away knowing that Josiah and Ezra had his back. The silence was broken and the hubbub of life rose.

Chris waited until they were outside the gym, before stopping. “So what did you do wrong, Vin?”

Nuthin’,” Vin said simply looking up at Chris guilessly, “he needed talking to.”

“Vin. You have to trust me to look after the team, the whole team – you, JD, Buck, Ezra, Josiah and Nathan.”

“Yeah,” Vin nodded. “And I’ve got your back.”  He huffed once and crossed his arms evidently satisfied with his day’s work.

There really wasn’t any argument, apart from one little point. “You don’t go off on your own in this building or any building for that matter without my express permission.”

“Why?”

“Think,” Ezra offered, “you might have gone in the girls’ locker room.”

Vin’s eyes widened.

“Thank you for your input, Ezra,” Chris said quellingly. “There are bad people held in this building, I don’t want you getting hurt. You stay with me or one of your uncles or someone that they say are safe, do you understand, Vin?”

“Yes, Mr. Chris.”

“It’s okay, Cowboy, we just want to keep you safe.”

 

              ~*~

 

“You are adorable! My clients would die to have such lovely hair.” Armand ran his fingers through JD’s jet black hair, testing its strength and condition.

JD basked in the attention, wriggling happily on the salon chair.

Vin rolled his eyes heavenward. “He gonna paw me like that?” he whispered.

“No, Armand, is the consummate professional, his act is chosen individually for each client.”

JD’ll like it.”

“I think.” Armand tweaked a long strand, “to get this looking good – an inch or two. I want to keep your style, it suites you. I’m going to hand you over to Veronica, she’ll wash your hair with a mint infusion, I think.”  

JD was handed over to the elfin Veronica, who seemed to giggle constantly.

Armand came over and Vin stepped back into Ezra’s legs.

Señor Standish, are you going to introduce me to this friend?”

“This is Master Vin Tanner.”

“Hello, Vin, have you had your hair cut before?”

“I think they cut it in the hospital ‘cos it was all matted.”

Armand’s narrow face creased in concern. “Can I touch your hair? I need to check its health.”

Vin craned his head to check with Ezra first. He nodded encouragingly.

“Yeah.”

Armand ran the fine blond strands through his fingers, carding the dry split ends. The hair was fuller and thicker at the roots, evidence of an improvement in health and diet.

“I’ve been cutting Senor Standish’s hair for several years and he trusts me to look after his auburn locks. Can you trust me, Vin?”

“Uncle Ezra trusts you, so I reckon that I can.”

Ezra crossed his fingers behind his back. He had had a long conversation with Armand before bringing the boys to the salon.

“Your hair needs a good cut.” Armand touched the shaggy hair that brushed his shoulders. “I’ll keep the layers long, but you need three-four inches off.”

“Is that lots?”

Armand held up his finger and thumb.

“That’s lots.”

“When you’re ill, Vin, it affects everything. Your hair tells me that, for a while, you weren’t very well. Now is the time to tidy your hair up.”

“Uncle Ez?”

“Hair grows, Vin. But if we come to Armand and get it trimmed often, it can be long and healthy.”

“Go on then,” Vin said begrudgingly.

 

              ~*~

 

Chris sat stupefied at the change in the two boys. Ezra had brought the boys straight to the restaurant. Mentally, Chris reigned in his amazement, neither boy could cope with perceived negativity. The haircuts weren’t bad, they were just amazingly different from the scruffy mops the two waifs had had before.

Chris had ordered the set meal before the boys had arrived, timing the arrival of the starters, Ho-sin duck pancakes, crab rangoons, sesame seed toast and prawn crackers with the appearance of the boys. JD loved the pancakes, loved the whole routine of grabbing the duck and making the little pancakes. JD clambered onto the booth shuffling up against Buck and snagged his first pancake and began to tuck in happily.  Vin slid onto the seat beside Chris and captured a sesame toast.  

JD had the classic bowl cut, and his hair was glossy, so black that the highlights were blue. Buck was grinning, pleased with his little cherub. Vin’s hair was significantly shorter, but it looked better for it. The admittedly straggly curls had been sheared away, and the layers were long and had been dried straight. It looked a bit girly to Chris’ eye, but the straightness wouldn’t survive one wash ‘cos there was no way that he was blow drying it straight.  

“Looking good, Boys,” Buck crowed.  

JD grinned all teeth and gums. “Veronica sez I’m good enough to eat.”

Vin ran his fingers through the long layers. “It feels nice.”

“Hello, Boys.” Ella marched up to the table, hips swinging. “Oh, you two look adorable.”

Vin scowled.

Ella continued, “Buck, how’s the wounded warrior?”

“Upgraded to a walking stick.” Buck pulled it out.

Ella turned to Ezra. “Ah, Mr. Standish are you joining us?”

“Yes, an invitation has been tendered. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Ezra chose to sit beside Vin, leaving JD and his dubious table manners to Miz. Ella. He grinned wolfishly.  

“Interesting restaurant.” Ella looked around.

“The atmosphere is a bit – shall we say – proletarian but the food is superlative. The Chi-Li family are masters at the art of Chinese cuisine.”

JD waved his pancake, sharing duck, ho-sin sauce and shredded cucumber with his tablemates. “I like these best.”

 

              ~*~

 

Chris buckled a fast asleep JD into his booster seat. Vin clambered up beside him and fastened himself in. Wincing a little bit, Buck managed to get into the passenger seat. Chris closed the car doors on his family and sauntered over.

“May I offer you a lift to your hotel, Ms. Gaines?” Ezra asked.  

“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Standish, but I can get a taxi.”

“Oh, I insist,” he said easily.

“Ella.” Chris planted a chaste kiss on her cheek. “It was good seeing you. Why don’t you come out to the ranch tomorrow? I’ve got to work with the horses first thing, and a few other things, but you can get to see what we do. And just chill.”

“How can I resist such an invitation?” She smiled perfectly. “What time?”

“After nine.” Chris dropped another kiss on her cheek. “Best go; it’s past the boys’ bedtime.”

Chris jogged back to the SUV without a backward glance.

“This way, Ms. Gaines.” Ezra gestured expansively down the road to the parking garage where his jaguar was safely stored.

“Thank you.”

Walking side by side, Ezra couldn’t help but note that her handbag was a bit on the large side, more like an overnight bag. Someone had obviously expected an invitation back to the ranch, but Chris hadn’t even registered. And judging by the way she was bristling, someone wasn’t a happy camper.

 

End part three

 

Part four

 

JD struggled under a lazy man’s load of hay.

“JD, split it,” Chris instructed. “Put it down and just carry a little bit.”

The child promptly dropped everything, following it to the floor, he picked up a bare handful. “Like this, Chris?”

Chris leaned against Pony’s flank, drawing the curry brush down a particular stubborn knot. “You could take two handfuls.”

“K.” He picked up a generous handful and trotted over to Peso’s stall to drop the hay on the cleaned earth.

At the other end of the barn, Vin was transferring dry hay to a small wheelbarrow, JD ran to Vin and grabbed another handful before darting back to Peso’s stall.

You have to admire his energy, Buck chortled inwardly.

“How’s the ankle?” Chris asked spotting him at the barn entrance.

It had been Buck’s turn to lie in and he had revelled in it. He manipulated his ankle, while it hurt, tightly lacing up his hiking boot added enough support that he had thrown his stick away.

“It’s fine. You guys ready for second breakfast?”

“You make us sound like hobbits or something,” Chris said.

Buck stooped low and wrung his hands together. “Can I gets the pretty little hobbitises their second breakfast,” he cackled.

“Golem!” JD shrieked.

Chris raised an eyebrow chastisingly at Buck. “You been showing them Lord of the Rings while I’ve been out?”

JD barrelled into Buck’s side. “You all sleeped out, Buck?”

“Have you been helping, JD?”

“Yep.”

“Can we have pancakes,” Vin asked, “with bacon and maple syrup for second breakfast?”

“That you can, young masters.” He grinned at the scowling Larabee. “I control the remote, we fast forward through the nasty bits.”

Pah.” Chris returned to currying Pony, Buck could tell that he was not really annoyed.

Favouring his ankle, he returned to the house, after cajoling JD to stay and finish working with the horses. It didn’t take him long to prepare a batch of batter.

“Chris!” Ella sauntered into the kitchen. She froze as she spotted him.

“Hello, Ella.” He waved his spatula absently.

“What are you doing here?”

“I live here, remember.”

Ella stared at him with wide eyes. “I thought that you had a place in town.”

“Nah, not any more, it’s easier to share. You were here last Saturday when I put the kids to bed -– did you think that Vin was having JD for a sleepover?”

“I…”

Buck turned his attention to the skillet, flipping a pancake. What had Chris and Ella been talking about when they were out for dinner? Weird.

“Don’t you miss your own place?” Ella continued.

Well, yeah, Buck thought, sometime he did feel a bit old to be a roommate, but when push came to shove, his and Chris’ arrangement worked. Chris had a lot of advice about the care and maintenance of kids. Chris was a bit dour, him and Vin alone at the ranch was asking for trouble, they needed doses of happiness. Separating JD and Vin wasn’t an option either.

“I would have thought that an adult would prefer their own place.”

Buck set the skillet down and gave the woman his full attention. “You know, Ella,” he said pithily, “if you’re wanting me to take the kids out for a ride so that you and Chris can have some quality time together, you just have to ask.”

Ella flushed prettily. She hemmed and hawed. “Okay, you read me like a book. You ever thought of going into profiling?”

“That’s what Josiah’s for, but I help him when the mission pertains to my specialist subject.”

“Pertains?” Ella mocked.

Buck shrugged. “I’ve been hanging around with Ez too much. Look, we’re having second breakfast, then I’ve got to go into town, I’ll see if Vin and JD would like to come.”

 

              ~*~

 

Chris wondered on the jaunty wave that Buck threw in his direction as the bright red truck pulled away. Secured in his booster seat, JD waved haphazardly at Chris and Vin.

“You sure you didn’t want to go, Vin?” Chris asked.

Vin bobbed from foot to foot at his side. “Nope. I wanna see you with the foal.”

“I’ll just be walking Jalapeno around the corral a few times.”

“Well, he’s only a baby,” Vin said sagely.

The foal had been -- unsurprisingly -- a massive hit with the boys since he had arrived a tad prematurely late one summer’s night.

“You breed horses?” Ella asked.

“Yeah. Not as a going concern, but it’s nice to have young un’s around the place. Jalapeno has excellent bloodlines.” Chris scratched his jaw. “There’s some boots in the mud room that you can use. Those shoes…”

“The horse make deposits,” Vin supplied. “Leastways that’s want Uncle Ez calls them. They’s poo.”

“Delightful.”

Chris shook his head, Vin certainly was an earthy soul and Ella was a true lady. They were oil and water. He was not totally dense; he knew that Ella was angling for a level of commitment that he wasn’t sure that he was comfortable with. The refined lady needed to know that this was his home and that Vin was his foster son, and to see a typical day in the Larabee-Wilmington household.

Ella stomped off.

Mebbe you shoulda told her to wear jeans?” Vin said.

“Come on, Cowboy, let’s get Jalapeno and his mom into the corral.”

 

              ~*~

 

Vin hung over the top rung of the fence, legs dangling, as Chris gently coerced Jalapeno around the pen. The foal gangled on long, knobbly legs, getting used to being several footsteps away from his mother and to being handled.

He glanced sideways at Miz. Ella, she didn’t look very happy. Vin wondered what she would think when they had to clean Jalapeno and Chilli’s stall out after Chris had finished.

“So what happened to your mom and dad, Vin?” she asked.

Vin shrugged and decided that he didn’t like her, it weren’t polite to ask him about his mom and dad.

“How long have you been with Chris?”

Vin shrugged. Chris slowed to a stop and carefully mapped the length of Jalapeno’s back with his hands. The foal quivered. Then he treated Jalapeno to a piece of carrot. Vin perked up. He liked feeding the horses.

“Is JD your brother?”

“Yup.” Vin slithered down the fence. “Can I come in, Chris?”

“Yes.” Chris held out his hand. “Move slowly and you can pet Jalapeno.”

Vin crept slowly to Chris’ side, tucking up neatly against his hip. At Chris’ encouraging nod, he reached out. The foal was silky smooth, and warm like his mom’s hugs. Carefully, Vin ran his hand down Jalapeno’s neck.

“What we gotta do next, Chris?” Vin asked softly, entranced by the foal, but knowing that ‘things needed doing’.

“Would you like to help me brush Chilli?”

“Yeah.”

 

              ~*~

 

“Go on, Vin.” Chris patted Vin in the general direction of the house. “Grab a quick shower and use soap! I’ll be checking.”

“But…”

“Wash your hair.”

“Do I have to have a bath tonight?” Vin bargained.

“Depends on whether you get into anything this afternoon.” Chris pointed. “Go!”

Vin skedaddled.

“Is it always like that?” Ella asked. She moved to cup his elbow, but changed her mind in the face of chore debris.  

“With kids? Yeah, pretty much so. Vin’s better behaved than most, he just doesn’t like getting washed.”

“Really.”

Chris eyed Vin just reaching the deck, and yelled, “And remember washing hair involves shampoo and rubbing your hair – not just standing under the water.”

“K, Chris,” Vin said begrudgingly and dragged his feet into the house.

“Will you have a shower?” Ella asked.

Chris sniffed. “Hmm, yeah. I’ll be checking on Vin first.”

He scrubbed his hands clean in the mud room, and retrieved his watch from his pocket, absently noting that it was time to make Vin a small snack.

“What?” Ella asked reading his face.

Gotta feed Vin.”

“We can go out to lunch if you’d like. There’s a couple of nice cafés in Four Corners. They should be open in an hour or two.”

“Vin’s dietician wants us to feed him every couple of hours.” Chris stepped into the kitchen, arrowing to the refrigerator.

“You’re dirty.” Ella stopped him. “I’ll do it – you go take a shower, please. Please, take a shower,”

Chris laughed lowly.

“What do I give him? Do you have something medical?”

“No, he’s off the fortified milk. A small cheese sandwich and a glass of juice or milk.” Chris smiled. “Thanks.”

Chris took the stairs to the second storey three at a time. He ducked into the boys’ bathroom.

“How are you doing, Cowboy?”

I’s fine.” Vin poked his head out from behind the curtain and Chris saw ample evidence of soap usage.

“Remember to rinse off properly.”

Vin ducked back. “K, Chris.”

Shaking his head at the hereto unknown competency at washing hair, Chris moved to the boys’ bedroom.  Rifling in the drawers he pulled out a fresh pair of shorts, underthings and warm, slightly baggy t-shirt.

“There’s clean clothes on your bed, Vin,” Chris called.

“K.” The water turned off. Slightly suspicious, Chris returned to the bathroom.

“You finished?”

“Nope.” The water splattered again behind the curtain. Chris waited patiently. While his body screamed for cleanliness, unfortunately Vin needed a degree of supervision.

 

              ~*~

 

Vin skipped down the stairs, hair dried and dressed in fresh, nice smelling clothes. It was warm enough to walk without socks and shoes. His feet left damp footprints on the wooden stairs. He jumped the last three steps, lightly landing on the hall mat, which slithered along the polished floor most satisfactorily. Chortling, he set the carpet aright.

“Did you dry your hair properly?”

Vin froze staring up at Miz. Ella on the stairs.  

“Yup, used the hairdryer and everything.” He wasn’t entirely sure that he could get a comb through it, though. “Where’s Chris?”

“Having a shower.”

“Chris likes showers.”

“Most reasonable human beings like being clean,” she said sourly.

Vin immediately backed away from Chris’ lady friend – leaving her on the stairs. He didn’t like her, even though she smelled kinda nice. Luckily Chris had said that she was only going to be visiting for a little while – then maybe she would go back to wherever she had come from. Vin huffed frustrated, if’n he met her on the street he would have kept JD well away from her. But Chris liked her. It was a mystery. Trotting into the kitchen he angled towards the snack on the kitchen table. Vin scowled at the large glass of milk. He had had his glass of milk today with breakfast; he didn’t have to have another one.

Bluck,” he gagged. He picked up the glass carefully using two hands and walked over to the refrigerator. He wasn’t too sure why Chris had used one of the good glasses instead of his dino mug.

Two hands, door. Ah. Vin crouched down and set the glass on the floor and then opened the fridge door. He manhandled the almost full plastic carton down on the ceramic tiles, and then carefully poured the milk back into the container.

“What are you doing, Vin?”

Vin jerked, almost losing his grip. Focussed on the carton he had missed Miz. Ella’s approach.

“Don’t like milk. Doc Jake sez I gotta drink it, but I’ve had my glass today.”

“Perhaps Chris thought that you should have two glasses?”

“Is Chris coming?”

“He’s still in the shower.”

“It’s taking him forever.”

 Ella smiled. “How about I make some chocolate milk instead of normal milk?”

“Chocolate milk? Chris doesn’t buy chocolate milk.”

“Surely you make hot chocolate.” Ella rummaged around in the cupboards, chortling when she found a container of cocoa.

“What you doing?”

“Making you chocolate milk.”

“Hot chocolate? It’s not bed time.”

“Pass that carton up.”

Curious, and willing to try chocolate milk (not from a bought carton), Vin crouched down, picked up the heavy milk container and then tottered over to Miz. Ella’s side.

“Thank you.”

At her elbow, Vin watched. She mixed a couple of spoonfuls of cocoa in the bottom of the glass and then added several spoonfuls of sugar. Vin’s eyes widened, Chris didn’t let them have that much sugar. She added a drop of warm water from the kettle.

“What you doing?”

“Making a paste so it dissolves in the cold milk better. It’s a pity you didn’t have any syrup.” She shifted and Vin couldn’t see what she was doing.

“Are you going to eat your sandwich, Vin?”

Vin moved away from her, Chris might like her but she wasn’t as nice as she pretended to be. She just liked Chris. But Chris had told him to be nice to her. Standing next to the table, he munched on the cheese sandwich and pondered further on it.

“Chris?” He called through a mouthful of bread and cheese, he couldn’t hear the shower.

“Here’s your milk, Vin.”

“Thanks.” He sniffed the contents, it smelled nice. There were a couple of blobs of dark chocolate on the top which looked a bit weird, but he’d drunk worse. It tasted nice. He glugged it down, relishing the chocolate niceness.

Ella wandered out of the kitchen humming under her breath. Vin heard a hairdryer running. He washed down the rest of the sandwich with the milk. There was chocolate paste at the bottom of the glass. Vin tried to get his hand in the glass, but it was too narrow. He trotted over to the kitchen counter to get some more milk. Doctor Two Eagles’s would be happy; he was going to drink lots of milk today.

Vin yawned and staggered sideways almost losing his grip on the glass. He yawned again and then stood stock still as the room made a lazy swirl around him. The glass slipped through his fingers, bounced on the tabletop and slid off. Vin watched it slowly fall. It seemed to stop just before it hit the floor and then it shattered. Light rainbowed across the tiles as fragments of glass ran everywhere.

“Chris,” Vin whimpered as he joined the glass on the floor.

 

              ~*~

 

About to knock on the door, Ezra paused at the sound of shattering glass. Fist clenched, poised to tap, he listened. As an ATF agent, he didn’t walk blindly into unknown situations, and it made no difference whether it was a Mafioso lair or a colleague’s home. Cars were on the driveway, someone was home, but there was no response to the noise. Ezra slipped silently along the deck making for the back of the house. He slithered up to the kitchen window and peered into the room.

His mind stuttered in shock; on the floor a small hand poked from behind the kitchen table. Furtively, he moved, but the angle of the table top made it impossible to see anything else of the figure. His heart told him to run into the room, his head made him pull out his cell phone. Gaines walked into the kitchen.

Later Ezra tried to recall if he had opened the kitchen door or somehow teleported through the kitchen window, but he couldn’t remember.

Gun out, he pointed it at the woman. “Step back.”

“Vin’s hurt,” she protested.

“Back off.” Gun trained at her chest, he eased forward. Glass crunched beneath his heels. Smoothly he crouched down. The child was curled on his side, head tucked down. Vin was as pale as washed out linen. Ezra still held the cell phone.

“I…” Ella took a step towards them.

Ezra set the phone on the floor and felt for the pulse at the child’s neck. For a heart stopping moment he couldn’t find it, then a single pulse thudded against his finger tips.

“Face down on the floor,” Ezra ordered.

“No.”

“Now.”

“Or what? You’ll shoot me.”

“Damn right I will.” He powered to his feet and advanced on the woman, wanting to contain her as an unknown element.

“Chris!” she shrieked and brought up her knee. Ezra twisted and caught the blow on his hip. He didn’t like to but he caught the hand she brought up to slap him with and twisted it around, spinning her. She hit the wall face first and Ezra pinned her arm between their bodies in a painful lock. Holstering his weapon, he freed his handcuffs and clicked them around the narrow wrist.

“You bastard,” she gritted out. “I’ll tell Chris.”

“I’m sure he’ll understand,” Ezra said, hoping. He manhandled her other hand up and locked them together. “Down.”

Controlling her descent he got her face down on the floor. There wasn’t anything to tether her to. He yanked off one of her sandals ignoring her yelp and tossed it into the hall. Pulling out a plastic tie-wrap he bound her ankles.

Keeping one eye on her, he returned to Vin’s side. He retrieved his cell phone and called the PD dispatcher. He gave the details almost by rote as he checked over Vin. His skin was cold and clammy, there was no evidence of wounds and he was breathing horribly rapidly. Another crash surrounded though the house. Ezra stood and trained his weapon on the woman.

“Chris?” he called.

The man was torn, stay with Vin or check the noise? Buck’s fire engine red truck had not been parked out front, but that didn’t mean that little JD was with him. His suspicions, were that, suspicions; he had no evidence that Ms. Gaines was up-to-no-good. Gut feeling made him secure the woman, yet, if she was not responsible for Vin’s condition could the assailant be elsewhere in the house holding Chris or JD? Or maybe a partner was lurking behind the door.

“Sir? Agent Standish?” the dispatch operator spoke loudly.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“The ETA on the police is five minutes, ambulance ten.”

The crash sounded again, followed by what was unassailably a grunt, a typically Christopher Larabee grunt.

“Damn.” Torn, Erza felt again for Vin’s pulse. It was disturbingly slow. “Make it faster. I may have multiple victims.”

His eye caught a flash of red. A little spot of blood was forming by Vin’s knee. Ezra caught himself before he moved him; Nathan’s first aid lectures echoing in his ears. It was growing very slowly. The woman swore and shrieked.

“Shut up or I’ll gag you,” Ezra snarled. He guessed that Vin been cut by the glass and it wasn’t serious.

Ezra slipped out of his jacket and laid it carefully over Vin.  Still torn, he moved to the hallway, keeping an eye on Vin and the woman. The hall was clear.

“I’m going to make another phone call,” he informed the woman on the end of the line and ended the call. Without looking at the key pad he called Buck.

“Hey, Ez.”

“Is JD with you?” Ezra asked without preamble.

Er, yeah. You want to talk to him?”

“Not at the moment, no. Where are you?”

“What’s going on, Ez?”

“There’s an incident going down at the ranch.”

“Incident! What the fuck does that mean?”

“It means that you take JD to Mrs. Potter’s before you come here.”

“What the Hell’s going on?”

“Just do it. Then, and only then, get your ass over here.” Ezra closed the connection and redialled the dispatcher. 

“Agent Standish?”

“Trudy, I’m moving through the house, I’m staying within sight of the kitchen.”

“You should be able to hear the sirens soon.”

The ranch stood on two storeys; den, sitting room, rarely used dining room, kitchen, and mudroom with a small bathroom on the lower floor. Upstairs there was the boys’ room, bathroom, the guest room, and Buck and Chris’ rooms with an en suite. The ranch was a bit of a warren. It had been built originally in the 1900s, then, well after the Second World War, Sarah’s grandparents had extended the basic house adding a new kitchen, den and rooms upstairs. There was no way for him to hold the kitchen if he went up to the bedrooms, an intruder could make it down the back stairs and get to Vin.

Chris would understand.

He heard sirens. Ezra slipped back into the kitchen and to Vin’s side. Unerringly, he felt for Vin’s pulse, it was sluggish.

“What did you do to him, witch?”

“Nothing. Perhaps he’s developing meningitis.”

“Without a fever? What do you take me for?”

“Did…”

Footsteps clattered on the wooden deck. Ezra had counted multiple sirens; so police officers would be approaching by the front and back of the building. He pulled his ATF ID from his breast pocket to lay face up on the floor. 

A tall fair skinned, red headed man and an older, shorter, pudgier Hispanic man, passed alongside the kitchen window. Ezra couldn’t fault the noiselessness of their approach but he wasn’t impressed at the clean targets that they presented through the window.

“Put your gun on the floor,” the red head ordered.

“I’m Agent Standish.” Ezra flicked his badge across the polished tiles to stop at the policeman’s foot. “I made the call.”

“ATF?”

“Yes.” Ezra laid a gentle hand on Vin’s blond curls. “This is Vin. The woman attacked him. I believe that his father is somewhere in the house. Look after Vin.”

Free to act, Ezra moved. The crash had come from upstairs. He moved, quickly, but carefully, up the stairs. Registering that, peculiarly, a black hair dryer lay on the landing plugged into the wall he moved on. He heard grunting clearly. Skirting alongside the wall, he paused at the door to Chris’ room.

Chris was spread-eagled across the bed, hands and feet tied to the bedposts. The agent writhed, trying to free himself, grunting through a gag. Incongruously a blanket had been thrown over his legs.  He froze as he noticed Ezra. Holding a finger to his lips, Ezra glided to Chris’ side. The pillow under his head was dark with blood. Blood matted his hair on the side of his head. Ezra reached down freed the gag.

Ez, Vin?”

“Police are with him. Ambulance is on the way. Is there anyone else in the house?”

“Ambulance?” Chris grated. “Did Vin get hurt?”

“Chris! Was Ms. Gaines alone?”

“Is Ella all right?”

Oh shit, Ezra thought. Maybe she didn’t attack Vin? “What happened? How many attackers?”

“I was hit from behind.”

“Damn.” Footsteps clattered up the stairs. Ezra spun away to guard the door. The red headed police officer was taking the lead, his partner covering his ass.

Behind him, Chris ordered, “Damn it, untie me.”

“Check the rest of the house. We don’t know what went down here,” Ezra said to the officers.

“Yes, sir.”

Ezra watched them move into the boys’ room and announce that that was clear, before returning to Chris’ room.

“Ezra!”

The undercover agent held up a finger then checked Chris’ en suite bathroom. It was also clear. He flicked out his switchblade and set to work at Chris’s right wrist.

“Oh, my God.” Ezra saw the bloody gouges and rope burns on his wrist. “What have you done to yourself?”

“I didn’t know where Vin was.”

“I think that you’ve broken your wrist.” He looked at the other bound hand, seeing the colour, swelling and the curious angle of his thumb. “I think you’ve broken both wrists.”

“Just get those damn ropes off.”

With a surgeon’s deftness, Ezra slit the each twine of the rope. Chris grimaced, impatiently, but held still.

“What happened to Vin?”

“I found him unconscious in the kitchen.”

“What!” Chris jerked and Ezra added a cut to Chris’ abused wrists. “Hurry up.”

“I think I’d prefer it if I didn’t sever a vein.” Ezra said. “Whoever tied these knots didn’t want you to use your hands.”

“Leave the damn ropes on my wrist, cut the rope around the bed posts.”

“Chris, your hands are blue. I have to do this.” He freed the wrist. Chris hissed and pulled his arm to his chest. Ezra knew a broken joint when he saw one. He circled the bed, slashing through the ropes at the end of the bed securing Chris’ feet. Kicking off the blanket, Chris curled on to his side

“Hurry up.”

Even his fingernails were blue.

“This is malicious.” Ezra picked at the knots with his razor sharp knife. He found the main line and sliced the twine. The rope parted and Chris pulled his arm to his chest and rolled smoothly off the bed. Ezra reached out to catch him if he fell, but the man was out the door before he could blink. Ezra shadowed him down the wooden staircase. Chris moved smoothly until he reached the kitchen.

Two paramedics were lifting Vin onto a gurney, one at his head, one at his feet. IVs were in place, his t-shirt had been cut away and his narrow chest was dotted with patches and leads.  An oxygen mask obscured his entire face and the O2 bottle rested by his legs.

“What?” Chris gasped. “How is he?”

Simultaneously, the two paramedics looked up at the distraught man.

“I’m his father.”

“He’s showing signs of being poisoned,” the closest paramedic said as he unfurled a blanket

“I’m coming with you,” Chris said curtly.

“I’d insist,” said the bespectacled paramedic as he tucked a thick red blanket around his charge. “You--” he pointed at Ezra, “--help him into my unit.”

The paramedic who was ordering them seemed to be the senior technician; his evidently younger partner was concentrating on assessing Vin’s vital signs. He didn’t look happy. With a curt nod, blond hair falling in his eyes, he directed his senior to begin guiding the stretcher out. Chris shuffled behind the paramedics, rope trailing from his ankles. Ezra spared a glance at the bound Ms. Gaines, and dismissed her.

Another paramedic unit was bouncing up the beaten path to the ranch with Buck’s red truck in close pursuit. Both vehicles had their sirens and blue lights running.

The paramedic who was doing all the talking jerked his chin at the ambulance. “You, sir, go in that one now it’s here.”

“I’m going with you,” Chris stated.

“There’s two units; you’re going in that one. My partner needs to concentrate on your son.” The eyes behind the thick lenses were resolute.

Ez?”

He doffed an imaginary hat. “I will stay with Mr. Tanner. I…”

Buck’s truck screeched to a halt, and the agent tumbled out, leaving the engine running. Despite ungainly hopping with the aid of his walking stick, he beat the paramedics to their side. “What the Hell happened?”

“Here.” Ezra passed Larabee into Buck’s care, knowing that the paramedics were on his heels. He turned to the men loading Vin into the back of their ambulance. “Hold one moment. You think that he might have been poisoned?”

“It’s a possibility.” The blond paramedic locked the gurney into position.

“I think I know what poisoned him. I’ll get a sample.”

The paramedic nodded curtly. “Hurry.”

Swearing inwardly, but maintaining his outward appearance of calm, Ezra returned to the kitchen. The floor was littered with remains of the paramedics’ treatment, a small amount of blood and the fragments glass. Poison implied a mode of delivery; Vin had been lying amidst broken glass. Ezra grabbed a clean bowl from the dishwasher and crouched down. Evidently Vin had collapsed while holding a glass of what looked like chocolate milk. Chris didn’t buy many kiddie-favoured sugary products; JD on sugar was like a druggie on speed. He scooped up the fragments of glass which held puddles and deposited them in the bowl. There wasn’t much but there might be a trace. He only had a moment, but he coldly regarded the source of the muffled shrieks in the corner of the room. Hatred flared cold and hard in the bound woman’s eyes.

“Gotcha,” he mouthed and then ran to the unit.

He leaped into the back of the unit, sparing a glance at Larabee who had refused to be moved from the end of the vehicle. A female paramedic was trying to draw him away. He jerked his head as she tried to assess the wound at the back of his skull.

“I have the possible source of the toxin.” Ezra sat opposite Vin’s gurney holding the evidence with the utmost of care.

“We’re going now.” The bespectacled paramedic closed the door, effectively excluding Chris and Buck. Hyper-aware, Erza mapped the driver’s footsteps alongside the unit and clattering entry into the driver’s seat.  They lurched and then acceleration increased.

“I need some details,” the young, blond paramedic finally spoke as he hung an IV above Vin’s head.

“His name is Vincent Tanner, he goes by the name of Vin, he is seven years old, his low body weight is a result malnourishment which his foster father is attempting to rectify with medical guidance, his general health is fragile as a result.”

The medic darted a concerned glance at him, but nodded at Ezra to continue.

“He is allergic to penicillin-based antibiotics, his blood group is B, he has a history of lower back problems and he’s a fighter.”

“And you are?”

“Ezra Standish, adopted uncle.”

“Benedict.”

“Please to meet you. How is Vin?”

“Any idea what the poison could be?”

Ezra shook his head and held up the bowl, mutely.

Benedict lifted the comm. unit from behind the driver’s seat. “This is Benedict in unit 2-4-9, on route to Four Corners General. I’ve got a seven year old male; approx. 35 pounds; temp 98; heart rate 65 with lots of ectopics; blood pressure 90/50 and a GCS 2-4-4. I’m running a sat of 86% with three litres via an oxygen mask. I’ve placed an IV. No evidence of wounds. I believe we have a case of poisoning.”

Ezra heard clearly. “Secure his airway.”

“Understood.” He replaced the comm. and leaned into the driver’s area. “Gordi, keep it level.”

“K.”

“Can I help?” Ezra asked.

Benedict shook his head. Rifling in a deep box, he extracted two syringes, double-checked their labels and injected pre-filled the contents in the IV. Moving to the head of the gurney, he removed Vin’s O2 mask. Ezra was struck by the utter paleness of Vin’s skin. Tipping back Vin’s head right back, Benedict ensured that his airway was open. Erza turned away, knowing that the paramedic was going to intubate his young friend.

A heartbeat later Ezra looked back. Vin was intubated and Benedict was hooking up the ventilating tube to a portable unit. Ezra shivered.

“What’s our ETA, Gordi?”

“Two minutes.”

“Faster, man.”

Ezra’s stomach dropped.

 

              ~*~

 

Ezra chased the laden down gurney through the ER. Vin barely took up half of the stretcher, the rest was filled with equipment. A pale, white hand resting on the blood red blanket caught his eye. En masse they banged through double doors. Benedict didn’t pause as he reported all the information he had gathered to the attending physician -- a tall, skinny, pale, brown haired man running at his side. 

With a suddenness which was shocking they stopped inside an ER treatment suite. Many hands moved Vin onto the bed.

Benedict heaved in a tense breath. “This man possibly has the poison.”

Ezra held up the bowl.

“Any idea what it is?” the attending physician asked with a smooth, Old Money, upper crust accent.

“No.”

“Right,” he said. “Mary, get that to the lab. And just hope it’s enough. Do you have any other information to impart?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“I’ll kindly ask you to leave; you’ll be in the way.”

Ezra balked at the command but he followed its logic. Grimacing, he left, every inch of him wanting to stay.  

“I want a blood culture times two; CBC with manual differential; IDNR; Chem 7; UA; tox screen -- gut feeling -- check for opiates first,” the physician said. “But, guys, keep your eyes and ears open this might not be poisoning.”

Outside the treatment suite, Ezra sagged against the wall. Ahead of him the doors swung open again, and a furiously protesting Chris Larabee was wheeled into view. A nurse peeled Buck out of the mess of people moving with Chris.

“I need some details about your friend,” she said.

“Miss,” Buck drawled hearing the commotion ahead, “I think Chris is more than capable of answering your questions.”

“Come on, Buck, let’s give the young lady a break. And answer her questions.”

“You’ll answer my questions, Ez. What the Hell happened?”

“Shall we go to the waiting room?” Ezra slid in that direction.

Colour high on his cheeks, Buck slammed through the doors after him.

Ezra spun on his heels to face Buck. “I don’t know what happened. Chris had forgotten the Young-Guest deposition, he asked me to drop it off. Vin wanted some help with some homework. I heard a crash. I entered through the back and found Vin unconscious on the kitchen floor. I suspected that Ms. Gaines was responsible, and I arrested her.”

Ez!”

The agent shrugged, in hindsight he might have overreacted, but he usually went with his gut feelings. “I waited with Vin until police officers arrived, and then I searched the rest of the house. I found Chris, he’d been attacked and tied to his bed. I believe he broke both his wrists trying to escape.”

“Was it Ella? I mean she’s…”

Ezra chewed his bottom lip. “I don’t know. Her reactions were idiosyncratic, but nothing overt.”

“Okay.” Buck tugged on his moustache, thinking. “Ella is where?”

“Handcuffed and lying on the kitchen floor, where I left her.”

Buck rocked on his heels. “Okay… The cops will still be at the ranch. Somebody attacked Chris, we need CSI out there. I’ll call the Four Corners PD, you call Josiah and Nathan.”

“Where’s JD?”

“I dropped him off at Mrs. Potter’s.”

Both men pulled out their cell phones.

“You can’t use cell phones in here,” the nurse said and pointed imperiously to the exit.

 

              ~*~

 

Chris sat upright on a bed in the neuro ward, braced and bandaged wrapped arms resting on a pillow on his lap. Wounds from his attempts to free himself prevented the standard type casts. They had realigned his dislocated thumb on his wrenched left hand.  But surgical intervention, to wire his broken scaphoid and ulna in his right wrist, was necessary once neuro had cleared him and passed him onto orthopaedics. The surgery was scheduled in twenty four hours.

His head was wrapped in white gauze, blond hair matted at the edges. The atmosphere around him was enough to make your hair stand on end. For someone who had been diagnosed as seriously concussed, he was frighteningly alert.

“Whoever tied you up, really didn’t want you to go anywhere,” Josiah noted. 

“Vin?” Chris glared.

Ezra paced at the bottom of the bed.

“Buck and Nathan are in the PIC unit waiting room waiting for the doctor.”

“PIC?”

“Paediatric Intensive Care Unit.”

Chris growled through gritted teeth, “Get me some clothes.”

“Chris,” Josiah said evenly, “you’ve got a concussion. You have to stay.”

“I’ll go get a wheelchair,” Ezra said to no one in particular and set off to acquire the item. Chris was not going to stay in the ward, the best that they could hope for was to control his activities.  By the time he returned, Josiah had Chris sitting on the edge of his bed. For all his early energy, moving had drained the colour from his face. Solidly supportive, Josiah practically lifted the man onto the chair. Ezra dropped a blanket on Chris’ lap, hiding his bare knees. Grimacing with pain, Chris set his arms on top of the blanket. Josiah slipped a pillow under them.

“Oh, that’s rather clever,” Ezra said noting the latch to attach an IV pole on the side of the wheelchair. He connected Larabee’s pole.

“Are you okay, Chris?” Josiah asked.

“I’ll live. Get me to paediatrics.”

 

 

              ~*~

 

“Chris!” Buck used his walking stick to get up. “Last I checked you were out for the count.”

“How’s Vin?” Chris didn’t waste time with niceties.

Dunno. Waiting for an update. His physician came by before and said that he was holding his own.”

“The paramedics said that he was poisoned.”

“I…”

The tall physician who had met Vin when he had been brought in entered the room.

 “Doc Shepard.” Buck turned to Chris. “This is Vin’s foster dad, Chris Larabee.”

Shepard moved to shake his hand and stopped. “Ah, I see that you sustained some injuries. My name is Dominic Shepard. I’m a paediatric specialist which is why I was down in the ER when the paramedics informed us that Vincent was being brought in. Were you injured when Vincent was poisoned? Is there anything that you can tell me? Do you know what happened?”

Chris gingerly shook his head. “No, I was going to the bathroom and I got hit from behind. How is Vin?”

Shepard pinched the bridge of his beaky nose. “Your son ingested a cocktail of sedatives. We’ve identified opiates, probably Fentanyl, or a Fentanyl derivative like Alfentanil and possibly chloral hydrate. Which doesn’t make any sense. He was given a toxic amount of Fentanyl for his body weight, but he ate complex carbohydrates which reduced absorption. We pumped his stomach, but he still absorbed significant amounts.”

“Bottom line.”

Fentanyl and its derivatives are primarily an analgesic but in large doses it has sedative effects. However large doses of opiates can produce rigidity of the chest wall related to stimulation of the spinal cord inspiratory motor neurons and consequently this reaction leads to sustained inspiration,” Shepard said, offering far too much information. “Vincent was having trouble breathing, and he was showing signs of cardiac arrhythmia, which is why we intubated him. He’s still on a ventilator. We’re treating the opiate poisoning with naloxone. But we can’t predict all the interactions of the cocktail of sedatives he was given. We’re flushing out his system, supporting his breathing and monitoring his organs. What we’re doing now is watching your son so we can intervene if he decides to surprise us.”

 “Is he--” Chris began, but couldn’t go any further.

“He’s in the best place that he can be,” Shepard said sincerely. “I believe, Mr. Larabee, that you got your son to the hospital in time.”

Chris sagged in his chair.

“Why is it curious that he was given these specific drugs?” Ezra asked.

Fentanyl acts quickly. Trichloroacetaldehyde monohydrate can take up to an hour. That seems to me to be a mix to knock someone out and then sedate them for a prolonged period of time. If the person who drugged your son wanted to kill him all they needed to do was give him the Fentanyl.”

“You presume that the person who gave him the drugs is as knowledgeable as yourself,” Ezra noted. “What is Fentanyl normally used for? How easily is it available?”

“It’s prescription only and primarily used in pain management in terminally ill patients.”

“Did you find the drugs in the chocolate milk?” Ezra questioned.

Shepard regarded him perspicuously. “Yes, that is how they were administered.”  

“I need to see him,” Chris interrupted.

Shepard pursed his lips. “Just for a short period, Mr. Larabee, then you need to go back to your own room.”

Chris was positively green under the bright whiteness of PIC unit’s lights.

“Josiah?” Chris asked.

The profiler pushed the wheelchair after the physician. Ezra held Buck back. The agent acquiesced easily to the gentle brush on his elbow.

“Yeah, Ez?”

“We need to find out what happened. Whilst I would prefer to stay here, I need to return to the ranch and talk to the investigators. “

“We need to guard Chris and Vin.”

“Indeed. I recommend that you stay here with Vin and Nathan keeps Mr. Larabee company.”

“You an’ Josiah?”

“Yes,” Ezra said tensely, “I think that his skills as a profiler and psychologist may be invaluable.”

“You really think that Ella attacked Chris and drugged Vin?”

“Poisoned Vin,” Ezra corrected.  “As to the perpetrator, she is at this time a suspect and the evidence is circumstantial, but she was in the house where Chris was overpowered and Vin was administered a toxic amount of drugs.  She needs to be questioned.”

“Chris has known her since forever.” Buck rocked back on his heels. “We went to school with her, I mean: Ella?”

Ezra shrugged excessively. “I may have overreacted when I handcuffed her, but regardless she should be questioned.”

Buck nodded once, short and sharp. “Go for it, Ez. Keep me updated.”

Ezra patted down his suit jacket, shaking out non-existent creases.

 

              ~*~

 

Ezra spared a momentary sideways glance at Josiah in the passenger seat.

“You want to talk about it?” he asked.

The massive profiler shifted uncomfortably in the fine leather seat. “Do you remember when Buck was shot in 1999?”

Ezra shivered minutely. “How could I forget?”

“Remember when he got hit by that round in his hip and the blood was spurting everywhere?”

“Vividly.”

“Nathan was a star. He stuck his hand in that wound and just clamped down on that artery.”

Ezra signalled and moved into the faster lane rather than reminisce about past nightmares.

“When Buck was in the hospital in ICU, he was well out of it and he would only respond to Chris. Chris stroked his hair just to comfort him --it was the only thing that got through.”

Ezra remembered.

“He couldn’t even touch Vin’s hand.”

Ezra had to look again. Josiah was staring aimlessly out onto the highway, his broad jaw clenched until the muscle at his sideburn twitched relentlessly.

“How could anyone do that to a sweet little kid like Vin? I know, I know – I should know the answer but he’s just laying there, IVs in the backs of his hands, but he’s so small that his entire hands are wrapped in gauze. There’s this special little paediatrics bed and there’s rails to stop him falling out, but he’s not moving.”

Josiah dropped his head back on the headrest. 

“Dr. Shepard seemed confident,” Ezra offered.

“That doesn’t make it all right.”

“No, it doesn’t, I was just…”

“Trying to make me feel better and I appreciate that, Ezra. I’ll feel better when we get who did this to Vin and Chris.”

“Revenge, Mr. Sanchez?”

“Justice, Ezra, Justice.”

 

              ~*~

 

“Where is she?” Ezra demanded of the red-headed officer.

“At the Four Corners PD.” The young man shuffled from foot to foot. “She’s got a bit of a temper on her.”

“What did she do?”

“Kicked Raphael in the nuts.”

“Oh good, we can get her on assault and battery then.” Ezra wandered around the kitchen, hands clasped behind his back not touching anything. A large carton of milk sat on the bench, and a canister of cocoa power. A licked spoon lay in the sink. “Make sure that CSI dust these for prints.”

Ezra stepped over the broken glass avoiding looking at the tiny bit of blood.

“Ezra,” Josiah called.

“Where are you?”

“The den.”

Josiah was standing a few step away from the window, broken glass was scattered on the wood floor indicating that the glass had been smashed from the outside – inside.

Ezra kept well back.

“The window’s broken do you think someone entered this way?” Josiah mused.

“Possibly. But they closed and locked the window afterwards?” He pointed at the catch. Cocking his head to the side Ezra calculated angles. “Whoever broke that window had to have a long arm to reach in and open the catch.” 

“Chris locks the doors and windows, doesn’t he?”

“He’s pretty paranoid, but with Vin and JD running about, the kitchen door is normally unlocked, especially if they’re working outside.”

“So if someone wanted to get in when Chris, Vin and Ella were out, say – I don’t know – doing something with the horses. The perpetrator wouldn’t go in via the kitchen because that’s in view of the backfield, barn and the garage, so they came in through the den?”

“Ella was wearing a pencil skirt and heeled sandals.”

Josiah raised a finger and waggled it. “Let’s move away from Ella as a suspect.”

Ezra shrugged, he knew that he had been less than objective.

“Where were the dogs?” Ezra asked. “They would have barked.”

“They were with Chris and Vin.”

“How did the attacker get to the ranch? They wouldn’t be likely to come up the drive, the road meanders, too likely to be seen.” The den was on the west side of the house, there was a large expanse of grass – Chris had ensured that there was a substantial firebreak – then the woods.

“Somebody parked and hiked in.”  

“CSI needs to check the woods,” Ezra judged. “And we check with the PD to see if any vehicles were parked on the road and someone hiked in.”

“What’s the timeline?”

“Chris said that he was hit from behind – the blood on his pillow wasn’t dry. Shepard said that Vin had a toxic amount of Fentanyl in his stomach, but it hadn’t been all been absorbed because he had eaten. I think this had only taken place minutes before I arrived.”

“You didn’t pass anyone suspicious on the road?”

Ezra shook his head, he hadn’t even fully registered the cars passing. “There were no vehicles parked on the grass verge but they could have been further west -- that’s where the woods start.”

“So if it was an unknown attacker, they had to get out of the house as you arrived.”

“Could have happened. I heard a crash – which I guessed was Vin dropping the glass.”

Josiah rubbed his chin. “They didn’t leave this way; the window’s locked from the inside.”

“CSI. Cal Roberts,” a large man, practically the width of the door, interrupted them.  “Can you kindly step away from the evidence so you don’t contaminate it.”

Ezra raised an eyebrow, taking in the ample girth which screamed to him of sloth and apathy. “We were not contaminating the evidence. It is there, we are over here and the window is there.”

“Whatever, get out.” Roberts jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“Come on, Ezra, We’ll go to the PD now that CSI have finally gotten here.”

Smiling inwardly at the dig, Ezra and Josiah forced their way past the rotund CSI agent.

 

              ~*~

 

“Charge my client or release her.” The lawyer drummed her volcanic red talons on the stained desk before her.

Ezra rested his palm on the cold one-way glass. Ella Gaines and her high priced, glitzy lawyer sat opposite the rumpled, chain smoking detective that had been placed in charge of the case.

“We can hold Ms. Gaines for twenty four hours without charging her.”

“My client is traumatized after being handled so roughly during her arrest. An arrest I might add that was completely unwarranted. My client was almost a victim of the psychopath that injured Mr. Larabee and young Vincent. Rather than treating her as a criminal you should be treating her as a victim.”

“A victim?”

“Indeed. And rest assured that we will be pursuing criminal action against the ATF agent that battered Ms. Gaines.”

Ezra blasphemed under his breath.

Ez.” Josiah gently touched his shoulder

“I’m all right. I acted completely within my authority. I just…”

“Don’t need the hassle?”

“Lawyers. Can’t live with them and can’t live without them.”

Josiah said, “We can always put them up against the wall and shoot them when the revolution comes.”

“If Ms. Gaines is going to pursue assault and battery on my part against her we need to have her examined by a doctor now, so that they can document that she’s unharmed at this time.” Ezra scowled at Josiah. “She hasn’t been left alone has she?”

“Do you think that she would hurt herself?”

“I don’t know. But if she’s going to cry wolf it works better if she runs into a wall first.”

Josiah tapped the one-way glass, gaining the attention of the detective, who stood and moved from the room. “Ezra, I’ll arrange for Ms. Gaines to be assessed. There are elements I’m seeing here that make no sense.”

“What?”

“Chris.”

“What about Chris?”

“He was tied up so tightly that he was in danger of losing his hands, yet placed in comfort on his own bed with a blanket. The first thought has to be that it was a revenge attack, yet if that was the case the blanket would not have been used. It’s quite pathological, it speaks to me of fighting to control Chris.”

“How did Ella get Chris on the bed?” Ezra said, playing devil’s advocate.

“She’s a fairly robust woman. He was hit going to the en-suite bathroom. He could have fallen with a bit of help on the bed.”

“Okay – there are inconsistencies about the way Chris was secured. What about Vin?”

“It may be clichéd but poison is a woman’s weapon.”

“Why Vin?”

“I don’t know. But was it attempted murder or a botched attempt at sedating him for another purpose?”

The detective in charge sauntered into the viewing room, cigarette tucked behind his ear. “She’s a cool un, ain’t she? If that was my wife she would be as pissed as hell. But ya know, she’s just pretending.”

“Josiah Sanchez.” The profiler held out his hand.

“Ed Meadows.” They shook hands, yellow nicotine fingers were completely engulfed by Josiah’s larger hand.

“This is Ezra Standish.”

Ezra tipped his head in acknowledgement, but didn’t offer his grip.

“If she’s going to accuse us of assault and battery we need to get a doctor to examiner her,” Josiah said.

“Well, if her knee’s bruised, I know what she bruised it on.”

Both Ezra and Josiah winced.

“Has there been a female police officer with her since she was brought in?” Ezra asked.

“Yeah – she got her phone call and the lawyer came immediately.”

“We need that.” Josiah rubbed his square jaw. “Evidence is so far circumstantial. That lawyer’s going to be trouble. If you can keep Ella until CSI have processed their data that would be helpful.”

Meadows snorted. “Some stuff comes through from those guys quickly, other stuff comes through like molasses. She’s gonna get released on her own recognisance sometime in the next twelve hours or so. Even if the CSI dudes find her fingerprints and crap, she’s been visiting Larabee for the last week or so, hadn’t she? What’s Larabee saying?”

“Hit from behind. Didn’t see anything.”

“The kid”

“In paediatric intensive care.”

“Damn.” Meadow’s grabbed the stub end from behind his ear and lit it. He drew in an angry breath. “You guys don’t have jack shit unless the kid can tell you something.”

 

End Part four

              ~*~

Part five

 

Ezra gently touched Buck’s shoulder waking the sleeping man. “Any update?”

Ez?” Buck looked blearily around the PICU waiting room.

Ezra handed him the coffee and bagel he had bought at the hospital cafeteria.

“Thank you,” Buck said wholeheartedly, breathing in the rich aroma.  He took a deep gulp. “Vin’s doing ‘as well as can be expected’. Whatever the Hell that means. Dr. Shepard kicked us out of the unit, partly so we could get Chris back up to the neuro ward.”

“What happened?” Ezra asked reading a wealth of meaning in that final sentence.

“He just had to lay down. Doc says he’s got a nasty concussion. Once that’s sorted they’ll operate on his wrist.”

Ezra grimaced. He glanced to the closed ICU unit doors. A garish coloured dancing bear was painted on the glass panelling. He thought that he should go see Vin in the ICU, but he had information to share with Buck.

“You can go in, Ezra,” Buck said.

Ezra braced himself. “Perhaps it is not convenient?”

“Go on, Ez,” Buck said simply.

Ezra pushed the door open on a narrow corridor. At the far end another set of doors were barred. Slowly he approached. There was a comm. unit on the left hand side, with instructions to: press call and wait.

Ezra obeyed.

“Hello, this is Bill, who are you visiting?”

“Vin Tanner.”

“Vin. Vin.” Through the comm. he could hear papers rustling. “Come in.”

The doors swooshed open automatically. Ezra entered a large room bordering on a hall. A reception area was set up in the centre and the paediatric beds were arranged along the walls with a wealth of space between each bed. Ezra angled to the reception, where Bill -–he assumed – stood. Bill was tall, his black, tightly curled hair twisted into fine braids, his eyes were brown and open with honesty, his mouth was full and only laugh lines were present. His dark skin was fine and unblemished by any evidence of self abuse. Ezra’s impression was one of a man of sublime competency.

“And you are?” Bill asked, the man seemed to be only amused by the tense, law enforcement scrutiny. “You made it past the guard dogs in the waiting room so I guess you’re a member of the family.”

Ezra scanned the confusing world of beds and equipment looking vainly for his nephew.

“I’m Uncle Ez.”

“Vin is in bay six.”

Ezra rubbed his face and realised that his palm was perspiring, his mother would be appalled at the display of emotionalism. “How is he?”

“Vin’s doing well.” Bill walked with him, subtly directing him to the bed in the far corner. There was a bed with rails just like Josiah had said. Behind the bed was something that Ezra could only identify as white plastic and metal tree. The trunk held banks of dials and LCD numerical readouts and used and unused standard plug sockets.  Four branches were set up to hold equipment. Not all were filled.

The IV pole at the side of the bed was the biggest he had seen.  Inevitably, he followed the path of a line to the bed. Ezra balked when he saw a tiny, little foot poking out from under a colourful quilt.

“I just remembered something.”

Ezra ran.

The next thing he knew he had came up against the barred double doors. His mind was a blank, he didn’t remember crossing the floor of the PICU ward. The doors were still closed. Ezra rested a trembling hand on the handle. Concentrating on his breathing, he found focus and the trembling stopped.

He turned slowly on his heel to face a concerned Bill.

“My apologies.”

“Would it help if I told you what to expect?”

Ezra didn’t answer.

“Vin is doing very well. We’ve extubated him because he was fighting the ventilator – he was on the type which has a tube which goes into your mouth. This is a good sign. We’ve got him on BiPAP ventilator which means we’re helping him with a mask which has air running into it.”

It was immediately apparent to Ezra that Bill spent most of his time talking to children.

“The poison…”

Bill caught his elbow and gently walked him back to the bed.

“There are bags that are filled with salt water…”

“Saline?” Ezra wanted the adult version.

Bill grinned and then shrugged, unabashed. “Sorry, Dr. Dominic has him on naloxone, which is an antidote to opiates. To flush his system we’ve got Vin on saline. So there are two IVs – one in each hand. There’s also a central line so we can administer any medication quickly – that’s at the base of his throat. His electrolytes are a bit out of whack. There’s a foley in place to collect urine. His breathing has improved and his heart rate is much more stable.”

Ezra finally reached the bed.

“Oh,” Ezra breathed.

Vin was curled up on his side. Incongruously, one bandaged hand was wrapped around the mask’s O2 tube as if he was holding a cuddly toy.

“Looks like someone’s waking up,” Bill noted. He crouched at the side of the bed and gently teased Vin’s fingers off the tube. “Vin?”

Despite the fact that there was an EKG and an EEG above the bed, Bill took Vin’s wrist pulse. “His temp’s better.”

“Vin?” Ezra tweaked a bare toe. “You with us?”

“Change places.” Bill waved him to his position.

Ezra crouched at Vin’s side and stroked his sweaty hair. “Hello, Vin.”

Vin’s nose scrunched up. Even through the distortion of the transparent plastic mask Ezra could see little freckles in sharp relief against his pale skin.

“Vin, come on, you don’t spend all day sleeping. Your Da…Chris says that you get up with the birds most mornings.”

On the other side of the bed, Bill was noting reading from the EEG. He nodded encouragingly at Ezra.

“Vin?”

Vin’s fine brows drew together in confusion. Eyes flicked open.

“Hello,” Ezra said softly, still stroking the damp hair.

Vin’s mouth moved but Ezra heard nothing. A little tongue dipped out and licked dry, chapped lips. His hand flailed and Ezra caught it, careful of the IV.

“You’re in hospital, Vin.  There was a little ‘accident’ and we brought you here.”

Vin clearly mouthed: JD?

JD’s safe; he was with Buck.”

The tongue flicked out again.

“Can we get this mask off and give him something to drink?” Ezra asked. There were so many straps associated with the mask he didn’t know where to begin.

Bill shook his head. “Not until Dr. Dominic’s seen him. We’ll keep the mask on.”

“Page Dominic now,” Ezra ordered, but Vin’s eyes slid shut and the little fingers in his hand went limp.  “Bill!”

“He’s okay,” Bill judged, reaching down to assess his patient. “He’s just asleep. He tried to speak. Did you understand?”

“He was asking about JD. His little brother, of a sort,” Ezra explained.

Bill beamed. “Good sign.”

A weight that until then he hadn’t realised that he had been carrying lifted. He breathed, stupefied in amazement – he thought that such a feeling was cliché. He almost felt wobbly with the release.

“Bill.” Dr. Dominic Shepard strode up to the bed.  

“Vin woke up and asked about his brother.”

“Excellent.” He held out his hand and Bill passed over the file that he had been filling out. Shepard gave it a cursory glance, then turned his attention to the monitors, squinting at the EKG. “Get another set of bloods. I’m particularly interested in the electrolytes.”

“Yes, sir.”

Seeing a little bit of blood letting in the near future, Ezra gently leaned over to whisper in a shell-like ear. “I’m going to see your dad and tell him that you’re doing okay.”  

Shepard reached down and pulled the quilt over Vin’s bare toes.

“Vin’s,” Ezra hunted for the appropriate word, “improving?”

“Yes,” Shepard said abstracted as he squinted at the monitors. “His heart’s working a little hard, but we’re keeping an eye on it. The kid’s a fighter.”

“You have no idea.”

That brought Shepard’s musing to a halt. “Hmmm? Vin’s father… Mr. Larabee?”

“Foster father.”

“The child was abandoned, and Mr. Larabee’s fostering him?”

“Is this relevant?” Ezra asked.

Shepard cocked his head to the side. “I do have Vin’s medical records. I’m just concerned about his stature and lack of weight.”

“Mr. Larabee puts every effort into ensuring Vin’s health,” Ezra said levelly. “Vin has put on weight in the last few months.”

“I should be discussing this with Mr. Larabee and Vin’s social worker. I just felt that there should be more improvement.”

Ezra vacillated between snapping at the man and being appreciative of his dedication. “I’ve seen pictures of his mother and father and neither were what you would call heavy.”

“Naturally ectomorphic,” Shepard judged.

“Likely. So what can I tell Mr. Larabee?”

Shepard pointed away from the bed. He didn’t speak until they were well out of earshot.

“You can tell Mr. Larabee that I’m going to keep him in ICU overnight, but I fully expect to have him on a regular ward in the morning.”

“Excellent.”

 

              ~*~

 

“Mr. Larabee.”

Chris groaned, confused at the voice disturbing his rest. He was so tired. His head was thumping. Memories flooded him. “Vin!”

“You know the routine, Mr. Larabee. Can you tell me the day?”

Chris squinted up at a young, round-faced female nurse, trying to make her out in the darkness of his room. “It was Saturday.  Sunday now?”

“Your full name?”

Chris struggled to sit up without using his hands. “Have you an update on my son?”

“I think he’s compos mentis,” a familiar voice said drolly. 

“Ezra?” Chris strained to see the figure silhouetted in the doorway.

“Indeed. I have some good news about young Vin.”

“Yes?” Chris said eagerly.

“His doctor is keeping him in the paediatric unit overnight, but expects to move him to a children’s ward in the morning.” Ezra stepped up to the bed. “I spoke to him, Chris, he asked about JD.”

“Thank God.” Chris sagged against his pillows. “Thank God.”

“And how are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Chris said and then smiled hollowly. “You went back to the ranch. What did you find?”

Ezra winced, despite the late hour and a concussion, the boss was back.

“Nothing conclusive,” he reported. “CSI are at the ranch. They’re sourcing the kitchen and the rest of the house. There is evidence of a break-in through the den. The chocolate milk was definitely the source of the sedatives.  I spoke to Cal Roberts -- who’s coordinating the forensic investigation -- unfortunately the man will not give me a full report. Ed Meadows at Four Corners PD is leading the criminal investigation.”

Chris’ brow furrowed. “Meadows? I think he came here? Short, fat, white guy?”

“That could be either Detective Meadows or Dr. Roberts.”

“Cigarette smoke.”

“Detective Meadows.”

“I couldn’t tell him anything. He said something about you arresting Ella.”

Ezra took a deep intake of breath and announced, “Yes.”

“Why?”

“Suspicion,” Ezra said simply.

“Suspicion,” Chris echoed. “Why?”

“Vin was down, she entered the room and she was ‘off’. I restrained her. Vin had my focus. Somebody rendered you unconscious and poisoned Vin, she is the only suspect.”

“I’m an ATF agent; there’s a thousand possible suspects.”

“That is true. At the time, however, she was there, she was a suspect and I contained her.”

The man was completely unrepentant Chris realised, despite likely overreacting. He knew that Ella had a fiery temper and the fallout on his agent was likely to be significant. “Tell me that you didn’t even break a nail.”

“I may have broken one of her sandals,” Ezra said glibly. “A doctor is currently examining Ms. Gaines to ensure that she did not sustain any injuries during her arrest as she was threatening litigation due to excessive physical assault on her person.”

“You might need to apologise.”

“That will be a day when there will be small demons ice skating in the seventh level of a certain poet’s literary Inferno.”

“Standish, I appreciate your dedication,” Chris snapped. “Ella wasn’t involved. She was lucky enough not to get caught up in what went down.”

Ezra shrugged excessively. “One will remain open minded.”

“You implying that I’m not?” Chris growled.

“Excuse me,” the nurse finally interjected, “there are other people on this floor; will you keep it down. Mr. Larabee, you need your rest.”

“What I need is to see my son.”

“Visiting hours are over, Mr. Larabee.” She glanced pointedly at Ezra.

“I guess that that is my opening to make an exit. Stage left.” Ezra booked.  

Chris flopped back against his pillow, grimacing at the pain in his arms. Ezra was a pain in the ass. Cold sweat seeped up – Vin was improving. He felt almost shivery. He had to close his eyes -- just for a moment -- then he would down to paediatric ICU. 

“Vin’s improving,” he whispered and fell asleep on the last breath.  

 

              ~*~

 

“Camp out.” Josiah whispered taking in Ezra who was laid out on a low sofa, ankles crossed, resting his eyes. “You look particularly dishevelled, Ezra.”

Ezra rolled off the sofa to his feet. He stretched until his spine cracked and rolled his head on his neck, wincing. “You would think that a hospital would invest in comfortable couches. Surely they know that visitors are likely to make extended visits.”

“Why don’t you go home? I’ll keep an eye on Vin. Nathan’s outside Chris’ room.”

“Where’s Buck?” Ezra asked.

“He checked on Chris and then headed to Mrs. Potter’s to get JD.”

“Where are they staying? Are they going back to the ranch?”

“They are staying at my place; CSI haven’t finished.”  

“Why does it take those scientists so long?” Ezra asked parenthetically.

Josiah let the non-question slide. “Ella’s been released.”

“What?” Ezra snapped. “You don’t understand…”

Josiah interrupted him before he could vent, “If you could say that you saw Ella giving Vin the poison, we could have kept her. She’s been at the ranch off and on all week; her fingerprints are in the house – completely kosher. There’s no reason to hold her. Ezra, son, you read people; you acted on your instincts. Based on that I’m not going to let Ms. Gaines anywhere near Vin and I’m going to counsel Chris to be very careful. That isn’t going to blind us to the fact that Chris has other enemies.”  

Ezra sighed heavily. “‘Siah.”

“Son, I trust your gut instinct. But I wouldn’t be doing my job, nor would you, if we didn’t check all the bases.” The profiler consulted his watch. “We have to check recently released perps that Chris has put away who threatened him and his family. We’re going to go to the offices, get on those damn computers and do our jobs.  It’s five am, Sunday morning – no one’s at their best at this time…”

“I’ll have you know I am a night owl,” Ezra interrupted.

“Perhaps after a less stressful day,” Josiah observed. “Orrin’s sending over Team Eight to watch over Vin and Chris. We have to take a break, just a couple of hours sleep, so we can be fresh so we can get whoever did this.”

Ezra made another lugubrious stretch. “I’ll take a break when Team Eight get here.”

There wasn’t really any response to that, so Josiah didn’t make one.

 

    ~*~

 

“Buck?” JD wrapped his arms round Buck’s neck. “Vin?”

“Vin’s going to be okay, the doctors are looking after him and Chris.”

“But, Buck.” Tears dotted his chubby cheeks.

Buck rocked him, how could you explain it to a five year old, when you didn’t understand it yourself.

 

    ~*~

 

Ezra leaned against the corridor wall, cradling a luke warm cup of coffee against his chest. The doors to the PIC unit were going to open very soon and Vin would be moved to the paediatric ward on floor eight. Ezra counted to five and the doors didn’t open. He kicked himself, he had judged that wrong. Mentally gambling a twenty minute jog against a pappardelle with olive paste and gruyère if Vin didn’t appear by the time he reached thirty, Ezra began counting.   

On twenty eight the doors opened. Shepard strode alongside the wheeled bed, he nodded at Ezra. The agent’s real attention was on the small figure curled up on the moving bed. Vin appeared asleep rather than a pale, unconscious, drugged waif. Cocooned in blankets he looked warm and his colour was better, Ezra noted with satisfaction.  The oxygen mask with the mess of straps had been replaced with a nasal cannula. The central line at his throat had been disconnected, but the port was still in place. Ezra eyed that nauseously. Only one IV remained, snaking under the blankets.

“Given that Vin’s going to be under guard, I’ve arranged one of the isolation rooms on the kids’ floor for him,” Shepard volunteered.

“Room 8.52,” Ezra supplied joining the throng of people.

Shepard blinked. “Agents,” he observed.

“Yes. We have a round-the-clock guard in place.” He jerked his head in the direction of Ewan Slater from Team Eight who was waiting at the end of the corridor. “Agent Slater will join us on the way up to floor eight.”

Shepard said, “Keep your presence discreet. I appreciate that you have your responsibilities, and I don’t have a problem with that, but there’s kids and parents as well as my staff on that floor. I won’t have them scared.”

“Rest assured we will be the soul of discretion,” Ezra said smoothly. “Vin is to have no visitors unless the ATF agent on the door clears them.”

“Shouldn’t the police do that?”

“The ATF looks after its own.”

The swing doors at the end of the corridor opened automatically and Ezra breathed a sigh of relief as they left the PIC unit proper.

“Is there anyone that we should particularly be looking for?”

“Woman; dark, shoulder length hair; pale skin; large brown eyes; approximately 40. She’ll pretend to be a friend of the family. Rest assured there will be an agent on the door.” 

Ezra shadowed them to the elevator and managed to squeeze into the corner. Slater didn’t make it into the large elevator.

The head of the bed was raised. Vin mumbled and shifted uncomfortably, wriggling against the enveloping blankets. The hand without the IV worked free reaching for something.  He muttered discontentedly again and woke fully. Vin froze, eyes wide, he took in the mess of people around him.

“Hello, Vin.” Ezra slid forward right into his line of sight, neatly shifting a smock-dressed nurse out of the way with a twist of his hip.

Vin fixed on him. “UncEz?” he croaked, his throat dry.

“Vin.” Ezra gripped his hand.

Vin looked around frantically. His lips moved but nothing came out. The elevator jerked, moving upwards. He let out an asthmatic moan. 

Ssssh,” Ezra soothed. “We’re in an elevator. We’re going to your room. Doc Shepard says that you’re a fighter.”

The elevator stopped and the doors chimed open. As they slid the gurney out into the wider corridor, Vin breathed a sigh of relief. Slater, red faced with exertion, waited outside. Ezra mentally saluted the man. Keeping a hold of Vin’s hand, Ezra kept pace as they made their way to Vin’s room. It was opposite the nurses’ main desk. Ezra smiled, satisfied at the close proximity of the hospital personnel.

They slid the bed neatly into an empty space between ranks of monitors. The room was brightly painted with vivid cartoon characters. Personnel efficiently hooked up wires and hung IVs around Vin as Dr. Shepard told Vin what his staff were doing. Vin watched with wide, impossibly big, blue eyes.  

“Do you feel like having a drink?” Shepard asked.  

He shook his head.

“A little bit of apple juice?” Ezra offered. “It’ll help your throat.”

Vin stared at him, judging, weighing the simple words.

“I’ve had a sore throat before,” Ezra continued. “A little bit of apple juice helps.”

Vin nodded once.

“A little bit of apple juice with water coming up.” Shepard directed one of the younger nurses with a nod of his head.

“Cat,” Vin mouthed, and a little colour dusted his cheeks.

“Oh, I… I… didn’t bring him, I’m sorry. When JD can visit, I’ll make sure that he brings him.”

Vin shuffled into his pillows miserably, tuning out the man.

“I’ll get on the cell phone now. Buck’s with JD, he’ll bring Cat before the end of the day.”

“Apple juice,” the nurse announced, holding out a sippy cup. Ezra eyed it wondering at the mechanics and the likelihood of a seven year old using a sippy mug. Weren’t they for younger children? Vin didn’t hesitate, he practically snatched the mug out of the young nurse’s hand.

“Slowly,” Shepard guided, lightly controlling his hand. Scowling, Vin took a little sip and then another. “Your throat is sore, so I don’t want you to talk for a while, but you can drink. Just make sure you take little sips.”

“JD?” Vin croaked.

JD’s fine,” Ezra answered.

“Ch--,” Vin failed to say. He looked around, brow furrowed, for the man that he knew should be here. “Bu--?”

“Buck’s with JD. Chris…” Ezra mentally searched for the best way to put it, but settled for honesty, he had preferred it as a child. “Chris is in hospital, too. He hurt his head and broke his wrist quite badly. The doctors are looking after him.”

Vin’s bottom lip stuck out mulishly, liquid welled in the corner of his eyes.

“He has to have an operation on his arm.” Ezra looked at his watch. “Later this afternoon. I’m sure he’ll try and visit you before the operation.”

Vin’s face screwed up.

“Oh,” Ezra said, realising the catalyst of the tears, “Chris is okay.  They’ve just got to do a little operation. It will take mere minutes. Chris is fine.”

Vin glared at him.

“Chris is fine,” Ezra repeated. “As is JD and Buck.”

The urge to ask Vin what had happened was almost irresistible, but in the face of that broken glass sounding croak, he could resist.

“Hey, enough talking,” Shepard said softly.  “Vin, you can have more juice.”

Vin yawned in his face.

“You can also go to sleep.”

Vin regarded the doctor charily, yawned again until his whole face crinkled and then shut his eyes and flopped, asleep at the drop of hat.

“Kids,” Shepard chortled. “Ya gotta love them.”

Ezra reached down and lightly patted the hand gripping the mug. “I’ll go get Cat for you.”

The agent crept out of the room, Dr. Shepard walked with him.

“What’s Cat?”

“Cat is his comfort toy – it’s the first present that Chris gave him. He’s rarely without it. It is an oversight on my part not to have acquired the toy and brought it to him.”

“I think that you’ve had a few things on your mind.” Shepard huffed a tired sigh. “Okay, my shift’s over. Dr. Shiraz has the shift ‘til 18:00, he’s a good guy. I’ve apprised him of the security issues. He’s fully up to date on Vin’s treatment; it’s pretty much observation at this point.”

“When will you release him?”

Shepard pinched the bridge of his beaky nose, a mannerism that Ezra had noted on more than one occasion. “When I’m ready. Maybe a couple of days. He was a lucky little boy, if we’d been another ten minutes before pumping his stomach, he probably wouldn’t be here. I’m gonna be hundred percent sure he’s okay before we let him go. I’m going to run a few tests, probably tomorrow morning. Check out his kidney, liver and heart function.”

“He’s okay?” Ezra probed.

“They’re standard tests for narcotic overdoses of this nature.”

Slater took up position at the door behind them, he tipped his head in their direction, indicating a need to talk.

“Thank you, Dr Shepard. If you’ll excuse me I need to talk to Agent Slater.”

“No doubt I’ll see you when I get back this evening.” Shepard wandered off in the direction of the rest rooms.

Ezra joined Slater.

“Hey, Standish, you can head home for a few hours to get some sleep. I’m not going to let anyone in. This woman, though, you got a picture, yet?”

“No, Buck will bring one. Don’t let any enter Vin’s room. I’m going to check on Chris.”

“Standish, get some sleep, you look like shit.”

“To echo Buck, that is damned near impossible, sir.” Ezra stalked off.

 

              ~*~

 

Vin cracked open an eye and peered around the room. He yawned. Hospital, he though miserably, I don’t like hospitals. Leastwise they took that nasty thing out of my peepee. It’s not a good thing to do that, especially to a boy.

He scowled at the nurses visible through the glass wall of his room. Vin sat up and swayed dizzily as his stomach churned, but everything stayed in place. Vin slumped. He wanted Chris. Sniffing miserably, he kicked off the blankets. He scowled at the girlie dress that they had put him in.

“Bad people.”

There was a big crepe bandage wrapped around the hand closest to his heart, the left one – if he remembered correctly, with one of those IV thingies in. There was a band-aid on the back of his other hand. Doctors always stuck lots of needles in you. They were nasty. His neck hurt. Gingerly, he probed his throat. There was another IV in his neck. Vin cringed, halfway to tears. They stuck another IV thingy in his neck but it wasn’t connected to anything.  

He wanted Chris.

Vin pulled up his dress. There were lots of sticky pads on his chest. He knew what they did from the last time he had been in a hospital; they told the doctors if his heart was okay.

He really wanted Chris.

Eyes narrowed with decision, Vin unwrapped the bandage around his hand and, taking a deep breath, pulled out the IV. It hurt and a little blood welled up. Sucking the back of his hand, he studied the beeping machine beside him. Vin leaned over and squinted at it. There was a big red off/on button on the side.

“Hah.” He reached out and switched it off and then yanked the sticky pads off his chest. No alarms sounded.

Tickled at his success, Vin grinned. Uncle Ezra had said that Chris had hurt his arm and he was in the hospital. Vin grabbed the rail on his bed and rolled over it like on the monkey bars at school. The floor was cold against his feet. He shivered and abruptly felt a bit cold and horrible. Suddenly he was sitting on the floor. The linoleum was cold on his bottom. Vin sniffed; then he felt hot and weird. He flopped onto his side and rested his forehead on the cold floor.

He wanted to lie there, but he had a mission – find Chris. Vin rolled onto his hands and knees and then stood. He swayed and suddenly he was cold again. Waving uneasily from side to side he waited for the icky feeling to pass. It all ebbed away and he felt like himself.

“I don’t like hothpitals,” he lisped.

Vin spotted a jersey on the chair beside his bed and tottered towards it. He recognised it as Buck’s Red Sox’s sweatshirt. He didn’t remember Buck being there. Vin shrugged into the jersey, pulling it down over the horrible dress until it reached his knees.

“Buck?” Vin said realising. He scrabbled around on his bed and there was Cat waiting for him. Delighted, he hugged Cat against his chest. All he had to do now was find Chris and everything would be perfect.  

Vin poked his head through the open door. There was a long corridor with doors at either end. Agent Rookie, his back to Vin, was talking to one of the nurses at the big desk in the centre of the corridor. Vin slipped out of the room, skirting around a big wagon with lots of bottles and boxes, heading away from the man.

Vin padded in stocking feet out of the ward. Through the double doors was a big board with lots of names and numbers. Vin picked out the letters and numbers, but the words were long and unfamiliar. They weren’t any help, they didn’t mean anything.

Vin stamped his foot. People swirled around him, busy and frantic. An old lady sat in a wheelchair tucked out of the traffic. Vin dodged out of the way of a group of people pushing and crossed to the lady.

“Excuse me?”

She leaned forwards and peered at him. Vin met her frank, brown gaze with one of his own. Her face was wrinkled and leathery like his grandfather’s. They shared at same slate grey, long hair in a long plait.  

“Hello,” she said.

“My foster dad got hurt and he’s having a’ operation, and I don’t know where to find him. Do you… can you read the sign and tell me where he is?”

The lady re-tucked a bright knitted blanket over her knees. She patted the material smoothing wrinkles and tucking a fold over a black, furry toy at her side. Vin waited patiently, recognising that she was thinking.

“What kind of operation?”

“Got a broke arm.” Vin supplied looking at the lady’s own Cat pushed down the side of the wheelchair beside her legs. Her Cat was big and black and furry and had a lot more legs. It looked at him with lots of eyes like black jewels.

“Orthopaedics,” the lady said.

Orfo? Orfo…?”

“It’s on the fifth floor.” She smiled. “And we’re on the eighth.”

Vin counted on his fingers. “I’s got to go down three floors?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.” Vin smiled. “I like your Cat, what do you call him?”

“My cat?”

“Your spider. I got a cat. I call it Cat.” Vin held it up. “Buck brought it for me. Chris brought it first, but Buck brought it for me here.”

“Oh, my spider is called Mother Spider she looks after me. You’re a very perceptive little boy, aren’t you?”

Vin shrugged. “Sorta. Fanks for your help. I gotta find Chris now.”

The lady held out her hand. Vin regarded it for a moment and then realised that she needed a special Ezra-adult-hug. Carefully Vin squeezed her hand. “You got a tattoo,” he observed, turning her hand so he could see the hatch of hazy blue lines on the thin skin between her thumb and first finger.

“Yes, it’s a web.”

“Whys you got a web on your hand?”

“It’s about who I am,” she said.

“Uncle Ez would say that that’s cryptic. That’s what he sez when he don’t get something. That’s cryptic. ‘though I think he normally knows everything. It’s co’fusing.”

“I’m sure that you’ll understand some day.”

“Uncle Ez says that as well.”

“He sounds like a wise man.”

There was clatter like metal pans dropped from a height.  A lady was tangled up with a man and a whole lot of bottles and boxes and trays scattered over the floor like all his friends at recess.  The nurses at the main reception moved into the corridor to deal with the crash between a gurney and the medication trolley. Through the now open doors Vin saw one of the nurses moving in the direction of his room.

“I gotta go, cos’ they’ll find me and put me back in bed.” Vin scuttled off. He stopped by the door at the staircase. “Bye.”  He darted through the doors.

Vin swayed dizzily at the top of the stairs. He grabbed the banister and just hung until the weirdness passed.

Clinging to the rail, he fumbled his way down the steps. At the next level he took a little rest, flopping down to sit on his heels. Up above a door opened. Galvanised, Vin used the banister to stand and began his uneasy progress down to the next level.

He took another rest at the next level, tucking his knees up under Buck’s sweatshirt, while he waited for his breath to catch up.  

“One more level,” he intoned.

He stood and stumbled down the next set of stairs, slipping and sliding in his stocking feet. Vin stopped at the sign, and doggedly picked out the unfamiliar letters. He thought, maybe, the third line was ‘orthopedics’ – so that meant that he was on the right level.

Vin leaned against the stairway door and pushed with all his meagre weight until it opened. He slithered through the narrow gap into the corridor.

 

~*~

Buck sauntered down the corridor, ignoring his aching ankle; a stud didn’t limp. Agent Rookie, Buck snorted inwardly at the name -- the poor kid was going to have that moniker for a while -- was using the nurses’ station phone to make a call. The kid chewed uneasily on his bottom lip and stabbed another set of numbers on the hand set.

“Hey?” Buck called.

Agent Rookie jerked his head up as if stabbed by a hot knife. “Buck. Mr. Wilmington! Ella Gaines was here.”

“What?” Buck spun on his heel half expecting the woman to standing behind him. A clatter had him spinning back. At the opposite end of the corridor a porter had manoeuvred a gurney into a trolley, knocking it over.

“Sir,” Leigh spoke up. “She came in like she owned the place. I eventually got her to leave.” Rookie pointed down the corridor to the far doors, back the way that Buck had walked. “She insisted that she…”

Buck didn’t really know what to make of Ezra’s suspicions. But their undercover agent was an old hand at reading people and he was fairly convinced that she was involved. Buck glanced over to Vin’s room and his heart stuttered. 

“Where’s Vin?”

“Excuse me?” Rookie blanched.

The covers on the bed were thrown back, the IV hung swaying gently and tubing dripped.

“Lock down the hospital now! Call it in. Don’t let her get away.”

Blank faced to hide the encompassing terror of loss, Buck sprinted down the ward after Ella.

 

end part five

              ~*~

Part six

 

 

It was as busy on the orthopaedics level; people moved this way and that intent on their own worlds. Practiced at keeping out of adults’ sight and mind, Vin slipped between them. There were lots of rooms. Vin checked each one. But then, at the end of the corridor, he spotted his Holy Grail.

Agent Ruehl from Team Eight leaned against a wall, arms crossed and she was watching everyone. She spotted him straight away.

“Vin?”

His hand running along the wall, Vin teetered in her direction. She shot a grimace at the room opposite her and then jogged forward.

“Hey, Vin.” She dropped to her knees.

“Chris,” Vin said simply.

“You come looking for your Dad?” She slowly brushed the hair from his forehead without touching his skin.

Vin nodded, near tears.

She twitched, hands reaching to pick him up. Vin waited; Ms. Penny was one of Buck’s special friends. Buck liked her. He knew he could trust her and he couldn’t walk another inch.

“How about I take you to see your dad?”

Vin nodded frantically and finally she picked him up. Vin hung against her, not holding just letting her carry him. She fumbled with her cell phone with the other hand, triggering button with her thumb. Vin couldn’t find the energy to pick out the words.

“I’m just texting Buck.”

Vin didn’t respond, he didn’t think that he was supposed to add anything. Slowly Penny opened a door and Vin saw Chris.

“Chris?”

“He’s asleep,” she whispered. “They...uhm…put a wire in his…made everything all right.

Chris lay flat on his back. His newly set arm, encased in a metal frame of pins stabilising the bones, rested on his chest. A thick bandage was wrapped around his head. Vin reached out.

“Oh God,” Penny said, quite inexplicitly.

Vin reached again.

“Hey, little guy. I’m going to put you on your Dad’s bed. Just curl up there. I gotta get Buck. You just stay put okay?”

Penny set him by Chris’ feet. She jerked the rails around the bed making sure that they were locked in place. She caught the blanket at the end of the bed, and wrapped it around him. Vin shuffled up on his knees beside Chris, and then curled up on his side. Gingerly, he laid his head on Chris’ tummy and snuggled in.

 

              ~*~

 

 

“Agent Rookie’s gonna need a new ass by the time I’m finished with him.” Buck blew past Penny Ruehl. Mentally, he reigned himself in before striding into Chris’ room. It wouldn’t do to burst in there and scare Vin and wake Chris.

“Is the doctor coming? The little kid looked washed out,” Penny said.

Buck tried to flash her a charming smile, but failed. Shaking his head, he slipped into Chris’ room. Vin lay curled up on the bed, tucked up against his foster father. The faint creak of the door opening woke Chris. Blinking, he looked about. The neurologist on staff had judged Chris’ concussion to be serious, and that he would subject to blackouts and mood changes until fully healed. Buck knew the effects of a concussion. It was not like watching bad television movies; it could be weeks or months before the man felt human.

“Hey,” Chris breathed. “What’s up?”

“You got yourself a visitor.”

Trying not to move his head, Chris glanced down. “How did that happen?”

“Got a determined little un, there; he tracked you down.”

“How?”

“That I don’t know. But I think we have to get him back to his own bed.”

“Ezra said that he got out of ICU when I was in surgery?”

“Yeah, stud, you were in a bit longer than expected. It took a while to put things back. You hurt yourself good there.”

Chris’ fingers twitched as he tried to reach for Vin. Hissing, he aborted the move, blindsided by pain. “I think, when I was hit, I fell on it. I remember hearing a… snap.”

“And then trying to get free, you pretty much twisted the crap out of it.” Buck rubbed his moustache. “You recall anything else?”

Chris started to shake his head, but settled for a shrug.

“Mr. Larabee.” Dr. Shepard sailed into the room. “I see you found our little patient.”

“Doc, is he all right?”

Shepard smiled passively as he peeled back the blanket. Vin was curled up, face pushed into Chris’ side. Deftly, Shepard pushed up the sweatshirt to reveal a knobbly backbone poking between the gaps in the tied hospital gown. Slipping on his stethoscope he listened to Vin’s heart and lungs.

“Let’s get him back to his own bed,” Shepard directed.

“Doc?” Chris persisted.

“He’s improving, Mr. Larabee, he’s out of the ICU. I’m going to run some tests tomorrow morning.”

“Why?”

“Just to check on his heart.”

“Heart?” Chris lifted his head off the pillow.

“His heartbeat’s running a little ragged. His electrolytes are awry because of the poisoning and coupled with his low body weight that has ramifications on organ function.”

“Heart!” Buck said, appalled.

“We’re just being careful, Mr. Wilmington. I expect that once the opiates have been fully leached from his system and with sufficient rest, Vin will be fine. Right, now, I want him back in his own bed.”

“I’ll get him.” Buck turned Vin onto his back. Vin flopped loosely, head rolling to the side. The child rarely completely relaxed. Concerned, Buck shot an anxious glance at Shepard.

“Exhaustion,” he judged.

Gently, Buck folded the blanket around the skinny form.

“You know, we do have gurneys,” Shepard pointed out.

One arm around his back and the other under his knees, Buck scooped Vin into his arms.

“Buck?” Chris whispered.

“Yeah?” Buck whispered back, in deference to the sleeping child.

“I…”

Buck leaned over, canting the sleeping form so Chris could see his face. Chris swallowed hard. Knowing the man’s heart, but knowing that Chris would never say a word, Buck angled Vin closer.  Chris managed to lift his head up and drop the lightest of kisses at Vin’s temple.  

“Get him to bed, Buck,” Chris said hoarsely.

“Yep.”

 

              ~*~

 

“Agent Leigh,” Ezra snapped – the atmosphere around him was poisonous with stress. “Where is Vin?” The agent gestured expansively indicating the room, the discarded bandages, the dripping IV and the empty bed.

“I…”

“I’m waiting.”

“He’s in Agent Larabee’s room. Agent Wilmington has gone down to get him.”

Ezra’s eyes narrowed. “And this expedition was sanctioned?” He glanced back at the disordered room.

Uhm…no.”

A nursing aid moved into the room and began to tidy up. She stripped the bed neatly and efficiently, replacing them with clean linens.

“You were supposed to be guarding the room,” Ezra said, his tone light but his menace in words was unmistakable.

Leigh raised his chin. “Yes, I know. Ella was here.”

“What!”

“There was a woman on the corridor,” Leigh said rapidly. “She fit your description. I confronted her and she said that she was a friend of the family. I asked her to leave. She did. I was at the reception desk, calling Agent Wilmington, using a hospital phone, rather than my cell. But Buck was on his way. I turned back and the kid had disappeared.”

“What!”

“He’s okay. I told you, he went to Agent Larabee’s room. He walked down there. I’m not making any excuses, he got past me, but we need two agents on the rooms.”

Ezra hung between wondering whether to agree with the rookie or punch him out for endangering Vin. The moment was broken as the doors at the far end of the corridor swung open and Buck Wilmington strode into view carrying Vin.

Ezra nodded at his comrade. “Is everything all right?”

“Plum tuckered out.” Buck smiled, but Ezra thought it strained.

As Buck used his hip to open the door to Vin’s room, he shot a dark glare at Leigh as he passed through. Shepard followed Buck into the room. Ezra edged to the doorway, and stood still, waiting to hear. The nursing aid slipped out, nodding amiably at Ezra.

“Bring me a new IV kit,” Shepard called after the young woman.

Gently, Buck placed his burden on his bed. Vin shifted, squirming against the new, cool sheets.

“Hey, Junior.” Buck stroked straggly, sweat dried hair off Vin’s forehead.

“Buck?” He glared at them all and when he spotted Shepard, he growled, “Go away.”

“The doc’s gotta look after you, Vin.”

Vin scowled. “No thingies.” He pulled his arms tight up against his chest, fists tucked tight up against his mouth.

“Thingies?”

Vin waved vaguely at the saline drip hanging from a pole beside the bed before curling up again.

“Sorry, Vin,” Shepard said, “I’m afraid you’ll have an IV. It has medicine in that makes you feel better.”

He’d feel better if you weren’t patronising him, Ezra thought.

“We need to look after you, Vin. The IV is going in,” Shepard continued.

“Vin, give Doctor Shepard your arm,” Buck directed.

Pouting mulishly, his eyes suspiciously bright, Vin offered his left arm. Ezra turned away as the doctor stuck Vin in the back of his hand. Ezra scowled at Agent Rookie who was standing next to the nurses’ station looking everywhere except at Vin’s room.

Ella’s been on the ward, Ezra mused, wondering on the meaning. She was insane if she thought that she could visit Vin. But why visit Vin? More to the point why try to kill Vin? Ezra fingered the sheaf of reports he had acquired from the office on recently released criminals and villains-at-large who were likely to have a revenge-focused interest on Chris Larabee and his family. 

Josiah said that the blanket thrown over Chris’ legs indicated that the perpetrator had an especial interest in Larabee as a person above and beyond revenge. That spoke to Ezra of the only woman in the house. He waited until Rookie’s scan turned his way and waved the agent over. Reluctantly the younger man dragged his heels over.

“Agent Standish, sir?”

“Describe the woman.”

“As you said.”

“No, describe her.”

“Caucasian; five foot eight; medium body weight; long chestnut hair, in a bun; dark eyes – not entirely sure of the colour; plucked eyebrows; perfect makeup; square jaw line.” Leigh tried to smile. “And an attitude that doesn’t quit.”

“Ella then.”

“She called me a Neanderthal with fascist overtones for slavishly following inane dictates from moronic overlords.”

“Sounds like a woman after my own heart,” Ezra said. “What else did she say?”

“That she was Chris Larabee’s fiancée, so she should have access to her foster son.”

“What!” Ezra blinked and almost dropped the files. “She said what?”

“That she was Chris Larabee’s fiancée…”

Ezra held up his hand. “I heard you. Was she serious or kidding?”

Leigh’s dark eyebrows rose and dropped, shrugging. “She seemed to believe it.”

“Okay,” Ezra said drawing out all the syllables. “Don’t let her anywhere near Vin.”

“I got you already.” Leigh raised his hands, warding Ezra off. “Trey’s joining me. The woman’s not well wrapped.”

“Hmmm. That’s one way of putting it. Okay, get back to your post.” Rubbing his chin, Ezra turned back to Vin’s room. The procedures involving needles were over. Vin lay raised up on his bed. Leads dotted the poor kid, trailing under his gown. He held his newly stuck hand against his chest.

“A nursing aid will be in in a little while to help you get a little bit more comfortable. Get your hair washed and get you cleaned up.” Shepard smiled.  

“I’m old enough to shower,” Vin said mulishly.

“Vin, you’re a big boy, work with me. I want you to rest, sit quietly, and maybe have some supper?”

“Supper?” Vin showed a little interest.

“You can have bowl of oatmeal with honey, bowl of chicken soup or slice of pizza with a glass of juice. What would you like?”

“Pizza.” Vin shot him a look saying ‘stupid question’.

“Pizza it is.”

“It’s his favourite food,” Buck said. “Can I have a slice?”

Pizza, Ezra thought disgustedly, surely more nutritious food would be available in a hospital? Then he shook his head, surprised; he’d been in hospitals before, he knew what the food was like and what else did you give a child when you needed them to eat, but pizza? Erza made a mental note to call his favourite Italian restaurant and have an organic pizza delivered.

“Ezra?” Josiah’s booming voice broke through his thoughts. “What’s happening? I got a’ incoherent call from Buck.”

Ezra moved into Josiah’s path, directing him away from Vin’s room. “Vin decided to go see Chris – it caused quite a stir.  However while Vin was hunting down his foster father, Ella Gaines dropped by to visit Vin, her foster son.”

“What?”

“Indeed. Agent Rookie headed Ms. Gaines off. ”

Josiah scratched his goatee introspectively.  “Ella identified Vin as her foster son?”

“Because she and Chris are engaged.”

“Oh.”

“Oh, indeed,” Ezra drawled a tad sarcastically. “Will you now accept that this woman is somehow responsible for the attacks on Mr. Larabee and young Vin?”

“Son,” Josiah said levelly, “I never said that I didn’t believe you, I only counselled that we kept an open mind.”

Ezra huffed under his breath. “Would you mind accompanying me to her town house to carry out a covert assessment of her abode?”

“We don’t have a warrant or any real probable cause to obtain one.”

“I was not considering acquiring a warrant. That will come post-determining that we have a probable cause.”  

“That’s against the law, Ezra.”

“Only if we get caught.”

“Ezra, we can’t; we’re officers of the law. We have to go through the proper channels.”

“And if in the mean time…”

“Hi, boys.” Buck slipped up beside them. “What’s up?”

“How’s Vin?” Josiah asked.

“The doc’s going to run some checks tomorrow. He’s concerned about his heart.”

“I can have a specialist flown in from John Hopkins tomorrow morning,” Ezra said immediately.

“Thanks, Ez. But, hopefully--” he crossed his fingers, “--the doc’s being thorough.”  

“One hopes.”

“One prays,” Josiah said.

Ezra refrained from commenting. “Ella thinks that Vin’s her foster son.”

“Really?” Buck said unconcerned, then realisation flushed his features and he shook his head exhaustedly. “Sorry, I … Why? I almost threw up when we realised that Vin had gone missing.”

Ezra reached out and set a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Go get some rest, Buck. Spend some time with JD; he’ll be missing you.”

“Nathan and Rain are looking after JD. I’m needed here.”

“Have you had any sleep since Chris and Vin were attacked?”

“Yeah,” Buck said casually, too quickly.

“Shutting your eyes on the uncomfortable sofas outside the paediatric ICU for twenty seconds doesn’t count.”

“How much sleep have you had, Ezra?” Buck countered.

“I was sent home to bed this morning, I have refreshed myself.” Ezra preened farcically.

“Josiah?” Buck asked.

“I caught a nap at Nathan and Rain’s. I’m raring to go.”

Buck ran his fingers through his chestnut hair ruffling it. “Are we convinced that Ella’s behind this?”

“Yes,” Ezra said immediately.

“She is, at the moment, top of my list,” Josiah said neutrally.

“What about CSI?”

“We’re waiting on their full report,” Ezra answered.

Buck chewed on the edge of his ragged moustache, contemplating. “Did your check on Ella raise any red flags?”

Ezra marvelled at Buck’s perceptiveness. “Rich as Midas. Goes through husbands like water goes through a sieve. A bit of a Black Widow, I believe. Has a town house north west of Denver, despite telling Chris that she was visiting, curious that.”

Josiah patted Ezra’s shoulder.

“She was recently widowed, wasn’t she?” Buck recalled.

“Husband died of cancer,” Ezra replied.

“Cancer?” Josiah mused.

“Didn’t Shepard say that Fentanyl was prescription only and primarily used in pain management in terminally ill patients?” Buck said.

“Yes,” Josiah said.

Uhmmmm.” Ezra smiled toothily. “Another nail in Ms. Gaines’ coffin.”

“It’s only circumstantial.”

“Indeed, but the evidence mounts up.”

Buck grimaced and planted the heel of his palm against his forehead. “Look, guys, you’re right, I have to get some sleep. We’ve got enough to get a surveillance team on the lady…. Ezra what have you done so far?”

Ezra shrugged immodestly. “I contracted a private investigator, I use on occasion, to investigate Ms. Gaines until sufficient evidence was gained to sanction an official investigation. Mr. Watson will have set a man on Ella. He’s likely been trying to call me, but, of course, since I’m within the environs of the hospital my cell is switched off.”

“Put this Watson in contact with Judge Travis, get him to hand over his information – we don’t need amateurs.”

“I only employ professionals.”

“Let’s keep it in house, Ezra,” Buck said.

“Of course,” Ezra said easily, in the face of Buck’s obvious exhaustion. “I will call Judge Travis immediately.”

 

              ~*~

 

There also was Fentanyl in the milk carton in the fridge, Ezra noted. And it was at a lower concentration than the remnants of chocolate milk, why? The agent pulled out his fountain pen and made a note on his pad balanced on his crossed legs. It had been several years since he had studied chemistry at school but all he needed was logic and a thorough understanding of multiplication and long division.

UncEz?”

“Vin. Good morning.” He smiled as the child blinked awake.

Vin pursed his lips, once twice, and finally opened his eyes fully.

“Hello,” Ezra spoke gently.

Vin pushed off his blankets and rubbed his face with his unstuck hand. “I slept lots.”

“Indeed you did.”

Vin remained curled on his side. “Where’s Chris?” he asked softly.

“Chris came by late last night.” Ezra reassured. “He’ll be in his own room now, being looked after by his doctor and nurses.”

Vin pursed his lips again. “Is Chris all right?”

“Like yourself, Chris continues to improve.”

“Huh?”

“Yes, Chris is all right.” Ezra grabbed a carton of apple juice, detached the straw and stuck it through the plastic covered hole. He handed it over and continued to hold it as without shifting, Vin took a healthy slurp.

“Is he coming?” Vin finally asked.

Ezra consulted his watch; it was a little after eight. “I would expect that he will visit in less than an hour.”

“What about JD?”

“Proper visiting times are not until later this afternoon. I am sure that Buck will bring young JD for a visit now that you are on the way to recovery.” Ezra set the carton aside.

Vin heaved out a deep sigh and burrowed into his pillow.

“Oh dear,” Ezra consoled. He reached out and stroked the soft, washed curls. “What can I do, to make it better?”

“I wanna go home.”

“You will.”

“Soon?”

“Doctor Shepard wants to look at you carefully today and then he will have a better idea of when you’ll be allowed to go home.”

“Oh,” Vin said.

“In the mean time, though, I wonder if you could help me?”

Uhuh.” He uncurled from his ball on the bed and shuffled over the mattress on his knees to Ezra’s side.

“I’d like to ask you about Saturday morning.”

“Like what?”

“What happened?”

Vin cocked his head to the side. “Me and JD got up and watched cartoons. JD wanted to watch Dexter’s Laboratory but I wanted to watch the X-Men.”

“What about later?”

“Me and Chris and JD cleaned the horses out and Buck had a lie in, ‘cause that was fair.”

“Oh, and what about when Ella came?”

“We had breakfast, second breakfast ‘cause we’re little hobbits that need feeding up.”

Ezra laughed lightly. “Hobbits? Nice. And Buck and JD went into town and you stayed with Chris and Ms. Ella?”

Vin nodded. “Chris was going to walk Jalapeno around the corral. I wanted to help.”

“And after you’d finished playing with the foal, you went to the kitchen,” Ezra slowly directed him to the ‘event’. He trod carefully, knowing that Chris would go apocalyptic on his ass if he upset Vin.

“No, we was smelly. Chris said I had to have a shower. I had one by myself.”

“And then you went to the kitchen?”

Vin regarded him cannily. “Chris thinks I don’t know, but Doc Two Feather’s sez I have to eat ‘a little often’. I’s too skinny.”

“Perhaps.” Ezra tweaked Vin’s nose. “Many people said that I was skinny when I was little.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Ezra hadn’t the heart to say that there was skinny and there was skinny. “So you were eating your snack in the kitchen?”

“You wanna know about Miz. Ella, don’t you?” Vin queried.

“The chocolate milk you drank, where did it come from? Did Ms. Ella bring it to you?”

Sorta, yeah, Miz. Ella made it after I poured back the glass a’ milk that Chris left on the table.” Vin stopped, brows came together. “Chris don’t give me and JD glasses of milk. Buck used to, but not after JD knocked them into next week, Chris doesn’t ever.”

Erza raised his hands heavenward and exulted. “You’re a little star, Vin.”

Vin basked in the compliment. Then said, “Why?”

“You drank some bad milk, which is why you’re in the hospital. I’m trying to find out where it came from.”

Miz. Ella made the bad milk twice didn’t she?”

“I’m figuring out what happened. I don’t know everything, but what you just told me was important.” Ezra stopped and looked at the bright little spark kneeling on the bed before him. “Twice?”

“Yeah.” Vin nodded his long fringe falling in his eyes. “I didn’t want to have milk. So she made sure that I’d have milk by making it chocolate milk.”

“You have a future in law enforcement, I think. Perhaps a detective.”

“She gave me bad milk. I don’t think she’s a nice lady.”

“Yes, and I’m not going to let her anywhere near you or JD.”

“What about Chris?”

“Nor Chris.”

Vin rolled his eyes in a surprisingly adult gesture. “Chris is Chris. Chris likes Ms. Gaines.”

“Once he knows that Ms. Gaines gave you the bad milk, he will want nothing to do with her.”

“For real?”

“Assuredly,” Ezra said vehemently. “You are much more important to him than Ms. Gaines.”

“Wow.”

Ezra put his notebook to the side, and stood. He leaned over and planted a dry kiss on Vin’s forehead. “I’m going to get you some breakfast. Eggs?”

Vin nodded mutely.                                                   

“Excellent, they’ll be the best eggs I can get.”

 

              ~*~

 

Ezra bypassed the harridan -- disguised as a head nurse -- on Chris’s ward and slipped into Chris’ room. Chris slept, propped up on a pile of pillows, his mouth slightly open as he snored. Josiah, sitting reading in the chair beside Chris’ bed, looked up.

“Ezra?”

“Is Buck back?” he whispered.

“No, he picked up JD from Nathan and Rain’s and returned to my place. If he crashed, I’d guess he’d sleep hard.”

“I spoke to Vin this morning, he said that Ella gave him the milk.”

“But where did the milk come from?”

“Quit playing Devil’s Advocate, Josiah!” Ezra snapped. Josiah bristled, Ezra overrode him. “Ella had drugged a glass of milk but Vin poured it back in the carton because he didn’t want to drink it. Hence the Fentanyl was diluted in the carton.  So she mixed another high concentration batch in the chocolate milk and gave it to him. We’ve got her,” Ezra said. “What I haven’t figured out is why.”

“Was it a murder attempt?” Josiah asked. “The chocolate milk was made quickly so that she made the concentration too high?

“No, based on the volume of milk in the carton, if the same amount had been in a smaller capacity glass – it was a toxic dose. Gaines intended to kill Vin.”

“What?” Chris awoke all at once. “What!”

Ezra winced.

“Standish, report,” Larabee ordered.

“Vin confirmed that Ms. Gaines gave him the milk -- twice. He refused it the first time and she made him a second glass deliberately mixed with cocoa.  Ms. Gaines’ husband, Forest ‘Chuck’ Tremont recently died of lymphoma, he had been prescribed Fentanyl. The coroner has flagged his death as suspicious.” Ezra could not read his superior’s expression, it was blank, not even an iota of anger in his hazel eyes. “I’ve left a message on Judge Travis’ answer machine requesting a warrant. I’m on my way over there now.”

“Get my doctor in here now; I’m signing out: AMA.”

“That’s not wise, Chris,” Josiah said.

“Get her now.”

“Chris, I’m sure that you’ll be released this morning.”

Chris kicked off his blankets. “Get Dr. Sydney now.” He scowled at his bare legs. “And help me into some clothes.”

“I’m going to go see Travis.” Ezra pointed to the door, and edged towards it. “I’ll keep my cell phone on. A warrant is probably a good idea. And, hmmm, I’ll… you know.” Ezra reached the door and dodged through it.

Outside he breathed a sigh, Chris was just shy of an explosion, and he didn’t want to be at ground zero when it went off. Coat tails flapping, he darted down the stairs. Ideally, Josiah would run interference, delay paper work and direct Chris to Vin and it would be an hour or so before a concussed, angry Larabee hit the streets of Denver.

Yeah, right.

 

              ~*~

 

Ezra stood to the side as Ed Meadows knocked heavily on Ella Gaines’ town house door. There was no answer.  

Ezra nodded and Meadows knocked again. Light footsteps padded and the door swung open. A tiny woman stood looking at them.

“Gentlemen?” she said softly, her accent indeterminate. Dressed in black and sporting an apron, it was obvious to all that she was a classic housekeeper.

“Is Ms. Gaines in?” Meadow said, his beer belly forcing the woman back as he stepped into the hall. Ezra slipped between them.

“Ms. Ella is out.”

“Where did she go?” As he asked, Ezra took in the expensive fixtures, fine art and Chesterfield in the hall.

“Shopping, buying clothes for a long trip.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Meadows pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

“You can’t smoke!” the housekeeper protested.

“This here’s a warrant to search the premises.” Meadows flashed it before the woman, but didn’t let her catch it. “You going to let us in?”

Flustered, she stepped aside, Ezra immediately headed forward and Meadows’ team flooded in behind him.

The rest of the town house was as opulent as the corridor. Ezra wondered on the juxtaposition of the various styles, but one couldn’t fault her eye for fine antiques. He made a turn in the centre of the living room, wondering what they were truly looking for. He wished that Josiah had accompanied him, the man had an gift at seeing the strange in the mundane.

Ezra made his way to the main bedroom. It was a meringue of a room; all frilly and pretty. It made his teeth ache. Fastidiously, he pulled on his latex gloves and opened cupboards and drawers, but found nothing of much interest apart from a safety deposit box behind the his and hers wardrobe and a sealed gun case above the coat hangers.  Consulting the house’s blue prints, he moved on to the spare bedroom. The room was a complete contrast to the museum quality of the rest of the building. Dressed in navy blue and green, it was strangely masculine for a widow’s abode. The chest of drawers and wardrobe were functional pseudo-oak and the wood bore evidence of long, hard use. It was a young man’s room, yet Ella nor her husband had children. It was a cheesy room, unlike anything else in the house. It wasn’t even a guestroom; Ezra knew that he would be embarrassed to house a guest in such mediocre abode.

“Ezra?”

The agent spun around. “Chris, what are…”

Larabee’s mouth fell open.

“What is it?”

“This.” Grey faced, Chris brought his sprained left hand to his face, oblivious to any pain, and rubbed his mouth.

“What of it?” Ezra probed.

“It’s my room from college. The only thing missing are the posters.” Chris didn’t take another step into the room. “I remember that bedspread. My mom got it for me. I thought that I’d lost it in a move.”

“And the units?”

“Yeah,” Chris’ voice was hollow. “What is this?”

“That is Josiah’s sphere of knowledge. I can only guess.”

“’Siah?” Chris called, and winced.

The profiler lumbered into view. Deftly, he moved to Chris’ side. “Have you found something interesting?”

“Indeed.” Ezra bowed flamboyantly. “Welcome to Casa Chris circa UCLA 1980’s style.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No.” Chris staggered and both men had their hands full, directing him to a rickety chair.

“Put your head between your knees, Chris.”

“No.” Chris leaned back resting his head against the wall. “Christ, this chair was always a pain in the ass.”

He closed his eyes and breathed heavily through his nose.

“You should be in hospital,” Ezra observed.

Ignoring him Chris said, “What does it mean, Josiah?”

“Obsession, pure and simple,” Josiah said without a moment’s hesitation.

“Why?” Chris asked futilely and forlornly.

“I can’t explain it, son. I can only diagnose it.”

“Why? Why knock me out, break my wrist, dislocate my thumb?” Chris’ voice rose stridently. “Why try and kill Vin!”

“She’s harking back to a time when she was happy, you were her’s and her’s alone. You weren’t distracted by family and friends?”

“At college?” Chris laughed but there was no humour in it. “We were in lust. I blew off my parents for Christmas so we could skiing in Vancouver.”

“I’ll get CSI to take photos of the room for evidence.” Ezra slipped out, leaving Chris to Josiah’s consummate compassion.

             

~*~

 

 

Chris knew he had a concussion; the throbbing between his ears had fouled his hearing. He didn’t seem to be able to focus on one voice. One part of him listened to Josiah’s soothing words, the other heard an escaping Ezra run into Meadows and an unknown person just outside his room. The room – not his room. Chris rubbed his sore head and flinched as his wrenched thumb and wrist protested. The right was held secure in a sling and encased in a cage of wire and fabric.

“You got here quick,” Ezra was saying sarcastically.

“It may be wise to go back to the hospital, Chris,” Josiah said, carefully taking hold of his left wrist to monitor his pulse.

Chris could clearly hear Meadows and the unknown.

“Hmmm, Meadows said that there might be evidence here that ‘ill help me wrap up a case. You got evidence that Ms. Gaines attacked Agent Larabee and Vin Tanner?”

“Vin confirmed that Ella gave him the poison, Dr. Roberts. Your forensic evidence points that Ella Gaines was the sole source.”

“Ah, damn, I like it when science works. So what’s going on in there?”

“Gaines has a mock up of Chris’ old university dorm room.”

“Interesting pathology. Can I get in there?”

“Agents Larabee and Sanchez are currently discussing sensitive matters in there. If you could give them a moment?” Chris could almost see Ezra smiling, flashing his gold tooth. “The break in attempt through the window? Any thoughts?”

“Misdirection: found a variety of heel imprints and foot prints just outside the window. It’s an active ranch with lots of people around. But based on the area which was broken and the position of the catch only a gibbon could have opened the window. She probably broke it when Larabee was in the shower.”

“I heard breaking glass but I thought that it was Vin dropping the glass of chocolate milk. It could have been her breaking the window. While I went around to the back, she came around the other side and entered through the front. Callous.”  

“Chris, are you listening to me?”

“Sorry, Josiah.” Chris opened his eyes. “You should let the CSI guy in: get photos and crap.”

“I think you should go back to the hospital.”

“I heard you the first time, ‘Siah. It ain’t gonna happen. Let the CSI geeks in.”

Josiah heaved a heavy sigh. “When you fall I’ll pick you up.”

There wasn’t any rejoinder that came to mind at that mordant promise, only, “Thank you.”

“You guys want to check this room out?” Josiah invited.

Roberts moved his considerable bulk into the room. “Bit of a dump,” he commented.

At the doorway, Ezra laughed flatly.

“Hey, it’s clean,” Chris said caustically. “Who made you my mom?”

“This is your dorm room, Agent Larabee?”

“Pretty close. I had some posters on the wall – can’t remember what,” Chris said, lying, fondly remembering Daisy Duke in her short shorts and Heather Locklear in a bathing suite. “Even duplicates of my course books are on that bookcase.”

“How do you know they’re duplicates?”

“The originals are in the den at the ranch.”  

“This is interesting,” Ezra spoke up. He angled the blueprints so all could view them. “Is this room about the same size as your dorm room?”

Chris pictured his old room. The single bed tucked up against the wall, the bedside table with the glass he had ‘acquired’ from the student bar, the wardrobe and the study table under the window – although instead of the window was a large mirror.

“Pretty much so.”

“Well, we have a mystery.” Ezra laid the blueprints on the bed.

“Where did you get these from, Ezra?” Josiah asked.

“The lady’s insurers via Mr. Watson. I find that detail is important when planning a mission.”

Chris knew very well that Ezra had been planning a little bit of covert burglary. 

“The dimensions are wrong. The room is too small.” Ezra straightened and regarded his reflection in the mirror. Smiling, he flicked an errant lock of hair on his forehead. “There is a space behind that wall.” 

“Secret room?” Josiah said sounding so much like a little kid that Chris winced.

Cal bobbed his head to the side, jowls wobbling. “Where’s the door?”

“Presumably--” Ezra moved to the wardrobe, “--Narnia is this way.”

The unit was filled with jeans and sweatshirts and a blue and white bomber jacket. Ezra pushed them aside. He leaned into the panels at the back and they clicked audibly.

“Ah, this is a boyhood dream come true.” But despite his light words he pulled out his sig sauer from its shoulder holster before disappearing into the depths.

“Hey, CSI first,” Roberts said.

“I’ve afraid that the way is rather narrow,” Ezra’s voice drifted out of the cupboard.

“Josiah, can you get through?” There was no way that Chris could allow his agent to head down a veritable trap on his own.

Josiah poked his head into the wardrobe. “Possibly,” he judged.

“Get the Hell out of my way,” Chris forced the man aside.

The clothes smelled musty, dust tickled his nose. Chris squinted in the gloom. The passage was narrow. He could see Ezra up ahead, shining a tiny flashlight.

“What are you going to do, Chris?” Josiah snapped sharply. “You’ve got two broken arms.”

Chris moved into the tunnel before the profiler could bodily remove him.

“Ah ha.” A click sounded loudly in the narrow tunnel and Ezra suddenly stepped out of view. “Oh my.”

Swearing under his breath, Chris staggered forwards, practically tumbling out into the area behind the mock up of his old room. Ezra’s little light did little to illuminate the room.

“There must be a light switch,” Ezra mused, “else why collect all these knickknacks?”

“Knickknacks?”  Chris queried.

Ezra moved the beam over the wall, finding the light switch. “Ah ha.”

Light flooded the room, spearing pain through Chris’ head. Shelves lined the walls and a large table dominated the tiny space. 

“I had hoped to find Ms. Gaines sequestered away in here rather than a garage sale.” Ezra picked up a bag from table top. “Are you into handbags, Mr. Larabee?”

Chris shook his head mutely. A cold, cold feeling was growing in his stomach.

“A ring?” Ezra picked it up. He held it before his nose to better see the hallmark. Squinting, he began to read.

“Life is an ocean…”

“… and love is a boat,” Chris interrupted.

“Mr. Larabee?” Ezra queried.

“It should have then said: and you keep me afloat, but there wasn’t enough room. So I just had S and C etched on.”

“Mr. Larabee, you’re looking very pale.”

“Sarah was wearing her wedding ring when she died in the car bomb. It was lost. They never found it. Burnt to a crisp, they said.”

“Mr. Larabee?”

“How?” Chris asked the universe. There was a roaring in his ears which seemed enormous as it rose up. “I…”

“Chris!”

 

              ~*~

 

Chris tried to turn over and found himself tied. He pulled against the cobwebs, but they were as strong as iron.

“Chris, stop it. Calm down.”

“What?” He focussed balefully on the round face that was too close. He was lying on something soft and the lights were bright. A siren wailed.

“You passed out. It was quite an endeavour getting you out of that sanctum sanctorum. Leastways until Josiah kicked the false wall in. That was very impressive.”

“Ambulance?”

“Yes,” said Ezra brightly. “One again I am travelling with a member of the Larabee family to the hospital. I think that I should start charging delivery rates.”

Air was hissing up his nose – it was very uncomfortable. He tried to sit up, but there was a strap over his chest.

“Please sit still, Mr. Larabee.” Ezra moved out of view and a fresh faced teenager took his place.

“I’m just taking your temperature, Mr. Larabee.”

Chris scowled as the child stuck a thermometer probe in his ear.

“What happened?”

“Don’t you remember?” the paramedic asked clinically. “I understand that you have a serious concussion and you signed yourself out against medical advice.”

Chris seethed at the young upstart.

“I…” Oh my god, despair engulfed him. Ella had Sarah’s ring. The ring that had been lost. “Ezra?”

“I have it, Chris.” The agent held it before his eyes. “I’ll hold it safe.”

“Give it to me.”

“Your hands, Chris. You can’t.” His right arm was totally out of action and his sprained and wrenched left hand resembled a swollen bunch of dates. “Ah, one moment.”

Ezra pulled a finely knotted gold chain from under his refined shirt. He freed the clasp and threaded the ring onto the chain.

“Ah, we favour the same carat weight of gold. And this is, I believe, Welsh. I always thought that you were a man of sublime taste, Mr. Larabee.” Ezra moved around the paramedic, who was now listening to his chest and deftly slid a cold, dry hand between his neck and the pillow. “This is a cladh chain, three interlinked chains to denote love, friendship and honour. I think it is appropriate.” He fastened the clasp and set the ring in the hollow of Chris’ throat. “There.”

Chris closed his eyes and let the roaring take him.

 

              ~*~

 

“Another day another, waiting room.” Ezra shuffled a set of cards. “Back at Four Corners General, happy joy.”

Ez?”

“Ah, Mr. Wilmington.” Ezra raised his head and smiled at his friend and colleague.

“What happened?” Buck asked without preamble.

“Chris passed out, it was hardly unexpected. Paramedics brought him in.”

“How is he?”

“Probably being readmitted, his doctor seemed a tad annoyed.”  

“Damn, can we get Vin and Chris a private room?”

“A child with an adult? I don’t believe that that is allowed.”

“Consider it a challenge.”

“Challenge? It maybe possible but it is not probable. However….” Ezra rose smoothly from the plastic waiting room chair. “I need to talk to you in private.”

Without waiting for acknowledgment, Ezra strode from the waiting room. Outside in the warm, midday sun, Ezra paced.

“What is it, Ez? Is it Chris?” Rarely, if ever, had he seen the urbane agent so out of sorts.

“Out of the main traffic.” Ezra moved back, drawing Buck out of the main thoroughfare, towards the bushes that lined the pavement.

Ez?”

“We found evidence that Ella was involved in the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee,” Ezra said without vacillation.

“What?”

“She had a trophy room.” Ezra paled. “Sarah’s wedding ring, amongst other tokens, was present.”

Buck blanched. Ezra stood stock still waiting for the eruption – whatever form it took. Buck blinked, once twice, and swallowed, his stomach lurched. He bolted over to the bushes and lost his lunch. He knelt heaving and heaving until he had nothing left to give. Drained, he remained kneeling.

Ezra carefully rested his hand on the small of Buck’s bowed back. “I’m sorry, I knew no other way to break the news, other than sharply, fast like a scalpel.”

Buck rested back on his heels and Ezra handed him a bottle of water. Buck glugged, rinsed and spat.  

“Why?” Buck asked, his voice small.

“Josiah thinks that she’s insane, obsessed with Chris.”

“She killed Sarah and Adam so she could have Chris? That’s nuts. She came by after the funeral. I think she’s spoke to Chris since. She definitely came by after the funeral. Why wait for so long?”

“Chris, until Vin and JD came into his life, was a fairly sour tempered and depressed man. I doubt that Chris gave Ella the time of day. The travesty is that she manipulated events so that she could have Chris all to herself, but he was unattainable until he gave his heart to two little boys. Then she realised that two little boys made it impossible for her to have Chris all to herself. A circle of tragedy.”

“You’re saying that she’s been watching Chris.”

“She had a whole room of trinkets – of course she’s been watching Chris, like the proverbial Black Widow spider, waiting… waiting… until she could pounce.” Ezra twitched, fighting the impulse to pace. “She’s been watching Chris so she’s been watching you all.”

“Where is she?”

“We don’t know. Meadows has an APB on her. Her passport was at the house, so hopefully she’s simply out and we’ll get her when she returns home.”

“Jesus. I got to get in an’ talk to Chris.” Buck stopped talking and looked to the sky as if hunting for inspiration. Ella had killed Sarah and Adam. It was unbelievable. He had to go see Chris, he would be beyond angry. But what about Vin, in the middle of tests to see if his heart had been damaged?  He was torn. “Ezra?”

Ezra knew what was coming and said, “I’ll go relieve Nathan from watching young Vin.  He will no doubt be champing at the bit to interview Dr. Shepard to fully understand the outcome of Vin’s tests.”

“Soon as you know, text me.”

“It’s a hospital, Buck, they frown upon use of cellular devices in this establishment. Once I have ascertained that young Vin is fine, I will send Josiah to find you.”

 

              ~*~

 

“Look, I’m really sorry, but you’re not Vin’s foster father nor his social worker. I am not having this conversation with you.”

“Chris would have no problem with me knowing,” Nathan protested. “In fact, he damn well will come and find me after you’ve told him to get me to explain it fully.”

Oops, Ezra sidled up to the tense doctor and the ramrod straight agent facing off against each other. Arms crossed over his narrow chest, Shepard looked down his long nose at Nathan.

“I held his hand as you injected the dye in his veins and mapped the flow through his heart on the resonance scan. I’m his Uncle for god’s sake,” Nathan protested.

“Yes, but you’re not his guardian, Agent Jackson. I’m sorry,” Shepard was resolute.

“Ah, gentleman, young Vin passed his tests with flying colours?”

Shepard jerked around. “I’m trying to explain that it’s his social worker or foster father that I should be talking to. It’s a matter of privacy.”

“Indeed, but consider that a smile can speak a thousand words.” Ezra leaned back to better read Dr. Shepard’s body language. “So we can take Vin home tomorrow.”

“As I said to Agent Jackson…” Shepard began. Pupils widened, the fine, dry skin around his eyes crinkled infinitesimally and he took a slightly deeper breath.

“Vin is fine, Nathan,” Ezra reported.

“Are you sure?” Nathan looked from doctor to agent, back and forth.

“I’d bet my life insurance on it.”

Shepard scowled, hazel eyes screwing up. “Allow me the common courtesy of speaking to his father.”

“I have no problem with that,” Ezra said offhandedly.

“Where is Chris?” Nathan asked. “What happened at Ms. Gaines’?”

“Answering your questions in reverse order: Chris collapsed and he is currently down in the E.R. -- being readmitted.”

“What?”

“Would you like me to repeat?”

Nathan growled under his breath. “You have got to be the most annoying man on the planet when you’re in this kind of mood.” He jabbed Ezra in the centre of his chest with his finger. “You stay here with Vin, I’m going to check on Chris.”

Ezra brushed imaginary fingerprints off his embroidered vest. “Your wish is my command.”

Shaking his head, Nathan stalked off.

“You enjoyed that far too much,” Shepard observed.

“I’m a man of simple pleasures.” Ezra canted his head to the side. “Actually no, I’m not. But teasing Nathan is special.” He made a great production of consulting his watch. “Ah, visiting hours have started, I’ll go and entertain my nephew until such time as you consider yourself able to tell me that he’s going to be fine.”

Chortling happily, Ezra slipped into Vin’s room.

“Uncle Ez.” Vin kicked off the blankets and crawled to the end of the bed. “They stuck me in a big tube and said that they could see the coloured d--, dey--”

“Dye.”

“Why they call it dye? It doesn’t sound very nice. I didn’t want them to put it in me, but Uncle Nathan said they’d got to.”

Ensuring that the creases in his trousers remained sharp, Ezra settled carefully on the chair beside Vin’s bed.

“It sounds like you’ve had an interesting day.”

“They haven’t took this thingy out.” Vin pawed at the central line sticking out of his neck.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Ezra caught his hand. “Leave it alone.”

“I don’t like it.”

“I’m not overly fond of them myself, but tugging them is a not a good idea.”

“Have you had one?”

Uhm, yes. A few years ago.”

“What happened?” Vin tugged free of Ezra’s light hold to flop back on the mound of pillows at the head of the bed.

“I succumbed to appendicitis and it all went a bit pear shaped…”

Vin’s brow furrowed.

“Pear shaped? It all went south. Events ran away from me; I actually miscalculated the severity of the infection and was caught with my pants down, literally. Luckily, Uncle Nathan came around to check on me and, I am indebted to the gentlemen, whisked me to this very hospital. I was, of course, on another ward.”

Vin snuggled into the pillow, eyes drooping half-mast. Judging that the child had had a long day, Ezra dropped his voice a notch.

“Josiah came and visited me everyday and he told me a host of stories during my incarceration. Would you like me to share?”

“Yeah.” 

Ezra pulled out the ruffled blankets from under Vin’s feet, to draw up and over his legs. “This was a strange story. Did you know that Josiah has a certain fascination with crows?”

Uhuh.”

“This is the story ‘Old Woman Crow and Dog Facing the Whale’.”

 

End part six

 

Part seven

 

Chris stretched out on Vin’s bed. Vin was propped up against him slowly reading from a big book balanced on his knees. Resting his eyes, Chris smiled and leaned back on the pillows. Reading wasn’t really on the agenda at the moment, especially with a migraine level headache, so Vin was the storyteller.

“Chris?”

Uhm.” He didn’t open his eyes.

“They’re gonna let us go home, yeah?”

Chris squeezed his charge. They had spent a fourth night in the hospital and finally both had the all clear.

“We’re allowed to go, but you’re going to spend a few days at Ezra’s.”

Vin dropped the book and shifted around on his bottom. “Why?” he asked desolately, “just me? Not JD, or you or Buck?”

“No, no,” Chris rushed to reassure him. “JD’s already there with Nathan. We’ve just got a couple of things to sort out before you can come back home to the ranch, and Ezra thought that it would be nice if you spent some time at his house.”

Vin regarded him through a veil of hair. “I…” he screwed up his face as he searched for the right words.

Chris waited patiently, knowing that Vin was hunting the way to formulate his words in a confusion of thoughts. Plainly expressing the words from the melange of emotions and feelings took time and effort. But it was well worth it.

“You’re going to trap Miz. Ella, ain’t you?” Vin finally said.

Chris brushed the hair out of Vin’s eyes, marvelling at the insight. “Yeah, she’s probably going to come to the ranch, so I want you and JD to be safe.”

“We could help.”

Chris moved his hand to cup the thin face and thought the better of it when his wrist twinged. “I’d feel better if you were at Ezra’s. I’m not going to argue.”

“You’re hurt,” Vin protested. “What ya gonna do?”

“Uncle Josiah and Buck will be with me,” Chris said.

“Hey, guys.” Buck bounded into the room as large as day. He set a large case and a bag on the floor beside the bed.  “How ya doing. You ready to go?”

“We gonna escape as soon as Dr. Dom sez I can go.”

“Escape?”

“Yep. Uncle Ezra said that we were incarcerated. That means that we’re prisoners so we get to escape.”

Buck laughed. He leaned over and tickled Vin’s ribs. “So how about I help you get dressed.”

“I don’t got no proper clothes.”

“Oh, well, look what I bought.” Buck upended the carrier bag on the bed. A pair of white t-shirts, jeans and a pair of new and old ratty sneakers dropped out.

Vin poked the t-shirt warily. “Why two?”

“We are going to run a little ploy,” he said dramatically. Crossing to the window he pulled the blinds closed.

Vin shifted out of Chris’ grasp and yanked off his smock top, casting it to the floor in his enthusiasm. In a heartbeat he was pulling the t-shirt over his head. Buck moved to help, keeping it off the nasty looking bruise on the side of Vin’s neck. Rolling on to his back, Vin wiggled into the jeans. His eagerness to get dressed and escape was tangible.

“I know it’s pretty warm out, but can you put this hoodie on.” Buck held out a new navy blue hooded sweatshirt.

Vin was pretty cold at the best of times and he didn’t hesitate. Buck moved again to help.

“Nice.” Buck judged stepping back.

“So why two clothes?” Vin asked. Holding up the matching hooded sweat shirt. 

“Allow me to introduce you to Vin the Second.” Buck lifted the case onto the bed and pulled out a plastic and rubber child-sized doll.

Vin watched with wide eyes. The resuscitation practice doll was a little bit taller and stockier but it bore a shock of straw blond hair.

“You’re gonna pretend that that’s me?” he ventured. “It don’t look anything like me.”

“That’s why we’ve got the hoodie.” Buck proceeded to wrestle the manikin into the clothes, fighting to get bendy arms in the sleeves. 

Vin shrugged and glanced at Chris for an explanation.

“We’re going to have the doll in its case and then when we’re in the elevator we’re going to swap the doll for you.”

“‘Am not going in the case!” Vin scrabbled off he bed.

“No, no.” Buck intercepted him, swinging him up off the floor and into the air in an arc. “Josiah is coming with us. You’ll hide under his coat.”

Buck finished swinging and Vin bounced once as he was dumped back on the bed. His face screwed up unamused, where normally he would have at the very least smiled at Buck’s antics. “Why do you want Ms. Ella to think am going back to the ranch?”

“Hey, Cowboy,” Chris spoke softly. “Can you work with us? Be part of the team? It helps if we surprise Ms. Ella and you get to stay with JD.”

Vin stuck his bottom lip out mulishly. “I could help. You’ve got sore everythings. I’m all better.”

“Me being a little ‘under the weather’ means that she might come and visit and then Buck and Josiah can arrest her.”

“You’re going to make a trap so you’re going to be in danger!”

Chris ached to hold him, but he was effectively curtailed by his broken arm and sprained thumb. “I’m not going to be in danger; Buck and Josiah will be there.”

“I thought that Josiah was taking me to Uncle Ezra’s.”

“Hey, did someone mention my name?” Josiah opened the private room door and slipped in. He wore a heavy padded jacket.

“Whoa, you’re going to be warm.”

“Actually, it’s a little overcast.”

A knock on the door interrupted them, and without waiting for an acknowledgement, Dr. Shepard let himself into the room. “Ah, I see you have the resusci-kid.” He gestured at the lax doll being folded back into its case. 

“Yup, nice thinking.”

Dominic Shepard shrugged. “I thought that it might be a possible approach. Now,” he began seriously, “normally we would insist on the rigmarole of checking out at the main reception desk and the wheelchair, but I’ve got the paper work.”

Buck accepted it in Chris’ stead. “So we can just walk out?”

“Firstly, I’ve got some instructions. Mr. Larabee, I spoke to your doctor and you’re on 48 hours bed rest, followed by two weeks medical leave. You have an assessment appointment with the orthopaedist on the 23rd and neuro on the 24th. Of course if you have any problems, you’ll find their contact details in Vin’s release pack.” Shepard pointed at the bright yellow folder with a cartoon of a plush bear sporting a bandage over one eye.

“Really?” Buck drawled.

“Yes, I just thought that you’d like all the information together,” Shepard said, his expression rivalled Ezra’s best poker face.

“Vin’s pack?”

“It has a breakdown of Vin’s treatment. I’ve sent full copies to his paediatrician but I like to give notes to a parent for their information. I want Vin to take it very easy for a couple of days, we’ll be into the weekend by then. Get Dr. Two Feather’s to give him a check up next Monday and potentially he can go back to school in a week. Follow the general advice that Dr. Two Feather’s gave you about food and sleeping. Vin,” Shepard got his attention, “when you want to sleep, you just sleep and remember chocolate is good for the soul in moderation.”

Vin viewed him suspiciously as the man ruffled his hair.

“Right, I don’t want to see you guys again unless it’s the Christmas party or something.”

Buck held out his hand. “Thanks, doc.”

“You’re more than welcome.” Shepard shook his hand hard.

 

              ~*~

 

“Now?” Vin whispered as the elevator doors closed.

“Now,” Buck confirmed. Vin lifted his head from Buck’s shoulder where he pretended to be asleep and wiggled to be let down. Reluctantly, Buck set him on the floor. Josiah already had the case opened and pulled out Vin II.

“Don’t look anything like me.”

“It’s close enough.” Buck unfolded the manikin. He lifted it out and held it close, pillowing the head into the crook of his neck.

“Hood,” Josiah said.

“Ah.” Buck pulled the hood up. “Now?”

“Kind of hook your arm under its ass.”

“It’s different than carrying a Vin.” Buck shifted. “Now?”

“Yeah.”

The elevator pinged, indicating that the unit was stopping. Josiah moved to the doors ready to bar entry. “I’m sorry,” he said as the doors opened, “there’s not enough room.”

“What?” The doors closed on the protesting visitor.

Vin crept out from behind Chris. “Have I gotta hide now?”

“Yep.” Josiah knelt, opening up his coat.

“I think I should go to the ranch, though,” Vin protested.

“Vin,” Chris said uncompromisingly.

Muttering, Vin snuggled under Josiah’s coat. Josiah shifted his legs so he was tucked under his heart. Standing, Josiah folded the flap of his coat over Vin’s body. He made a barely discernable bump.

“Comfy?”

Vin wriggled in and Josiah smiled transcendently. The doors chimed again announcing the garage level.

“The case,” Chris said suddenly. He couldn’t pick it up. Buck regarded it charily, almost as if he expected it to bite. Josiah hesitated loathe joggle his charge.

“I’ll get it.” Body ramrod straight, Buck bent his knees to reach the case.

The doors opened. “Ah,” Ezra’s cultured tones filled the space. “I see I’m just in time.”

“Ezra, we just got released,” Chris announced loudly.  

“As I can see.” Ezra stepped aside, allowing them to exit.

“Perfect timing, Ezra,” Josiah said. “I wonder if I can scrounge a lift to my place? I was going to go back to the ranch but I think that these guys need some quality time alone.”

“My pleasure, but how about stopping off at Casa Standish for a meal? You’re looking a bit peaky. Garlic mushrooms with roasted pine nuts, sundried tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella on a bed of piquant lemon couscous?”

“How can I pass that up?” 

Under the coat Vin gagged.

“Thanks, ‘Siah. It’s been a Hell of a few days, I need to crash,” Chris said. He smiled fondly at the manikin. “Looks like Vin has crashed already.”

“We will take our leave,” Ezra bowed, outrageously waving his hand as he genuflected. “Sire, may I conduct you to the jaguar?”

“Of course you may.” Josiah went along with the production knowing at it would entail Ezra opening the door of the car.

“Hey, Josiah, once you’ve caught up on your sleep come up the ranch.”

“Maybe I’ll come on over after I’ve had some food.”

Buck and Chris headed off in the direction of Chris’ SUV with its dark, protective windows. Ezra darted ahead and got the door of his car.

“Allow me, sir,” he said in his best chauffeur tones, holding Josiah’s elbow to guide him into the front bucket seat.

Jeeves, I require sustenance.”

“Of course.” Ezra slammed the door shut and darted to the driver’s seat. Settling into the car, he was peeling out of the parking space before Josiah could get a breath.

“Hey, I’m not buckled in,” Josiah protested. “There’s no booster seat in here.”

“It would look very suspicious,” Ezra said, spinning to the exit ramp. 

“Stop, let me get my seatbelt on.”

Ezra slowed down, as Josiah manhandled the belt on.

“This is not a good idea,” Josiah said. The drape of the belt only held Vin’s leg securely. Josiah cupped his hands over his stomach, holding Vin.

Vin nuzzled against his side, warmth and darkness lulling him. Weight shifted turning liquid as Vin succumbed.

“He’s asleep,” Josiah marvelled.

“Really?”

“Yes. He’s somewhere warm, dark and safe. It’s not that surprising.”

Ezra slowed to a halt as they drew up by Chris’ SUV. Buck stood beside the vehicle cradling the manikin as Chris checked the underside of the vehicle. It was sobering.

Josiah wound down the side window. “Everything okay, guys?”

Chris struggled to his feet without using his arms.

“Yeah.” Green eyes flashed. “You guys get out of here.” The order was unmistakeable: protect Vin or else.

Ezra hit his control panel to override Josiah’s use of the window, winding it back up. They peeled away without a word.

 

              ~*~

 

“They’re here!” JD squealed loud enough to be heard in the next State.

Nathan’s, “Shush!” was almost as loud.

Ezra opened the door, bracing himself for JD’s enthusiastic greeting. The boy hit him low, squeezing his knees tightly.

“Where’s…”

Ezra laid a gentle finger tip on JD’s rosebud lips. “Can we come in?”

JD nodded furiously and released him. Ezra stepped aside to allow a perspiring Josiah into his penthouse. As soon as the door was closed, Josiah unzipped his jacket revealing the slumbering form within.

“Vin,” JD shrieked joyously.

“Shush!” three voices demanded.

JD clamped his hands over his mouth. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Do you have a room set up?” Josiah asked. He had visited Ezra’s home on several occasions, but visits had been, in a certain way, restricted. The sitting room was open to all, as was the kitchen, but he had never seen the guest room, Ezra’s room or his study – respecting Ezra’s innate and obvious need for privacy.  

The guest room was not designed for children. It was warm and welcoming but curiously soulless. The fabrics were a mix of deep reds and forest greens and the furnishings dark mahogany.

“An Ole Jørgensen original design,” Ezra supplied.

A king-sized bed covered with a mound-like quilt dominated the room. Vin would be lost in the deep red folds.   

“Can you help?” Josiah asked, not sure of the mechanics of extracting Vin from his nest.

“Hmmm.” Ezra considered the problem. “It’s not immediately obvious is it? I’m always surprised at how deftly Buck handles them. Chris I can understand, he has a wealth of experience under his belt. But Buck – it’s amazing.”

Ezra basically decided to go for it. He slipped his hands between Josiah’s side and Vin and slowly drew the lax form from the folds. Josiah caught Vin’s shoulders and supported.

“They make it look so easy,” he marvelled.

“How do we get the quilt back?” Ezra asked regarding the pristine bed.

Sheesh,” Nathan said, entering and pulling back the quilt, “you guys really make a mountain out of a molehill.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ezra mocked. Together they laid Vin on the right side of the bed.

“Should we undress him?” Josiah wondered.

“Yes, we’ve put his shoes on my 1000 point weave Egyptian Cotton sheet.”

Nathan deftly plucked off the offending sneakers. “You’ve just got to remember not to be scared. Kids are more likely to respond to you fumbling about than simply getting on with it.” He undid the top button of Vin’s jeans and left them on.

“Aren’t you going to undress him?”

“No, let him sleep a little while, and get him into his pjs later.” Nathan consulted his watch. “If he’s not awake by four get him up and give him a snack if he wants it.”

“Aren’t you staying?” Ezra demanded.

“I thought that I’d head over to the ranch and stop Chris overdoing it and you and Josiah could hold the fort here. “

Ezra and Josiah shared a glance of outright trepidation.

“Look after JD and Vin?” Ezra confirmed.

Nathan rolled his eyes heavenward. “You’re ATF agents for god’s sake.”

“But Vin’s not very well,” Josiah mumbled.

Nathan scratched his head. “You just need to let him sleep as much as he wants. If he wants to get up, let him. Juice, milk -- no not milk -- easily digestible food. Look Rain’s a block away, she’s right around the corner. I’ll be gone a couple of hours and then I’ll be straight back. But I think it’s wise to check on Chris, don’t you?”

The two agents could only nod.

“Vin might still be asleep by the time I get back. Sheesh.”

“Okay, okay, you’re right. It’s just... you know.” Josiah shrugged sheepishly for a six foot six mountain of a man.

“It will be fine.” Nathan flipped the edge of the quilt over Vin, effectively obscuring everything but a shock of blond hair from view. “Let’s have a look in your fridge; see what I need to get on the way back.”

With a dutiful glance at the slumbering Vin, Ezra traipsed after the medic.

“Oh, Damn, where’s Cat?”

 

              ~*~

 

Chris dropped onto Sarah’s rocking chair and leaned his head back. The short trip had nearly killed him.

“Hey, Stud.” Buck tapped his shoulder.

Chris cracked open an eye. Buck held two capsules in front of his nose.

“Migraine tablets,” he supplied.

Chris pondered a moment and then reached. “Ai,” he gritted out.

“Just open your mouth,” Buck said.

Not liking the degree of helplessness, Chris grudgingly opened his mouth. Buck popped them in and then held a glass of water to his lips.

“They’re non-drowsy. They should take about twenty minutes to kick in.”

“Thanks.”

Buck slumped onto the sofa. “Seems weird without JD and Vin here.” 

“They’re safer at Ezra’s.”

“I know that, but it’s too quiet.”

They sat as prickly as cats in a room filled with rocking chairs soaking up the unearthly quiet.

“You want something to eat?” Buck finally said into the silence.

“Nah.”

“You know, maybe you should have something on your stomach with the meds?”

Chris regarded his totally out of commission right arm and painful left hand. Having Buck feed him did not appeal; it was embarrassing, he was an adult.

“Aw, you idiot.” Buck read his mind. “I’ll go make you a sandwich.”

Chris couldn’t help but smile warmly.

How long am I going to need help, he wondered, looking that the disturbing pins that pierced his flesh. The left hand with the reset thumb and cuts and bruises, might, he reflected, be okay in a few days. But in the mean time Buck was going to have to help him with everything. His stomach clenched. How the fuck had he managed to break his arm so badly? He’d left Vin after he’d rinsed off thoroughly to get his own shower. He’d heard something and turned and, crack, he was on the floor face pushed up against the carpet. His arm was twisted under him. The memories were vague, but a foot rolled him over. A booted foot, which then stood on his hurting wrist.

The blackness.

“Buck!” he yelled. “Buck!”

“What!” His friend burst into the room.

“Ella had a partner.”

“What?”

“I was knocked to the floor. There was a man.”

“Are you sure?”

“How else could Ella have got me on the bed? You know what it’s like carting an unconscious body around. It’s like trying to handle a bag of wet concrete.”

“We better tell the guys.” Buck rubbed his moustache pondering. “I’ve been keeping my eyes open. I haven’t spotted anyone following. There were lots of guys on your ward, but they could have been visiting friends and family.”

“What if Ella did have someone on all of us? It was foolish of us to assume that she was working alone, but that’s what we did.”

“We were careful at the hospital, but what if she had someone on the ranch? What if she had someone on Nathan and saw him take JD to Ezra’s?”

“The kids are her target.”

“We’ve got to get over there.”

Buck grabbed the SUV keys and ran, with Chris on his heels.

 

              ~*~

 

Ezra regarded his supplies charily, he thought that he had supplied a reasonable selection of kiddie friendly food, yet Nathan had been most disparaging. He closed the cupboard and decided that a cup of freshly prepared espresso and a Guylian chocolate was just what the doctor had ordered.

The bell chimed as he was measuring out Blue Mountain into the percolator well.

“Josiah, would you like to get that?”

A loud snore greeted his call. Sighing, Ezra set his coffee down. At the door he peered through the peephole. A DHS delivery man rocked from foot to foot.

Ezra triggered the intercom. “Yes?”

“Delivery for Mr. Standish?”

“Who’s it from?” Normally mail went to the reception desk in the main foyer.

“Recorded delivery from Ms. Maude Standish. It requires your signature.”

Ms? Ezra wondered as he opened the door. Maude did not normally use that nomenclature. A silvery muzzle flashed at waist height. Ezra threw himself sideways. The silencer coughed once.  The round caught under his right ribs.

“Josiah!”

 

              ~*~

 

Vin sat up straight, alerted by the fear filled voice.  He recognised Uncle Ezra’s guest room; he and JD had napped in the big bed a couple of times while waiting for Buck or Chris to pick them up. Sharp ears picked up a weird huff, puffing sound. Worried, he kicked off the quilt and rolled onto his knees.

“JD?” His brother was curled up under the quilt. “Wake up, JD.” He gave him a good poke in the ribs.

JD knuckled the sleep from his eyes and rolled over. “What?” he asked grumpily.

“We gotta hide, there’s something up.”

JD looked at him trustingly.

“We can’t stay in here,” Vin said. “It’ll be the first place they’ll look.”

Vin clambered off the high bed and buttoned up his jeans. There was a loud thud. Swallowing hard, Vin stretched out his hand. JD grabbed and Vin pulled him to the window. Carefully, he studied the latch and then opened it. He poked his head out, taking in the narrow balcony and the metal safety ladder to the roof.

“I’ve got an idea, JD.”

 

              ~*~

 

Josiah’s cell phone vibrated, startling him awake a second before Ezra’s pained call. The profiler rolled out of the recliner, freeing his Magnum 45. He took a millisecond to click off the safety. The cell phone started to play ‘Blue Moon’. He flicked it off neither needing the distraction or the give away. Josiah ghosted to the door. He peeked through the crack between the open door and the frame. A spray of bullets almost took his head off.

“Damn!” Josiah responded with his own spray. The blast of the rounds echoed through the hall.

“My paintwork!” Ezra shrieked. He lay across the floor, feet planted against the door, bracing himself against the opposite wall. He had the gun man pinned by the shoulder between the door and the frame. Josiah aimed, squeezed and bullseyed the perp right between the eyes. He flopped, only held upright by Ezra’s actions.

Ez?”

“There might be someone with him,” he gritted out, remaining in position.

Josiah moved into the hall, his speed belying his size. He pushed on the body’s arm forcing it up and back.

“Now,” he directed.

Ezra released the pressure and Josiah neatly thrust the body out the door. Ezra kicked it shut. Josiah slammed the deadbolt in position. No bullets hit the door.

“I’ll call Chris.”

“You’ll get me a towel or a whisky,” Ezra contradicted.

“What?”

Ezra held up a hand glistening with claret red blood.

“Son!” Josiah dropped to his knees. “Where?”

“My side – it just nicked me. But get me a towel before I ruin my Arabian carpet.”

There was a growing stain under his hip that had already saturated the fine weave.

“You’re bleeding like the proverbial stuck pig.”

“I really didn’t need to hear that.”

Josiah pulled off his shirt and wadded it up to press against Ezra’s side. “Hold that there while I call the cops and the paramedics.”

“Chris first.”

“Chris is at the ranch.”

“That I doubt, the man is psychic, he’ll know that something’s going down and he’ll be on his way.”

Josiah shook his head, but called Larabee.

“Josiah! What the Hell happened. You shut me off!”

“Call the cops and get an ambulance to Ezra’s.”

“What! Are the kids hurt?”

“No. The kids are fine. Ezra took a hit to the side. There’s a gun man dead just outside Ezra’s apartment. Long story.”

“Ella?”

“No sign.”

“Shit,” Chris snarled. “I called Nathan after failing to get through to you. He’s closer.”

“Call it in, Chris. I’m going to see to Ezra.”

 

              ~*~

 

Buck floored the accelerator and the SUV roared forward.

“How close are we?” Chris asked peering through a headache at the barren landscape.

“Not close enough.”

 

              ~*~

 

“How’s it look?” Ezra lay flat on his back, his feet propped up on an overturned telephone table.

“Not bad,” Josiah judged. “You’ve scored a bullet width furrow along your side in and out. You’re going to have quite a scar, though. There’s nothing to join up.”

“Thank you for that visual.” Ezra dropped his head back on the carpet, hissing as Josiah leaned into the wound, clamping down to control the flow of blood. “Go check on JD and Vin. They’re going to be terrified.”

“Emergency services will be here soon.”

“Go find them.”

“No.”

Ezra freed his sig from its shoulder holster. “I’ll cover the door. There are fire escapes, Josiah. Check the apartment, now.”

Reluctantly, Josiah stood. “Don’t move an inch.” He pointed his finger.

“Who me?” Ezra blinked innocently.

“Bah.”

“Ezra! Josiah!” Nathan banged vigorously on the door.

“Halleluiah,” Josiah proclaimed. He looked through the spy hole. His fellow agent was scowling at the door and he was definitely alone. Josiah threw open the door.

“I’ve got a call from Chris, Ezra’s hit?” He held up his paramedic bag.

Josiah stepped to the side revealing their fellow agent.

“Jesus.”

Josiah yanked Nathan in and slammed the door shut. “See to Ezra, I’ll get the kids.”

 

              ~*~

 

“Chris, what are you doing?”

He rubbed furiously at his eyes, knowing that his fair skin would turn bright red and his eyes would tear up.

“Chris?”

“Play along with me,” he directed.

Buck pulled into one of the reserved parking spaces outside Ezra’s apartment complex. A paramedic unit and two police cars were parked outside.

“What are you planning?”

“Just open my door, Buck, and let me out.”

Buck leaned over and popped the door. Chris stumbled out. In the distance he could hear the wail of approaching sirens and the weight of a watcher.

“Chris?” Buck pointed to the entrance.

“Give me a moment, Buck. I… I can’t keep doing this.” Deliberately, Chris hung his head.

“Doing what?” Buck’s eyes darted left, right.

“Just: this. Go check on the team and the kids, I’ll be up in a moment--” Chris sighed heavily, “--or another lifetime.”

Buck’s consternation was palpable. Chris lifted his head and glared at him, urging the man to leave him alone.

“Go.”

“Okay. Okay.” Buck nodded once and then ran for the entrance to Ezra’s home.

Chris leaned up against the bumper of his SUV and let himself sag, defeated. There was a woman out there who had murdered his wife and child. Who now threatened his new family.

Chris hung his head and waited. He couldn’t even begin to comprehend why she was hung up on him. It was mad to expect that she would simply walk up to him but he knew that she was as insane as the day was long. She watched him, judging from that hidden room, incessantly.  And she coveted him. If he simply set himself up as a vulnerable, she would come.  A patrol car screeched to a halt in the bay beside him. And Chris watched, detached, as they exited the vehicle and stormed into the apartment complex, nightsticks jerking at waists as they ran.

I am here, bitch.

Shadows moved.

“Chris? Darling?” She stood before him, jerking, almost dancing in her eagerness.

Chris pursed his lips, he had to remain calm, to get the evidence he needed and make her go away, permanently. His fingers clenched painfully, and he wished he could hold his gun.

“Never,” Chris said, “Not now. Not ever. Never.”

“Darling?” She played with a curl of her long dark hair, as her dark eyes gazed adoringly.  

He shuddered. “No, I’m not your darling.”  

“But you are, you’re mine,” she said, sounding confused.

“I’m not. Not even when we were at UCLA. I asked you to marry me and you refused. We moved on. Remember? We moved on. I married the woman I loved,” Chris said through clenched teeth, “Sarah.”

“Her,” Ella said sourly.

“Why?” Chris swallowed hard. “Why did you do it?”

“I did it for us, Chris.”

“Again, why?”

She moved, one hand out, reaching for his cheek. Chris turned his head avoiding her touch.

“Chris,” she begged.

“Why!”

“We were the best. They get in the way. They had to be removed, all of them,” she snarled, eyes turning wild. “It was for us.”

“There can be no ‘us’,” Chris said venomously, “because without them I’m…”

“Down on the ground,” Buck boomed. The agent finally stalked forward, his Magnum pointed at Ella’s head. The words had been spoken, the admission made and Buck had finally broken cover.

 “You.” Ella curled her lip at him. “You big parasite, always in the way.”

Buck shook his head. “Like I care what you think of me.”

Ella stamped her foot. “Chris and I are having a discussion. Do you mind?”

“Actually, yes, I do.” Always the gentleman, Buck holstered his gun rather than point it at a woman. He pulled out his handcuffs. “Turn around, Ella.”

“Why? Chris,” she appealed to him. “Tell him to go away.”

“Ella, turn around,” Chris ordered.

“Chris. Why are you acting like this?”

“Don’t you get it?” Chris let rip. “I hate you. I loathe you. You….”

Buck snapped on the handcuffs. “Chris, go inside. Go check on the kids, I’ll handle this.”

Chris sagged back against the bumper, enervated. Ella seemed surprised at the cuffs. She jerked on them perplexed. “What?”

Chris pushed off the truck, and stumbled away in the direction of the apartment.

“Chris!”

He ignored her. Buck would deal with her. Her wails followed him into the complex. Exhausted, he stumbled towards into the elevator. Leaning into the control panel and using his elbow to trigger the button. The closing doors finally cut out her shrieks.

Chris stumbled out onto Ezra’s floor. Cops swarmed all over the place. A covered body lay outside Ezra’s door. Two uniformed cops were conversing over it.

“Hey?” One turned to him, blocking Chris’ entrance to Ezra’s apartment.

“Chris Larabee, ATF, I’d give you my id, but I’m a bit impeded at the moment.” He nodded at his sling. “My men and my son are in that apartment.”

 “Chris,” Ezra yelled.

The cops automatically stepped aside. Ezra lay on a gurney just inside the door, a nasal cannula tucked under his nose and bag of saline resting on his chest. A paramedic was fighting to keep him strapped to the gurney.

“Ezra, are you all right?”

“Yes, it’s just a flesh wound. Vin and JD are missing, Chris,” he said urgently. “Josiah can’t find them anywhere.”

“What?”

“They’re not in the apartment.”

“Oh, my god.” Chris felt the blood drain from his face.

“They were both in the guest room. Down the hall. Left, down the corridor, past the kitchen and then at the end,” Ezra directed.

Oblivious to everyone, Chris ran. He skidded into the guest room. Josiah was hanging out of the window.

“Josiah?”

He pulled back. “Nathan’s going up on the roof; we think the kids went up there when the man got in.”

“What? Out of the way.”

“Chris.” Josiah refused to move when Chris pushed him. “Chris, concussion and broken arm, you’re going up that ladder over my dead body. Sit down before you pass out. You look like shit.”

Stunned, Chris stopped. He knew Josiah, when he used that tone you did not cross the man. “Look, Buck’s got Ella, that man out there’s likely her sidekick but there may be another. Make sure Nathan keeps his eyes open.” Chris mapped the apartment in his head. There was a way to the roof from the kitchen.

Chris darted out of the room, down the corridor and into the kitchen. He pulled open the kitchen door out onto the back balcony to meet Nathan coming down the second fire escape.

“Any sign of them?”

“No.” Nathan shook his head. “The way down on the other side of the apartment complex is blocked – padlocked. If the fire marshals did an inspection this place would fail.”

“Anywhere to hide?”

Nathan shook his head, his expression understanding. “No, it’s a flat roof. Not even the common or garden air con. outlet in Ezra’s digs.”

“Where are they?”

“Somewhere in the house.”

“Vin! JD!” Chris hollered.

“Chris?” a tiny voice said.

“JD?” it sounded close. Chris hunted around the kitchen flinging open doors. Nathan joined him, reaching in to pull out bottle of detergents, boxes of high priced, imported biscuits and jars of pasta, knowing the resourcefulness of two little boys when it came to hiding. Camouflage was the name of the game and he wouldn’t have put it past them to crawl in behind pots and pans.  

“JD, where are you?”

Nathan froze, looking at the open door of Ezra’s tumble dryer. The door was wedged open with a dish cloth lying over the threshold. Nathan crouched down and peered into the drum.

“JD?”

Big brown eyes gazed solemnly back at him. “Vin said not to come out until he came back.”

“He meant until he or your Uncles came.” Nathan reached in, marvelling that JD could fit in such a space. Chris fitted against Nathan’s shoulder, trying to help but getting in the way.

JD crawled out of the drum into Nathan’s arms. “You okay, JD?” Nathan patted him down.

Uhuh.” JD nodded furiously. “Vin sez that the trolls was here.”

“You’re safe. Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah kept them away,” Nathan comforted.

“JD, where’s Vin?” Chris asked intensely.

JD turned in Nathan’s arms. “He made me hide in the good place. He said he was going to get another place.”

Chris bolted to his feet. “Vin!” he hollered. Where would he be? Not in the kitchen or he would have appeared. Somewhere else in Ezra’s warren of an apartment.

He tracked out of the kitchen. The guest room was at the end of this corridor. If Vin had moved along to the opposite end, he would have emerged into the hall and seen the action at Ezra’s front door. Neither Ezra or Josiah said that they had seen him. That left the utility room by the kitchen or – Chris turned on his heel – and crossed the hall. Vin would have chanced it and made it to Ezra’s bedroom.

Chris pushed open the door. “Vin? It’s Chris.”

There was a built in wardrobe in Ezra’s room, and that struck Chris as the best place. He pulled open the door, and stepped back when confronted by a rack full of plastic wrapped suits. Everything had its place and everything was in its place. It was the most organised wardrobe that Chris had ever seen. There was no place to hide. But three pairs of shoes lay haphazardly on the floor of the wardrobe.

“Vin?”

The shoe wardrobe, a tall, narrow unit, sat at right angles to the larger clothes wardrobe.  Three shelves pulled open to slot in pairs of shoes and it didn’t look wide enough for even a child of Vin’s stature to hide in. Chris dropped to his knees, and pulled open the bottom tier.

“Chris!” Vin was folded up, knees tight against his chest, to fit in the small space.

“Cowboy. Come on.”  He held out his hand.

Vin regarded the swollen fingers, ignored them, and uncurled. He clambered out of the space and flung his arms around Chris’ neck and hugged for all his worth.

“It was… it was… I didn’t know what to do. I made JD hide. But UncEz was on the floor and Unc’ ‘Siah was shooting and I didn’t know what to do, so I hid.”

“You did the right thing, Vin. You protected JD.”

Vin held on tighter, squeezing.  Chris dropped back on his butt, unable to move another inch. Vin and JD were safe and Ella had been taken into custody. It was easy to close his eyes and relax with Vin held safely. To relax as he hadn’t relaxed since the whole debacle had started.

 

Epilogue

 

“Well, a fine bunch of men we are,” Ezra declaimed from the sofa where he had set up throne. On being discharged, JD and Vin had insisted that he needed to stay at the ranch while he recovered. Since his front door and hall were riddled with bullets and he had contractors in repairing the damage, he hadn’t put up much of a fight. Chris was on sick leave and Vin was supposedly recovering – but hadn’t stopped running around since morning. It was exhausting to watch him playing. Chris had headed back to bed with a migraine and Ezra was basking under Mrs. Potter’s indulgent care.

“What’d you mean, UncEz?” JD was lying on the floor, colouring.

“Nothing really, it was a vague unformed statement, probably from the painkillers.”

Vin dragged his feet into the room and flopped on the sofa next to Ezra. The agent manfully held in a wince.

“What’s the matter, Vin? Feeling tired?”

Sorta.”

“Is it Chris?”

“Yeah, he keeps going to bed. Is he all right?” Vin lowered his voice to JD didn’t hear.

“When you bang your head really hard, it takes a while for it to get better, so it helps if you sleep a lot.”

“Oh,” Vin said monosyllabically.

“It’s okay.” Ezra carefully, slung an arm round Vin’s shoulders and gave him a light squeeze. “Can I ask you a question?” he said, mainly to distract.

“Yep.”

“Did you go on the roof in my apartment? Or just open the window.”

“We left the window open.” Vin smiled. “I saw it in a movie. They called it misdirection.”

Ezra laughed and then had to hold his side to stop it from hurting too much.

“What’s so funny?” Buck sauntered into the room, followed by Nathan and Josiah.

“Buck!” JD squealed and launched himself at the man. Buck caught him and lifted him high until his head touched the lampshade.

Vin remained where he was soaking up Ezra’s warmth.

“Well, this looks cosy.” Josiah claimed the recliner for himself and Nathan grabbed the rocking chair.

Tutting, Ezra moved his feet so Buck, with JD in his arms, could lounge on the end of his sofa.

“So are we having a party or something?” Ezra asked.

“Chris said that Mrs. Potter cooked up a roast chicken and all the goodies for us.”

Dutifully Ezra inhaled, and was surprised to smell a true roast dinner; he must have slept most of the day if he had missed the preparations.

“When will it be ready?” Ezra asked. “Chris had to lay down for a while.”

“I’ll go check on him.” Nathan jumped to his feet.

“I’ll get instructions for the chicken and let Mrs. P. go home.” Buck stood and gently dropped JD on Josiah’s lap.

“Busy house,” Ezra observed, and both men left the room.

“Yep,” Vin said casually as he grabbed the remote and started surfing.

 

              ~*~