Empty Kingdom

By LaraMee

With no set goal in mind Vin wandered into the den. Picking the remote up from the end table, he pointed it at the large screen television and turned it on. Without registering the passing pictures, he flipped the channels, stopping when he saw the little emblem in the lower right corner that he recognized. The green rectangle with the picture of an elephant told him that it was Animal Planet. Dropping the remote back to the table he moved to sit on the floor near the television. He turned the volume up just a little louder than it needed to be and stared up at the screen. It was the show where the guy showed the funny videos, so he knew he wouldn't get in trouble for watching it.

After a few minutes the seven-year-old decided that the show wasn't interesting. He blew out a frustrated breath and climbed to his feet, resuming his journey. Vin scuffed aimlessly through the house. His next stop took him to the door of his bedroom. His and JD's. A frown furrowed his brow as he saw the clutter. JD hadn't done a very good job at cleaning, there were still toys lying out and the little table in the corner was cluttered with papers. His frown deepened as he recognized the drawings on most of the papers as belonging to his friend.

With a huff he left the bedroom behind and walked down the hall. His steps quickened as he moved, fueled by growing frustration.

The little boy found himself in the great room. The furrowed brow only etched itself deeper on the tiny, elfin features. They had moved the furniture around to make room for the wide wooden platform that JD's train set was mounted on. Buck had sanded and stained the wood so that it would look nice.

But at that moment, to Vin, it was just more clutter in the house. More clutter in Chris' house. The house that was so neat and clean when they had moved in.

With a growl the little boy kicked one of the sturdy little buildings sitting on the wood. He sent it crashing into the train, the cars scattering across the board. Then, dropping to the floor, he rubbed a sock covered toe.

"Stupid train," the blond grunted as he continued to rub the throbbing toe. Finally it stopped hurting and he climbed back to his feet. He stomped back through the house, the effect muted by his thick socks.

Arriving back at the den he heard the sounds of Lilo and Stitch's theme music coming from the television. He looked to see JD sitting on the couch, a big grin on his face as the little blue alien and his friend cavorted across the screen. The frustration rocketed toward anger as he watched his friend sitting there so happy.

"Hey! I was watchin' An'mal Planet!" He yelled, his Texan accent growing thicker.

Innocently staring at the older boy the little brunet replied, "you wasn't in here when I comed back inside. Miz. Potter said I could turn it over. 'Sides, you like Lilo and Stitch, too."

There it was again. JD was listening to everyone but him. The rule was you weren't supposed to turn the channel unless you asked and JD hadn't even bothered to ask him. Vin stomped across the room and grabbed up the remote. "I was watchin' An'mal Planet!"

"You was not!" JD responded, reaching for the remote as well.

"I was too! Y' ain't s'posed t' turn th' channel 'less y' ask!" He held the device over his head.

"I aksed Miz Potter an' she said okay!" The smaller boy pulled himself up to stand on the couch.

"Well I'm watchin' An'mal Planet!"

"I'm watchin' Stitch!" The smaller boy made a grab for the coveted black box.

"No y' ain't! I said An'mal Planet!" Vin shoved the other boy backward.

Gloria Potter hurried into the room at the sounds of an escalating argument. "Boys! What's going - JD!"

Both Vin and the older woman watched as the five-year-old tumbled backwards off the couch. There was a thud and a thump as the side of his face hit the couch arm before he landed on his bottom on the floor.

Silence reigned for a second, all three people immobilized by shock. Then a shrill shriek split the air.

Gloria hurried toward the younger of the two children, where he lay rigid on the floor. JD screamed a second time as the pain in the side of his head and that in his rump vied for his attention.

"Sh, it's all right honey," Mrs. Potter gathered the tiny boy into her arms. Rocking gently, she crooned, "Sh, it's okay. Come on now… it's okay."

Behind her, Vin watched the scene with flashing eyes. JD always got the attention. JD always got his way. No one cared that JD didn't listen and did dumb things. He always had to make sure that JD didn't get into trouble, but that didn't seem to matter to anyone. Angry tears began to stream down the little face and the little boy flew out of the room. Tearing down the hall, he ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.

He banged his head and balled fists against the door, then strode across the room. His movements were tense with fury, every inch of his thin body fairly twitching with emotion. Vin began grabbing up the drawings JD had made. Some he balled up, others he ripped into tiny pieces. Then he moved to the toy box.

Slamming the lid open he began pulling the toys out, throwing them around the room. The entire time, he was muttering harsh words under his breath, words that were barely intelligible to his own ears.

It was this turmoil that Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington walked in on. They found Gloria Potter in the kitchen with JD. Their housekeeper had the crying boy on the counter, where she was pressing an ice pack just beneath his eye.

"What happened?" Larabee asked.

Shaking her head, the woman said, "The boys got into an argument - "

"I just wanted to watch Stitch," The little brunet said pitifully. He reached chubby arms out toward Wilmington.

Scooping the child up, the tall brunet asked, "Are you okay?"

"I gots a boo-boo."

"So I see," Buck replied, lightly brushing his thumb over the reddened flesh.

"They were arguing over the remote," The housekeeper continued. "I'm not exactly certain what happened, but JD went flying off the couch just as I got to the den."

The two men exchanged looks and Chris asked, "Where's Vin?"

"Their bedroom, I think. I heard the door slam a few minutes ago." They could see her concerned expression as she realized that she hadn't seen where the older boy had gone.

Giving her a small smile the blond nodded. "I'll go check on him."

Chris barely paused at the closed door. No longer masked by the sounds of the sniffling child and the noise from the television he could hear the muffled sounds of destruction coming from the boys' bedroom. Pushing the door open, he ducked quickly, dodging the toy car that sailed over his head.

"Vincent Michael Tanner! What are you doing?!"

The loud voice shocked the little boy out of his rampage with a jerk. The blond head, curls damp with perspiration, snapped up to stare at the man.

"Answer me young man," Larabee's voice dropped to a more normal level, but the tone was still stern. Arms folded across his chest, he said again, "I asked you a question Vin. What are you doing?"

His tiny face, flushed with anger, screwed up. With a howl, Vin threw himself into the tiny space between the bunk beds and the dresser. Drawing his knees up, he pressed his hands to his ears and began to bang his head against the wall.

Chris came into the room, kneeling in front of the little hiding space his foster son had used time and again. He tried to talk to the distraught child, but his efforts only caused the banging to intensify. Watching, the man saw that the child wasn't using enough force to hurt himself. Uncertain of what else to do, he pushed away and stood up.

Crossing the room, Larabee found a fairly clear spot and settled in directly across from the little boy. He sat, feigning a calm he didn't feel, waiting. Finally, after a few more minutes the seven-year-old's actions slowed to a stop.

Tiny chest heaving from exertion, the child finally looked up. The first thing he saw was the man he had come to love more than anyone else in the world. Blinking hard, he scrubbed at the tears clinging to his thick lashes and trailing down his face. Looking up one more, he saw his father sitting there still, not moving.

It took every ounce of will-power for the man to sit where he was. Every paternal instinct screamed at him to gather the tortured little soul into his arms and comfort him. Had it been Adam or JD he would have. But this was Vin, so he simply sat there, waiting for a signal from the boy.

The tiny blond sniffed loudly then coughed. He rubbed the back of his head then heaved a sigh. His legs uncurled, stretching out before him. He looked again and saw that his father still sat there, waiting.

He scooted out of his hiding spot then climbed to his feet. With a few tentative steps he was standing before the tall man. His gaze dropped to the floor and he twisted and fiddled his fingers. He looked again, eyes going to the calm, unmoving figure.

And then a hand reached out.

That was all that the child needed. He fell into those strong arms, letting them gather him close in their embrace, one little hand clutching at the man's dress shirt.

Chris held the miserable child in his arms, one hand rubbing the tiny back through the sweatshirt, damp from sweat. He simply sat there for several moments, holding the child - his child - close. Finally he said, "I think it's time to talk, cowboy. I need you to tell me what's going on… why you've been so upset lately."

The agent wasn't prepared for the torrent of emotions that began to pour forth.

"JD won't listen t' me," Vin said sharply. "I tell 'im t' do things and he don't do 'em."

"All the time?" Chris asked.


"Are you angry because JD won't listen to you all the time… or just sometimes?"

"Seems like all th' time," the little boy huffed.

Leaning back and tilting the little face up to meet his gaze, he said, "Really?"

Vin's gaze wavered and he pulled away, dropping his head. He muttered something, his tone still sharp.

"Sorry," Larabee said softly, "I didn't quite hear that."

Suddenly feeling betrayed the seven-year-old jerked away from the comforting embrace and jumped to his feet. Blue eyes flashing, he said, "I said maybe sometimes he listens, but not all th' time! He's s'posed t' listen to me all th' time and he don't! I'm s'posed t' be th' boss an' he's s'posed t' listen to me!"

Chris took a deep breath and counted to ten. He knew that his first response to the angry words would only escalate the problem. Instead, he stopped and listened to the meaning behind the words. Then he called on his diplomatic skills honed over the years as a modern day peacekeeper. "So, JD is supposed to listen to you all the time?"

"Yes!" The child spit the word out harshly.


"Why what?" Little Tanner was beginning to resent the questioning.

"Why is JD supposed to listen to you all the time?" Chris' voice grew softer and less emotive as the child's voice rose with agitation.

"He's just s'posed to, that's all! That's th' rule!"

"Okay. That was the rule when the two of you lived by yourselves, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, 'course it was!" Vin's chin tilted up and his thin chest puffed out.

Chris could see the tiny, defiant street kid staring at him. That child was daring him, challenging him to disagree. "That was how you kept him safe, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, 'course it was! He's little an' don't know what t' do! I gotta teach 'im ever'thing 'cause otherwise he'll git hurt! I have t' be 'sponsible for 'im! Jist me all th' time!"

Chris didn't miss the use of present tense in the child's speech. "And you did a very good job, too. You kept him safe and taught him things like the empty face, didn't you?"

"Yes." His anger was still there, but couldn't find a foothold in the conversation.

"And you have every right to be proud of the good job you did. You kept him as safe as you could and he's a good boy."

The little blonde's gaze narrowed as he tried to decide just what Chris was doing. "He ain't always good. Sometimes he does dumb things."

Shrugging, the blond said, "Everyone does 'dumb things' sometimes. It's okay."

"No it ain't okay! He cain't do dumb things! He's gotta listen t' what I tell 'im and do things th' way I tell 'im."

"Vin," Larabee asked, "what will happen if he doesn't listen to you all the time?"

"He'll… he'll…" tears sprung into the large blue eyes.

"He'll what buddy?"

"I don't know!" The child dropped to the floor, wrapping his arms around himself as he began to rock.

Folding his long legs, Chris leaned forward slightly. Knowing he needed to tread lightly, he also knew there was no going back now. "What about the toy box? Buck said you were really upset about the way JD was putting the toys away."

"He wasn't doin' it right!"

"What's the right way?"

"Th' way they were! They're always s'posed to be th' same way!"

Frowning, the blond said, "But he was getting them put away wasn't he?"

"Yeah, but… but he wasn't puttin' 'em in th' same way they was before."

"Oh… you mean in the same order?"

"Ever'thing in its place!" He recited.

Larabee inwardly cringed. Soon after the two boys had come to live with him he had presented them with a toy box. He had used the old adage 'a place for everything and everything in its place' as he explained what the big container was for. He had no idea that Vin had taken him so literally. "Guess I didn't explain it very well, Cowboy. All the toys have a place in the toy box, but they don't have to be in the exact same place every time."

The anger wavered slightly as the little boy said, "Oh."

"Did you think I'd be angry if the toys didn't get put away the same way every time?"

Vin nodded, adding softly, "yer house was so neat when we first come here."

Chris sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. After all these months the child was still walking a tightrope, afraid that a single misstep would mean disaster. "Kiddo, you know why this place was so neat when you came to live here?"

The child shrugged but didn't answer, so Larabee continued. "It was neat because I lived here all alone, and I was hardly here myself most of the time. Do you know how I like it best?" When he received another shrug he explained, "I like it the way it is now."

The child frowned. "But yer always tellin' us t' clean up."

Smiling, Chris said, "that's part of my job as a grown up." He watched the boy process this little bit of information. He could sense, however, that this was only a small piece of a very complicated puzzle. There was more, still festering inside the child.

Deciding that it was time to try and purge the wounds he had opened, the foster father continued. "Okay, I'll try to be a little clearer about what I say."

"Ain'cher fault!" Vin protested.

"Because JD's supposed to listen to you all the time."


"And if he doesn't…"

"Bad things c'n happen!"

"He'll get into trouble."


"And then you'll get into trouble?"


"Because you're responsible for him."


"But what about us… me, Buck, your uncles?"


"Aren't we responsible for you and JD now?"

The anger deflated a little once more as the little boy said, "Yeah."

"Then why don't you want us to do our job?"

"I never said that!"

"You said that JD has to always listen to you, but that means he can't ever listen to anyone else. That means we can't do our jobs, because part of being a grown up means telling kids what to do. So what you're saying is you and JD don't need us."

"No! Dad, we need y'!" Panic filled the child, overtaking the anger.

Larabee's arms ached to gather the child up, but he held firm. "But if you're in charge of JD and he always listens to you…"

"We need y' 'cause if you 'n Buck went away we'd be alone an' scary stuff 'd happen!"

"With a frown Chris said, "then it's okay if we tell both of you what to do?"

"Yer s'posed too cause that's part of yer job!"

"Okay, but then what if what we say is different than what you say? Who is JD supposed to listen to then?"

"He's s'posed t' mind you but he's got t' listen t' me! He's gotta!"

"Why? Why does he 'gotta' listen to you, buddy?"

"Cause that's my job! I gotta help 'im! I gotta be in charge an' protect 'im! I gotta do my job!"

And it snapped into place. Chris looked at that tiny, fragile child and saw the fear and helplessness that had given birth to the anger. The only thing he knew was being a survivor and taking care of his friend. Vin's identity consisted of being in charge of JD and keeping them both safe.

And they had been steadily taking that identity away.

"Oh Vin," Larabee whispered.

The child didn't hear; his mind was spinning and the anger had returned full force. His jaw was clenched tight, as were his little fists. He leapt to his feet, looking around quickly as his breath quickened. He took a few steps then moved back, his eye shifting furtively the entire time.

Chris watched the panicked gaze and tensed to move quickly if need be. The little boy looked ready to bolt.

Instead, Vin screamed out, "It's my job! Nobody lets me do my job!" Then he dissolved into heartbroken sobs as his fists opened. His slender fingers knotted through his dark blond hair.

Getting to his knees, Larabee moved carefully. Tentatively he reached out, uncertain of the child's reaction. To his relief the boy fell into his arms and let himself be gathered up. He held the sobbing child close, slowly untangling the little fingers as he cradled Vin in his arms. Shifting a little, he settled back, holding his foster son and rocking him while he wailed his frustration.

Slowly the emotions drained the little boy, leaving him huddled in the shelter of his father's arms, the sobs reduced to an occasional sniffle. After a while he felt the thin frame relax as Vin gave in to his body's needs and fell asleep in his arms.

Chris leaned back with his head against the wall, staring up at the ceiling. Why hadn't he realized what was going on? He should have known, should have guessed at the problem. Why hadn't he known?

"You're human, Chris," came a soft voice from the doorway. Larabee turned to see his oldest friend standing there, the bigger man's expression letting him know that Buck knew exactly what was going through his mind. He watched as Wilmington padded across the room toward him, kneeling before them both.

Gently the bigger man lifted the sleeping boy out of his friend's arms and carried him to the bunks. Carefully placing the limp body on the upper bed, he pulled the quilt up from the foot of the mattress and covered him. As Vin stirred, sandy brows furrowing, Buck tucked his stuffed cat against him. Sensing his object of security near, the little boy curled himself around it with a sigh. The brunet tenderly stroked his hand through the sweat soaked locks before turning back to his friend. Seeing that the blond was sitting in the same place, a slightly pained expression on his face, he grinned. "Legs' asleep?"

Glaring at the smiling brunet, Chris nodded, extending a hand to the other man. As Buck pulled him up, he grunted and then leaned on his friend as they moved quietly from the room. As they stepped into the hallway he asked quietly, "How much did you hear?"

"Enough to realize that you're gonna be feelin' guilty for a while."

Offering another glare to his friend, the blond said, "What I'm feeling is lousy that I didn't pick up on this before. I let him down, Buck."

"No, you haven't let him down." Wilmington's voice was low, but there was an edge that got the smaller man's attention. "You're gonna let him down if you get all wrapped up in feelin' guilty now, though. You did a fine job of discovering what we've been trying to figure out for weeks. Now you've got to do the same fine job in helping that child work through this."

Coming to a stop, Larabee heaved a deep sigh. One hand was planted on a trim hip while the other scrubbed across the back of his bowed neck. In a lost tone he said, "I know. What I don't know is how I help him."

"That's why the rest of us are here." Buck laid a big hand on the blonde's shoulder. Glancing back at the room they had just left he said, "he's probably gonna be asleep for a while. Why don't you get out of here? Go somewhere and clear your head?"

Chris shook his head then paused. Nodding, he said, "Maybe you're right. You sure you'll be okay here alone?"

With a cocky expression the brunet said, "If not, I've got friends to call on, too."

Chuckling, Larabee said under his breath, "I should 'a shot you a long time ago."

"And deprive all those ladies out there of the Wilmington charm?"

With a snort the smaller man shook his head before continuing down the hall.

JD looked up as the two men walked into the kitchen. The five-year-old was sitting at the kitchen table, toying with the soup and sandwich Buck had given him for dinner. Noticing that Chris was limping he asked, "Did Vin give you a boo-boo, too?"

Reaching down and lifting the little boy into his arms, Larabee said, "No, I'm just getting old."

Studying the man's face, JD said, "yeah, you gots them lines on your face… but they ain't big as Unca' 'Siah's."

Laughing now, Chris said, "Well that's good, I guess." Then in a more serious tone he reached out and traced the darkening bruise below one big hazel eye as he said, "How's your boo-boo?"

"It still hurts but not bad as it did are you gonna make Vin go away?" The worried child said in a single breath.

"I'm glad and no I'm not, Little Bit," Chris responded in kind. "I know that he didn't mean to hurt you."

"Course not," the little boy replied simply.

"Course not," Larabee echoed. He tweaked the little pug nose, eliciting a giggle from the tiny brunet before he settled him back on the kitchen chair. Turning to his friend he said, "I think I'll take a drive… think Josiah's home?"

With a slightly smug expression the bigger man said, "He was a little while ago when I called him. Said he'd be at the Saloon in about an hour."

Chris chuckled, shaking his head. "You know me too well, Wilmington."

Josiah Sanchez looked up from where he sat at a corner table, nodding as the blond approached. He motioned to Inez as he pushed a chair out with his foot. "Take a load off, boss."

Dropping to the chair, Larabee said, "thanks." Glancing up as the pretty bar owner sat a bottle in front of him he smiled and nodded at her. Then turning his attention back to the team profiler he said, "I'm guessing Buck filled you in on our evening?"

"He mentioned it, yeah," Josiah said softly. "Said you'd give me the whole story."

Chris did, beginning with his meeting with Nettie that morning and ending with his leaving the ranch. He paused only long enough to allow them both to order dinner and continued talking through the meal. The older man let him talk, asking a few questions from time to time but offering little in the way of feedback. When the blond finished he stared across the table at the older man. Sanchez's silver brows were drawn together as he processed the man's story.

"I don't know what I'm looking for here, Josiah. I just… I'm just feeling pretty lost right now."

The bigger man smiled. "I'd worry about it if you weren't, boss. So… what do you think needs to happen next?"

Blowing out a breath, Larabee shook his head. "I've got no idea."

"Sure you do." The bigger man gave his friend a smile. "What does your gut tell you?"

Chris pondered the question for a few minutes. Finally he spoke, his tone thoughtful. "Find a way to make things normal for him… help him work this out… give him something to… I don't know… hold on to I guess."

"I think you're a lot smarter about this than you're giving yourself credit for," Sanchez chided. "Can I give you some suggestions for the next couple of days?"

"I'm all ears." Larabee looked up as the young bar owner placed another bottle in front of him. Nodding his thanks he sat waiting for the other man to go on.

"Okay. Tonight, I think you need to reassure Vin that you're not going to send him off. Despite the fact that he's come to feel secure with you, what happened has probably shaken him up pretty well."

"Yeah, you're probably right. Maybe I should take tomorrow off and let him stay home… give him some TLC."

"No." When the other man sent him a questioning look Josiah said, "What does his outburst over the toy box tell you about him?"

Chris smiled as understanding dawned. "He needs consistency; it's security for him. Okay, he goes to school in the morning. I'll give his teachers a heads-up on what's going on so they can watch for trouble."

"Good. You might want to get an appointment with Lowery, too… maybe even set up a series of sessions for Vin at least, although you might have him check in with JD, too."

"Yeah, you're probably right." Then, with a pained expression he said, "JD. Do you think we're going to go through problems with him, too?"

Shrugging the other man said, "Maybe. I think that his general good nature, his age, and the fact that Vin acted as a buffer between him and some of the uglier things they dealt with on the street might help there. However, only time will tell."

"Great," Larabee groaned.

His expression becoming compassionate Josiah continued. "After you and Buck get home tomorrow evening, I'd suggest that you all four sit down and talk. A big part of Vin's trouble steams from the fact that he's lost a big chunk of his identity. What we need to start doing is helping him redefine his role, and I'd suggest starting with his role in JD's life."

"Being the boss and having JD follow his orders at all times," Chris said.

"Yep. True, he can't boss JD around all the time now, and he doesn't have to shoulder that responsibility any more. But, there are times when he can 'be the boss'."

"Like when JD might get hurt, or he sees him doing something that he knows will get him in trouble."

"Right. Give him some guidelines about 'being the boss' and in that respect you'll give him permission to keep his identity. You'll just be making it a smaller role."

"So what do we replace it with?"

"That's something you'll have to work on with him." When he saw the hope fade in the other man's eyes he said, "It's not going to happen overnight, Chris. I can't give you a magic pill that lets you resolve this tomorrow… the day after… or even in the next few months."

"So we're gonna have more outbursts?"

"Maybe… probably." Frowning, the big man asked, "Are you expecting him to be perfect?"

"What? No! It's just… God, Josiah, if you could have seen him while ago. He looked so… so tiny… so alone and scared. And I felt so damned helpless."

Seeing the tears in the foster father's eyes, Sanchez said softly, "he's hurting, and you want to make it all better."

Larabee nodded, took a deep breath and swiped a hand over his face. "Okay, so we batten down the hatches and prepare for rough seas ahead."

"Right. Only instead of life preservers you throw him your love, patience and understanding. He's too young to really understand what's happening. All he knows is he's angry, sad, uncomfortable. Watch for signs that something's bothering him. When you see something's on his mind, sit down and talk to him, see if you can figure out what's going on.

"Another thing you might consider is to help him develop a stronger identity as an individual. You and Buck have done a marvelous job at creating a strong family unit with both the boys. Now you need to help them both learn how to be Vin Tanner and JD Dunne in this new world you've brought them into, rather than VinandJD."

"I don't know if they'll go for that."

"Maybe not. It will be your job… yours and Buck's… to make it a positive experience."

Chris took a drink from the bottle as he thought over the other man's words. "Okay," he said softly. "We'll give it a go. But if I don't survive this? You're in charge of the team."

"Deal," The silver-haired agent chuckled as he saluted his boss with his beer bottle.

Buck heard the quiet little footsteps coming down the hall. He was sitting on one end of the couch, JD curled up on the other while they watched TV. His eyes focused on the doorway, waiting.

Vin shuffled into the den, yawning and rubbing his eyes with one hand while Cat dangled from the other. He looked around, frowning when he didn't see the person he was expecting to find. With another yawn he asked, "Where's Chris?"

"He went into town for a little bit to see Josiah," Buck explained. "You feelin' better?"

Vin shrugged as he scuffed across the room, stopping close to the couch. Looking over at the other little boy, he said softly, "I'm sorry JD."

Young Dunne pulled his thumb from his mouth and smiled at his surrogate older brother. "S'okay it don't hardly hurt no more an' I won't watch Stitch no more."

"No, you c'n watch Stitch," Vin replied.

"'Kay I'll make sure you ain't watchin' A'mal Planet next time you wanna watch TV with me an' Buck it's a old show 'bout cowboys."

The older boy nodded absently, barely glancing at the screen. He looked up at the big man, his eyes filling with tears as he did. Taking a deep breath he said softly, "I'm sorry, Buck."

Smiling compassionately the brunet said, "JD's the one that needed the apology and you took care of that. Can you promise me you'll try to do better next time?" When the child nodded, he said, "That's all I ask, buddy. Anything else on your mind?"

Vin nodded, his gaze firmly on the floor at his feet. Taking a deep breath he said, "I kicked the train."

"Oh. I wondered what happened to it. Were you angry at it?"

Vin shrugged. "I dunno. I just… I was jist angry."

"You know it's pretty important to JD and me, too, right?" When Vin nodded again Buck said, "I can't say I'm happy that you kicked it, but I am glad that you admitted it. There are a couple of scratches on one of the cars, but otherwise I don't think there's any damage. Maybe you and I can do some repairs."

"'Kay. I… I promise I won't do 't again."

Tucking a finger beneath the narrow little chin, Wilmington lifted the tousled head. Seeing the remorse in the child's face he said simply, "Okay." Then he asked, "You hungry?"

"Not really."

Wilmington registered the hesitation in the child's face. In response he held out a hand, happily watching Vin's hand settle into his palm. Tugging gently he coaxed the little boy closer and was quickly rewarded as the tiny blond climbed into his lap. A sound caught his attention and he turned to see that, not to be left out, JD was twisting around toward them on the couch.

A short time later, Chris returned to the ranch. Stepping into the den he smiled at the sight he beheld. Buck was sitting there with Vin in his lap and JD using his thigh as a pillow. He smiled. It looked like Buck had beaten him to the reassurance Josiah had suggested for the evening game plan.

If only the rest of it would be that simple.