"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Disclaimer: I dont own them in whatever incarnation. I just play with them whenever I can. They belong to the ages er, sorry Watson, Mirish, and them folks. Berry and Poffenberger created the Little Britches AU.
Warning: SMARM AHEAD!! Also, elements of the supernatural. And angst did I mention smarm?
Notes: Written as part of a collection of Halloween stories, dedicated to the members of the Black and Buckskin group who celebrate their birthdays in October.
Feedback: I live for it!
"Where you goin, Vin?"
Vin Tanner sighed heavily, turning toward the sleepy voice that came from the lower bunk of the room he shared with his younger friend. "Im jist goin t git a drink."
"Why do y gots your packpack?"
"Im jist puttin my backpack in the front hall. Now go back t sleep."
"I wanna drink, too," the rustle of blankets announced that five-year-old JD Dunne was untangling himself from his covers.
"No!" Vin kept his voice to a whisper, but it carried a harsh tone. Seeing the smaller boys startled face in the moonlight, he managed a smile and said, "Ill bring y a drink back. Aint no reason fer both of us t git outta bed."
Hesitating only slightly, the tiny brunet snuggled back under the blankets, whispering to his friend, "kay. Could y put it in m Blues Clues cup?"
"Yeah, sure. Now, be quiet. Aint no reason t wake Chris n Buck up." No reason to give Chris another reason to be angry and disappointed.
"Kay." From the sound of his voice, it was obvious that the tyke was almost asleep again.
Young Tanner crept from the room and down the hallway, carrying his emptied backpack with him. He was glad, at least, that JD had been too sleepy to notice that he had his clothes on. That would have meant a lot more questions to answer, and he didnt have time for that.
He was running away.
Heaving another sigh, the little boy slipped into the kitchen. As he quietly opened the cabinets, he thought back to that afternoon. He had come home from school with a note from his teacher that Chris had to read. And he knew that, when his foster father read it, hed been sent away for sure. Daniel Marksons brand new Beyblade had been found in his backpack that afternoon after the other boy had told the teacher that someone had taken it.
He had been innocent, but no one seemed to believe him when he said that he didnt know how the toy had gotten in his pack. His teacher had looked very disappointed in him and wrote a note, asking his Dad to come to school the next day. She had told him that she was leaving it up to him to tell his father what had happened but, if Chris didnt show up the next day, then she would tell him herself.
With a broken heart, he had handed over the note as soon as the blond came in the door. Then he had stood quietly before the big man, awaiting the punishment he didnt deserve. Life had taught him, though, that reward and punishment didnt often have anything to do with what he did, or didnt do.
Frowning over the note, his adopted father said, "Whats this about?" When all he got was a mumbled reply, he said, "I cant hear you, son."
"Said she wants t talk to y, cos Daniel Marksons beyblade was in my backpack, an he said I took t."
"Is this true?" Chris voice was soft, but Vin could hear the disappointment in it. He couldnt respond couldnt even look into the mans eyes. Instead, he had looked down, staring at his feet. After a full minute, his Dad had repeated, "Is it true, Vin?"
"Teacher says it is. Shes th one that found it in m backpack."
"Thats not what I asked, son. Is it true? Did you take the toy?"
All he could do was shake his head, never taking his eyes from the floor. He felt Chris hand on his shoulder, barely keeping the fear out of his face. Even after six months, he continued to expect this adult to act like so many others had. One day he would make the kind, quiet, man who had taken him into his home angry enough, and Chris would hit him as the others had.
"All right, son. Well go to school tomorrow and get this taken care of."
And, to the little seven-year-old, those words sealed his fate. Chris would take him to school and make him apologize to stupid Daniel and then probably make him give over his allowance so the creep could buy another beyblade. And he had been saving it up so he could buy one of the really fancy ones for JD, for his birthday.
Sometime between the dessert he could hardly eat and climbing into bed, he made his decision. He couldnt go apologize to that dumb Daniel Markson for something he didnt do he just couldnt! And he couldnt stand to be taken away from the ranch from JD, Buck, Peso, Ringo and especially not from Chris. He couldnt stand to go to another facility for kids that didnt have families.
There was only one thing to do.
Angrily scrubbing the tears from his face with the sleeve of his hoodie, Vin concentrated on what had to be done. He had emptied out his backpack earlier, leaving only the bag of trail mix he kept there all the time. After careful thought, he pulled several packages from the cabinets. He took the full jar of peanut butter, knowing that Chris could buy more soon. Bread would get smooshed by the other stuff so instead he added a box of saltines. That could be his lunch and supper. For breakfast he included a new box of pop-tarts. They were blueberry, and he liked raspberry better, but they would do. Milk would spoil, but he remembered that Buck used powdered stuff in his coffee, so he added a plastic container of it to his stores. He took two apples and a banana from the fruit basket, but knew he would need more than he could take with him. Looking through the cabinets once more, he came across a box of Fruit Roll-ups, and added them to his bounty.
Zipping the full backpack up, he carried it to the mudroom. The distant rumble of thunder told him that there would be rain soon. He pulled on his boots, stuffing the legs of his jeans down into them, and then pulled his lined raincoat on over his hoodie. Climbing onto the bench sitting along one side of the little room, he pulled the canteen and mess kit Buck had gotten him from the shelves above. Creeping into the kitchen he filled the canteen then returned to where he had left the other things.
He was ready.
Pulling the straps of the canteen and mess kits over his head, he draped them each over his shoulders. The heavy backpack was pulled on over both shoulders as well. Then, with a final look down the darkened hallway, he slipped out the back door.
The little runaway looked up at the full moon, glad that at least he had its company on his trip. He had wanted desperately to bring Ringo with him, but knew he couldnt take care of his malamute. Besides, the pup would more than likely start barking, or want to play, and would give him away. He had to stay quiet, to stay hidden. So, he had left Ringo behind with Elvis, in the crate they slept in at night.
Looking across the big meadow, he tried to figure out how long it would take him to make his destination. He had to follow the fence down to the corner nearest the barn, turn, and walk beside it all the way down to where it turned again. At that corner he would leave the fence and head toward the trees.
His new home would be there in those trees.
Vin reached the fence, turned to the right, and took a deep breath. Squaring thin shoulders, he began to march through the dry grass of the barnyard.
Just as he turned the corner, he felt the first fat raindrops splash against the rubber material of his rain hood. The bright moon was hidden now, behind dark rain clouds. Shoving his hands into the deep pockets he ducked his head and continued walking.
"Ow!" He cried out as he found himself on the ground, his left foot stuck in something. Struggling to push himself up under the weight of his burdens, he whimpered as pain shot through his ankle. Growling at his luck when he found himself in a Gopher hole, he gingerly lifted his foot out of the ground.
Pulling himself up with the aid of the fence, he tentatively put weight on his injured foot. It hurt, but he could stand on it as long as he held onto the fence. Looking around, he realized that he was more than halfway down the fence line. He could still make it to his new home.
Keeping his balance by holding onto the fence, Vin limped forward. He stopped several times, wiping the tears of pain from his little face while he gauged how far he had left to walk.
By the time he reached the far corner of the fence, it was pouring down, the rain mixing with the tears that continued unheeded. The miserable little child blinked, staring into the darkness. He had walked this path several times in the weeks since finding the hiding place that would be his new home. When he had found it, he thought of it only as a place to get away from JD from time to time. As much as he cared for the boy he considered a little brother, he could be a pain at times. So, whenever he could slip away, he had gone to fix up his secret place.
He never expected it to become his new home.
It would be just right, though. He would be close enough to keep an eye on JD without anyone knowing where he was. Later, after he was certain his little friend was okay, well hed think about that later.
Gingerly setting his throbbing left foot on the rain-soaked ground, Vin stepped away from the fence. He grunted with pain, but continued walking. He had counted his steps a couple of times, and knew that it took forty-seven steps to get from the corner of the fence to his hiding place. He began to count them off aloud, using the sound of his voice to quiet the funny feeling that was growing in his tummy.
"Three four " his mind showed him a picture of him and JD, Chris and Buck. They had been on a picnic nearby, only two weekends ago. He felt a lump in his throat as he remembered Chris lifting him high in the air, spinning in circles until they were both dizzy.
"Six seven " that was how many people there were in what Uncle Ziah called their family circle. There were others, too, but he, JD, Chris, Buck, and their three adopted uncles were like a family.
No, they were a family.
Vin couldnt stop the heartbroken sob that escaped his now trembling lips. There had always been a part of him that expected it all to end. Something would happen to make it so he couldnt live with Chris any more.
"Fifteen six sixteen " Then he heard his own voice inside his head, sounding happy this time.
"Buck says that when Im sixteen I cn git a drivers permit."
"Yep," Chris had replied. They had been driving through the pasture, his father holding him on his lap, while he steered the wheel.
"When Im sixteen I wont have t sit on yer lap."
"I sure hope not!" Chris had teased him, and ha had laughed.
"Tweny three twen . Tweny f-f-four." May 24th was his birthday. Chris had promised that he could have any sort of party he wanted, even a sleep-over. He already knew he wasnt going to invite that stinky Daniel.
But even more important than that, Chris had promised that they would go on an adventure for a whole weekend. Just the two of them. But now there wouldnt be any special trips. There wouldnt be anything special for him ever again.
The tears flowed even faster, burning his cold cheeks. He hated Daniel Markson! He hoped the little creep got animal maggots! He wasnt sure what they were, but hed heard Buck talking about them, and they sounded gross. He couldnt imagine having ladies falling all over you, your whole life. It sounded like just the thing for a kid as rotten as Daniel.
"Thirty-seven thirty thirty eight th-thirty ow!" He slipped, falling in the mud. All he could do for a very long time was lie there, crying like a baby. When he finally caught his breath, he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Slowly he climbed to his feet, making certain to keep as much weight as he could on his right one. Even so, as soon as he stepped down with his left he cried out in pain and fell to the ground once more.
Again he lay still, trying to catch his breath and berating himself silently for being so clumsy. Then he recalled that he had been just getting ready to count forty, which meant that he only had seven steps to go. He could try hoping on one foot, it was easy when they played games on the playground. But it wasnt raining then, and he wasnt carrying a bunch of stuff.
There was only one thing to do.
With a resigned sigh, the young boy began to crawl forward. He wasnt exactly certain how to count the steps now, so he just counted the numbers up when he moved his right hand.
"Forty six fah forty s-seven " Chris would be forty-seven on his next birthday, in July. He hoped that Buck would throw him a party. His father hadnt had one for a long time.
Sitting back, he looked around, trying to see through the darkness to figure out where he was. With a soft cry of relief, he saw that he was only a couple of feet away from his destination. Dropping forward again, he crawled toward his new home.
He could remember the moment he had found it. He and JD had been playing hide-and-seek, while Chris and Buck were mending the fence. He had recognized immediately that this was someplace special, and had kept it secret from his surrogate little brother. And, even though he knew he was breaking the rules, he had snuck out here a few times since. He was only supposed to go as far as the fence, and then only if he got permission first and took one of the walkie-talkies Chris had brought home. But, with a seven-year-olds reasoning, he decided that, as long as he got permission and took the talkie, he was only breaking one rule, so that wasnt so bad. Besides, he was still on Chris property.
He knew it was Chris property, because he knew that Chris had built this hiding place. No one had told him so, but he knew it.
It was a little log cabin, just a little taller than he was. It had been built strong and sturdy and looked like the cabin on his Lincoln Logs box. The roof had even been painted green, although it was faded now. There was a door that opened and closed. The top hinge was broken, but as long as you lifted the handle just so it moved pretty easy. There were two windows, cut on opposite walls that had plastic set in them. The plastic was yellowed, dirty, and scratched by the tree limbs nearby, but you could still see through them.
Pushing the door open carefully, Vin crawled inside the little cabin. Sliding it closed behind him, he heaved a tired sigh of relief. The cabin was weather tight and, even though it was chilly, at least he was out of the rain. Tugging off his backpack and other supplies, he laid them all carefully on the floor. Next came his raincoat, which he spread out to dry.
Feeling his way across the tiny, dark room, he found the little bed he had made. It was really only a pile of leaves and dry grass, but he had a big piece of canvas tarp over it and it was comfortable. He had been shocked when his dad had started to throw it out just because the mice had chewed a few holes in it. Chris had looked at him funny when he asked if he could have it but had given him permission to take it.
He didnt take things without asking, no matter what that jerk Daniel said.
He settled on the edge of his makeshift bed, carefully taking off his boots. He whimpered as the left one slowly slid over his aching ankle, but it didnt hurt as badly as it thought it would.
Finally, drawing back the tarp, he burrowed into the crunching pile and covered himself with the heavy canvas. Curling up as tightly as he could, the distraught little boy cried himself to sleep.
"Vin! Vin! Where are you? Vin!" Chris Larabee called out over and over again, panic growing in his voice.
"Hes not out here!" Buck Wilmington called from the barn, where he leaned out the hayloft door. From his vantage point, the big man scanned the surrounding area for any sign of the little boy. Seeing nothing he reluctantly climbed down, almost certain that as soon as he turned away Vin would appear out in the pasture. As he reached the barn floor, the blond came through the door, cell phone pressed to his ear.
"Look, Im not certain what hes wearing he was in his pajamas the last time I saw him yes, were checking to see whats missing weve already called anyone who lives close enough for him to walk to WHAT?! How stupid do you think I am!? Of course we looked " he glared at his old friend, who pulled the phone from his hand.
"Hello?" Buck said into the phone, avoiding the twin, hazel lasers aimed at him. "Hi officer Gray, hi. Uh, look, Im sorry about my friend. Hes really upset, Im sure you can understand . Excuse me? No, of course not we yes of course we did we now look! Were agents for the ATF, we know how to yeah okay okay yeah, I appreciate that." Ending the call, he looked at his distraught friend, growling, "Thats one pompous jack ah "
"Hey, Buck! Chris!" JD jogged into the barn, smiling at the two men. "How come y didnt wake me up for school? Did Vin go to school? How come I gots a day off? Can I have pancakes for breakast? Whens Miz Potter gonna be here? Did she take Vin someplace?"
"Buck," Larabee said softly in a pleading tone.
Nodding, the big brunet strode over and picked the little boy up. The younger of their adopted sons had slept through more than an hour of frantic searching when they discovered that Vin was missing.
When he had gone to wake the boys up for school, Chris had found Vins bed empty. Checking the bathroom and finding it empty as well, he moved on to the den and then the kitchen. As his concern grew so did his pace and by the time he went out to check the barn he was at a dead run.
The boys knew that they werent to leave the house without checking with one of the adults responsible for their well-being. While they could count on JD to forget a rule from time to time, Vin never did. If anything, the serious child was overly concerned with following the rules; fearful that even the most minor indiscretion would result in his once again being rejected and abandoned.
"Ah, hell," Chris growled under his breath. Hurrying into the house, he found that Buck was talking quietly to a tearful JD. Joining them, he was speared through the heart by a pair of red-rimmed eyes that stared pleadingly up at him.
"Chris Im sorry! I didnt know he was gonna run away he said he was just gettin a drink and he was gonna get me a drink too but I falled asleep bfore he comed back only he didnt comed back Buck said he must a runned away las night when we was all sleepin and we gotta find him cause it rained last night and "
"JD, stop!" The blond said the words more harshly than he intended, his tone colored by fear. He grimaced at the stricken expression on the childs face, and did what he could to soften his expression. Reaching out a hand to gently stroke away the childs tears he said softly, "Im sorry, Little Bit. I didnt mean to yell."
"Skay," young Dunne said sagely. "I know youre scared too, cause we dont know where he is "
"JD, I need to ask you a question. Its very, very important."
"Was Vin upset last night?"
Thoughtfully the tyke said, "Yeah."
"Do you know why?"
"He was sad cause nobody blieved him that that creepy Daniel Markson said Vin taked his beyblade and nobody blieved him when he said no he didnt, and then "
"Was he afraid that I wouldnt believe him?"
Shrugging, the tiny brunet said, "maybe. He didnt say so, but I know he always gets scared that you wont like him no more and you might make him go away "
Chris didnt hear anything more that the child said. He walked into the den with leaden steps. Stopping at the computer desk, he watched the special screensaver he and Buck had created for their monitor. Each picture that appeared on the screen was of all - or some combination of - the four of them.
As he watched, his favorite picture appeared. Vin stood, smiling broadly into the camera, blue eyes glistening brightly. He was standing proudly, holding up the trout he had managed to catch all by himself. They had been on a weekend fishing trip; it had been one of the first family outings that the four of them had gone on. Reaching out, he gently touched the image just as it faded from the screen.
"Oh God Vin " He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to find his friend behind him. "Its my fault, Buck my fault he ran away."
"No it aint, and you stop thinkin like that right now."
"But if I had just talked to him last night . I knew he was upset about the note from his teacher, but I didnt say anything. All I was thinking was that I was tired, and didnt want to deal with it right then. He must have thought I was disappointed in him angry and I didnt let him know that I wasnt. I wasnt, you know? I was just tired. I know he doesnt steal."
Wilmington heaved a mighty sigh, trying to find the words that would comfort his friend, and failing miserably. All he could think of was, "well find him, Chris. And youll have the chance to make it right with him."
Tears trailing down his ruddy cheeks, the blond said, "I hope so oh God, I hope so."
He whimpered softly as pale sunlight brushed across his face, even that frail intrusion enough to drag him from a restless sleep. Squinting open tired blue eyes, Vin stared around him in confusion. Slowly the events of the night before came back to him, and a poignant sigh dragged itself from the depths of his soul.
"Hi. How come youre sleeping in here? Did you get lost?"
He rubbed his eyes, trying to focus in the direction the voice was coming from. Finally he found the speaker, a little dark haired boy, in the corner of the little room. He grumbled under his breath at the thought that JD had found his hiding place. Running the tip of his tongue over dry lips, he said in a raspy whisper, "howd you git out here?"
Shrugging, his visitor said, "I come out here sometimes. I didnt know anyone else did."
"When did you OW!" He cried out as he moved, jarring his injured ankle. Curling up on his side, Vin grasped his leg, crying softly as arrows of pain shot half way to his knee. For several minutes the rest of the world disappeared as he struggled to get the pain back under control. Finally he looked up, blinking the tears out of his eyes. Frowning, he realized that he was alone.
"Must a been dreamin," he hissed through clenched teeth as his ankle continued to throb. He pulled back the tarp and looked down at his leg. Whimpering when he saw the swollen lump that stretched his sock and pressed against the bottom of his jeans. "Oh no."
It had to be bad to be that swollen, and it hurt so bad he could barely stand to move at all. He forced himself to do just that, though. Carefully, moving his left leg as little as possible, he crawled to the other side of the little cabin. Opening the door, he scooted out just far enough to relieve himself, then moved back inside. Dragging his supplies with him, he managed to get back to his leafy bed. He had to stop more than once, when the pain became too much for him. Dropping back on his little bed, Vin draped an arm across his eyes, tears soaking into the soft material of his hoodie.
He lay there for several minutes, feeling more helpless than he had for months. Then, with a tiny growl, he scrubbed his sleeve over his eyes and sat up. Taking a deep breath, he pulled his things toward him. Opening his backpack, he opened the Pop-Tarts and pulled out one of the packs. Putting everything back inside, he sat the heavy pack on his makeshift bed. Gently, he slowly lifted his swollen ankle and placed it on top of the backpack. He cried out several times, unable to stay quiet as the pain threatened to overwhelm him.
Getting his injured leg elevated, he collapsed once more onto the little bed, simply lying there, unmoving for a long time. Then the thin chest raised and fell in a deep sigh, and he reached out, fingers searching for the package of Pop-Tarts. Wearily he tore the end of the wrapper and slid one of the pastry squares into a muddy little hand. Taking a bite, his pale little face screwed up in distaste.
"Whyd it have t be Blueberry?"
JD was pee-ohd. He wasnt certain just what that was, but he had heard Buck say it once, and right now he felt the way his Da had looked that day. Nobody would listen to him. They kept telling him "not now, JD", and "later, Little Bit", before he could get the words out of his mouth. Then they just walked away like they forgot he was there.
None of them would listen to him, even though he knew where Vin was.
The little boy stood at the sliding glass door, looking out at the bunch of men and women in the yard. He could see Buck right in the middle, pointing in all different directions as he talked. And Chris was standing beside him, looking sadder than JD could ever remember seeing him before.
There were police and some of their neighbors out there, all of them listening to Buck talk. Unca Ziah was there, too, but not Unca Nathan or Unca Ezra. They had gone back into Denver, and he had heard them say something about leads and kidnap. He wasnt sure just what those words meant, but he knew they had to be bad. When Chris heard the last word, he had made a really scary sound, and Buck had to grab him before he fell on the floor.
Hazel eyes going from the cluster of people to the far end of the pasture, the little boy heaved a sigh. He knew that Vin was out there, in his hiding place, but nobody would listen.
He had known about his friends secret for weeks. He had even snuck out there one time, but didnt stay long. He could understand Vin liking to sit out there all alone, just listening to the birds, but he didnt like it. After a few minutes he was bored, bored, bored.
Even though he hadnt seen the seven-year-old go out there, he just knew that was where Vin was.
He had heard them walking by his hiding place, calling his name over and over, but he didnt respond. It wasnt hard to do most of the time, except when he heard Chris voice. Even as far away as his adoptive father was, he could hear the sadness in the mans voice, and he had to keep from crying. He wanted so bad to have Chris come in, pick him up, and carry him back to the house. He wouldnt even feel embarrassed about being to big to be carried.
"Arent you gonna answer them?"
He jumped, yelping as the movement jarred his left ankle. Turning, he saw the other little boy sitting in the corner again. He frowned, realizing that it wasnt JD after all, and he couldnt figure out how hed gotten into the cabin. Deciding to start with the last, he asked, "howd you git in here?"
"Theyve been lookin for you for a long time," the other child said, ignoring the question.
"I know, I aint stupid," Vin snapped, suddenly angry at the stranger.
"Well then how come you aint answerin them?" The other boy grew angry as well.
"Cause Im runned away, thats why." Vin growled.
"Well youre stupid!"
"I aint neither, you take that back dummy!"
"Youre the dummy!" The brunet yelled, hurling a small object toward his opponent.
Vin jerked back to avoid being hit, his leg slipping from its roost. As his heel hit the hard ground, he gasped, going rigid as pain shot through him. Unable to breathe or cry out, he simply lay there on his little bed, mouth and eyes opened as wide as possible. The agony continued to rip through him in burning waves, and everything went black for long minutes.
The world slowly came back into focus, and he let his breath out in a squeaky sigh. He blinked several times, feeling tears once more running down his cheeks. Then the injured child realized with embarrassment that he had wet his pants.
Turning his head slowly, Vin saw that the little boy was sitting right beside him. With a deepening frown, he realized that he knew who his visitor was. In a shocked tone, he said, "y-yer Adam."
He had been standing there for what seemed like hours, just waiting for someone to remember he was there. The grown-ups had walked all around, even out past the pasture. They had to have walked right by Vins hiding place, but no one had found him.
Shaking his head at how silly growed ups could be, JD turned away and walked into the kitchen. Mrs. Potter was standing at the counter, making sandwiches for all the people that were looking for Vin. "Miz Potter?"
Gloria gasped, her hand going to her heart. Turning, she said, "my goodness, JD, you frightened me! Im sorry sweetheart Id forgotten you were here."
"Everbody forgot," the little boy mumbled forlornly.
"Im sorry, dear, what did you say?"
Shrugging, he said, "nothin. Can I take Elvis n Ringo outside? They need to go pee."
Managing a smile, their housekeeper said, "sure. Just stay close to the house, okay?"
Nodding, the little boy went to get the pups and set his own plan into action. If the growed ups couldnt find Vin, hed just do it himself.
"How come you know my name? I didnt tell it to you." The young brunet asked.
"I seen yer picture an Chris told me yer name right after I came t live at at " he paused, his eyes widening as he realized what was happening. "You caint be here you you "
"I went away with my Mama."
Nodding, young Tanner said, "an that means y caint be here. I must be dreamin agin."
Shrugging his shoulders, the tiny spirit said, "I dont think youre dreamin, but I dont know how come you can see me. Mama says Im too little to understand, but I dont think she does either."
Looking around, Vin said, "yer Mama? Is Mrs. Chris here?"
Adam giggled. "Mrs. Chris thats funny. No, she aint here. She doesnt know I come here. I get bored, an I like comin here and playin."
"Oh," the seven-year-old said, confusion still gripping his finely chiseled features. "Do y come here a lot?"
Shrugging once more, Adam said, "sometimes."
"When Im here?"
"Not usually maybe once or twice."
"Oh." He wasnt certain he liked having someone around that he couldnt see, but didnt know what he could do to change it, either. He pushed himself up while he tried to process this news while he attempted to lift his throbbing ankle back onto the backpack. He managed to bite back the cries of pain since he wasnt alone. With a grunt he dropped back onto the leaves. After he caught his breath he asked, "do y come t our to th house?"
His face growing sad Adam said, "Not too much. I it makes me sad to go there."
Vin reached out, surprised when he actually touched the phantom. He didnt think you were supposed to be able to do that. Patting one ghostly shoulder, he said, "Im sorry Adam."
They sat quietly for a few minutes, neither boy certain of what was happening. But then the natural resilience of children finally reasserted itself. For once, Vin found himself being the one to break the silence.
"Is it fun where y are?"
"Sort a, but I get bored sometimes."
"Cn y do tricks like movin things without touchin em an stuff?"
Giggling, Adam said, "I dont know, I never tried. That would be really cool, though."
Smiling, Vin said, "mebbe y could try t on this kid in my class Daniel."
He had been caught twice going too far away from the house, and the second time Mrs. Potter threatened to make him come back inside. He decided that he would have to be sneakier before he tried it again. It was getting late almost evening. He knew that if he didnt get away before dinner time, hed have to wait until morning.
Picking up a stick, he looked at the two dogs. Shaking the piece of wood, he called out, "fetch!" Throwing with as much strength as he could, he watched the dogs scrambling after the stick. Instead of waiting for them to bring it back, though, he ran after them. Wrestling the stick from Elvis, he repeated the action.
Slowly he made his way closer to the corner of the fence.
" an I like baseball, too, jist like you di do," Vin was saying to his spectral friend.
A frown furrowing dark brows, Adam said, "how come you know so much about me?"
Realizing the other boy was becoming upset young Tanner stammered, "I I well, Dad um Chris he talks bout y a lot."
Adam smiled broadly. "He does?"
Surprised at the other childs response, Vin said, "well, sure. He misses you an Mrs. Chris a lot. Buck said he used to be real sad almost all th time.
Sometimes hed git real angry an he wasnt too nice t people. Buck said hed probly still be doin that, cept now hes got me an JD " He broke off, realizing that now he had hurt the other boy.
"Im Im sorry Adam. I didnt " He grew quiet once more, watching the specter of Chris son slip into the far corner. The dark headed little boy drew his knees up under his chin, wrapping his arms around his legs.
"Oh man gees, Im sorry Adam. I didnt mean "
"It aint your fault." Slowly the little boy faded away.
He had made it to the corner without anyone seeing him. Checking behind him, the little brunet slipped around the rail fence, staying close as if the widely spaced wooden planks would hide him. Peering back around the corner, he watched the house for as long as he could. Finally, satisfied that he had managed to sneak away, JD smiled. Looking down at his two companions, he said, "cmon we gotta go find Vin."
Vin wasnt certain how long hed lain there, confused, alone and feeling miserable. He knew that he had to have been dreaming, ghosts were only in books and movies. But he still felt bad about making Adam sad, even if it was only in his dream.
He was getting hungry, too, but the thought of moving his foot to get into his backpack kept him from doing anything about it. He wished he had taken some of the food out earlier.
He was focused on a way to retrieve one of the apples, everything else forgotten as he made and discarded several plans. So much so that he hardly heard the soft voice calling his name.
"Vin? Hey, Vin?"
Twisting around, he found that the other little boy had returned. A broad smile brightened his face as he said, "Adam! Y came back!"
With a smile of his own, the little specter said, "yeah."
"Yer not mad at me?"
Shaking his head, the ghostly little brunet said, "I wasnt mad at you. I just.. I just got sad that my Papa doesnt need me anymore."
His smile absorbed by a deep frown, young Tanner said, "I never said he dont need y."
"You said that hes not angry anymore since he has you and JD."
"Jist cause he dont git angry like he used t dont mean he dont miss you an Mrs. Chris."
Dark eyes brightening, Adam said, "It doesnt?"
"Course not," Vin said gently. "Why do y think he talks bout y all th time? An why do y think hes keeps yer pictures on th walls, an yer toys packed up in th " he broke off as he noticed a change in his new friend.
Little Larabee tensed, seeming to be listening to something or someone that Vin couldnt hear. He blinked several times before turning back to the other boy. "Someones gonna be here soon."
Shaking his head, young Tanner said, "I aint gonna go back."
"Please Vin? Please go back for my papa?"
"But but hes angry at me."
Frowning, Adam said, "so?"
In a painfully soft voice, the former street urchin said, "Hell send me away."
Laughing, the little spirit said, "He used to get angry at me a lot, Vin. He never sent me away " In a sad voice, he finished with, "he couldnt help it cause the bad men took me away from him."
"But yer his son, Adam. I aint. Im only some kid he dopted."
"Youre not just some kid, Vin!" The ghostly image growled adamantly. "If my papa dopted you then it means youre special! And if you dont go back to him hell be sad again, and if you do that then it means that youre a real jerk!"
Blinking huge blue eyes in shock, Vin stared open mouthed at his friend. Before he could say anything, the spirit of his fathers son continued.
"Darn it Vin! Youve gotta go back there, no matter what you thinks gonna happen. If you dont then then then Im gonna do things that scares anyone whos around you and theyll think youre a freak and then you wont have any friends!"
"Adam, I "
"You cant hurt my Papa, Vin! You cant! You gotta go back and take care of him! I cant do it, Vin, but you can! Dont you leave my Papa, too!"
"Adam!" He had to call the name loudly to get the other boy to stop his tirade. When the dark eyes settled on him, he said in a quieter tone, "okay. Ill go back."
The ghostly visage beamed; the little face breaking into a smile. Then he once more stared off into the distance. After a minute, Adam sighed, turning back to face his new friend. "Theyre gonna be here in a few minutes, Vin. Ill have to go then."
"I dont want y to leave! I wancha t stay with me. I feel I feel like "
The dark-haired child smiled. "You feel like maybe we could really have been brothers if if I hadnt had to go away."
Grinning, Vin said, "yeah."
The little Texan felt something beneath his hand, and looked down to see a small, elegantly carved horse laying there. He realized that this was the thing that Adam had thrown at him earlier. Picking it up, he held it out to the little spirit. "This is yours."
Not taking the toy, the other boy said, "You keep it. Papa carved it for me a long time ago."
"But, its yers."
"I have to leave it here, anyway. And sides I can give it to my brother if I want to."
Giggling now, Vin said, "thanks."
Nodding, Adam moved back across the room. Pointing to a place on the wall, he said, "See where this part is darker than the rest?"
"If you pull on it, itll open. Theres a little hiding place inside. Papa fixed if for me, so I could keep my special toys in it." Turning to the injured child he said wistfully, "would you take care of them for me?"
In a solemn tone, Vin said, "sure."
With tears in his eyes, the diminutive phantom said, "and Vin?"
"Would you would you take care of my Papa our Papa for me?"
With a lump in his throat, Vin said, "sure. And I promise I wont leave him, Adam. Not again."
Smiling again the little spirit said, "Thanks." Then he turned once more to stare into space. Heaving a heavy sigh, he said, "Ive gotta go."
Struggling not to cry, Vin said, "will I see y agin?" Even as he asked, he realized that the other boy was fading from sight. "Adam?"
Turning back, the fading spirit said, "I sure hope so brother."
Reaching out a hand, Vin said softly, "me too brother."
He had almost made it.
Intent on getting to the hidden playhouse, JD had sprinted along the fence as fast as his chubby legs could carry him. He could just make out the outline of the little log cabin when
Stumbling as he tried to stop, he found himself grabbed up in a pair of strong arms just before he fell face first onto the muddy ground. Looking behind him he found himself eye to eye with a very angry Chris Larabee.
"Where do you think youre going, young man? Dont we have enough to worry about, without you running off? Now were going back to the house, and youre going to your room "
"NO!" The little boy struggled, trying his best to squirm out of the mans arms. "Lemme down! You wont lisen so I gotta go myself! Lemme down! No! Vin "
"Vin? What about Vin?" Chris loosened his grip on the wriggling boy, staring hard into the cherubic little face.
Ceasing his actions, the five-year-old said tearfully, "nobodyll listen to me I tried t tell you I know where he is, but nobodyll listen to me!"
Taking a deep breath, the blond tried to calm himself down. Managing to compose himself enough to set the child down and squat down in front of him, Chris said evenly, "what did you try to tell us, JD?"
Lower lip trembling, hazel eyes flaring, and pudgy arms crossed across his chest, the five-year-old said, "I tried to tell you that I know where Vin is."
Running a hand through his hair, the agent asked, "Where is he, Little Bit?"
Trying to gauge whether or not he was actually going to be listened to, JD finally said, "Hes in his hiding place."
"JD, please if you know where he is "
"Ill take you if you promise you wont yell at him."
Taking another deep breath, the blond said, "Im not going to yell at him I promise."
Nodding, JD took his hand. "Kay cmon."
They reached the end of the fence, and JD tugged on Chris hand to get him to stop. Looking up at the tall blond, he said, "maybe you should stay here an Ill go "
Smiling at the little boys concern for his friend, Larabee said, "its okay Little Bit, I promise I wont be angry with him. I just want him to come home. Trust me?"
Eyes traveling from the little stand of trees to the blond and back, JD said hesitantly, "yeah okay." Pointing toward the small stand of trees, he said, "Hes in the woods."
Squeezing the tiny hand in his, the worried father left him behind to stay with the pups, while he stepped quietly across the grass. At the edge of the tree line he stopped, leaning against one of the trunks. His breath caught in his throat as he saw the little playhouse sitting, forlorn, forgotten, and hidden by the trees.
Closing his eyes for a minute, Chris tried to fight the memories that insisted on forcing themselves on him, but failed.
He could remember building the little playhouse for Adam before his son could even walk. Sarah had teased him about building it for himself instead their son, leading him to reply that he would finally have a room of his own then, a place to hide when she had work for him to do.
He had set it up beneath the tree nearest the house, far enough away for Adam to feel independent, but close enough for his parents to keep an eye on him. His son had loved the house, and spent long hours out there, playing.
But then after he hadnt been able to look at the little cabin without expecting to see his son waving at him through the window. And, God help him, sometimes he did see his son smiling at him there. The little playhouse became just another reminder of what he had lost.
Try as he might, though, he hadnt been able to dismantle or get rid of it.
Finally, with the help of Buck and some other friends, he had loaded the tiny cabin onto a flatbed and drove it to the far end of his property. There it was left to sit amongst the stand of pines where he and his family had picnicked so often. Where better to hide one reminder than in the midst of another?
Scrubbing his hand roughly over his face, Chris growled at himself for wool gathering when the son of his heart needed him. Squaring his shoulders he padded softly to the door. Bending so that he could enter, he knocked gently before pulling the wobbly door open.
Vin looked up at him, not seeming very surprised to see that someone had found him. With a sleepy smile, the little boy said, "hi, Papa."
Larabee tried not to let his shock show. Only one person had ever called him Papa before. Smiling back at the seven-year-old, he said, "hi, cowboy. Thought Id see if youre ready to come home."
Tears spilled from the childs eyes. "Y really want me t come back?"
Dropping to his knees beside the makeshift bed, Chris said, "of course I do. And I want to apologize to you, pard. I should have talked to you about the situation at school last night, but I was tired and let that get the best of me. You need to know that Im not angry or disappointed in you for what happened at school. If theres one thing I know about you, young man, its that you dont lie. If you say you didnt take that kids toy, then I believe you."
He couldnt help it. He began to sob, the tears gushing in a river down his little face as everything that had happened over the past several hours overwhelmed him. Vin reached out, silently begging to be held. It was a request Chris was only too happy to grant. As he gathered the sobbing child into his arms, little Tanner yelped as his injured foot moved. Adjusting his hold, Chris gently lifted the swollen limb, settling it along one arm.
"Looks like you had a little accident," he whispered.
Nodding against his fathers broad chest, Vin said, "go gopher hole."
"Ouch. Think wed better have the doctor look at it." He felt one tiny hand clutch at his shirt. Placing a kiss on the top of his sons head, Larabee said, "sh, its okay. Ill be right there with you."
Awkwardly carrying the little boy out of the little cabin, Chris grunted as he straightened up outside. With Vin still clinging to him he carried him beyond the trees and headed back to where JD waited. He found that he wasnt very surprised to see Buck there as well. The big man was busy giving the five-year-old a scolding, only stopping when Larabee spoke up.
Turning, the mustached mans expression changed from one of anger to shock and relief at the sight of the little boy in his friends arms. A small spreading across his face, Wilmington could only manage to say, "Oh thank God."
Returning the smile, Chris said, "Lets get back to the house and let the others know."
Nodding, Buck said, "sounds good." Lifting a sniffling JD into his arms and settling him on his hip he started off at a jog calling over his shoulder, "last one homes a rotten egg!"
Listening to little Dunnes giggle carried back to him on the breeze, Larabee shook his head. Moving forward at a more sedate pace, he felt Vin snuggle against him. Sighing as a sense of relief settled over him, he said softly, "Lets go home."
Chris looked up at the sound of someone entering the little, curtained, cubicle. Turning his head, he saw Ezra Standish standing at the curtains opening. "Didnt expect to see you here."
Standish couldnt help but grin at the sight of his big, bold, tough boss, sitting on the hospital bed. He was leaning back against the raised head, legs crossed at the ankle. A freshly scrubbed Vin was sprawled across his lap, one hand wound in the material of his dark shirt, the other clutching his stuffed cat. And, if he wasnt mistaken, Larabee was holding a copy of "Captain Underpants". It also looked suspiciously as if he had been reading it, even though the worn out seven-year-old was sound asleep.
"Something on your mind, agent Standish?"
Clearing his throat, the undercover man said, "I just thought Id stop by and see how Vins doing."
Nodding toward the childs left foot, which now sported a walking cast, he said, "Doc said the breaks clean and, other than being a little dehydrated, hes in good shape. Im taking him home tomorrow."
"That is good news. Have the two of you made up?"
"Seems so. Im not sure it wont happen again him thinking Im going to give up on him. But, for now, he hasnt let me out of his sight any more than hes had to since we got here." Then, noting the bag in the other mans hand, he said, "been shopping?"
With a gold-edged grin, the Southerner opened the bag, pulling out a stuffed bear, complete with a little cast on its leg. "I thought that perhaps young Vin would like someone to commiserate with. And " He pulled out a package of markers, nodding toward the injured foot, he said, "with your permission I thought that Id give my young friend a surprise when he awakes."
With a chuckle, the senior agent said, "I think hed like that."
Chris brought the Quadcab Ram to a stop at the end of his driveway. He couldnt help but heave a sigh of relief as he beheld the sight of his ranch house. There had been many times that the sight of the house gave him pain, but no longer. It had once more become a place of happiness a home.
Looking over his shoulder, he grinned at the sight of the little seven-year-old sprawled out on the back seat, asleep. Vin lay with his casted leg propped up on the seat, his head resting where door and seat met. His little mouth was slightly open, soft breaths bespeaking total relaxation.
Larabee climbed out of the truck and carefully retrieved the child, pulling him into his arms. Little Tanner grumbled at the disturbance, blinking owlishly into the late morning sun. When he realized he was in his adopted fathers arms, he smiled sleepily and rested his head back on one broad shoulder.
With a chuckle, Chris said, "dont go back to sleep, cowboy. Weve got company."
"Yep. Lots of folks wanted to be here to welcome you home." Respecting the childs normally shy nature, he said, "Is that okay?"
"Sure s Unca Ezra here?"
Checking, and seeing that the agents car was parked at one side of the drive, Larabee said, "Yeah, he is."
"Good." Stretching his left leg out, waggling the bright yellow cast that had been meticulously decorated with the likeness of Spongebob Squarepants, he said, "gotta tell im how cool my cast is."
"Where we goin?" Vin asked, as he step-clomped down the hallway after his father. It didnt really matter to him, it was Saturday and his adopted father wanted the day to be for just the two of them. That was all that mattered. Buck and JD had gone into town, leaving them alone at the ranch.
"Just in the back yard. That okay?" Chris asked, looking down at the child who held his hand. Vin had seemed to need more physical contact than he normally did, and he was only too glad to give it.
"Sure. Whatre we gonna do?"
"Ive got something to show you."
Nothing more was said as father and son walked out the back door and onto the broad, redwood deck. The big blond stopped, turned, and lifted the child into his arms. Vin frowned at him, his independent nature asserting itself. "Chris, I cn walk."
"I know, but I want you to close your eyes. Ive got a surprise for you."
Uncertainly, the seven-year-old said, "okay."
By the time Larabee had stepped off the deck, his son was settled against him, head on his shoulder. He couldnt help but wear a smile as he walked to the farthest corner of the yard. Stopping, he said softly, "Okay, you can look now."
Raising his head and shifting around, the little boy gasped. There, under the big tree, was the log cabin. The windows had been replaced, the door re-hung, and the roof freshly painted. His little mouth stretched into an o, and before thinking, he said, "but thats Adams house."
Frowning, Chris said, "How did you know it was Adams?"
"I um I "
He was torn, not wanting to lie to the man, but not wanting to tell him the truth, either. Dropping his gaze, he said, "yll git mad."
Drawing a finger in an x over his heart, the blond said, "cross my heart. Id really like to know, and I promise not to get angry."
Grappling with his emotions, Vin sought to find the words he needed to tell his story. He had wanted to talk about his meeting, but had been afraid of what the grown ups would say. They didnt understand that, sometimes, people woke up for a little while, stopped listening to the whispering angels, and visited places that had been important to them.
"I well um, I y see " He stopped his stammering explanation, taking a deep breath before finished quickly, "Adam told me."
Vin looked into his foster fathers face, searching for signs that the man was getting angry. Seeing nothing that would indicate that he was about to get yelled at, he whispered, "yes, sir."
He couldnt believe his ears. "Yer yer not mad?"
"No." Easing the little boy to the ground, Chris knelt before him. "I told you I wouldnt get angry, didnt I?"
"Yeah, but but "
Reaching out, he brushed a loose curl back from the boys forehead. "Vin, would it surprise you if I told you that Ive seen Adam, too?"
"Y y have?"
"Lots of times. And usually he was here in his cabin. Thats why well, thats why it was out there. It well, it just made me sad to see it."
"Did it make you sad to see Adam?"
Nodding his head, Vin said, "Hes sad, too. He misses y."
Fighting back the tears and managing a smile, the blond said, "I miss him, too, cowboy."
Frowning, the seven-year-old said, "will it make you sad t have th cabin out here? If so "
Taking the narrow chin in his hand, Chris said, "maybe, sometimes." Seeing the blue eyes grow sad, he added, "but you know what would make me really happy?"
Clucking the boys chin, he said, "watching you playing in it."
The smile returned to the little, elfin face. Reaching out and taking a big hand in his, Vin led his father to the door of the cabin. Opening it, he step-clomped into the little cabin. While Larabee watched, he moved to the dark patch on the wall. Easing himself to the floor, he worked at the wood until it pulled away, revealing the little hiding place. The little boy giggled as he saw the treasures inside. Carved horses, matchbox cars, trading cards protected in a baggie, and other things important to small boys filled the space.
"Well, Ill be "
Vin was surprised to find Chris on his knees beside him. "He he showed me this hidin place." Lifting out one of the carved horses, he asked, "did y make this fer im?"
Nodding, the agent took the piece, turning it over and over in his hands. "Yeah, I did. He loved to watch me carving them. I must have made a couple dozen horses... "
Little Tanner eased himself around, settling against the cabin wall as he listened to his father tell the story of making this particular gift for his son. As he listened, something caught his eye, and he turned toward the corner. There, barely visible in the shadows, he saw another little boy, smiling as he listened to the story as well.
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