Getting Back

by Xiola

Main Characters: Chris, Buck, JD and Vin

Universe: ATF Little Britches


Warning: This story is a sequel to Afraid and deals further with the topic of self-injury. The story is intense and I would like to warn anyone who might be disturbed or affected by the subject matter to consider their own circumstances when reading it. I received many kind and helpful comments after Afraid was posted. It was suggested that I advise that anyone who might be inclined to self injure ensure that they are in a safe and stable state before they begin to read. I have tried to be as realistic as possible in portraying the therapist and his approach to dealing with the aftermath of Vin's episode. Please forgive any inaccuracies that may be apparent.

I think I'm going crazy. I haven't slept more than five minutes in the last week. Every meal I've eaten has been at my desk in the office. I haven't read a newspaper or had a beer or ridden Pony. The bust of the century is going down tomorrow and we're all running flat out and barely have time to breathe.

And Vin's in the hospital. Still silent. Still alone. Still afraid.

We've been on this case for almost two years, and it's the biggest our outfit has ever worked. This is the kind of case that can make or break a career, Travis says. Says there could be good things in store if we pull this off, but he'd be appalled if he knew how little I care. Not about the case - we've all got too much blood, sweat and tears invested in this one to let it get away from us now. We've put our lives on hold for it and will continue to do so for however long it takes to see it through. I would never do anything to compromise the job, but this is not where I want to be. I want to be with that pale, quiet little boy who has stolen my heart and who has given me his own in return.

I have definitely gotten the better end of the deal. That boy touches something inside me I was sure had died a long time ago. He makes me realize that there are other worlds out there besides my own, makes me see them through his eyes, those selfless, compassionate eyes that have seen more than any child his age ever should.

Vin is nothing like Adam. I loved my son beyond all reason, but he was nothing like me. He was more like Sarah, or Buck, truth be told. There was no darkness in him at all and he faced everything with a smile. I know Vin thinks Adam was the pinnacle of a perfection that he will never attain, but he wasn't perfect. We had to work hard at not spoiling him. He was the centre of our universe, mine and Sarah's, bright and happy and confident, afraid of nothing. I am sure he would have grown up to be a fine person, caring and considerate, but these were things Sarah and I would have had to teach him. Things he would have had to learn, things not born in him, like they are in Vin.

Vin is like me in many ways. Always thinking, analyzing and wary, but his selflessness is all his own. Dr. Abbot has dealt with many abused and neglected children throughout the course of his career, but he says it is unusual for a child with Vin's background to have such empathy for others. He says Vin's urge for self- preservation is very strong, but Vin still has a concern for those around him that is highly unusual, given his circumstances.

Everything came easy to Adam. He could read at three without having to be taught. He was a natural athlete, loved people and television and computer games and noise. He liked to ride, but wasn't much interested in the horses beyond that. He didn't really like fishing- didn't have the patience. He didn't care much for camping out - would rather be home on the couch in front of a video. He didn't have a lot of self discipline. He never really had to work for anything and if by some rare chance he ran into difficulty, his first and only reaction was to give up. I guess there is a certain amount of character building that comes from having to work for things, and Vin has that in spades. Adam was all spark and fire and brilliance, while Vin is still and deep and dark. Just as I am, in the shadowed spaces of my soul, and Vin belongs in there, with me.

And now he's lying in the hospital, alone, and I have barely had the time to see him in the last seven days, let alone try to comfort him and ease his pain. He's been sedated most of the week, and as selfish as this sounds, I'm glad for that. I hope that means he hasn't realized that I've hardly been there at all.

But I will be there soon, Vin.

Please wait for me.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

If this damn case isn't over soon I'm going to shoot everybody involved, starting with Ezra. Hell, I know it's not his fault- Forrest is being ultra-cautious and there's nothing Ezra can do. He's been undercover on this job for weeks, and I'm sure there's nothing he wants more in all the world than to get this thing over with so we can get back to normal. Normal. Hah. Whatever that is. Buck at least has been going home nights. J.D.'s beside himself without Vin, and there's no point in doubling the trauma if it can be helped. J.D.'s been going to school and Gloria takes him to see Vin every afternoon. Buck and I figured it would be better for J.D. to see Vin, sick as he is, rather than have him home and imagining the worst. Which in his five-year-old mind would likely be that Vin was dead and we just weren't telling him. I'm not sure how far away from that Vin truly is myself. Dr. Abbot has told me that Vin hasn't responded to any of them. He won't eat, he won't talk, and when he's not asleep, he simply lies on the bed and stares at the ceiling. He has a low grade infection that he just can't shake. The sedatives make him lethargic, but he gets upset and anxious whenever they try to lessen the dose. At least J.D.'s visits seem to do them both some good. Gloria says that J.D. simply climbs up on the bed with Vin, puts his arms around him, and they stay like that until it's time for J.D. to go. I'm glad I'm not there to see that.

Oh God let this case be over soon. Please let me go and save my boy before there's nothing left for me to save.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

I want Chris.

I cain't remember the last time I saw him.

Mama's still here. Sometimes when I open m' eyes she's standin' there b'side the bed. Starin' at me.

She scares me.

I want Chris.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Finally. It's over. The bust went down and Ezra and the guys were perfect. Travis is happy and Forrest is on his way to jail.

I stayed late at the office last night and got a good start on the paperwork. Josiah offered to take over on that end - said he could handle the most of it - told me and Buck to get ourselves down to the important stuff - getting our family back together.

I got home last night around three, laid in bed 'til five and then got up. Made myself a coffee and sat out on the deck in the dark. It was cold, but I didn't really care. I thought I couldn't wait to get to Vin, but now I'm not so sure. What if he's so lost that we can't find him? What if I can't help him? What if I can't save him? I don't want to admit it, but I'm afraid. Again.

We're meeting Dr. Abbot at ten. Buck and I are on our way to the hospital now. Buck's driving and he's got the radio on. Loud. His fingers are tapping on the steering wheel and he looks like he hasn't got a care in the world. I reach out and fumble with the knob, and all of a sudden it's too quiet.

"We can do this, Chris."

"What if we can't?"

"We can. We have to."

How? If Vin had a broken leg, I could handle it. I could kiss away the hurt and carry him as long as I had to until he could finally walk on his own again. If only it was that easy.

Oh, God, we're here. I've spent the last ten days wanting nothing but to be with Vin, and now I just want to leave.

We've got time to see Vin before our appointment. I follow Buck through the door and into the elevator, then down the hall to his room.

He's alone. The bed nearest the door is empty, and he's lying on the other, turned away from us, facing the window. His shoulders are twitching, and as I come around the end of the bed, I can see that his eyes are closed. There is an IV running to the crook of his right arm, and that damn feeding tube is still in his nose. It hasn't done any good, from what I can see. He's so thin - all angles and sharp bones beneath skin so pale it's almost transparent. I can see now the reason for the spasms in his back. He's retching, in his sleep, and there's nothing to show for it, save a small yellow stain on his pillow.

Buck goes over and lays his hand on his head. I just stand there. I can't bring myself to touch him. The nurse comes in then, smiles at us and goes to Vin, stroking his hair as she rolls him onto his back.

"I'm going to clean him up a bit. You are...?"

"We're his fathers," Buck answers. "Can we give you a hand?"

"Perhaps you could take that cloth and wipe his face while I change the dressing on his side."

Buck gently runs the cloth over the haggard little face. Vin whimpers, but doesn't open his eyes.

"So how is he doing?"

The nurse, Ellen, according to her name tag, looks up at Buck and sighs.

"He hasn't come along as well as we would have liked, but he's holding his own. Aren't you Vin?" She strokes his forehead. "The drugs have made him sick. The NG tube is used to feed him, but it also helps him manage the nausea. He's getting an antibiotic for this..." She peels away the bandage and gently swabs the horrid looking mess on his side, "but it doesn't seem to be dealing with the infection the way it should. The doctor is going to try something new tomorrow if this one doesn't do the trick."

I think I am going to be sick, and I can feel myself backing out into the hall and sliding down the wall to sit on the floor.

'That's not Vin,' I tell myself as I press my hands to my head. I am ashamed to admit it, but I find myself repulsed by that sallow, emaciated figure lying in there on the bed. 'That's not Vin.'

I don't know how long I am out here, but finally Buck is standing before me.

"Guess it's time to find the doctor's office." He reaches down to give me a hand up and I let him haul me to my feet.

"Buck - that's not Vin..." As if the statement can excuse my behaviour.

"Yeah, Pard, it is." Buck slings an arm over my shoulder and steers me toward the elevator. "He's still there. We just got some work to do to get him back."

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Dr. Abbot is waiting for us. Buck has managed to find me a coffee and even though I don't really want it, I m glad to have something to hold onto.

"Well, gentlemen, where should we start? Perhaps I can begin by updating you on Vin's condition, then I'll answer any questions you might have. Once you have an understanding of what we are dealing with, then we can discuss ways to best help Vin."

I'm never going to be able to deal with any of this myself, let alone help Vin. I sure hope Buck is paying attention because I tuned the good doctor out after those first few sentences left his lips. My brain is going ninety miles an hour- two weeks of too much caffeine and too little sleep, I guess. I've got to pay attention... what's that he's saying? The hour's up? But I didn't..... Once again I find myself being dragged along the hall by my best friend, and I think he's taking me back to Vin's room.

"Buck, I can't - don't make me -"

"Chris, we gotta spend some time with him. You can just sit there - let me talk to him - he has to know that we're here for him and that we're going to help him get better. Sit."

We're through the door and Buck parks me in a chair at the foot of the bed while he perches on the side. Vin's lying there with his eyes closed, much as we left him, and Buck leans over and strokes his cheek.

"Hey there, Cowboy, we're back. Open them baby blues for ol' Buck. I've missed you."

Vin's dark lashes flutter lightly on the hollow cheeks, and the hazy blue eyes peer from beneath their shadows. He looks past Buck and right at me - for a minute I think I see him in there, and then he is gone.

We stay like this for an hour or so, Buck with his big hand on Vin's unmoving head, and me boneless in the chair. Finally Buck leans in and kisses the pale cheek and whispers a promise to be back in the morning. He straightens up and turns to me.

"We gotta get movin'. School's almost out and J.D.'ll be lookin' for us."

I hoist myself out of the chair and follow him to the truck. I don't remember the drive home. All I can think is I've got a new bottle of Jack sitting in the cupboard above the stove, and that me and him are going to spend the evening together getting re-acquainted. Buck's been reading my mind and grabs my arm as I fumble with the seatbelt.

"Don't even think about it." The easy- going, affable Buck has disappeared. This one is steely-eyed and grim, hissing at me like a rattler ready to strike.

"You did this before and you know how I feel about it. It happened once and it ain't gonna happen again. If you drink around these boys, they're gone. I know you haven't forgotten the look on Vin's face when you came staggering into the den that night and knocked over the lamp. The look on his face when you yelled at him for leaving the toys out for you to trip over. The fear in his eyes when he realized you were drunk. I know you haven't forgotten how much it hurt him the next day when you couldn't take him fishing like you promised because you were too hung over to get out of bed. How he fretted to see you so sick. You are not doing this again. And I swear, Chris, if you can't pull yourself together and do what has to be done to help that boy get better, I might as well know right now. Because I ain't giving up on him. If you have, well, screw you, but just know this - the three of us'll be looking for another place to live once things get back on track."

I don't have anything to say to that. I just go into the den, fall onto the couch and sit and think about the bottle on the shelf. Buck is in the kitchen with Gloria. I hear the bus squeal to a stop at the end of the laneway, I hear J.D. banging through the back door and Buck's noisy welcome. I go to the table when they call me for supper, I return to the sofa when it is done. I spend the evening there, thinking, wondering when my life got so complicated. Buck doesn't understand. I need to have a drink. I'm not going to go crazy like I did after Sarah and Adam died. The drinking controlled me then, but it doesn't any more. I just need to have a few to help me think, to help me relax and deal with these things that right now are building up and are soon going to bury me. I'm scared, but Buck wouldn't understand. He doesn't get scared. I need the whiskey to help me tame that fear, to deaden that part of me where it lives, to help me shape it into something small enough for me to handle. I don't touch the bottle. But I it is all I think about.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

The week passes with frightening predictability. Buck takes me to the hospital, I ignore Doctor Abbot, I ignore Vin, Buck takes me home. I've managed to ignore Jack as well, but that isn't enough for Buck. We've been doing this for a week now, and it's ultimatum time.

"Chris, this isn't working. I've given you some time to get yourself together, but I'm not up for this any more. I can't worry about you along with Vin and J.D. I'm sorry, Pard, but they need me right now more than you do. You can come with me today and tell Dr. Abbot why you aren't able to do this, then you can tell Vin. If you're givin' up on him, he deserves to hear the reasons why. I ain't even gonna try t' guess what this is gonna do to him, but he's still so out of it that it might not sink in. I spoke to Josiah and he's gonna help me and the boys find another place. I'm sorry. C'mon, we're gonna be late."

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

"Dr. Abbot, Chris and I have made some decisions about Vin. I'm goin' to continue the sessions with you on my own. Chris is.....well, I'll let him explain himself."

They're both looking at me now. I clear my throat and pull myself up in the chair. Where do I start?

I have sat here all week without saying a word, and the look that Dr. Abbot sends my way tells me that he's not expecting much.

"I can't do this."

He gives me a nod and inclines his head toward the door.

"Don't you want to know why?"

I feel like I should at least try to justify my actions. Or lack of them.

"Do you know why?"

The doctor rests his elbows on the desk and leans toward me.

"I don't know... I don't understand this. Any of it. I get angry just looking at him. Why would he hurt himself like this? I know you don't think this is the case, but what if he is using what he's done as a way to get my attention - to make me feel guilty? You say he has to learn other ways to cope with the stress in his life. He's a little kid - how stressful can it be?" I can hear my voice wavering and I clear my throat to make it stop. "I should have seen this coming - he fell apart right in front of me and I didn't even see it. And this business with his mother. Up until Halloween he idolized the woman. You said you think this whole business came about because he remembered the circumstances of her death. Let's face it, it was no great loss - Buck, let me finish. She's fifteen, she runs away from home, she has a baby and absolutely no means of taking care of it. She flits from one creep of a boyfriend to another, which would be quite all right if Vin wasn't paying the price for her poor taste in men. She lets these monsters do what they want with him. He's been physically and mentally and sexually abused, but she keeps moving around so he won't fall into the clutches of Child Protection Services... I just can't feel too sorry for her...and I'm sorry about that, but it's the truth."

The room is quiet for a moment, then Buck clears his throat.

"Y' know Chris, not everybody gets t' have the Norman Rockwell version of life in America."

Oh, crap, I forgot about Buck and his Mom. But right now I am too worn down to even apologize.

"I don't know what to do for him. How can I help him? What if I can't keep him from hurting himself again?" My voice is not much more than a whisper. There is something wet on my cheek, but I can't even reach up to wipe it away.

"Chris, I don't have to tell you that Vin has had a horrific life. Experiences such as the ones he has suffered through are bound to leave scars. From what Buck has told me, he is an extremely compliant child. He defers to J.D. in everything, he is obedient, polite and quiet, and never behaves so as to call attention to himself. He feels he is not deserving of the good things that have come to him in the last few months. He worries about disappointing you, he is surprised when he feels that he has misbehaved and you don't react to him with violence. It's all there - the worry, the compliance, the guilt, the belief that he needs to be punished."

"But why would he hurt himself like this?"

"What do you do when you're overwhelmed Chris? You must have some things that help you cope."

"He stomps around and slams doors. He goes for a run. Mostly he drinks. Excessively."

Thank you Buck.

Dr. Abbot arches an eyebrow at me and I nod reluctantly.

"We all need to have ways to cope with the stresses in our lives. Running is an appropriate response. Slamming around and getting angry - fairly normal reactions, but not recommended stress relievers, especially in front of these children. It isn't in Vin's nature to react with anger anyway. It's there, somewhere, hidden deep, but he's afraid of it - he's suffered first hand the effects of uncontrolled anger too many times. He hasn't learned how to deal with his own anger so he represses it. Unlike you, he can't go off and get drunk. He doesn't have access to drugs - it doesn't leave much does it? All he has is himself, and what better target for all of that churning emotion locked up inside? He is likely too young to be able to articulate what this behaviour does for him. He just knows that when he inflicts pain on himself there is an emotional release and he is reducing his fear or rage or frustration to a manageable level. He probably feels that he is exercising command over circumstances that he otherwise is powerless to control. And he feels he deserves this pain, too. In his eyes it's a win-win situation."

Dr. Abbot pauses a moment, then continues.

"I know this is upsetting, but it isn't about you. It's about Vin. It won't be easy, but you cannot condemn him for this behaviour. As repulsive as you may find it, you cannot let him see how it affects you. You can consult a therapist yourself if you need help - I am Vin's therapist and he is my concern. You should educate yourself about self injury - Vin is young and his situation is not typical, but you have to be aware that this might be something he will have to continue to deal with in years to come. You have to accept that, right now, this is his way of dealing with his pain and frustration and helplessness. What you can do is help him to find other ways of coping. You have to watch for signs that he is becoming anxious. You have to encourage him to talk about how he is feeling. You have to distract him, if you will, from engaging in dangerous acts and replace these harmful habits with more appropriate methods of dealing with his feelings when he is overcome by them. There are no guarantees, no cures, but with time and patience Vin can learn to handle his anxiety in a safe and proper manner. But he will need our help along the way."

There is another long silence. Something is sounding vaguely familiar about all of this. Buck is looking at me like I should know what it is, and all of a sudden the light goes on.

"Vin does that for me."

Dr. Abbot looks puzzled.

"Helps me deal with things. I fell off the wagon big time, not too long ago. Came home loaded, scared the boys, scared Buck, scared myself. Buck read me the riot act after that episode, and I've managed to keep away from the booze since. It hasn't been easy. It's hard, with the job and the boys and the responsibility, and some nights I come home from work and all I really want to do is crawl inside that bottle. Vin seems to know when I'm fed up, when I'm hurting and close to the line. Sometimes he'll come to me when I'm in the den, just stand by my chair, not saying a word. He waits for me to give him the OK and he'll climb up on my lap and just lie there with his head on my shoulder. Or sometimes he'll ask to go out to the barn. I'll put him up on the top rung of the fence and he'll lean on me and we'll watch the horses. He is so tuned in to me it scares me sometimes, but when I'm with him, there's nowhere I'd rather be."

My voice fails me now and I sit staring at the floor. I don't trust myself to look up - I can't believe I said all that out loud, and now I find myself blinking back something that feels like tears.

I don't know how long we sit there, but after awhile I feel Buck's hand on my shoulder.

"C'mon, Chris, let's go see our boy."

Again I find myself in the sterile yellow room beside the big metal bed that has been home to my son for too many days. This time Buck takes the chair and I am stroking the tangled hair away from the damp little forehead. I bend down and whisper, so quiet that not even Buck can hear.

"Hey, Cowboy."

Vin sighs and stirs and opens those amazing eyes and looks hazily up at me.

"Chris? Yer here?"

I slide Vin gently to the other side of the bed and lay myself down beside him, careful not to jostle any of the tubes and wires. He's facing me and lifts one small hand to stroke my cheek.

I wrap my arms around him and pull him close.

He gives me a brilliant smile as his eyes slide closed again.

"I bin waitin' on ya. I think I was lost somewheres....Kin ya take me home?"

"Yeah, Bud, as soon as we get you better you're coming home. Until then, I'll be right here."

He snuggles into my chest and drifts off to sleep and I press my lips into the golden curls.

Several minutes go by before I can look away from that face. Buck is smiling at me from the foot of the bed.

"You look mighty comfortable there."

"Yeah, Buck, it feels good. Thanks... you know, for everything."

"I was pretty sure you'd come around. Had me scared for a bit, though." He fishes in his pocket for the keys to the truck. "Think I'll head home. You gonna stay?"

"Yeah. I'm not going anywhere for awhile. Why don't you bring J.D. over when school gets out?"

"OK, I'll see you later on."

As soon as Buck is out the door it dawns on me that this is the first time I have been alone with Vin in almost two weeks.

"I'm so sorry. Sorry I haven't been here for you." I cradle my son in my arms as my whispered litany of sins and failures fill the air around us. There are none to hear me purge the burdens of my heart, none to answer my pleas for forgiveness, no one but the tiny boy whose soul is twined with mine. I know that he will forgive me. I know that he still loves me. And I know I don't deserve either. I thank God for letting me save this child, and for letting him save me.

I wasn't aware I had fallen asleep, but from the hall I hear the unmistakable commotion that precedes the appearance of Buck and J.D. and I pull myself up on the pillow so my shoulders are resting on the head board. Vin stirs at the disturbance and once again the dull blue eyes are peering up at me.

"How are you feeling, Pard?"

His head tosses slightly on the pillow and he moans softly.

"Hey, there!" Buck comes through the door with a handful of balloons, J.D. on one hip, a brown grocery bag on the other and a duffel slung over his shoulder. He deposits our little brunet on an empty spot on the blanket and sets the bag on the overbed table.

J.D. climbs carefully over Vin's legs and squirms until he is lying between me and his brother. He turns his dark eyes on me and smiles.

"You came. He didn't have t' say nothin', but I know Vin's been wantin' you. He's gonna be glad yer here."

"Yeah, I'm here." I reach out and stroke the thick black hair. "Thanks for looking out for him while I was at work."

"I brought lunch." Buck is unloading the sandwiches and juice and coffee and when he sees I'm having trouble untangling myself from the tubes and lines, he grabs my arm and helps me out of bed.

"Has he woken at all?"

"Not since you left. How long has it been? I kind of nodded off myself."

"About two hours. The nurse is on her way down to check him. I figured you missed lunch."

He passes me a cup and the hot liquid burns a path down my throat. I manage to croak out my thanks just as the nurse comes through the door.

"Everything all right, Mr. Larabee?" She raises an eyebrow as I sputter and nod.

"Hey, there sweetie." She ruffles J.D.'s hair. "You remember me? I'm Terry. You want to have a seat with your Dad while I check Vin over? You can come right back."

J.D. slides off the bed and crawls onto Buck's lap. Terry straps a blood pressure cuff on Vin's arm, places a thermometer in his ear and clasps his wrist lightly in her fingers. She seems satisfied with everything except the thermometer, and a frown creases her forehead when she looks at the reading.

"Everything all right?"

She gives me a smile.

"Dr. Abbot and Dr. Williams will be in to speak with you later." She disappears into the bathroom and comes out with a damp cloth that she runs over Vin's face and arms.

"Should he be waking up soon?"

"I think it's best to let him sleep. I'll be down the hall if you need me."

Buck hands me a sandwich and turns again to J.D..

"So, Li'l Bit, how was your day?"

J.D. has climbed back up beside Vin, and I can't help but think how opposite they are. The mop of thick dark hair is spread across Vin's pillow, and the sticky little hands are waving as the crumbs fly and the story of his day at school is shared. Buck is laughing at our five-year-old's description of some event that J.D. didn't find amusing and his brown eyes are sparked with fire.

"Shh, Buck, s'not funny. 'Sides, you're gonna wake Vin."

Vin stirs at the mention of his name and J.D. grins when he sees that his brother's eyes are open. His chubby arms wrap themselves around Vin's neck, and he plants a wet kiss on the flushed cheek. He turns his back on us and whispers in Vin's ear, something that brings the smallest of smiles to that thin face, and he snuggles closer. The sight of the two of them wrapped around each other brings another picture to mind, and I know that Buck is remembering too, the first time we saw them in that dirty, drafty warehouse, two little boys alone against the world. I tend to think of Vin as the stronger of the two, the leader, the protector, the survivor. But seeing J.D.'s small arms cradling his brother gives me a new appreciation for what a treasure this child is, and I realize for the first time that if it hadn't been for J.D., Vin might not have survived life on the street either.

Buck and I are content to enjoy the peace of the moment, to simply sit and watch the boys curled together in sleep. An hour goes by and finally Buck stirs.

"Guess we should be headin' back. I brought you a few things - figured you'd want to stay." He goes to the bed, and leans over to whisper in J.D.'s ear. I can see the sleepy brown eyes looking at him as the arms go up and Buck scoops our younger son from the bed. He just stands there, his face buried in J.D.'s hair as the little boy clings to him. I rise from my chair and go to them, take J.D. into my arms and hug him to me.

"Have I told you lately how much I love you, Bud?" He makes a muffled noise against my shirt and I pull him away so I can see his face shining up at me. "Thank you for being such a good brother and taking care of Vin."

He places a sloppy kiss on my cheek and his arms tighten around my neck.

"Love ya too, Chris."

We are going to be all right. I know it now. It won't be easy, but we are going to make it through this.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

It isn't easy. I am staying in the hospital, camped out in the empty bed in Vin's room. Vin is starting to come around, and is being slowly weaned off the sedative. He is aware of his surroundings, smiling at the nurses and talking. Dr. Williams says that the change in him is nothing short of amazing, but he is still on the IV antibiotics for that damn infection that just won't leave him alone. As soon as this lot is finished, though, the doctor is going to switch him to something he can take by mouth, and then he can go home. The feeding tube has to stay until Vin's weight comes up, and I am getting lessons from the nurses on how to deal with that. Dr. Abbot says that as far as he's concerned, the sooner Vin leaves, the better. He said he'll want to see him for regular sessions, but that hospitalization for the treatment of self injury is something he prefers to use as a last resort no matter what the age of the patient. Every day that passes brings us one step closer to getting back to normal, and even though I'm still not so sure I know where that is any more, I am not letting it worry me. Buck just laughs and says he doesn't think either one of us was ever there, and that maybe just 'getting back' is about all we should hope for.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Well, we made it. We're home. Been here three days now, and I've got to say, it's been good. Or perhaps I should say, as good as can be expected. I've gotten the hang of the feeding tube, and much as I know he hates it, Vin hasn't balked or complained. He has diarrhea, though, and he's been vomiting - his poor little stomach isn't happy with anything that comes its way. Nathan says he figures the antibiotics have killed every bacteria, good and bad, in his system, and we have to see Dr. Williams today about that. Which remind me, it's almost time to leave. I go down the hall to the boys' room to find Vin dressed and curled up on his bed, just the way I left him.

"How're you doin' there, Pard?"

"I's OK Chris. My tummy don't hardly hurt at all no more." The blue eyes look earnestly up at me.

"Nice try, kiddo." I lay my hand on the blond head. "This won't take long. Dr. Williams just wants to help you feel better. Remember we've got a big day comin' up. You've gotta be in good shape for the weekend."

"I ain't goin' back t' the hospital, am I? Yer gonna bring me home with?"

"Yeah, of course I am. Don't worry." I smile as the tiny features relax and I run my fingers over his face. "I don't have to go back to work until after Thanksgiving, and I plan to spend all the time up 'til then with you."

That wins me a smile, and I lift my miniature Texan into my arms.

"Let's go find our coats."

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Dr. Williams changed the antibiotic- again, and I'm not sure whether it's done any good or not. Vin's insides still seem to be in a constant state of upheaval, but he insists he's feeling better, and I think maybe he is. He can actually stay awake for more than two minutes at a time. He has been able to spend afternoons on the couch and waits impatiently for J.D. to return from school to entertain him. He sits up at the table for supper, and tries his best to eat something while he's there, but I think he mostly just wants to be with us. He's counting the days until Saturday and the big surprise. I've been watching the weather channel and praying for a sunny day, and so far it looks as if I will get my wish.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

He's there. Standing beside the bed, in the dark, waiting for me to notice him. He does this a lot - comes and stands beside my bed and says nothing - stood there one night for twenty minutes while I pretended to be asleep just to see how long he was prepared to wait. I had to give it up, though. I couldn't make him stand there any longer - I figure he'd wait forever for me to notice him if that's what it took. There's not a trace of light in the sky and I peer around him trying to get a look at the clock. Three twenty-seven.

"C'mon in with me for a bit - it's early." I lift the covers and wave him in. He doesn't move. The big blue eyes are all I can see in the blur of white that is his face.

"It's Saturday."

"Yeah it is, Bud, but it's not time to get up yet."

I hear a whispered sigh as he climbs in beside me. I gently pull the blanket up and he snuggles in close.

"Try to get some sleep. It'll be morning soon."

Another sigh, this one louder and full of resignation. He says nothing by way of protest, but obediently closes his eyes and next thing I know the pearly sun of early morning is tangling in the curtains. I open my eyes to Vin's solemn stare.

"Kin we git up now?" The voice is soft and slightly accusatory.

Again I peer around him at the clock.

"Seven fifteen - yeah, I guess we could be gettin' up any time now."

"Good." He bounces to the edge of the mattress and slides out onto the floor. The face he turns to me is lit by a wide grin.

"Whoa! You're dressed! When did this happen?"

"I got up and gotted dressed after you put me t' bed last night. I figured it always takes ya a long time t' git ready t' go anywheres, so I 'cided t' git m' clothes on last night - t' save time."

His eyes are twinkling and I reach out to muss his hair.

"Well, I guess I better get going then."

I climb out and lift him back onto the bed. He hardly weighs anything at all, but his face is shining, and my heart clenches to see him truly excited about something for the first time in what seems like forever.

"You wait here til I have my shower, then we'll go have breakfast."

"I kin get breakfast ready."

"Well, that's mighty thoughtful of you, Pard, but I don't want you to wear yourself out before we get started."

Vin opens his mouth to argue, but thinks better of it.

"OK, Chris, I'll wait fer you."

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

I take care of Vin first. He hates that tube, and tries so hard not to gag when I hang his formula on the IV pole and listen to his stomach with the stethoscope. I check the tube to be sure that it is in the right position, then connect the end of the formula tubing to the one that has been inserted through his nose. The process takes about half an hour to complete, and I leave Vin propped up on the couch while I make myself a coffee and some toast. I can see him from my spot at the kitchen table - his eyes are tightly closed and I can see tension in his face and neck. He is uncomfortable and fighting back the urge to vomit, but he made it clear from the start that when he was 'eating', he would rather be left alone.

I set my mug and plate in the sink and fetch my saddle bags from the back porch. I sneak to the fridge for the lunch I made last night, fill the waiting thermos with hot chocolate and go to the closet and set out our coats and boots. I tiptoe back into the den and just as I am about to slip into the armchair opposite the sofa, I hear the noises from the back of the house that tell me Buck and J.D. are awake. Vin's eyes fly open at the sound, and he is relieved when he sees that the bag hanging above him is empty.

"Guess what?" I cross the room and start to unhook the tubes. "I was telling Dr. Abbott how well you've been doing, how you've been starting to eat with us, and he said that perhaps the tube could come out. For a day or two, to see how you get along. If you want to sit still while I get this undone, we'll go into the bathroom and see about taking that thing out of there."

Vin's eyes light up at that, but it isn't until I've got him settled on the counter by the sink that I realize I've made a mistake. I should've gotten this damn thing out before he had breakfast. I guess I was thinking one last meal of that high nutrition goop in a bag would be good for him, but I hadn't thought about all the gagging and spewing that removal of the tube was going to cause. It's too late now - guess I'll never be a nurse - and I hold him and feel guilty that my stupidity has caused this latest discomfort. I think Vin's gotten so used to throwing up, though, that to him it's just one more thing to do after a meal - wash your hands, brush your teeth, throw up. He doesn't complain at all, and somehow that only makes me feel worse.

"What are ya doin' to that boy in there, Chris?"

Buck knew the tube was coming out today, and he just can't bear to miss the chance to give me a hard time. He's standing in the hall when I come out with a pale but happy Vin on my hip, and Buck reaches over and strokes Vin's hair.

"Hey there, Bud. You need to be rescued from that big ox?"

"Nah, Buck, I'm good."

Just then we hear a crash and JD comes rocketing out of the kitchen and launches himself at Buck's leg.

"Buck, ya gotta come quick! I was trying t' help Elvis get a drink and I couldn't reach t' get the dish up to the sink so I boosteded Elvis in there instead hi Vin are ya feelin' better me 'n Buck's going to do somethin' special in town and you and Chris's doin' somethin' special and Buck I can't find my other shoe- I gave it to Ringo so's he'd have somethin'......."

Buck pushes the human tornado back in the direction of the disaster and I hitch my Texan up higher in my arms.

"You're sure you're up to this, Pard? You get feelin' punky or too tired - you let me know."

The blue eyes are twinkling at me now.

"Chris, ya ain't never told me what we're doin'. I cain't tell ya if I feel up t' somethin' when I don't know what it is."

He does have a point.

"'Sides, if I git wore out I'll just do like you do when ya watch TV. I'll jist go t' sleep and snore and drool and -"

"Hey, wait a minute. I'm not asleep in front of the TV - I'm just restin' my eyes."

They tease me about that all the time, Vin and JD. One night Buck even brought the video camera home from the office and I think they like that tape of me asleep in the chair in the den better than the cartoons. I swear Buck dubbed in the part about the snoring, and doctored things up to look like - well, I don't know what that is on my chin but I know it's not drool....

We've made it to the back porch, and Vin's grin gets even wider when he sees our coats and boots laid out there waiting.

"Are we takin' Peso and Pony out?"

"Half right. We're goin' to take Pony out and you're going to ride with me. I was thinkin' it's been so long since I was in the saddle I might need someone to hold onto me."

If know Vin was hoping to get on Peso, but he isn't strong enough to handle him right now, and if he's disappointed, he isn't showing it. I think he's so glad to get outside that he'd be happy to ride Ringo around the driveway. He's still smiling, even after we're dressed and I've got the lunch in the knapsack and we're on the way down to the barn. I park him on a bale of hay til I get Pony tacked and I lift him into the saddle to hang onto the pommel while I swing up behind him.

7 7 7 7 7 7 7

We don't get far before he's asleep. I reach around to get at the blanket tied on behind me and manage to tuck it around him with one hand and juggle the reins with the other. He doesn't stir while all of this is going on and I feel barbs of worry prick in my chest as I'm suddenly afraid it will all be too much for him. His skin is still pale, but his fine features are lax and peaceful and I take heart in that small blessing. I kiss the top of his head and relax myself as Pony carries us higher into the hills and closer to heaven. I whisper a breath of thanks for the glory of the day as it unfolds before me. The sharp blue of the sky, the harsh ridge of the mountains softened by the touch of billowed clouds, the way the trees stand surprised to wake from summer and find their leaves have gone. The autumn wind plays a different tune among those bare branches - a gentle, consoling promise of hope after hardship.

I was those trees, not so long ago, inconsolable at the loss of all I held close around me like so many leaves, sustaining me, sheltering me, defining me. I suppose that song of hope was there for me to hear if I chose to listen. But I wouldn't, didn't, couldn't listen until this amazing child came into my life and taught me how.

Vin is coming awake now, shifting against me as he tries to peer into my face. I slant a smile down in the direction of those eyes and I pull him up so he can see that we are there. A small blue lake lined with fingers of birch and nestled in a shallow dip among the hills. Pony needs no guiding - it has been awhile, but he has been here before. I swear I can feel the ripple of memory quivering in his muscles as he carries us closer, and suddenly I am so happy I feel my heart could break.

"What's this place, Chris?"

I slide from the saddle and swing my son down to join me.

"This is a special place. I used to come here with Adam. Just the two of us, when we wanted to be alone together. I haven't been here in a long time."

Vin's forehead creases.

"Maybe we shouldn't stay." His voice is a whisper, full of concern for me.

I don't answer, just sling the saddle bag over my shoulder and heft Vin onto my hip. I carefully make my way down to the flat rock on the shore where the sun is waiting for us. I take the blanket from Vin's shoulders and spread it on the large grey stone at my feet. I open the bag and set out our lunch, then I seat myself so the lake is glittering before me. I reach to pull a worried little boy into my lap.

"Are you warm enough, Pard?"

"Yeah, I's fine Chris."

We sit quiet for a moment, looking out across the water, basking in the sun and the silence.

"Ya didn't have t' bring me here, Chris."

I hug the thin body closer.

"Do you like it here?"

"Yeah." The word is long and drawn out on a contented sigh. "It's..... it's ......"

"It's a place for us now. You and me. Our special place."

Vin doesn't say anything. He leans back into my chest and wraps his small hands around mine.

"It's perfect."

He turns so I can see that brilliant smile of his that lights my world.

And I know he's right.

It is.

The End