I actually intended to have this ready before Halloween but my time fell woefully short. I would like to thank and acknowledge every other author whose character I have tagged in the writing of this story. I wanted to send it to each of them to get their permission but then everyone would have read it and there would be no need to post it. Hopefully, I havent crossed the line or stepped on anyones toes. If so, I am truly sorry and I meant no harm.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the team watched the explosion that took down the warehouse. Thick clouds of black smoke rolled skyward as the flames reflected in the puddles of snowmelt that dotted the asphalt. Chris groaned under the weight of the sheet of corrugated metal that had been a part of the south wall of the building. Coppery, metallic tasting blood dripped from his split lip and from his nose. A muffled woosh sounded and another plume of flames and smoke was shot skyward.
Dazed and hurting, Buck tucked his head at the explosion. Pain raced up his left arm and he rolled to his side cradling the injured limb. The groan of the metal as it heated and expanded was like a living thing warning him of its fury. The second explosion sent a huge column of acrid smoke and fire into the air.
Unharmed by the first explosion, Nathan had grabbed the first aide kit from the back of the truck and raced toward the building. The blast wave of the second explosion caused him to have to duck behind a stack of pallets before he could safely enter the inferno to try to rescue his friends.
In the surveillance van, Josiah felt the explosion. Automatically, he keyed the mic and called for backup and fire control. Flinging the back doors of the van open, he leapt out and ran toward the building. The spire of smoke and flame from the second explosion seemed to charge the air around him with malevolent energy. The hair on his bare arms felt as if someone had lightly stroked over them. Several yards ahead, he could just make out the dark shape of the medic rushing toward a fallen form. Praying even as he ran, the profiler rounded the corner of the building and skidded to a halt as a large section of the wall pulled free of its moorings and slowly toppled to the asphalt.
From inside of the building, the explosion was even more remarkable. Ezra barely had time to think when he heard the warning cry in his ear. Vin had spotted the explosive from his perch on the catwalk high above the warehouse floor. The southerner turned to face his horrified teammate before both of them were propelled into the side of the large air handler. By reflex, he wrapped his arm around JD and tried to shield him. Several incomprehensible moments later, a hand grabbed him by the upper arm and dragged him to his knees. Instinct drove Ezra to try to fight back and then a familiar voice called his name. Vin had somehow gotten to the floor and was trying to get them to safety. Both men grabbed JD and levered him up from the floor. They headed for the stairs leading up out of the lower floor storage area where the meet was supposed to take place. The second explosion drove all three of them into the wall and Vin slumped to the floor unconscious. Ezra struggled to drag both men into the lee of the concrete stairs and then he huddled with them, praying that this wouldnt become their tomb.
Nathan pressed a thick pad of gauze against Chriss nose and held it there firmly. He had picked the blond up in a firemans carry and moved him to the surveillance van. In the distance, he could hear the sirens announcing that help was on the way. He kept glancing up toward the inferno, looking for any of the other members of his team. Finally, beams of headlights danced back and forth across the scene, mingled with the flashing red of the emergency lights on top of the vehicles. The hiss of air brakes told him that a fire truck had arrived on the scene.
Spotting the man leaning against the side of the stack of pallets, Josiah hurried to offer assistance. He knelt and ran his hands lightly over Buck, searching for any bleeding wound. When the ladies man recoiled at the hands that touched his left arm, the profiler moved to help him to his unsteady feet. The two men staggered back toward the row of oncoming emergency vehicles. Several police officers raced up to help get them to the waiting ambulance. Josiah veered away from the ambulance in favor of the surveillance van where he thought Nathan would be with Chris. They had to stay together until the others were rescued.
When they reached the rear doors of the nondescript, gray panel van, Buck glanced around. His eyes passed over the two men in search of the others. Skidding to a halt, he turned to look over his shoulder toward the groaning, blazing hell that had been an ice cream factory. Instinct drove him to try to return to rescue his friends.
No, Buck! Youre hurt! You need to let Nathan look at you, Josiah urged as he tried to turn the man away from the building.
JDs in there! Buck protested. A cluster of Denver police surrounded him, preventing him from making a dash for it. Despondent and in shock, Buck sank to his knees. Josiah wrapped his arms around him and rocked him as he tried to console him.
An officer waited until Josiah looked up to ask how many were unaccounted for. The profiler glanced back at the jets of water before raising three fingers. The paramedics lifted Buck from the protective circle of his arms to put him on the gurney and immediately diverted his attention. Someone wrapped a blanket around Josiahs shoulders and the profiler looked up in gratitude at the female officer.
Left alone at the scene when the others were loaded into the ambulance, Josiah slid to his knees against the bumper of the van to fold his hands in fervent prayer. The three youngest members of his team were missing and he was pleading for their safety. Four officers kept the vigil with him as they watched the fire succumb to the jets of water. From their vantage point, they couldnt see the group of firemen who entered the conflagration attempting to find and rescue the missing agents.
The air was uncomfortably hot in the alcove below the stairs. Fortunately, the smoke remained above the level of their heads and they were able to breathe. Ezra knelt protectively over the two men and draped his jacket over their heads. Praying to a God he didnt actually trust, the southerner didnt plead for himself but for his friends. Several loud crashes caused him to flinch and draw in closer.
The fireman squinted in the dark and grabbed his partner. In the dim column of light from his flashlight, he could just barely make out the tennis shoes in the corner under the stairs. They crossed the floor and knelt down to see if the men had survived. When they touched the one with his back to them, he jumped and flung the jacket back to look around. Relief lit the face of the man in spite of the protective gear that gave the firemen an alien appearance. He surrendered his charges to them as the first tendrils of shock took hold. Ezra slumped into the firemans arms.
Pain and heat buffeted him and JD opened his eyes for a moment. The world was aglow with fire. Firm hands tugged at him and his eyes widened in terror. His shoes scrabbled for purchase on the floor as he pushed back against the concrete wall at his back. A familiar face moved into view and relief washed over him just before he lost consciousness.
Pressure on his head brought a sharp stab of pain and Vin tried to turn from it. A hand under his chin held him and prevented him from moving. Opening his eyes, his heart clenched in absolute terror. A cry of fear burst from his lips and other hands reached out to restrain him as he tried to get away. One well-placed heel drove away one of the frightening apparitions but another was there to take his place. Giving in to the pain in his head, Vin slumped against the wall again, unconscious.
From the flurry of activity on the part of the firemen, Josiah guessed that they had found them. When the paramedics also surged toward the largely under control fire, the profiler dared to hope. When he saw the first limp body draped over the shoulder of the fireman being dumped gently onto a gurney, he trembled. As the second inert form was carried out, Josiah began to sob. The third body walked out being supported by two firemen and the profiler surged past the line of police officers to get to his side.
Ezra! Thank Heaven! Josiah called as he caught the southerner in a rib-crushing embrace. He felt it immediately when the undercover agent surrendered to the darkness that had been taunting him. It didnt matter, the profiler was content to stand and hold the young agent until the others had been attended to. The female paramedic coaxed him into letting Ezra down so she could evaluate him before he was transported to the hospital. Rather than wait for another ambulance to be dispatched, she asked if Josiah and Ezra could ride in the police car to the hospital. Two police officers escorted them to a waiting patrol car.
Chris paced the confines of the examining room. He had been to X-ray and waited for the plastic surgeon to come to close the split on his nose to minimize scarring. Buck was getting a cast on his arm for the compound fracture of the ulna near his wrist. Nathan had finally been persuaded to stretch out on the couch in the doctors lounge and was resting. The blond was agonizing over the fate of his three youngest agents. He had yet to hear from Josiah. He tried to hold on to hope but it was a capricious thing. He didnt think he could bear to lose any one of them but losing the sharpshooter would be like Sarah and Adam all over again. Clenching his hands into fists, he sank into the chair he had swiped from the hall to avoid having to sit on the hospital bed.
The fire department ambulance backed slowly into the ambulance bay. As soon as the vehicle came to a stop, several nurses and interns rushed out to receive their patients. Both gurneys were gently lowered to the ground as vitals were collected. The police car pulled in beside the ambulance and the officers leapt out to help Josiah out of the back seat. The profiler turned back to lift his precious burden from the back seat and refused to surrender him to the waiting hands. One of the residents recognized the men and simply led Josiah to an exam room to put Ezra down. A nurse immediately began to collect vitals on the southerner.
A nurse wheeled a lightly dozing Buck out of the elevator just as the gurneys with his teammates were being wheeled into exam rooms. Opening his eyes, the ladies man dropped his uninjured right arm to stop the chair. Before the nurse could protest, he was out of the chair and moving up the hall after JDs gurney. No one moved to stop him as he stepped up to the bed and studied the pale face of his little brother. The nurses worked around the six-foot obstacle until the doctor finally touched his shoulder.
Mr. Wilmington, if you could return to your room, Ill come there as soon as I have something to tell you about his condition, he said as he urged the man toward the door. Buck reluctantly released JDs hand and limped out of the room. He ignored the nurse with the wheelchair and stuck his head into the room where Chris was dozing lightly in his chair.
Chris! Theyre here! Theyre alive! Buck called softly. The blond mans eyes popped open and he sprang to his feet. He crossed the room in quick strides and stopped in the hallway, waiting for direction. Buck pointed to the room where Vin had been taken before allowing the nurse to take him back to the exam room so he could wait for the doctor.
The team leader strode into the exam room to what looked like pandemonium. Vin was thrashing and struggling as if trying to fight off attackers. A familiar nurse was shouting loudly into his ear, trying to get through to him. Chris stepped forward in time to hear a very youthful voice cry out his name.
I want Chris! Vin cried as he continued to try to foist off the restraining hands.
Vin? Im right here, the blond said as he pushed past the nurses. Chris suddenly caught the Texan as he practically leapt from the gurney, wrapping his arms and legs around him. The weight staggered him and they nearly ended up on the floor. Vins face was tightly burrowed into Chriss neck.
Mr. Larabee, we really need to examine him, the nurse said urgently.
Give me a minute, Chris growled. Vin? Come on buddy. I need you to sit up here and let the nurse look at you. He carefully eased the Texan to the edge of the gurney and began to pry the arms from around his neck. Vins hands were fisted into the material of his shirt. Incredibly large, tear filled blue eyes locked on him.
You wont let the trolls get me, will you? Vin asked in a very childlike voice.
Trolls? I dont know what youre talking about, Vin, Chris said.
In the warehouse, the trolls were trying to get us, the Texan said as if that made it all clear.
I wont let anyone get you, Chris assured Vin as he continued to carefully pry the clinging arms from around his neck. The sharpshooter lay back on the bed but remained tense and ready to spring away. He flinched every time he was touched and kept one hand tightly wrapped around the team leaders.
A blood-curdling scream from across the hall galvanized the members of Team 7. Buck sprang to his feet and ran into the hall just as Josiah and Nathan burst out of other doors. All three converged on the room where the scream originated. Two nurses and the doctor were struggling to keep JD on the gurney. The young computer whiz was kicking and fighting with all he had to be free of them. He continued to scream incoherently. Buck pushed his way to the bedside.
JD, calm down! JD! Buck called as he took hold of one of JDs arms. His roommates eyes were clenched closed as he continued to scream and kick. Josiah moved to the foot of the bed and helped to pin the thrashing legs. Nathan dropped his weight across JDs midsection, ending the worst of his struggles. His screams dissolved into whimpering pleas.
I want my Buck! I want my Da! I want Buck! JD cried in a warbled, childish voice.
Im right here, JD. Open your eyes, Buck called. The dark eyes sprang open and the thrashing stopped instantly. JD looked up at his roommate and he began to cry.
Im scared, I thought the trolls were gonna get me, JD called as his lower lip began to quiver. The nurse released her grip on his other arm and Nathan and Josiah backed off. JD rolled to his side and snuggled into Buck as soul-deep sobs rolled free. The older man passed his hand up and down the trembling back.
Across the hall, JDs screams sent Vin into a panic. He sprang up on the bed and began to pant as he shuddered. Chris kept a light grip on his arm to keep him from leaping to the floor. When the screams tapered off, Vin looked at Chris with tears in his eyes. He leaned toward the team leader and buried his face again.
Did the trolls get JD? Vin whispered.
No, JD is across the hall. Hell be fine, Chris said gently. He raised his eyes to the doctor and silently asked what was going on. The man had treated the sharpshooter before and he was as confused as the team leader. Until the X-rays came back, he just didnt know what was going on. Chris coaxed Vin into laying back so the nurse could check his vitals again.
Josiah edged around the perimeter of the room and slipped out the door. He crossed the hall and peeked into the other room. Vin was just settling back against the pillow. Chris looked up at the profiler and silently questioned.
JD awoke a little disoriented. Hes settling down, Josiah said softly.
Uncle Jsiah? Vin called, holding out his hand. Puzzled blue eyes locked on equally puzzled hazel ones before the profiler entered the room and moved to take the outstretched hand. Vin leaned forward again to cuddle into the older mans chest. Josiah cupped Vins head gently and was rewarded with a soft sigh.
Across the hall, JD was calm and very, very childlike as long as Buck remained at his side. He exhibited every bit of the curiosity that he showed normally in questioning the doctor and the nurses about what was happening around him. He agreed to lay very still for the portable X-ray, although he wasnt happy about Buck having to leave the room for a minute. Nathan slipped away to check on Ezra. He found the southerner being monitored by another nurse.
Hes fine. His blood sugar was a little low and he was in mild shock. Ill stay with him if you need to attend to one of the others, she said softly. The medic reviewed the chart and the vitals for a moment. He reached out and placed his palm lightly on Ezras forehead. For all the expensive medical equipment in the world, this was one thing he still preferred to do the old fashioned way. He was rewarded with a pair of tired green eyes.
Nathan? How are Vin and JD? Ezra asked as he tried to sit up.
Theyre still being checked out. JD woke up disoriented, Bucks with him now. Vin has a slight concussion, Chris is with him, Nathan said. You should try to lie back down.
After his X-ray, JD curled up on his side in a fetal position, sucking his thumb as he dropped off to sleep. He kept his free hand twisted into the tail of Bucks shirt, ensuring that he wasnt left behind. The doctor snapped the film into a light panel and studied the image. He could see where there was a slight skull fracture. There was some swelling but his pupils were equal and reactive. He would have to be closely monitored and wakened every couple of hours for the next 24 hours. The doctor would discharge him as long as one of them would stay with him.
Vins X-ray was almost a carbon copy of JDs. He would also have to be wakened every couple of hours. Unlike JD, Vin refused to go to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he jerked violently and reached for Chris. Josiah left to try to arrange transportation for them.
The doctor indicated that he wanted to speak to both Chris and Buck in the hall. Josiah had returned and agreed to stay with Vin and the sharpshooter seemed to accept him. JD was blissfully unaware as Buck peeled off his outer shirt and draped it over the rail of the bed. Nathan and Ezra were also in the hall when the doctor addressed the team leader.
Both men have slight concussions. You know what that means. I am concerned for the unusual speech patterns they are exhibiting. Although they are oriented as to who they are, there is something not quite right about them. Im hopeful that it will pass when theyve had a chance to rest and recover from their injuries. Ill send you home with a prescription for pain medication for both of them. Nathan, you know to wake them and make sure theyre oriented every two hours. If they are still behaving strangely by this time tomorrow, bring them back and Ill examine them further, the doctor said. He waited until each of the four men nodded before turning to walk away.
An hour later, the team was ready to be discharged from the hospital. Nathan agreed to ride out to the ranch with Chris and the others. Josiah offered to drive Ezra to the condo to rest. Vin continued to respond to everything and everyone as if he were a child. The way he clung to Chris, ducking behind him for protection, was almost endearing if it wasnt so worrisome. JD awoke from a short nap just before the nurse arrived to take him out to the others. Although he wasnt as frightened as he had been before, he still asked for Buck.
Hes right out in the hall talking with the others on your team. Before he comes back in, can you tell me your name? The nurse asked.
My names JD Dunne, he answered around the thumb he tucked into his mouth.
Can you tell me what day it is? She asked.
I I dont know. You can ask Buck, Ill bet he knows, JD offered.
Can you tell me your birth date and how old you are? The nurse asked as she opened the chart to check the information listed there. JD rattled off the correct month and day but the wrong year. He informed the nurse that he was five years old. Closing the chart quickly, the nurse smiled and slipped out of the room, promising to send Buck right in to see him.
Dr. Hann, I just had the most interesting talk with John Dunne. It seems that he thinks hes five years old, the nurse said softly.
Are you sure he didnt just transpose the date? the doctor asked.
No, he gave the correct month and day but the wrong year and then he told me that hes five, she repeated. The doctor took the chart and hurried up the hall. It was unusual for a patient to be right about one bit of personal information and completely wrong about another, even with a concussion. JD was sitting up on the side of the bed, swinging his feet and sucking his thumb, looking every bit of five years old.
Hello, JD. My name is Dr. Hann, Ive been taking care of you. Do you mind if I have a quick look at you before you go home? The doctor asked as he approached the bed. JD pulled his thumb out of his mouth to answer.
Wheres Dr. Two Eagles? He usually takes care of me and Vin when were sick.
Jake Two Eagles? the doctor asked. He knew the man by name, he was a pediatrician.
Uh-hmm, he always takes good care of us when we hurts ourselfs, JD explained.
Hes not working today. Would it be all right if I check you over? Dr. Hann asked. Taking the shrug of JDs shoulder for an agreement, he pulled his penlight and checked the reaction of the young mans pupils. Noting that they reacted properly and that he tracked as he should, the doctor continued to press for information. Where do you work, JD?
I dont work! Im too little! I goes to school, JD said as he giggled.
Thats right, I forgot. And youre how old? the doctor asked as he checked JDs reflexes.
Five, Ill be six on my next birthday. Da said we can go any place I want for my birthday and I wanna go to McDonalds and play in the playground all day, JD said with a smile.
Where do you live, JD?
At the ranch with Buck and Chris and Vin. I used to live in the warehouse with Vin after my momma went to dream of the angels with Mrs. Chris and Vins momma, JD explained. Is Unca Ezra here? I thought I saw him before.
Uncle Ezra? The doctor queried.
Yeah, he works with Da and Chris and Unca Josiah and Unca Nathan. Sometimes he has to go under covers and we dont gets to see him for days and days, JD responded. Can I go home now? I dont feel so good.
The doctor exchanged worried glances with the nurse. I just need to talk to the others for a few minutes and then you can go, okay?
Once in the hall, the doctor strode quickly and purposefully toward the group of men standing in the emergency waiting area. He noticed that Vin refused to meet his eye and ducked behind Chris.
Mr. Larabee, may I have a word with you and Mr. Wilmington? Alone? He stressed the last word as he looked pointedly at the sharpshooter.
Sure, whats up? Chris asked.
If you would please follow me, the doctor said as he headed for an empty exam room. Chris and Buck started after him and Vin moved to follow.
Vin, you wait here with the others. Ill talk to the doctor and then well get JD and head out, the team leader said firmly as he nudged Vin toward Josiah.
As soon as both men reached the exam room, Dr. Hann closed the door. Do either of you have any idea why JD would know Dr. Two Eagles? Seeing them exchange puzzled glances, he continued. Any idea why he would think that he lives at the ranch with the two of you and Mr. Tanner? Another puzzled glance. Im very concerned about JD. He thinks that hes five and that he goes to school and that he lives with the three of you at the ranch. He told me that he used to live in a warehouse with Vin after his mother went to dream with angels, the doctor said.
Is that some kind of joke? JD lives with me at the loft and Vin has his own place in Purgatory. He knows that. Hes never lived with Vin, in a warehouse or any place else, Buck protested. Who is this Dr. Two Eagles?
Hes a pediatrician on staff here. I checked JDs chart and that doctor has never treated him. I would really like to keep JD here for observation for the next 24 hours to see if the confusion clears, Dr. Hann said. Id also like to talk to Vin again before you leave.
Vin warily watched the doctor when he entered the room. Chris stood in the far corner of the exam room watching silently. In the three years that he had worked with the Texan, he had never seen him behave the way he was right now.
Vin, can you tell me your birth date? And where you live? Dr. Hann asked.
After checking with Chris, Vin gave his birth date. Like JD, it was the right month and day but the wrong year. The date he gave the doctor made him just seven years old. Also like JD, he said that he lived at the ranch with Chris.
How did you come to live at the ranch? The doctor asked.
My ma went to dream with the angels and Is livin in a warehouse with JD. I got shotted by the trolls and Chris found me and tooked me to the hops hospital to get better. When I was better, he tooked me home with him to live, Vin explained in hushed, almost fearful tones.
Do you know a Dr. Two Eagles?
Yeah! Hes our doctor. He fixes us up when wes hurt. Hes a real live Indian! Vin said with appropriate awe in his voice. Can we go home now? Is tired and hungry.
The doctor patted Vin on the shoulder and smiled. I need to speak to Chris for a moment.
In the hall, Chris speared the doctor. What in the world is happening to them? Vin and JD met at the federal building when they started working together. Vin has never lived with me at the ranch. Hes stayed there a few times when he was recovering from an injury but, the team leader dragged his fingers through his hair. His head was starting to really throb and his concern for Vin and JD was making it worse.
I dont know. It is interesting that even though they havent been together since they were admitted, they both have the same story. I would like to keep them for observation and maybe have a therapist or specialist look in on them, the doctor said.
You think theyre crazy? Chris asked, his anger rising.
Not crazy, but I am concerned that they believe themselves to be children, the doctor defended.
Im not comfortable with leaving them both here. You were ready to discharge them just a little while ago. Let us take them to the ranch and see if they straighten out.
I hate to pull rank but neither of them is in any condition to be discharged. I can have them committed on a 24 hour hold, the doctor said as he squared his shoulders.
And I have a medical power of attorney for both of them that gives me the authority to make medical decisions for them in the event that they are incapacitated. Ill sign whatever you want but Im taking them home with me, Chris demanded.
Chris didnt explain to Nathan or Buck the reason behind the forms he signed before they left the hospital. He was silent on the drive to the ranch. Vin and JD were content to sit in the back seat of the truck and fell asleep almost as soon as it started moving. Nathan rode between them in the back seat. Bucks injured left arm was cradled in a sling and he leaned his head back against the window as the pain pill kicked in and he slept. Nathan watched carefully for signs of exhaustion in the team leader on the long drive to the ranch. Chris had a white knuckled grip on the wheel until he reached the little black top road that led to the ranch.
As soon as the truck came to a stop, Nathan woke Buck. Both he and Chris got out of the truck and opened the rear doors. Chris touched Vin lightly on the shoulder and shook him gently. The blue eyes opened, confused and filled with pain. The sharpshooter reached out and wrapped his arms around Chriss shoulders as he slid out of the seat.
You have to walk for me, Vin, Chris said softly.
On the other side, Buck tapped JD on the cheek and called his name. Immediately, JD whimpered and wrapped both arms around Buck and burrowed into his neck. Buck slipped his right arm around the young agent and guided him out of the seat. He nearly fell when JD wrapped both legs around his waist and clung there like a toddler. Nathan immediately slipped out behind JD and tried to pull him off of the ladies man.
Come on, JD. Wake up and walk. Were here, Nathan prompted. The dark headed young man nuzzled again into Buck before lifting his head. He stared at the house for a long moment before putting his feet down and stumbling sleepily up the walk.
Chris settled Vin on his bed and Nathan got JD into the bed in the spare room. Both immediately curled up and went back to sleep. Buck dropped into one of the recliners and waited for the other two to come back into the living room. When Chris dropped on the end of the couch and sighed, Buck turned his full attention on the blond.
What did the doctor say? Buck asked. Nathan passed through the room and headed for the kitchen, mumbling about coffee. He returned a couple of minutes later and sank into the other recliner.
Well? The medic asked.
The doctor thinks they need to see a shrink. Vin thinks hes seven years old and JD thinks hes five. They both seem to be caught in the same delusion. They think that they met after their mothers died and that they lived in a warehouse together until I found them. They think they live here with me and Buck, Chris finished.
How can they both be having the same delusion? Buck asked.
I dont know but they both identified the same pediatrician and gave the same account of living in a warehouse together. He wanted to commit them, Chris said. Vin was also concerned about trolls getting him or JD. He said that they shot him.
JD mentioned trolls, too. He was afraid of them, Buck said.
All right, for all we know, it could be from watching Lord of the Rings too many times. I think we need to just let them rest for a while. Its possible that they wont remember any of this when they wake up later today. We could be looking at one, huge coincidence, Nathan explained. Now, I want both of you to get some sleep. Ill keep an eye on the others and wake them on schedule. Before you say anything, I got a couple of hours of sleep at the hospital, Im fine.
Chris glared at the Vinism and slowly came to his feet. The fresh brewed coffee beckoned to him like a siren song but he was too sleepy to work up the energy to go and get a cup. Yawning until his jaws popped, he stood up and headed for his bedroom. Vin was asleep on one side of the king sized bed. Burrowed under the covers until only his hair was visible, he was snoring softly. Chris toed off his shoes and emptied his pants pockets before stretching out on top of the spread and dropping instantly to sleep.
Buck kicked back in the recliner and Nathan tossed a quilt over him. He, too, dropped off to sleep instantly. The medic poured a cup of coffee and turned the TV on. He fiddled with the control menu until he got the captions to appear and spent the next hour watching and reading the news on a cable channel. When the grandfather clock sounded the hour, he got up and went to wake JD. The dark haired agent was sprawled out across the full bed. He had kicked off the blankets and had one arm wrapped around the pillow. His other arm was curled under him and his thumb was tucked securely in his mouth.
JD, can you wake up for me for a minute? I need to talk to you, Nathan said as he gently shook the young mans shoulder. It took a couple of tries for the dark eyes to open. JD looked around the room and fear painted his features. Its all right. I just need for you to tell me your name. Can you do that?
But you know my name, its JD, the young man protested.
Okay, can you tell me my name? Nathan asked.
Youre Unca Nathan, you take care of Chris and Da and Unca Ezra and Unca Josiah at work, JD said as he clutched the pillow to his chest.
Where do we work?
At the ATF, that means alcohol, tobacco and fireworks, firearms, he corrected himself with a pleased smile.
How does your head feel, JD?
It hurts. Wheres Da? Did you know he braked his arm and they putted it in a cast? He said I could draw something on it later.
Buck, you know! He said I could call him Da cause thats what my momma called her daddy fore he went to heaven. I dont know what happened to my borned daddy. Vins borned daddy was in the Army and he was a hero. Do you feel all right, Unca Nathan? You dont seem to remember so good, JD asked as he reached out and pressed his palm to the medics forehead.
Im fine, JD. Ill go get you a pill for your head and you can go back to sleep. How does that sound?
Okay. Are you sure my Das okay?
Hes asleep in the living room. I just checked on him. You stay right here and Ill be right back, Nathan said as he went to the kitchen for a pain pill and a glass of water. The innocent, babyish voice and mannerisms were enough to almost make him believe that JD was only five years old.
After giving JD a pain pill and sitting with him until he drifted off to sleep again, Nathan went to check on Vin and Chris. While he was sleeping, the sharpshooter had rolled over and was cuddled up to the team leader. While sleeping, it wasnt hard to imagine the lanky Texan as a child. Except for the stubble of a beard, he looked like a teenager anyway. Sitting on the bed, Nathan reached over and shook Vin gently.
Vin, can you wake up for me for a minute? He asked. Instead of waking, Vin burrowed tighter into Chris and the pillow. Vin? Come on, wake up and talk to me for a minute, he coaxed as he tried to roll the Texan away from Chris. Finally, the blue eyes opened and Vin frowned at him.
Whas wrong, Uncle Nathan?
I just needed to see how youre feeling. Hows your head feel?
Hurts a little. My stomachs all yucky too, he answered.
I have some medicine for your headache. Ill bring it to you and some crackers for your stomach. Can you tell me your name? Nathan asked. He sorely wished there was some other way to tell if a person was oriented after a head injury.
Its Vincent Michael Tanner, you know that!
I forgot for a minute. How old are you, Vin?
Seven, but Ill be eight real soon, he assured.
And how did you and JD meet?
You was there, you know. We was livin in the warehouse and the trolls shot me. JD was too little to know what to do. Chris took me to the hospital and then he said I could come here to live and be his little boy. He used to have a little boy but Adam and Mrs. Chris went to dream with the angels like my momma and JDs momma. Can I have a drink of water? Vin looked ashamed of what he had explained and was trying to deflect attention away from himself.
Ill be right back with it. You just lay really still and try to relax, Nathan said as he patted the sharpshooter on the shoulder.
Is sleepin jus fine till you waked me up, Vin reminded him.
On the other side of the bed, Chris suppressed a smile. On the one hand, he could almost believe that Vin was seven years old. But on the other hand, his last comment sounded so like the adult Vin that he had to smile. Nathan brought back the pain pill and a glass of water. After the pill was washed down, he offered the crackers.
I better not, my stomach dont set too good with medicine. Ill jus try to sleep some more, Vin said as he pulled the blankets back up to his shoulder.
Buck and Chris slept for almost four more hours before the terrified scream shattered the silence and drove them from their slumber. JDs voice was filled with fear as he called for Buck. Nathan was the first one into the room. He found JD curled up in the corner of the bed, clutching the pillow to his face and chest and sobbing. Before the medic could react, he was pushed aside when Buck dashed into the room. The ladies man hit the mattress on his knees and reached for JD with his uninjured arm. JD crept from the corner and cuddled into Bucks chest as if it was the most natural place for him to be. Chris stumbled into the room just a step behind the other man. Relieved that nothing was seriously wrong, the blond slumped against the doorframe.
Since were all up, how about lunch? Nathan offered.
Chris hurried back to his room to check on Vin. When he didnt find him in the bedroom, he checked the bathroom. A slight feeling of panic began to build in his stomach when he didnt find the Texan. A muffled thump sounded in the third bedroom and he rushed to see what caused the noise. The little bedroom had been Adams. Since hed begun spending so much time with the team, hed put up twin beds in the room for the nights when all of them stayed. He flipped on the light and found Vin, on his knees pulling toys from the toy box that sat between the beds. A canvas cover had been thrown over the box to disguise it, Chris had never been able to bring himself to get rid of his sons toys.
Vin? What are you doing? Chris asked, hoping he curbed the bite of anger from his voice.
Looking for my cat, Vin answered without looking up. Hes not on the bed. Maybe JD put him in here. The sharpshooter continued to set the toys on the floor while looking for the missing toy.
Cat? What cat? Chris asked.
The one you gave me at the hospital. You know, Vin said, emphasizing the words.
Vin, come and eat something. Well look for your cat after youve had lunch, Chris said as he tried to avoid looking at the faded toys on the floor between the beds. He did see the tears that welled in Vins eyes. Well find him. Come on, you need to eat.
A wonderful smell drew them into the kitchen. Nathan had pulled things from the freezer and made a hearty beef stew for all of them. Bowls and spoons were set at each place. JD sat in a chair, licking his lips in eager anticipation of the food. Vin drifted into the kitchen and took a seat, watching the others.
Whats wrong, Vin? Nathan asked.
Cant find my cat, Vin said softly.
Isnt it on your bed? JD asked, leaning forward with concern shining brightly in his eyes.
Youve seen the cat, too? Chris asked hesitantly.
You gave it to Vin in the hospital. He cant sleep without it! JD declared vehemently.
Can too! Vin defended.
Can not! JD returned.
Can too! Vin shouted, coming to his feet.
Sit down and stop shouting! Chris bellowed. Instantly, there was silence in the kitchen. Well find the cat. I promise, the blond said as he stared into the tear filled blue eyes.
While Nathan was dishing up food and Buck was encouraging them to eat, Chris slipped into the bedroom with the cordless phone. He dialed the condo and prayed that the others had not left the city. When Josiah answered, Chris explained the situation to the profiler and asked if he would stop at a store and pick up some kind of stuffed cat. Josiah asked it there was anything JD needed. Chris put the phone down and padded back to the kitchen.
JD, are you missing a stuffed animal? Chris asked. Buck looked up at him and questioned but the blond shook his head slightly.
Your Pooh bear isnt on your bed, Vin informed JD. Before the younger man could express dismay or panic, Chris cut him off.
Josiah said theyre both at Ezras. When he comes out later, hell bring them, okay? He watched as both of the young men relaxed visibly and went back to their meal. Hurrying back to the phone, he told the profiler. JD needs a Pooh bear. You might rough them up a little before you get here. I doubt that theyre expecting something brand new.
Chris returned to the kitchen and sank into a chair. A bowl of stew was pushed across the table and he dug into it. Both JD and Vin had finished their food and were sitting patiently at the table waiting for the others to finish. When the blond looked from one to the other, JD giggled.
What? Chris asked.
You gots bed hair, JD answered as he covered his smile with his hand.
Raising one hand, Chris tried to drag his short locks into proper alignment. He caught a mischievous twinkle in Vins eyes and knew that he hadnt succeeded. A quick wink had the sharpshooter dissolving into giggles.
In Denver, Josiah left a note for Ezra and slipped out of the condo. He headed for the hospital. After hearing that Vin had gotten his cat while in the hospital, he figured hed try the gift shop. On the top shelf, mixed in with their endangered animals collection was a stuffed cat. The kindly older woman who ran the shop gave him a generous discount. A quick stop at Wal-mart allowed him to pick up a stuffed Pooh bear. He hurried back to the condo to try to remove the new from both purchases. He scrubbed both animals with a towel before tossing them into Ezras dryer with several other towels. By the time the southerner woke up, the toys looked suitably loved. After Ezra showered and changed, the two men headed for the ranch.
Buck squirmed in the recliner and threw a pleading glance toward Chris. The boys had asked to watch cartoons. They were sprawled out on the floor giggling at the insanely weird characters. None of the three older men had ever seen Rugrats and couldnt follow the stories but JD and Vin seemed to love it. They spoke of Chuckie and Angelica as if they were old friends. When they heard the closing of car doors on the driveway, both Vin and JD jumped up to run to the window to look out. Josiah reached into the back seat of the Jag and picked up both stuffed animals. He prayed that he had gotten it right.
As they came through the door, both boys greeted them with cries of joy at the sight of their beloved toys. Vin accepted the cat and rubbed his nose against it, inhaling deeply. Wide, surprised eyes looked up at Josiah.
It smells just like Unca Ezra! Vin announced.
Josiah cleaned them both for you, Ezra explained. From the relief evident on both Vin and JDs faces, the profiler knew hed done well.
The boys returned to the floor with their stuffed animals and the adults moved to the back deck to talk. Chris and Nathan relayed all the unusual things that Vin and JD had said and all the odd similarities their stories shared. It was as if both of them were sharing a delusion. Josiah put forward a suggestion.
Perhaps their consciousness has jumped tracks, the profiler said. Seeing the puzzled looks on the faces of the others, he amended. There is a theory that there are multiple universes where each person on earth is duplicated. Every decision a person makes or doesnt make has repercussions. At each important juncture in the cosmos, a decision causes a break, or an alternate universe. Perhaps the blows to their heads have caused an AU to jump. Somewhere, in the grand scheme of space and time, our Vin and JD have been displaced. Hopefully, in time, they will come back to us, Josiah explained. For now, we should probably do just what we did with the stuffed animals, treat them as if the way they see things is the way it is for us.
They think theyre five and seven years old! How am I going to explain to Travis that two of my team are at home watching cartoons? Chris asked angrily.
Theyre on light duty until they recover from the concussions anyway, Buck put in.
The team stayed for supper, Nathan and Josiah grilling steaks and burgers for everyone. Chris announced that he was going to head out and get some sodas and snacks, since he had almost nothing that could be fed to kids. Vin immediately appeared at his side, eyes pleading to go along.
Buck, Im taking Vin with me! Chris yelled through the house. Suddenly, there was a scrabble on the carpet as JD sprang to his feet and jumped up and down.
Me too! Me too! Me too! the young agent pleaded, his hands folded together in front of his chest.
You sure you dont want to stay here with Buck? Chris offered.
No! No! No! This place is boring, boring, boring without Vin. Ple-e-e-e-ease! JD begged.
Buck! Im taking both of them with me, Chris called reluctantly.
Chris? Could I perhaps ride along? There are some things I would like to pick up as well, Ezra asked. The blond smiled his gratitude at the southerner, he was a little unnerved at the thought of taking both of them to the store in their present state of mind.
In the spirit of divide and conquer, Chris gave Ezra a list of things to get while he and Vin got the snacks. They picked up a box of cereal and one of Pop-Tarts for breakfast. Chriss heart ached as he looked at the brightly colored boxes of kids cereal. He had studiously avoided this aisle of the store since losing Adam. Vin seemed to pick up on Chriss mood and edged up quite close to offer comfort. By the time they finished, they had two carts partly full. Both boys stared at the display of candy in the check out line but, to Chriss surprise and relief, neither asked for anything. Ezra watched to see what they stared at the longest before slipping into the next line. He squirreled his purchase into his pocket.
The ride back to the ranch was fairly quiet. Vin and JD fell asleep with their heads leaning against the windows in the back seat. Ezra turned sideways in the front so he could watch them. A smile lifted his cheeks as JD tucked his thumb into his mouth.
Make you wonder what they were like as kids? Chris asked softly.
I have a feeling you and Buck are going to find out, Ezra teased.
Heaven help me, Chris answered.
After their short naps, the boys were re-energized. Josiah had found a Frisbee left from one of JDs visits. While Buck and Nathan put the finishing touches on supper and Chris put the groceries away, the profiler entertained Vin and JD with the Frisbee. The horses came down from the pasture where they had been grazing and hung their noses over the fence to watch. Vin immediately abandoned the game to pet Peso. He didnt try to enter the fenced off area but leaned against the corral to scratch the horse on the neck. JD glanced at the horses with a puzzled expression but didnt go near them. Josiah picked up the Frisbee and walked over to see if he could find out what was wrong.
Is something troubling you, JD? Josiah asked.
That brown horse, on the end, where did it come from? Whos is it? JD asked.
Thats Dancer, Josiah answered, leaving off that it was JDs own horse.
Oh, okay, JD answered but the puzzled expression stayed. Wheres Milagro?
Milagro? Josiah asked.
My horse, Milagro, it means miracle, JD explained.
Oh, he must be out in the pasture, the profiler said, hoping JD would buy it.
Nathan stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled for them to come in to eat. Everything was set out on the picnic table on the deck. Vin and JD were permitted to choose whatever they wanted to eat. The medic noticed that Vin seemed reluctant to take much and he prompted the Texan to take more. JD filled his plate and slid right next to Buck. The trusting smile he gave the older man was impossible not to return.
Do we have school tomorrow? JD asked partway through the meal.
Uh, no. Its spring break, Buck answered. Chris shot him a thankful smile for thinking so quickly. It would buy them some time. Nathan gave each of them a pain pill and by the time JD finished his supper, he was dozing lightly on Bucks shoulder. Vin, while not as close to Chris, was also swaying as he fought off sleep. On impulse, Chris snaked an arm around the sharpshooter and offered his shoulder. Immediately, he had a head resting lightly on his shoulder as well.
Are you two going to be all right with them alone tonight? Nathan asked.
Yeah, I think we can handle them, Buck answered. How much trouble could they be?
His words would come back to him in the middle of the night. They had settled the boys in Adams old room, as that was where they were supposed to sleep. After helping with the clean up, the others left. Running on only a few hours of sleep, both Chris and Buck were worn out. A couple of hours after they dropped, exhausted, into bed, a cry of alarm woke them. Both men staggered to the bedroom to find that JD had thrown up all over the bed and was sobbing hysterically about it. Vin was trying to clean up the mess and quiet JD at the same time.
Its okay. Ill clean it up. Be quiet, JD, youll wake them. Be quiet! Vin hissed as he used the sheet to wipe the worst of the mess from the carpet.
Vin? What happened? Chris asked as he flipped on the light. For just a second, instead of the man hed hired for his team, he saw a small boy with incredibly large blue eyes looking up at him. When his eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness, the apparition was gone, replaced by his Vin. Just then, JD cried out and held his arms up for Buck.
Buck! Im sorry! I didnt mean to make a mess! Im sorry! JD warbled as tears rolled down his cheeks. He wiggled his fingers and waited for Buck to come to him. Chris came to the rescue and stepped up to strip the tee shirt from JD. He knew how to do it so that nothing on the shirt ended up in JDs hair.
It took most of an hour to get JD and the room cleaned up and both boys back to bed and to sleep. Chris and Buck finally dropped back into bed and slept. Buck was wakened a couple of hours later when JD lit quietly on the side of his bed.
Whats wrong, JD? Are you feeling sick again? Buck whispered as he sat up and felt the young mans forehead.
No, can I stay here with you? JD asked softly. Scooting to the far side of the mattress, Buck made room for his young friend. JD slid under the blanket and snuggled up in the warmth of Bucks side. Within minutes, he was deeply asleep and snoring softly.
The hair on the back of his neck stood up and Chris forced himself to lay very still for a moment. The sun was just coming up but it was still pretty dark in the bedroom. With his arm hanging off the side of the bed, he picked up the 357 he kept on the floor. Slowly drawing a deep breath, he rolled off of the bed and turned to point the gun at the intruder. Again, just for an instant, he saw the child with eyes wide and burning with fear.
No, no, no, no, Vin whispered, raising his hands to shield his face.
Vin, oh my God! Vin! Chris thumbed back the hammer on the gun and shoved it under the mattress before vaulting across the bed to get to Vin. The Texan was shaking in abject terror without making a sound. Chris pulled him to the bed and made him sit on the side. He dropped to his knees and passed his hands up and down Vins arms. Are you all right? Im sorry, you startled me, Chris apologized.
I woke up all by myself. JD went to sleep in Bucks room and Is scared. My head hurts again, Vin answered as he wrapped his arms around his ribs and rocked slightly. Chris moved up to sit on the side of the bed and drew Vin to him, rocking him gently.
Ill get you a pain pill. Why dont you get up there and get under the covers? Chris said as he nudged Vin toward the head of the bed. He hurried out to the kitchen and came back with a pain pill and a glass of water. Vin took the pill and drank most of the water before handing back the glass. Chris put the glass on the nightstand and helped Vin to settle on the pillow. It was getting easier to see the little boy inside of the man and the blond smoothed the hair down the side of Vins face. Chris padded around the bed and slipped in next to Vin. He could still feel the nervous tension radiating off of the Texan and he reached across to rub the trembling shoulder. As Vin relaxed, he turned on his side and cuddled up to Chris.
A couple of hours later, when the phone rang, Vin picked up the receiver. Hello?
Vin? How are you feeling this morning? Nathan asked.
Oh, hi Uncle Nathan! I feel better but JD got sick last night and threw up all over the place, Vin announced. Nathan heard the protest in the background. Well you did and it was gross! Vin yelled. Chris and Buck are still asleep, do ya want me to get them for ya?
No, thats all right. Can I talk to JD? Nathan wasnt sure how much he would get from the computer whiz in his current state of mind but he was concerned about the throwing up. He heard the phone changing hands.
Hi Unca Nathan! Chris pointed his gun at Vin this morning! JD announced.
JD! You werent supposed to tell about that! You promised! Vin protested.
Ow! You arent supposed to hit me! Sides, you telled about me throwing up! JD yelled.
JD! JD! Can I talk to you? Please stop yelling at Vin for a minute, Nathan urged.
Ok, Unca Nathan. What do you want to talk about? JD asked.
How do you feel this morning? The medic asked.
My head hurted a little. Last night, it hurted a lot and I threw up on the bed. Da cleanded me all up and then he letted me sleep in his room. Thats why Vin went to Chriss room and got the big gun pointed at him, JD explained seemingly all in one breath.
But you feel all right this morning? You havent thrown up any more? Are you able to see okay? No double vision or blurry vision? Nathan asked.
Just when I hanged my head offa the couch to watch Pokemon this morning, then my head hurted a little. I see everything just fine! JD announced happily.
Good, JD. Why dont you try not hanging your head off of the couch for a couple of days, okay? Nathan asked.
Okay! You want to talk to Vin again? JD offered.
No, thats all right. Just tell Buck and Chris that Ill be out to see both of you later, Nathan said.
The sounds of cartoons caused Chris to roll over and reach across the expanse of the bed. Finding it empty, he figured that Vin and JD were watching TV in the living room. After a shower, the team leader felt more awake and went to see what the boys were doing. JD spied him first and chirped a happy greeting.
Hi Chris! Glad youre finally up! Unca Nathan called and we talked to him. He said hes coming over later. We had cereal already. Are you going to work today? Can I go wake Da up now? JDs words spilled seemingly without the need to breathe.
Aintcha gonna say breathe, Little Bit? Vin asked from the recliner.
What? Chris asked, still trying to process all of the bits of information.
Thats whatcha always say when he gets goin like that, Breathe, Little Bit, Vin explained.
Oh, okay. So, both of you had breakfast? No more throwing up, JD? Chris asked.
Nope, I feel lots better this morning. Can I go wake up Da now? JD asked again.
Yeah, go ahead, the blond replied without thinking. JD leapt from the couch and darted across the room. Just then, Chris remembered what happened when Vin startled him in bed and he spun around. JD, wait! He called and the dark haired young man skidded to a halt, his stocking covered feet finding no purchase on the hardwood floor. JD landed on his behind. Before Chris could get to his side, a howl of pain burst from his mouth.
Owww! Owww! My arm! My arm! JD yelled as he cradled the limb against his chest. Buck nearly fell out of bed before he ran to drop beside his roommate. Chris dropped behind JD and both men reached for him at the same time. No! Dont touch me! It hu-u-u-rts! JD wailed.
Just let me see it for a minute, Chris pressed as he reached again. JD pulled away, cringing. The team leader cast a pleading look at Buck.
Let me see it, JD, Buck urged as he held out his hand. From the way it was swelling, he was pretty sure it was either broken or badly sprained. They were going to have to take him to the hospital. It took a while to calm JD enough to get him dressed. Chris called Nathan and asked him to meet them at the emergency room. Vin, doing his best to comfort JD, looked frightened.
Its going to be all right, Vin, Chris said as they headed for the truck. Buck sat in the back with JD, holding him and comforting him.
Nathan reached the hospital before the others and was waiting for them. JD seemed relieved to see the medic and allowed him to ooh and aah over the injured arm. Vin and Chris were relegated to the waiting area when JD was taken for X-rays. Since there werent too many people sitting around them, Chris decided to discuss something that was bothering him.
Vin, I want to apologize to you again about what happened this morning. I didnt mean to point my gun at you, I forgot you were in the house. It wont happen again, Chris promised.
Salright. I shoulda stayed in my own bed. I wont bother ya again like that, Vin said sadly.
I dont want you to think you cant come to me if youre having a problem, Vin, but maybe you could knock on the door. You move so quietly that I thought someone else had gotten into the house, Chris said quickly. He could almost imagine if it had been Adam.
The doctor sent Buck and Nathan to the waiting room while he splinted and wrapped the sprained wrist. Buck pleaded to be allowed to remain, but the doctor was adamant. JDs eyes were like saucers as he watched the two men leaving the room. The nurse was soothing him and keeping him distracted for the time being. When the doctor came to his side to tend to his arm, JD whimpered and flinched. The doctor didnt know that he was dealing with a five year old in the body of an adult and spoke brusquely to JD.
Sit up here now and lets have a look at your arm, the doctor said as he took hold of JDs arm above the injury. JD tried to pull away as the doctor took hold of his hand and began to rotate the joint. A blood-curdling scream accompanied the foot that took flight to land near the doctors groin. In the waiting area, Buck leapt to his feet and ran to rescue his friend. When he reached the examining room, the doctor was leaning heavily on the counter across the room from where JD was crouched in the corner, sobbing in fear and pain.
Buck, he hurted me! JD cried petulantly as he tried to cuddle into the ladies mans chest.
Lets get you up on the bed again, kid. We cant go home until you get your arm fixed up, right? Buck hoped that appealing to his sense of reason would help.
Why cant Dr. Jake come and fix it? Hes always taked care of me bfore, JD asked.
Is he talking about Dr. Two Eagles? The nurse asked. Buck nodded as he boosted JD up onto the gurney again. Hes here, in the building, why dont I give him a call? She offered. Buck put on his best grateful smile as he continued to soothe JD.