"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Thank you to Barbretta Hayden for loaning me "Dr. William Lowery" from her wonderful story, "If Wishes Were Horses." Thank you to McMuse, my faithful friend, inspiration and beta! Apologies to medical personnel for any inaccuracies. Warning: Tissues needed. Buy a case.
JD stood quietly by the window staring sadly at the falling snow. Any normal five-year-old boy would have been jumping up and for joy at the sight and begging to go out and play, but JD didn't feel like playing. All he wanted with his whole heart was to go home to be with Mr. Buck and Vin and Mr. Chris.
"JD? Come eat your lunch, honey."
JD turned and looked at his aunt. She was a nice lady and JD knew that she loved him, but this just wasn't home. He sighed and padded softly to the kitchen table. JD climbed up in his chair and listened to the banter of his two older cousins. They were all right, but sometimes they could be mean and, worst of all, they were girls. They sure weren't Vin. He sighed again as he felt Aunt Diane kiss him on top of his head. He picked up his sandwich and began to nibble at the corners.
Diane took a deep breath and breathed it out through her nose. She hated this. John was absolutely miserable. This certainly was not what she intended when she had finally received word that her sister's son had finally been located. The murder of her sister and the missing child had been so difficult to deal with. When she heard John had been found, she knew she needed to take him in. She truly believed that family belonged together but now, seven weeks later, she was having second thoughts. Yes, family belonged together. The problem was John, or JD as he called himself, already belonged to his own family. One with another orphaned child, two adult ATF agents, a housekeeper and a bunch of 'Uncle' ATF agents. She had hoped with time that JD would adjust to his new home and begin to feel like he belonged here, but it seemed it was just the opposite. The bubbly boy she had met that first day at the Larabee ranch had been replaced by a heartbroken child. Diane grimaced as she heard her husband coming in the back door. Kevin's gruffness certainly hadn't helped the situation.
Kevin gave her a kiss when he came in, then sat down to eat. The girls chattered happily with their father while JD toyed with his sandwich through the entire meal. The girls had been excused from the table to go play, but JD remained behind since he had barely eaten.
"John Dunne, eat that sandwich," growled Kevin. "I worked hard to provide the money to put food on this table and if you're going to live here, you're going to appreciate it. Your Aunt Diane worked hard to make this lunch. Eat it," he demanded.
With tear filled eyes, JD took a bite of his sandwich as Kevin stormed away from the table.
"He doesn't belong here, Diane. I told you this would never work." Diane shushed her husband and they walked into the living room but his voice still carried to the kitchen. "For God's sake, Diane. I'm barely making enough to provide for the girls and you have to go and bring him home."
"Kevin, he's family," Diane protested.
"Honey, he's more than we can handle. He barely eats the food we put in front of him. He mopes around all day. When he's not staring off into space, he's fighting with the girls."
"His mother was killed, Kevin. He was in the car with her!" protested Diane.
"Diane, stop and think about it." Kevin paused. He did want the best for the boy just as much as Diane wanted it, but he realized early on that their family was not what was best for JD. He had seen the rambunctious little boy's spirit crushed as he was dragged away from the fun loving ATF agent that he adored. JD would be loved just as much in that household as this one and, more importantly, JD felt like he belonged there. "You know he belongs with Buck Wilmington."
Kevin stopped talking as he spotted JD in the doorway. "JD?" He swallowed hard at the sight of tears on the boy's face.
"I finished my sam'wich, Uncle Kevin" said JD softly.
"That's a good boy," Kevin replied. "You can go play now."
JD nodded and swept his long black hair away from his face. He walked back to the window and leaned his head on it, watching the snowflakes flutter to the ground, wondering if Vin was playing in the snow.
"Ow! Damn it! He bit me!" yelled the children's home worker. He grabbed at the fleeing boy, catching the back of his shirt and a handful of hair. The child yelped but stopped fighting.
"Vin Tanner. You behave yourself!" ordered the supervisor. "Sit down in that chair!"
Vin threw himself angrily on the chair, banging it into the wall. He folded his arms defensively across his chest and sulked. He didn't want to be here and he made sure that everyone knew it.
Vin had just been brought back to the Children's Home from what had been his third foster home in the past seven weeks. The first family had given up after a week. They were trained to deal with abused children and the angry emotional baggage that came with them, but Vin's belligerence had proven too much to handle. The second family had made it through two weeks, but Vin's refusal to talk, and his outright refusal to participate in the family in any way had frustrated the foster parents. When the father had attempted to physically discipline Vin, he had run away. It took several days to find the boy and, when they did, the supervisor had to deal with a handful of very angry ATF agents.
She got Vin settled in another home, hoping this one would be able to deal with the angry child. But it had not worked out either. They had just picked him up after another physical altercation had occurred with the older boys in the home. The supervisor wasn't sure whether Vin had pushed the older boys too far or if the older boys had pushed Vin too far. Either way, it had led to a fistfight, the third in the two and a half weeks he was in the home. The parents admitted defeat and called her to tell her that they wanted him out.
Lydia Weiland, the acting social services supervisor, was at her wits end with the boy. She knew that somewhere deep down inside was a hurting child crying for love, but getting past his anger and finding that child was beginning to look impossible. She sat down at her desk and opened his file again, jotting down his caseworker's phone number.
"Vin, do you think you can go to your room calmly now?"
Vin gave a sharp nod. He'd rather be in that barren room than sitting in the Mrs. Lydia's office.
"All right, then. You may go, but I want you to stay there until dinner."
Vin stood, every ounce of his taut body screaming defiance, but he nodded in agreement.
As the seven-year-old marched down the hall, Lydia dialed his caseworker's phone number. From everything she read in his file, there had been no anger incidents until he was removed from the Larabee home seven weeks ago. It was at that point that the boy had begun acting out. Now he was failing in school, refusing to talk, and from the looks of things, he would have a nice shiner from the fistfight.
"Mrs. Carlton, please." She was going to get to the bottom of this situation.
"Come on, Chris," pleaded Buck with very little of his normal enthusiasm. The sparkle and zest for life had been long missing in the tall dark haired agent.
"What the hell for?" growled Chris. "We've done everything. Tried every avenue. Face it, Buck. We aren't getting them back."
"You don't know that!" spat Buck. "You can go crawl in a hole if you want to, Chris, but I'm not giving up." Buck stormed out of the room into the kitchen.
Chris rubbed his hand wearily over his face. He couldn't blame Buck for holding on to hope, but they had tried everything legally that could be done. Their attorney, Jim Larson, had come up with a last ditch plan, but Chris didn't have it in him to get his hopes up one more time. He looked out the window to the front yard not wanting to remember the scene that had played out there seven weeks ago.
JD had already been gone for two days and that had been hard enough. The little boy's maternal aunt had showed up and claimed her nephew out of the blue. As hard as they tried, none of them were able to convince themselves that this was the best for JD. Then, just two days after JD's removal from their home, the social worker had said she had found a home for Vin.
Chris had tried to talk with Vin but, with his own heart breaking, it was hard to explain to the seven-year-old that some social worker had decided that this was what was best for him. Where was Nettie Wells when you needed her? Chris knew that wasn't fair. Nettie had gone to help her niece's family, but her leave of absence meant another worker took charge of JD and Vin. Now, Vin was being moved to a home with a mother and a father and three kids, a boy and two girls.
At first Vin had been brave, but as the time approached for the social worker to come he began to cry and begged to stay.
"Don't make me go to that place," pleaded Vin with hot tears soaking into Chris' shoulder. The soft pleas had been going on for several minutes.
"Vin, please," said Chris unable to check his own tears, "I'm sorry, but you have to go now. I promise I'll do everything possible to make them change their minds."
He felt Vin's body tense as he held him in a tight hug. "You promised I could stay with you." The sharp words pierced what was left of Chris' heart. He could feel Vin pulling away not only physically, but emotionally as well.
"I know, Vin, and I meant every word of that promise, but this is out of my hands." Chris held him by the shoulders. "I won't stop fighting Vin, not until I get you home."
The look on Vin's face said it all. Chris had failed him.
"Chris," said Josiah softly, "they're here."
Five men stood on the porch struggling to keep their composure as Vin bent down and picked up his backpack and trudged toward the car. Chris scrambled to catch up and walk with him, but Vin shrugged his hand off of his shoulder, leaving Chris standing on the walkway. Vin stopped at the car door and looked back at what he had thought was his family, his home. His shoulders slumped as he turned and put his backpack on the seat, starting to climb in.
"Vin, wait!" called Buck. He snatched up the wildcat stuffed toy that Vin had forgotten on the porch. It was the beloved toy that Chris had given him in the hospital just after they found the boys. He brushed past Chris and stood by Vin, holding out the toy. "Don't forget your wildcat, Junior."
Vin took the cat, looked at Buck with defeated but angry eyes. He looked at Chris who had stopped halfway down the path to the car. Then, biting his trembling lower lip, Vin flung the stuffed cat as far as he could across the yard, climbed in the car and slammed the door. As the car pulled away, five men saw a hurt and frightened little boy bury his face in his hands weeping.
Chris walked slowly across the yard and picked up the toy, tucking it under his arm as he continued on the path to the barn to be alone. Buck stood at the driveway openly weeping. He soon found Josiah wrapping him in a bear hug. Ezra stayed on the porch but moved to the far end, pulling out his handkerchief and discreetly wiped his eyes. Nathan watched Chris make his way to the barn before going inside to make coffee. Whether they wanted support tonight or not, Chris and Buck would not be able to shake the rest of the team. They all had lost a part of themselves when the littlest members of their family were ripped from them.
Chris pulled his thoughts back to the present. 'Damn it! I promised him. I have to try.' He walked toward the kitchen. "Buck," he called out, "what's this idea of Larson's?"
Diane sat in the rocking chair with JD on her lap, slowly rocking the somber child. JD was clutching his blanket tightly and sucking his thumb as they rocked.
"JD, you know we want you to be happy here?" she asked in a quiet voice.
JD nodded and turned his face toward the window.
"But it's obvious that you aren't."
Hearing the sadness in her voice, JD popped his thumb out of his mouth. "I like you, Aunt Diane."
She smiled. "I know you do, JD, and I love you. But we need to do something about this sad little boy on my lap."
JD turned his face back to Diane, not understanding what she was saying.
"JD, if you could have one thing, anything you want, what would it be?"
JD reached up and patted his aunt's cheek softly as if to comfort her. "I would want to live with Buck forever and ever. And Vin. And Mr. Chris."
Diane sighed. She was about to make the most difficult decision of her life. She prayed it was the right one for JD's sake.
Vin sat through another session with the new child psychologist. He didn't know why he couldn't have Dr. Will anymore. Dr. Will was pretty good at helping him talk about his "feel-bad thoughts". Vin didn't like this new doctor at all so he did exactly what he had done during every session in the last seven weeks - absolutely nothing.
Now he was lying on his bed in his room, trying to stay awake. The doctor had given him some type of medicine that made him just want to sleep. He glanced at the backpack beside his bed and remembered Chris helping him pick it out at the store. He closed his eyes tightly trying to shut out any thought of Chris. Chris had lied to him. He had made him believe they were going to be a family. Only now, he was living at this group home with no family at all.
'I hate him,' thought Vin.
'So how come,' Vin grimaced, 'if I hate him so much, all I want right now is for Chris to hug me and tell me it will be all right?' Vin rolled over, burying his face in his pillow. He didn't want any of the bigger boys to see him crying.
The supervisor of the Children's Home had gotten nowhere with Vin's caseworker. The woman was made of granite. She was a strictly a 'by the book woman' with no room to consider circumstances. After hanging up the phone after yet another fruitless call with the caseworker, Lydia decided to follow her gut instincts. She made some calls to Vin's former caseworker, Nettie Wells, his previous psychologist and the physician at the hospital he had been taken to after the warehouse incident and began to find the real picture of one Vin Tanner.
As the pieces began to fall together she understood why the child was acting out in anger. His mother had died of pneumonia at a shelter for battered women. Vin had disappeared from the shelter shortly after his mother's death. No one knew for certain what had happened to the child during the six months that transpired between his mother's death and the ATF team finding him in an old warehouse. For that matter, they had no idea what had happened to the child before his mother went to the shelter. They knew based on the timing of the death of JD's mother that the two boys had been on their own for a little over a month and that Vin had been living alone at the time he had found JD.
Dr. William Lowery, the child psychologist Vin had been seeing during the time he lived at the Larabee home had detemined, in conjunction with Nettie Wells, that the best place for young Vin Tanner was with Chris Larabee. The child and the ATF agent had formed an unusually strong bond of trust and it was that bond that would help Vin adjust.
When Lydia had finally tracked down Nettie Wells, the feisty woman had given Lydia an earful. Lydia smiled, thinking about the straightforward, blunt woman who didn't beat around the proverbial bush. Ms. Wells hadn't returned to work from her leave of absence yet, but she told Lydia how much she appreciated the call and that she would be contacting Edith Carlton personally to give her the opportunity to straighten out this mess before involving Family Court.
Lydia hoped it wasn't too late. The changes she had observed in Vin in the five days since his return to the Home were disheartening. Vin had only been back in the facility for a few hours before his first altercation with another boy. Lydia had reluctantly isolated him and contacted his psychologist. While she understood the underlying cause for his anger, she could not allow it to be expressed inappropriately, possibly endangering himself or the other children. With the help of medication, little Vin was now laying on his bed completely docile. The angry little fighter had disappeared and in his place was a little boy with no hope.
Ezra was hurting more than he would ever let on. The verbose southerner was strangely quiet but Nathan and Josiah noticed the change. Chris and Buck were far too wounded to see how much Ezra was struggling. It was with concerned eyes that Josiah watched Ezra walk to the break room before following him.
Ezra looked at Josiah, hearing the rest of the unspoken question. He shook his head 'no'. He didn't want to talk.
"It might help," said Josiah.
"Help who, Josiah?" Fire burned in undercover agent's eyes. "It certainly won't help Master Dunne or Master Tanner. How could someone do that to two innocent children? How could they rip them out of a home where they were loved? Dare I say, cherished?"
Josiah smiled to himself. Nope. Ezra didn't want to talk but his pain wouldn't let him be silent.
"They don't deserve to be shuttled around from house to house, never knowing where home is," Ezra spat angrily.
"Neither did you," said Josiah softly.
Ezra looked at him, startled by his response.
"I've learned more about Ezra Standish in the last few months than I did in the previous two and a half years." Josiah gauged Ezra's reaction before continuing. "You see, this cold-hearted, I-don't-need-anyone, ATF agent got sucker punched in the heart by two little boys who needed him."
Ezra shook his head. "They needed Chris... and Buck."
"Yes, they did. But they also needed their 'Uncle Ezra' and their 'Uncle Nathan.'"
"And their Uncle Josiah," said Ezra, agreeing with Josiah's point.
"Ezra, I don't think you realize how much help you have been, to Vin in particular. You've revealed more of yourself to him than to any one of us -- because he needed you to show him by example that you can get past the hurts he's dealing with." Josiah watched Ezra shaking his head 'no.'
"I needed him." Ezra voice cracked. He looked and the ceiling and pinched the bridge of his nose before continuing. "Those boys were cathartic for me. They gave me a hope that what we are doing here," he waved his arm indicating the ATF office, "is worth a damn. And Vin?" Ezra smiled sadly. "Well, let's just say I understood his hurts and wanted to do everything in my power to take them away."
Josiah laid his hand on Ezra's shoulder and squeezed gently. Ezra didn't pull away, instead turned to face Josiah directly. "What do we do now? The Team is gone."
Josiah sighed. Ezra had finally said what they all feared. Chris and Buck might be able to pull themselves up out of their loss, but it didn't look like that would be anytime in the near future. Nathan and Raine were heartbroken as well. They had gone so far as to try and adopt the two boys in the desperate hope that the court was more likely to place them in a home with a married couple. Josiah had seen the crushed expression on Nathan's face when they were rejected. Each man on the team had tried every scenario available to retain guardianship of the two boys, but they had failed.
"We stick together, Ezra. We try to help each other go on."
A phone ringing incessantly in the bullpen interrupted them. Nathan was gone to lunch and Chris was locked in his office. Buck sat next to the ringing phone, ignoring it. The big man walked over to the telephone and answered it.
"Sanchez," said Josiah as he picked up the phone. "Hold a moment." Josiah punched the hold button. "Buck, it's for you. It's Diane Miller's attorney."
Buck shook his head angrily. "I don't want to talk to that son of a bitch."
"Maybe it's about your request to visit JD," said Josiah.
Buck looked up, a glimpse of hope in his dull blue eyes. He hadn't been allowed to see JD at all since he had been removed from their home. All of them had been told it would be too hard on JD and hamper his adjustment to his family. Hell, they hadn't even been able to see Vin except when the damn county lost him.
Buck shook his head and angrily punched the button on his phone as he picked up the receiver. "Wilmington."
Ezra and Josiah watched curiously as Buck's expression went from anger to shock. "You gotta be joshing me?"
Buck fell silent as he listened to the conversation. A bittersweet smile started at one corner of his mouth and spread slowly across his face. "When and where?"
Ezra tried to hold back the hope that Buck was being given permission to see JD.
"I'll be there in thirty minutes." Buck hung up the phone, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Buck, what is it?" asked Josiah, confused as tears began sliding down Buck's face as he smiled broadly.
"Diana Miller wants to meet me at her attorney's office," said Buck.
"Should we call Mr. Larson?" asked Ezra.
"No," said Buck shaking his head. "Her attorney said it's just a formality. They want me to sign guardianship papers." Buck wiped away a tear of joy.
"Guardianship?" asked Ezra.
Buck nodded. "She's had a change of heart. Seems to think that JD would be better off with me." Buck snorted, "Looks like your prayers worked Josiah."
"Hallelujah!" whooped Josiah, slapping Buck on the back.
Buck shook his head and shushed Josiah with his hands, throwing a worried glance at Chris' office. Ezra and Josiah's smiles dropped as they realized the implication. While this was the first good news they had had in a very long time, they realized that it would be devastating to Chris to get JD back but not Vin.
"I gotta go!" said Buck softly.
Josiah chuckled as he grabbed Buck's trembling hand. "I think you need a driver."
"I'll drive," volunteered Ezra.
"Thanks, Ezra. I don't think I could keep my mind on the road." Both men grabbed their overcoats and headed for the elevator.
Josiah watched them go with a sigh. He would be the one to break the news to Chris.
Chris sat quietly in his office after Josiah left. How could he begrudge Buck's great news? JD was coming home. So why did the hole in his heart seem bigger than ever? JD was coming home. Now was the time to celebrate the victory. And it sounded like this time the arrangement would be permanent with JD's aunt designating Buck as the little boy's legal guardian. Chris smiled tightly. It would be good to have JD's boisterous antics and incessant questions in the house once again, but something would be missing without the older, quiet child with mischievous blue eyes to balance him.
Spontaneously, Chris reached for the phone and dialed a number.
Chris smiled at the no-nonsense voice at the other end of the line.
"Nettie? Chris Larabee."
"Ah, Chris. What can I do for you?" Nettie asked without wasting any time.
Chris grinned again. He loved her get-to-the-point attitude. "Nettie, I was wondering if you could check on Vin for me. See how he's doing. I can't get anywhere with Mrs. Carlton."
"I'll assume you used your normal charm?" Nettie asked with a chuckle.
"I'll take that as a yes. I'm sure Edith was duly impressed," said Nettie. "You do know the girls in the office had taken to calling you Mr. Glarabee?" Nettie paused. "I've already got a call in for her, Chris. I'll call you back when I find out anything."
"Thanks, Nettie," said Chris as he rubbed his eyes with his free hand. "I appreciate all you've done for the boys."
"You just be ready for some action, Chris Larabee. You never know what will come your way. I'll be in touch."
Chris stared at the phone for a moment before hanging up the receiver. What was Nettie talking about?
"Here we are! Here we are!" yelled JD excitedly as the car pulled up to the ranch house. "This is my house. This is where I live!"
Diane smiled sadly at his exuberance. Why couldn't JD be this happy with their family? Kevin winked at his wife and patted her hand reassuringly. She had made the hardest decision of her life but it was the best one for JD's sake.
"Daddy, look!" called the youngest girl. "They have horses!"
"Yep, we do. And I gets to ride one with Buck lots." JD struggled to unbuckle his seat belt and open the car door. When he stepped out of the car he caught sight of Buck and ran, screaming like a banshee toward the house. "Buck! Buck!" JD leapt into Buck's arms and was swallowed into the best hug he had ever felt.
Buck relished the moment as JD planted a big kiss on his cheek. "I missed you, Buck. I missed you lots!"
"I missed you too, Little Bit." Buck reluctantly slid JD to the porch and walked to the car. "Thank you," he said softly to the sad woman.
"You take good care of him," said Diana.
"Never doubt it," said Buck.
Diana handed Buck JD's small suitcase. "Our address is inside. JD said he would write but he would need help." She smiled. "He's a good boy."
"Yes, ma'am. He sure is."
Diane climbed back into the car and closed her door as Kevin started the engine.
"Wait!" yelled JD, running from the porch to the passenger side of the car. Diane opened the door for him and he threw his arms around her. "Love you, Aunt Diane," said JD with a smile. "Thanks for taking care of me." Just as quickly, JD scrambled away from the car and stood at Buck's side, hanging onto the tall man's leg with one arm. He turned and waved as the car wound down the long driveway.
"Mr. Chris!" squealed JD as he caught a glimpse of Chris at the front door. JD ran to him and without hesitation Chris scooped him up and hugged him. Little arms wrapped around his neck and squeezed happily. "Did you see my aunt?" Chris nodded to him. "She's going to write me letters," added JD. "Can we have lunch now?" Chris grinned. JD was definitely back.
On the way to the kitchen, JD looked around briefly for Vin, but didn't see him. He figured Vin was still at school since it was a school day. JD entertained Buck and Chris with his antics and stories about his cousins through lunch. After lunch he wanted to see the horses.
Many tears were shed later that evening when Buck had to explain to JD that Vin wasn't coming home. That JD's friend and protector didn't live there anymore. JD was feeling mixed up. He was very sad that Vin wasn't there, but at the same time he was happy to finally be home.
Vin had no idea what wheels were now in motion behind the scenes on his behalf. He only knew he was somewhere he didn't want to be but was too tired to do anything about it. He was too tired to even fight. Nobody wanted him.
One day after her telephone conversation with Chris Larabee, Nettie Wells paid Mrs. Carlton a visit. Nettie had seniority over Edith and was more than a little miffed that she had over ridden her decision on the placement of JD Dunne and Vin Tanner. She made allowance for the decision with JD. After all, it had been family that had stepped forward. If they had known about the family in the first place, JD wouldn't have been placed with Buck Wilmington. That was where her good nature ended. There were no allowances for changing the placement of little Vin.
Nettie waited patiently as Edith righteously explained that the rules decreed that he be placed in a stable two-parent family and, that in her opinion Mr. Larabee did not fit the bill. He was a single man in a high-risk job.
"Edith, those rules were meant as guidelines and you know it. They don't take into account extenuating circumstances and the fact that no two children are cut from the same cloth."
"Rules are rules," argued Edith. "If we don't stick to them, what standard do we have?"
Nettie bit her lip to silence her angry retort. "All right, Edith, rules are rules. What about the rule that says you are to take into account the psychologist's recommendation? Doctor Lowery stated in no uncertain terms that placing the child with anyone but Mr. Larabee would be devastating to the child."
"I work with Dr. Brown. His opinion differs from Dr. Lowery," offered Edith, only slightly intimidated by Nettie Wells. She truly believed that her actions were in the best interest of the Tanner boy, whether she agreed with Nettie or not. He needed a two-parent home with people trained to handle abused children.
"Edith, I came here as a courtesy to you. I will be reassuming my cases after the first of the year, but I'm planning a visit to the Court tomorrow. I wanted to offer you the opportunity to clean up your mess before the Court is involved and your reputation and competency at this job are brought into question." Nettie stood and started to put on her coat.
Nettie turned back to Edith. "Where the future of a child is concerned, I most certainly would." She turned and walked to the door of the small office. "Fix it, Edith. Enough damage has been done to that poor child."
Wednesday morning, in a conference room adjoining the Family Courtroom, a meeting was held to determine the future placement of seven-year-old Vin Tanner. The judge, Nettie Wells, Edith Carlton, Dr. Lowery, Dr. Brown and Lydia Weiland were all gathered around the conference table.
The judge listened to the arguments, patiently hearing out all the views. Mrs. Carlton was technically correct in her interpretation of the rules, but it was obvious from the Children's Center's records that abiding strictly by the guidelines was not working in Vin Tanner's case. The judge had excused himself to his chambers with the files to consider the matter, leaving the concerned parties in the conference room.
The judge sighed as he read through the files again. He read Dr. Lowery's report of the trust the child had toward the ATF agent. He was moved by the comment in the transcription of one of the sessions where the boy had actually said that he wished he were a horse so he could go live with Chris Larabee and not answer any more questions. He wished he could interview the boy, but from the records in front of him, he noted that the child was being medicated to control his outbursts. He didn't need to interview Chris Larabee. They had met during a case a year ago. He knew Larabee to be a man of integrity. Larabee had been a father and, apparently from the stack of letters vouching for him, he had been a good father.
The thing that finally swayed his decision was the one thing that was missing from the mass of paperwork in front of him. There were no reports of violent behavior for the time period that the child was living with Chris Larabee. In spite of Larabee's lack of knowledge or experience in dealing with abused children, he had been quite successful with the boy. The Judge closed the files and walked back to the conference room with a lighter heart.
Larabee paced impatiently in the hallway in front of the Children's Center Supervisor's office. Nettie had called with the good news that Vin was going to be returned to him. She had told him Dr. Lowery suggested waiting until after he could meet with Vin the next afternoon, but Chris wouldn't hear of it. Vin was not spending another night away from home.
He had come alone to pick up Vin fearing that it would be overwhelming to him if everyone came. As he followed the supervisor down the hallway another fear troubled him. Vin had been so angry with him when he was taken away. He had let Vin down whether he intended to or not, and he was afraid that the fragile trust had been irrevocably crushed.
Lydia entered the room, followed closely by Chris. Vin was seated at a table staring at the window across the room and didn't seem to notice them when they entered the room. Chris hissed in a breath at the sight before him. Vin's expression was empty. A black eye had faded to yellows and blues and there was a cut on his lip that was the only other visible indication of the fighting he had been told about. Nettie had been sure that Chris had been made aware of the trouble Vin had been in at the foster homes and at the Center. In fact, he had been given a prescription to fill for the medication Vin had been put on.
Vin turned his attention to them when Lydia called his name, but there was no response to Chris. No anger, no excitement. No hope. Chris swallowed hard. He was not prepared for the emptiness.
"Vin, it's time to go," said Lydia.
Chris watched Vin mechanically shuffle across the room, slowly pick up his backpack and return to Lydia. "Be good, Vin." She bent down and uncharacteristically kissed him on the cheek. Scowling, Vin turned his face and leaned away from the display of affection.
"Hey, Vin," said Chris, hiding the uncertainty he felt. The wariness in Vin's eyes sucked the breath out of him. "Let's go home," he said softly. He had hoped that Vin would be glad to go with him. He had hoped for at least a hug. Right now, Chris would have been thrilled just to hear Vin say, "Okay" but nothing was forthcoming. With a heavy heart, Chris walked toward the door with a sad little shadow shuffling behind him.
In the van on the ride home, Chris tried several times to start a conversation, but Vin just stared out the window.
"I missed you, Vin. I'm so glad you're coming home."
"We all missed you, Vin. Everyone's going to come out to visit tonight."
"JD's been going nuts all afternoon."
Vin's head turned toward Chris and Chris saw the first spark of interest since seeing him in the Center. "He's home?"
Two words never sounded so good to Chris. Some where deep in his heart, Vin still considered the ranch to be home. "Yep. He came back a little over a week ago."
"Didn't they want him no more?" asked Vin.
Chris heard so much more than the question. He heard Vin asking why no one wanted him. How could he answer the question? If he answered and said "Yes, they still wanted JD, but his aunt thought that he would be happier with Buck." He knew that it would hurt Vin to know that someone wanted JD but that he'd been thrown back three times.
"It doesn't matter, Vin," said Chris, casting a glance at Vin while he continued driving. "All that matters is that we want him. We want you." Chris couldn't determine what Vin was thinking. Vin leaned his head back on the seat and yawned as Chris turned the van onto the highway. It was going to be a long twenty minutes before they reached the ranch.
Vin was so tired. He tried to process what Chris was saying but the thought that Chris wanted him just didn't ring true with all he'd gone through. He closed his eyes for a moment, lulled by the steady sound of the engine...and woke up with a start when Chris said, "We're home." Chris was standing beside him with the van door open. Vin fumbled with the seat belt latch, freed himself and slid off the seat. He reached back into the van and grabbed his backpack from the floorboard.
"Why don't you let me carry that?" said Chris taking hold of the shoulder strap. He was surprised when Vin yanked it away from him.
"It's mine," he said protectively.
Chris sighed. "Yes, it is." A screech interrupted him.
"Vin!" squealed JD as he ran to the van. He plowed into Vin and hugged him tightly.
Chris saw Vin cringe at the embrace at first, but then Vin seemed to melt. The backpack dropped from his hand and his arms wrapped around JD, returning the hug.
"JD," whispered Vin wistfully.
"Boy, I missed you, Vin," said JD as he let go of his friend. "I had to play with GIRLS!"
Chris grinned at the wisp of smile that crossed Vin's face.
JD grabbed the backpack and started toward the house. "Come on, Vin! Mrs. Potter made peach pie."
Vin reached out for the backpack as if he were going to grab it back, but he let his hand fall to his side and followed JD. Chris sighed, realizing it was going to take a lot of little steps to win back Vin's trust.
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