"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Disclaimer: This is a creative tribute to and inspired by series The Magnificent Seven. I assert no copyright claim in the concept or trademarks associated with The Magnificent Seven, and have made no profit from writing this piece.
This story changed, and grew, and changed, and changed. I have to thank Barbaretta Hayden, who was honest, even though she wasn't sure I wanted to hear it, and far kinder than an importunate stranger deserved. This is a better story for it.
More notes and thanks here. They are best read after the story unless you want to be completely spoiled for it.
WARNINGS: Some strong language. Reference to a child slavery ring, but nothing is depicted.
Rating: PG-13, for the court case. Not explicit.
The room on the screen was grey. Boxes and scraps of paper littered the floor; a coke can was just visible lying discarded on the floor under metal shelving stacked high with anonymous boxes. It was easier in many ways to examine the room closely, looking desperately for clues, than to look at the scene's focus, a small child hiccupping in the slow aftermath of tears.
The boy was huddled tight into a corner; face buried in his jean clad knees. The small bare feet were filthy with blood and grime; ominously red smudged footprints weaved in uneven steps across the room. A blanket was folded next to the child, a bottle of water, a bag of unopened chips, another of chocolate covered candies.
"JD..." The voice on the television was unexpected to the agents watching, and apparently to the child too. JD jumped, but otherwise stayed still, face hidden, arms tightly wrapped around his knees.
"JD, look up!" The voice was distorted by some sort of electronic effect. "JD!"
The child turned his head slowly, and they all leaned forward, trying to tell how badly -- if he had been hurt. The small face was grubby and streaked with clear trails now dry. His eyes were terrified, and he pushed himself further back into the corner.
"JD, say something to your Daddy."
JD shook his head, and tremors slowly started to build visibly through the five year old body.
"Just wave and say hi to the camera, and we'll send a picture of you to your Daddy." The voice was trying to coax him, but the electronic anonymizer on the camera operator's voice made it harsh and JD shook his head again.
"Come on, kid. I don't have all day."
Chris swallowed as he saw JD's lips form 'Vin' silently, and his face crumple into dry eyed misery.
"Your brother's just fine. You want him to stay that way?" JD nodded and his eyes widened as the camera came closer, until his face nearly filled the screen. The voice came back harsh and cruel. "Then say something, or we'll find your big brother and we'll bring him here too."
JD spoke for the first time and they all leaned in trying to catch any nuance that would let them know how injured the child was. Judging by the unexpected lisp the boy almost certainly had some kind of damage to his mouth.
"Just tell your Daddy you're fine, and the other thing we discussed."
JD nodded and closed his eyes. "Da, I-- I'm scared."
"Are you hurt?" the voice insisted, mockingly aware of the fear this tape would cause when it was seen by the boy's family.
"Lost a toof." He curled his upper lip up and they could see the gap in the small baby teeth. "An' my tummy hurts, Da, please, come an' get me. I'll be good. I's sorry." The child pulled his knees in closer to his torso, and Chris caught Nathan shifting forward, frowning sharply.
"He says if you tell the judge about Mr. Kemp, they won't give me back." Wide brown eyes looked up at the cameraman, "But you gotta give me back. I along to Buck and Chris and Vin. You shouldnt have stoleded me. Wanna go home..." His face crumpled on the last word, slow tears running down the grubby little face.
Chris sat back into his chair, a hand rubbing slowly over his face. JDs six year old misery was ripping him apart.
"Kemp must be very afraid of the consequences of Mr. Wilmington's testimony," Standish observed, his voice coolly analytical. "I wonder what else he is hiding?" Chris flicked a glance at his undercover agent, and took in the rigid mask of indifference barely concealing sick horror. The boys adored their Uncle Ezra, and it was mutual. "What will you do?"
"Nothing. He can't withdraw his testimony." Chris replied, his voice a dry raven's croak.
"What about the lad? Do either of them even know?"
Chris shook his head. He couldnt give Buck that burden, much less Vin.
"They'll blame you," Standish pointed out gently.
"They'll have the right person then," was all Chris said in response, and fixed his eyes back on the screen.
"It's Kemp's fault, not yours, brother," Josiah's deep voice was cold with rage. "Any man who can do this is a monster. But you must tell the boy and Buck."
"Tell him what? That JD is being held by a murdering gang of weapons dealers and worse, who probably have no intention of ever giving the child back? That one boy's life is more important than the hundreds that we can save if we cut the organization's head off?" He stalked over to the wall, looking away from the screen. Josiah paused the tape, eyeing the rest of team with concern.
"This is JD, Chris. If it were anyone else's son you would tell them. He's a child. His father deserves to know; even if there is nothing we can do about it."
"No." Chris's voice was cold, but no one made the mistake of thinking it was lack of emotion chilling him.
"Buck will never forgive you." Nathan's voice was rough, as though speaking through some impediment in his throat. "And Vin..."
Chris let out a small sound, somewhere between a sigh and a choke. "He's not first in that line."
A hand rested on his back and he froze until it lifted.
"Vin already knows something's wrong," Ezra pointed out. "And Buck will want to speak to JD. He may even have guessed already."
"He has to testify." Chris said sharply.
"Then we have to find JD," Josiah said firmly.
None of them asked the thought on all their minds. What if they couldn't? Some kidnap victims were never seen again. Or found dead. They'd all seen the terrible things criminals would do to innocents. The thought of that little body-- Chris shook his head sharply.
"No." Chris said softly. "I'm not losing him again." His eyes were arctic ice. "I wonder how Kemp feels about a little reciprocity." His hand drifted down to his sidearm.
"Let us tell Buck," Josiah said with equal chill, "and I will help you rip the sonuvabitch's world apart."
Buck Wilmington sighed. He was alone, and lonely and miserable. He hated the dingy, pokey hotel room that had been his home for the last two weeks. He hated that he couldn't make any phone calls to his family. He hated that everywhere he went he had an armed escort.
Mostly, he hated not seeing the boys, or his friends. He smiled briefly, thinking of how much he would give just to see JD bounding in, or Vin's eyes scrunching up in his silent equivalent of a giggle. Or -- he stopped himself.
Damn. If he wasn't careful he was going to end up bawling into his mustache, and ruining years of careful cultivation.
He'd spent the day reiterating, over, and over, and over, all the details of the bust, from opening to wind down. The court room had been stuffy and hot. None of the windows opened, and the air conditioning didn't work. Now, he got to spend his evening in another room with no windows and no ac. It was safer, so they said. Meant that the ATF case wouldn't fall apart because their star witness ended up with a bullet through the head. He wasn't sure what benefit the lack of cold air conferred, but he was better off not asking. He'd only end up shooting one of this own bodyguards and Chris would make him do the paperwork.
He yawned, the close heat getting to him. He thought about getting a shower, then decided, in a vaguely indecisive manner to leave it till later, so he didnt miss the phone. He yawned again. It had been a good day's work, taking that monster down, but right now, with his first couple of hours privacy in a week barring bathroom breaks, he was sprawled out in a too small chair, feeling claustrophobic and wishing he'd never heard of Ric Kemp.
For that matter, he hadn't been too keen on the man *before* they busted him either...// "Certainly, Mr. Fletcher," Kemp smiled at Standish grimly, "if you would come this way?"
Buck walked behind him, his eyes flicking narrowly at every entrance, every window and door, every person walking by: every inch the good bodyguard. Which was why he was the one who noticed the cache of 'other merchandise' that Kemp was keeping for his 'specialist customers'.
Kemp's voice faded into the background as he drifted every so slightly away from Standish and tried to get a closer look.
"Interested, Mr. Smith?" A hand on his arm was removed with a sharp snap of his wrist.
"Mr. Kemp." Buck nodded politely, keeping his eyes low. He wanted to spit in the man's face, and instead said coolly, with a jerk of his head back at the room of huddled children. "You really mean it when you tell us *anything* can be bought."
He licked his lips, as though excited by the thought, and cut his eyes back to Ezra. Standish was waiting his eyes narrowed and a displeased look on his face. Only Buck knew that the anger in his eyes was not for Wilmington when he spoke.
"Smith, I don't have time for your shopping expeditions. Talk to Mr. Kemp later, understood."
Kemp clapped a hand on his shoulder and grinned at him, his eyes like lizard's, cold, unblinking. "I think we'll have some business to discuss afterwards my friend." He ushered Buck back to where Ezra was waiting. "If all goes well, I'll maybe even discount you a virgin." He watched carefully, but Buck's face showed only stupidity and twisted eagerness and he turned back to Ezra.
"Mr. Fletcher, we've spoken of smaller amounts of plastique, and other such explosives, but I believe from what you have been saying, that I may have something rather special that is much more appropriate for what I understand your requirements to be." He gestured them towards a glass fronted room. "Please, put on the overalls and masks."
Ezra's head tilted. "Surely you do not--"
"I do indeed, Mr. Fletcher. The motherlode itself." He waited for them to pull on the heavy garments and then pressed a button. A blast shield slowly lifted and a second window appeared behind the first. A table inside contained a canister marked with radiation hazard symbols and Buck's eyes went wide.
"Not something I show just any man, Mr. Fletcher, as you will appreciate." Kemp grinned again, his voice smug. "I believe that may encompass your specifications?"
"How-- how much is in there?" Ezra sounded as though he was looking at his last promise of salvation, and Kemp nodded.
"Beautiful, isn't it? A mere nine ounces, gentlemen, of weapons grade plutonium. Enough to remove the city of your choice from offending your sight."
"You have exceeded, surpassed my fondest hopes, Mr. Kemp," Ezra's accent thickened and he turned away from the sterile lab to meet Buck's eyes.
"Then let us discuss prices. And, perhaps later, Mr. Smith and I can discuss our little... hobby." //
He still felt sick thinking of what he had seen. The seven children, wearing ordinary clothes, clothes his own son wore, wrists tied, ankles hobbled, huddled together. He had only been able to think of one reason for Kemp to have children hidden in his warehouse, far down in the secured basement. So he'd played along, taken photographs, as many as he could, including a couple with Kemp showing off the children. His stomach churned.
"JD," he said softly, concentrating on the sweet little face, memories of grubby features and loud shrieks of laughter; feet that were smaller than his own hands but could make more noise than any three grown men running through the house. He smiled and sniffed. He and Kemp had 'discussed' the children later, until Buck had more than enough evidence. A week later Kemp was arrested as he made the sale of plutonium to Ezra, and six of the seven children were saved, unharmed.
The seventh might be okay. In time.
He fished in his pocket, pulled out his wallet and opened it. JD's face grinned up at him and he brushed a gentle finger over the plastic protecting the picture. "Missya lil'bit." His smile was bittersweet.
And now he was stuck in a city far from home, waiting to testify on the sting operation that had nailed Kemp's weapons business -- and the child sex slave ring that he had been running on the side. The rest of the team had testified earlier in the week, but only he had seen the kidnapped children, he had taken the pictures and he was the one who had had the crucial conversation with Kemp about buying and selling underage children for sex.
He sighed and glanced at the phone. He wanted to talk to JD, or Chris, or anyone at all, but everyone agreed that it was much the best that there be no chance that Kemp or anyone else, such as the press, got anywhere near the boys. Not initiating contact was a small way of ensuring that. Chris would call at irregular intervals and he got to top up on his daily noisy kids allowance. He smiled faintly, and put the picture away again.
He checked his watch. Chris had promised to call. He had been supposed to be here when Buck went through his testimony with the prosecution this morning, and for the defense cross examination which was expected to be unpleasant and tiring. Instead Chris had vanished out of Austin right after Buck took the stand this morning, and he hadn't heard a thing since.
His stomach clenched, and he took several deep, steadying breaths. JD was fine. There was a perfectly logical reason that no one had called.
He swallowed and picked up his cell phone again and tried another number. To his amazement, this time the call was picked up.
"Mr. Wilmington, how is Austin?"
"Fine. Great. Look, Ez, I was trying to get hold of Chris."
"Just a moment -- if you'll wait one moment?" Ezra asked, as though he were some high class receptionist.
"Okay. Yeah. I'll hold on." Something in Ezra's voice shook him, and he walked to the bed, dropping silently onto the rumpled comforter, elbows on his knees, head in his hand. He could hear a muffled exchange of words, and the phone rattling as it was picked off a table again.
Buck closed his eyes. "What happened to him?" he whispered. That arctic tone to Chris's voice could only be caused by two things -- harm to the boys or harm to the team. And his gut was screaming JD at him.
"He-- I'm *sorry*, Buck."
"No. No. Chris Larabee, don't you tell me you're sorry. What's wrong with JD?"
"He was at Gloria's. I was calling in every hour, the guys were keeping an eye on the place. I called in some favors from the PD."
"What happened?" he asked in a whisper. He was already sure he knew. Knew that he would never see his little boy alive again.
"Someone--someone took the kid from her back yard. She says she took her eyes off him for about two minutes, and he was gone."
"He's not --?" He slid bonelessly off the bed to the floor, eyes tight closed.
"No. Not so far as we know, Buck. We did everything. Gloria did everything right. She called the cops, they called us and the FBI. They had road blocks up in less than an hour."
"So where the hell is he, Chris?"
"I don't know," he said helplessly. "I wish I could tell you different, but I can't. I'm expecting the feds here any minute. They're going to head the case."
"No! You and the boys. I trust you guys to get him back. Fibs couldn't find their butts with two hands, a street map and neon signposts."
"My hands are tied, you know that." Chris sounded desperate, but Buck ignored it.
"Bullshit. You've never done what they wanted before." He wanted JD back. And if that meant pushing Larabee. Punishing him for not being there (*I* wasn't there)...
"I have to stay on the case, Buck. I'm not getting thrown off it for being 'too involved'."
"Wouldn't make a difference. I'll bet the boys have more information put together by the time the FBI get off their fat butts than the feebs ever find out."
Larabee snorted. "I'll do everything I can, Buck, but--"
"Nothing on the road blocks?"
"No. No sightings. He's been on the news every half hour. They've holed up somewhere close, or else they got out real fast."
Buck nodded in silent agreement. "Have you heard anything from the bastards yet?"
"Yeah. A tape. Came in this afternoon."
"What? A tape? When?" Buck yelled. "When the hell did this happen? How long have you been keeping this from me, Larabee?"
"You were in court. There was no way to get word to you," he replied defensively, knowing full well how furious he would have been in Buck's place.
"They took him this morning," Chris admitted. "Gloria called the cops at nine twenty-eight. I got word and came home immediately. We only got the tape about half an hour ago after it was checked as a suspicious package." He heard Buck draw breath and hurried on, trying to calm his friend, "Buck, it's only been eight hours, we've got a full scale alert out for him. Someone's got to have seen something. We'll get him back." It was a promise that both knew might not be kept.
He took a tight breath. "What do they want?" he asked calmly.
"You. Off the witness stand; lying; whatever it takes to clear Kemp."
"They've got it." Buck gripped the cell phone tightly enough that the plastic creaked under his hand.
"I don't care, Chris. It's JD..."
"It's my boy."
"Buck-- we don't even know if he's still--"
"No! Don't say it!" Buck tried to prevent the words entering his thought but it was too late. "You haven't spoken to him -- no direct contact?"
"None," Larabee confirmed, and with some surprise Buck realised there were tears on his face. "Just a videotape recorded around two-thirty this afternoon, according to the time stamp. He was okay, Buck. Unhappy but okay."
"That was hours ago. God. For all we know he could already be--"
"No!" Larabee's voice was harsh and Buck jumped. "No. He's not. I won't let him be."
"Chris--" His stomach churned and he held still, concentrating on not losing it. Later he could fall apart, when his bodyguards were asleep.
"Don't you fucking dare give up on that kid! Don't you give up on me. We're going to find him, and you're going to nail Kemp to the mast with his own guts, you hear me?" Larabee's voice was the more terrifying for never rising above a harsh whisper.
Buck swallowed. "I hear you. Chris--" he stopped, trying to find the words. "It's not your fault, okay? Tell Vin it's not his fault either."
He gripped the phone tighter, hearing the shuddery breath out that Larabee made.
"I -- I gotta go, Chris. We'll talk tomorrow. Say goodnight to the guys from me. And Chris?"
"Go home. Give Vin a hug from me, okay?"
Larabee's voice roughened. "Yeah. I'll do that. Buck, we'll make this right."
"Yeah. Night, Chris." He hung up without waiting for Chris' reply. He didn't want to know more.
Chris slammed the phone down and stalked out of the office. His team mates stared after him with varying degrees of understanding and pity.
"So," Ezra said finally. "Mr. Sanchez, if you would be so kind as to start profiling likely culprits from the man's organization, I will continue to talk to my contacts, refocus the queries, see if there is any word yet. Mr. Jackson, if you could investigate possible locations for keeping one small child that cross refer with the former senator's holdings?"
The others nodded silently and retreated to their computers and phones.
Larabee returned some twenty minutes later, bruises darkening across his knuckles and a suspiciously scrubbed look to his face that might have indicated cold water used to conceal strong misery, but no one, not even Jackson commented.
"Boys?" Larabee asked curtly, glancing around the room.
Ezra was talking softly on the phone, so it fell to Josiah to explain how they had divided up the labor. Chris nodded.
"Sarah McKinnon at the FBI contacted Travis. It got pushed up to their team from the scene of crime people. They'll be joining us here shortly to pick up any evidence," he said with apparent equanimity. Only the clenching and unclenching fist suggested he was less than happy with the arrangement. "Travis told me to keep my face out of their case." He grinned ferally. "I say we help them wherever we can."
The three men grinned back at him, and Chris nodded again. "I'll be going through the notes Ez and Buck put together on the organization. See who's still out there who could do this."
Josiah nodded as Chris took most the notes he had been working with. "In that case, I'm gong to watch the tape again. See if I can pick anything up from it before McKinnon's people get here."
He reached for the remote and set the machine to rewind. As he waited he rummaged in his desk drawer for something, finally producing a set of earbuds. He carefully turned the screen so the others couldn't see it and plugged the ear phones in, then sat back, remote by his hand, scribbling rapidly as he watched. They could mostly ignore the clicking and whirring as he played and rewound, played and rewound.
JD was cold and hungry and his face hurt. He'd tried nibbling at some of the potato chips earlier, but the salt had stung his split lip and his gum where the tooth had been knocked out when one of the bad guys had hit him. It made the chips taste of blood too. His back ached too, and he uncurled himself a little. The room was messier than his and Vin's at home, and he bit at his lip.
He wanted to go home.
Buck and Chris and Vin were looking for him. He was absolutely sure of that. Vin had always saved him from the bad guys, and Buck and Chris had taken them far away from cold places where there was neither food, nor warmth, nor the secure comfort of family. But they weren't here right now, and he was absolutely determined that he was going to find them.
The room had only one locked door, and no windows, but that didn't mean no way out. He'd already seen a gap in the wall, high above the shelves and pipes, just big enough for a small six year old to squeeze through. He was sitting down for now. Scuff marks on the door showed where he'd kicked at the metal until his feet hurt and his toes swelled up. They'd taken his shoes away to stop him banging on the door and kicking their shins, but that didn't bother him, his feet had been bare for months when he and Vin had been on the streets and he knew it would stop hurting eventually. It always did. Though he didn't know it, he was retreating back into the wary alertness that Vin had tried to teach him.
He prodded at his feet and tried hard not to cry out at the pain. There'd been sharp stuff on the floor. Some of it was glass, some of it metal, and all of it hurt. Vin would tell him to be quiet. Buck would hug him. Chris would tell him to be brave.
He stumbled up to his feet, clinging to the imagined comfort. He tugged on the shelves a couple of times, and satisfied that they only wobbled a little, started scrambling up them. His foot caught a box painfully; it fell onto the floor, where its contents, hundreds of tiny packets, scattered and rattled. He froze, but no one came.
He frowned. If he'd been home someone would have shouted his name, come running to see what he'd done, and he sniffed, rubbing his nose into his shoulder. He waited for what felt like forever, crouched on a shelf near the ceiling. They might come. He wanted someone to come, and pick him up and promise him he was safe and keep him warm, but the bad men weren't going to do it. He sniffed again, and stood. The hole in the wall was dark and he hesitated, looking longingly back down into the room.
"Wish you was here, Vin. Or Da or Dad," he whispered plaintively. The hole wasn't just dark, it was wet and slimy. Filthy black gunge coated his hands and smeared on his clothes as he scrabbled against the wall to crawl inside.
He fell with a thump, the opening almost his own height above the floor. He clutched at the knee he'd landed on, his face scrunching up with carefully silent misery. He couldn't hear anything close. No doors opening or people yelling, looking for him. There was a sound like a bath running far away, and if he squinted he could sort of make out shapes up towards the sound, but nothing else.
He uncurled from around his knee and looked around. Light filtered through from the room he'd been locked in, and he stood up unsteadily, one hand on the slimy wall. The darkness stretched both ways, but something tugged him towards the fractionally brighter direction. He couldn't see the ceiling, though the walls seemed to curl over him. The ground under his feet was sludgy, and he grinned, wiggling his toes in it, enjoying the sensation of stuff squelching up between his toes. It felt cool on his cut and bruised feet and he wiggled them in deeper, then started trotting confidently along the dim tunnel, running his hand along the wall for balance. He stumbled and fell only moments later, catching himself on his hands and knees again.
"Ick!" He shook the muck off his hands, screwing his face up in disgust as the stuff splattered everywhere. "This place is worse than horses." He wiped his hands off on his pants, and then rubbed his face clean with his sleeves. His feet stung, and his knee was throbbing where he'd fallen. He prodded at his mouth and felt another tooth wobble next to the missing one. His mouth hurt where the man had hit him, and his back still ached. The stuff on his finger tasted horrible too.
"Da?" he called hopelessly, wondering if they would ever find him again. "Dad?" There was no reply and he slowly got up off his knees and started walking again, trudging with his head down. It smelled horrible in here too. He sniffed again, clearing his nose and gagged at the stink. Worse than the bathroom after Uncle Josiah's chili. He sniffed again, this time to swallow back tears.
The light was getting closer. He broke into an incautious run as he saw clear sky glimmering through metal bars.
"Did it!" JD said triumphantly and squeezed through the gap in the bars. "Stupid bad guys." It was barely wide enough even for a skinny undersized kid, but he dragged himself through. He was standing in what looked like a huge grey pipe, the end hanging over empty space. He gripped the bars with one hand and leaned out precariously, peering down at the drop into what looked like a river a few feet below. The pipe seemed to come straight out over a river bank, and he grinned. First he was Mole, and now he was gonna be Ratty. It was dark outside, no moon or stars shone to help him see, and he shivered, a little cold, a little frightened. He curled up in the muck to wait for the dawn and fell asleep in minutes.
"This is Agent McKinnon, Agent Ferretti, Agent Singh; Agent Chris Larabee, Josiah Sanchez, Ezra Standish, and Nathan Jackson," Travis made the introductions coolly.
"Agent Larabee, we've seen the tape, and I assure you, we will find John as quickly as possible." Sarah McKinnon held out her hand patiently until the man reluctantly shook. "I understand you're John's guardian while his father is testifying in the Kemp trial?"
"That's precisely correct, Ms McKinnon," Standish smiled easily at her when Larabee failed to answer. "Mr. Larabee stands in loco parentis for John Daniel, he is his nominated guardian in such times that Mr. Wilmington is unable to be present." He frowned slightly as McKinnon nodded knowingly, instantly covered, "Ms. McKinnon?"
"Do go on," she said quickly.
"Very well. As you know," he flicked a sympathetic glance at his boss, "The child was snatched from the care of his child minder, Mrs. Gloria Potter."
"You've seen the tape; you know as much as we do." Larabee said shortly. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be talking to Kemp?"
"There's no way to prove a link--"
"No way!" Larabee erupted. "I'd say the tape is pretty damn conclusive!"
"The gentleman in question may not be aware of the actions taken. It could be someone entirely unrelated to the case using the excuse."
Larabee was speechless.
McKinnon raised a conciliatory hand. "Now, I'm not saying that there's no connection, because clearly, the obvious answer is that there is one. But I'm just pointing out, Agent Larabee, that I'm starting here. I might end up somewhere else, but I'm starting here. Okay?" She smiled tensely at him
Larabee's jaw tensed and released. "I'm going to talk to Buck."
"Buck Wilmington?" McKinnon asked sharply as he turned to leave. Larabee paused and nodded curtly. "I'll come with you."
"No, you won't." Chris bit out.
She raised her eyebrows. "Are you impeding the investigation into John's kidnapping?"
"No, I'm about to tell my oldest friend it's been ten hours and I still dont know where his son is. And because he's in a safe location in another city, waiting to give evidence against your not necessarily connected Mr. Kemp, I'll be telling him over a secured phone line. I really don't think you need to be there."
McKinnon lowered her eyes, "I'm sorry, but Agent Larabee, I'm going to have to speak to him at some point." She held his eyes and conceded, "But not just now."
"Ms McKinnon, Mr. Ferretti, Mr. Singh. Judge." Chris nodded and left the room, his team following him silently.
Travis drew a deep breath, "You have to understand, Larabee and the rest of his team treat JD like he's their own boy as much as he is Wilmington's."
"There's another boy, correct?" McKinnon asked thoughtfully.
"That's right. Vin Tanner was adopted by Larabee the same time JD was adopted by Wilmington."
"And they all live together out on a horse ranch north of the city?" Behind her, her team exchanged looks that Travis couldn't decipher, but sent a prickle up his back.
"That's correct -- this information is in the briefing pack that you received before you arrived here," he frowned at them.
"Yes. Of course. Director Travis, I wonder, if I may, could I ask you some more about the children and their parents?" She was rigorously polite, and Travis suddenly got it. What she and her little bunch of yahoos were oh so delicately trying to suggest.
He sat back in his chair and folded his hands together as though in thought while he tried to decide on a course of action. Laughing in her face was out, unless he forced her to be more explicit. Sweet ignorance, he decided, and frowned as though puzzled.
"What do you need to know? You have all the details of the incident, the cases that Mr. Wilmington has been working on recently, and the reason he is not currently available."
"Just gathering the facts, sir. I was wondering if perhaps there might be some other reason that the child would be removed from his family."
"Removed? Removed seems a little mild for a kidnapping where we already have a ransom tape in. Far be it from me to direct your actions, but perhaps you should start with the 'obvious', and worry about your pet theories some other time?" It was not a suggestion.
"Certainly. Of course. Yes, sir." McKinnon chickened out and tucked the folder back under her arm without pushing it. "Well, thank you for your time, Director Travis."
Travis held his hand out to her. When she took it he pulled her towards him across the table.
"Agent McKinnon. If I hear a whisper, the merest flicker of a trace of a rumor about whatever little scenario your bunch of hoodlums is concocting, I will have the lot of you arrested for hate crimes and obstruction of justice. And if the boy dies while you're off chasing wild geese, you will be on the stand for murder one."
McKinnon paled until the freckles stood out like spattered blood across her cheekbones. "Yes, sir."
Larabee didn't get home until well after ten in the evening. As he pulled in he sighed. The lights were blazing from the windows, and a small figure huddled in one of them disappeared only to appear abruptly once more, briefly silhouetted in the light pouring from the opened front door.
He parked and Vin was pulling the car door open before he even got the seatbelt fully off. The boy scrambled up onto his lap and Chris held him close, both completely silent.
Vin's body shook with soundless grief and Larabee flinched. He'd hoped that Vin wouldn't know, wouldn't have realised what he saw meant, that he might be able to pretend everything was fine. A small part of his brain scoffed at the wishful thinking, pointing out every circumstance that made it impossible that his son not know, not feel responsible, and he shivered, petting the boy's back, holding his head close to his shoulder.
"I love you," he whispered into soft hair, bleached blond by the summer sun. "Shhh. It's okay. It wasn't your fault." He pressed his lips against the tip of the boy's ear. "We'll get him back."
Vin burrowed in closer and said nothing.
"Let's get indoors, okay, pard?" Chris eased out of the car, keeping Vin wrapped in one arm while locking it up with his free hand.
"Shouldn't you be in bed?" he asked as they stepped inside the house. Mrs. Potter was watching them and she shook her head sadly.
"I'm so sorry, Chris," she said miserably.
For a moment he wanted to scream at her. Where were you? How could you let them take him? But better sense prevailed, and he shook his own head.
"It wasn't your fault, Gloria. The only people to blame are the bastards who took him."
Vin shivered and Chris tightened his hold.
"I want to get this one to bed, can you come back about seven tomorrow?"
She nodded. "Anything I can do to help. Mrs. Jackson called and offered to take him as well, if you'd prefer I didn't--"
"No. That's very good of Rain, but I trust you. We'll have a police presence here until Buck's finished testifying." He glanced at Vin, "You're getting your own personal bodyguard, cowboy," but Vin didn't respond.
"Is there any news at all?" she said wistfully, and Chris shook his head mutely. She didn't need to know about the ransom tape, or the deductions that his teams was pulling out of what at first looked like thin air.
"Well, I'll let you two be. Take care of yourself, sweetheart." She leaned in to press a soft kiss on Vin's cheek. "You too, Chris," and she impulsively hugged them both. "I'm so sorry--"
"Not your fault." He shifted Vin conspicuously, trying to say without saying that this was not a topic for in front of the child, and she sighed.
"I'll be going. Call me, anytime, any time at all if you need me, okay?"
"We will." Chris watched as she reluctantly gathered up her things and left, closing the door quietly behind her.
"Did you eat, kiddo?" Vin shook his head and Chris headed for the kitchen. "Me neither."
Chris smiled half-heartedly, "You know what, me neither twice, but I promised Buck I'd eat."
"Is Buck coming home?" Vin's face emerged for the first time, leaning back to examine Chris's eyes.
"Sorry, kiddo. He's got to stay and testify. Told me to give you a hug from him though." He tightened his grip on his son and Vin smiled briefly.
"Want him home." He hesitated and added, in a whisper, "Where's JD?"
Chris closed his eyes. He wasn't sure he could bear this. "I don't know, pard, I wish to God I did, but I don't. But we're going to get him back. I *swear*."
Vin regarded him with silent disappointment. "Want him back," he whispered plaintively, "Dad, make them give him back."
"I know. I know. If I could... We're doing *everything*, everything we can. There's people from the FBI, and me and Nate and Ezra and Josiah, and every policeman in the country knows to look for him. If it's possible, we'll get him back." He kicked himself for even hinting that JD might never come home. "Look, you want some milk and cookies? Cereal?"
Vin shook his head and pressed his head back into Chris's neck.
"I'm going to make a sandwich. You want one?"
He shook his head again, and Chris shrugged as if it didn't matter.
"Cheese or jelly?"
"Cheese. An' ham?"
"If I make these they're mine. Okay?"
"Okay," Vin agreed meekly, and peeked up, mischief glimmering deep in his eyes, despite the hint of tears.
"No stealing my dinner, y'hear?"
Chris made extra and put the sandwiches on a plate, found a tray, added a couple of glasses of milk. He balanced the whole thing and walked back into the living room, the tray held as far away from Vin's hands as possible, Vin sneaking quick swipes out to try and grab one of the sandwiches.
"Ah, ah, ah!"
"But, *Dad*," he whined, widening his eyes pitifully. "I's *starving*!"
Chris put the tray down carefully on the low table, and lifted Vin up away from him, "You're starving now? Hey, yeah, look," he prodded at the boy's side, "look, I can see your ribs!" Vin wriggled, giggling as he was tickled.
"Stop it!" He squirmed wildly until Chris put him down.
"Okay, you wanna come sit here and not eat my sandwiches?"
"Okay," Vin smiled and snuggled in next to his father on the sofa, promptly filching one of the sandwiches and stuffing as much as he could into his mouth. Chris growled, and pretended to move the rest out of reach, making sure that the boy would still be able to grab another one if he was still hungry after the first one. He smiled down at him as Vin gnawed around the crusts, and stopped himself from telling him to eat the crusts too. At least he was eating. His smile dimmed. He reached down for another sandwich then stopped dead.
"Ugh! Vincent Tanner, what is *this*!" He stared in revulsion at the soggy, well chewed crust that had been surreptitiously slipped back onto his plate.
"Don't know," Vin said with a perfectly straight face.
"Don't know?! Don't *know*?" He scowled at the delightedly laughing child, then relented. "Drink your milk." Vin obeyed, sipping at it, his head drooping lower and lower, occasionally snatching back up to look around through sleepy eyes, until finally he was still.
Chris finished eating the last two sandwiches, and smiled down at the small bundle of boy slumped against him. Vin was still clutching his Wolverine glass at an angle as he slept, the last of the milk tilted precariously close to Chris's leg. He gently worked the glass out of the boy's hot and sweaty little paw, and finished it off before putting it on the floor.
He made no effort to get up. Instead he carefully pulled Vin onto his lap, pulling the blanket off the back of the sofa and wrapping it over them both. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. Vin smelled of soap, and milk, and little boy. His hair was soft, tickling Chris's chin and neck. Each breath was hot and reassuring on his throat.
Heat sparked in his eyes, but he ignored it, savoring the closeness of his little boy, and trying, and failing, to not think about another father who didn't have that comfort. And of a little boy who should be curled up in his Daddy's arms, who was god knew where; cold; hurt; and alone. He cuddled Vin closer, thanking God that he had not lost everything, guilt burning in his soul that he could even think such a thing. He tried hard not to be selfishly glad that he still had his boy. But even with Vin wrapped up tightly in them, his arms felt empty, and he buried his face into his boy's hair.