A "Little Britches" ATF story
Authors Note: Special Thanks to my beta Sherri and to Joy K for all of their generous help in making the Finis part of this little ficlette possible.
Gunshots, breaking glass, an alarmed shout, the loud wailing of a small child. The sounds jumbled together in a macabre dance of memory that startled Buck Wilmington from his task. Grabbing quickly at the bottle before it could teeter off of the table and crash to the floor he took a deep breath, trying unsuccessfully to calm his jangled nerves. It was going to take a lot more than a couple of shots of whiskey to help him sleep tonight. Or more like, this morning.
Glancing at the clock over the mantle in the ranch's big den, he sighed quietly. It was almost five in the morning and the dawn would be upon them before too long. This horrible night would finally come to an end, but the aftermath would be felt for a long time to come.
Swallowing the shot of whiskey he had poured himself in one fell gulp, he moved to grab two tumblers and some ice to prepare a couple of drinks. Then, grabbing the two glasses, he made his way through the kitchen and out to the back deck.
The damning chime of the door, a flash of red, a guttural cry, a gunshot, the sound of breaking glass, another gunshot, and lots of blood. The images and sounds played in his head like a video set to replay over and over, although at times the outcome skewed into a realm of what might have been.
Chris stared down at his hands like he had never seen them before. The darkness around him was no comparison to the dark thoughts whipping through his mind and encompassing his soul like a cloak, nearly suffocating him with its weight. Drawing in a sharp, deep breath as if just breaking back out of the water after a long dive into bottomless dark waters, he felt his entire body tremble. It was not surprising since his hands had not stopped shaking in nearly seven hours. Seven hours that were nothing in the grand scheme of time.
Staring back down at his hands Chris blinked. A blink, a split second, a mere speck of time, and that was all that was needed to change everything. It was an old life lesson brought back around to startling clarity in the wake of the past nights events. Within seconds things can change, people are lost, and the world tilts precariously out of control. All in the mere blink of an eye.
Chris sensed his oldest friends presence as Buck made his way out on to the back deck, but he did not acknowledge him. He couldnt move just yet, too afraid of losing the tiny trace of control he now possessed. He had to get himself together and soon. If he could just make the damn movie in his head stop.
Buck walked out onto the back deck of the ranch he now called home. Though the big ladies man had stayed off and on out at the ranch to help look after the horses and Chris after his wife and son had been killed it hadnt become permanent until they had taken on the adventure of their lives.
It had been nearly six months since he and Chris had gained temporary custody of seven-year-old Vin Tanner and five-year-old JD Dunne. The two orphans had captured the men's hearts without so much as a howdy do. The arrangement had started out as a short-term fix to a horrible situation, but was fast becoming something none of them could live without and the paperwork was in the works to make things more permanent.
A chill ran down Bucks spine and he wondered at the impact what had happened might have on those very proceedings. No! He wouldnt think on such things at the moment. He couldnt. There were more immediate concerns.
Instead he turned his attention to the slumped form of his best friend on the steps of the deck. The moonless night made him nothing more than a shadow, just out of reach of the meager light leaking out from the kitchen window. Still, Buck could see that Chris was staring down at his hands. And even in the darkness he could see that they were shaking. Much like his own.
Moving forward he carefully handed Chris the tumbler of whiskey, just grateful it had changed hands with a minimal amount of difficulty. And that Chris had actually moved to take it. Moving back a bit Buck eased himself down on the Adirondack chair to the side. His own drink was quickly brought to his lips with the aid of both hands as the sound of ice cubes hitting the side of the glass broke through the silence.
Minutes passed as both men sat drinking and replaying the past evenings events in their minds over and over and over.
It was nearly ten o'clock and the two weary agents were ready to crawl into their beds and get some much needed rest. It had been a long hard few weeks ending in an agonizing couple of days. Though the operation had been finished with a minimal amount of trouble, Team Sevens latest assignment had forced Chris and Buck to leave their two charges in the capable hands of Nathan's wife, Rain, for over two days. Now it was finally over and even though it would have been easier to leave the boys in her care for one more night, the weekend was upon them and they just wanted to be near the boys that had wound their way into the hearts of so many in such a short amount of time.
Both Vin and JD had fallen asleep in their car seats even before Chriss big black Dodge Durango had made its way out of the sprawling suburb Nathan and Rain resided in. Both boys had been in bed when the men had arrived to pick them up and though both parties had been swept up in the initial excitement of the reunion, the days of work and separation had quickly begun to reclaim all of their strength, leaving two very weary men and two gently sleeping boys.
Heading out of town to the ranch Chris cursed silently when he looked down and realized they needed to stop for gas. Even if they would more than likely have made it home just fine, with the kids in the back there was no way Chris would take the chance of ending up on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. So with much reluctance he had pulled into one of the small Stop-n-Go stations just off of the highway.
Another urgent need made itself known and Chris wondered if those last two cups of coffee had been such a good idea. Well, he would just get to kill two birds with one stone.
Buck, why dont you pump the gas and Ill be right back. Chris was already reaching for the door handle and caught Bucks inquisitive look. But with one quick glare, the message was clear and the big ladies man grumbled his acquiescence.
Buck had glanced back at Vin and JD, both still sound asleep in their car seats, but as an extra precaution he had lowered the front passenger window halfway so he would hear them should either awaken. Near to falling asleep himself the cooler night air did little to awaken his senses as he quickly slipped his credit card into the slot then stood by the pump waiting for the tank to fill. It had been a long week and an excruciatingly long two days of wrapping up the latest case. Though it seemed somewhat strange to him that the hardest part of it all had been the separation from the two boys that now made up such an invaluable part of his life.
A tired smile crossed his face at the pure look of happiness on JDs face when he had walked through the door at Nathan and Rains to pick up his foster son. Though the apprehensive look on Vins face had worried him and Chris had not gotten quite as enthusiastic of a reception, he knew deep down the dark blond headed boy had been just as happy to see them.
Vin was a serious and overly cautious little boy. The hard life he had already led had left him with an ingrained sense of insecurity that was in jeopardy of rearing its head at even the slightest thing. And an overnight stay away from Chris and Buck was just such a case. Chris and Buck had realized early on that only time, patience, and a hell of a lot of love would be able to convince Vin that he was safe and secure. Neither man thought that Vin actually believed that they were planning on keeping him forever. And each prayed in his own way that with each day they grew closer to remedying that problem and Vins perceptions.
Of course, in the beginning, that hadnt been the plan, but after two months with temporary custody of the two orphans, the thought of giving them up to anyone became unbearable. With a lot of talking and grueling honesty on the things that would need to change, the two veteran ATF agents had struck an accord and started down the paper ridden trail of gaining full custody. Buck had made his move to the ranch permanent. And while he sought custody of JD, Chris would seek custody of Vin. It was turning out to be the toughest and most frightening battle they had ever waged. But with the help of their friends, they were determined that it was one they would win.
Both boys had been talked to and asked how they felt about the situation before any steps had been made. Even though the boys were young, it was still their lives and their futures that were at stake. JD had been a resounding yes, but it had taken some careful discussion with Vin before he was comfortable that what the two men wanted was real. Too many people and too many things had been lost to the little seven-year-old in just the past two years. Vin would not get his hopes up only to have them dashed once again. Though it was something all of them wanted, the reality was that you didnt always get what you wanted.
And more than he had ever wanted anything before in his life, Buck Wilmington wanted to be a father to JD and for Chris to be a father to Vin.
I needs ta go ta the bathroom.
The quiet words were barely audible but still sliced through the thoughts running through Bucks head. Looking into the window his eyes met a pair of sleepy blue ones.
I gots ta go, Buck. I cant wait. Is sorry.
Vin had awakened with the overwhelming urge and looked out to see where they were, really hoping that since the truck had stopped that they were home. Seeing the bright lights of the service station he knew that he wouldnt be able to make it home. Not seeing Chris he had looked behind to see Buck beside the truck and figured the other man had to be inside.
Well, wait 'til Chris gets back out and then he can take you. Buck didnt want to leave the truck or JD unattended, not to mention that both boys were still in their pajamas.
Vin squirmed a bit and began unbuckling himself from the car seat. The last glass of warm milk and then some water before he and JD had lain down earlier was making itself known and holding it was no longer an option.
I cant wait. Vin was already reaching for the door handle to let himself out. Ill find Chris inside.
Vin Glancing around Buck didnt see any other cars and they were right in front of the door, but still
Puulease! I gots ta go! Vins voice was pained and Buck knew the boy wasnt kidding.
Go on, but get Chris to take you to the bathroom. It was only about fifteen feet to the door. And Chris should already be done and on his way back out by now anyway.
Watching as Vin got down out of the truck and started for the door, he heard the gas nozzle click off and turned to milk a little more gas into the tank. His heart nearly leaped out of his chest at the cacophony of sound that suddenly filled the night and brought fear jolting through him like lightening.
The ting of the bell on the convenience store door sounded, signaling Vins entrance, and was quickly followed by a loud shout that was definitely Chris, a gunshot and the shattering of glass, almost simultaneously followed immediately by another gunshot.
Bucks instincts kicked into overdrive and within seconds he had JD out of his car seat and down behind the truck with him, his own service weapon out at the ready. JD had still been sound asleep and the combination of sounds and the abrupt removal from the truck had him howling with fear. It was all Buck could do to hang onto the terrified child while using his own body as a shield between the store and him, not taking any chances despite the barrier of the truck. His mind was a whirl of possibilities, all terrifying. But what could he do? It was his responsibility to protect JD and he had no way of knowing what was happening without putting the child in danger.
But he had to do something. Not only was it his job Chris and Vin were most likely smack dab in the middle of what ever was going on and the sound of gunshots made the situation critical. Grabbing his cell phone off of his belt he had been just about to dial for help when Chriss shout brought his head up fast.
The voice was as commanding as ever, but Buck heard more there. Stark fear.
Right here, Im fine. Sos JD. What
Bucks questions were cut off. Call the sheriffs department and an ambulance. And keep JD away.
Buck felt his heart clench at the last words. Keeping the youngsters head buried into his shoulder as the boy still cried and the tiny body shook, the ladies man rose up just enough to see through the windows of the truck, the sight nearly stilling his rapidly beating heart.
Chris was crouched down just inside the doorway of the store and staring at the huddled figure in red pajamas that had just left the truck only moments ago. Vin lay curled up among the broken glass of the shattered door. It was all he could see and more than he had wanted to as the rapid-fire questions assaulting his mind coalesced with the sounds he had heard into a terrifying picture. But the questions would have to wait as he crouched back down behind the truck. With JD still crying and clinging to his neck, Buck called for help and prayed.
Chris had barely given the stores attendant a glance as he made his way quickly to the back of the store and to the bathroom. The pressing need that had started just outside of the city limits had kicked into overdrive as he had pulled in to get gas, almost as if in anticipation. If he hadnt been so tired, if he hadnt been in such a hurry, if he had just been paying closer attention Those were just a few of the what ifs that would haunt him in the days and weeks to come. As an officer of the law it was his nature to be ever watchful, ever vigilant to the goings on around him, and as a parent he should have been more cautious. But he hadnt and in the end it would prove to be a costly mistake.
Finishing up and briefly washing his hands he had slipped back out of the bathroom in record time, hoping that Buck was done pumping the gas and they could resume the trek home. Those two sleeping souls in the back could awaken at any moment and the last thing either of them needed was a wide-awake child. Both men were exhausted and so were the boys. They all needed a nice quiet night at home in their own beds.
Making his way up one of the middle aisles he began to think about grabbing a drink. Just some water or something to help keep him awake for the rest of the drive home. Reaching down to pull a bottle out of the bucket of ice near the front he looked up toward the counter. Not seeing the clerk he just assumed the man had moved out of his line of sight until movement to his left caught his eye. It all happened too fast but the memory was ingrained in slow motion.
One minute he saw the man who he had thought was the clerk moving out from behind the counter and starting for the door, a gun conspicuously held in his right hand, the next he heard the ding of the door. The sound garnered both mens attention. The flash of something red brought instant awareness and Chris was screaming out the fear that gripped his body as he saw the gunman react and take aim.
The gunshot, the sound of breaking glass and then another gunshot blurred as instinct had Chris pulling his own weapon and firing, all in a matter of seconds.
The wail of a child from outside could be heard and he knew it was JD. His terror doubled and he quickly checked the gunman, first making certain he would no longer be a threat. The gunman was bleeding profusely from the bullet Chris had placed in his upper left chest, the dark crimson staining the t-shirt the man wore and beginning to pool on the floor. Even though the suspect was unconscious Chris removed the gun, tucking it into his jacket pocket, and took the added precaution of handcuffing the suspect before moving on. Quickly checking behind the counter he found the real attendant unconscious from what appeared to be a blow to the head. The young man was breathing and the heartbeat was regular, so Chris again moved on, his fear growing and his guilt nearly unbearable at not being able to go immediately to where his heart now lay in a huddled mass on the cold tile floor.
Not seeing any other threats, but keeping his gun at the ready just in case Chris moved with purpose toward the side entrance door. Its shattered glass littered the floor and the tiny figure lying amongst it. Vins body was curled up tight, his arms covering his head from view and his small knees pulled up to his chest. Chris let out a breath when he saw that the boy was trembling all over. At least it meant he was alive. The dark blond hair covered the childs face and slowly Chris reached out with his own shaking hand to try and uncover Vins face, but then he hesitated.
The broken remnants of the door covered the boy and the floor surrounding him. Chris needed to be careful. Vin was known to be jumpy at the best of times, and this was definitely a worst of times. The last thing they needed was to further complicate things by causing Vin further injury if the boy moved amongst the broken glass. Instead he tried another approach while fighting the fearsome urge to just reach in and pick the boy up.
Vin? There was no movement or recognition, only heightening his worry. And as if that werent enough he also noticed the tiny droplets of red dripping to the floor beneath Vins head. The continued sound of a terrified JD pulled at Chriss attention. They needed help and he needed to be assured that his best friend and his other charge were indeed okay.
Forcing some measure of calm in his voice and never taking his eyes off of the trembling form on the floor he raised his voice.
Right here, Im fine. Sos JD. What
A small bit of relief, but not nearly enough, plus he didnt have time or the energy to answer Bucks questions. There were other matters that were too important at the moment.
Call the sheriffs department and an ambulance. Then he added with conviction. And keep JD away.
The last comment was sure to raise only more questions and worry, but he could not say more without making matters worse. Even with JD still crying he might overhear. Another child in jeopardy or pain was just more than he could deal with at the moment. This was something JD did not need to witness.
The minutes seemed to stretch into hours. Talking low to Vin in what he hoped were soothing tones, Chris reached out slowly to brush away the broken shards of glass from Vins red pajamas. Vin loved those pajamas, a gift from Ezra when he had been in the hospital all of those months ago the poor things were already looking nearly worn out from use. The trembling child had yet to otherwise move and the droplets of blood were beginning to pool. Chriss fear and patience were reaching a boiling point and he knew he had to see just how bad Vin was injured.
A sudden vision of Vin standing in the doorway as a bullet ripped through his tiny chest flashed in Chriss mind and he gasped grabbing at his own chest as fear swept through him like a raging wildfire consuming dry tinder.
Dear God! Please no!
That thought broke his last bits of restraint and glass be damned he reached forward, turning the tiny body over and pulling him into his arms at the same time. Even as his mind was warning him to use more caution, his heart was overriding his common sense and screaming at him to help Vin, to help his son.
God, not again. Please.
Even as he pulled the small body close, cradling him in his arms, he felt the body tense and start to curl up once again.
Vin, its me. Its okay. Youre safe.
Hah, safe. The very word mocked him silently.
Quickly examining his little boy, he searched diligently for injury and stopped short at the blood covering the right side of the Vin's head. The blood seemed to be coming from a cut just above his right eye and from experience Chris knew that even minor head wounds bled freely. The cut didnt look too deep and was likely caused by some of the broken glass.
Chris longed to see the boys telling blue eyes look up at him for reassurance knowing the very act would offer its own comfort to him, but the body remained rigid and the eyes tightly shut.
The wail of sirens in the distance signaled the arrival of help. Two small arms suddenly reached up and latched on to his neck, startling him slightly, but he reacted instantly, wrapping his own arms tightly around the bundle. The paramedics would be here soon along with the sheriffs department, right now he had one worry and one duty. To take care of Vin.
Chris felt another shudder run through his body at the memories that assaulted him. It had been a horrifying night. The would be robber had entered the store before he and Buck had arrived, knocked the clerk out and was in the process of cleaning out the cash drawer when they had inadvertently interrupted. Chris had headed to the bathroom, not realizing that the robber had donned the clerks work vest and stood behind the register watching his every move, and then had moved to make his escape when Chris had come out of the bathroom. The getaway might have been clean too, had an unwitting little boy not needed to go to the bathroom. Now the robber was dead, having not survived the surgery to remove the bullet from his left lung. The clerk was in the hospital with a severe concussion. And two traumatized little boys lay in the house sleeping.
Of course it might have been much more tragic.
Chriss body shuddered involuntarily.
Chriss tone was soft and rough as he gave voice to the fears still whirling in his mind. It was so close.
Buck heard the words and felt his own thoughts traveling a similar path, though he kept his silence for now, sensing his best friends need to get this out.
Too close. I almost lost him. The crack in the rugged voice tore at Bucks big heart and he relented to add his own assurance.
But you didnt. Hes lying in there in his own bed, asleep. Buck pushed. Hes still here.
If hed been a few inches taller
The guy wasnt expecting a child. Buck recalled just how close it had been. They had almost lost one of their little boys.
The crime scene team had found the bullet meant for Vin embedded in the pole outside, the trajectory insuring that the gunman had likely aimed where an adults torso would have been when entering the doorway. The bullet had sailed over Vins head, shattering the glass door and leaving Vin physically unharmed other than a few cuts from the glass. The worst of which was the cut over his right eye that had bled profusely but had only taken a few stitches at the emergency room to fix. The emotional toil would be a whole other matter and the doctor had finally administered a low dosage sedative to calm Vins frazzled nerves and ensure a good nights sleep.
Chris was beginning to think he should have asked for one himself. He just couldnt stop shaking and it wasnt just his hands. His whole insides seemed to quiver with the near possibilities and how helpless he had felt.
God, Buck. Feeling the tears he had been holding at bay spring to his eyes he tensed all over, trying to hold it in, fearing that if he let go he might not be able to stop. The quiet sound behind him broke down all of his resistance as he realized that Buck too had been barely holding on. The quiet snuffle behind him was his undoing and he felt the tears begin to fall as quiet sobs wracked his own body.
Only a minute or two had passed as both men finally gave into the fear and anguish that had filled their night. The display was a quiet one that would never be spoken of again but had been shared by both on such a deep level. But their pain and worry was soon interrupted as a cry of terror erupted from deep within the house followed by JDs acute howl. As quiet as Vin could often be, JD was just as equally loud.
Both men were up and in the house, barreling for the bedroom down the hallway. JD was sitting straight up in bed, wailing for all he was worth, while Vin lay curled in the corner of his bed, snug against the wall and crying silently, the trembling body an indication of his distress. Buck swept the dark haired boy quickly into his arms, sitting back down on the bed and simultaneously rocking and speaking soft encouragement to help calm him.
Chris sat quickly on the opposite bed, carefully placing his hand on Vins head, stroking his hair gently, and speaking soft reassurances. After a few moments Vin relaxed enough for Chris to sweep the child into his arms and hug him tightly against his chest as he continued to rub the bony back.
Relishing in the feel of Vins rapid heartbeat, Chris spoke a silent prayer of thanks for the gift he now held. The near tragedy had shaken him to his core. Life was unpredictable and loss was inevitable. It wasnt a new lesson. He had loved and lost, they all had, but with the warm body now very much alive in his arms he vowed to never forget how precious it was. The very thought of loving and losing again was terrifying, but what was even worse was losing it without a fight. And fight he would.
The battle would not be easy and the events at the convenience store might prove to be a new obstacle for them to overcome, but by God, he would fight. They had already made some extra appointments for Vin with his therapist, knowing full well that the boy would have a tough enough time dealing with what had happened on top of the tragedies he had already suffered, but they would get through it one day at a time and one nightmare at a time. For despite the bad things, despite the hardships, and despite the pain, it was worth it. The dark haired imp that filled the house with his giggling laughter and rambunctious play was worth it. And the quiet child with a fear of abandonment and a shy smile that, though far too rare, could lighten even the darkest of days was by far worth it.
Chris knew without a doubt that within seconds life could change. Bad things could happen. And people could be lost. Without warning ones life could be irrevocably altered. Just like the day he had looked up into two of the bluest eyes he had ever seen, two eyes that could reach deep into his soul and touch his heart. In that moment his world had changed. For the better. All in the blink of an eye.
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