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He awoke with a start, the peal of childish laughter still echoing through his head. His chest heaving, sweat trickling down his spine, he froze as the icy tendrils of fear shot through his body. Slowly the dark realm of his dreams gave way to an unnatural silent reality that pervaded his very soul.
The name was but a whisper, but held a lifetimes worth of emotion. His heart raced in time with his throbbing head. His entire body felt as if he had just finished a five-mile marathon. Placing a fist to his chest, he attempted to knead away the constricting pain and calm his labored breathing. This routine was becoming second nature.
Glancing at the bedside alarm clock that glowed with an almost painful intensity, he groaned aloud. It was 3:18 in the morning. So much for a good nights sleep. As he swung his legs over the side of the bed he realized he was drenched in his own sweat. This was getting so very old.
Dragging his weary body from the bed, he headed for the shower. In the cleansing water the fog in his brain cleared and he remembered bits and pieces of the dream that had awakened him. He rarely remembered any of his dreams anymore, the majority of which were nightmares. Most were centered around seeing his beautiful wife Sarah and precious son Adam as they died their fiery deaths and hearing their cries for help. But not this time, this one had been different. Happy, even. Yet, still just as emotionally devastating. In this dream Adam had been playing in the park, running and laughing like all little boys do. His son was just as he remembered, completely carefree and full of life. If only that were still possible.
Chris Larabees wife and son had been killed by a car bomb just outside of their suburban home a little over three years ago, but the pain and loss still visited him with a vengeance, especially at night in his dreams when he was the most vulnerable. The nightmares had been one of his rationales when his descent into the depths of a whiskey bottle had begun. Just so I can rest, he had told himself even when he knew in his heart it wasnt the whole truth. Without the steadfast loyalty of his oldest remaining friend, Buck Wilmington, Chris was pretty certain he would have found himself either dead or still lost at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
Friendly and loyal were apt descriptions of Buck. He made friends quickly and believed women should be cherished. Of course, it seemed his mission in life was to cherish as many of the female population as possible. A notorious ladies man, Buck was blessed with a big heart and an iron will. The two men had been friends since their days at the police academy. Right on through their time with the Denver PD and more importantly through Chriss bout with grief, guilt, and the bottle. There couldnt have been a better friend. Buck had even moved out to Chriss ranch house to just help out around the house, he had said. More than likely it was to keep an eye on his friend and any potential trouble.
It had been a tough battle of survival, but Chris had moved on and even been recruited for a job with the Denver branch of the ATF. When the director, Orin Travis, asked him to head up his own team, Buck had been Chriss first candidate. Now they were working together once again.
Still, it wasnt exactly like old times. Nothing would ever be the same and they had come to terms with that. Buck, ever the fun loving ladies man would never change, but for Chris Larabee his entire existence and all of his hopes and dreams for the future had taken a complete detour.
Now as he sat at his kitchen table in the wee hours of the morning with a cup of hot coffee gripped within his hands, he wondered just what else might lie in store for him. He had cleaned up his act and gotten his head back on straight. He also had a good team to work with, if not a bit unorthodox. Just when he felt like things might be on the right road to recovery, the nightmares or dreams would start all over again. Fighting the urge to put something a bit stronger in his coffee, he got up and headed for the barn. It was 4:30 and he certainly wasnt going back to sleep anytime soon, so he might as well feed the horses and get a few chores done. Life might go on, but there was nothing that said he had to give a damn.
Freeze! Federal Agents!
The bust was going down just as planned. Well, at least it was until two of the suspects decided to make a run for it. Chris and Nathan took off in pursuit. When the suspects split up, so did the two federal agents.
Nathan was a highly capable agent with a background as a trained medic, a skill that came in way too handy with the crew of Team 7. The tall, muscular mans skills had been put to the test on a number of occasions since joining up with Larabee and his ragtag group of agents. So when the suspects split up, he gave no thought to continuing his pursuit alone.
Chris had made a valiant effort to keep up with his suspect but ended up losing the guy in a crowd on the street. Retracing his steps back toward the warehouse and the place he had separated from Nathan, he went to see if he could offer any assistance with the second man. Keeping his eyes peeled and his senses on alert he hurried in the direction he had last seen his fellow agent and friend. But as he rounded the next corner he wasnt quite prepared for what he found.
Just at the junction of the alley he had seen Nathan disappear down only minutes earlier an eruption of gunfire sent pieces of the brickwork just to his right flying. Nearly losing his footing as he came to an abrupt halt, Chris quickly dove back around the corner. Putting his back to the wall he swiveled his head around just enough to glance back down the alleyway. The suspect now had his arm around Nathans neck in a chokehold and a gun pressed tightly against his temple.
Back off, Pig! The suspect was beyond agitated, bordering on hysterical and Chris needed to tread lightly. The man could easily head further down the alley and to freedom, but more importantly he was holding an agent, his agent, hostage. All that mattered was getting Nathan out of this alive and well.
Drop your gun or hes dead.
Chris felt the sweat begin to bead on his forehead as he watched the gunman tighten his grip around his agents neck. There wasnt a clear shot and Nathan was looking a bit dazed, making the situation all that more dangerous. What if he were already injured?
Shit. Chris quiet curse caught the attention of his three other agents, all of whom were wired into the same communications system. Another quick glance assured the leader that Nathan had obviously lost his own earpiece during the altercation with the suspect.
Rogue to Chief? Status? Buck Wilmingtons worried voice whispered into his ear. The tone of the curse alone had alerted the others to the fact that there was trouble.
Each man had a code name. Buck was Rogue because it fit his self-denoted love of all things female. Nathan, as team medic, was called Doc. Prof was Josiah, due to his years spent teaching the art of profiling at one of the local universities, while Buck had dubbed Ezra as Ace because of his penchant for card playing. Though Chris had wanted to keep his simple at Leader, the others had insisted on something with one syllable and Chief fit his role.
Doc involved in hostage situation. One suspect armed with handgun. Code Red, which meant agent in trouble. Chris was trying to update them quickly. Back alley behind Oakland Ave. ETA?
Far side of Brookview, ETA four or five. Buck was too far out and the situation could swing in a moments notice.
Josiah had felt his gut clench with Chris update of the scene and had stopped where he was, ready to move in to help, but he too was further out than he had hoped. Same, four or five.
Six or seven. Ezras answer was given without prompt and was more breath than anything, which Chris knew meant he was already on the move.
Enter with extreme caution. The team leader advised unnecessarily.
His own frustration at the situation had gone up quite a few notches. Help was on the way, but would it be in time? Maybe he could stall the guy? He nearly laughed at the thought. This was a touchy situation and his diplomatic skills were, as his teams undercover agent called them, bordering between lacking and nonexistent. Chris searched through his brain for a possible solution. Surely there had to be something he could do besides sit here on his ass.
Movement out of the corner of his eye, directly across the way, caught his attention and instinct had him pointing his weapon before he even realized what was happening. His heart leapt into his chest and his body went cold. Deep blue eyes stared straight into his with unflinching certainty. Chris felt as if his soul had been seared by a hot poker and his heart kicked into high gear. Pulling his gun back to point toward the sky the other eyes held his penetrating gaze before breaking away to also glance down the alley toward Nathan and the suspect. Chris felt his apprehension over the situation triple with the realization that the deep blue eyes that had practically reached into his core belonged to a very little boy.
Vin Tanner was still shaking inside from what had occurred, but he held his ground. The seven-year-old might be young and small for his age, but within him lived an old soul. One that had seen and experienced too many of lifes hardships in just his few years on earth. Age was gathered in experience and not years and this boy was way too old for his tender age. He was also guided by an atypical sense of responsibility.
Mentally chastising himself, Vin peered out from the old boxes he was hiding behind. This should have never happened. He should have been more careful, should have been paying closer attention to what was happening around him. It was his responsibility and he had failed. Vin had watched as the bad man had hit the black man over the head with the gun, grabbed him around the throat and then started pulling him down the alley. He had to do something. This was his fault. With his initial responsibility tucked safely away he had turned to see what he could do to help when movement across from him drew his attention.
The dark man, dressed all in black and brandishing a gun of his own, exuded an air of authority. The metal badge hanging around his neck matched that of the other man, the one in trouble. They were police of some kind, but instead of relief that thought brought more fear. The report of gunfire had him hiding deeper into the boxes that surrounded him, but the threats yelled by the bad man had him creeping back out to see what was going on. And thats when it happened. With one glance back across the alley his eyes were caught up in the fiery green glare from the man in black.
With that one look he had seen so much. A depth that both frightened and reassured him all at the same time. The face was cut from hard stone, but the eyes held a kindred spirit that seemed to speak to Vin. Someone else who knew a depth of emotional pain and loss so deep it left scars that might never heal. A quiet roar of unfairness erupted within him, further infusing his need to do something to help the other policeman. Shifting his eyes back down the alley he saw just what he needed and a slight grin touched his face.
Chris was nearly knocked back physically by the surge of emotion that swept through him the moment his green eyes had locked with the young boys blue ones. The intensity of feeling was one he had not thought even possible for him after years of beating or drinking every ounce of emotion into submission. It was like the turning on of a light in a room previously sheathed in darkness. And it hurt like hell.
Then the boys emotive orbs averted to the scene playing out down the alleyway, breaking the immediate connection though the feelings lingered like the exhaust from a jet in the clear blue sky. Chris caught a faint look of something on the boys face, as he, too, returned his attention to Nathans plight. Another shot chipped the bricks just over his head and he pulled back, squeezing his eyes shut instinctively to avoid the flying debris. His concern for Nathans safety took a backseat as his eyes popped open to check across the way. Ready to risk being shot he was a hairsbreadth away from jumping across the alley and pulling the boy out of harms way when his stomach bottomed out at the sight before him.
Nothing. No sign of the boy could be found.
For a split second he even wondered if his eyes were just playing tricks on him, but the nagging in his gut and the lingering impression those emotive blue eyes had left branded upon him said different. With a quick silent prayer that the boy had sought shelter somewhere well out of harms way he again looked to freeing Nathan from the gunmans clutches.
Im just gonna ease on out of here and you just stay right where you are. The gunmans voice held a nervousness that Chris prayed didnt translate into the mans trigger finger or Nathan might end up shot accidentally. There was no way he would trust his agents safety if he let this man escape. Time was running out and he had to do something soon.
One minute Chris was trying to figure out his next course of action and the next he heard the suspect yell as if in pain. Whipping his view back down the alley he saw the suspect kick hard behind him and at the same time loosen the tight grip he held on Nathans neck. It was the opportunity he needed as Nathan was dropped some and a clear shot presented itself.
In mere seconds it was over as Chris sprang into action. The suspect was howling in pain from the bullet the team leader had put into his right shoulder, but he paid no heed to the mans complaints as he cuffed the suspects hands behind his back. Securing the prisoner and seeing Buck and Josiah coming in to help, he turned his attention to Nathan, who was attempting to sit up.
Buck, check back down the alley near those boxes. The vision of the blue-eyed boy still haunted him and he needed to make sure the boy was okay. Not to mention the horrible scenarios that kept wandering through his brain as he wondered why a child so young was wandering around the streets alone. I dont want any more surprises. He wasnt even sure why he didnt mention that he had seen a small child there. Maybe a part of him was having trouble reconciling the feelings that were still churning within his gut. Maybe a black coffee with more coffee breakfast hadnt been his best choice.
The suspect was still ranting and raving about something, but Chris had tuned him out to concentrate on his injured man as Josiah took over the prisoner.
Nathan, where are you hurt? Squatting down beside his agent, who sat rather dazedly on the pavement, he felt somewhat awkward. The shoe was usually on the other foot. Nathan, as a trained medic, normally was the one asking the others that question.
Shit, that hurt. Nathan seemed to regain some balance as he reached to the back of his head and winced. Im okay, just rattled me for a minute. Trying to get up he felt the strong hand on his shoulder.
If it was one of us, what would you say? Larabee knew the answer before asking it.
Yeah, yeah. I know, but Im fine. Catching the infamous Larabee glare Nathan protested. Really. Just a little knock on the head and mines just as hard as the rest of all of yours. He tried getting up again, but a wave of dizziness made him pause.
Right. You just stay put until the paramedics get a look at you. Youll have to be checked out at the hospital anyway.
But, the kid. I gotta find the kid. Nathan began looking around.
Chris felt his heart skip. Had Nathan seen the boy, too? Or was that knock on the head more serious than he thought? His voice sounded strange to himself as he asked the question. Was that a tremble in his voice? What kid?
I ran after that lunatic over there and this little kid just ran right into my way. I didnt see him until it was too late and I tripped all over him. Next thing I knew he Nathan indicated the still howling suspect, whacked me over the head and took me in a chokehold.
Nathan was reliving the shock as he had practically slammed into the little dark haired boy. What if he was hurt? I dont know what happened to him. He could be hurt. Weve got to find
Nathans words were cut short by the loud scream of a small child. A small child with a large lung capacity. Buck was coming back down the alley, fighting to hold onto the squirming bundle of energy in his arms. Can someone help me out here? The look of panic on Bucks face was priceless. He loved children and had always been good with Chris son Adam, but this was different. This child was scared out of his mind.
Chris stood up quickly as a wave of emotion that he couldnt quite nail down swept through him. Was it concern for the young boy? Maybe relief that there actually was a child or that he was seemingly okay? It felt strangely like hope, but that was crazy.
Lemme go! Vinnnn! Help me! Ahhhh The small dark headed child looked up as he neared all of the other adults and seeing Nathan, froze, his cry ceasing midway. Is sowwy Mister. I didna mean ta trip ya. Vin always says I should pays attention where Is goin. The big hazel eyes stared out at them, full of tears. Please dont hurt me.
Buck took the opportunity given and turned the boy around to face him as he spoke. We aint gonna hurt ya, squirt. Were the... Somehow Buck didnt think saying they were ATF would help the boy understand. Were the good guys. We just want to make sure youre okay.
The little boy gazed up at him with a mixture of trepidation and hope that tore through his heart like a buzz saw and Buck swallowed hard at the huge lump in his throat. This little one couldnt be more than three or four years old. What was he doing out on the streets alone?
Chris kept his face neutral but inside his mind was screaming questions at a rapid fire pace. What was going on? Who was this child and where was the other one he had seen? Were children just wandering all over the streets on their own? Was he really losing his mind?
Nathan got up gingerly and walked over to help calm the child. Its okay, son. Are you okay? Did I hurt you any? Ignoring his own injuries he moved in to try and look the boy over as his training and concern kicked in.
That crazy little snot bit me. You oughta lock him up. Hes a menace to society. Chris finally realized what the man he had shot had been yelling about and began to wonder. Seeing the small boy cringe at the harsh tone and words coming from the suspect, he ordered the other officers who had just arrived to take him away and see to it he got some medical attention. He certainly didnt want this one claiming police brutality or neglect.
Turning back to eye the dark headed boy with the big eyes once more, he noted how the youngster now clung to Buck instead of fighting him, the big man looking surprisingly comfortable with his new role. Ezra had just caught up with them and now the whole team stared at the new find with innate curiosity.
What just happened here? Ezra had come upon the scene a bit late and wanted to catch up on what had to be a very interesting story. The normally unflappable undercover agent was still trying to assimilate the clues that at this point just did not add up.
I wanna go home. Wheres Vin? He said not to move 'til he comes back for me. He was real mad at me for running into you. Is real sowwy.
Whats your name, son? Do you live around here?
Is not supposed to talk to strangers. The men all bit back a smile at that declaration since the child had yet to be quiet for more than a few seconds. Vin says its dange well, Vin says its bad. Bad men out there thatll hurt me.
Buck felt his heart breaking at the little ones words. What a cruel world it could be. And worse yet that someone so young had to even know about it. Its okay, Little Bit. Were like policemen. He figured that was the simplest way to explain it, figuring the little one wouldnt know about the ATF.
Oh. There was some hesitation as the boy looked around at the men for a minute then seemed to decide it was okay. Okay. My names John Daniel Dunne. The look of pure innocence and trust in the childs eyes was breathtaking. Unfortunately there were way too many people out there who would like nothing better than to take advantage of such innocence and trust.
Well, John Daniel Dunne, Im Buck and this here fellow is Nathan. The big grey-headed guy over there is Josiah and the fancy fella is Ezra. Now that one scowling over there is Chris. But, dont you worry none. He always looks like that. But his bark is worse than his bite. Chris tried to glare at Buck, but decided that under the circumstances it might do more harm than good.
What are you doing out here all alone, Master Dunne. Ezra, too, was beginning to get a very ill feeling about the situation. This isnt a safe place for a little boy like you to be.
My names not master, its JD. Thats what my momma always calls called me. The boy looked down sadly.
So his mother was dead or possibly just gone.
But, Vin, he calls me that, too.
The light bulb flashed in Chris head at the name. It had to be the boy he had seen earlier, but he didnt look much more than a year or two older than this one. Where was the person who was supposed to be looking after these children?
Whos Vin, JD? Nathan was beginning to really worry. Who in their right mind would let a child this small wander the streets all alone?
Hes my cousin. Where is he? He said for me to wait right there behind that big metal thingy til he come back. JD pointed across to the alley where he had come from and they all noticed the big dumpster a few feet away. Said he had to help.
Chris felt a tug on his own heart just looking at the sad and scared little boy. He was a bit dirty and that, along with the very fact he was out on the streets, screamed of neglect. Remembering what the suspect had said he asked, even though he was pretty sure of the answer. The little dark headed boy had been closer to where he was rather than being anywhere near Nathan and the gunman. Did you bite that man on the leg, son?
I didnt move from that spot. I swear. A little grubby hand was raised as if confirming a solemn oath to obey. I promised and you dont break a promise.
No one saw the sneak attack happen all over again. Buck howled in pain as he felt what could only be some wild animal chomp down on the back of his calf. Quickly setting JD on the ground he reached down for his throbbing appendage, only to be pushed off balance. Without anything to grab on to he fell into Nathan and within seconds both agents found themselves sprawled in a heap on the ground.
JD, git behind me!
Chris watched the little dark headed boy run and hide behind the tiny warrior that now faced them all. This had to be Vin. And this was the boy he had seen earlier. Standing only a few inches taller than JD, this child was probably only a year or two older, but his eyes told a different story. Now that Chris could get a better look at him he noticed what a skinny little thing he was, with shoulder length hair of a sandy blond color and eyes the color of the sky. Those eyes once again seared him. The look of sheer determination was impressive as the boy squared off to protect his cousin. The boy stood his ground better than a lot of adults Chris had seen.
Those same big blue eyes scanned his foes as Nathan and Buck climbed to their knees. Both figured it best to stay low and maybe they would seem less threatening to their attacker.
Vin Tanner had faced bullies before, but at least those had been boys, bigger than him, but boys. These were all grown-ups and big ones at that. But Vin had made a promise to JDs mother to look after his younger cousin and that was a sacred vow to him. He would do whatever it took to keep that promise, even if it meant facing an army. Still, his eyes sought the man he had seen earlier. His first instinct was to run, but the dark blonde mans gaze confused him. There had been something there that reached out to him and he so wanted to reach back. But this wasnt just about him now. He had JD to look after.
Durn it JD. Whyd ya have to go and run into that fella.
Vins thoughts were filled with questions. What was he going to do now? If they found out that JD and he had run away they would really be in trouble. They might get separated. How was he supposed to look after JD if they did that?
Looking around at the five men before him, he tried to decide what to do. JD was his responsibility. Vin was the oldest and he had to make sure that no one ever hurt JD like Feeling a wave of dizziness, he reached up to wipe at wetness that was running down the left side of his head, close to his eye. He really didnt feel very good.
The five big bad ATF agents stood frozen and unsure what to do. Facing criminals with guns was one thing but facing a small, frightened boy was not something they had been exactly trained for. Chris was the only one who had actually had a child, but they werent expecting him to be a lot of help. In fact, the others couldnt help wondering if this confrontation might even prove more painful for their leader in retrospect of his loss.
They didnt want to spook the youngster, but none of them missed the blood that was now flowing freely down the left side of his face. The dark red was garish contrasted to the pale little face.
Chris couldnt believe this was happening. His men had faced bloodthirsty gunrunners and drug dealers. They had very successfully taken down all types of vermin with relative ease and now here they stood, being bested by two small children.
The leaders intense green eyes locked once again with a pair of big blue ones that were just as determined. Chris felt his blood run cold as he read so much in that look. Fear, anger, determination. What was missing was innocence. This child had already seen far too much of the evil this world could offer. He wasnt sure how he knew this, but knowing it made his heart begin to ache with an odd intensity.
It wasnt as if Chris Larabee was totally unfeeling. He was concerned about his men. He was concerned about his job and doing it well. He was concerned? That sounded somewhat cold, even to him. The passion he had felt in life had been burnt away by the fire that had stolen his family. He felt nothing intensely anymore. Not even anger. He had been forced to even let that get pushed into the background. It was the only way he could survive from day to day. So, without even realizing it, he lived by a very callous motto. To never care about anything too much so he couldnt lose what little bit of himself remained. Life was monotone for him emotionally. At least, it had been until a few minutes ago when his eyes had first locked with those of one little blue-eyed boy. That moment was like the beginning of a crack in a dam as the emotions he had suppressed for so long began once more to surge through him like a torrent.
Something in those intense blue eyes was penetrating him to his core. He wanted nothing more than to sweep the little boy into his arms and tell him everything was going to be okay.
Where had that come from? His own thoughts were betraying him. And yet, how could he look at such an obvious loss of innocence and not be affected? Staring back at the boy he tried a weak smile. Very weak, evidently, because the boy only seemed to grow more rigid.
Thinking back to Nathans predicament and sudden rescue, what must have happened became clear to the dark clad leader as he stared down into the two pools of blue. The boy had to be terrified, but was willing to stand against the odds. So this was who had saved Nathans life? Chris replayed it all in his head, remembering the suspect kicking out hard behind him and the sound of something crashing. A sound he had pushed aside in the heat of the moment. Feeling his blood beginning to boil he imagined the small frame of this brave boy as it was kicked and slammed against the debris along the alley wall.
Josiahs rich baritone broke the silent spell as he tried to soothe the little lost one before him. Its okay, son. Were not going to hurt you or your little cousin. Just take it easy. Bending down to be more on the boys level he saw the eyes darting around to take in everything around him.
Youre hurt. Let me look at that cut on your head. Im a medic. Im not going to hurt you. Nathan was in full healer mode after seeing the bloody cut on the boys forehead. He, too, had figured out that this little boy had been hurt trying to save his life and he was grateful. Plus, something in the boys stance and the emotive eyes that seemed to be currently locked with their leaders told a tale of hardship and mistrust. These two were so little and young. Someone should have been looking after them and in their absence, Nathan was more than willing to take up the slack.
A police cruiser had pulled up at the mouth of the alley. Though it was behind Chris and far enough away not to be noticed by most of the men gathered, it was most definitely noticed by little Vin Tanner. The ominous car wiped all indecision from the small boys mind. He wanted to trust these men, especially the green-eyed stranger, but he had trusted before and been wrong. Horribly wrong.
Vin knew one thing and one thing only. They had to get away. These men were bigger and faster, but he knew the area better. Thats how he had snuck around to save the policeman. There were a couple of broken windows that he had slipped through. Without further thought he spun, grabbing JDs grubby little hand and pulling him down the alley. JD didnt know what to do other than run with his cousin. Vin always took care of him and his momma had told him to mind Vin before she before she went away. The dark haired boy swallowed the lump in his throat and ran behind his older, wiser cousin.
Nathan tried to get to his feet, but was hit with a wave of dizziness.
Stay here, brother. Well get them. Josiahs reassuring words and squeeze of his shoulder did little to reassure the team medic. His heart broke at the thought of those two little lost boys and one of them hurt, because of him. Should have been paying better attention and not let that scum get the drop on me.
Four men took off in pursuit of two little boys. How hard could this be? They couldnt get far. But even as they charged down the alley they realized that the boys were gone.
Where did those two get to? Buck looked around worriedly. He, too, had been struck by the situation. That littlest one, JD, had gotten to him within seconds, with those big hazel eyes and pouty face. He had also noticed a strange flicker on Chris face when he had locked eyes with the bigger boy. The ladies man had noticed the intensity of the big blue eyes and couldnt help being impressed himself. The boy had guts.
Spread out and find them. Chris wouldnt even consider any other outcome. He had to find them. They had seemed so close to trusting them, he had noted it in Vins eyes, but something had scared him and now they were out there alone on these cruel streets. The moment the little sandy-haired boy had turned and ducked back down the alley, Chris had felt a sense of loss. He had to find those boys. Stay in radio contact.
Each man went off in a different direction, checking every nook and cranny they could find. It was almost thirty minutes later and Nathan had been checked out by the paramedics but refused transport, saying he would get checked out after they found the boys, but asking them to stay close until they were able to locate the injured child. Josiah had gone to talk with the local police officers that had recently arrived on the scene. And Chris was just about to call for help to expand the search when a noise from somewhere to his right caught his attention. Hold on. He spoke into his headset. I may have found something.
Turning the next corner he could hear whispering. Well, loud whispering, but the little boy was obviously trying.
Is scared. When we going home? The voice obviously belonged to JD.
Chris wouldnt have been able to hear the next voice had he not been so close to the boxes the boys were hiding behind. Vin was actually being quiet. Shhh! I told you if they find us, theyll take us back and then theyll separate us.
Not wanting to scare the boys away again Chris stepped back, turned his head away and spoke quietly into his headset. Buck. I found them. Down at the back of the warehouse.
+ + + + + + +
Where are you? Bucks heart was currently being worn on his sleeve. It was no secret that the big- hearted man had an incorrigible soft spot for the opposite sex, but few had witnessed his equal reverence of children. Chris had.
Buck had been Adams godfather and acted more like a second kid when around the youngster. The loss of Sarah and Adam had been hard on him, too. Sarah had always treated him like one of the family and spending time with his godson had always been a joy. The big-hearted agent missed those days with an unspoken intensity.
Today, looking down into those big hazel eyes of the dark headed youngster, he had felt a connection with those days long gone. The grown-up in Buck wanted to protect and comfort the child, while the kid in him wanted to take him to a park to play. No child should be on the streets alone and in harms way. It just wasnt right.
Something within had practically melted when JDs hopeful eyes had looked up at him. Such trust and love had poured from those big eyes and touched Bucks soul. And the look in the other boys intense blue eyes had been almost chilling. What had that child been through to put such a fierce look of distrust and fight into eyes that should have been filled with innocence and wonder? If nothing else, Buck would find out. There had to be something he could do to help these two boys. And something within him would not rest until he had.
+ + + + + + +
Are they okay? Nathans voice was etched with unbridled concern. The older one may have a concussion.
Speaking of which Larabee began at his own recently injured agent.
Ill be fine once I know those two little ones have been taken care of. He insisted, and then added quietly. He saved my life, Chris.
Nathan had been coherent enough to remember when the man with the gun to his head had yelled and kicked back at something. But, worse than that, he recalled the sound of a thud and a quiet whimper among the noise of debris falling. In his minds eye he could just imagine the sight as the tiny body of his little savior was viciously kicked across the alley and slammed hard into the unforgiving wall. Just the thought of it made him shudder. Sure, his head was killing him at the moment, but it was no match for the ache in his heart. He had to make sure the little sandy blond and his dark headed cousin were both okay.
+ + + + + + +
Josiahs voice interrupted the others musings. Ive just finished talking with the local PD. Seems theyre missing two young boys by the name of John Daniel Dunne and Vincent Tanner. Seems these two ran away from their foster home yesterday morning.
Josiahs mind began to wonder just what would have forced these two youngsters from the safety of a foster home into the dangers of the cold streets. Actually he didnt really want to think about it. He had seen one too many times what might drive them away and what tragedies could befall the innocent.
Often volunteering at some of the local homeless shelters, Josiah tried to do whatever he could. As the teams profiler he had a degree in psychology among other things and found himself giving counsel to many a poor and desperate soul that once too often had been children lost to the streets. His heart ached with the knowledge and he said a silent prayer for the safety of the two boys that had rocked the world of one of the toughest ATF teams around.
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Yesterday? You mean to say those young gentlemen have been out here in this barren wasteland alone? Overnight? Ezras wonder was tinged with unmasked outrage. It was an uncommon slip for the man who normally kept his emotions carefully in check. This was different. These were just children and whoever had been responsible for the safety of these young men had obviously failed miserably.
If it was one thing the undercover agent couldnt stand it was the thought of any child being neglected. He himself had spent much of his own childhood being shuffled around amongst relatives and knew what it meant not to have a true home. If nothing else he would see to it that these boys were taken care of. He had no idea how he was going to do it, but his mother always said he could talk a bear into surrendering its own hide.
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Chris could feel the tension crackling through the headset as his men voiced their thoughts and concerns. He, too, was filled with anger that two young boys could so easily find themselves alone on the streets. They could have been killed. Or worse. They were so little and vulnerable. He shook himself mentally out of the way his thoughts were heading. During the entire time he had been searching for the two boys a mental battle of wills had been waged as survival instincts rebelled against the latest surge of emotions he was feeling. This was getting too personal and that could be dangerous. It wasnt his problem. He would make sure the boys were okay and that the proper authorities were notified and had the situation in hand. Then he could get back to his real job and life could get back to normal. Somehow it didnt sound as appealing as he thought it should have.
Giving the others his location he turned back to try and keep the two from disappearing on them again. Placing himself strategically in front of the boxes the boys were hiding behind he spoke, putting as much authority in his voice as he could without sounding angry. He was angry, but not at these two boys and from the outcome of the earlier confrontation it was best to tread lightly.
Okay, you two. Why dont you come on out from behind those boxes? Realizing he was standing in a somewhat threatening manner, his hands on his hips and likely a glare on his face he squatted down to get more on their level. Im not going to hurt you.
He could hear whispering, but wasnt able to make out what was said. It had to be Vin. Chris could see Buck and Ezra coming from the opposite direction and was glad for the backup. He just didnt feel comfortable dealing with children anymore.
Everything happened at once. The boxes fell forward as two small forms darted from behind them. One ran down the alley as the other one charged Chris. Stunned by the onslaught the leader almost missed grabbing Vin as he basically rammed him and then turned to run. Even as he grabbed the retreating figure around the waist he heard the other escapee squeal as Buck caught him for the second time that day.
Vin had been unsure what to do. He was so tired and was quickly realizing how bad he really felt, but there was JD to take care of. He had to look after his little cousin. While his heart kept screaming at him to trust that voice he knew belonged to the green-eyed man in black, his mind kept seeing that police car and old lessons were hard to unlearn. Adults lied. Weighing his options he made his decision. They would have to try and run for it again. But JD was little and slow. Without a head start he would get caught, so despite his own fear and racing heart he decided. Hit and run. Then hopefully they could both get away.
Chris struggled to regain his balance and hang on to the struggling wild cat in his arms. This little kid was definitely a fighter. He admired that, but he was also afraid of the boy hurting himself. Recalling the sight of blood on the boys face, he worked to secure the arms and legs that flailed wildly. Hearing his cousin scream only caused the boys struggles to increase.
Just as Chris was about to yell for help in subduing the boy, all fighting ceased and the child became limp in his arms. Chris had to struggle to keep from dropping the now lifeless form. His heart constricted with fear. Gathering Vin in his arms he felt a sickness wash over him at the pale face and the closed eyes.
I need some help here! His voiced was filled with an odd tone he recognized as fear.
Nathan materialized as if out of nowhere as he, too, had started to the location to check on the children. He moved in quickly to assess the childs condition. Lay him down right here, Chris. With practiced ease the army trained medic went to work.
Buck had his own hands full, trying to calm and reassure the sobbing child in his arms. One look at his cousin lying still on the ground had sent JD into a fit of hysterics. Stroking the boys hair he held him close as he wailed out his fear and sorrow. It was all he could do not to join the boy as the scene before him opened a hole in his heart, especially when he saw the look on Chris face as he cradled the limp child.
Josiah and Ezra had caught up with them by then and quickly alerted the paramedics to their location as they stared at the scene with trepidation.
Chris had put Vin down, but still held his head cradled in his lap, the boys small hand firmly grasped within his own. These things were done without conscious thought as the tough ATF leader took on the look of a concerned father. This young child had at some point been some mothers baby boy, some fathers pride and joy. His mind told him that the least he could do was watch over him for them as his heart bled.
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