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An hour later found the four men and one sleeping child in the emergency room waiting area. Too upset to answer any of their questions, JD had cried himself to sleep, clinging to Buck as if for dear life. The ladies man seemed equally content with the dark sweaty head now resting on his shoulder. Josiah sat quietly in prayer, occasionally getting up to check the desk for word on Nathan or Vin. Chris alternated between sitting pensively in the corner and pacing the confines of the waiting area, his dark demeanor causing more than a couple of other visitors to find elsewhere to keep their own vigils. Ezra had spent the time trying to garner information on the two youngsters with a few intriguing results.
While the shrewd undercover agent awaited further news from a couple of his sources, he told the others what he had discovered so far. Vincent Tanner was seven years old and his cousin John Daniel or JD Dunne was five. Both had lost their mothers within the last few years and were now wards of the state. After his own mothers death Vin had been living with JD and his mother until her death about eight months earlier, at which point the boys had been placed in a foster home under the care of Bill and Ruth Miller. Bill was a veteran police officer with the Denver Police Department, while his wife was a former school teacher.
Another quick background check, which he chose not to mention, showed nothing unusual with the Millers. Bill had been a police officer for over twenty-five years, with quite a few commendations. Ruth Miller had taught at more than one of the local high schools before taking a leave of absence two years previously. Ezras original concerns of an unsafe environment didnt seem to have a basis. However, he was in no way naïve to the ways of the world and was all too aware that sometimes looks could be deceiving.
Chris had resumed pacing, which seemed to be the only way to keep his mind from exploding with the thoughts running through them. His nerves were frayed and sitting still for any period of time was proving too difficult. They should have heard something by now.
He glanced over for the hundredth time toward the doors that the boy had been wheeled behind and felt a tingle in his right hand. The medical staff had been forced to practically uncurl the grip the team leader had on the young boys arm before they could take him back for treatment. And even as he passed the care of the young boy he didnt even know over to the medical professionals that could help him, the feeling that he was in some way betraying some sacred trust was nearly staggering. Not understanding the strange emotional attachment he seemed to have instantly formed with this boy, he had instead chosen to push it away. Or at least try.
Chris felt his heart leap into his throat as a familiar face pressed back out of those very doors that had suddenly mesmerized him. Nathan came out of the treatment area of the emergency ward with another man in scrubs by his side. Heading straight for his agent the others caught the movement and followed.
Nathan? Chriss voice was quieter than usual, needing to know how the boy was and yet terrified by all of the possible answers his mind had previously come up with.
Hes gonna be fine. There was a collective sigh of relief amongst the men.
The man in scrubs looked to be in his mid-thirties and seemed somewhat distracted as he began to explain. The nurse told me the boy was a ward of the state and I didnt know anyone was out here waiting, or I would have sent for you. The boy has a mild concussion and a few bruises, but should be fine. Well keep him overnight for observation and then you can take him home tomorrow. Look, I need your signature on some consent forms. There was a situation He spoke directly to Chris, obviously misunderstanding the circumstances and looking a touch more nervous.
Hes not my son. Chris was quick to point out. Almost too quick and he thought it strange that he regretted saying it. It was the truth. Vin was not his son, not his responsibility. We found him and his cousin earlier. Their foster parents should be here any time.
The doctor recovered quickly looking a bit relieved. Oh, okay. Im sorry. I just thought, well, its been an incredibly busy afternoon. Just tell the nurses desk when they get here. He was a bit of a handful once he woke up, but we have it under control.
Chris felt a cold chill run down his spine. Not able to explain it he started to ask the doctor another question. What
Im sorry. Were very busy tonight. And with that said the less than cordial doctor was gone.
The rising temperature in Chriss blood was only too evident to Nathan who wanted to try and smooth over the situation. Hes really an excellent doctor, its just that theyve got so many patients and like everywhere else, theyre understaffed. He assured me that Vin should be fine.
Vin? Wheres Vin? JDs sleepy voice broke through the suddenly tense situation.
Buck pulled the boy back from his shoulder and smiled at the sight. JDs tiny fists were rubbing furiously at his eyes while the pique knit pattern of Bucks shirt had become slightly imprinted on the side of the childs face.
I wanna see Vin! The shrill cry echoed through the waiting area.
Buck winced. The boy could be loud without even trying.
Dont you worry, Little Bit. Making sure to keep his voice light he stared directly into the boys eyes. Your cousin is gonna be just fine. Hes resting right now.
The boy would not be swayed. Hell be worried iffen he dont know where I am. He looks after me.
Josiah saw this as an opportunity to get some further information on the boys and why they had run away. Son, my names Josiah. The doctors and nurses are taking real good care of Vin right now.
He hurt his head, JD said matter-of-factly, biting at his lip. The little five-year-old had been frightened by the blood he had seen on his cousins head while they were hiding in the alley. Despite Vins constant reassurance that he was fine and that it was just a little scratch he had known something was wrong.
Yes, he did, son. Now the doctors are fixing him all up and youll be able to see him soon. The profiler wanted to ease into this. You and your cousin had a lot of people worried. They were looking all over the city for you.
The dark head dipped back onto Bucks shoulder, hiding his face from view. JD wasnt sure what to do. He was afraid of getting in trouble. Vin had said they had to run away or they would be separated. But he liked the big man with the mustache and the other big man with the deep rumbling voice that gave him a warm feeling inside.
JD? Buck waited for the tiny head to rise and look at him. Why did you and Vin run away, Little Bit?
Hazel eyes darted back and forth between the two men before the answer came quietly. They was gonna separate us. A desperate whine crept into the childs voice with his next words. We gotta stay together sos Vin can take care of me. The tearful plea struck at the heart of each of the agents.
Running his hand over his face Chris turned away, not ready to face the childs tears. Have you seen him? Chris asked of Nathan.
No, I just got free myself and then ran into the boys doctor. The medic spoke as he unconsciously rubbed at the back of his neck. He knew he would be a bit stiff the next day, but was too worried about the small boy to care.
Chris felt a twinge of guilt. He hadnt even inquired how Nathan himself was doing. Hows your head? Arent they going to keep you overnight?
No, Im fine. Just a mild concussion. The medic dismissed the concerned looks he received from the others. Rain will be home tonight and she can keep an eye on me. Rain was Nathans wife, who also happened to work as a nurse at the very hospital they were in. Seeing the conflict raging behind the green eyes of his leader Nathan figured seeing that the boy was okay for himself was the only solution. Come on, Chris. Well just check on our little hero.
Chris looked back to tell Buck and the others to look after JD, but saw from the look of pure contentment on his oldest friends face as he stood holding the boy, that it was unnecessary. He frowned as he wondered at how attached the ladies man had already become to the youngster. Buck had always been a sucker for a pretty face and now it seems, bright-eyed children as well. The memory of Buck playing with Adam blindsided him and he turned away to follow Nathan back to the exam area. This wasnt the time or place to relive his past and its accompanying pain.
The three agents left behind settled back into the uncomfortable chairs of the waiting area, resigned for the moment to their roles to keep an eye on the younger of the two boys and await the arrival of the foster parents. It was only moments later that the enraged curse of their leader was heard echoing from the closed treatment area door.
WHAT THE HELL?!
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WHAT THE HELL?!
The angry words reverberated off of the walls of the emergency room, drawing more than a few concerned looks.
The dark leader of one of the most highly decorated ATF teams in Denver had been angry on many occasions, but even Nathan was surprised by the dark cloud of hell that descended upon the unsuspecting staff of the ER. And he would have tried to calm Chris or intervene had he not been equally consumed with rage over what they had found upon locating the small boy.
Making their way past the exam rooms searching for the one that held the little boy they sought, both men stopped cold at the sight they beheld. Vin lay on a gurney, his wrists and ankles secured by soft restraints to the sides. That had been enough to start a building rage, but the breaking point had been the tears that leaked from eyes squeezed tightly shut and the tiny body trembling with fear.
Chris felt the black rage consume him. Had the doctor been nearby the man would have found himself on the floor or possibly through a wall. Let him go!
The nurse checking on the boy looked up sympathetically. Im sorry, sir. The tremble in her voice became even more pronounced once she saw the look of deadly intent on the otherwise handsome face before her. He became too hard to handle. The doctor had to
Get those off of him. The low growl was full of venom and had she been able, the nurse would have backed up. As it was, she was stuck.
I cant. Not without the doctors Her sentence was halted by the blond as he charged toward the gurney, reaching for the restraints himself.
Vin was barely aware of what was happening around him, too caught up in the nightmare that had become his world. It had been bad enough that he had awakened in the hands of strangers. But when he couldnt find JD he became terrified. Where was his cousin? He had promised to take care of him and now he had lost him? If this was a hospital, then someone had probably called the Millers and that lady who placed them with the couple. He would be in big trouble and now they would separate him and JD. JD was the only family he had left and now he would lose him, too.
Vin had been inconsolable and escaped the grasping hands twice before the overworked doctor had decided to restrain the boy to keep the child from hurting himself.
Feeling the hands bind him in place, Vin stopped moving completely and shut his eyes against the memories he fought so hard to forget. The tears ran down the sides of his face and his body trembled.
Please, not again.
He could hear voices around him, but was too lost in his own personal nightmare to understand what was being said. His mind went back to another place, another time, and he began whimpering quietly.
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Chris reached out to touch the shoulder of the pale trembling child on the gurney. The war of emotions raged within him, each eager to gain control. On one hand, he was so angry at the sight before him that he could probably rip the doctor responsible from limb to limb without breaking a sweat. On the other hand, the protective and fatherly instincts that he had tried to bury years before were surfacing, his heart aching painfully. He would like nothing more than to sweep the little blond into his arms and rock him until he quieted.
Even as the emotions fought for control, Chris felt another tear in his soul when his fingers lightly brushed Vins wrist and the child jerked and sobbed loudly in sheer terror. It was a quick reaction followed by an immediate silence and the stiffening of every muscle on the childs slender frame.
Pulling his hand back as if scalded, Chris turned back to Nathan. Get Buck to bring JD in here.
Nathan looked at Chris like he had lost his mind. Why on earth would their leader even imagine allowing JD to see his cousin like this?
Understanding the look on the medics face, Chris clarified his thinking. Hes terrified. He doesnt know anyone here but
JD. Nathan understood even if he didnt exactly like it. Turning to leave the next words made him inwardly cringe.
And get me whoever is in charge of this sad excuse for an ER before the doctor that did THIS needs its services.
Nathan just nodded and left. There was going to be hell to pay, Chris Larabee style. It wouldnt be a pretty sight, but after seeing what had been done to Vin he was inclined to lend a hand. He would be sure and talk to Rain as well. Maybe she could find out why this had happened.
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Nathan came back with more than just Buck and JD. Ezra and Josiah insisted on following after hearing the medics quiet revelation of how Vin had been found. Larabees overheard outcry of rage suddenly made perfect sense. Ezra had said they had followed in order to provide the necessary help to restrain their leader if need be, but added, Or we might be needed to assist in rendering justice upon the head of that vile miscreant who is currently masquerading as a physician.
The fire in Ezras green eyes had surprised Nathan. The teams undercover agent was ever the consummate closed book and rarely allowed his emotions to show so fervently. This situation and these two children had brought out feelings among them all that rarely, if ever, saw the light of day. All of them were protectors of the weak and sought out justice, but paternal instincts abounded on this most unusual day.
Chris had spent the time trying to talk to the child with little or no reaction, but he had managed to undo the restraints. Vins only movement was to pull himself up into a fetal position on the gurney, seeming to make himself as small as possible. As the trembling continued, the fearless ATF leader felt his own insides quivering. All the signs spoke of some type of abuse. What on earth had been done to this child and by whom? Chris was still trying to get through to Vin when the others arrived.
JD had been told that Vin had gotten upset and had been restrained, but they doubted he truly understood. All were uncertain when the dark headed youngster jumped down from Bucks arms and ran over to his suffering cousin.
Vin?! JD called in a loud, but surprisingly calm voice. Its okay, Vin. Im okay and youre okay and those meanies aint here.
Meanies? Questions began racing through each mans mind as they watched in wonder as JD worked his magic. Obviously he had done this before. Vins head slowly lifted and cloudy blue eyes began to clear. JD? The quiet whisper was nothing more than forced air, but the hand that snaked out to grab the other tiny hand held the strength of the cousins bond.
JDs eyes barely looked over the gurney, so Chris reached down and lifted the boy up, carefully setting him beside Vin. The dark headed boy made no sudden moves and his normal fidgeting was nowhere to be seen as he sat beside his cousin, just holding his hand. The effect was obvious as Vins body relaxed slightly and he stretched out more.
A tall grey-haired gentleman wearing a white lab coat over his blue scrubs came upon the scene. Chris turned and read the nameplate on the jacket. Dr. D. Reeves. Just by the way the man carried himself and the slight apprehension Chris read in his body language this had to be the man in charge. With a nod to Buck, indicating for him to watch the two boys, the man in black stepped out of the area, bringing the Doctor with him with just a look.
Chris stepped back in a few minutes later after speaking with Dr. Reeves. Ezra and Josiah had accompanied their leader on his mission to inform the good doctor of the rights and wrongs of the day.
Vin, exhausted both physically and mentally, had fallen asleep with JD curled up beside him. The sight was beyond precious and brought a renewed sense of warmth to the souls of these five world hardened men. Chris studied the face of the little boy who had stood against the odds to protect his little cousin. There was a softness there now as the sandy blond hair curled slightly around his chin. He marveled that the innocence that seemed so lost in the deep blue eyes that had stared into his soul in the alley had somehow returned to the child as he slept. So lost in his own thoughts, Chris hadnt even realized that Buck was talking to him.
I wonder what would make Vin react like he did. Buck spoke the question aloud. Chris? He called out to his best friend with no response. The strange look on Chris face had him worried. Hed have given a lot more than a penny to know what thoughts were running through the blonds mind as he stared down at the two sleeping boys. It was sort of like a calm before the storm. He seemed almost content to just stand and watch them sleep, of course, Buck couldnt blame him. There was no denying that these boys had found a place in his heart. Now, that JD certainly was a handful, but just as sweet as he could be. And even if his contact with Vin had been minimal at best, there was just something in that boy that you had to admire. A brave soul that would stand against the odds to protect others and who obviously harbored a past that haunted him. Sort of reminded him of a friend of his.
Earth to Larabee. Buck smiled at the sight of his distracted leader, just now realizing how much these two were alike.
What? Chris finally looked over at his smiling friend and seeing the bemused expression quickly turned on the glare. He couldnt help feeling a bit like a kid that had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and it irritated him. What?!
Buck quickly threw his hands up in mock defense. I was just thinking out loud and you werent there. His brow creased in concern as he wondered if the boys had dredged up some memories best left alone for now. You okay?
Chris shook off the concern. His thoughts of before were his business and better left alone. Im fine. Just wondering what could have happened to cause Vin to react like he did.
Buck wasnt about to tell Chris that he had just said that very thing. Just like he wasnt about to tell him that from the soft look the ladies man had caught in his eyes there was no way that was what had been in his thoughts. Luckily he was saved from further comment by another voice interrupting the conversation.
I can probably answer that question.
The two men glanced up to see a middle-aged man in a police officers uniform standing just inside the doorway. A short blonde woman peeked from around him and seeing the boys quickly went to the gurney.
Oh, my. The woman seemed genuinely distraught as she kept her voice low and began stroking JDs hair without waking him. Oh, you poor little dears. You must have been so frightened. The woman seemed oblivious to the others as her entire focus was on the two children on the bed. She was a nice looking woman who appeared to be in her early to mid forties. The man who had spoken was medium height with a stocky build and dark hair that was graying around the edges.
It wasnt hard for the others to realize that they must be the Millers. Chris quickly sized up the man for any potential threat and the scrutiny did not go unnoticed. While Bill Miller had been informed of the circumstances surrounding how his two charges had been found, he had not expected to find the agents involved still here. As five pairs of eyes stared at him like some object under a microscope he began to sweat. Even he had heard of Chris Larabee and the last thing he wanted was to be on the mans bad side. It was definitely time for him to explain a few things about these two boys and get his own neck out of the proverbial noose. Taking a deep breath he began.
Gentlemen, Im Bill Miller and this is my wife, Ruth. Under the close scrutiny of the five men before him the veteran police officer couldnt help but feel like a criminal himself at the moment. These men were still here for a reason and after speaking with the doctor upon the couples arrival and learning what had transpired, he had a pretty good idea what they were thinking. Honey, why dont you stay here with the boys while I speak with these agents? Bill turned to step out into the hallway, not sure if he wanted these men to follow or not. Hed have to be careful about what he said, very careful.
Chris watched the Millers with his trained eye, looking for any indication of abuse or neglect. Child welfare services screened their foster parents well, but there were always exceptions to every rule and far too many holes in a system that was overworked, understaffed, and less than perfect. Something had caused Vin to be frightened out of his mind and he was going to find out what. The others expressions and watchfulness told him that they were thinking the same thing. Other than looking like they both hadnt slept very much lately and Mrs. Miller being a touch shaky, which was perfectly understandable under the circumstances, they looked okay. But, God help Bill Miller if he was in any way responsible for the world weary look Chris had seen in the frightened blue eyes of this child.
Nathan stayed behind to keep an eye on the children and Mrs. Miller. Until they knew the full story of what had happened, he was not about to leave these boys alone. Especially after what had happened to Vin before. The medic silently cursed himself for not staying with the injured child that had saved his life. Of course he had needed a bit of tending himself, but he could have at least insisted that one of the others stayed nearby. Though what was done was done. He would just make sure it didnt happen again.
Chris, Buck, Josiah, and Ezra followed Bill Miller into the hallway and down the way a bit. Turning back toward the men the police officer felt like a lamb amongst the wolves. One wrong word and he was certain he would become the main course for dinner. It was a startling revelation to finally understand what a lot of the people he dealt with on a daily basis felt like. This wasnt just a civil discussion on the welfare of the two orphan boys. To these ATF agents this was an interrogation of a possible suspect in a heinous crime.
First, let me thank you men for finding JD and Vin. Ruth and I have been worried out of our minds. There was no movement by any of the men to acknowledge his thanks so he moved on. I know you must be wondering about those two and why they ran away. I should probably start by telling you a little more about them. JD is five and his mother died of cancer not quite a year ago. Vin was staying with JD and his Mom at the time. The boys mothers were sisters. Vins own mother died over two years ago. He was only five at the time. He and his mother were living in Texas then. Ruth and I have been foster parents for over 15 years, off and on. They didnt want to separate the two cousins but were not going to have a choice until we agreed to take them both.
He averted his gaze from the men during his next admission, shifting nervously. He probably would have omitted this particular tidbit of information had it been anyone else he was talking to. But he knew exactly who Chris Larabee was, the reputation his team had acquired by their tenacious investigative skills, and also the devastating loss the leader of said team had weathered. Bill Miller could only hope that his next words would at least get these men to stop looking at him like a piece of scum off of the street.
We hadnt cared for any children in over two years when Peggy, thats the social worker whod been assigned the boys case, came to us. You see, we had a son of our own, but he died in an accident nearly two years ago while he and another boy were playing. It was just hard for us.
Chris felt the sudden pain in his gut as he watched a mirror of himself. He knew all too well how hard it must have been for the Millers. Yet they had opened their home to these two boys. Whoa! He had to stop those thoughts right there. Yes, this man had suffered and seemed like a decent man, but that still didnt explain why the boys had run away or why Vin had practically freaked out when they had restrained him.
The others quickly looked to their leader when Bill spoke of the loss of his son, unsure of what reaction it would invoke.
I can sympathize with your loss, Mr. Miller. Chris had caught on to his mens unease and decided to move the conversation along for everyones sake.
Call me Bill, please.
We just want to know how five and seven year old boys ended up on the street alone. Chriss look had softened some, but to the untrained eye it would have been nearly imperceptible. Bill Miller was anything but untrained and saw his opportunity to redirect the attention to the boys pasts.
Im not sure what youre implying? Bill Miller was suddenly on the defensive, not at all comfortable with being given the third degree by federal agents who had no real business messing around in an issue that didnt concern them. Vin can be a very headstrong boy and has a tendency to get into things over his head. They both have suffered a great deal of loss. Its not easy for them to trust and they can be a bit of a handful at times. Vin gets into fights and the tall tales that both boys can make up are just a small portion of what me and my wife deal with on a daily basis. There was a dangerous glint in the veteran officers eyes as he continued to argue his point. I can assure you that those two boys are well taken care of and
Josiah decided it was time to step in and use his skills to try and smooth things some. Were not accusing you of any wrong-doing. Even as he said that he thought, Of course, were not letting you off the hook just yet either. Its just that Vin happened to save the life of our co-worker and friend today and weve become a bit
Attached? Bill Miller took a deep breath, realizing that he had let his anger get the better of him. Forcing a small smile he tried to redirect the issue. The two boys could be a lot of trouble, but under it all they were good kids. And those innocent faces had claimed many a victim. These men had not been immune. And that very thing could be turned around to work for his advantage. That I can understand. JD is just full of energy and he had my wife wrapped around his little finger within five minutes of his arrival at our home.
And young Mr. Tanner? Chris wasnt the only one caught off guard by the sudden inquiry from the usually reserved southerner. The question had popped out before even Ezra could stop it. He couldnt help but wonder at what huge piece of the puzzle they still seemed to be missing.
Bill Miller sighed, causing everyone to listen more closely. The less than friendly tone of the fancy dressed man had not gone unnoticed. But this battle would not be won with more anger.
Vins not had an easy life. Dont get me wrong. Hes not really a bad kid, but trouble just seems to follow him wherever he goes. According to the records his father died before he was even born. Worked for Dallas PD. Killed in the line of duty. It was just him and his mother until she took sick and died when he was five. By the time her sister, JDs mother, got word and was able to find him Vin had been sent to one of the county homes.
Buck felt a new sense of sadness at the thought of Vin in some county home on his own at such a young age. That wasnt something he dared imagine for any child, especially either of those two boys that he already felt like he knew in some small way. There was this incredible feeling that coursed through him that said he and the others had met these boys for a reason. Maybe they could help in some way, but first they would have to know what was going on. What path of pain and loss had led these boys to them?
There were some other boys at the home, older boys, who took a dislike to Vin. Teased him about his long hair and such. You know how boys can be. By the time the administrators figured out what was going on, a couple of the bigger kids had beaten Vin and tied him up. Bill Millers voice held a slight edge as he spoke of what the social worker had related to him and his wife before they took on the two children. Thatd be tough on anyone, but a kid so young? He just doesnt like to be touched or held down.
Perfectly understandable after what the young gentleman has been through, Ezra observed, watching the veteran officer's reactions carefully. There was a note of genuine dismay over Vins past, but though he couldnt quite put his finger on it, something else was bothering the vigilant undercover agent. On the surface it seemed like the man genuinely cared about Vin and JD. So, why had the boys run away? Ezra realized he wasnt alone in his thoughts when Buck asked that very question aloud.
Seems like you and your wife did a good thing taking in these two cousins like you did, but then why would they run away?
Miller glanced up to see the expression on Larabees face rather than facing the bigger man who had voiced the question. It hadnt passed his notice that the man in black had barely moved during the entire conversation, but something about the piercing green eyes that seemed to bore right into him made him even more nervous. The other three men were deeply suspicious, yet were softening. It was Larabee he would need to convince.
I think that would be my fault. You see, a few nights ago it was late and Ruth and I were talking. We had put the boys to bed hours before and didnt think they were awake. Weve not got any plans to give up caring for them anytime soon, but were just speculating what might happen if we did. I think Vin might have overheard and misunderstood. He must have been afraid that he and JD would be split up. Its very important to him that they stay together. Theyve both lost so much. Theyre all each other really have in the way of family. Plus, Vin must have promised JDs mother that he would look after his younger cousin. Never seen a child with such devotion or loyalty. Sometimes hes almost like a little grown-up.
Weve seen that little grown-up in action. Josiah informed him then proceeded to give a brief account of the afternoon's events.
Chris had heard enough or more like too much. His emotions were teetering between anger at what Vin had suffered and a deepening concern for the boy's well-being now. Leaving the others to fill in the details of how they had found the boys he made his way back to the cubicle. He was surprised to find both boys awake. Mrs. Miller was holding JD in her lap while she spoke softly to Vin, trying to reassure him that everything would be okay. He also noted that she didnt touch him, not even holding his hand. The account of Vin being beaten and tied ran through his head, causing renewed anger as the childs blues eyes darted fearfully to him as he entered.
Hello, Vin. We met earlier, but I dont think weve been formally introduced. Chris wanted to make sure Vin knew he and JD were not in trouble, at least not with him. He couldnt stand the fear and uncertainty he saw in those expressive sky blue eyes. It was almost as if they were calling to him, begging him for reassurance.
My name is Chris Larabee. I want to thank you for what you did today. That was a very brave thing.
I already thanked him for saving my life, Nathan said, smiling from where he stood nearby without crowding the little family. Youve got quite a couple of boys there, Mrs. Miller.
I know. Her voice shook slightly. And bloodshot eyes rimmed with dark circles regarded the two men with a touch of apprehension. Then turning her attention back to the boys she asserted, And theyre never going to run away and scare us like that again. Are you?
From the looks of the woman, this episode had worn hard upon her. Chris speculated that the loss of her son had not helped with the anxiety of having the two wards run away.
No, maam. Vins voice was quiet, but his eyes never left the green ones of the man dressed in black. He remembered him from earlier in the day in the alley, but the voice he remembered from more recently. Lost in his nightmare after being tied down he had heard that voice. It had been like a beacon as it spoke to him quietly. The words he couldnt remember, but the rumbling feel of the man's voice now and forever would remind him of safety.
It didnt really make a lot of sense. This man looked dark and menacing, but in those green eyes Vin saw something else, acceptance. Being only seven it wasnt something he truly understood. All he did know was that instead of being afraid of this man he felt safe in his presence and safe was something he hadnt felt in a very long time.
Chris had to avert his eyes from the penetrating gaze of the young boy. It was almost as if Vin was reading into his very soul. Thats crazy, he couldnt help thinking. Even though he had physically turned his own eyes to stare at Mrs. Miller, his mind kept conjuring up the image of those blue eyes.
It wasn't that Vin reminded him of his own son. Adam had been loud and fun loving like JD, but with chestnut hair and eyes the same color as his fathers. Vin had shoulder length sandy blond hair and eyes the color of a clear summer sky. Adam had loved to talk and often rattled off questions faster than his parents could even remember them let alone answer. Vin was beyond quiet. But the difference that struck Chriss heart was how much his son had loved being touched and held. Vin feared the touch of others. He remembered Buck grabbing his godson and squeezing him tight then tickling him until he screamed with laughter. God, he missed that laughter. Like a fool he had taken it all for granted.
He wished he could hear Vin laugh like that, wished he could make him laugh like that. That errant thought rocked Chris to his soul. What was he thinking? What was he doing?
We have to go now. The gruffness in Chriss voice caught everyones attention. Nathan stared at his boss and the sudden change.
Mrs. Miller seemed to understand. Im sure you men have a lot of work to do. Thank you again for bringing the boys back to Bill and me. Well see to it that this doesnt happen again.
Chris missed her faltering smile as he turned quickly to leave without even a word of goodbye. But more importantly he missed the hurt look that briefly crossed Vins face. It was brief, but Nathan caught it and wondered at what strange thing had happened. He had seen the way the boys eyes had lingered briefly when staring at Chris in the alley and hadnt missed either of the twos reaction when Chris had come into the cubicle. The medic remembered hearing someone say something once about like recognizing like. Well, both this man and young boy had seen more than their fair share of pain and heartache. Maybe each recognized a sort of connection within the other. A kindred spirit.
Buck was just starting in as Chris walked out or more like dashed out. With just a brief glance up at his oldest friend and a terse, Im going back to the office he was gone. The ladies man stared at the back of his retreating boss. Yes, retreating was the correct word. Chris Larabee might be one of the toughest agents he knew, with a hardened outlook on life, but what he had just got a glimpse of on the dark leaders face was nothing less than pure unadulterated fear. Buck put it down as Chris being reminded of the family he had lost and let it go. After years of trial and error he had learned to leave his friend to his dark moods and just keep an eye on him without crowding him. He would make sure Chris was okay later. Right now he needed to say goodbye to the two boys that had turned this day into one of the most interesting ones hed had in a long time.
Nathan looked up as Buck walked in and gave him an inquisitive look. Buck, knowing the medic was wondering about Chris, just shrugged his shoulders. Before he could even get all of the way in he was attacked by a blur of dark hair. Reaching down he swung JD up into his arms.
Hey, Buck. Where ya been? This is Mrs. Miller. She looks after me and Vin. They said Vins gonna be fine, but hes gotta stay here tonight and sleep in the hospital. JD was just chattering on and on with Buck just nodding appropriately. They wont let me stay with him. His next words though lowered to be a whisper were anything but. He aint, I mean, isnt gonna like that.
Dont you worry, JD, honey, Mrs. Miller spoke up after hearing him. Were not going to leave Vin here all by himself. Im going to take you home and Bill is going to stay here with Vin.
No. Vins sudden outburst startled her and surprised everyone else. Josiah and Ezra had come back in to say their goodbyes just as it happened.
Vin had been quiet. He hadnt wanted the man named Chris to leave, but then again its something he figured he should be used to by now. Rarely did anything turn out the way he wanted it to and sooner or later everyone left him. JD was all he had left and he was afraid he would lose him, too. Mrs. Miller had taken a liking to JD. Vin knew that and had learned to live with it. It was his job to see that JD was taken care of and it didnt matter what he had to do to make sure that happened. He knew he was too much trouble. Enough people had been all too quick to tell him that already. No matter how hard he tried he always seemed to cause more trouble and no one wanted a kid like him. But as long as JD was safe and happy that was okay. It would have to be. He hadnt wanted to run away. At least with the Millers they could stay together, but Vin had become too afraid. He had to protect JD at all cost and not let anyone separate them. The social worker, Mrs. Bernard, had told them that if they had to be placed in another home they would be split up. How could he watch JD then? Or what if they only moved him and left JD with the Millers?
Vins worries had been interrupted when he heard Mrs. Miller say that Mr. Miller would be staying with Vin while JD went back home with her. Panic had set in. They were being separated. He couldnt let them take JD without him being there. Another fear assaulted him as well. He didnt want to be alone, but he also had to see that JD was taken care of. It was better if his cousin stayed with both of them together. Together they would take care of him while Vin couldnt.
No. Vin hadnt meant to yell and quickly lowered his voice as well as his eyes. Im sorry, maam. I didnt mean to yell. But, Im fine. I dont have to stay here. Cant we just all go home now?
Nathan felt he should try and reassure the boy. They just want to keep you here overnight then you can go home tomorrow.
Please, Vin was practically pleading. I dont want to be no trouble. Ill be fine.
This is not up for debate, young man. Mrs. Millers voice took on a completely different tone, losing all of its shakiness. You will do as you are told. Need I remind you that this little stunt you pulled put both JDs and your life in jeopardy and will not make social services very happy.
The four men watched the little exchange with curious glances amongst themselves. The sudden change in Ruth Miller's demeanor caught them a bit off guard, but considering the circumstances was understandable.
JD quickly jumped down from Bucks arms, going straight to his cousins side and placing one hand on Vins arm and the other on his hip. I want to stay with Vin. The pout that formed on his face nearly reached the floor.
Vin was ready to cry, but wouldnt dare. Why couldnt JD just do as he was told and not make a fuss? It was a no win situation. Maybe he could at least do one thing right. JD, you have to go home. You cant stay here at the hospital. Vin sounded every bit the grown-up as he explained to his cousin. Please, JD. Just go on home with both Mr. and Mrs. Miller. Ill be fine here by myself and you can come back with them to get me tomorrow. Vin did his best to sound convincing even as his stomach churned and his head swam.
Though Vins face showed determination, Ezras ever observant gaze noted something else in the youngsters eyes. Fear.
JDs lip still stuck out, but he nodded. Dont want ta, but I will. The declaration ended with a loud huff.
Buck almost laughed at the display of temper. JD was definitely a handful, but also one of the cutest little things he had ever seen. It warmed him from the inside out just to watch the child. But even as JD brought such lightness to his soul, one look at Vins sad and guarded blue eyes could bring him crashing back to a dark reality. Maybe that was why Chris had run. Making a mental note, he decided he would need to ask Nathan more about what had happened later.
Bill Miller walked back into the room, having overheard the conversation and having already anticipated the problem. I checked with Vins doctor and he said as long as we keep a close eye on him we can take him home in a few hours. The said doctor had been more than willing to agree to get rid of the reason he would probably be working night shifts for a month.
JD immediately perked up. Yea! You get to come home too, Vin.
Vin wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. He would get to look after his cousin, but he knew he was in trouble for running away. And he was certainly tired of getting into trouble. He watched as Bill ruffled his cousins hair and smiled down at the boy. Hopefully, Vin could take all of the blame and at the very least keep JD from getting into trouble, too.
Josiah felt like they had outstayed their welcome. The boys were now back where they belonged and they did need to get back to the real world and their jobs. Gentlemen, I think its time we get back to the office.
I just want to thank all of you again for taking such good care of these two. I certainly hope they didnt cause you too much trouble. Bill Miller extended his hand to each of the four in turn, noting the one absent. Where did Mr. Larabee get to?
Chris went on back to the office. Buck covered for their missing boss. Weve got a lot of paperwork and clean-up to do. You know the drill.
I certainly do. Bill Miller watched each man as they left and quickly turned back to his current family, sweeping a disapproving gaze toward his wife and then turning it quickly to the two children. Now boys, we are going to have to talk about why you ran away and why you will never ever do anything like that again. But that can wait until we get you both home.
It had been over a month since Chris and his men had met Vin Tanner and JD Dunne. The two boys had unknowingly made a huge impact on each of them. Nathan and his wife Rain had begun seriously considering a family of their own. Josiah had begun spending more of his spare time at some of the local shelters, paying a little closer attention to the needs of the children and youth of the streets. Still not satisfied with what he had found out, Ezra was still checking quietly into the backgrounds of the two orphans and their keepers, while a part of him prayed no one ever found the file he was compiling.
While those three were still feeling the impact of the chance meeting, the final two were finding the effects much heavier to bear. Buck was in constant battle with a need to go and check on JD and Vin. He just wanted to see them. Maybe take them to the park to play or even to a ballgame.
The ache of Adam and Sarahs loss had hit Buck hard. They were Chriss wife and child, but they had been his family, too, though he had pushed a lot of his own loss aside to try and help Chris survive. He hadnt even realized how much he missed playing with a child and just spending time with one until he had held JD in his arms that night at the hospital. Feeling that tiny heartbeat as the boy slept on his chest had filled him with a sense of joy he hadnt known in far too long. Surely it would be okay if he just visited. But, so far he kept talking himself out of it.
Chris was faring no better. His dreams and nightmares of his lost family were now being intermingled with ones of a certain blond headed blue-eyed boy. More than once he had awakened from terrifying visions of Vin, his tiny body held down by some unseen force. He was always helpless to get to the boy or touch him as the tiny body trembled and cries of fear and pain echoed all around him. It was making him even harder to be around than usual. The other agents had become accustomed to their leaders sometimes dark moods, but they didnt usually last this long.
Even Buck was at a loss as to what to do, afraid that meeting the two boys had brought back too many memories for his friend and the guilt of not being able to save his family. He had no idea that even though it was partially true, it was more the thoughts of Vin and what he had suffered that were gnawing away at Chris. Even trying to put it out of his mind and hardening his heart to the plight of the two children had proved ineffectual as every time he tried, those piercing blue eyes that had seemed to sear their way straight into his heart reappeared in his mind, ravaging his soul without remorse. He was seriously starting to wonder about his own sanity.
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