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Things were not getting any better and one Friday afternoon on the way home from work Chris found himself driving around aimlessly. He didnt really want to go to the ranch. That was all it was to him. The Ranch. A place to lay his head at night when sleep was unavoidable, and the place where he kept the things he needed for daily life. Certainly not a home. Home had been the quaint suburban duplex he had lived in with his wife and son, the one that had been irreparably damaged by the car bomb and subsequent fire that had claimed both of their lives. The ranch was a place he and Sarah had bought to fix up and move to in a few years. The same country home that Sarah had so many dreams and plans for now seemed empty, even when Buck was there. But Buck wasnt there. His old friend had curtly informed him that he would be spending the weekend with more hospitable company. Undoubtedly that company would be of the female persuasion. Even though he maintained an apartment in the city, Buck still spent many weekends and days off out at the ranch helping with chores, but mostly continuing to look out for his best friend.
A great deal of Bucks free time was spent in the company of one young woman or another, but lately even when he did find himself without companionship he had spent it somewhere other than with his friend. Not that Chris could blame him. The few times when they had tried to spend some quality time together they had ended up fighting about stupid things. Both had been suddenly struck by the fact that something was missing in their lives, but neither was ready to admit it or think about it too deeply.
Chris didnt even realize where he was or how long he had been driving when he finally emerged from his thoughts to look up at a street sign. He had probably been through this area of Denver before, but nothing looked familiar. Nothing, that is, except the name of the street. It didnt take him long to realize why as he looked over from where he had stopped to the small community grocery store at his right.
His breath caught at the sight. The familiar woman held firmly to the hand of the small dark headed child as they walked into the store, but Chris attention fell instantly upon the bowed sandy blond head that followed just behind them. It felt as if one weight had been lifted from him as he spotted the boy that so often filled his mind these days when he slept and when he was awake. But even as that weight was lifted, something about the bowed head and the way Vin seemed to keep himself separate from the other pair, another heavier burden of concern took hold.
His better judgment warned against going into the store after the trio that had disappeared inside. Everything in his head was screaming for him to run as far and as fast as he could. This wasnt his problem. Those boys had two good people and an entire social system looking out for their welfare. What did he hope to gain by this? Why in the world had he ended up here in their neighborhood? I really am losing my mind. That was his only thought as he wheeled his black Dodge Durango into the grocery store parking lot and parked.
It had taken him five minutes to get up the nerve to even go in. This big tough ATF agent and veteran to surveillance was now petrified to be following a woman and two small children. Chastising himself for his lack of guts, he grabbed a small shopping basket and headed into the thick of it. He was about to give up after a few minutes of not being able to spot them and putting a few random things in his basket as he searched. His heart seemed to stop when a loud and very familiar voice rang out from behind him.
Look, Vin! Its the scary guy that caught us when we runned away. JDs voice seemed to echo through the entire store.
Chris cringed. All his years of training and all of those seminars and classes down the drain. He had caught some of the most ruthless criminals, only to be undermined and disarmed by one loud little boy. Sighing in defeat he turned around to face them, putting on his best nonchalant look.
Mr. Larabee, isnt it? Ruth Miller wasnt sure what to do. This was the last person she expected to run into at the grocery store. What a surprise.
It must have been from the look he thought he saw cross her face. Chris couldnt tell for sure since her eyes were hidden behind the sunglasses that she wore. That alone sent alarms going off in his head. He hadnt expected to be welcomed with open arms, but he also hadnt expected to see a note of fear on the womans face. What was she hiding? I was in the area and needed a few things before heading before going to the ranch.
JD heard the word ranch and advanced on the tall blond. You have a ranch? With cows and dogs and horses? I love horses. I want to learn how to ride. Mr. Buck says Id make a fine cowboy. Me and Vin love to play Cowboys and Indians JD rambled on and on as he stood staring up at Chris. The only thing he heard was Mr. Buck. He looked up to Ruth Miller.
Buck? He had definitely missed something.
Mr. Wilmington has called to check on the boys a few times and even came by to see them the other day. Something in her voice told Chris that she wasnt too happy about it. He had to admit he wasnt very happy himself to hear about it. Of course he was standing on pretty shaky ground at the moment. He had followed them into the store. This is insane. But as the thought entered his brain his eyes finally looked down to check on the one who had drawn his concern to start with and he knew why he was here. The same reason Buck had visited the boys. Something neither of them could explain seemed to draw them to these two like beacons of light or a sense of meaning in a world of chaos.
Deep blue eyes looked up briefly from the floor to meet Chriss concerned gaze. Vin couldnt believe it. He was here. The man who for the past few weeks had lived only in his dreams. Sometimes he dreamed that some faceless person was hurting him, beating him, holding him down. No matter how hard he struggled he couldnt get away. Then out of nowhere the deep voice from his memories could be heard scaring away his tormentors. Strong arms encircled him like a heavy winter coat, providing a sense of warmth and safety. Other times he would dream he was lost and alone in the middle of some deep dark forest, then out of nowhere rode a dark horse with an equally dark rider, dressed all in black from his hat to his boots. But instead of being scared he would feel the relief flood through him as the blond cowboy with the pale green eyes would reach down and lift him easily onto the horse to sit right in front of him, the strong arms reaching around to gather up the reins and tightening around him as they rode off toward the awaiting sunlight. It was the only touch he didnt shy away from. The gentle touch he only found in his dreams. But that was all they were. Dreams. And if he had learned anything in his short tumultuous life it was that dreams were visions that only came when you slept and more often than not were frightening reminders of the bad things in life.
Quickly lowering his eyes he felt ashamed. He asked for too much. His stomach soured at the thought of his life now. He should just be grateful that he and JD had a home together. Mrs. Miller was good to JD and the little boy seemed happy. That was all that mattered now. It was his responsibility to see that JD was taken care of. But
No! He wouldnt even think about anything else. Wanting for more only hurt worse when you didnt get it. If it doesnt matter then it cant hurt you as bad. He wouldnt look up again at the man in black. They were only dreams. And dreams never came true.
Chris only caught a glimpse of Vins face as he glanced up at him. A wealth of emotions poured out of those childlike eyes before the head once again turned down, the boy scuffing his tennis shoes absentmindedly on the dirty tile floor. What had Chris seen in those eyes? Fear? Pain? Hope? He was probably just reading too much into this. Vin wasnt that comfortable around people he knew so it was only natural that he would be terribly shy and reserved around a practical stranger. Besides, more than once he had been told he could scare others with just a look or The Larabee Glare as his team had dubbed it.
Although it didnt seem to be fazing JD at the moment as Chris realized the rambunctious lad was still talking a mile a minute. Looking down to the mouth with legs, Chris couldnt help the tiny smile that tugged at his lips. No wonder JD and Buck seemed to get along so well; they could both talk for hours nonstop. The boy seemed oblivious to whether or not he was being listened to, but his next words caught the man off guard.
and Vin got in a fight, but it wasnt his fault. Those bigger boys was pickin on him and said some mean things and JDs voice trailed off as he caught the look that crossed Chris face. Ruth Miller saw it too.
JD, you hush now. Youre about to drive Mr. Larabee crazy, honey. Vin just had a little trouble with some older kids at school, but everything is just fine now. She stepped up to take JDs little hand in hers. We really must be going. It was nice to see you again. And with that said she turned and led JD away, stopping to speak to Vin as she passed him. Come along, Vin. Lets not cause Mr. Larabee any more trouble. Hes a very busy man and we need to get home and get some dinner fixed before Bill gets there. And Im a little tired myself.
Chris watched as Vins head snapped up to hers, then glanced back briefly at him before once again lowering. Watching as the boy followed along after the woman he was struck by the sadness and resignation he had seen not only in the expressive blue eyes, but also in the notable slump of the boys thin shoulders. He stood in the middle of the aisle long after they were gone. Something in the way Mrs. Miller had spoken and acted made him think she was lying, but about what? She hadnt really said much of anything. But deep down he felt that something wasnt right.
Chris Larabee had spent years relying on gut instincts and the ability to read people and a situation. It had served him well. Granted, it was never foolproof, but few things in real life were. Day in and day out he lived his life in search of justice. Though sometimes fleeting and lost within the confines of an imperfect legal system, the pursuit itself remained. That same sense of justice was another part of what pained him about the deaths of his own family. No one had ever been held responsible for the deed. No one had been served justice for the heinous crime. It was like an open wound that couldnt be healed. But for all of the veteran law officers experience, his years of doing what he felt needed to be done, this time was different. There was too much within him that had died or so he had thought. Just looking at Vin and JD was reawakening feelings he would just as soon not ever have again. He had more important things to worry about than why one little boy was sad. He didnt care. It wasnt his responsibility.
Chris muttered under his breath. I dont need this shit. Then discarding the basket he held, its meager contents forgotten, he walked out of the store without looking back.
One month. It had been one month since Chris had encountered the two boys in the grocery store with Mrs. Miller. He was fine. It was over and he had moved on. He barely even thought of them. Only now and then. Like when he spotted children playing or saw a dark blond head clinging to its mother or holding its father's hand. Sometimes when he went out to take care of the horses he might remember JD, hearing his voice rattling on about horses and cowboys. Once, when passing a toy store, he wondered what toys they most liked to play with and a part of him wondered if Vin played much at all. Sometimes when he slept he might dream of them. Might even see piercing blue eyes tearing at his soul, breaking through the cold steel walls that surrounded his heart. No. He barely thought of the two orphans at all.
The pencil in Chris hand snapped in two as he sat at his desk trying not to think about two certain little boys. Bucks irate voice broke his concentration and for once he was thankful for the distraction. Curious at what had brought about the wrath of his normally easygoing friend, he rose and walked to the doorway that looked out over their team's little section. His men still sat at their desks, but all eyes were riveted on the ladies man and his quiet cursing.
Damn it. Who the hell do they think they are? Bucks face had taken on a reddish tone in his anger. I was just trying to help out. And this is the thanks I get.
Whats wrong, brother? Josiah knew that it took a lot to get Bucks Irish up. The man loved life and everything about it. His heart was as big as they came and he willingly gave to help others.
Pray tell, Mr. Wilmington, has some fair mademoiselle seen fit to rebuke your insatiable desire to sweep said lady off of her feet? Ezra raised an eyebrow in query. His curiosity was peaked.
Buck seemed not to even hear their questions, but his mutterings enlightened them to his current dilemma. Ive only been by a few times. Only got to actually see them twice. Now he says Bucks voice took on a mocking tone as he quoted what he had been told. We appreciate your concern Mr. Wilmington and I hope you dont take offense, but theyre having such a hard time adjusting to everything as it is. We just dont think any other distractions are a good idea right now.
Standing up and throwing his arms in the air in frustration he began to pace. A distraction. Im a distraction? The hurt and anger in his voice were intermingled with confusion. All I wanted to do was look in on those two. I had just called to check up on them. JD happened to answer the phone and asked me to come and play. What was I supposed to do? Aint those two seen enough disappointment already? Even thought about takin em to a ballgame or something. I swear youd think I was a criminal the way the Millers acted the last time.
A wistful smile touched Buck's lips and the anger seemed to subside for a moment. "JD, now hes easy. He can talk up a storm and has more questions than a bird has feathers, but Vins quiet. And skinny. Lord, somebody needs to feed that boy. Dont get me wrong. I aint saying they dont feed him, but God all mighty I could just about count the ribs on that child. And last time I saw them, even JD was more quiet than usual. Said he had to go take a nap with Vin cause his cousin wasnt feelin good.
Had what Buck was saying not captured Chris attention so fully he might have noticed the correlation between Buck and JD that he had observed at the store was now playing itself out right in front of him. Buck was rambling without thought.
Nathan picked up on Bucks last words. Not feeling good? What was wrong with him? Did they take him to a doctor? Howd he look? The medic got all serious when it came to the health and well-being of others, especially those he cared for. Vin had saved his life and he felt a strong connection to the boy.
Never laid eyes on him. They said he was resting, but He hesitated at even mentioning his own worries out loud.
Ezra felt his own fears arise at Bucks hesitation. Maybe it was time to reveal what his own investigation had turned up.
I dont know. Bucks brows creased in concentration. His doubt was evident. I just cant help this feeling that theyre hiding something.
When did this occur? Ezras mind was processing the last bits and pieces of information that he had received from his source in the social services department. He wouldnt dare let on, but a woman he had dated a few times was helping him keep tabs on the boys. She had met them herself once and had been caught in their spell.
About three weeks ago, but what does that matter? Buck didnt understand where Standish was going with this, but from the look on the southerners face he knew something that they didnt.
Nathan saw the look, too. He had been suspicious of Ezra when they had first met. The undercover agent, who was also the last member to join the team, had run afoul of his own coworkers in the FBI. Larabees assurance that it was all a misunderstanding was still not enough to sway all doubts. The mans ability to lie with a straight face and the fact that he kept himself at a distance from the others made the team medic nervous. Everyone on the team looked out for each other, but Nathan was afraid that their newest team member was only out to take care of number one. It had taken a few months but the others came to trust Ezra after discovering that his aloofness was due to his own distrust of others. His reputation as a top-notch undercover agent was well deserved and he was now a well-respected member of Larabees team, having proven himself numerous times.
Nathan also knew that when Ezra set his mind to something he stayed with it. Even the southerner had not been immune to the charm of the two little ruffians they had met a couple of months back. The tightening of his stomach warned him that he may not want to know what their fellow agent had turned up, but still he asked. What do you know, Ezra?
Survival instincts had Ezra looking up to their leaders half open door before he spoke. He had sensed that Larabees foul mood over the past two months somehow correlated with their meeting of the boys. Whether it was because of old demons stirred up or something else entirely, he didnt want to be held responsible for making it worse.
Too late, he thought as he saw the foreboding form standing in the doorway. It was obvious by the tense face and narrowed eyes that Chris had heard it all and was awaiting the southerners answers.
The others saw Ezras slight flinch and turned to see the reason. Buck felt an explosion was imminent, but at this point he didnt care. Chris had turned back into the cold lifeless bastard he had been just after his familys death. Cold and clinical. Something needed to stir back what little life still beat in that heart of his. It was about time his oldest friend showed some kind of emotional response, even if it was anger.
Swallowing the bile that was rising from his stomach, Ezra began to unfold the information he had obtained over the last few months. We all know that Vin was orphaned at five and had an unfortunate altercation at the facilities in which he was housed.
Damn understatement! Buck wasnt in the mood for Ezras encyclopedia vocabulary. For once he wanted the man to just get to the point and tell it straight.
Sensing this as well as the growing unrest of the teams leader Ezra complied without being told. I have a special source who obtained more information on the boys. Vin was hospitalized for two weeks after the after the beating. Just the thought of a scared little five year old being beaten and tied down was enough to turn his stomach. He knew the others felt the same and decided to just lay it all out as quickly as possible.
Vin was with JD and his mom for nearly a year before she died of breast cancer. Both boys were sent to another youth center here in Denver where Vin had some trouble adjusting. He refused to leave JDs side for even a moment and became very defensive about anyone getting near either of them.
Thats understandable. Josiah argued. After what the boy has suffered through its a wonder he hasnt been more adversely affected.
Chris had remained silent, listening and trying to rein in his own raging emotions. A mixture of anger and sorrow filled his being at the images Ezras words brought to his mind. Some of which he had seen before in his own nightmares. Thinking back to the meeting at the grocery store and what had been said he looked directly at the undercover agent.
What do you know about some trouble Vin had about a month ago? Chriss eyes held a cold fury within and Ezra visibly swallowed before answering.
I dont know for sure, but it might be why Vin wasnt feeling well when Buck was there a few weeks ago. It seems that young Mr. Tanner has a tendency to attract trouble towards himself. My inside source at Childrens Welfare told me that the boy was suspended from school for fighting. It seems that there were some bigger children who took offense at the length of his hair and the fact that he is a bit behind the other kids in school. According to the reports, Vin tried to avoid the boys, but when they tried to hurt JD he became incensed and fought back. Unfortunately he was outnumbered. The school principal saw fit to suspend him for his involvement in the fight, along with the other boys. It seems that Vin has been moved around so much that he has fallen behind in his learning and is having a tough time keeping up with the other children. Something that I am sure is extremely hard for a boy with such a sense of natural courage as Mr. Tanner.
Have they said anything about taking him or JD away from the Millers? You know how much he worries about them being separated. Nathan couldnt help but ask. He didnt want Vin and JD back on the streets again should social services try to split the two cousins up.
Not that I am aware of. So far they have let the Millers handle the situation. Ezra wanted to be sure they knew all of the information. I do know that this problem has occurred more than once and on one occasion resulted in a visit to the emergency room.
It does seem that the fates have not been kind to these two young souls. We both saw how quick Vin was to defend his younger cousin and yet I sensed an almost gentle nature in the boy.
Hes as gentle as a lamb with JD and has a heart of gold. The others looked up at Bucks quiet statement.
Buck had listened to all of Ezras information with a heart that grew heavier with every word. He had seen the boys, watched them and in no time at all, grown to care for them. It was hard to explain, especially to himself, but then again matters of the heart often defied explanation.
I watched them in the park one day. Felt kind of strange, but I just wanted to make sure they were okay. It was a couple of weeks after we met them. Mrs. Miller was with them. She was talking with another woman when JD fell off of the monkey bars. Vin was by his side in a flash, talking to him and making sure he was okay.
Bucks voice was filled with wonder as he spoke of what he had seen. I watched for nearly an hour. Vin never played. He just sat in the grass, keeping watch over JD the whole time like a guardian angel or something. I even watched as they sat at one of the picnic tables and ate sandwiches. When Mrs. Miller wasnt looking I saw Vin give JD half of his sandwich. Then there was this stray dog that one of the other mothers had shooed off earlier. And you know what? I saw Vin feeding that same dog the other half of his sandwich.
Why do ? Choking on the question Bucks big blue eyes looked up to the others for answers they all knew didnt exist. Regaining some emotional control he added. Just dont seem fair is all.
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Chris felt as if his insides were about to explode from the strain. With each new bit of information the temperature of his already boiling blood rose to a new level. For a man who had worked hard to keep his emotions locked up for nearly three years, the thought of losing control was terrifying. And he could feel his control slipping from his grasp, just like when he had lost his family. Feeling the change as his anger turned inward he made a decision. He had heard enough and it was time to take action. Though it would not be the kind of action the others would look kindly upon.
Thats it. Their leaders tone garnered everyones immediate attention. While this is fascinating, I do not see what relevance it has to your jobs. You are ATF agents, gentlemen, not social workers. Those two boys have two responsible adults looking out for their welfare, not to mention the child welfare department.
But Buck could feel his anger rising with each icy word that fell from Chris lips. The room itself felt as if the temperature had dropped about twenty degrees.
No buts! And you will cease from interfering in the lives of those boys any more. If the Millers think it is best that you not visit them then you will abide by their wishes. Those two boys are their responsibility, not yours and certainly not the ATFs.
Turning to Ezra he continued. And I would strongly suggest that you put your stellar investigative skills to work and find out more information on our current case. Is that clear, Agent Standish?
Crystal. Though his tone was icy Ezras green eyes held a smoldering fire beneath. Still he knew better than to challenge the likes of Chris Larabee. The man was not only his boss, but had the tenacity of a bulldog when riled. The southerner did not relish the idea of being torn limb from limb by his leader.
Turning back into his office Chris had to consciously keep from slamming his door shut behind him. Sinking into his chair he sighed heavily. He didnt have time to worry over two orphaned boys that were not his responsibility. With that thought still in his head and heavily at war with the heart he was trying to deny, he dove back into the paperwork on his desk with reckless abandon. He had work to do. Real work.
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Ezra turned back to stare at his computer screen. Keeping his own anger in check it occurred to him that there must be more to this than met the eye. A student of human nature the undercover man had learned to read people at an early age out of self preservation and if he was reading Chris right at the moment the man was scared, terrified even, but of what he wasnt completely sure. Those two boys had gotten to him just as they had his men, whether he would admit it or not. Likely that alone was the major source of the mans discomfort.
He had never in his wildest dreams thought of Chris Larabee as a coward. The man exuded strength and resolve with an ease that made everyone else sit up and take notice. Wielding his powerful presence like a sword he took on each opponent with ease, be it bureaucrat or thug. In the past year that Ezra had been with the team he had never once watched Larabee back down from a fight. Not until now. But, worse yet, he wanted them to back down, too. Well, he might not be able to do anything right now, but when he wasnt on the governments dime he would keep an eye on those two boys, whether Chris liked it or not. Something about the fights Vin was having at school just didnt sit right with him.
Ezra couldnt help the slight smile that creased his lips as a plan of action began to form within his mind. Maybe Mr. Wilmington had been asked to stay away from the children, but he had no such directive. A nice supervisory visit just might be in order.
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Nathan sat in stunned silence. How could Chris turn his back on those two boys so easily? Even if Vin hadnt saved his life the medic would have been concerned for him and his cousin. Okay, so the boys were being cared for, but after all that Ezra had told them and the way Buck seemed so overly concerned, didnt they at least have a civic duty or a duty to all that was decent to see if there wasnt something they could do to help those boys? If it had been his child that had been left alone in this world, God forbid, wouldnt he pray that someone took the time to look out for the youngster?
His child? Nathan thought on Chris son and what that loss must have been to him. The look in those green eyes had been downright chilling. It was almost as if he were angry with them for even caring about the boys. A sudden thought struck Nathan. Maybe Chris wasnt mad at them for caring, but mad at them for reminding him that he cared. Buck had told them how after the loss of Sarah and Adam, the man had practically pushed everyone who cared about him and whom he cared about away. Seemed like he might be doing the same thing now. Out of sight and sound, out of mind, so to speak. They were bringing up things, two small innocent ones, that Chris was fighting like the devil to forget. But Nathan couldnt forget and didnt really want to.
He had actually spoken to his wife Rain about becoming foster parents themselves. Surely there would be nothing wrong with the two of them stopping by to chat with the Millers about their own experiences. It would be a perfect opportunity to learn more about the foster parent system and get a firsthand look at it in action. A perfect opportunity to look in on two little boys.
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Josiah sat back in his chair, his own anger dissipating slightly as he looked at the situation in its entirety. They had all become concerned about the welfare of these two boys that had found their way unknowingly into the teams lives. It hadnt been planned, at least not by man. Divine intervention? Possibly. The Lord does work in mysterious ways. The ex-preacher thought that almost funny. But it was there and now what were they to do about it?
Buck had already tried to find his way back into the boys lives and hit a roadblock. Ezra had been keeping a check on them. Nathan had a deep seeded sense of responsibility toward others as it was and Vins selfless act had only increased that feeling. Plus Josiah knew that the situation had sparked a renewed interest in the medic and his wife Rain having children of their own.
And he, well he had thrown himself into spending more time with troubled youth. The things that had happened to those two boys had touched him to his core and he wanted to help someone else since he had assumed the boys were being taken care of. Now he wasnt so sure. What if there was something more they could do? Then there was Chris behavior since they had met the boys and now his actions of late, both strong indications that this was becoming a problem for their leader.
Chris Larabee had suffered and survived. At least physically. Emotionally, Josiah wasnt so sure anymore. He hadnt known the man before the tragedy, but Buck had. There were many occasions away from the office when he regaled on the days of old and the man he used to know. A man full of life and love, the center of which had been his family. Three months ago or less if someone had used the name Chris Larabee and gentle in the same sentence there had better be a not in there somewhere, but he had witnessed another side to the man the day they had met those boys. Though brief, he had seen it.
The big profilers mind traveled back to the look of sheer terror on his leaders face as he had cradled Vins limp form in his arms. The gentle tone of Chris voice when they had come back to find him trying to comfort the terrified form on the gurney. It was a glimpse of the man he used to be and it had been fleeting. Long dormant pieces of the man that had been lost after living his own personal hell seemed to have been reawakened by two young boys and by one in particular. Their leader was in denial and it could only get worse before it got better. If it got better at all.
Still not able to get the picture of Vin and JD out of his head, Josiah knew he couldnt sit still and do nothing. Not even if the devil himself had bade him not to. He had been meaning to do a little fundraising for the local shelters. A little door to door visiting might be in order. And he knew the perfect neighborhood to start in.
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Buck was one big ball of rage. His heart hammered in his chest in time to his pounding headache. Staring daggers through the door of his boss and supposed friend he began to wonder if a turning point had been met. Through hell and high water he had stood by Chris side. Through the good, the bad, and the unbelievably ugly their friendship had endured. And like all relationships over the years it had changed some. You didnt survive what life threw at you without some changes. But right now was most definitely an ugly time and Buck sure hated ugly.
The softhearted ladies man had been angry with his friend on many occasions, but not ever to this extent. His mind whirled at the possibility that he would have to find a new place to live. He had grown accustomed to his new life and home at Chris ranch and didnt look forward to moving back to the hustle and bustle of the city. But how could he stay?
It had been hard when, with his familys loss, Chris had turned into himself, shutting out Buck and everyone else. It was almost like he had given up on life for the first few months. Seeing his oldest friend like this had broken the big mans heart, but this
Buck felt his internal rage build to the bursting point. Standing up with purpose, nearly tipping his chair backwards with the motion, he marched right into Chris office without knocking and slammed the door behind him. His three coworkers stared after him, unsure whether they should evacuate the building and call for a negotiator. Maybe an ambulance or two might be in order. Throwing caution to the wind they decided to sit back and try to pick up what was said, which wasnt too difficult considering the current volume.
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I dont believe you. Bucks face was a mask of unadulterated rage.
Not now, Buck. Chris voice had a low and lethal quality to it. This is over.
Just like that?! Huh?! The high and mighty Chris Larabee says so. Knowing this was only going to make his friend madder, but unable to stop his tirade he let Chris have it with both barrels, determined to speak his mind before he was shot or worse.
Ive seen you in pretty bad shape before, ole buddy. The last words were dripping in sarcasm. But this one takes the cake. Id have never thought you to be yellow. How dare you just turn your back on those boys? You can sit there all calm and unaffected if you want, but I know better. Turn on the badass I-dont-give-a-damn-about-anyone Larabee glare all you want to. You can rant and rave and tell the rest of us to stay away from those two kids, even threaten to fire us if you like. Even tell yourself you dont give a damn until youre blue in the face. But I do care and so do you. I saw the way those boys looked at you, the way Vin looked at you. I also saw the way you looked at him. And if you can sit there and tell me to my face that you dont care then youre a fool.
Buck, I think youve said enough. Chris was almost shaking with rage. It was taking all of his self control not to take the desk in one leap and drive his fist into the center of his best friend's face. How dare Buck confront him here, like this?
Dont worry, Im almost done. But let me tell you this. Youve been through hell; I dont deny that. But youre not the only one. Vins seen hell, Chris, but he still cares. Maybe it aint easy for him but hes still got the guts to give a damn and not cut himself off like some statue. And little JD, how he still has the ability to light up a room after losing all he has is beyond me, but he does. Got a pure soul that one. They both deserve better. God knows I wish I could give it to 'em, but even if its not my responsibility, as you put it, it is my right. I can care if I want to and I cant seem to turn it off quite so easily as you can.
Beginning to run out of steam his voice lowered and deep sadness crept into it. Weve weathered some tough times, but I just cant watch you self destruct again.
Chris watched as Bucks anger gave way to concern and felt his own rage abate. His friend was hurting for him, for those boys. The ladies mans heart was on his sleeve and despite the urge to push him away, to further deny his own fears, he waited. There had been too many times in the past when Chris had hurt others for the sake of protecting his own heart and more often than not Buck had been that person. The feelings of rage that had fueled his outburst in front of his men was giving way to a soul crushing remorse. Buck was right when he had said he was yellow.
I cant do this. The few words were whispers, echoing the turmoil within. Chris was at a loss and didnt know what to do.
Looking up at the odd tone in his friends voice, Buck didnt see the dark cloud of doom that had been there when he had entered. Instead there was a weary and broken soul, lost in a sea of uncertainty. Getting the strangest of notions the ladies man couldnt help but think that Chris was a drowning man in need of a life preserver, but the strangest part was that the life preserver he pictured had sandy blond hair that hung past his little shoulders and big blue eyes full of warmth and understanding. The odd vision was shaken from his thoughts as Chris shaky voice continued.
Everyone thinks that Im a survivor, that after the hell Ive been through that I must be stronger to be where I am. But, Im not strong. Im a coward. This is where and how I hide. Work hard enough and long enough and Im too damn tired, too damn busy, to worry over the past as much. I dont have the time to dwell on what Ive lost. Gotta stay sharp to stay alive and keep all of you that way. Chris stood to stare out his window, looking down over the cityscape and out toward the snowcapped mountains rising just beyond, but seeing nothing.
No, maybe I am a survivor. I survived and they died. The pain in Chriss voice was thick and cold. It was all he knew anymore about feelings. To feel was to hurt, end of story. I dont live anymore and havent for over three years. I survive. Day in and day out.
Thats not true. Bucks focus, his anger, was gone. Now he was in full support mode. A skill he had come to master over the past few years. At least it wasnt until a few months ago. This team has become a close-knit group and youre a big part of that. You drew us together. Were certainly a bit on the unorthodox side, but a real team, almost like family.
Chris didnt seem to be hearing him so he tried another tactic. You care about those boys, just like the rest of us. They got to you. They had to have, cause youve been a bear ever since. But you cant go shutting everything out again. Its like youve taken a big step backwards.
I cant do it. That same sorrowful reply replayed on the blonds lips though this time it held a bit more force. When I lost Sarah and Adam you of all people know it took the life right out of me. I felt like I had buried my own soul with them, the best parts of me were gone forever. But I went on. Didnt seem to have a choice. Still, there are days when I swear it takes everything I have in me just to drag myself out of the bed. I just lie there wishing I could feel her next to me or hear Adam running around the house trying to be quiet, loudly. A slight twitch of the lip almost betrayed a smile at the memories running through his head. Chris probably hadnt even been aware of the slip, but Buck had. The devastated man had never spoken this freely about his lost family. Something was changing even if he didnt know it.
Then I think of her standing there with her hands on her hips and that look on her face saying, Get your butt out of that bed, Larabee. Theres work to be done and its not going to get done with you laying down on the job. Chris shook his head at the vision and the slight smile was more noticeable this time. A tired, sad smile, but more than he had ever been able to produce before.
Then just as quickly his face darkened. Then, theres the nightmares. A grown man afraid of going to sleep. How pathetic.
Daring to go where he figured he shouldnt, Buck added. Bet I know someone who can relate. About yea high. He said, holding his hand out in front of him to about three and a half feet off of the ground. Sandy hair a touch too long that likes to curl a bit around his neck and the bluest eyes
Stop it, Buck! The tone might have been more deadly had it not been filled with so much pain. Swallowing hard Chris turned to face his friend with what little dignity he still possessed. They got to me. He got to me. Is that what you want me to say? That I cant go hardly a day without being reminded of Vin or seeing those tortured blue eyes in my head, in my damn nightmares. I Emotions choked off his words.
Buck was stunned speechless. He had assumed that meeting the two boys had brought back all that Larabee had lost with the death of his son. Things they had done together and the things that would never be. But, that was only the tip of the iceberg. What he hadnt completely grasped was that Chris true torture lay in just how deeply he had begun to worry and care. They werent nameless orphans he wished he could help. They were Vin and JD. Two more people he could lose.
I keep seeing Vin hurt or tied down and its all I can do not to put my fist through a wall. I want to help. God knows Id give anything, including my own life, if it would spare those two boys from any more pain. Theyve already seen more than their fair share. But I couldnt save my wife and son and it nearly destroyed me. Chris had slumped down into his chair, turning it so his back was to Buck and his gaze once more out the window. Im tired of surviving.
The silence hung heavy in the emotionally charged atmosphere, each man lost in his own thoughts. Chris was drained in every way and Buck decided to cut his losses for now and maybe broach the subject again later. He had some thinking of his own to do. Getting up to leave he gave his friend one more thing to think on.
Im sorry, Chris. I know this is the last thing you expected or wanted, but I want you to think on something. The next thing he said wouldnt sit well, but he needed Chris to see the big picture. You think it hurts now? What do you think its gonna feel like if something happens to one of those kids? Something we might have been able to prevent if only wed looked at things a little bit closer. Stuck our noses in a little deeper. I know what it would do to me. I just dont know if I could live with seeing one of those little bodies lying cold in the morgue.
+ + + + + + +
Chris heard the door shut behind his best friend and shivered. Bucks last words had sent a cold chill down his spine and a stabbing pain through his gut. That had been a low blow and he suddenly felt his anger resurface. He just doesnt understand. But even as the words formed in his mind he knew they werent entirely true. The look on his friends face when he had spoken of the two boys and his own worries for them had said it all.
Always a part of the family Buck had loved Sarah and Adam, too. Their deaths had been devastating to all who loved them. Who had been there for Buck? Had anyone? Hanging his head in shame Chris realized that Buck had likely dealt with it on his own, being too busy taking care of his best friend to take care of his own needs. That was just the way the ladies man was. Now, seeing the conviction and passion Buck had for these boys, he felt trapped. Chris didnt want to get involved and take the kind of emotional risks that came with it, but how could he deny something that Buck felt so strongly about?
Opening up his desk drawer, Chris had every intention of just reaching in for a couple of painkillers for the headache that never seemed to go away these days. The same one that had tripled in intensity over the last few minutes. Instead he heard the quiet rattle of his keys and his eyes were drawn to an object that lay amongst them. Pulling the keys out he laid them on his desk and ran his hand reverently over each and every inch of the beaded keychain. Made up of colored metal balls and letters that spelled out the word cowboy it was one of Chris most valued possessions. And also one of the very few pieces of his past life he had to hang on to.
Sarah had helped Adam make the keychain for Chris for his birthday the year before their deaths. The word cowboy had been added since many a Saturday had found father and son either watching some of the old cowboy westerns on TV or going out for a ride at one of the local ranches. Adams face had beamed with pride as he had watched his father place the precious gift on his key ring.
For almost a year after he had lost them, the keychain had resided in a box in the closet out at the ranch, scattered among a few photos and mementos that had survived the fire. The reminders had been too fresh and painful to be dealt with on a regular basis, but one day, while going through the box he had found it. Now it grounded him and helped him to remember how quickly things could change. It was a lifeline to his past. Rubbing his fingers over each bead, every letter, now slightly worn by the repeated action, he sighed. His mind was not on his lost son this time.
Wiping a hand down his face he groaned. Nothing in life was simple, but this was getting to him. His own emotions were torn and from the looks he had received from his men earlier theirs were, too. He had to protect them and himself. This really was not their problem and none of their business. Well, hed give the others a day or two to calm down and then he would discuss the proper use of their time and resources.
Vin sat in the floor of the bedroom he shared with JD, watching his five-year-old cousin play with the Matchbox cars. Even though he was supposed to be playing as well, his mind was on other things. What were they going to do now? He had promised to look out for JD, but it was getting harder and harder to do. He had already been warned in no uncertain terms that if they tried to run away again, not only would they be separated, but JD would end up in another foster home or the city childrens center while he was sent to the county juvenile facilities. Just the thought of the fate that would await him there made him visibly shiver.
Hey, Vin. You cold. I can getcha a blankie if ya want? JD had looked up from his intense car crash in time to see the tremor run through his older cousin.
Im fine. Vin turned, got up and moved to his bed, being sure to keep his face turned away. The last thing he needed was for JD to see him cry, but thats exactly what he felt like doing. Jist tired. He lied. Gonna take a nap. Just stay down there and play and iffen ya need anything just wake me up first. Kay?
JDs attention quickly turned back to his cars, while Vin curled up tightly on the twin bed, pulling the blanket that had been lying at the foot up to his chin. He was careful to keep his head turned away from JD and toward the wall where he stared at the tiny star and moon shapes on the wallpaper. Though his eyes watched the shadows created on the wall by the trees outside blowing in the breeze, his mind continued to dwell on what was seemingly a hopeless situation. A lone tear escaped his right eye and slowly trailed into the pillow clutched beneath his head. His aunt would be so disappointed that he wasnt watching out for JD like he promised. And his mom
Squeezing his eyes tightly shut he barely stifled a sob as the tears came freely at the thought of his failure to live up to the Tanner name. The beautiful woman whose face he could barely recall stared at him, her disappointment evident by the frown on her face.
No, please. Im so sorry. His cries went unheard as she slowly turned away from him and walked away. Dont leave me. Im sorry. I didnt mean to mess up. Puuuuleeeease! The pitiful sound of his own voice echoed in his head as the pain in his chest built to nearly suffocate him.
Its okay, Vin. Dont cry. Please dont cry. Vin?
A soft hand rubbed at his back and an arm tightened around his waist. Blinking slowly he felt the wetness on his cheeks and saw again the patterned wallpaper and shadows. Vin realized he had fallen asleep and had been dreaming. It happened more and more lately, making it harder for him to go to sleep at all and leaving him exhausted. That was probably why he had fallen asleep this time. The warmth at his back wiggled and the soft voice of his young cousin called his name again.
JD had seen the restless movements of his older cousin. Then a quiet sound, all too familiar, had him leaving his precious toys where they lay. To most it would have sounded more like some of the usual noises of sleep, but JD knew better. Vins natural quietness usually translated into his sleep as well, unless something else disturbed the seven-year-old. Vin was having another nightmare and he was crying.
Slowly climbing onto the bed, JD did the only thing he knew to do. He gave freely of his love. Slowly he wrapped one arm around his cousins waist as he curled up behind him and used his other arm to gently rub Vins back. One thing that stuck in the little ones mind was when Vin had first come to live with him and his mother. Just about every night for the first couple of months found the young mother holding the trembling form of her young nephew as he suffered yet another bout with the cruel demons that visited him in the dark of the night. JD had watched her rub Vins back until he slowly drifted back into a more restful sleep. At least, restful until the nightmares returned. Then she would kiss his forehead and give him a gentle hug before returning to her own bed. And sometimes, times like this, thats what JD did. And it was almost as if she were curled up right behind him, her long arms stretched out across both of the two boys.
Vin heard JDs sniffles and felt the dampness soaking into his back. This was his fault, too. He was reminding JD that his mother was gone for good. Not able to turn over and face that sad young face he put his own hand over the one clutched around his waist. And together, two sad little boys drifted off to sleep.
Amongst the mountain of paperwork, Chris heard his phone ringing. It was Friday afternoon and there was no way he could get everything done before the end of the day, especially if people wouldnt leave him alone. Rubbing his hand across his eyes to try and work out the headache that had become his constant companion he answered more gruffly than he had intended. Larabee.
Yes, sir. Chris sat up a little straighter in his chair, knowing his headache was about to reach critical mass. No, sir. I wasnt I did speak to them about that last week, but Yes, sir. Ill make sure they understand. It was all he could do not to groan out loud. Ill remind them of their real job.
Hanging up the phone his anger began to build in time with the pounding in his head. Somehow he hadnt made himself clear the week before, but this time he would make sure his men knew their place and duties. Standing up and practically shoving his chair back against the wall he headed out into the bullpen where his agents desks were. Without even glancing at them or breaking stride he growled, Conference room. Now!
Four heads shot up to watch their leader storm through. Something was definitely amiss and each of them had a sneaking suspicion that they knew what. Each had expected to be reprimanded for his actions, but none of them were aware that this time they were all at fault. Standing and following their irate leader into the conference room, each man contemplated his own defense.
The door closed behind them and each man gingerly took his regular seat at the large oval table as Chris stalked over to the large window, keeping his back to them as he stared out. The tension in the room felt almost like an electrical charge, with everyone afraid to speak or even breathe lest an explosion be ignited.
Chris stared out at the swirling dark clouds on the horizon. They were a representation of how he felt and how he had been feeling over the last two months. A storm was brewing outside and in, but it was the internal one that was causing the leader pause. He wanted to tear into his men for their actions, for disobeying him, but somewhere within his mind he couldnt help but be a little bit relieved. One minute he wanted to rake them over the coals and the next it was all he could do not to ask them everything they knew. Taking a deep breath he turned around to face them, surprised by the guilty, but determined looks staring back at him.
I think you all know why were here, he began in a dead tone, his body stiff with tension.
Its all my fault, Chris. No need to drag the other guys into this. They had no idea. Buck had been expecting this. He knew hed been caught by the Millers trying to spy on the boys and talk to JD. But the boy had called him again and asked why he hadnt been by to see him. On that first day he had given JD his business card and told him to call him anytime, night or day, if he needed anything. What was he supposed to do?
A lecture and some possible disciplinary action seemed a small price to pay, but he hadnt expected to have it all hashed out in front of everyone. And he sure didnt want the others taking flack for something he had done.
Now Chris, I know I wasnt supposed to see the boys anymore, but I had to at least say goodbye and try to explain why
Theres more to this than
Wait a minute, Buck. Nathan had to speak up. Somehow he had expected Chris to find out about what he had done, but he hadnt known about Bucks little trip. Bucks not the only one to blame here. Raine and I were just talking about maybe taking in some foster children and I thought it would be good for us to talk to a couple that had been there. It was a load of crap and he knew it. He also could tell that Chris knew it, especially after the look his leader had just given him.
Chris glanced over at Josiah. And I suppose its just a coincidence that you happened to be taking up donations in the Millers neighborhood?
Josiah just shrugged, giving his most innocent look. Seemed like as good a place to start as any. The big profiler gave a toothy grin. I collected over $300.
Chris eyes narrowed to green slits as he surveyed the room and his guilt-ridden men, each one looking at the other in disbelief. So it hadnt been a coordinated effort. Each man had taken it upon himself to check in on the two boys. Director Orin Travis had called to inform him that a formal complaint had been issued by the social services department at the request of the Millers. And then strict orders had been issued for him to get his men in line so that Travis wouldnt have to field anymore complaints on the matter.
Now each of the men had basically confessed, all except Turning his narrowed gaze to his undercover agent, Chris began to study the man. He had yet to say or admit to anything and yet Chris had a sneaking suspicion that Ezra had definitely been up to something. Nothing had been said about the professional conmans involvement, but that didnt mean much. Not with someone as sufficient at subterfuge as Ezra Standish.
Ezra had been waiting for Chris to lay in to him for his own part in this fiasco, but from the questioning look that had just been turned in his direction his leader was suspicious yet still unaware of the part he had played. Not that he had thought that he would. The veteran undercover agent was nothing if not good at his job. The only way he could have been found out would be if the Millers had checked up on the surprise visit of Mr. Hiram Johnson of the Department of Social Services and Child Welfare.
The disguise had been impeccable. The graying dark hair and thick spectacles had given him an older and somewhat nerdish look. There was no way they could have recognized him, but Chris was obviously a highly intelligent man. If given the details of the unauthorized visit of someone claiming to be working for social services it wouldnt have taken him long to put two and two together. But for a man who survived by reading the people around him his boss had yet to uncover the truth.
To confess or not to confess? That was Ezras current dilemma. He didnt want the others to take all of the heat for themselves, but more importantly he needed someone to confide in on what he had witnessed. And the discrepancies he had uncovered. Maybe Chris would understand that this could be more serious than they had thought. He had suffered many a sleepless night since his unannounced visit to the Millers abode. His mind played through the visit and all he had learned.
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