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Less than fifteen minutes later Chris Larabee stormed back into the waiting area like a tornado. His face was a mask of barely controlled fury as he made his way to the corner that held his men. The other people within the area parted like the Red Sea moving away from the imposing figure as if the devil himself had just entered the area.
Ezra wasnt sure what he had done but there was no mistaking that his leader, in a mood that would rival his worst nightmare, was headed straight for him. Swallowing hard, he braced himself for the thrashing he expected.
With sharp clipped tones barked out through painfully clenched teeth Chris issued his edict. What we talked about before? Do it and do it now!
But Mr. Larabee Ezra began, but was quickly interrupted.
Do! It! Now!
The green fire shooting from Chris eyes looked as if it could melt steel and the clenched fists by the mans sides had to hurt. Anger rippled in waves off of the dark figure, leaving no doubt that something extremely bad had just occurred.
Grabbing his cell phone from his pocket the undercover agent quickly receded into a corner of the room. Whatever it took he would fulfill Chris request, no matter the cost or favors he had to expend. Keeping an ever-watchful eye on his leader as the man began to pace, he did what he did best. Ezra Standish knew how to wheel and deal and if he had to move heaven and earth, Chris Larabee would get temporary custody of Vin within the next few hours.
Buck felt torn as he sat holding a very quiet JD on the far side of the room. Chris looked about ready to explode. He needed to do something to help his best friend, not to mention find out what was going on. But, then there was JD. The small boy had to be frightened; especially with the way he was clinging to him.
Josiah, seeing Bucks dilemma, stepped in to help. Why dont the little brother and I go find us a hot chocolate?
Big dark eyes looked up at the profiler with hope, but also some trepidation. He wasnt sure what was going on, but even he had picked up on the tension. Looking back up at Buck and seeing the encouraging smile, even if forced, JD turned back to Josiah. With a little nod, the child reached out and latched on to Josiah as the man leaned down, quickly wrapping his trusting little arms around the big profilers neck.
With a smile and a nod Josiah strode out with his charge held tightly, saying silent prayers for them all and whoever it was that his leader was about to kill. For with just one look at Larabees blazing eyes and the twitchy right hand the big man knew all he needed to for the moment.
JDs voice could be heard ringing through the hallways even as the two left. Can I have the itty bitty mushmellows in it. I like mushmellows. Do you like mushmellows? Then the voice had added more quietly. Vin likes mushmellows, too. The sadness of the little voice cut like a knife into them all.
As Ezra stood away from them on his phone, Nathan slipped silently out of the room, hoping to find out from a calmer source exactly what was going on. After another glance at the doorway where Josiah and JD had just exited, Buck eased over to where his friend was pacing.
Hey, Pard. He waited for a reaction, anything, but Chris just kept pacing, his right hand, his gun hand, flexing constantly. Buck shuddered. It was really important to get the blond calmed down and soon. Why dontcha tell me whats got your britches in such a wad. The lighthearted comment didnt even seem to register on the agitated man.
Chris froze as the entire scene played out in his head all over again.No! Please! Stop!
Chris had heard Vins screams before he had gotten half way down the hallway. His heart began to race as he ran for the room, nearly colliding with one of the nurses and a cart full of dinner trays.
Dont. Youre hurting me! was followed by a gut-clenching sob, then nothing.
The door to Vins room crashed open as Chris hurtled in with the gun he had practically forgotten about now drawn, ready for anything. Still running on adrenaline alone, the exhausted agent had half expected to see Bill Miller standing over the bed or worse yet, his insane wife. The ATF agent was not prepared for what he found. It was déjà vu. Vin lay on his bed, surrounded by two nurses, an orderly and a doctor who Chris immediately recognized from the first visit to the emergency room. The worst of it was that the child was once again strapped down.
Despite his gut reaction to aim, he holstered his weapon at the startled look on the workers faces. But not for their sake. He did it for the pale shaking form on the bed that had jumped when he opened the door so forcefully.
What the hell are you doing?! The voice was low, the tone lethal. Chris had bypassed mad, was quickly surpassing enraged and was now bordering on homicidal. Get those things off of him now!
I think weve been through this before, Mr. Larabee. The young doctors calm demeanor only served to fuel the growing fire before him. I believe you understand that this boy is a ward of the state and as long as he is in my care I will do what is best for him.
Swallowing hard to keep from saying the first thing he thought of, like, you sniveling SOB, Ill show you what it feels like. Chris instead gritted his teeth. The last thing Vin needed right now was to witness more violence. Swallowing hard he tried to keep his voice low and level. Do you have any idea ?
The doctor never even let him finish. I have read all of his charts and am well aware of his history, but I can not allow him to further injure himself. I am sorry if this is a problem for you, but if you continue to question my authority and interfere with the treatment of this patient I will have you forcibly removed from this hospital. Right now I think it would be best for you to leave the room.
The large orderly, who was bigger than Buck and Josiah put together, stepped up behind the young doctor. Though his face was unreadable it was clear by his body language that he would back his superior.
Feeling his body begin to shake as he glanced back at the form in the bed, it gave him little comfort to see one of the nurses stroking Vins hair and talking low to him. The sandy blond hair clung to the pale face in sweaty streaks. The eyes were squeezed shut and the body was rigid with tension. But as he continued to watch the pain and exhaustion won out and the little boy began to relax in sleep.
Im not going to ask again. Mr. Larabee. I want you to leave.
Chris felt like he was going to be sick as he turned and stormed back out of the door. He had to do something, but what? The doctor was an insensitive asshole, but he was right. Chris had no authority. Unless
With green eyes so full of pain that it actually hurt Buck to look at them, Chris glanced up at his oldest friend. They tied him down again.
Buck stared at Chris back as he paced away from him and then back again. The darkness of the leaders face told him how deeply this had affected him. Feeling his own inner demon arise at the vision his best friends last words produced, his hands fisted in rage. With Vins history it was understandable how being tied down would affect the boy and the thought of him having to endure any more trauma was just sickening. How could anyone with even an ounce of common decency ever do such a thing to a boy like Vin?
A few minutes passed as Chris got himself enough under control to spit out an account of what had just happened. As his pacing continued he managed to relate how he had found Vin once again at the mercy of the very same physician they had crossed paths with in the emergency room those long months ago. His agitation only grew as he explained how his attempt to find the caring surgeon who had saved Vins life had hit a brick wall when he was informed that the man had gone out of town with his family. His attempts to get the nurses to contact a supervising physician, any supervising physician, had fallen on deaf ears. All because he had no legal guardianship rights to the boy. Once again the system that was supposed to be protecting Vin was only causing him more harm.
Despite his own anger Buck knew he had a more important goal. He had to get Chris calmed down and then he needed to have a very deep discussion with his old friend. If he hadnt been sure before of the decision he had made he was now. He just had to make sure that he wasnt wrong about what he had seen in Chris eyes. The need, the longing that he felt as well.
Hes still pretty sick and with all of the drugs he probably wont even remember it. Even as he said it his heart was denying it. There was no way he truly believed that, but what was he supposed to say? The whole idea was to calm Chris down before he hit him with the idea that had been churning in his mind and gut for the last day.
I saw them. The words just sprang out of Chris mouth as he replayed the days, months, and events that had led him to this point and the sudden, or maybe not so sudden, decision he had just made.
Before Buck could even wonder if Chris had finally gone off the deep end with his strange words, the man in question dropped into the nearest chair like a deflated balloon. Moving quickly Buck took one of the adjacent chairs as Chris continued.
It wasnt much more than a month after we first met them. I didnt mention it. Not even when I was reaming you guys out for meddling. I ran into them at the grocery store. Even the thought made him cringe. If only he had seen something that day, if he had paid more attention, asked more questions. She was wearing sunglasses, which should have set me off, hell, it did set me off, but I ignored it. Of course my first thoughts were that she was hiding a black eye, but now I guess she was hiding something much more dangerous.
Chris head hung lower as he hunched down wearily into the chair, his mind envisioning the wild drugged out eyes that might have lain hidden beneath those dark glasses that day. I didnt do anything. I just walked away.
You didnt know. None of us did. Not really. Buck was trying to convince Chris of something he had yet to even assure himself of. There were a few signs, but nothing really solid. And none of us imagined anything like this.
He deserves better, they both do. Its my fault. I should have listened to your concerns, should have let all of you do more investigating. Chriss mind was wandering. He hadnt calmed down so much as felt the strength suddenly drain from his body. He wanted to help, to make amends. Yes, that was it. He just wanted to ease his guilty conscience by making things right.
Maybe Chris could fool his head into believing that pack of lies, but his heart knew better. Something about Vin Tanner had rekindled a fire in him and no matter what he did to try and douse the flames his every effort only seemed to fan them. And his decision, though made in haste, had not been made without some thought. Lots of thought, actually. Hours spent in the waiting area and at the boys bedside had left him nothing to do other than think. And think. And think.
Ive got Ezra working to start the process to give me temporary custody of Vin and JD.
There, he had actually said it. Out loud.
Buck had listened with his head and his heart feeling every painful regret Chris voiced, but the last statement had him with his mouth almost hanging open. Wh What?
Chris didnt dare look up. He knew he would see disbelieving blue eyes staring at him as though he had just grown two heads. What he didnt expect was his best friends next words.
Despite his astonishment at Chris declaration, Buck could already feel his heart beginning to swell. This was too easy. Well, Ill be shucked. You mean I dont have to sit here and try and talk you into it?
Chris did look up at those words and saw a smiling Wilmington.
I was all ready to sell my soul to talk you into doing just that very thing, or something close anyway. See, Ive been thinking a lot about this. Ive just about got it all figured out. At first Id figured on taking both of the boys, seeing as how keeping them together is the key. But a single man like me is going to have enough trouble as it is, so Ill work on getting custody of JD and I thought you could get custody of Vin. I could move out to the ranch again sos we could all be together on this. I even called up Nettie Wells. You know that old lady has some experience in these types of things. Last time I saw her she was complaining that retirement had her feeling down right useless. Figured Id give her something to do with her time and well need somebody to help us look after them. Who better than a former teacher and counselor? She thinks Im nuts, but she agreed to meet with us, if and when we talk somebody into giving us custody.
Temporary guardianship. Chris was quick to put in that stipulation. We do this to make sure those boys are taken care of. And the first thing is getting that sorry excuse for a doctor thrown off of Vins case. I dont want him within sight of the boy. Then we can make sure they go to a good home, together.
Buck knew that for the moment that was more than he could have hoped for. Not only was he right about how Chris really felt, but his friend had already figured it out himself. Well, mostly. For now, he would take what he could get.
Ill go tell Ez to add me to the mix.
Chris watched as Buck practically leapt from the chair and ran over to where Ezra was still talking on the phone. He could just imagine that conversation. His shoulders slumped even more. That had been too easy. Which one of them had just won that conversation, he wasnt sure, but he couldnt help but worry that he was getting in over his head. Taking on the responsibility of these two orphan boys, even temporarily, was a huge task.
A part of him couldnt help but wonder what the hell he was doing as a shudder of fear ran through his body. But with a vision of two blue eyes staring at him, pleading to him, and the flash of an all too recent memory of that small body as it fought the restraints put upon him by the world, Chris knew he could do no less. He also couldnt deny that it gave him a surge of hope. Not just for the boys futures, but his own. Almost like a new beginning for them all. His decision had been made and there was no way he would back out now.
Twin blue eyes blinked up at him as he straightened the covers up around the bony shoulders. It had been three long days and finally enough of the tubes and monitors had been taken away to allow the tiny frame to be covered. Though a couple of IVs were still attached to the boys right arm, providing healing fluids and an NG tube was in place for the recurring nausea the boy suffered, the doctor assured him that Vin was doing much better. Chris felt a shiver inside as those emotive blue orbs stared straight at him. It was the same feeling he had had that day so many months ago in a dank alley. Though this time instead of him seeking some answers, it was his turn to provide them. Putting his hand on the tiny shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze, he spoke gently.
Vin? Hey there, kid. You with me?
Vin blinked, but the eyes remained locked with his own. Chris waited patiently, knowing what it was like to wake up in a hospital after days of disorienting drugs. He waited, knowing that the fear would take hold once the confusion passed. That fear was the very thing he wished to chase from those big blue eyes.
Guess things may seem a bit fuzzy at the moment. Youve been pretty sick, but youre getting better. Chris felt some of the terrible weight lift from his heart at just this chance to see the child awake and somewhat alert. These last few days had been the longest of his life. Even though Ezra had managed to get him temporary custody of Vin, enough to allow him to put the fear of God into a certain doctor and get the idiots backside in a sling once again, the hearing for true temporary custody for both he and Buck was coming up that very afternoon. And the one thing that had bothered him the most about it all was the fact that Vin didnt even know what they were about to do.
Sure he was just seven years old and his fate was not his own, but Chris knew that the boy had been let down too often already and even though he now knew without a doubt that this was right, that this was what he wanted, he also wanted to be sure that it was what Vin wanted. The idea was to keep Vin and JD together and provide an environment in which they felt safe until a suitable permanent situation came along. Surely there was someone out there, someone caring and nurturing, that would like nothing more than to give these two precious boys a home. How in the world anyone could look into those fathomless blue eyes and not see the amazing young soul that lay within was unimaginable. It was as plain as the nose on your face and at the moment it was also the most beautiful thing Chris Larabee had seen in a very long time.
JDs fine. That brought a reaction and the exact opposite of the one he had been trying to achieve. Fear appeared in the eyes and the head turned slowly to take in the room. Gently Chris put his hand on the pale cheek, turning the head back to face him. Its okay, Vin. Hes fine. Hes with Buck right now. Theyre playing in the waiting room. Ill even see if we can bring him back here in a few minutes.
The eyes were locked with his but the fear in them remained. Searching. Questioning. Chris didnt move, just let him look, let him search.
Trust me. It was a big thing to ask for such a small boy, but everything hinged on the answer. Everything.
Chris watched Vin watch him and waited.
With his head aching Vin had awoken slowly. His body felt stiff and sore when he tried to move so instead he lay still. It was always safer to pretend to be asleep when he wasnt certain where he was and what was happening. Someone was near, that much he could sense and as the sensations slowly began to coalesce into something he could understand, he realized that things smelled very strange. Almost like the bathroom after Mrs. Miller had cleaned it for two hours.
Why did his arms feel like they were weighted down? Almost tied, but no, that wasnt right. He had been tied before, recently maybe, but this was different. He could move, just felt too tired to do so. Something tickled at his nose and his throat felt sore, but he wasnt sure he could even lift his arm to scratch at the problem. And the aches he felt, almost from head to toe, made him afraid to even try. Had he gotten in trouble again? Had Mrs. Miller gotten mad and thought he was that other boy? At least from the smell and feel of things he knew he wasnt in the dungeon. Nothing made a lot of sense. But he guessed to really get any answers he would have to actually open his eyes and look around.
That too proved to be a momentous task as his eyes felt glued together with some type of goo. But with determination he finally managed a crack. Of everything he could imagine, the sight that greeted him nearly took his breath away and he couldnt help but wonder if he were actually still asleep and just dreaming all of this. Two pale green eyes looked down upon him with such force he would have moved back had he been able. Instead he merely stared back. How many times had he dreamed of meeting this man again? In his wildest imaginings only had it ever been possible. Now with his dream staring at him like he was waiting for something important and with the utter confusion that was still tossing his brain in a thousand different directions, Vin was at a loss as what he should do or think.
Then he heard the voice. His name was said with a tenderness, a caring, he hadnt heard in so long, he almost failed to recognize it for what it was. Concern. This man, his dark hero, was concerned. But for what? Had he done something wrong and this man, he was some type of policeman Had he come to arrest him like the cops on TV did?
JD? What did the man just say about JD? Images flooded his mind and fear gripped his tiny body. Where was JD? Mrs. Miller had hurt his cousin and then he had hurt Mrs. Miller. He was in jail. He had been arrested. All of those things people said about him were true. He had been very bad and now he would never ever get to see his cousin again. They would take him away to some dark place. Some dungeon just like
Tears streaked down his face and a quiet sob was wrung from his mouth. Squeezing his eyes shut he couldnt stop the tide of despair that swept through him. He had failed his cousin and his aunt. But worst of all he had failed his mother. She had always told him to remember that he was a Tanner and that name meant something. She had expected him to be a good boy. But he had failed her. Failed them all. He was nothing but a no account piece of shit. Least that was how the boys at the home had phrased it. And they were right. He would never get to see JD again and now God would never let him come and be with his momma and pet and take care of the kitties and
Even as the warm tears ran down his face and the sobs wracked his body he felt things slowly shift. His whole body warmed and the feel of rough fabric against his face brought him back out of his nightmarish visions. Realty returned and he could smell the scent of sweat, soap, and a gentle hint of smoke. As his eyes opened he nearly startled with the lack of light and the feeling of being restrained, but then realized that he was being held against something, someone. The sound of a rough yet gentle voice uttering a quiet litany that everything was going to be okay and for him to just calm down washed over him like warm water in a bath, cleaning away the cobwebs in his brain and calming his fears.
He knew this voice and had heard it in his head many times. Over and over the voice had spoken to him, called to him. In his dark dreams and even in the ones filled with light, the voice had been his guide, anchoring him when the wish to hide, to run away, had been almost too strong to resist. But this was no dream. This was real. Very real and he could feel his left hand fisting in the rough fabric of the mans shirt as a gentle hand slowly stroked his back.
Vin was so tired. So very tired. But he couldnt give in. Not just yet. He had to know.
The whispered name was barely audible and even worse with the boy's roughened voice, but it was understandable, mostly because it had been expected.
Chris gently pulled the boy back from his chest. Not knowing what else to do and even knowing that with the stitches and the boys still healing body that it was probably a bad idea, he had done what he had to, what only felt natural, when Vin had started crying. Feeling his heart nearly fall to pieces at the sight of the broken little boy, shattered in so many ways, the action had come automatically, even if the actual physical act of picking the boy up had been beyond awkward with the IVs and stitches. Practically sitting on the bed, Chris had gathered the trembling form against his chest, rubbing the bony back and whispering soothing words of comfort. It was something he had done before, many years ago with his own son and it came back to him like second nature.
Then, as he had finally rested the boy gently against him, a warmth flooded through him that was indescribable. His entire world now hinged on one thing and one thing only. Making sure that Vin felt safe.
Now hearing the boys query for his cousin, he pulled Vin back a bit so that he could once again make eye contact. Somehow that act seemed important. That he be able to look at Vins eyes and that the boy be able to see his. This whole thing had started with eye contact and it just seemed inherent. Seeing the tear stained face and runny nose he quickly grabbed for a tissue, not caring that the box was knocked to the floor in the process. Then, gently wiping the messy face, he spoke.
JD is just fine. Even if he had already assured Vin of this, he would say it a thousand times if it helped the boy understand. And youre going to be just fine, too. Just might take a few weeks before you feel like it.
Chris hesitated, partly to give Vin time to let that part sink in and mostly because he wasnt even sure that he wanted to ask the next question. But he had to and he knew it. It wasnt going to get any easier and if he didnt hurry a nurse might just walk in soon, find him holding the boy and ban him from the room for disturbing the patient.
Do you remember what happened? His eyebrow raised in query as he watched Vin slowly take in the question. It was as if he could see the wheels turning as the blue eyes lost a little focus.
Vin heard the dark man tell him that JD was okay and he believed him. Something about the man that held him made him feel secure. Those eyes held so much in them. Pain, worry, trust, and most of all, hope. Then the man asked him if he remembered. Bits and pieces had come to him after waking, but had been pushed to the background. Now bringing them back up, he worked to fit them all together so he could understand and remember. Swallowing hard he worked to keep moisture in his mouth as the memories came together in a terrifying picture. His throat felt as if it had closed up so he looked back up at the man and just nodded. But it wasnt enough. The tears wanted to fall and he was so very sorry for everything.
I sorry didnt mean hurt Miz. Mil ler dont dont take away. The sob broke free.
Chris watched as the memories came together and knew the moment they did by the fear that returned to Vins eyes. Though this time the tears were held at bay, he had no doubt that they were not very far from the surface. The quiet words uttered stabbed at his already wounded heart and the tears again came. Chris just let him cry.
Once again holding Vin close and rubbing his back he worked to make the boy understand, continuing the litany that it was okay, but adding that he had done nothing wrong. The minutes passed and he tried to be patient even as his desire to reassure the boy that none of this was his fault overwhelmed him.
Chris didnt see Nurse Bradley as she took in the scene and decided against interrupting. Yes, it wasnt a good idea for the patient to be held in such a manner, the ramifications clear, but the emotional need right now would have to outweigh the physical needs and from the way the dark blond man held the young child to him, the gentleness of his grasp and touch, she was certain that it was what both of them needed. Wiping a stray tear from her own eye she backed out and left the two alone.
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Vin fell asleep in his arms and he left him that way for a while. No one had come to check on them and for that Chris was very grateful, but he hadnt succeeded in his purpose to talk to Vin and he wasnt even sure he had managed to give the comfort he had wanted to. Knowing he needed to put his precious bundle down he gently leaned over so as not to jostle the healing form any more than necessary. After laying Vin down he readjusted the IV lines to where they should be then pulled the sheet and blanket up over the boy. He had gotten the blanket from one of the nurses when he had thought he saw Vin shivering the day before. Now instinctively reaching up to touch the pale cheek he froze.
Just as before he was startled to find a pair of blue eyes regarding him.
Whats gonna happen to me? The voice was quiet but steadier.
Leave it to this little soul to cut right to the chase as if reading what Chris truly wished to talk with him about.
Thought youd fallen asleep? Avoidance. Great, Larabee. Finally get your opportunity and you chicken out.
What was he supposed to say exactly? What if Vin didnt want this? What if the judge said no? Doubt filled him, adding a touch of fear to his own eyes and Vin picked up on it.
Am I going to jail, Mister? Vin saw the doubt in the mans eyes and despite the reassurance that had been offered earlier, his old fears crept back in. Am I never gonna see JD again?
My names Chris and youre not going to jail. Time to once again try and lay down some facts. Vin, I want you to listen to me really good. I know youre tired and hurting and Ill try to make it short. First of all, you didnt do anything wrong. Mrs. Miller was
A cruel, twisted, heartless insane woman who should have Whoa, Larabee. Get back on track now.
Mrs. Miller was very sick. She should have asked for help, but she didnt and nothing, NOTHING you did meant that you deserved the things she did to you.
Chris considered delving into the fact that they had lined up a child psychologist to come and speak with him about what had happened, but his time was running out. The hearing was in a couple of hours and he wanted to be sure he was doing the right thing by Vin.
Youre a good kid, Vin Tanner, and dont you ever forget it. At least he could throw that in there, laying groundwork for Vins healing in the days, months, and years to come. But Ive got something else to talk to you about right now. You and JD still have no family to take you in. And, well, I was thinking that maybe you and him could well
Geez, this was harder than he had thought. Just spit it out, Larabee.
How would you like to come and live with me while they try to find a nice family that can take you both in? Somehow the first part of that statement sounded better until he added the end. Strange.
What do you think? Would that be okay with you? Chris felt like holding his breath, suddenly unsure about everything and anxiously awaiting what Vin would say.
Vin stared back at him and blinked a couple of times. Had Vin heard him? Had he even understood what was being asked?
Awakening at the feeling of his body once again lying down, Vin had watched his new hero fuss with the covers and straightening things just so. A warmth filled him as it reminded him of how his momma used to tuck him in to bed. She would always fit the covers back under the sides of the bed before giving him a kiss on the forehead. The man had looked up at him with tenderness then seemed surprised to find him awake. Despite being a touch embarrassed at having been caught watching the man tend him, Vin asked the one question that haunted him most.
The man had told him his name was Chris and he worked that name around in his head. He liked it. In fact, it sounded really good to him. Then the man, Chris, had asked him to listen to him. Not told him, but asked him. That felt good, too. Then the man had told him about Mrs. Miller being sick. Well, he already knew that. She was sick a lot. Thats when he would take JD into their bedroom and be as quiet as possible. Because she didnt feel good. The part about what she had done not being his fault was a bit confusing, but the next part sent his head spinning.
Ever since the first day he had seen this man...
Dangit. Chris. His name's Chris. Gotta remember that.
Ever since he had met Chris, he had trusted him. The man looked a bit scary, that was for sure, but for some reason, Vin didnt feel so afraid of him. He spoke to Vin honestly and Vin believed him, mostly. That is, until now.
Did he just say I was a good kid? His momma used to tell him that. It always made him feel warm and fuzzy inside. But since she had gone to heaven, nobody else had. They had all told him he was bad. A bad speller, a bad reader; a bad, unwanted, worthless little boy.
Whoa! Did he just say he wanted me to live with him?
Vins mind whirled with what he had just heard. His face gave little hint to the mixture of emotions churning in his gut. Fear, wonder, hope. The mask to hide his emotions was something he had perfected long before, back at the home in Dallas when one of the other kids told him not to let anyone see him cry or look scared. It had taken a while, but he had learned pretty well how to hide all of his emotions. That was easier.
Could it be true? Had he and JD found someone who wanted them? Just until they found a family that wanted to take them both. Vin swallowed. No, he didnt really want them, but he was going to take them in, both of them, and find both of them a home. And right now, any chance for him to see JD again was good enough. If things turned out badly, well, maybe they could run again. But for now, he would take what he could get.
Okay. The quiet response wasnt quite what he wanted to say, but from the look of relief on Chris face, it seemed like enough.
Chris had never thought one word could make him feel this good. But he quickly tempered his enthusiasm. Nothing was definite yet and this afternoon could prove either victorious or sorely disappointing for a lot of people. Vin's facial reactions had been next to nothing, but within those blue eyes Chris had watched all of the emotions play out as the boy thought out his answer. It wasn't quite the reaction he had dreamed of, but under the circumstances, he would take what he could get.
JD had been overly enthusiastic when Buck had talked to him about the arrangement. Chris feared the boy didnt completely understand what temporary meant, but they would deal with that when the time came. Somehow. Right now, Buck was busy enough fielding the rapid fire questions coming from the boy about the ranch, the horses, how Vin was, when they were going, when he was going to get to see Vin Chris was exhausted just thinking about it.
Now, Ive got to go see the judge. They havent okayed this arrangement yet. Chris saw the confusion on Vins face. I have to get permission to take you home with me.
Always back to his cousin. It both warmed and saddened Chris heart that this young boy felt such a responsibility to look after his younger relative.
JDs coming too, but Bucks going to have custody of him. Then we can all live out at the ranch while we try and find you boys a permanent place to live.
Vin seemed to mull that over then simply said, Okay.
The word didnt have quite the same effect the second time around. It was more of a resigned answer than one of enthusiasm and Chris wished he could offer more reassurances. But he had to go. They could talk about it all more tonight, when things were more definite and Vin had gotten some more rest. The eyes were drooping and Chris had unconsciously slipped his hand around the boys tiny wrist again while they were talking. Vin had in turn wrapped his tiny hand around Chriss wrist or as much as he could and the fingers were now relaxing their hold.
You need to rest now. Just go on to sleep and when I get back tonight, we can talk more.
Vins body jerked and his hold tightened on Chris arm again. Fear. Those big blue eyes were once again filled with it.
How many times had this boy felt such fear? How many times had someone walked away never to return? Did Vin think he wouldnt come back?
I'll see you tonight, Vin. Chris tried to reassure the child. I promise.
The blue eyes were now clouded with a mixture of pain and fear. Leaning over to look Vin closer in the eyes, Chris felt the pressure of his keys in his pocket and an idea was born. Taking them out, he quickly removed the beaded key chain, instinctively fingering the letters as he held it out.
You see this key chain, Vin? he asked as he held the object before the tired eyes. A slight nod was his answer. Chris swallowed quickly as the bittersweet memories surged to life once again. Someone very special gave it to me. He told me that every time I used my keys or felt it in my pocket I would think of him.
It means a lot to me. Another nod as the blue eyes locked on the sacred object. Carefully Chris put the memento in Vins left hand, closing the boys fingers around it. Then he again caught Vin's gaze.
You hang on to this for me. Then you can know for sure Im coming back soon. Its important to me and I never leave things important to me behind. But, Vin, this key chain is not nearly as important as you are. Ill come back because youre important to me.
Chris saw the eyes widen a little in awe, that look tugging at his heart before it was followed by a slight nod as the blue eyes drifted shut and sleep took hold.
Swallowing hard against the huge lump in his throat, he watched the tiny fist that formed around the beads of the chain. He would be back as soon as possible and he hoped for his sake, for Vins sake, and for the sake of everyone else around that he would return with good news.
Judge Reginald McAlexander rubbed at his left temple as he drank down the last drops of cold coffee from his mug. He had wanted the evening to review all of the information and make his decision on the future of one Vincent Tanner and John Daniel Dunne. Having worked within the family court system for nearly twenty-five years as both a lawyer and now a judge, the man thought he had seen and heard it all, but the unusual phone call from the son of his best friends ex-wife had been unexpected and surprising. The idea of two single hardened law enforcement officers suddenly wanting temporary custody of two small orphans was a new wrinkle he had yet to encounter. And though he had always liked Maudes only son, he was honor bound to do what was best for the two wards.
Just reading through the boys histories was enough to reignite his conviction as to why he had even started work in this field. Nearing retirement he was weary of the evils that far too often befell the young innocents of the world, but by God, he would fight until his dying breath to save every last one of them that he could. Thinking on his own children and now his grandchildren, of whom he had worked to bring the best to, he wondered about these two young boys. They had been loved and cherished at one time, but now had been lost and practically abused by a system that was overworked, understaffed, and under funded. It wasnt a good enough excuse for what the boys had suffered but it was the reality. It was too easy for things and even children to sometimes fall through the cracks.
Having had the opportunity to meet the younger of the two, JD, as the youngster had demanded to be called, his conviction had only grown. Under different circumstances he would have demanded to meet with both boys, but the older one had enough strangers to contend with without adding to the mix, so instead he had used some of the mass of resources he had accumulated over the years to do his investigating for him.
What a mess. The judge sighed loudly as he once again read over the boys lives laid out on the papers before him, then the records of the two men who were seeking custody. Both had exemplary records of service, both with the police department and the ATF. What did worry him was the information on Chris Larabees loss of a wife and son nearly three years prior. There was a lapse in the mans work records of about six months, during which there was one record of an arrest for being drunk and disorderly stemming from a barroom brawl. The charges had been dismissed and punishment limited to community service, but still What would make a man who had suffered such a loss suddenly decide to take on the responsibility of one seven-year-old orphan? It was all very unusual.
Then there was Buck Wilmington. Never married and a committed bachelor, if the talk from his secretary was any indication. From the little he had overheard the man had single-handedly dated nearly half of the secretaries in the courthouse at one time or another. That did not exactly do much in recommending the decorated agent for foster fatherhood. And yet he had paid close attention earlier as the big agent interacted with the young boy he was seeking custody of. And not just in the court setting. He had managed an accidental encounter in the mens bathroom while he heard the agent doing his best to soothe the worries and fears of one little five-year-old.
The boys did not want to be separated, that much had been reiterated to him over and over, but sometimes these things were not in his hands. Things were rarely that black and white. It was his job to make sure the boys were both cared for in the best and most plausible way.
Wiping a hand down his lined face he grimaced at the ever-growing headache. Yep, definitely one big mess.
Picking up the phone he started the first of his round of inquiring phone calls. He had a very important decision to make.
Both men trudged toward their destination with minds lost in thought, barely aware of their surroundings. The familiarity of the hospital had become tedious. The last few hours had taken their toll on the mens fledgling reserves and the last few days of waiting and worrying were showing in the lines of their faces and the dark smudges beneath their eyes.
Chris mind turned things over and over, wondering if there was something more he could have done. Steps he could have taken that would have made the afternoons proceedings go more smoothly. The judge had been firm in his conviction that the proposed arrangement was highly irregular and his misgivings had been all too clear. Still, he hadnt said no, not yet anyway. But Chris feared that come mornings light that would be the outcome.
But worst yet, what was he supposed to tell the innocent young soul whose entire fate lay in the hands of a stranger. Vin would be expecting an answer, of that he was certain. And even if he said nothing, the boy would pick up on that, too. Far too discerning for his age, Vin Tanner was accustomed to bad news and somehow Chris was certain that would be exactly how the youngster would see it, because he had to admit that he himself was less than hopeful. How could he go into that hospital room and pretend like everything was going to be just fine, if right now he didnt even believe that himself? And the thought of disappointing Vin gave his stomach another sickening lunge. He really was tired.
Bucks mind was filled with thoughts of one frightened little boy. The dark headed imp had wormed his way right into the very heart and soul of the big ladies man and just an hour ago that same small boy had ripped his heart to shreds and left it laying on the floor at his feet.
He had no rights. None. Nada. And he now knew exactly how Chris had felt when he had stormed out of ICU just a few nights ago in a fit of rage. After the judge had declared that he would need the night to revisit all of the evidence, Buck had been forced to once again leave JD in the care of someone else, though this time the judge had ordered that for everyones best interest, that someone else would be a county caregiver instead of Nettie Wells. JD had spent the last evening in her care after being released from the hospital and though it had been the only solution, it had been hard on everyone involved.
The sudden outrage had been silenced efficiently by the judge and after threats of a night in jail, Buck had calmed down. Well, not exactly calmed down, but he had forcibly kept his mouth shut. The fact that the whole idea of the hearing was to make a good impression on the judge only made things worse.
Had his outburst hurt his chances, their chances? Would he ever get to hold JD in his arms again? How would he ever get the sight of a terrified and screaming JD out of his head?
With tears streaming down his face and sobs of terror the little boy had been rushed out of the courthouse by one of the social workers. It was like a nightmare come true. JD kept screaming for Buck and all he could do was stand there and watch, knowing that to resist would only delay the inevitable and possibly destroy what little hope he had of ever getting custody of the boy. But, damnit, it wasnt fair. Not to the terrified little boy who had already lost far too much in his young life and not to Buck, whose whole world had taken on a whole new meaning.
A long fifteen minutes had been spent in the mens room hurling what felt like not only the entire contents of his stomach, but also part of his intestines as well. The pain was so intense and unrelenting that Buck was totally at a loss at how to deal with it. Then as he had finally gained some resemblance of control and wobbled his way to a sink to wash out his mouth he had seen them. The eyes of his best friend reflected in the mirror as Chris stood just back to his left, respecting his space to compose himself, but there just in case he needed anything. But what got to him, what turned him inside out and nearly sent him reeling back to the porcelain bowl, was the pain he saw within the pale green eyes. It mirrored his own and understanding dawned. This was what Chris had been dealing with for months.
Buck was always one to look for a bright side. It wasnt that he was unaware of the bad or that he tried to ignore it or sugarcoat it even. The openhearted agents personality was just naturally boisterous and honest. He often chose to dwell on the upbeat possibilities rather than the disheartening. This was different. This fear, this pain, was so raw. His very soul felt as if it had been raked over the hot coals of hell. After a Herculean effort to steel up his courage and determination he had managed to get himself together and was now headed with Chris to the hospital to see Vin.
Judge McAlexander had been given everyones contact numbers, from Chris and Bucks and every other member of the team all the way down to Orin Travis, the teams director, and the ICU waiting rooms direct line. Now all they could do was wait. Tomorrow was a new day and would either mean a new beginning for them all or Words of what an unfavorable decision would mean were hard to come by. Hard, painful, terrifying. Walking into the tiny cubicle that had become Chris second home over the last few days neither man was prepared for the emptiness.
The bed was empty. The room was empty.
Chris felt panic grip his heart. No!
Buck stared dumbfounded at the clean, pressed sheets. What was happening?
Vin had still been doing okay when he left, but Surely someone would have called him. Of course his phone had been turned off in court, but
Mr. Larabee? Oh my, Im so sorry. Nurse Bradley hadnt seen the men come in or she would have stopped them. Seeing the pale and shocked features, she realized her error. Theyve moved him. We needed the space and they can take care of him in the pediatric wing now that hes alert and out of immediate danger.
Chris felt his heart restart and his breathing resume. Dear Lord, he had almost thought Regaining his composure quickly and needing to see for himself that Vin was in fact okay he questioned. What room?
3024. Nurse Bradley had memorized the number, wanting to stop in to check on the little one herself once her shift was done. One glance by Vins sad blue eyes and she, too, had been lost. She certainly prayed that this boy found a kinder road in the future and she was certain by the conviction in the mans eyes before her that he would see to it.
Chris was out the door before Buck could blink and the big ladies man flashed a quick smile to the angel of mercy before following on his best friends heels. Thank you, maam.
By the time Buck caught up with Chris the elevator doors almost trapped his foot, but he said nothing. From the shadowed look on the other mans face, words of any kind would not be welcome until he had assured himself that one little seven-year-old was okay. And the truth was he was just as anxious.
Admittedly his heart had been lost almost immediately to JD, but Vin tugged on his heartstrings with nearly as much earnest. From the very first meeting he had been impressed by Vins courage and conviction. Despite the fact that Vin had taken JD onto the streets and away from what appeared to be a safe home, he had admired the little guys fire. Now with the true magnitude of what the boys had suffered, what all Vin had done to try and protect his younger cousin, his admiration had only grown, along with his fear and longing to make sure both boys had a better life ahead of them.
While JD had been able to maintain at least a portion of his childlike innocence, Vins had been all but stripped away. Buck liked the idea that he might have a chance to help restore it, or at least give the older boy a taste of the childhood he deserved. Not that he had any illusions that becoming a foster parent to JD would be easy, but somehow he was sure that Chris would definitely have his hands full with the man-child that resided in the body of a seven-year-old.
Following Chris off of the elevator and nearly running into his backside when the man stopped to read the room number arrows on the overhead, he wasnt prepared when Chris swung around to face him. The look on his face was a mask, but Buck saw the underlying turmoil of emotions.
I think its best if you stay here. Chris words were firm and he continued even as the protest was born on Bucks lips.
You know as well as I do that Vins a pretty sharp kid. The minute you walk in there without JD hes going to start asking questions. Chris swallowed hard, not really wanting to remind Buck of the days earlier events. Questions neither of us want to answer.
Buck knew the sense of Chris words. Vin was worried enough and the last thing he wanted to do was add to it, but dang it. Hed already had to walk away once today. Why did he have to do it again?
Seeing the turmoil plainly evident on Bucks face Chris offered a touch of a compromise. Ill go in and talk to him and maybe I can reassure him that JDs okay, or maybe when he falls asleep I can come get you. I just dont think he can handle much more. And silently he added, Not sure how much more I can handle either.
It was sad, but true, though Buck wasnt called stubborn for nothing. How about I just stand outside the door? Hell never see me. Trust me when I say ole Bucks real good at not being seen when he dont want to be. Dark eyebrows wiggled with the jab, but the deep blue eyes didnt hold the amusement intended.
Chris curt nod was the only answer as he turned and headed down the hallway to his left in search of room 3024.
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