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Dr. Allison Cross had seen a lot in her twenty-two years as a child psychologist, so much of it sad and tragic. Deep into her forties she was still considered a very attractive woman by most, even if the additional grey hairs and fine lines caused her to sometimes feel differently about it. Those were the wages of war, for she had learned early on that often life was just that, a war of survival. She liked to think of herself as one of the instructors just trying to train others, children, how best to endure the trials put upon them.
At twelve years old she had lost her best friend to family violence and had never seen it coming. Her innocence had been deeply altered that summer, leaving behind a lasting impression. And the incident had become the catalyst to where she now stood today. It had become her vow to help stop that type of thing from happening again.
It wasnt until quite a few years later that her true calling became known. Helping out at one of the local shelters as a part of her community service she had met her mentor, another child psychologist. The caring and compassion this man showed to the many young children who came through the shelter and even the teenage runaways hooked her instantly.
Now, nearly thirty years later the task, though sometimes demanding, was no less rewarding. The losses still haunted her and would continue to, she was certain, but the wins made it all worthwhile. And with one look at the chart of the little boy she had been asked to see, she had determined that this one would be a win. It was a heartbreaking history and a case she was certain would prove to be a challenge. It seemed as if this boy had drawn quite a few peoples interest, if the phone calls she had received were any indication.
Heading over to the hospital she mentally prepared herself for all of the possible scenarios she might encounter. This Vin Tanner had suffered much loss and abuse, the internal scars of which would likely cause him continued problems in the future. But all children did not react in the same way. Anger was often an understandable reaction, with the child lashing out at a world that had shown him nothing but pain and reproach. Some withdrew into themselves, closing themselves off from the reality of the pain and the heartache of feeling unloved. From what she had read in the files, this boy was still a bit of a mystery.
On one hand there had been the reports of fighting recently at school and some undefined disciplinary problems from the county childrens facility he was in before in Texas. She felt a sense of anger at the thought of a helpless five-year-old thrust into such a situation, but knew from experience that time, money, and resources often worked against children who suddenly found themselves parentless.
As she now neared the hospital room that the young boy had been moved to she prepared for the first meeting by drawing around her the cloak of professionalism that would see her through facing yet another innocent victim of society. Lord, how she sometimes hated her job almost as much as she loved it.
She knocked lightly before entering, not wanting to frighten the child any more than necessary. Today was just to meet him and try and get a general feel for what she would be dealing with in the future. How many patients had she seen over the years? She had lost count long ago. Too many times she had done just this. Walked into a hospital room and faced a battered child. The sight, though common now, still made her stomach flip and for that she was grateful. If she lost that feeling, she knew she would lose the ability to help others.
The boy was small for a seven-year-old. Delicate bones and a near ashen face, starkly contrasted by the greenish-yellow bruises around the left cheek and eye. Tiny lashes lay closed and she was hesitant to disturb the patient. He looked so peaceful, as if his innocence still remained intact, but she knew better especially when just seconds later the eyes flew open and the body jerked. Intense blue eyes regarded her with a mixture of fear and pain. The sudden move had obviously caused the boy to ignite the discomfort of his injuries. She needed to reassure the boy and quickly.
Hello there. My names Dr. Cross. Im just here to see how youre doing. The tense body didnt move and the intense stare never wavered. I guess youve met quite a few strangers over the last few days. Its kind of hard being in a strange place, too.
Did she have his attention? He was certainly watching her like a hawk so she made sure to keep her distance until he felt more comfortable. First impressions were always important. She was wearing a plain white lab coat, more to identify herself as a doctor as anything else. At only five foot two and with her shoulder length dark brown hair pulled up out of her face and secured with a clip in the back she was less threatening than most, but she also realized that this particular child had suffered at the hands of his foster mother. Something she needed to accomplish was to rebuild this young childs trust, not only in others but also in himself and his own judgments. And there was no time like the present to begin.
Grabbing a chair near the wall she pulled it a little closer to the bed, but not too close, and sat down.
Its always hard meeting new people? Scares me, too. A slight twitch of the eyes revealed what she wanted. While scared himself, the child wouldnt expect her as an adult to also admit to being afraid. You know what? Why dont we use first names so then we wont be exactly strangers. My names Doctor Allison Cross, but you can just call me Dr. Ally. Hows that?
She waited a few seconds, letting her words sink in, and then queried, Whats your name?
Even though she already knew it, the goal was to try and pull the boy out of his fear and at least get him talking. She waited and when it seemed that no answer was forthcoming she pretended to peruse the papers in the file she had brought with her. Lets see. It says here that your name is Vin Tanner. Vin, is that short for Vincent, Calvin, or maybe Kevin? Still no response other than a quick blink.
It took some effort to keep the deep sigh from her voice. Each situation had its similarities and differences. Many children found it hard to talk to a stranger and many withdrew from others when abuse was involved, but something told her that this young man might turn out to be even more so than usual. Just as she was beginning to believe that this visit was going to be totally one-sided she was startled by the entrance of a blond man dressed in dark clothes. His face at first seemed kind until he noted her in the room and quickly moved toward the bed. The stern visage and brusque demeanor had her up and starting to move closer to the bed within seconds, not sure who the man was or what his intentions might be. But even before she could make it halfway a quiet voice answered her questions.
The change was instantaneous on both the young boys face and the mans. Relief and a look of warmth grew on both guarded faces without the two being fully aware of it. Ally watched it with renewed interest. Vin was showing signs of trust; that was very rare for someone who had suffered as he had. And the man who she now assumed was the one seeking temporary custody of the boy exuded strength that seemed to fortify the child with his very presence. The boy looked to this man for assurance and protection. But even with that noted she had to remain objective. Obviously this Chris Larabee cared for Vin. It had been his first instinct to protect the boy from an unknown person, but then again that was his job on a daily basis. Protecting the weak. But there was a great deal more to looking after a child, especially one with such a past. The question was would this man be up to the challenge.
Mr. Larabee? Ally questioned as she continued, seeing a slight nod from the man as he regarded her warily. My names Doctor Allison Cross. Sticking out her hand she was glad to see him reciprocate as they shook hands over the bed. I just came by to check in on Vin here.
Hearing the name, Chris remembered the conversation with Nettie Wells just a couple of days earlier. Having worked in both the local school system and with social services as a counselor he had asked her to recommend someone to help Vin deal with the abuse and pain he had suffered. He knew that after all that Vin had suffered, both physically and emotionally, this wouldnt be something that could be fixed with just a few sessions of talking to a therapist. Whether he got temporary custody or not, Chris was determined to find someone that would be a constant in the boys life and help him deal with the past and whatever the future might hold.
Character assessment was a necessity in his line of work. Knowing a little about reading people, body language, and mannerisms was vital in catching the criminals and staying alive. It wasnt even something he did consciously anymore. And he had already been mapping out this woman and her potential threat value from the moment he stepped into the room. He liked her. First of all he had noted the way she had moved toward the bed when he entered, much as himself, in a gesture to shield Vin from harm if necessary. Something about her eyes and the way they regarded both him and Vin spoke of experience and compassion all at the same time. Then there was the fact that she was small and non-threatening looking. Maybe that would also help in the long run. But the clincher was when she stuck out her hand and shook his. Firm grip, direct eye contact, and a warm smile. Yep, he liked this woman. Still, there was one more major hurdle.
If you have a moment, doctor, Id like to speak with you outside. Chris stared at her intently, but she didnt bat an eye.
Certainly. Ally Cross was very intrigued. She had seen a lot of what she needed to and also wanted a chance to speak with the man alone. Vin, Id like to come back sometime. Maybe tomorrow? She waited and watched as Chriss hand tightened slightly on the tiny one he held.
Its okay, Vin. Doctor Cross here just wants to help you. Maybe you two can get better acquainted next time and you can talk, maybe even play a game or something. Would you like that? Chris wasnt completely sure how all of this would work, but for certain he needed to get Vin to trust this woman.
Vin had been only slightly surprised when the strange woman had entered his room. So many doctors and nurses had come and gone over the past few days that it was hard to keep track. But he was watching for Chris, who had promised to come back as soon as possible. But they had moved him to a different room. What if Mr. Chris couldnt find him? What if he was lost now? The large agent had been near his bed nearly every time he had awakened, many times even holding his hand or wrist. At first it had frightened him. He was afraid that he had been arrested for being bad and hitting Mrs. Miller. He was afraid that they would lock him away in some small room and leave him there forever. But worse than that, he was afraid that he would never get to see his little cousin JD again.
Chris had explained to him many times that he was not in trouble, that he had not done anything wrong, and that JD was just fine. At first, Vin hadnt believed him, but staring up into the mans green eyes he had been drawn in. This man wouldnt lie to him. For reasons he couldnt explain he trusted this savior of his dreams to tell him the truth and protect him, even if it didnt last, because nothing good ever lasted. Somehow he always messed up and the good stuff would go away. Always. But for now he would try really hard to be good and not mess up. For now he would trust Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck to look after him and JD. Later, when he felt better, felt stronger, he could figure out how to get JD back and get them both somewhere safe and together where no one could ever take anything away from them again.
When Chris had suddenly walked into the room, Vin had felt his stomach flip like he wanted to throw up, but that didnt make sense. He was happy to see Mr. Chris. Really, really happy. The short lady in the white coat didnt look too scary, but he still didnt like being looked at by all of these strangers. She had been asking him questions and talking to him, he liked her voice, but still He had liked Mrs. Miller the first time he saw her, too.
The foster mother had seemed really nice at first and definitely a welcome relief from the constant fear and worry Vin had felt for the two weeks that JD and himself had been put into that nasty childrens home. True, it hadnt seemed as bad as the one in Texas, but good things never lasted and it would have been only a matter of time before both boys were set upon by the bigger boys of the home. Of that, Vin had been certain, his past experience a constant reminder and the cause of nightmares that kept him by JDs side every minute, especially when going to the bathroom or sleeping. Not that Vin had even gotten much sleep for those long two weeks. At least they had said it had been that long; it had felt like months.
Vin was drawn from his reverie when Chris addressed him. He felt the green eyes begging for his trust. Just in that look, Vin could see a lot more questions than had been voiced, asking the boy to trust not only him but the lady doctor. Something in the look told Vin that this was important, that he needed to be good, and be nice to this particular doctor. Despite the thrill he felt at the fact that this man, his hero, would even take the time to talk to him and ask him something, there was also an overshadowing fear. Why was this important? Everything that happened, even things that should have brought comfort and security to this little boy, was now tempered with suspicion. Swallowing hard, Vin made the same decision he had been making on a regular basis over the last few days. He chose to trust Chris.
Dr. Cross was intrigued by the interaction between boy and man, though she had to admit there was so little of an innocent little boy left within the wary blue eyes of this Vin Tanner. It was as if the two were communicating just by staring at one another. Then she watched as the boy finally broke eye contact with the agent and looked directly at her.
Thatd be nice, maam.
The quiet words caught her off guard and it took her a minute to even remember what the boy was referring to. Oh, yes, Id like that, too. Ive got some great toys and we could color or draw whatever you like.
Vin was trying to be brave and good, but it was hard when he was still so scared. Forcing a tiny grin he started to speak, Thank ya, er Vins words were cut off when his scratchy throat, still sore from the tubes that had been down it, protested even the minimal use. He began to cough and wheeze a bit.
Chris was lifting him slowly, to help him breathe and at the same time rubbing the boys back, achingly aware of the feel of the boys spine and ribs that stuck out of the thin frame. Its okay. Just take it easy and breathe.
The coughing ceased, but left Vin weak. Grabbing the cup of water from the bedside table and pushing the straw toward Vins mouth Chris instructed the boy to take a few sips before helping to settle him back into the bed. Pulling the covers up over the boy, he brushed back the unruly tuft of hair that was constantly flapping into Vins eyes. The blue eyes closed as exhaustion once again took its toll.
Just go on back to sleep, Vin. Im going to step out into the hall and speak to the doctor and then Ill be right back. Chris started to move away, but froze as tiny fingers gripped at his wrist with a weak hold. The blue eyes searched his face, but then closed as the fingers relaxed and sleep drew the boy in. Tucking the errant hand under the covers, Chris saw the other hand closed in a fist and recognized the object held in a death grip, even in sleep. The beaded key chain. Swallowing hard he steeled his facial expression and looked up at the doctor. With a mere tilt of his head he walked out of the room.
Allison Cross had seen many things in all of her years as a psychologist, but this She wasnt even sure what to call it. Despite the fact that she knew that these two, this man and boy, barely knew each other there was an unmistakable bond between them. Something beyond tangible things. The way they had just looked at each other, each seeming to read the others thoughts was nothing short of amazing. But still, she was here to get a feel for this boy and as a bonus she had also gotten a sneak peek into the man who was seeking temporary custody. All the reports, all of the background information on both the boy and the man had not prepared her for the depth of caring and trust she had seen pass between the two. With her curiosity peaked, she quickly followed the brooding blond out into the hallway.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had heard the conversation through the door and had barely suppressed the urge to go in himself. But Chris had been right. Vin would have asked too many questions. Ones they just didnt want to answer right now. When Chris came out followed by the doctor, he stood up straight, and then did a quick double take. This doctor was nice looking. Tempering his smile so the doctor wouldnt get the wrong idea, well, at least not figure out what his initial thoughts had been, Buck glanced over to gauge Chriss reaction. The blond was stone faced as usual.
Chris stuck out his hand once again to the doctor, not bothering to mince words. He wanted to get to the point and get back into that hospital room. Shaking her hand firmly he was direct.
Doctor Cross, I appreciate you taking the time to come by. You come highly recommended and Ive checked your credentials. If the woman was surprised or annoyed, she hid it well so he continued. Right now my major concern is for Vin to get the help he needs and more than anything else he needs stability and people in his life that he can trust.
There it was. Allison was impressed by his directness, but slightly taken back by his approach. All her experience told her that the man was about to plead his own case for custody. She was wrong.
Im not sure if youre aware that Mr. Wilmington and I are seeking temporary custody of both Vin and his five-year-old cousin John Dunne, but thats not what I wanted to talk to you about. Nettie Wells said that youre the best. Vins been through hell and I just want to make sure that youre committed to do what it takes to help him.
I assure you, Mr. Larabee, that I am well aware of the situation, both yours and Vins. His welfare is my primary concern and She couldnt keep the touch of anger out of her voice. How dare this man question her commitment to the boys welfare?
Im sorry, Dr. Cross. Chris needed to clarify his point and fast. Please hear me out before you decide anything.
With no further words from her he continued to plead his case. Like I said, I just want whats best for Vin. I dont know what the judge is going to decide, but whether I get custody or the state, whether Vin ends up in a county home or somewhere else, whether he gets to stay with JD or not He nearly choked on the last part, knowing the heartache both boys would suffer if it came down to them being separated.
I just need to know that no matter where Vin ends up, that someone who gives a damn will be there to help him deal with it. Both with all of his past and whatever he ends up facing in the future. Hes going to need someone he can count on, someone that will be there, no matter what. Ill pay you for your services, whether hes with me or not. I just need to know youre willing to stay on his case. He needs that. He needs to know that there will always be someone in his corner whos going to do what it takes to help him survive.
Allison Cross swallowed down the lump this mans plea had brought to her throat and thought silently. Looks like hes already got that.
I am good at what I do, Mr. Larabee. And I am committed to do whatever it takes to help Vin. No matter what. And she meant it. It had always been her goal, her life ambition, to help children. But this time it would be her conviction. Now, if youll excuse me, I need to get back to my office. Sticking out her hand, he took it once more. Ill be in touch.
Turning away to head down the hallway she walked with hurried steps. She had a phone call to make.
The darkness outside and the chill of the air were insignificant. Too many dark thoughts and the bone chilling fear that he couldnt shake had his complete attention for the moment. Buck Wilmington had faced notorious felons and cold-blooded murderers. He had witnessed many horrendous acts of mans cruelty in his line of work in law enforcement. Personal loss had also been endured on too many occasions, but in all his years he couldnt remember ever feeling this scared.
Buck had had every intention of going home, taking a hot shower, and going to bed. But as he walked down the corridors of the hospital on his way out, seeing the other children in the pediatric ward and imagining little JD once again at play in the playroom at the end of the hall, his steps had grown more leaden. It had been less than five hours since he had last seen the boy and he missed him so much it hurt. The elevator ride had been depressing without the feel of a small hand held tightly within his own and the sound of wheeeee echoing in the tiny enclosure. JD had made him ride up and down in the elevator four times just that morning. The boy took such pleasure in the simplest things.
Now he sat alone in his truck, still parked in the hospital parking lot. He wasnt even sure how long he had been sitting there and truthfully didnt care. The keys had made it into the ignition switch, but that was it. All of the energy seemed to have drained right out of his body as he had sat down in the seat.
Chris was supposed to go home with him and also get some much needed sleep, but there was no way Buck could stand up against the pain on his friends face when he had simply said, I cant leave, not tonight.
The declaration had stabbed him in two ways. Not only had he empathized with Chris, he had also been reminded of his own plight. At least Chris had tonight. Buck had been forced to let JD be taken away by a stranger. Just the night before he had tossed and turned in his bed, even though JD had been in very good hands. After being released from the hospital it had been decided and approved that JD stay the night with Nettie Wells. Buck had stayed with the boy until he fell asleep, then left for his apartment to get some sleep.
It had proved to be a restless and short lived night as a phone call from Nettie at 1:00 am had him hurrying back to the womans home to quiet and reassure a terrified little boy that his cousin was just fine and they would even go and visit him the next morning. JD had awoken from a nightmare and been inconsolable. Not wanting to further traumatize the child Nettie had called Buck, who must have broken every speed record to get there.
It had been less than thirty minutes later that she had found the two curled up on the guest bed, both snoring to beat the band. Pulling the quilt up over the slumbering forms she had left them to their much-needed rest and gone back to bed herself.
Why the judge had decided against JD spending another night with her, Buck still didnt understand. What would it have hurt? Instead he had stood by as a caseworker, though a nice seeming lady, had carried a distraught and screaming JD from the courtroom.
Squeezing his eyes against the moisture Buck ignored the tears that escaped to run down his cheeks. He might be a bit rusty, but he certainly knew how to pour out his heart. So thats what he decided to do. Staring up out of his windshield to the dark night sky above he began to pray aloud.
I know you and me havent always been on the best of terms, but Ive always been told you look after fools and little children. Well, I reckon Ive been called a fool enough times to qualify and what I want to ask you about is a little child. Two of em, in fact. I know you know what all those two boys have been through. Hell oops, sorry, Lord. Heck, you have to know even more than any of us. See, I just want whats best for those boys. And even though I dont rightly understand why theyve had to go through all that they have, I know you just want whats best for them, too.
Remembering the night at the hospital when Josiah had come by to let him know they had found Vin and then hearing how they had found him, he felt his throat close up and had to cough and swipe again at his eyes before continuing.
They deserve better. And theyve got to stay together. Theyve seen too much already. No kid should have to be as scared as Ive seen both of those two. Vin, hes been playing grown up so long I think hes forgotten that he even is a little kid. I just want him to be able to laugh and play and enjoy being a child. And JD, Lord, that boy is the biggest bundle of energy and joy that I think Ive ever seen. But he needs Vin and a family and lots of love. They both need lots of love. All Im asking is for you to take care of them and it sure would be nice if you let Chris and me be a part of that. Just, well
Buck felt something soft beneath his hand and discovered one of JDs sweatshirts lying on the seat beside him. The boy got hot almost as easy as Vin seemed to get cold. He just assumed it was all of that bundled up energy trying to burn its way out of the small boy. Pulling it up to his nose and breathing in deeply he marveled at the scent and how it made him feel. Sweat and something he could only describe as the smell of a child filtered into his system, only adding to his pain.
Please, God. Just Please. Amen.
Laying his head back against the seat and pulling the shirt up close to his heart he closed his eyes. What seemed like seconds later he jerked awake, his heart hammering in his chest as he oriented himself. Still in the truck he realized how long he must have slept. It was nearly six in the morning. Guess he had sort of spent the night at the hospital, too, even if it was just in the parking lot. Carefully folding the sweatshirt that had been wadded in his hands, he laid it on the seat and got out of the truck. Maybe he could get some breakfast in the cafeteria and then take Chris some coffee. It was going to be a long, hard morning.
The first early rays of dawn were beginning to show on the horizon as the dim hospital room began to lighten. Chris felt like someone had beaten him and left him for dead. The long days and nights of little sleep and constant worry had taken their toll on his aging body. Not to mention that the torture devices the hospital provided and strangely labeled as chairs had been his home for the last few days.
The original plan for the previous evening had been to go home and get a good nights sleep. Nathan and the others had practically ordered him to. He knew he needed it, especially if his deteriorating mood and attitude were any indication. In fact, he feared that it wouldnt take much right now to send him over the edge. But he couldnt leave. Not this night. What if it were to be the last one? The judge would be giving them his decision sometime this morning. What if he decided against them and this was the last time he would actually get to spend time with Vin? Just the thought made his stomach flip and his head begin to throb in earnest.
Sitting up straight he rubbed at his face, feeling the rough texture of the sheet imprinted there. He had stayed up most of the night just watching Vin sleep. From time to time he would hear Vin make a quiet noise in his sleep, only to find the boys face streaked with silent tears. Each time he would gently wipe Vins face with a damp cloth and rub the bony back until the boy quieted, his own heart breaking a little more with each episode. It hadnt escaped his notice either that the beaded key chain stayed firmly clasped within the tiny hand. Luckily Vin hadnt asked any questions about where he had gone or what the judge had said. Not yet. Tiring easily, the boy slept most of the time as his body worked overtime to heal.
Sometime in the wee hours Chris had also succumbed to the siren call of sleep, laying his head on the bed as he sat hunched over in the chair, thus the nice sheet imprint on his cheek. His hand was nearly cramped from holding Vins free one all night. Not wanting to disturb what was probably the longest period of undisturbed sleep the boy had been able to get in days, he carefully stood up, stretching out his aching muscles, but never taking his eyes off of the angelic face. His heart ached at the sight, knowing nothing could rival the feeling of watching the sweet innocence of a child in slumber.
Finally tearing his eyes away he moved silently out into the hall in search of a cup of coffee. Checking his watch he was startled to see that the time was nearly six-thirty. He had slept for almost three hours. Not nearly enough, but better than nothing for now. Just a strong cup of coffee and a quick stop at the restroom and he would be ready to face the day. Or not.
He still felt the gnawing sense of dread in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with the fact that he had barely eaten for days. Why in the world did he think he could do this? Why would Judge McAlexander ever consider giving custody of that tattered, but impressionable soul back in the hospital bed over to a hardened ornery ATF agent? The boy needed a home, some stability, and most of all, love. The resounding stab to his gut and heart answered that question. He did love Vin. Somehow over the past few days, truthfully over the past few months, those two blue eyes and the soul that poured out of them unbidden had stolen the one thing he had thought lost forever. Vin had stolen his heart right there in that dirty alleyway.
All he wanted in life right now was to hear that judge say that he could keep Vin and that Buck could keep JD. It was a package deal and nothing else would do.
Making his way into the restroom he relieved his most urgent need then moved to wash his hands and face. One glance in the mirror and he nearly jumped back from the sight. Damn, but he did look a touch scary. His shortly cropped dark blond hair stuck up and out in various directions. The bags under his eyes had bags, dark droopy bags that gave him an almost ghoulish look. That matched with his pale haggard expression and it was no wonder the nurses had pretty much left him and Vin alone overnight. He probably scared them away. Splashing cold water on his face and using a little to smooth down the errant hairs on his head, he went back out, even more aware of his need for coffee.
The visitors lounge was empty and he rummaged in his pocket for some change. Not finding any he headed back to Vins room for his jacket, hoping to find what he needed there. If not he could always hit the nurses lounge. Most of the ones so far had been very understanding when it came to one little blue-eyed boy. Without even knowing it, Vin had them all wrapped around his finger. That thought alone made the past seem so surreal. A child with so much heart ? How could anyone hurt that?
Shaking his head at his own unanswerable questions, Chris pushed through the door and froze as he spotted the dark figure poised over Vins bed. His natural instincts had him reaching down for the gun he was no longer wearing since the others had thought it best to relieve him of the weapon after the incident in the ICU a few days earlier. But in the next second he relaxed as he recognized the tousled dark head.
Youre up early.
Never went to sleep, Buck answered quietly as he straightened and moved toward the door. Following Chris out into the corridor and closing the door behind them he continued. I kept seeing the look on JDs face when they took him away yesterday and every time I closed my eyes I heard him crying for me.
Chris noticed the dark circles under his friends eyes, realizing more fully how this situation was wearing on everyone. He truly hoped the two of them hadnt looked this bad the previous afternoon in the courtroom. Not knowing anything he could say to ease the pain he only nodded. Then Buck handed him one of the cups of coffee he had gotten in the cafeteria. Buck took a sip of his own then looked up, blue eyes full of pain and fear.
What are we gonna do if Buck couldnt even say it. When he had first starting thinking about keeping JD it hadnt really occurred to him what would happen if it didnt work out. Sure he knew it was a long shot and that JD and Vin both might end up back in foster care or at one of the city childrens homes, but emotionally he hadnt grasped the full effect it would have on him. He had no idea that it would hurt this bad. And for Chris This had to be tearing him apart.
Im sorry, Chris. I didnt realize how hard
Chris raised his hand up, stopping Buck before he could continue, knowing what the man was about to say. Dont. I knew what I was getting into. Ive been thinking about it, too, but if we hadnt at least tried, how could we have lived with ourselves then? Ive got enough regrets in my life. Chris couldnt believe that right now he was the one trying to be optimistic.
God, Chris. I just never thought anything could feel like this. Totally terrified and excited all at the same time. If youda asked me just last year what I wanted most in life, Id have said just to be happy. But the thing is I really thought I already was. I had a job I loved working with my best friend. More women than I could shake a stick at. Buck paused as a look of sheer awe crossed his face. I had no idea. Every time JD yells my name or puts his arms around my neck my whole insides just nearly burst. And then yesterday, Ive never been so scared or so sick to my stomach as I was in that courtroom and when they took him away. Bucks eyes filled again at the agonizing memory.
Chris listened and nodded. He knew exactly what Buck was talking about. Those same feelings were at war within himself though he had experienced that type of joy before. Back when his wife and son were alive. Then that day in the alley when his eyes had met Vins it was almost as if someone had turned on a light inside of him that had been switched off for years. At first, the light had been blinding and painful. Like a pair of eyes used to the darkness suddenly thrust into the bright sun he had shied away, trying to hide from it and the pain. But that had been impossible; for the more he hid the brighter it seemed to glow almost like the dawn of a bright new day.
Right now he just couldnt imagine what he would do if someone suddenly shut that light back off. He was just now starting to become accustomed to it. Its warmth bringing new life to his previously withering soul. Vin had given him a renewed sense of the true joy life could offer. Even JD had wormed his way into Chriss heart with all of his endless chatter, mind-numbing questions, and boundless energy. That little one just radiated a special glow all his own.
I dont know how to go back to before if Buck was at a loss. He had never felt anything like this before. So many times he had claimed to be in love with this woman or that. But nothing compared to how he felt for JD and even for Vin. It was like those two boys were now attached to his heart with tethers and each joy and pain they felt, he felt. Somehow he suspected that this was what it was like to be a father.
Me either. Chris turned away and looked down the hallway toward the end of the corridor and the early grey light of dawn. Today would determine the fate of those two orphan boys. It would reveal if he could continue to breathe in the refreshing new possibilities that life could hold or if he would once again face drowning in loss.
Mr. Larabee. Chris looked up to see one of the nurses coming toward him. You have a call at the nurses station. Its a Judge McAlexander.
Chris felt his entire body tense and his palms become sweaty. Taking a deep breath he moved down the hallway, following the nurse with almost the same feeling of a condemned man being led to his death.
Buck also felt his whole insides flutter. What would the outcome be? Watching Chris as he walked stiffly down the hallway he started to follow, his mind silently praying the whole way.
Please, God. Please.
He awoke with a start, the sounds of childish laughter still echoing in his head like so many times before. Sitting up and looking around he was surprised to see that the room was awash with the light of dawn. Glancing at his alarm clock he read the time. 7:50 am. He was going to be late for work. Jumping up to get ready, his brain scrambled to remember exactly what was happening. Something was different. He actually felt refreshed. How long had he slept? When had he gone to bed?
As Chriss brain began to shift through the muddled memories of the night before his thoughts were interrupted and an icy chill ran down his spine as the muffled sound of childish laughter drifted in through his half closed bedroom door. His entire body froze. Had he finally lost his mind?
As his eyes once again scanned the room he nearly jumped back as his eyes zeroed in on something tucked just beneath the covers on the far side of the bed. The lightly colored fur that was visible had him immediately thinking varmint. Then the second outburst of laughter followed by a high-pitched squeal brought the memories flooding back.
It was Saturday. He wasnt dreaming. This wasnt a nightmare. It was real.
Still in his shorts he grabbed a t-shirt and made his way toward the den and the sounds that had awakened him. As he grew closer he could hear more giggles, followed by a loud rumbling laugh that could only be Buck. Moving into the doorway he felt his heart constrict, but this time what he felt was so wonderful he couldnt quite describe it.
Blankets lay in disarray around the cozy little room and throw pillows littered the floor. The TV was on with some cartoon he wasnt at all sure about in the background. It had been years since he had paid attention to anything dealing with animated creatures, but he had a sneaking suspicion that he would soon get a crash course in all of the latest cartoon characters, as well as a refresher on all of the ones he had pushed to the far reaches of his mind.
Buck was spread out on his back on the floor holding JD up over his head, the boy giggling loudly as his dark hair hung around his face. Arms and legs were extended outward and the slobbery sounds of a fake motor could be heard between giggles. Both were so engrossed in play that they were totally oblivious to anything else around them. Toy cars lay haphazardly near the fireplace, along with a couple of juice boxes and some plastic wrap that Chris wasnt at all sure he wished to know the previous contents of. Buck was still Buck. Further discussion on the preferred eating habits of little boys could be discussed later, as well as the proper disposal of said items.
Afraid to move even a fraction of an inch lest the vision shatter, he slowly moved his eyes to further examine the room. To be honest he had felt a slight pang of worry and was curious as to where Vin was. The younger boy had been nearly beyond exhaustion the night before when Chris had carried him to bed and tucked him in. It had only been a little over two weeks since the seven-year-old had been released from the hospital and he still tired easily. After pizza and a rousing game of Chutes and Ladders the previous night, just one of the many things Buck had brought home with him after a trip for supplies, both boys had been bathed and put to bed, Vin nearly falling asleep in the tub a couple of times.
JD was a naturally happy child, taking great pleasure in the smallest things. Even though the transition to the new living arrangements had not been totally smooth, especially with JD coming to live at the ranch a good week before Vin, the youngest of the wards was resilient and had taken to his new caretakers with more ease than they had dared hope for. But Vin was a completely different matter. His hard life had left the two men to deal not with a seven-year-old boy, but more like a young adult, wary and weary beyond what any child should ever have to be.
Vin had seemed okay with the idea of coming to live with Chris and Buck at the ranch though both men felt that he was more comfortable with it because it meant he and JD would still be together. Vins reactions were typical, even if a bit painful to watch. Though polite and obedient to the point of even helping to keep JD in line when the boys natural boisterousness escaped, Vin was still withdrawn and quiet. The two men had been forewarned about the difficulties that might arise with two boys who had seen and experienced so much.
While JD adjusted and played, Vin seemed determined to carry all of the burdens for both boys. There was always the underlying fear that if they got too loud, played too much, ate too much, did not follow directions The list of fears was endless, but they all led to the same outcome. Vin feared that he and JD would be sent away and worse, separated. Both Chris and Buck had continuously worked to assure him and JD that they would not go anywhere until a nice place was found that would take both boys. Well, actually Chris ended up telling them that because Buck was already so attached to them that he just couldnt bring himself to say the words. It was the deal, the arrangement, the way it was supposed to be. They had to do what was best for the boys and a home and regular family was what they needed.
Still, for the time being, the two boys were theirs and the transition was taxing for both parties. The work schedule, Netties presence in their home every day, the new living arrangements, the team coming over supposedly just to help out, though they all knew it was just a need to see and spend time with the two orphans that had so completely invaded the lives and their hearts. It was all so new. Coming home from a long day at work no longer allowed them quite the reprieve that it once had, though Vin seemed to gauge their moods and often kept JD out of the way if he sensed the two men were tired or stressed. Time and patience was what it would take. JD would follow Vins lead, so he was the main concern for now.
Vin played quietly, not as much as JD, but he did play. He ate what was put in front of him, though Buck and Chris had both caught him slipping part of his food onto JDs plate. They hadnt decided if it was to keep the younger boy from asking for seconds, or maybe Vins appetite still wasnt what it should be and he feared wasting the food. Either way, it was just another thing they would need to work on. He went to bed when told and even stopped JD from protesting when he still wasnt tired and wanted to play longer or finish watching a video. Yet, through it all, not since they had met the two boys had any of them seen Vin smile or laugh. Not once. Buck had tried unsuccessfully to bring the boy out of his solemn shell. Chris had been forced just the other night to give the bighearted man a pep talk when once again his efforts had failed miserably.
Just give him some time. Hes been through a lot and hes still scared. When hes ready, when he feels safe enough, itll come.
Dr. Cross had all but said the exact same thing to him just a week before. The three sessions with the kind psychologist so far had gone okay, though extremely quiet. She had assured them that it would take time to build the type of trust that was needed for Vin to begin to open up and talk about all that had happened to him. And it would take time for him to begin acting like a kid again. Each time Vin flinched or tried to quiet JD or gave JD part of his food when they weren't looking saddened both men and no amount of persuasion helped. It was going to take time and consistency. And a whole lot of love.
Already a few stumbling blocks had found their way into the new equation. Like Vin nearly hyperventilating when he was accidentally closed up in the laundry room. Or the time JD hid under the bed, crying, after Buck had raised his voice in mock anger at a game that was on the television. Though one of the worst had been JD's innocent mention that Mrs. Miller liked sugar cookies, which had caused Vin to spill some milk and then begin trembling in fear of the repercussions. That had been a harsh reminder of their need to talk to Dr. Cross about what and how to tell the boys about the Millers.
Ruth Miller had never regained consciousness and had died not two days after they had found Vin. The doctor said it was from complications of the overdose she had taken. Chris couldnt help but feel she had gotten off way too easy. Maybe she had been distraught and mentally unstable, but it didnt begin to excuse the hell she had put both Vin and JD through.
Bill Miller was awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty at his arraignment to all of the charges against him. The good side to that was that neither of the boys would have to testify. But the former police officers fate was still to be determined. Would he serve any jail time at all or would they take into consideration his years on the force and exemplary record and give him only probation? It could go either way and even with jail time it wouldnt be much, maybe six months at the most at some county facility. Not nearly enough in Chris mind. There were even times, few as they may be, when he could almost feel a touch of sympathy for Miller, who had now lost his son and his wife. But then Vin would flinch away from his touch or a look of utter fear would enter those blue eyes and all he could feel was the need to pound the man into the ground with his bare hands and then lock him away in some cold dark room to rot. Bill Miller, no matter what he had suffered, deserved to pay for what he had done and what he had allowed to happen.
What should he tell Vin and JD? Hadnt they suffered enough at the hands of these two people? Would Vin find himself at fault for Ruth Millers death? Chris didnt even want to think about that. And what if JD asked about her? More than anything he wanted to be open and honest, but at what cost? The boys would need to know, eventually, but hopefully by then both Buck and he would have a better idea how to handle it, with a lot of help from Dr. Cross.
Chris still found it hard to believe at times that the Judge had agreed to the arrangement at all. Judge McAlexander had been adamant though about the conditions. A great deal of supervision in the first few months and that included reports from Nettie Wells and Dr. Cross, both of whom had been instrumental in his decision. Both women had seen a bond between the two men and the orphans that was unmistakable and had been more than happy to offer their opinions to the judge. It was their hope that a stable home with someone Vin trusted would provide the support needed for him to ultimately deal with the abuse he had suffered. But it wouldn't be an easy process. No quick fixes would be found.
Another of the conditions had been that the rest of the boy's school year would be home schooling with Nettie, who had suggested it to begin with. Since she had agreed to help look after the boys when Chris and Buck were at work and with the added stress Vin had suffered it was the simplest solution. Plus the fact that Vin was a bit behind as it was, it would give him less peer pressure and she could work with him one on one. Having been retired for many years, she was actually looking forward to the new challenge.
The future was yet to be determined and how long the boys would stay with them was unsure. A few months, maybe a year, before the right home could be found for them. But if nothing else, Chris wanted the two boys to know that someone cared, that a lot of some ones cared. He wanted them to know that it was okay to be loud and play. And he wanted Vin not to be afraid to be a kid.
Still surveying the room he had yet to locate his foster son and the gnawing in his gut grew with each passing second. Maybe Vin was still asleep. The boy had been extremely tired. What if he were sick? Maybe the fever had returned or he was nauseous and afraid to tell them.
A slight movement out of the corner of his eye drew Chris attention to the other side of the room and a mound of blankets on the couch. He had already seen the blankets, but had dismissed them. Now taking a more intense look he saw the tousled sandy head that lay on the pillow at the far end, the childish face nearly covered with the blanket that was pulled across his body and up to his chin.
The sight took his breath away. His nose began to burn, and his eyes watered at the wonder he beheld. Vin was smiling. It was a small shy smile, but it was there and it was beautiful. The boys entire face seemed alight with wonder as he watched Buck and JD play. A small noise Chris knew was Vins reserved laughter was barely audible over the other noises of the room, vying for supremacy, but he had heard it. And it brought a joy to his heart he had never thought he would feel again.
Buck noticed Chriss arrival out of the corner of his eye and noted the sudden change on his friends face when he had looked toward where Vin lay. It drew his own interest and he, too, felt the wealth of emotions that quiet chuckle and smile produced. Turning back to look upon JDs face and the pure joy radiating from him, his joy intensified. Life was good.
Vin had been up for quite a while when JD had come in to join him in the den. His young cousin had been watching TV and playing with his cars when he had gotten a little loud. A dark shape out of the corner of his eyes had him frozen with fear when he realized they must have awakened one of the adults. Turning his head to see Buck standing in the doorway, an apology already on his lips, he saw the big man smile.
You two havin fun?
JD took that as an invitation and Vin actually cringed when the dark headed whirlwind flew at the big man, wrapping his arms around Bucks legs and beginning his account of the morning from the moment he woke up to find Vin missing all the way up to the loud crash he had just made with the cars in the floor. A tiny portion of Vin was jealous at the ease with which JD talked and acted, but JD was little and didnt know any better. Vin was the big boy and he had to act like it. It was up to him to make sure nobody got mad and nothing bad happened again.
Well, thats quite a morning and its not even good and daylight yet. What say we go in the kitchen and find something to eat and then see what else we can get into today?
That had been nearly an hour ago and now he was lying on the couch watching Buck and JD play. He didnt want to say anything, but he was still kind of tired. Truthfully he had been awake off and on all night as nightmares kept waking him up. Not wanting to disturb JD or his new foster dads, he had moved to the couch in the living room, dragging his blanket and pillow with him. Now he lay snuggled up as he watched JD dangle over Bucks head. He loved to see JD so happy. It was like, for this moment at least, he had succeeded in taking care of his cousin.
Then he felt a change and knew that someone else was watching. Turning his head he had seen Chris looking at him with a big smile on his face and he couldnt help it, he smiled right back. Vin wasnt sure if he had ever seen Chris smile like that and he decided that he liked it. The dark blonds face softened with that smile and it was as if everything was going to be okay.
Staring at the boy now, Chris saw the head turn toward him, almost as if Vin had sensed him standing there. And the tiny grin grew into a complete smile that crinkled the boys nose and lit his eyes with a light so bright it was nearly blinding. Without even knowing it, a smile had crept onto his own face. Vin had seen it and reacted. Chris felt his heart swell even more and had to swallow hard at the lump in his throat. That seemed to be happening a lot lately.
Another loud giggle from the floor and a grunt of pain from Buck as JD landed on his stomach drew the other twos attention.
Oh boy, think ole Buck needs a rest, little bit. Bucks voice was slightly strained as he bit back the pain of the foot that had hit a little below his stomach. He never realized how grateful he could be for tiny feet without shoes.
Come on, Buck, wes jest getting started. Theres still more cars I havent even brung out and the farm set Unca Ezra brought yesterday.
Chris rolled his eyes at JDs last remark. He was definitely going to have to have a little talk with the other three agents, Buck included. Between the four of them the two new additions wouldnt need any clothes or toys for a good while. Despite his declaration that this was a temporary arrangement and that he didnt want to spoil the boys, the others had saw fit to bring something for them nearly every time they came out to the ranch. Even though they had only taken some of the better clothes and a few of the toys from the Millers, not wanting too many reminders from their time there, he still wanted things to seem normal and bringing them new toys and clothes was definitely not normal. JD seemed to eat it all up, which was exactly what he feared, while Vin usually stashed the new stuff away, which also worried him.
Seeing Buck struggling to get up he moved to give him a hand, wondering if JD might have fallen in a more delicate area. Need a hand?
Buck winced a little, but managed to roll over and taking Chris hand pulled himself slowly off of the floor. With a sheepish grin he admitted, You know, it didnt seem like such a bad idea at the time.
Chris couldnt help but chuckle at the sight. Bucks hair was mussed, the neck of his t-shirt was stretched beyond repair, and he had yet to stand up straight. Obviously he and JD had been playing for a while. This was a whole new exercise regimen that was likely to leave both men feeling the effects in the next few weeks.
Glancing back over to Vin and giving him a wink and a grin Chris was once again rewarded with another smile. Could it really be that easy? No, it couldnt, but it was definitely a start. No one knew for sure what tomorrow or next week would bring. But for right now all was right with the world. He had two of the finest boys living in his home and his best friend to help him look after them. It was more than he expected to ever have again and he could not imagine anywhere else he would rather be at the moment. It was a fresh start for these boys and it was a fresh start for himself. The day was full of possibilities and Vin was smiling.
Vin sat up on the couch, pushing away the covers. Wearing his favorite red pajamas, the boy looked so much better than he had just a week earlier. Still frighteningly thin, though the doctor assured them it wasnt a critical issue at the moment, the color in his cheeks was almost rosy, giving him a deceptive look of childish innocence. Other telltale signs of his insecurities were there if one looked close enough. The pajamas themselves had become a comfort item. When Ezra had given the boy the sleepwear as a gift while he was still in the hospital, it had taken quite a few minutes before the boy would even touch them as he stared at the package in awe, but eventually the small hands had reached out to feel the ultra soft fabric before pulling them close and hugging them like a stuffed animal. Vin had even slept with them that night, tucked carefully under his pillow. And Chris had seen a look of pure joy on his undercover agents face at the childs reaction that still marveled him. Ezra had been pulled in by these two boys, just like the rest of them.
Chris also noticed the last few beads of the keychain that hung out from the boys left fist. When Vin had tried to give the keychain back it had been impossible for the man to take it. The item that he had held on to for the last few years as a link to his past now had taken on a whole new significance. For Vin it was a reassurance that someone cared and would always come back for him, or at least Chris hoped it was. Without even thinking about it he had said, Why dont you just hang on to that for now?
He might not have gotten a smile that day, but the relief in the deep blue eyes had been obvious. It had been that moment when he informed Vin that the judge had agreed to let him and JD live with the two agents for a while. Both feeling a mixture of relief and apprehension, they had just sat in silence while Chris held on to Vins wrist and Vin absently rubbed at the keychain. Now, it was very rare that the boy was without the sacred object. At night, it stayed under his pillow or, more often, in his fist, the imprint of it still slightly visible at breakfast most mornings. Other times, it could be found in a pants pocket or hooked to a belt loop on Vins jeans.
Seemingly insignificant little signs that led to a long road of hardship that would take time to overcome. But Vin was trying. He had even eaten heartily at dinner the night before and didnt flinch away as often when touched. Little victories, but Chris would take every one and relish them.
Okay, how about we go find us a real breakfast. Chris knew that someone had to be the grownup and make sure they ate something at least halfway nutritional. Anyone up for pancakes?
It was one of the things they had discovered that Vin really liked. That and pizza, thus the true reason behind Bucks choice for last evenings meal. The smile on Vins face actually seemed to grow and JD let out a resounding Yeah before quickly latching onto Bucks hand, or at least a couple of fingers, and pulling the big man toward the kitchen.
Vin watched JDs actions with a touch of envy. He didnt like being afraid, but he still was. Things were better, definitely better. Still, he couldnt help but wonder when it would end. The dark knight of his dreams now held the face of his own foster parent and he couldnt help but feel a flutter in his heart as the seeds of hope began to grow. Maybe this time it could be different, even if only temporarily.
Chris saw Vin watching JD and witnessed the play of emotions that were there if one looked hard enough. There was still a lingering fear in the blue eyes and he wished more than anything that he could just sweep Vin up in his arms and make it all better. But that wasnt possible, at least, not yet. Baby steps. Thats what Dr. Cross had called them. Little things to gain Vins trust and to reassure the childs own belief in his judgment. Looking over to Vin unsure he held out his hand in offering.
Timidly, blue eyes looked up at him as if weighing a heavy decision then slowly the child slipped his tiny hand into his foster fathers. It couldnt have felt better if he had just won the lottery or bagged the biggest scumbag in Denver. His heart swelled with the unspoken trust that had just been granted to him by this incredibly brave little boy.
Squeezing Vins hand lightly Chris led the way as the bright sunshine of morning began to weed its way through the curtains, shedding warm light into the room. The past for all of them held dark times and regrets, but together they faced a new day just bursting with promise. There would still be setbacks and triumphs as the days went by, but the tiny smile on Vins face, the pure sound of JDs innocent laughter, and the feel of that small hand wrapped within his own was payment enough. It would all be worth it, because in the end, the two boys were worth it all.
Life really was good.
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