The Punching Bag

by Silvia

Note: I always wanted to explore this dark side of Chris and how each of his friends reacted while he was in that mood, how differently they 'helped' him in their own way. I want to thank MOG for creating the ATF Universe, and Deirdre for presenting me with the boys and for her stories, the one I read first and will always have in my heart. And a special thank to Laurel who did the great and hard job of betaing my stories.

The closer to Thanksgiving the days got, the more oppressive the atmosphere in the office seemed to get. It was almost like everyone wanted to be anywhere but where they were. No one on the team was surprised. They were all so close and easily picked up on each other's turmoil. They all felt the thick emotions in the air, they all knew why the heaviness was upon them, and they all hated it.

Chris was the leader of the team; he set the tone for the rest. These days he confined himself to his office. He ate in his office, kept the door closed, appeared in the main area on rare occasions and on even rarer occasions he spoke to them.

Buck felt this was the worst episode he had seen in recent years. After Vin had come to the team much of Chris's darkness had disappeared. Vin had helped Chris without even trying. Often Vin would talk to Buck, try to understand all that had happened in those early years after Sarah and Adam had died. Buck had never wanted Vin to know the full extent of Chris's downward spiral, the days, sometimes weeks when he would take a bottle and drown his sorrow and pain in alcohol. Buck knew those times; he wanted to spare Vin the horrible details.

Even now, with Vin on the team, sometimes only Buck could get through the curtain of pain and darkness to reach Chris. But this year Buck felt it was different. He couldn't pinpoint the reason why, but he would, he kept his thoughts constantly working to discover why it was so bad this year.

"Bucklin, I wanna go talk to him. This has to end." Vin was really worried about Chris. They needed to talk. The last time they had talked had been over a week ago. He couldn't help but think that if he'd talked to him some days ago, everything would be fine by now.

"No Vin, let him be, I'm not sure why but something's different this time." Buck turned away from the deep concern in Vin's highly expressive eyes.

"I can't wait no more. I can't see him suffering like that all alone. I need to talk to him." Vin hated to contradict Buck, he knew the two men shared a deep and long-lasting friendship. Still he couldn't wait any longer. The weekend was right around the corner and then the next week was so short with the holiday looming. It was now or never.

"I don't know, Vin. Tomorrow is Friday, why don't you wait until tomorrow? See how he is, and talk to him after work?" he suggested, but when he looked up all he saw was Vin's back heading resolutely to Chris' office. He sighed deeply and prayed hard that Vin would have the magic balm for Chris' deep wounds, then he got up and headed to the stairs needing a quick breath of fresh air.

Vin paused at the door to Chris' office. He looked at the report in his hand, his slender excuse to invite himself into Larabee's den of sorrow. It wasn't close to being ready for Chris to review. His ability to concentrate on his writing was minimized due to his distraction. He knew the words were wrong, they had been dancing on the screen in front of his eyes for the last hour before he approached Buck. Still, it was an opening, and he would take any opening he could find.

He knocked briefly and then walked in. Chris glared at him with his worst glare ever. Vin had never felt frightened by that famous glare, but this time there was something colder, something distant in it. He couldn't read Chris' mind as he always did, and he felt a chill even though the office was plenty warm.

"Cowboy, here's my report, do you want to get out for lunch?." He handed the papers to Chris and was about to sit down when Chris exploded.

"Who the hell do you think you are to call me that?" he took the paper, and glanced at the first page before throwing it back at Vin's. "At least spell check it before printing it out! It has so many mistakes, I can't understand it! Do it again, Tanner!" at that Chris sat down and turned his chair away, completely missing the startled and hurt look in his friend's eyes and the flush of humiliation that rose to Vin's face and neck.

Vin took the report and went back to his desk, he wasn't hungry anymore. Chris had never talked to him like that, he'd never humiliated him like that, and thank God there wasn't anybody in the office right then. He tried to work on the report again but couldn't focus. He was so upset the words just jumbled in front of him until he just gave up. He left the unfinished report on his desk and left the office. He needed fresh air and space to think, he couldn't sit at his desk any longer and keep going.

He took the Jeep and drove outside the city until he found himself close to the ranch. He didn't remember driving there but when he realized where he was, he figured it was a good idea after all. He still needed to know how to help Chris. He needed the time, space and clarity that fresh air would give him to think about what he wanted - no needed to say to Chris before Chris got home. So he drove to a side road close to the ranch and parked there. He stared at the wheel for a moment, and began to relax. The tranquility of that place was so powerful that before long he drifted into a peaceful sleep, his mind quietly working, but his body resting.

Back at the office the boys were returning after lunch to finish their work for the day. They were very noisy all the way, with Buck laughing and poking at JD.

"Leave me alone Buck, you're crazy you know?" he said "How do you think I could go and talk to that girl, just like that?"

"Oh, well, I know it works for me kid, it must be my animal magnetism, of course if you don't have it, well..."

Nathan and Josiah were talking with Ezra about some new policies they had to read, they were planning a meeting shortly to explain the new policies to the rest of the team. "And after the meeting... we'll have to send our comments to the Judge, maybe with some suggestions too," said Josiah to Ezra.

"Oh, I see... a little pressure to make us know the new law enforcement rules."

"Yeah, just that Ez."

The elevator's doors opened to their floor and they quieted their antics immediately. Their leader wasn't in a good mood and they didn't want to provoke him with their loud talking and laughing.

"It's strange, Vin isn't here yet," said JD. "He's always on time after lunch."

Everybody went on with their assigned tasks and soon it became obvious that Vin wasn't coming back. They thought Chris had given him something to do outside the office and nobody said anything about him being absent.

At six, there wasn't anybody left at the office and Chris stood up from his desk and headed to the elevators. He planned on drowning his sorrow with alcohol this night and wanted to get home. He didn't know why this time was harder than last year's, only thing he knew was each coming year it became harder and harder. He thought it was natural, the hole inside of him was getting bigger and bigger. He didn't care anymore. The whiskey was sure to take care of it.

When he got to the ranch he grabbed to bottles from the kitchen and headed for the barn. Adam had loved the horses and being in the barn helped him feel closer to Adam. He uncapped the bottle and started to drink. Several hours and a bottle and a half later he heard a Texas drawl behind him that pierced the drunken haze.

"You sure can put it away, Cowboy." He looked around blearily, that last word tumbling in his brain over and over, causing more pain as it echoed in his mind. He focused a bit and saw Vin leaning against the wall looking at him. "I wanna help ya, ya can't go on like this, you're not alone anymore. I wanna watch your back on this. Let's go inside, I'll make ya some coffee and we'll talk. This has to end, Cowboy."

That word again... and then it was too much, the final straw. His mind filled with rage. Sarah was the one, the only one who called him Cowboy. It was her special name for him. The rage in his mind was washed with grief and both were drowning in the whiskey. He was no longer thinking clearly and he no longer was in control. He needed to take his rage, his suffering, his loss out on someone. That someone was going to be Vin. And he just let go. He didn't care anymore; he let the rage take control. His body knew what to do and his fists charged one after another at the object before him. While he was letting go of his madness he yelled time after time "She was the only one who called me Cowboy! You have no right to use that word on me! I failed, I couldn't protect them, I failed them... I failed... get away! I don't want to care anymore, it hurts too much!"

Vin managed to avoid the first fist, he managed to dodge several of them. He wasn't able to avoid all of them and he wasn't willing to leave. He was afraid of what Chris might do if left alone in this state. He tried to be heard over Chris' screaming but then a fist connected with his cheek and snapped his head back against the wall. The next punch was right in the stomach and it took his breath away. He protected his ribs and doubled over on the floor. He hoped Chris would realize what he was doing, but he didn't. He was too drunk to think. This had been his worst fear all the time, one day Chris would do something wrong while drunk and he would get in trouble. He couldn't do anything else right now but receive the blows; Chris would get tired soon...

Chris was oblivious. He kept saying, "I failed... I failed them, I'm sorry," while hitting the bag in front of him and after a while he was spent, he closed the barn and stumbled to the house.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, the phone rang just to wake him up so he wouldn't be late for work. Sure enough it was Buck; he knew the routine for these days. "Hey, pard! How are you doing this morning?"

"Buck go to hell!" he said. He wanted to sleep, his head was fuzzy, his stomach was doing flips and his hands hurt. "Time to wake up and get a bath. Do you want me to come and get you?"

"I want to sleep!"

"That bad? I'll come over, take you to work and back today. Then you can get Vin to come to the ranch for the weekend"

Vin... Vin... he remembered seeing Vin last night, but everything was blurred. He laid his head back on the pillow after Buck hung up and was asleep in seconds.

Buck hurried to the ranch. He had already been in his truck and driving there when he had called Chris. He knew a little secret to help Chris with the hangover and he needed to start immediately if they were going to make it to work in any semblance of 'on time'.

Using his key he entered the silent house. Shaking his head and stifling a groan he headed to Chris' room. Without surprise he found the man passed out on his bed. "C'mon stud! Time to get up!"

"Go to hell!" was the answer that arose from the blankets and pillow.

Undeterred, Buck pulled back the blankets and pulled Chris to a sitting position. He was shocked to see that Chris' hands were bruised and bloody.

"Hey! What happened to your hands?"

Chris opened his eyes, startled by the question "I... I hit the bag last night, I think..."

"You went to the gym?"

"No, I did it here"

"Chris, you don't have a bag here... hell of a drinking night you had!" He thought Chris' hangover was the worst ever. "Let's get you out of bed. I'll fix my 'special' while you shower. You think you can manage?"

"Yeah, been managing for awhile now." He got up and went to the bathroom. Once there he threw up. He felt a little better after that. Then he took a shower, shaved and got dressed. By the time he got to the kitchen he looked almost human. Buck was waiting with his hangover special and he drunk it in three gulps. "You sure did a good job at those hands of yours Chris, Nathan is gonna be pissed"

"I just can't remember. I was here, I'm sure."

"Here at the house?"

"I think it was in the barn."

"The horses! Maybe you hit Pony or Peso?" And then he thought better "No, I don't think you could hit Peso."

"Mmmm... don't know. You better go and take a look. I'll take a Tylenol, my head is killing me. I just want to close my eyes a bit."

"Sure Chris, hang on here."

Buck half ran to the barn. He was certain Chris would never take his madness out on the horses, but what else would do it? If Chris had been hitting a grain bag it wouldn't have torn his hands like that. He grabbed the handle to the door and pulled it open quickly. His eyes adjust to the interior light and as he could see inside his eyes were transfixed in horror at the sight in front of him.

Vin lay on the floor curled on his left side. Blood matted his hair and his face was covered in bruises and dried blood. With a shaky hand Buck felt for his pulse and let out the breath he had been holding when he felt a faint but steady beat. Pulling out his cell phone he dialed 911 and got an ambulance dispatched.

Pulling off his coat he folded it into a pillow and gently lifted Vin's head and settled the coat underneath. "Hold on, junior, help's on the way, just hold on." There was no answer. He ran to the house and yelled, "Chris! Come here!"

Chris's head was killing him. Why couldn't Buck talk quiet for once? "What is it?"

"Come to the barn, it's Vin! Bring some water for him!" yelled Buck, and he ran back to the barn. Vin was in the same position he'd left him "Come on, junior, stay with me, please, open your eyes." He eased his lean frame to the floor and carefully lifted Vin into his arms seeking to provide some comfort and warmth. Vin's skin was cold to the touch.

Chris froze in place when he heard Buck saying it was Vin in the barn. Like a movie in slow motion, images of the night before played in front of him, Vin's face talking calmly to him, and then his own hands balled into fists striking at his friend over and over. He looked at his hands bruised and sore and that snapped him into action. Grabbing a bottle of water he ran to the barn.

He stopped at the door when he saw Vin on the floor "What did I do? Why did I... Oh Vin!" he dropped to his side. His hands trembling, he gave the bottle to Buck. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" and he repeated the last words over and over as he took Vin's cold hand. He looked at the hand, it wasn't bruised. Vin had never hit him back, never defended himself. He'd taken the blows, just like that.

"Is he...?"

"He's alive pard..." Buck's voice deepened with concern. "What happened last night, Chris?"

"Can't remember, I thought it was a bag I punched last night." Then, he saw the two empty bottles on the floor. "Must have been out of my mind..."

"Don't worry Chris, we'll get through this." He squeezed Chris' forearm.

"How am I going to tell him that I'm sorry Buck? He's my friend... I didn't want to do this to him." And looking at Vin on the floor he said, "I'm sorry, Cowboy, I'm sorry, hang on, stay with me, Cowboy." As he heard his own voice saying that word something in his mind and heart opened up and captured him. He let go and allowed himself to be led to a whole new meaning behind that word. New emotions flew through his body as he said that word only reserved for Sarah before, but now allowed himself to use it on his friend, the one who he had almost killed because of his uncontrollable madness.

Vin heard his friend talking to him, his voice so broken. He wanted to reassure him, to let him know everything was fine. He tried to say something, but there was only one word that left his mouth, "Cow...boy."

It was very weak, but to Chris it was plain and clear. He smiled. Vin had heard him so he said it again. "I'm sorry Vin..."

The ambulance's siren was close to the ranch and Buck went outside to guide the paramedics to the barn. The first question the paramedics asked was ignored, but they worked as fast as they could. The men in the barn were obviously in shock. Vin's body was cold and clammy, and his pulse was weak but steady. They put an IV line in his left arm and rolled him on the stretcher after putting a collar in his neck.

"Let's move!" said one of them.

"I'm going with you" said Chris, not leaving place for an objection.

"I'm going after you in the truck. I'll call the others," replied Buck

The trip to the hospital was in solemn silence. Chris was lost in his thoughts. He couldn't still believe what was happening.

Once in the ER they got Vin into one of the rooms and left Chris outside.

Buck was right behind him and Chris couldn't articulate any intelligent words, he just voiced his thoughts as they invaded his brain. "His face... all bruised... how could I...? How did I... ? My friend!... the punching bag... I thought..."

Buck listened to the words and got an idea of he was trying to say. "I just... don't know Chris. We'll see when he wakes up..."

"But, will he want to talk to me when he wakes up?"

"Yeah! He will; if I know him like I do, I can tell you he will. The question is... will you forgive yourself enough to face him and talk to him...?"

Chris couldn't hold it in anymore and allowed his grief and pain to pour out of him. His head fell into his hands and he began to cry. At that moment, Josiah and Nathan arrived. "JD and Ezra will hold the fort Chris," said Nathan "I thought it would be better if they are not here."

"You thought the right thing Nathan," said Buck holding Chris in an embrace.

Josiah saw Chris crying and feared the worst. He looked in Buck's eyes but couldn't find the answer he needed. Buck looked up and gave him a small smile and nodded towards the exam rooms. Josiah let out a relieved sigh and sat down, waiting to hear the details.

After a few moments Buck gave them a brief rundown of what he suspected had happened. The four men sat in silence waiting.

After a while, a doctor came to look for them "Chris Larabee?" he asked

"Right here," said Chris as he dried his eyes with the back of his hands. "How is he?"

"Hi, I'm Dr. Wilkins, I've tended Mr Tanner. He... his body is bruised, he has three bruised ribs and one broken. We'll have to watch him very closely to protect his left lung from being punctured. I'm worried about his head. He hit it on something pretty sharp, maybe a shelf, and it needed some stitches. He has a mild concussion and the symptoms will last from a week to a month. He's awake now, but very disoriented. He wants to talk to you Mr Larabee. He's very upset and I think it would be better for him if you go and talk to him. I need you to calm him; don't upset him more than he already is."

"Don't worry Dr. Wilkins; I'll do what you said, thank you."

Chris entered Vin's room and couldn't help but draw a deep breath in shock at the sight of Vin's battered and bandaged body on the stretcher. His head was bandaged, his eyes and nose where swollen and discolored, his chest wrapped, and around the wrapping he could see purple bruises. Six stitches were over his left eye and his cheek was in a color between green and purple. But, he smiled when he saw Chris.

Chris couldn't believe it; Vin had smiled at him after all he'd done. He couldn't look Vin straight in his eyes. Vin saw the guilt in Chris' body language. He couldn't read him, couldn't look inside his eyes. He knew he didn't have much time before the medication kicked in so he said "I'm fine c... Chris."

Chris heard the unspoken word and understood very well the sudden change. He locked his eyes with the eyes of his friend and said, "It's OK, you can call me Cowboy. I won't get mad Vin. I'm sorry, I don't know why..." But he couldn't go on, because Vin touched his hand and after that he held his arm up looking for the grip they always shared as a sign of their strong friendship.

"I know. That's why I had to talk to you. I was afraid this would happen and didn't want it to be JD or Ezra, or somebody else. I didn't want ya to get in trouble, I told ya that. Chris, I want to help ya. If ya loved...if ya still love Sarah and Adam ya shoud know they wouldn't want to see ya that way. Ya have to remember the good things and let go the bad. Ya don't hafta drink because they're gone and ya wanna forget. Ya hafta remember them. Don't drink no more c... Chris. It don't help and they get upset iffen ya drink too much. I can feel 'em."

Exhausted at the long stream of words that had tumbled from his mouth Vin slumped back into the embrace of the mattress and pillow. The medication was rapidly taking him under. Chris could see it and wanted to keep his friend calm and allow him the rest he needed.

"I, you're right, Cowboy. I'm truly sorry for what I did to you, and...when you're not so mad at me... if you can forgive me... you can call me, Cowboy again. I won't get mad at you anymore; I think she'd like somebody like you calling me cowboy."

"I don't have nothing to forgive you c... cowboy..." he said and he looked into Chris' eyes, happy to see the change."I made my point, it worked. It hurts, but it worked. It's OK. We're OK...we're better than OK. When you need help, I'll go with ya wherever you hafta go to get that out of ya. Don't drink no more...c... cowboy..." he begged and then with a half smile he added ,"Now, go get that doctor, I wanna get out of here 'fore Thanksgiving."

Chris grinned at his friend. "That's almost a week away Vin, They'll let you out before then."

"You bet they will. They'll let me out today. I want m' beer and m'be a barbecue at the ranch then. Then we'll have Thanksgiving." He wanted to stay wake but he couldn't.

As Vin drifted to sleep, Chris stood by him and realized that something big had changed inside him. Vin might talk as if nothing had happened but Chris knew something had, and because of that, he was on the road of living again. He needed a friend - no, a brother - to show him the way. Vin had been willing to sacrifice himself to show Chris Larabee the way home. He left to find the doctor so he could take his friend and brother home.

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