Little Britches - Future AU
Notes: Hi all! After 3 years of law school I finally had time to finish this. Thank you to Mog the great for betaing. This is for all the wonderful people I have met in the M7 fandom because you are all the best. I am writing in another fandom (Supernatural), but M7 will always be my first love, and I will continue to come back to it.
Buck had taken JD out to the movies. They had invited Vin, JD insisted, but Buck was wary. Tanner waved them out. The twosome needed to spend time together, without the wedge in their relationship. Vin placed his feet on the coffee table and switched on the television with the remote control, feigning that he would be spending a night catching up his favorite shows.
He waited long after the headlights of Buck's truck had dimmed down the road. Vin hesitated by Chris's study. He stayed flat against the wall to not reveal his position. He calmed his breathing. He scratched the back of his neck, and frowned. His hair had still not grown in fully. The teen had made his decision. He needed to talk to his father.
On Sunday evening Chris tried to get ahead on paperwork. Tanner knocked, but slid open the pocket door before waiting for a reply. He was losing his courage, and needed to be quick. Vin took only one step in before making his announcement. "I'm leaving. Chanu's granddad invited me to spend the summer on the reservation."
Larabee put down his pen. He reclined back in his chair, clasping his hands in front of him. "Who made you the adult?" Chris looked at his son with a firm gaze, challenging the boy's statement.
The young man crossed his arms. He refused to fidget. "You did, when you left me in that place."
"Vin, I. . ." Chris stood up, and maneuvered around the large oak desk.
The teen took a step back, in fear that his father would try to convince him to stay. At 15, he felt lost and alone. If he didn't go, then he would bring destruction to the Larabee/Wilmington household. "You weren't there for me, Chris."
"So we're back to Chris?" Larabee sighed, leaning against the desk.
Tanner dropped his shoulders in defeat. Leaving Chris would be difficult, and Vin wanted his father to understand. "Dad, I'm just all mixed up. Since I got back I've been keeping a backpack under my bed - in case I want to run," he said in a low voice.
Chris put his hand roughly through his hair. "God, Vin, what are you running from? Is it so bad here? I thought you were doing better...moving on from that place."
The teen interrupted. "I count on you to be there for me when I'm scared and then you weren't there. Maybe you should have never taken me in - maybe I would have known not to be scared." Vin backed up a step in a panic. He had revealed more than he wanted, and felt uncomfortable with his vulnerability. Had he not been with Chris, then he would have fought for his existence on the streets. He would have been better prepared to deal with juvy. "I can't be here. I have to go."
Larabee put his hands up to calm the boy. Vin accepted the calming influence, but looked down at his stocking feet instead of making eye contact with his father.
"Okay, son, okay." Chris couldn't believe he was losing his son all over again. He would never forget how this all started.
Vin woke abruptly in his bed. The bunk beds had long been dismantled. He lay in his twin bed. JD had already left for school. The teen was surprised he had slept through the noise, especially after glancing over to JD's bed. It was piled with clothes; one sneaker was on the bed, the other on the floor. A few books and CDs were intermixed in the mess.
Tanner hadn't been to school in three days. It had been that long since the incident, since Vin had pushed Bobby Crew and he had hit his head. Tanner looked at his hands. If only he would have just walked away, but Bobby had gone after JD. Vin was his protector, and it all sped out of control with a forceful push. Bobby tripped, and his head hit the curb with a resounding smack. Within 10 minutes the police and ambulance were at the scene and Vin found himself calling his father in a trembling voice. There had been a hushed conversation in the principal's office, and all the teen wanted was for Bobby to wake up.
Chris had been making him keep up with his schoolwork at home, which was difficult without the structure of the classroom. But, his father promised he would return to high school soon, and Vin wanted to be ready. He pushed off the covers and made his way downstairs. He was surprised to see Chris sitting on the couch. He'd expected his father to be at work, and a note on the kitchen table filled with chores. Vin took the last few steps slowly in apprehension.
"Vin, come here." Chris patted the seat next to him on the couch. With trepidation Tanner made his way through the family room. Larabee put his arm around his son's shoulder. "He died this morning," the blond man whispered.
Vin buried his head into his father's chest with a rush of emotions. Thoughts of school and another stigma being attached to his name scared the young teen. It had taken so long for him to fit in, and now it would all change. "Dad, what's going to happen to me?"
Chris pulled Vin's face up to look into his eyes. "Nothing, Vin, I'll make sure of it." Larabee hugged his son tightly.
The effect of reassurance from that hug had long since evaporated. Vin never thought he would end up in front of a judge at court. First, there had been the hearing in front of the family court judge and Chris said not to worry. Larabee had told him that everything would be fine. But, it wasn't fine and now there was a trial.
Tanner looked over his shoulder, as he had done every five minutes, to gain some comfort from his father. Chris nodded at him and gave an encouraging smile. The teen picked at his finger nails. He had already caused one to bleed, but at least it gave him something to do while everything was buzzing around him.
Buck also gave the teen a nod, and waited for him to turn away before he whispered to his friend. "Chris, that's not right."
Larabee replied quietly, not wanting to incur the wrath of the judge. "I know, Buck. I've been in court too. He should be objecting."
Chris had heard the damaging testimony, making his son seem to be a violent child with the propensity to hurt someone. Vin's lawyer should be objecting so that the judge would not take the information as part of his decision. Thankfully, the judge was calling a recess for the day.
Once the bailiff opened the gate, Vin ran through to his family. "Dad, is the judge going to believe what that guy said about me?" Vin gestured to where the judge had been seated.
Wilmington ruffled the teen's hair. "Of course not! You're a great kid, everyone knows that."
Vin shrugged his shoulders, trying to swallow back the nausea that was building.
"I'll meet you two at the truck. I want to talk to Martin for a minute," Chris said, as he pulled out two dollars from his wallet. "Go pick out something at the vending machine for the ride home."
Tanner fingered the money, not wanting food, instead wanting to know that when this was over, everything would be fine. Bobby would be alive, and Vin would be at school. He crumpled the money and put it in his pocket, letting Buck guide him out the doors.
Jacob Martin, the only attorney Larabee could find to take the case, was packing some paperwork into his briefcase. "What's going on?" Chris growled at the man.
Martin removed his glasses, then slipped them back on in a nervous gesture. "I think the case is going well."
"Really?" Larabee stepped in closer so he was eye to eye with the thin, balding man. "Because the prosecution is making my son look like a violent kid and that couldn't be further from the truth."
Jacob looked away, quickly shutting his briefcase, attempting to go around the ATF agent. "Agent Larabee, you hired me because I am a lawyer." Again Martin touched his glasses. "As a lawyer my emotions, unlike yours, are not clouded. They are presenting their case and we will present ours and I am sure everything will turn out okay."
And so the next day Chris reassured Vin that in the end the judge would make the right decision and they would put this all behind them. Larabee noticed the bleeding skin around the teen's fingernails. The ATF supervising agent tried to give his son hope and faith. The team wanted to be there to support the teen, but Ezra was undercover and Nathan and Josiah were needed to support him and gather the intelligence.
All Vin needed was his father, who he did have hope and faith in, until the verdict came the next day.
"Guilty of involuntary manslaughter."
The screaming that was only in Vin's head streamed from the teen's mouth in a desperate howl. "Dad? Dad!" He clung to his father until the bailiff carefully peeled away the grip that the son had on the father.
Chris reached out to grab his son, Buck held him back with tears in his eyes. "Let him go! He's my son!"
They gave him a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a sweat shirt. Vin was allowed to keep his socks and sneakers. He still felt naked and alone. The guard had told him the rules, the teen didn't remember any of them since they all meant the same thing - he was locked up for a long time. The guard left him at what would be his room, a white linoleum tiled room with ten twin beds, with directions to head down the hall for some food. Tanner didn't think he could eat, but he knew he shouldn't stay in this room any more than he had to.
Vin followed the noise level and found himself in a room as large as his high school gym. He looked around at all the unfamiliar faces and kept his head down as he grabbed a metal tray. He didn't know what food was being placed on the tray, but the tray was heavy by the time he reached the end of the line. He was about to dump it in the trash, when someone interrupted his intentions.
"I wouldn't do that. We only get roast beef once a month." A boy about his age, with a buzz cut and an earring through his eyebrow placed an arm around his shoulder. "My name is Kyle. I'm sitting over there." The boy guided Tanner to the table. "So you're new here."
"Yeah, I'm Vin." Tanner sat down, looking down at the fat congealed around the roast beef. Kyle seated himself next to Vin.
Kyle was talkative, and Vin listened as he picked at his food. "So, this is the 'Mic.' We are not one big happy family - those," He pointed to a table, "are the Goths - any black clothes and they'll barter you for them. We got lots of gangs. They wear their colors, and you'll know who is who, just stay away from them unless that's your thing."
Tanner shook his head. He didn't want to belong to anyone or anything. A gang was not in his plans. He just wanted to survive each day.
Kyle shrugged his shoulders. "Those are the loners."
Vin jutted his chin out in acknowledgement. "And what about you?
"I'm different." Kyle whispered.
"Oh, yeah?" Tanner's eyes remained downcast at his tray. The food was disgusting. He craved Buck's cooking, the warmth of home.
"I like everyone..." Vin felt a hand tug his long hair, "...but boys especially."
Tanner stood up, catching the edge of his tray, causing it to jump and spill over. He grabbed Kyle's collar and pulled him up. "Keep your hands off of me or I'll, I'll. . .kill ya." He whispered his deadly threat, meaning every word.
Two guards immediately came forward, pulling Vin away and restraining him. The other guard questioned Kyle.
"Nothing going on, I just had something on my neck," the other teen replied. The guards released them, as Kyle walked away he turned and blew a kiss to Vin.
Tanner ran back to the dormitory, breathing hard he tried to control the panic welling up inside of him. The murderous words had fallen effortlessly from his lips. He still felt the rage at Kyle's suggestion. He touched his hair, feeling the silky waves. He needed to adapt.
The next day began with 4 hours of class. He pocketed the safety scissors, sliding them into his jean pocket. At night he waited until after bed check, keeping close to the wall he made his way to the bathroom. He stood in front of the mirror, hacking off clumps of his hair in an uneven fashion because of the scissors dullness. He stuffed the long locks in the toilet and flushed his past.
He learned in the first week in order to survive he would go through the motions of living. Vin kept his head down, not making eye contact, trying to avoid any future trouble. He became a loner and more of an introvert, attempting to make himself disappear if need be.
The McClellan Juvenile Detention Center was a one level building sprawled over four acres. From a distance it looked like a school with architecture from the 1960's. It was as a visitor got closer to the facility, that the barbed wire fence, and guard posts became noticeable.
The bars on the recreation room windows, and clear window that separated the large gathering room from the guards could not be overlooked as the families visited their locked-up children.
It was to be the first visiting Sunday of two years of Sundays plus holidays, unless the appeal came through. Buck immediately saw the change in Vin as did Chris and JD. His hair had been haphazardly cut. The unevenness detracted from his good looks.
"Vin!" Chris hugged his son, pulling him off his feet. He felt the teen's warm breath against his neck, but no other response. "How are you? Are you okay?" He placed Vin back on his feet. Buck and JD had stood back, giving Chris a few moments alone with the boy.
Vin took a step back, balling up his hands into fists. "I'm not okay. I'm not fine. Don't ask me that - ever." He met his father's glare, and gave a whispered order, "Ever."
Chris reached out to ruffle his son's hair, but stopped, instead placing a hand on the teen's shoulder. "Okay, Vin, okay." Larabee eyed his friend and both decided not to say a word about the chopped up hair, but JD did not understand the silent communication. When the dark haired boy ran forward it was the first thing he addressed with his adopted cousin.
"Vin, what happened to your hair?"
Vin ignored him , and instead accepted the Monopoly game that he had tucked under his arm. Quietly, they set up the board, and started to play. The game only distracted JD for a half an hour before he asked again as he moved his piece, the top hat, on the Monopoly board.
Tanner glared for a moment and crunched the pink money in hand. "I cut it." JD shrank back. Buck rubbed his back in consolation.
Three hours passed in fits and starts, and visiting hours were over. Vin's sullenness increased, and he looked back a couple of times before disappearing into the facility. The threesome collected the Monopoly game and shuffled back the Suburban. Chris clicked in his seatbelt and waited until the other occupants did the same before he started the engine and pulled away from the detention center. He watched it grow smaller in the distance, wondering how long it would take for his stomach to unclench and if he would ever acclimate to seeing his son locked up.
"Look, Buck, JD, I'm sorry. . ." He found himself feeling jealous that Wilmington still had a son, while he was going through hell. It wasn't like when he lost Sarah and Adam. Then there was nothing that could be done to bring them back, but now there was a chance and Chris was driven. Buck reminded him everyday not to quit his job with the Bureau.
Buck shifted in the passenger seat, but JD replied. "For what?"
Chris gave the youngster a small smile at his naiveté. "Vin shouldn't have spoken to you like that."
"That's okay," JD answered in a relax manner, giving his explanation of acceptance. "Vin's just scared."
"Me too," Larabee mumbled under his breath, wondering about the future.
Buck scratched his head, but did not meet his friend's eyes. "I don't know if I'm all right with it Chris. Sorry to say. . ."
Larabee could empathize with the situation. Wilmington needed to protect his charge. "I understand." He didn't want Vin to lose the connection with JD. "Maybe we can use some buffers next time?"
The mustached agent softly chuckled at the suggestion. "As in Nathan and Josiah?"
The next visit was an improvement. Vin had slicked back his hair, so the bad hair cut was less noticeable.
"Hey, Josiah, Nathan," Vin greeted with sullenness.
Sanchez ignored the teen's discomfiture, and embraced him in a bear hug, enveloping him. "I brought you something. . ." The ATF profiler pulled out a leather cord with a wooden cross on it and placed it on Vin's neck.
Tanner brought the necklace up to study it, then let it drop. "I haven't found Jesus, and I don't think he's found me."
"Vin!" Chris admonished, slightly embarrassed. They weren't weekly church goers, but he thought that he had given some beliefs to his son.
Nathan laughed. "I told him it was a bad idea. Rain told him too. She sent some brownies." The medic put the paper plate in the center of the table, and pulled off the tinfoil.
Buck greedily clenched one, and bit in, spitting it out some of it with a gasp. "What is in these?"
"Carob and soy - It was my idea." Nathan took one of the brownies, and popped it in his mouth. He chewed slowly.
Josiah tapped Vin on the shoulder. "God saved you from having one of those brownies." Sanchez eyebrows lifted up and down. "He does work in mysterious ways."
"Yeah, by inventing soy and crap," Wilmington said with a lisp as he tried to wipe the offensive food off his tongue.
Tanner laughed, and the atmosphere became less tense.
It was the best Chris could hope for at the present, until he could get his son released.
Ezra stood at the edge of the Federal building's rooftop and stared out at the darkening Denver skyline. He knew the maintenance department would go into a memo writing frenzy if they ever found out how many times he'd jerry-rigged the door's safety alarm.
The warm updraft from the streets below blended with the cool night air and tousled his hair. Twilight on the rooftop was one of his favorite times. The freeway was lined with pinpoint lights of red and white, snaking their way slowly into and out of downtown. Other office buildings could be caught winking at each other as employees left for the day and cleaning crews started their after-hours shifts.
The rooftop was like being in the heart of the city and in the middle of nowhere at the same time.
Sixteen weeks on a hell of a case. There were times when he felt the line between himself and Ezra Simpson blurring and it was not a feeling he enjoyed in the least. There was too much gray in the world.
It was a silly notion that the line between good guys and bad guys was a black and white one. Yet Special Agent Standish found comfort in the imagined polarity. There were people who belonged in jail and there were people who did not. If you were incarcerated there had to be some legitimate reason behind it.
He rolled the L'Anniversaire Camerron between his fingertips and puffed several times, savoring the flavors of the cigar's smoke as it swirled over his tongue.
Cigars were a necessity. Yes, they were a vice, along with the occasional single-malt scotch and game of cards he allowed himself. One had to have vices; it made you a well-rounded person.
He heard the door open and close behind him and the crunch of gravel under shoes. By the pattern of footfalls he recognized who was behind him, but he didn't bother to turn.
"Evenin', Nathan." He blew out a puff of bluish smoke into the night air.
"Glad to see you back in one piece." Nathan came to stand next to the undercover agent.
The Southerner gazed out over the city and the glinting lights with a smile. "Did I miss anything?"
Usually the answer was no, or something menial or something about Buck and the secretary pool. This time however, there was no immediate answer. The pause scared him. He turned his focus sharply to Jackson. "Everyone is fine...correct?"
Nathan sighed. "Not quite." The medic rubbed his hands together. "Vin got into some trouble..."
Ezra searched the face of his fellow agent and friend. "What happened? Is he hurt??"
Jackson shook his head. "Ez, he's in juvy."
The cigar dropped from Standish's hand, glowing on the black rooftop. He didn't comprehend what the medic had told him. "For what??"
"My God. What happened?"
Nathan barely got the facts of the incident communicated before Ezra headed for the door. Taking the stairs two by two until he reached the eleventh floor, he pushed hard through the stairwell door and headed for Larabee's office. Chris's door was open.
For a moment he studied the man engrossed in a thick case file wrapped in a manila folder. A dim desk lamp illuminated the haggard features. His shoulders were slumped with the heavy burden he carried. Standish cleared his throat to get the team leader's attention.
Larabee looked up. "Hey, Ez, great job on the case."
"What?" Standish shook his head and sank down into the guest chair. "Nathan just told me about Vin. Why didn't--"
"I am getting my son back." Chris gripped the pen in his hand. "It's all been a big mistake."
Ezra rubbed his face. "You should have contacted me. I could have been helpful."
"You were under. Remember? That's your job. My job is to be Vin's parent." Chris massaged the back of his neck. "A job I don't deserve."
"No, as you said - it was a mistake." Standish wanted to say he wished that he had grown up as lucky as the boys, with two caring parents, but he didn't like to think about his own inadequate childhood.
Chris shook his head. "I counted on things staying status quo."
Standish laughed at the unbelievable statement and responded dryly. "You mean they don't?"
"Things don't change that fast when you have kids, Ez. Time is marked by milestones - first time they lose a tooth, go on a date, drive . . .This isn't one I was expecting."
Larabee slammed his hand down on his desk. "Nothing is as important as your kid and making sure they are safe and that you can be there for them." He let out a sigh. "If I could go back, or change places I would do it in an instant."
Ezra responded in a quiet tone. "Then being a father is a job you deserve."
The undercover agent cleared his throat to suppress the emotions that threatened to overflow. "What happened?" Standish was confused by how such a miscarriage of justice could happen so quickly.
"Bobby's parents were out for blood. When your kid dies you don't want to believe he was a bully." Chris covered his eyes for a moment.
The undercover agent lifted his hand to his chin in thought. "Vin told me about Bobby..." He couldn't remember if he'd told the teen to fight back or not. Ezra's stomach twisted - he told him to fight back.
Larabee gave a wry smile. "Then I found out this team has apparently pissed off a lot of defense attorneys...guess, we're good at our jobs."
"I'll make some phone calls." Standish stood up. "Having six stepfathers sometimes has its merits."
"Ezra...anything they want." Larabee placed his hand out and Standish grasped it. "I'll get a second mortgage on the ranch if need be. He needs to be back where he belongs...I can't stand seeing him in that place - losing himself." Standish made his way back to his desk, the office was dark except the desk lamp shining over some paper work. Ezra pushed it to the side, and cradled the phone between his ear and neck as he dialed the phone.
"Yes, may I speak to Buster...I'm sorry, yes, Boomer...This is Ezra Standish, just tell him Maude's son...Certainly."
The Southerner checked his watch. It was only eight in the evening on the east coast, hopefully Boomer was still awake. Ezra thought he may have been the 'early to bed, early to rise' husband.
Evidently, eight o'clock wasn't too late, and Husband Number Three came to the phone.
"Fine, thank you...and you?...Sorry to hear that...yes, I agree, the INS doesn't understand that the best gardeners are illegal aliens...Maude is well. I believe I saw you at her latest wedding?...No? My mistake...Bust--, um, Boomer, I remember you always said I could turn to you if I needed any help...yes, that would be the time. Excellent memory. It was my seventeenth birthday...yes, we were drinking the Chivas...no, I don't think Mother ever did notice that got broken...so, Boomer - I need your help..."
Standish explained Vin's plight, phrasing things in the most effective way to tug at the heart strings of an attorney who loved children.
"Wonderful, I'll have everything Fed-Ex'ed to you...Yes, I'll tell her...Well, I can't make promises, but you never know with mother. Thank you so much. Good-bye."
Ezra punched the disconnect button and smiled. He sauntered back toward Chris's office wearing the self-satisfied grin, good news was always welcomed at a late hour.
Vin knew that Ezra had been on a case. He had missed his adopted uncle, but was also ashamed to see him. He didn't want Standish to think any less of him. He was surprised when the undercover agent was there with the rest of his family, and further shocked by the enveloping hug. Since being in the "Mic" he hadn't wanted anyone to touch him, nothing to remind him of what he lost.
Ezra handed the teen a glossy brown bag. Carefully, Vin pulled out the tissue paper to find six bars of Neuhaus chocolate. "Wow, the good stuff." Tanner grinned.
Then the southerner gave the teen a paper grocery sack. "And this is to help you out."
Vin looked inside to find a box of Hershey bars. He nodded in understanding. Tanner thought of some of the older and bigger teens who had been terrorizing him. The box of fifty chocolate bars would buy some protection for a time. "Thanks, Ez, this will help me out."
JD noticing there was chocolate, could not resist temptation. "Can I have one?"
Vin glanced at the Neuhaus chocolate and then at the lesser brand, and decided to give JD the Hershey bar. It may have been mean, but Vin could ration six chocolate bars better than five. "Yeah, sure."
"Thanks, Ez," Vin said softly, leaning into the undercover agent for a moment, before sitting down at the table to join the others in a game of Crazy Eights.
Four hours passed too fast as usual and the announcement was made over the loud speaker that visiting time was ending. Vin shuffled back with the other teens, waving once before turning his back.
"Ez, why the chocolate bars?" Buck asked as he packed up the games to entertain Vin for the afternoon.
"He can trade it for stuff he needs." Standish caught the letter "A" from the Scrabble game in his hand as it jumped from the table.
"Damn, why didn't we think of that?" Buck said to Chris as he handed him the packed games.
"Because, as an uncle, I am supposed to spoil him and think of things that parents don't think of," Ezra said matter-of-factly.
"You're a good uncle, Ez," Buck said, giving Ezra a box of snack foods to carry out to the car.
"The best," Chris said as they left juvenile detention center and headed to the sunlight.
At every visit Chris told Vin he would get him out of the 'Mic' soon. The teen had stopped believing his father, but pretended he still had hope. Instead of hope he had emptiness inside him. There was nothing and he was nothing so when he got ready for court he did so mechanically without any expectation. He would go to court and then return to the 'Mic.'
So when Vin heard the not guilty plea, and some other stuff about expunging his record there was a shout of joy from the audience, but all Vin felt was empty. He sank down to the chair and took off his tie. He thought for a moment. What was he supposed to do now? Buck and Chris were reaching out to him, hugging him.
Tanner kept repeating the one thing that sounded like the right thing to say. "I wanna go home."
His bed smelled clean. Vin inhaled the soft sheets and pillow case. It was the little things that comforted him. His belly was warm with his favorite food, Buck making chocolate cake for desert. He lay back, resting his head on his folded elbows and listened to the quiet sounds of the house, identifying each one and not being frightened by them.
JD shifted in the bed next to him. "Vin?"
"Yeah?" Tanner replied drowsily. He had been so mindful at the 'Mic.' He needed to be on guard for the other kids at night.
The younger boy paused for a moment then asked his question. "What was it like?"
And Vin's eyes opened wide, sleep escaping him. For a few moments he had forgotten where he had been for the last month. He pretended he had never left, but that would never be the case. "It was bad, real, bad." Tanner coughed back a sob. "Go to sleep JD."
The next morning he lay in bed. It was after lunch. Chris had decided he could sleep in. JD wasn't due back from school for another two hours. The emptiness was still there. Surrounded by all his belongings, Vin thought that he would feel different. Instead he felt the same as he had felt at the 'Mic.' He would have to figure out how to fill that emptiness.
After a week it was decided Vin would return to school. He had gotten his hair cut and Chris had spent the week with his son, trying to make up for lost time. Back at school, Vin was quickly bored.
Chris made an unexpected trip home during the day. He had forgotten some paperwork, only to find Vin had cut school and was watching cartoons. Vin could see the vein on his father's forehead pulsing in controlled anger that threatened to boil over. Immediately, Chris turned off the television. "You need to go to school, Vin. You can't fall behind."
The teen shrugged his shoulders. "No one will notice." And, Vin was correct. Chris had not received a phone call from the school.
Larabee sank down on the couch, sitting next to his son. "I'll notice." He placed his hand on Tanner's knee. Vin felt uncomfortable with the moment of closeness. He moved away and picked up the remote on the coffee table.
Chris sighed. The teen knew his father had to head back to work. "Look, promise me you'll go back to school tomorrow," Larabee said as he stood.
"Sure." Vin nodded his head and turned the television back on.
Vin was surprised when his father left. He assumed Chris would bring him back to the school and then ground him for a month. Vin decided to return to school the next week, and make an effort to stay. If nothing else he could talk to Chanu. The rest of the students were wary of him and kept their distance. They were too afraid they may be Vin's next victim. Chanu, being Native American already was ostracized. He had been Vin's friend before the accident, and after, believing in Tanner and their friendship.
School was a struggle, but home life was worse when all his actions were questioned. Vin and JD threw the football outside, the younger boy held the ball tight, not wanting to throw it again. Tanner tackled his cousin, and began to tickle him to release the ball. And maybe, he should have noticed when JD began to push him off. Instead, he reacted, wrestling Dunne, pinning him on his back, before Buck pulled him off.
Vin rubbed his stomach where Buck had gripped him, nursing the soreness and avoiding the ATF agent's gaze.
"Vin!" Buck tilted the teen's chin up. "You're going to hurt him!"
Tanner wrenched his chin free and ran off into the barn for solace with his horse. Outside of Chanu, Peso was Vin's other secret keeper.
Later, after dinner, the two adults sequestered themselves in Chris's study. Vin listened through the closed door.
"Something isn't right," Buck told his friend. "I've given him a wide berth, but I don't think that's the way to deal with this."
"I know, Buck. I'm trying," Chris repeated the mantra over again.
Vin heard the pause before Wilmington replied, "I know you are, pard. You need to talk to him."
Tanner felt he was on eggshells, waiting for Chris to talk to him about his behavior. The discussion never arose, and Vin was secretly glad because the only answer he was able to provide was, 'I don't know.'
The turning point came ten days later. Vin had retreated to the barn in order to do chores, but really to spend some time away from the house. He felt stifled by the four walls. He pulled out the pack of cigarettes he had been nursing since leaving the detention center.
He sat against the furthest wall of the barn, inhaling the smoke and exhaling it through his nose. Vin closed his eyes, and as the cigarette dwindled he felt himself relax.
"This another habit you picked up?" Vin knew the question was coming from Ezra as soon as he heard the Southern tinged accent.
The teen opened his eyes, and Standish pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, taking a few puffs before extinguishing it on the ground.
Tanner stood up. "You gonna tell Chris?'
The undercover agent shook his head. "No, I came here to talk to you."
Vin shrugged his shoulders. "'Bout what?'
"Talking back to Buck and Chris and hurting JD. . ." Ezra counted the infractions on his fingers.
Vin interjected, his eyes blazing at the accusation again. "I would never hurt JD."
"I know, Vin. I can listen. . ." Standish began what seemed to be a well rehearsed speech that sounded more like Josiah.
The teen interrupted with a harsh laugh. "Seems to me you're busier talking."
"You got another cigarette?" Vin handed the Southerner one, but he took the offering plus the remaining in the pack.
"Don't ever let me catch you smoking again." Ezra lit one up, and smiled.
Vin raked his hand in his hair, still not used to its shorn length. "I'm all fucked up, Ez."
"Not yet, but I can see you are determinedly working on it." Standish glanced over the teen, noticing his disheveled appearance.
Tanner dusted off his clothes under the scrutiny, but honestly did not care. "When you're undercover and then come out - what do you do?"
"I have a cigar, a brandy, sometimes not in that order and more than one of each, and then spend time with my friends," the Southerner explained. "Does that help?"
"No, thanks for trying though." Tanner kicked at the ground, scuffing his boot. "Never going to the police academy." Vin blurted out the dream that he had written on his heart since he moved in with Chris and Buck.
Ezra put out the cigarette, and then squinted in confusion. "Police academy?"
Vin looked down. He never shared the secret before, too scared to hope that it could come true. Fate had stepped in and taken the dream away. "Had it in my head that I wanted to be an ATF agent."
"You still can be. . ." Ezra placed a hand on the teen's shoulder.
Tanner looked up, studying the undercover agent's face for the truth. "With a record?"
Standish nodded. "It's all sealed, not guilty and expunged."
Vin shrugged the hand off his shoulder, and looked past Ezra, through the open barn door and the distant scenery. "But people will remember. They always remember."
Ezra brought his hand to the back of his neck. "You will remember," he commented.
"I killed someone." The teen looked directly at the ATF agent, his eyes pooling with unshed tears before he blinked them away.
Standish persevered to try to help the young man, but guilt was a stalking mistress and difficult to restrain. "It was an accident."
Tanner sharply exhaled with a snort. "Is that what you tell yourself?"
"That was uncalled for." The Southerner's mouth came into a hard line, his disappointment in the teen's remark evident. "In my line of work, it's different. You know that."
Vin nodded. "Yeah, sorry, I know." He felt he had been apologizing for his very existence since Bobby died.
"Accepted." Standish held out his hand, which Tanner gripped. Ezra kept the connection for a moment, before sensing Vin's unease. "Your father sent me to tell you that lunch was ready." The undercover ATF agent had invited himself over for a Saturday at the ranch, to check on his teammates and Vin. No one was doing as well as he expected.
The twosome walked in silence to the house, Ezra giving time for Vin to process their discussion. Standish should have known that the smell of smoke would linger on their clothes. Chris greeted them at the kitchen, setting grilled cheese sandwiches on the table. He sniffed the air.
"Dammit, Vin, were you smoking?" He slapped the oak table.
"What? No," Tanner replied, looking back at Ezra, daring him to breach the confidence.
Standish walked past the father and son to avoid any confrontation. Instead he went into the family room to join JD, who was watching television.
Larabee roughly ran his fingers through his hair. "No smoking allowed - ever."
"Yeah, I know." Vin raced up the stairs to his room, and tossed himself on the bed, lunch forgotten in the kitchen.
Eight hours to Arizona. JD and Buck had been sleeping the last hour and Chris was lost in his thoughts. It had been three months since he had last seen Vin. The teen had spent less time in juvenile detention, and Larabee hoped that he would find his son the way he had been before this whole mess had happened. Hell, Chris hoped he had changed as well.
He had told Ezra he had wanted status quo - that was how things got out of control. In his quest to have Vin back he hadn't been a parent.
After the smoking incident, Chris called Vin into his office. He asked the teen to sit. They were silent for awhile, but it grew to be uncomfortable, not the usual peacefulness that had been between them. Finally, Larabee broke he silence with the only words he could think of to say, "I love you Vin, and I loved you while you were in that place. I love you now even though you're acting like this. I'll love you tomorrow, too."
The teen had shifted uncomfortably in the chair. "Is that it?"
"Yes," Chris replied, hoping his son would absorb what had been said and let it heal him.
The next day Vin made his announcement.
Sporadic postcards and emails plus a weekly phone call didn't give Chris any clear impression to what he'd find when he got to the reservation. He knew a close bond had formed between Kojay, Chanu and Vin. Did Vin want them instead of Chris? Was that the answer? If Vin wanted to stay then so be it. Chris understood he had broken that trust - with an empty promise that Vin would not go to jail. It was jail. Call it juvenile detention but it was an innocent kid locked up. Chris had sent him there because he couldn't keep one promise.
Unforgivable sin wasn't murder. He had told Sarah he would be back by Friday and then he had broken his word again. Josiah's God punished those that committed the unforgivable sin of breaking a promise by taking away the things that mattered most in the world.
"Are we there yet?" JD yawned as he stretched against the seatbelt.
"What?" Larabee was pulled from his reverie. "No, almost."
Buck stretched his large form, and took a sip of water. "Want me to take over?"
"No, I can handle it." And Chris hoped when the time came, he could.
They were coming to pick him up today. School was starting in a week, and Chris wanted Vin home in time to buy the supplies he would need for the coming year. Tanner waved to his friend in the distance. He had ridden ahead on Cubby, the horse he had used all summer. He gave the mare a pat. It had been a great summer. He hadn't forgotten what had happened in juvenile hall, but now it seemed like it had happened to someone else, not him. Kojay had told him in a way that was true, since he had been re-born on his vision quest.
He wanted to be alone when he first arrived on the reservation. He thought that Chanu and his family would understand, but Kojay drew him out, taught him about the tribe - Vin wanted so much to belong and be a part of something. He was now an honorary member of the Seminoles. The medicine bag lay against his chest in reassurance.
The question was - did he want to be an honorary member of Chris's family? Just last night he had asked Kojay about staying at the reservation. The old man had chuckled, "Most people want to get off of the reservation." He hadn't said yes, but he hadn't said no either. But, Vin noticed that Kojay was always noncommittal on his answers.
Chanu reached his friend, easily bringing his horse to a stop in front of Vin. "Your family's here."
Tanner nodded. He looked around one last time at the scenery. This was all a part of him. Vin lifted his face to the sun. There was another part of him that was missing. It was time to go home. "Wanna race?"
Chris kept glancing out into the distance. Kojay had sent Chanu to find his friend. Larabee was growing impatient with Kojay's mysterious answers. The man seemed incapable of answering a question with a simple 'yes' or 'no.' He wanted to see his son.
"Here they come!" JD yelled out, jumping up and down and waving his arms.
Larabee could tell that Chanu and Vin were racing, with Vin in the lead. His hair had streaked with blonde, and Chris noticed the short haircut was gone, replaced with longer silky hair, whipping in the wind. Larabee continued to study his son as he came closer. His nose was red from time in the sun. In a few weeks it would peel, and Chris felt a twinge of fear that he might not see that happen.
But, what drew Chris was the smile - effortless with a happiness that shined into the teen's eyes. Tanner crossed the imaginary finish line and put his hands in the air. Kojay yelled out to them in what Chris assumed to be a Native American language. Vin slid off the horse easily, and handed the reins to Chanu.
JD reached the teen first, enveloping him in a hug. Chris took a few steps closer to son, but Buck grasped his arm, signaling him to wait. Vin hugged and thoughtfully patted JD's hair. "Wanna see the new colt?" Buck nodded at Chris and then walked up to the two boys.
"Hey, Junior, good to see you again." Wilmington picked up the teen easily. Vin didn't resist the affection. He placed Tanner back on his feet and hugged him again. "Mind if I go and see the new colt, too?"
Kojay gestured that they should follow him, and Chris and Vin remained behind watching each other for a moment. Vin moved forward in slow measured steps, then more quickly. He stopped when he reached his father.
Chris wanted to reach out to his child, but stopped. He didn't want to spook the teen, either. "Hi, Vin," Larabee said with a smile, again appraising his son and noticing that he had grown at least two inches.
"Hi, Dad," Vin said with an equally enormous grin. Then the teen laughed, and Chris began to laugh in agreement.
"I missed you," they said at the same time, filled with a meaning only the two of them could understand. Chris put his hand out, they grasped forearms and then Larabee pulled his son in for a hug. "Welcome home."