Prologue - Chapter Three
Chapter Four - Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight - Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven - Chapter Thirteen
"Chris is home, Da." JD sat in the window sill watching for the familiar vehicle, forehead pressed against the glass. He didn't move after the announcement, but continued to absently fondle his dog Elvis' ear.
"Okay, thanks. I'll get things goin' here, then." Buck moved around the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner, wondering again how he got stuck with making a majority of the evening meals. Chris had agreed months ago to try and get home earlier in the evening and he did for awhile, but he'd slipped back into his "all work, no play" schedule since finding Cat.
JD missed him and Buck was starting to resent dinner making. He'd have to sit his friend down yet again and inform him of the importance of his day-to-day input with their unconventional family. Chris had stopped taking anti-depressants months ago and Buck expected to see ups and downs in his friend's moods, but he still had a way to go to get back to himself - where ever that was.
Buck saw his long time friend as several people: The original Chris, the Sarah and Adam Chris, the post-family Chris and the Vin period Chris. The post-Vin Chris was simply a less volatile version of the post-family man - probably because of JD and Chris' parents. This time around, there was some semblance of family support to help him adjust to his - their - loss.
Buck tightened his lips at the thought, but that's exactly what Vin was, lost, and Buck was starting to accept the fact that they may not ever find out what happened to him. Heaven forbid if he ever speak the thought aloud.
Buck heard the front door open and close. "Hey, JD," he heard Chris say tiredly. There was a rustle of clothing and short, low conversation and then Chris came to the kitchen with the boy perched on his hip. JD was brightly animated, telling Chris about an upcoming field trip in school. Buck was glad to see that Chris was actually paying attention and asking questions, much to JD's obvious delight. It was a good thing, Buck decided, that they hadn't told the boy about finding Cat. JD was nearly- just nearly - back to the boy he was before Vin's disappearance.
Dinner was as close to normal as it could possibly be considering the circumstances of the past two years and Buck decided to swallow his resentment for now. He just hoped Chris would continue to be as engaged as he seemed to be this night.
After the meal Chris dove into the dishes while Buck got JD ready for bed. The boy must have latched onto Chris' easy mood because he chatted nonstop through his bath, what little homework he had and picking up his room. Buck even had to tell him to "breathe, Lil' Bit!" for the first time in a long time. Chris came in to say good night and even offered to read the bedtime story so Buck could put his feet up in the living room.
When Chris returned to the living room, he settled on the couch with a Coke and a sigh. "JD wants me to be one of the chaperones on his field trip," Chris mentioned after a bit. "I'll see what I can do about that. That okay with you?"
Buck laid down the paper and stretched. "Sure, pard, go for it. Maybe you'll get lucky and Chrissy's mama'll volunteer, too. Being with her would make the job a lot more enjoyable, if ya know what I mean." Buck waggled a suggestive eyebrow and Chris laughed shortly. It was a good sound.
"Yeah, maybe she will," Chris said softly as he rolled the Coke can between his hands.
Buck turned on the television and started flipping through channels, eventually settling on a women's water skiing event. Chris shook his head, amused and clearly not surprised that his roommate found such a show entertaining. They watched in comfortable silence for a while and at one of the commercial breaks, after Buck hit the "mute" key, Chris started to talk.
"We've checked out just about everyone that has been involved with Harry Evans," he started, studying the television without really seeing it. "And we're no closer to finding out what happened to Vin. All we have is the DNA from Cat. That's all we have left of him, Buck."
"That's not true," Buck corrected softly. "We have wonderful memories and great pictures. He's in our hearts and always will be. I know how corny that sounds but, damn it, it's the truth."
Chris ran his hand through his hair, scratching his scalp thoughtfully. "I just can't let go. I can't say he's gone because I truly feel he's out there, somewhere. Serritella was the last one on our list that had direct contact with Evans. We've no where to go now. No more clues."
"Those F.B.I. agents in New York still send us stuff once in awhile," Buck reminded him. "Updates on the other missing boys from New York and all the states between here and there that they've tied to Evans. Something will turn up, especially as the boys get older. They'll talk, eventually. I'm not ready to close the book either, Chris, but I am ready to start living my life again. So is JD and so is the team."
Chris' head snapped up at the last comment. "We've made some damned good busts lately. We're doing our job as good as before."
"I know, I know, and that's not what I meant. We have made some great arrests using the information we've gathered. The more bad guys behind bars, the better, but it's time we started taking our share of assignments from Travis again, Chris. The other teams are spread pretty thin."
Appeased, Chris relaxed again and picked at the pull tab of the Coke can. "I know. In fact, Travis just gave us one. Since Serritella and his cronies are off the street, there's been some skirmishes by smaller groups to fill the void Serritella left in the black market. Travis got word of an outsider from up north somewhere bringing in a load of handguns. I sent Ezra to see what he could set up. New sellers need buyers, right?"
Chris lifted his head, the grin he gave Buck seemingly forced. Buck was happy that he even tried. "Yup, that's what keeps us in business, alright. Good. Sounds like we got some homework tomorrow."
The phone rang just before dawn. Chris' hand flopped across his nightstand in search of the offensive source, knocking over a partial glass of water and a near empty bottle of over- the- counter sleep aid pills before finding his cell. He fumbled it open. "Larabee," he grumbled.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied, sounding as tired a Chris felt. "We need to palaver on our next course. Things, I fear, are moving rapidly and we do not have much time."
"Yeah, yeah." Chris dropped his feet to the floor and scrubbed his eyes. It wasn't even light yet! "Can you come into the office? I'll meet you there in an hour."
"I will be there."
"When's the last time you slept?" Chris heard a dry chuckle.
"I have heard that such activity is over-rated. I will see you in an hour."
Shaking his head and fighting against the remnants of the sleeping pill, Chris hung his head for a moment. "Get your ass in gear, Larabee," he mumbled, gaining his feet and heading to the shower. From there, he quickly dressed and wobbled his way to Buck's bedroom door. Almost there, he paused and took a moment to peek in on JD. The boy's arm hung over the side of the bed and his head was on a well-worn stuffed Scooby-Doo. Chris smiled at the sight and quietly shut the door.
Then he went to Buck's door and rapped on it lightly before pushing it open and sticking his head in. "Buck!" he called. He had to call again, louder, before Wilmington's body twitched awake.
"Hunh?" he croaked, raising his head.
"I'm going to the office to meet Ezra. I'll feed the horses on the way out."
Buck's head dropped back on the pillow and Chris doubted he'd remember the conversation. On his way out he hastily jotted a note and left the house.
An hour later he was in the elevator of the Federal building, stopping at his office floor. Really missing his usual morning jolt of coffee, he walked to Team Seven's briefing room where he was greeted by the sensual smell of fresh Starbucks. He dropped into his chair and gratefully accepted the cup shoved his way by the undercover agent.
"I am on familiar terms with a barista that serves early," Ezra informed him.
After a fortifying sip, Chris faced his agent and was surprised at how tired he looked. Ezra usually managed to conceal his physical weaknesses.
"Let's have it," Chris started.
Ezra briefed him on his meeting with the representative of one Jesse Faraday, who claimed to have the ability to cover what Ezra considered an over-the-top order; the undercover agent had gone fishing and apparently hooked a big one.
"It seems that Mr. Faraday has references from here to Atlantic City. I checked into many of the deals, and every one was successful and legitimate. Well, 'legitimate' being a relative term . . ."
"I get it. Go on."
"When I asked why I had not dealt with him before, he told me that his 'area' was usually more north and east. He wants to expand and was not only willing, but very able to supply what Serritella had promised. The man has a business head on his shoulders."
Chris rubbed the back of his neck, thinking. "If that's so, he's a big fish. Why haven't we heard of him before?"
"I inquired along those lines. Apparently, Jesse Faraday is a very careful man - and as I eluded before, smart - who keeps everything close to the vest. He has a small crew that is very loyal, my contact being one of them. Faraday thoroughly investigates everyone before working with them and does not tolerate anyone speaking of him out-of-turn. He's one of the few drug dealers that doesn't use, and an artillery dealer that does not know much about guns. He specializes in getting things - any things." Ezra paused to sip his coffee. "I feel he should be called 'fence' rather than a dealer, which is more than likely why we have never heard of him. He's a high roller, so to speak, and the gentleman is thoroughly and smartly diversified, never focusing on one particular commodity. Faraday is what you'd call a 'wheeler-dealer'. And the most irksome part of his empire is that no one can, or will, describe him. I have no idea what he looks like and apparently I am not alone in this dilemma."
The information slowly sunk into Chris' brain, kick starting his mind into action. "So, what are we up against?"
Ezra took a thoughtful sip of his latte as if reluctant to speak. "There are a few . . . disturbing . . . facts that I have uncovered. And mind you, finding anything on this man has been difficult and I believe I know why."
Chris waited patiently as Ezra annoyingly took the time to frame his thoughts.
"Word is that Mr. Faraday started out with two partners. Both have disappeared. His 'turf' has been challenged no less than three times in the past five years. Each one of the challengers has also 'disappeared'. The man is considered paranoid beyond the realm of what is considered normal."
That rolled around in Chris' head. "Do you think he or one of his toadies set up Serritella? Because if he did, he may know you. Or us."
Ezra tilted his head a moment, his hazel eyes dimming slightly as he considered the idea. "No. I don't believe so. Faraday is a businessman that has seized upon an opportunity and if we get him, I do believe we will cut off a stream of trafficking that covers most of the north east. He is big, Mr. Larabee. Quite a catch."
"You be careful, Ezra, I'm not kidding. One hint of trouble and you're out, you hear me?"
The unflappable agent smoothed a sleeve. "I never go in to anything with the intent to commit suicide, Mr. Larabee."
Chris snorted. "Sometimes I wonder. Check in every three hours. Can you wear a GPS?"
"No. He is very careful. No GPS, no wires. Our first planning meeting is at 1:00 this afternoon via video conference. It stops there if I do not show cash." Ezra rose, coffee in hand. "I do not know the location at the moment but I will keep you informed. If you don't mind, I would like to get some sleep. Here are some names I managed to overhear in connection with Mr. Faraday and Mr. Serritella." He slid a neatly printed list to Chris. "I do not know in what capacity that they are involved with Faraday. They could be mere paperboys or poolboys, for all I have uncovered."
"Gotcha. Go get some sleep." After Ezra left, Chris perused the list, divvied up the work, and started to call in the others to prepare for the 1:00 meeting.
Buck picked up the phone on the second ring, tucking it between his ear and shoulder as he flipped a pancake. "Start talkin'," he answered.
"Buck, it's me. I'm calling in the boys to run some names Ezra gave me. This looks like it's movin' fast."
The sound of Spongebob Squarepants in the living room forced Buck to walk to the far side of the kitchen. "Do ya need me to come in?" He shuffled the latest addition of the hotcake tower to the top and switched off the stove. "Mrs. Potter said she'd be home today."
"Nah, spend the time with JD. We have it covered for now. I'll be pullin' you in soon enough so you two have a good day. Ez has a video conference meeting at 1:00 with someone trying to take Serritella's place. We'll know the face-to-face time after that. I'll call you."
Buck put the platter of cakes on the table and dropped into a chair. A photo on the first page of the Denver Post caught his eye. "Hey, boss-man, you got your mug in the paper."
Buck opened the paper all the way. There was a picture on the bottom quarter of a man getting escorted from a court room. "Picture of Serritella leaving court. You're in the background. You're lookin' at your feet or something. You could have at least smiled, stud."
Chris snorted on the other end of the line.
"You know what that means, don't cha?" Buck teased.
"Hell, Buck, that's a stupid game." Chris started to protest.
"It's a longstanding ATF tradition, and you know it. Who are we to deny tradition?" Buck said, grinning. "Get your picture in the paper and you have to bring in breakfast for a week for the team! I suggest Inez's huevos rancheros for Monday, boss!" He quickly slammed down the phone as Chris started to curse and laughed out loud. "JD! Breakfast!"
The rest of the team spent the morning researching the names on Ezra's list and brainstorming to figure out a way to monitor Ezra's video conference. Chris was both disappointed and heartened that most of the names on Ezra's list were already known to them from their investigation into Harold "Harry" Evans, and were either in prison, standing trial or dead. It confirmed the accuracy and thoroughness of his team but each one down was one less hope of finding what happened to Vin.
Faraday, though, was a whole new direction and if he was as connected as Ezra thought, there were more trails out there to follow.
Ezra was contacted just after noon on his cell and told to go to a local cyber café with the money. He was given a tight time frame to arrive, the name of a public chat room and a moniker to call himself.
The techs couldn't trace the cell call as it was a disposable phone. Following a trail from a cyber café wouldn't be impossible, but would definitely take some time and Faraday - or whoever showed on the connection - would be long gone by the time they did so. Still, they scrambled to follow on the leads.
"Careful" and "paranoid" didn't seem to quite cover the nature of Faraday and Chris didn't like it. Things were moving too quickly and Ezra was already worn thin. If Faraday kept them on the run like this, they would have no advantage. Chris argued with Ezra about backing off, but Standish insisted that if they did, Faraday would be lost for good. The undercover agent would have no part of stopping the deal because of him.
And, of course, things went the way they shouldn't. At the video conference, once the talking head on the other side saw the case of money a time was set for the buy. It wasn't negotiable. The buy would be in four hours.
Chris was pressured to move quickly and that rankled him. He also wasn't happy with the time Faraday chose - the buy would take place in the twilight time between dusk and dark, which was an awkward, dicey time for any kind of surveillance. They would need both day and night vision equipment, and with no time to prepare the scene, they would need more manpower to monitor. And more manpower meant more chances of detection.
Every instinct told Chris to turn this one down - it was his gut versus his good sense and an internal battle raged right up to the moment they staged.
"I gotta buy some stock in antacid companies," Josiah joked as Chris threw back another pair of chewable tablets. Josiah earned a steely glare from their leader and threw up his hands. "I surrender!" he said, eyes sparkling as he stepped away and headed to Ezra's car. The big profiler was posing as Ezra's bodyguard. He folded into the car and pair departed. It was almost show time.
Nathan sidled up to his boss. "Ezra looks tired," he commented lowly.
"He can rest all he wants in a couple of hours." Chris continued to adjust his vest.
"Chris, I'm not sure . . ."
"Look," Chris snapped. "Standish knows his limits. He's not stupid. This won't take long and I'll make sure he takes some time off." Nathan nodded, but didn't drop his eyes. After a few moments, Chris glanced back at him. "What?"
"You too, Chris. You take some time off, too. Don't make me go over your head to Travis." Nathan stood his ground in the face of a deadly glare.
Without another word on the subject, he checked his weapons and loaded up. "Get to your post, Nathan. It's time."
Team seven, along with team two, dissolved into the night when they arrived at the meeting area. Faraday had chosen an unlighted, outdoor parking facility in an industrial district that was practically empty on a weekend. There wasn't any place for a cover sniper, or any cover nearby that would do any good in a firefight. Instead, they had to rely on numbers and absolute concealment.
It also crossed Chris' mind that Faraday could just be testing Ezra, and this was all a dry run to see if Standish was legitimate. And if Faraday was a paranoid as Ezra suspected, this was a possibility Larabee couldn't dismiss.
As he settled into his place, Chris couldn't ignore the tingle that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Were they being watched? Only time would tell. Chris had taken all the precautions he could think of and a few suggested others so he shoved the nagging notions into one of the many dark corners of his mind.
Most of the team seven was sequestered out of sight, close to where Ezra and Josiah waited. Because of their proximity, they sacrificed a direct visual picture and used team two spotters positioned farther away. Microphones were hidden around the parking area instead of on the Standish and Sanchez. It was a precarious set-up. Chris hoped that if either of his men spoke the codeword to move the rest of them would hear it.
Chris didn't like having to trust another team's eyes, but it was the best they could do under the circumstances - as long as they weren't already being observed. Chris sighed at his own paranoia and mumbled, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get ya." He settled in and touched his ear bud. For now, all he could do was listen.
As shadows of dusk began its descent into the darkness of night, rumbling and grinding gears announced the arrival of a box truck. It was time.
Ezra slipped from the sleek BMW while Josiah unfolded from the passenger side. As the bodyguard, Josiah moved between Ezra and the arriving van, his hand resting on the butt of the automatic on his hip. The truck leisurely circled around the pair, finally stopping nose to nose with the BMW. Another vehicle, a smaller SUV, pulled up behind Ezra's car, effectively blocking it.
Two men exited from each vehicle. One man from the box truck walked to the back and the agents heard the sound of the back rolling door being opened. Ezra focused on the smaller, well-dressed man approaching from the SUV and faced him as Josiah eyed the remaining musclemen. They didn't like the feeling of being surrounded but stood quietly with arms held out as they both were checked for wires.
"Mr. Faraday?" Ezra greeted the lead man, whom he recognized from the video conference.
"Nope," was all the man said.
"I was under the impression that Mr. Faraday would be joining us," Ezra said casually as he shrugged his coat back in place.
"Not this time," the man informed him. "Money?
"I have the requested compensation for the goods." Ezra nodded to Josiah, who reached inside the sedan and pulled out a metal case. He held it as Ezra dialed in the code and opened it. Ezra then stood between it and the speaker. "You understand my reluctance to render payment without inspecting the order," he said.
"I do. And when you've seen the guns, we get the cash and you get the truck and contents, as agreed." The man dangled the keys from his fingertips.
"Fair enough." Ezra accepted the keys and stepped aside to allow the man to inspect the cash.He took a moment to scan the area for any movement or threat from any direction. "I am disappointed for not having the pleasure of meeting Mr. Faraday," Ezra said casually.
His mind, however, raced. They wanted Faraday. Should he trust that this person's declaration that he wasn't Faraday? With a lifetime of reading people in him, Ezra's instinct was telling him that the man spoke truthfully. He wasn't Faraday. In this scenario, they were to let the buy go through and Ezra or Josiah would say the codeword "sunny day," allowing the deal to conclude without interference. Ezra was prepared to utter the phrase when something in his peripheral vision, in the well of growing darkness at the rear of the suspect's van, made the agent's senses tingle.
Faraday's spokesman began a verbal rundown on the contents in the truck as he rifled the money, but Ezra's attention focused instead on something just out of his visual range in the shadows at the rear of the truck. He cast a casual glance beyond Josiah and the goons, looking, perhaps for a suspect hiding in the dark. As he did so, a pale face pushed itself from the blackness into the light at the rear corner of the boxy vehicle.
The body below the face was shrouded in shadow, accenting the illusion of a ghostly face floating in the inky black. Ezra managed to keep any hint of surprise from his unreadable poker face as his mind quickly took in the fact that the shadowy newcomer was not only short but small featured and definitely young. When his gaze finally fixed on the bottomless blue eyes staring back at him, recognition flared like a blinding nova.
"Good Lord. Vin!" Ezra realized, managing to drown the utterance of the boy's name with a hard swallow. It took every morsel of self control to keep from leaping toward the boy; instead, his body twitched as if slapped. Vin, seeing his look of recognition, took a small step forward. Ezra sharply shook his head once, and then tore his stare away hoping Vin would understand the message to not move. Ezra looked to Josiah. The well dressed man noticed the exchange.
"Hey, what's wrong?" Thick suspicion tinged the goon's question, which caused Ezra's heart to jump another gear.
The look that reflected back to Ezra from Josiah was one of instant, yet well-contained, alarm. Ezra knew the instant evaporation of his well known outward cool had put Josiah on immediate alert. The big man slammed the case shut and the contact spun on Ezra.
"You got a problem?" The sound of guns clearing leather came from the other three goons that surrounded them.
And for the first time in as long as he could remember, Ezra didn't know what to do or say and the hesitation was instantly interpreted as something sinister by the delivery man.
Ezra instantly held up his hands, empty and unthreatening, and froze. Josiah held his arms out from his sides, still gripping the case.
Ezra felt his mouth open and the unfamiliar sound of stuttering came from his lips as he attempted to address the hostiles and his team at the same time. "I . . . ah . . . I mean . . ." Behind the contact, he could see that Josiah's astonished face was shiny with nervous sweat. "Well, it seems that . . . I . . . um . . ."
Usually, this would be the moment the bad guy would take the undercover agents to examine the goods but Ezra didn't want to go anywhere near Vin. He didn't want Faraday's man to go there without him, either, and he certainly did not want to walk away. No code word covered this situation and, apparently, none of the spotters saw the boy because no one was moving in.
He had to find a way to get out of this and he simply . . . couldn't. Mentally, Standish willed Vin to not move and pulled on every reserve he had deep inside to refrain from looking in the boy's direction.
"This is bullshit," Faraday's representative snapped, clearly nervous and getting too jumpy for Ezra's taste. "I'm taking this now." The big man snatched the case from Josiah and shoved him into Ezra. The other tightened their grip on handguns that suddenly looked the size of cannons.
Ezra and Josiah untangled and the big man moved to stand next to his teammate. There were several tense seconds of silence before Josiah's eyes flicked in the direction Ezra was trying desperately to ignore, causing their contacts to turn and look toward the truck.
Then Ezra knew he had to move.
"GET DOWN!" Ezra yelled as he ducked low and drove his shoulder into the contact, running over him to get to Vin. The gunfire was instant and deafening as Ezra plowed into the boy, knocking him flat. All he could think to do was to cover Vin with as much of his body as he could until this was over.
"MOVE IN! MOVE IN!" Chris surged forward quickly, already alerted by Ezra's uncharacteristic attitude. One target dropped and another turned and ran toward the cover of darkness, wounded and leaving his weapon behind. Another man sprang from the SUV.
Bullets sizzled over his head in both directions. Chris leaped to his secondary position and got a bead on a suspect taking aim on Josiah. Larabee dropped him, and then spared a glance in the direction of the van. Josiah was down but still firing. The spokesman dove under the van, seeking escape on the other side. Buck appeared out of the dark, his long legs covering the distance quickly, and jammed his heel in the man's shoulders as they appeared from under the truck. Buck's weapon trained unflinchingly at the man's head.
The pounding of running feet and barked orders prevailed as the gunfire finally ceased. Chris scanned the area and took a mental count of his men as they appeared out of thin air sharply tinged with gunpowder.
"Check in!" he ordered hotly as an automatic reflex. He helped Buck drag the spokesman to his feet as Nathan sprinted to Josiah.
The rest checked in verbally as the stealth-clad men of team two swarmed the scene, taking custody of the suspects. Medics appeared and headed Josiah's way. The big man was sitting up, grimacing as he talked to Nathan.
Chris then realized he hadn't heard from Ezra and his blood pressure shot up. He holstered his weapon and stormed around the truck and toward the agent, still in a huddled lump on the ground by the back wheels.
"Ezra!" he snapped, reaching his side in a pair of strides. Chris reached down and grabbed the undercover agent's shoulder and forced him to roll aside. "What the fuck . . ." The team leader was shocked into silence when he saw that his undercover agent tightly held a thin child. "Who the hell . . ." he started, and then froze when he was taken completely aback.
Ezra struggled to sit up, ignoring Chris and murmuring quietly as if calming a fractious colt. The child's back was to Chris as Ezra adjusted the squirming figure in his arms. After a moment, the small, pale head twisted sideways to rest on Ezra's shoulder, eyes squeezed tightly shut.
It was the hair that stopped Chris in his tracks - wavy, wild and a familiar tawny color that instantly ignited the pain of loss to the point of making his knees grow weak. Chris had to force himself to breathe. Then the small chin lifted and those eyes - those unforgettable, enigmatic eyes - opened wide, connected with his and jump-started his heart.
"Oh, God!" Chris choked, his vision immediately swimming with tears. Without conscious effort he reached down and scooped the body from Ezra's grip. "My God!" he whispered hoarsely, holding the boy tightly to his chest. Vin stilled but trembled silently in his arms as he worked his legs around Chris' waist.
Chris could hear others calling to him but the voices sounded faint and far away. All he noticed was the feel of his son, the smell of him and the salty taste of tears on his tongue. Vin's heart pounded against his chest, confirming he wasn't just a vision - his long, lost son was here in his arms. He turned from the noise and confusion, falling to his knees when his legs simply could carry him any farther.
Outside words vaguely buzzed in his ears. Chris' focus was entirely on the bundle he couldn't hold close enough. He spoke softly but didn't know what he was saying - his only purpose at this point in time was to hold his boy, his son, his Vin.
It could have been hours, or minutes, or even a scant second before Chris finally heard one voice clearly in his ear.
"Chris, you have to loosen up on him. Chris! Nathan needs to check him out!" It was Buck's voice slicing through the numbness, the tremble there more alarming than the words. "Come on, pard. He don't look so good. Please, Chris."
Finally allowing his arms to release a little, Chris became aware of the press of people around him. He automatically shifted into protective parental mode.
"Back off," he pleaded, not relinquishing his hold. "Please. It's too crowded." In his peripheral sight, the pressure around him lessened and he was able to relax his grip until the thin body shifted lower. "Vin," he said lowly. "Nathan needs to see you."
The small form in his arms seemed boneless. Chris, his mind snapping back into itself and working again, realized that Vin had not yet responded to him.
"Chris, he's in shock. Lay him down." The medic's hand rested sympathetically on Chris' shoulder, his grip firm. His other hand was flat against Vin's back. "Let me look at him."
Chris couldn't let him go completely. Instead, he sank to the cold cement alongside his son, Vin's head rested on his upper arm so they were face to face. Chris gently stroked Vin's hair back. Now able to see him closely, Chris saw the waxy quality to his skin. Under his fingers where he traced Vin's cheek, the flesh felt cool and clammy. Those defining blue eyes were glassy and unfocused, blinking slowly. Chris' hand shook.
"He's not hurt, is he? He'll be okay, right?" Larabee didn't try to control the emotion that tinged his voice.
"Chris, let 'em work," Buck said softly near his ear. As he spoke, Chris saw Buck's large hand gently stroke Vin's hair. "God, Chris," he choked. "It's a miracle. . ."
A miracle, Chris thought. That's exactly what this is. He felt his eyes burn with tears again. So much time gone, wasted - never to get back again. And what had Vin been through during that time?
Pushing back a bit, Chris critically scanned his boy for any hint of what the past two years had wrought. Vin was thin - painfully so - and really hadn't grown much from what Chris remembered. His hair was longer, rougher, his skin pale and unhealthy. Chris ran a trembling hand up and down an arm that was lean and wiry with no extra girth to it. When Nathan opened Vin's threadbare shirt, the spread of healed scars and bruises on bone-shaped flesh made his blood boil.
"Heavens," he heard Ezra say somewhere behind him. "What has been done to this boy is an atrocity."
Chris glanced up to see his undercover agent supported wholly by Josiah's strong arm. Blood stained one silk sleeve - Ezra had been hit and Josiah's thigh was stained black-red under the bandages. Neither one seemed to notice their wounds at the moment.
They were seven again and that was all that mattered.
Vin never uttered a word during the trip to the hospital. Chris was at his side the entire time and kept a constant physical connection - touching his shoulder, holding his hand, kissing his hair. He was unwilling to take the chance that his son would disappear again right before his eyes. Chris didn't mind that Vin didn't speak. It was the look in his son's glazed eyes worried him more.
The medics immediately inserted an IV to counteract dehydration and shock. When they arrived at the emergency room Vin shut down, closed his eyes and turned his head away, refusing to acknowledge anyone. Chris felt the pressure of too much action around him and fought the urge to order everyone away. He understood Vin's reaction completely - the boy was overwhelmed. Only when they were installed in a room and the bustle of taking the boy's vitals and preparing for an examination was over did Chris finally feel the rigidity leave Vin's frame.
Chris held his tongue and simply stroked Vin's hair with one hand while firmly holding a tiny hand with the other. Eventually, his silent calm was rewarded when tired, blue eyes crept opened again.
"Hey, Cowboy," Chris said lowly as Vin blinked in the brightness. There was no way to stop the hot tears he felt warming his cheek.
Vin's troubled gaze settled on his face. The dull haziness abated somewhat, replaced with obvious wariness. Chris remembered how still his boy could be when he didn't want to be noticed; was this Vin's wish? To be left alone?
The thought fled with Vin's quiet words. "It's really you?" Desperate hope cloaked the question, making his words sound tight. "Chris?"
Chris could only nod, his voice stolen away by boundless joy and a new flow of tears. He squeezed Vin's hand tighter with one hand as he cradled the hollow cheek with the other.
"Dad?" Vin choked as the wariness fled and his eyes filled. Tears released with a sharp gasp, followed by near silent sobbing. He reached out and clutched Chris' sleeve in a trembling grip. Chris folded, and drew his son into the comfort of his arms, rocking him as they both wept.
Unwilling to disturb the reunion, Buck and Nathan stood just outside the curtained area, unable to speak. Nathan finally excused himself to check on the others, swiping a hand across his eyes as he left. Buck glanced at his watch, finding the numbers tough to read, and tried to think if JD would still be awake. He wanted nothing more than to tell the boy that his brother had been found but Buck tempered the urge, deciding it would probably be better to let Vin and Chris get settled first.
Buck heard Nathan's low voice as he spoke to Josiah and Ezra as well as the quiet murmur of Chris' voice as he calmed Vin. The boy's hitched breaths didn't abate. After several minutes, Buck realized that Vin wasn't settling as he should and hadn't said a word since acknowledging Chris. Knowing only too well that there were going to be problems reintegrating Vin back into their lives anyway, he knew he should back off, but Buck had to see him just once more before going home.
Clearing his throat, he stepped inside the curtained area and looked to Vin to see how he should proceed. Chris was sitting on the edge of the gurney holding onto both of the boy's hands and spoke lowly and continuously, occasionally reaching up to wipe away a stray tear. But when he reached to do the same to Vin's cheek, the boy startled.
Vin's glassy gaze flicked nervously from the ceiling to Chris, apprehension clear in his eyes. He seemed to relax a little as Buck watched, but he was still a far cry from the boy he remembered. Buck's throat went suddenly dry, realizing how hard this must be on Chris.
"Chris?" he said softly, moving slowly forward. "How's he doin'?"
"He's a little scared but he's fine, Buck," Chris replied without breaking the cadence of his voice. "Vin's a little dehydrated and probably pretty tired, right?" There was no reaction from the boy.
"I'm gonna call Dr. Lowery, okay? Before I tell JD?"
The mention of JD made Vin blink rapidly a few times and tentatively turn his head in search of the voice.
"Hey, Junior," Buck smiled. "I'm so happy you're back. We've missed you."
Thoughts swirled in the watery blue eyes as the tiny forehead crinkled. "JD?" The name was barely a whisper.
"He's fine. He's probably in bed right now, Vin."
Things seemed to register in the boy's brain and his eyes cleared a little. Then, in an instant, panic erupted.
"Miss Grace! You've gotta help Miss Grace! You need to save her!" Vin struggled to sit up, fighting against his father's hands. Chris tried to calm him but Vin was having no part of it. "Save her, Dad! You c'n save her!"
Vin's voice rose enough to bring a nurse to the room. Vin twisted and fought, insisting they help the unknown woman and begged to be let go. Both the nurse and Chris worked to calm him without success; Vin freed one arm and swung, his elbow catching the nurse hard on the cheek.
"Vin! Stop it!" Chris ordered, finally getting a grip on the boy's arms and holding them firmly to the mattress. Buck jumped forward and pressed down on the boy's legs, immobilizing him. Vin writhed under their hands, screaming hysterically, which brought in another nurse as well as a doctor.
The doctor barked out an order and one of the nurses retrieved a bottle from a drawer and drew some of the liquid into a syringe. Vin fought, crying and pleading, until the dose was injected into the saline line. Finally, his hysteria reduced to sobbing. "No, no, no," he mumbled before falling to the influence of the sedative.
Chris was shaken, his skin pale and eyes bright. Feeling the attention of others on him, Buck released Vin's legs and glanced back to see the rest of the team standing at the open curtain, stunned.
The doctor noticed them, too. "He doesn't need a crowd." Buck had to give him credit for standing up to the collection of glares he received in response. The doctor then turned to Chris and spoke lowly. "Your son needs to be admitted for evaluation. He's shocky, dehydrated, anemic and obviously traumatized. He needs a full examination."
By the stricken look in Chris' eyes, the implications regarding a "full exam" were clear.
"Vin . . . he . . . he has a therapist. Dr. Lowery. I'd like his input. And I'd like his pediatrician, Dr. Two Eagles, to do the exam."
"I'll arrange it," the doctor said, retreating to write on Vin's chart. "Both of those doctors have practicing privilege here. Meanwhile, Vin will be moved to a single room."
"What about visitors?" Buck asked, knowing that would be the first thing JD would ask about.
"First things first. Let's get Vin settled. He's going to be asleep for a while. Maybe he'll be up to family visiting tomorrow afternoon."
The miles rolled by under the wheels of Buck's truck but the man was oblivious to the trip. His mind whirled around the day's events - although things had settled into a holding pattern, he knew there was one more step: Telling JD.
Vin was established in a room with Chris at his bedside when he finally escaped the hospital. Buck doubted the man could be pried from his boy's side, and he couldn't blame his friend. When JD was in his arms next, Buck would be hard pressed to let him go, too.
The off ramp for the winding road to the ranch suddenly popped up and Buck blinked in surprise. He didn't recall any of drive. Shaken, he took the ramp and pulled over at the first dirt shoulder he could find.
It was well after nine, closer to ten, at night. The housekeeper, Mrs. Potter, had picked up JD from school as usual and was prepared to stay late - Buck had pre-warned her and she had made arrangements. He hadn't called her back with the news of finding Vin because he wanted to tell JD face to face.
With that realization, Buck dug out his cell phone and stared at it a few moments before flipping it open and scrolling down to the number he needed.
"Dr. Lowery's answering service," the perky female voice stated.
"I need to speak to Dr. Lowery. It's an emergency."
The woman took Buck's information and the agent snapped his phone shut, gripping it in his hand with expectation. In the meanwhile, he stared out the windshield and tried to focus his thoughts. The problem was, he didn't know where to start. The problems he anticipated with Vin's return - and those imagined problems multiplied by the minute - were so varied and complex Buck felt overwhelmed and therefore frozen, unable to make any plan of action. He hoped Dr. Will could get him pushed into the right direction.
And as if reading his troubled mind, Buck's phone rang a lot sooner than he expected.
"Hello?" he said, sounding a little breathless.
"Mr. Wilmington? Dr. Lowery. I just received some exciting news from the hospital - Vin's been found?"
"Yes," Buck nearly stammered, dragging his hand through his hair. "Yes, he has, and I have no clue what to do next. This is . . . huge . . ." To Buck, the words seemed inadequate.
Dr. Will, though, seemed to grasp the situation immediately. "Are you with him now?"
"No." Suddenly, a waterfall of words flowed forth summarizing Vin's recovery all the way up to his current situation. The psychologist let the agent talk, uninterrupted, until he stalled at where he was. "How do I tell JD? Should I let him see Vin tomorrow?"
"Mr. Wilmington, Buck," the doctor started calmly. "Of course you should tell JD as soon as possible and I think you telling him in person is a good decision. You'll need to be there for the fallout, and there will be that - nightmares, clinginess, loss of focus in school. Don't lie. Tell him honestly 'I don't know' if you don't know something and just keep him close. Let JD direct the follow up. Don't give any promises you can't keep. Be honest that you don't know how Vin will react. JD will want everything to instantly be just like it was. Tell him that Vin will be scared to invest himself emotionally until he's sure he won't be taken away again, that he needs a solid home base, security and proof that none of you will leave him. Basically, that he will be scared. JD should be able to understand that emotion."
Buck let out an explosive breath and a short laugh. "Slow and steady wins the race."
"Exactly. I plan on seeing Vin in the morning along with Dr. Two Eagles. I understand he's sedated at the moment and Mr. Larabee is with him?"
"Yeah. I don't think Chris'll be anywhere else for awhile."
"I think a short visit by JD tomorrow will be fine. Let Vin set the tone. I'll call you if I think there's anything specific you should know. Otherwise, just let JD be JD."
Buck smiled, feeling a lot better. "Thanks, doc. I think I need a dose of JD myself right now."
Dr. Will laughed. "Go home. Hug your boy and tell him the good news and stay close. I'm sure he'll understand that things are going to change and you'll need to be his home base."
"I can do that. Thanks for getting me focused, doc."
"I'll see you soon."
"No doubt about that. Thanks."
With his wild thoughts finally corralled, Buck took a deep breath and dropped the truck into gear. The drive along the quiet, winding road was relaxing and when he pulled into the driveway, he paused for a moment to look behind the barn.
Barely visible was the crushed front end of Chris' truck from that fateful night. Chris had the truck towed behind the barn and then refused to get it fixed - it just sat there like some sort of gruesome memorial, rusting, with blood-stained cloth seats that were disintegrating from the elements. Chris had thrown a tarp over it to spare JD but they all knew what was under there. The Ram's replacement had been a used Jeep that was as cantankerous and moody as its owner. Chris seemed to need the distractions the vehicle supplied. It had been a rocky relationship for the past two years.
Buck sighed and continued up the drive, parking in his usual spot next to the house. He exited the vehicle, recalling the days when two boys would happily barrel out of the door on his or Chris' arrival home. Since Vin's disappearance the best he could hope for was to have his boy greet him with a smile when he came in the door. Whenever JD ran from the house to meet him now, it was because of fear.
When Buck topped the porch steps and pushed open the door he was greeted by two happy dogs. Elvis and Ringo seemed to smile up at him with wagging tails, as usual, but then Buck noticed how they slowly became still and sniffed him with dogged concentration.
"You smell right, boys," he grinned, giving each of them a pat before dropping his keys and moving to the kitchen. The dogs trailed behind, noses glued to his legs, tails wagging. While the dogs followed the scent of their lost master, Buck followed the scent of fresh baked cookies.
When he stepped into the kitchen, JD, still somewhat awake and sitting at the table, was ready for bed with a mug of hot chocolate between his hands. He looked up and greeted him. "Hi Da! I got a 100% on my math test! We saved ya some dinner 'n Mrs. Potter's makin' cookies. Where's Chris?"
Buck chuckled at the verbose greeting. He walked over and dragged a chair next to JD, dropped down and threw an arm around his boy's shoulders.
Mrs. Potter turned from the sink and wiped her hands on a dish towel. "Like JD said, your dinner's in the oven. He wouldn't go to bed until you were home." JD accented the comment with a yawn. "Will Chris be back tonight?"
"Well, no, and I need to tell you why." When he turned to look at JD he saw that the boy had stilled and tensed under his arm. Those shining brown eyes went instantly flat. "It's good news, JD. We've found Vin."
"Oh, good God!" Mrs. Potter breathed, bringing her hands to her face.
JD straightened and his mouth dropped open. He stared at Buck, eyes wide, trying to find any indication of a lie. "Vin's home?" he finally whispered. "Really?"
"Really. He's getting a check up at the hospital right now. Chris is with him."
Buck was nearly bowled off his chair when JD launched into his arms.
"Vin's home! Vin's home!" the boy shrieked, a semblance of the exuberant boy Buck remembered.
Buck wrapped his arms snugly around his son, stood, and twirled around, holding JD tight. "Yup, Little Bit, he's back!"
Mrs. Potter openly cried and dabbed her eyes with a dish towel as JD jabbered with excitement. The dogs raced around the kitchen, feeling the energy. When they started barking a bit too robustly, Buck sat down with his boy in his lap and made an attempt to calm things, but he couldn't stop chuckling. JD hugged his neck then dropped to the floor and hugged Elvis and Ringo. Then he launched himself back at Buck.
"Can we go see him? Can we go now? Can we bring him balloons and a card and . . ."
"Whoa, there, Little Bit, slow down. We can do all that but we have to wait until tomorrow. There's more I need to tell you before we go visit."
"Is he okay?" JD asked seriously. The boy had also learned in the past two years how to read both his fathers' moods - something Vin had always been better at doing. Right now, he picked up that there something wasn't quite right.
Mrs. Potter got her tears under control and now looked concerned. Buck could tell she was hesitant to ask any questions and knew there was more than Buck was saying.
"Vin's sleeping right now because he's really tired. We'll see him tomorrow after school, after he's had a night's rest and the doctors get a look at him."
"Did the bad man hurt him? How did he get away? Where has he been?"
Buck gave a very brief description of the bust and how Vin had somehow sneaked into the truck. "That's really all we know right now. Like I said, Vin's pretty tired and didn't talk much."
"This is such good news, Buck. I'm so happy for you." Mrs. Potter gave Buck a hug and then leaned over and hugged JD. "I guess I'll work on getting the boys' room together tomorrow?" She asked.
JD just yelled, "YAAAAAAY! Vin's back, Vin's back!" and ran from the kitchen with two dogs at heel. Apparently, Buck's explanation was good enough to satisfy him for now.
"Walk, JD!" Both Buck and Mrs. Potter yelled together.
The night was long and the chair uncomfortable. Chris, though, could not let any complaints enter his mind when everything he'd wanted for the past two years was right here in his grasp. He couldn't take his eyes from the face he loved, a face that was etched deeply into his heart and memories and had been at the center of his dreams for the past two years.
Vin's face looked older. There was a length and hollowness to his cheeks that wasn't there before. He had never been a boy of rounded features - that was more like JD and Adam - and the angles of the boy's frame he saw now were even more defined, any hint of boyishness gone. At ten years old, Chris could see what Vin would look like as an adult. And he'd definitely seen more than any boy should; Chris felt like something had been stolen from the both of them.
Chris, aware that he was grinding his teeth again, forced his jaws to relax. He stood and dropped the bed rail, hitching his hip onto the mattress. While one hand held Vin's, the other stroked his boy's cheek and hair. Vin's pale lashes fluttered, fighting the sedative's effects; he hadn't rested peacefully for one minute since being here.
"Oh, Vin," he breathed, his throat still raw. "You're safe, son. No one's gonna hurt you, I promise. I'm here."
A soft query followed a muted tap on the door. "Still sleeping?" Nathan slipped into the room trailed closely by his wife, Raine.
"If you can call it that," Chris said hoarsely.
"I'm so happy for you," Raine said gently from across the bed. Her eyes were shining with gathering tears as she lightly rubbed Vin's boney arm. "I've prayed for this day, every day since he disappeared."
"Prayer didn't get him home," Chris said flatly. "Vin did that on his own. He did what I couldn't."
"Chris," Nathan said firmly. "Don't do that to yourself. Vin doesn't need it now or ever."
Chris pressed his lips tightly together, not daring to speak again. He knew he was on the edge of losing it, of screaming about the unjustness of it all, of grieving over the loss of two years, of crying in relief that his son was finally in his arms again. He only gained control again as he imagined what he planned do to the one responsible for his son's extended absence.
"We'll stay here while you take a break," Raine offered.
"I'm not going anywhere," Chris managed to say.
Nathan snorted. "We thought you'd say that, so we brought you some dinner." He placed a bag on the bedside table along with a tall cup of coffee.
Chris tore his gaze from Vin's face to the bag - it was from the deli down the street and the scent of coffee was just hitting his nose. He shifted his gaze to the calm eyes of Nathan. Suddenly, the anger and self-doubt drained away in the light of what he had all along - devoted friends. Chris managed a flicker of a smile.
"Thanks, Nathan," he said. "I'm sorry . . ."
"No need to apologize, Chris. We understand. Now if you don't mind, we'll stick around until you eat that."
Chris nodded absently and finally released Vin's hand and retrieved the food, setting back down in the hard, plastic nemesis. He shifted as sore muscles and tender spine painfully reacquainted themselves with the chair.
"Josiah's spellin' us," Nathan said. "I'll dig up a better chair before he settles in."
"They released him?"
"Yup. He's home, showering and changing. The bullet gouged him pretty good. He's got a bunch of stitches and'll be okay. He'll need to elevate his leg."
"What about Ezra?"
"They pulled a bullet from his arm but it missed bones and nerves. He'll be okay, too. He's home, passed out hard. 'Bout time."
Chris nodded, again grateful about how his team watched each other's back.
"Travis said to take as much time as you needed, Chris," Nathan continued. "He'll drop by tomorrow. We can cover most of the paper work and bring it to you for your approval." He rested his hand on Chris' shoulder for a moment. "You're needed here for now. Buck's bringing JD by tomorrow along with some more clothes for you and Vin."
Chris continued to eat, his eyes always on Vin. "I guessin' there's a ton of messages on my cell," he said. "Suppose I should turn it on sometime."
"Sometime tomorrow. Get some sleep while you can. I don't think you'll be getting much this week." Raine sounded sympathetic as she stroked Vin's hair. "There's bound to be immediate repercussions."
"Yeah," Chris uttered softly as his appetite dwindled. He wrapped the rest of the sandwich up and picked up the coffee. "Vin had nightmares for months when he was first with me." In fact, it had been close to a year before the middle of the night disruptions disappeared completely. "I hope he'll be able to put this behind him, Nathan. I . . . don't want . . ." He sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes. "I only see the worst in my mind."
"He's strong and so are you. It may take awhile, but with you and Buck and JD there for him, I'm sure he'll work it out. We're all here to help, Chris, you know that."
Chris nodded and sipped his coffee. "Has anyone called Nettie yet?"
Nathan gave Raine a questioning glance and she shrugged her shoulder. Chris reached for the room phone, unwilling to turn on his cell. A few queries later the number was connected. He watched Vin's face as he spoke.
"Chris Larabee, it's about time you called me. I was beginning to think you'd dropped off the face of the Earth."
How was it that this woman could make him squirm in guilt like a five year old? Still, he warmed at the sound of her voice. She'd been in his corner ever since he and Vin found each other. He swallowed hard to clear his suddenly clenched throat. "Nettie," he managed to choke, his eyes starting to burn again. "Nettie, Vin's home. He's here with me, now."
"What? You found him? Oh, Chris, that wonderful! How is he?"
"Actually, he found us. He's sleeping at the moment. We're at Four Corners Hospital for the night."
"Is he hurt?"
"No, not on the outside, Nettie."
"Oh, Chris, I'm so happy for you. That boy will only get better now that he's back with you." Chris heard a sniff and pictured her wiping misty eyes. "How did he find you?"
Chris gave her a short version of the bust, every second still clear in his mind. After arranging a visiting time for then next afternoon, he hung up and finished his coffee.
Vin stirred and Chris moved back to his side, whispering comforting words. Vin sighed and relaxed a little deeper into the mattress.
"Well, we'll be camped in the waiting area until Josiah gets here." Nathan said softly.
"It's really not necessary," Chris started.
"Yes, it is." Nathan insisted. "You need a break sometime and we don't intend for our boy to ever be alone again. We have to be here for him and you."
Chris nodded, again grateful.
The tiny hand in his finally felt softer, rounder and generated a little of its own warmth. Chris lightly rubbed across the knuckles with his thumb, relieved to see any improvement even if it was as simple as hydration.
Dawn was less than an hour away - at home, this would be a peaceful time where the last of the moon might dip behind the distant mountain range as the first light of sun washed the opposite horizon. Rabbits and deer may wander into the yard. Birds would start to stir.
Here in the hospital, however, there was the staff's constant motion all night. The atmosphere rarely varied, the only difference between day and night in the little room being the amount of light coming in the window and the amount of foot traffic in the hallway.
Chris couldn't wait to get Vin where he belonged - home. The boy he knew thrived on the out of doors and the nature surrounding the ranch. His eyes traced a path up Vin's limp arm to his troubled face. Even in sleep, he looked as if the weight of the world rested on his fragile shoulders.
Dr. Will called early in the previous evening and listed the things Chris might see. As Vin's blood chemistry was brought back to normal levels, the signs of shock would lessen bringing with it fallout that could express itself in many different ways. Being familiar with Vin's history, the psychologist felt that Vin's first instincts would probably be that of fight or flight. Trust, again, would be a huge issue; Chris' history with the boy would make or break the speed of his recovery. It depended entirely on what Vin remembered, and two years in a ten-year-old's life was a long time. Dr. Will closed the conversation by setting the time for his morning visit.
Chris was more than willing to start at square one again if they had to. The bond they felt from the very start was something too visceral to ignore. Chris truly felt it was in both his and Vin's nature to be together and that's what would bring his son back to them.
In a physical effort to stay awake, Chris stood and stretched, and then walked a small circle in the spare space of the room. The closet door was ajar, so he peeked inside and saw the small pile of Vin's clothes on the top shelf. Curious, he pulled down the dirty, well-worn jeans and checked the pockets, hoping to find some hint as to where his son had been. All he found was a squashed and crumbled energy bar and a wadded up piece of newspaper. Chris carefully unfolded the paper, disappointed to see it was from the Denver Post, which had a huge circulation.
Then he noticed the picture - it was the one of Serritella being taken from the court house with Chris clearly in the background.
Is that what triggered Vin's escape?
Chris sighed and tucked the clipping in his pocket, then folded the garment and put it back in the closet. Then, he returned to sit by the bedside once again and gently clasped both hands over Vin's. A lull of noise in the building made Chris' weariness creep to the forefront and he was unable to keep his eyelids from falling closed.
Suspended for an immeasurable span of time, Chris drifted until an inner urge nudged him back into awareness. When his eyes peeled open and he raised his head, the first thing he saw was his hand cradling Vin's. Inexplicitly, his gaze flicked farther upward to find a hazy set of blues staring at him.
Chris' heart lurched. "Vin," he said softly as he gripped the hand more tightly. "'Mornin', son" The last word cracked as his throat tightened. He slowly reached to stroke Vin's cheek, hesitating a second as his son flinched slightly from the motion. There was no fear in Vin's eyes, but the haziness seeped away leaving behind a bright wariness that stung Chris' heart.
After a short pause, Chris continued his motion, cradled Vin's cheek and gently stroked it with his rough thumb. The tenseness around Vin's eyes softened as the boy pressed ever so slightly into the caress. His eyelids partially closed and Chris felt him relax as their bond patched and strengthened.
The spell was broken with the sound of voices passing the doorway. Vin jerked into awareness, eyes wide, and pulled his hand free of Chris', pressing his palms to the mattress in preparation to move. His eyes darted wildly, seeking an escape route.
"You're okay, Cowboy. You're in the hospital and I'm here. I'm not leaving . . ."
The soft cadence helped dispel panic and Vin's breathing evened out. Although Chris kept his tone low and level, his own pulse raced with sorrow, anger and fear. Chris Larabee swore to himself that he would personally eviscerate whoever was responsible for stoking that wary fear back to life.
Chris' eyes must have been mirrors to his thoughts because Vin tensed again and blinked in uncertainty. Wrapping his arms around his chest in the only protection he could muster, the boy locked gazes with his father and his eyes became flat and unreadable. Chris averted his eyes until he felt in control again. Then he looked up and smiled, feeling tears begin to pool yet again.
"You're safe, Vin. I promise."
Slowly, ever so slowly, the tiny body unwound. Vin's arms loosened, then sagged and his intent stare, focused on Chris' eyes, finally softened and broke free, traveling around the tired face of his father. The inspection stopped at a point above Chris left eye where Vin raised a trembling hand. Chris felt those long missed fingertips lightly trace the scar from that horrible night.
"Dad," The boy's voice was as brittle as a dried leaf. "Dad?"
The nearly inaudible plea pushed Chris into motion. He dropped the bed's side rail and maneuvered onto the mattress where he pulled the boy tight against his heart. After a few stifled sobs, Vin finally let loose and silently cried, what little sound there was muffled by Chris' dark shirt.
Chris felt his heart break again and slowly reassemble with each hitch of Vin's boney shoulders. He held his son close, murmured reassurances and slowly rocked, feeling as if a missing part of him had finally returned.
When dawn finally painted the sky, Vin's sobs lessened. Vin's fingers twisted in Chris' shirt, grasping and releasing, as if confirming this reality. Chris continued to hold him close, waiting for Vin to signal that he'd had enough, as he'd done in the past. He felt the tempo of Vin's fingers increase.
"I love you, Vin," he whispered, kissing the boy's head.
This caused an unexpected reaction.
Vin immediately pushed back out of Chris' embrace but kept a loose grip on his dad's shirt. He stared at Chris with wide, hurt eyes. "Why didn't you find me? I tried to get away . . . I tried . . ." Tears began anew but this time Vin refused to be cuddled as he swiped his cheeks dry. Gulping great gasps and unable to speak, Vin reestablished his hold on Chris' shirt and tried to shake his father in frustration.
Every twinge of guilt and self-doubt crashed down on Chris like a lead weight, stealing his voice away. He reached out again but Vin released his hold and shifted away, instead snaring the thin blanket and drawing it to his chest in a white-knuckled grip.
"He . . . he kept sayin' you weren't . . . lookin' for me . . . anymore," he gasped between hitched breaths. "She . . . she took care 'a me . . . but I can't . . . I didn't . . ."
Chris blinked, not quite sure he followed the accusation. "You didn't what, Vin?"
"You've got to save her," Vin sobbed. "I . . . I tried, but you can do it! Why didn't you find me?"
Vin's huge eyes glittered with tears, which rushed down his flushed cheeks. The wary sadness was quickly being replaced with defiance and Chris was stunned at the change. He forced himself to think before speaking, knowing that the wrong thing would escalate the behavior.
"Vin, son," Chris said lowly, biding his time to think. He reached out again and Vin allowed the hand to rest on his shoulder. Chris could feel tension under his palm and knew he had to tread carefully. He knew Vin would see a lie so Chris spoke from the heart. "I'm grateful someone was there to protect you and I will help anyone that helped you.""
"I sure couldn't protect you," the little voice in Chris' head whispered.
"Whatever you want, Cowboy," he managed to say. "Okay?"
Vin didn't look convinced. One small fist dropped from the blanket to his stomach, where it ground into his gut as he regarded Chris. "You . . . you will?" he said in a tiny voice laced with distrust. Disturbingly, his hand moved in an absent manner as it pushed and rotated against his abdomen.
"Of course I will, but I have to find her first."
". . . and stretch her guts into bootlaces . . ."
Vin grew still as he studied Chris' eyes intently. Chris could tell that his perceptive son could read the simmering anger he was trying to contain. Exhaustion made it difficult to hide the emotion.
Vin's eyes narrowed and Chris as the signs of "flight" clicked into place. Both small hands moved to press into the mattress. It was a monumental task to shove the guilt, anger and helplessness aside but Chris managed to do so as he pulled one of Vin's hand into his own. Chris ducked his head, closed his eyes and took a deep breath, sure his thoughts were under control before opening them again.
"Yes, son, I will. Really." He met Vin's intense gaze and held it for nearly a minute before wariness dampened. "I need to know some more so I can find her, though."
"Her name's Miss Grace. Her son . . . died . . . 'n I reminded her of him. She called me Austin sometimes 'cause that was his name. She misses him." Vin's eyes grew wide with distress. "Mr. Jesse hits her 'n I'm too small 'n she takes . . . medicine . . . 'n goes asleep 'n cries 'n I can't wake her up a lot a times before Mr. Jesse'd come back."
Chris was momentarily stunned. That was a lengthy verbal tirade for Vin, but what he was saying was typical of the big-hearted soul. Chris wasn't surprised at his protecting yet another underdog, or at least what he perceived as an underdog. Knowing the circumstances in which Vin had come back to them, Chris pieced together that Grace must be an abused wife or girlfriend and possibly an addict of some sort. He found it difficult to feel sorry for her but if this was the way to earn Vin's trust again, he'd have to try and find her. Whether he could save her or not was up to Miss Grace.
Finding her, though, would mean he'd have to face the person that accepted Vin as a trade payment, treating his little boy like chattel as Evans had done. Chris' jaw tightened with that thought, causing a flicker of unease in Vin's eyes. Chris ducked his head again to get himself under control.
Between the two of them alone, Dr. Will was going to be a very busy man.
"Mr. Jesse," Chris mentally repeated as he ran Vin's words through his head once more. "Vin said Jesse - Jesse Faraday? He knows what Faraday looks like?"
The agent in Larabee was nudged awake and challenged Chris' fathering instincts. The terms "Stockholm Syndrome" and "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" both tumbled through is head doing him absolutely no good because there wasn't anything in his memory telling him how to deal either of those disorders. If there was ever a perfect moment for Josiah Sanchez or Dr. Will to walk in, this was it.
Until then, the fathering part of Chris took control. He captured Vin's hand and held it tightly in between his as he scooted closer. Gathering his thoughts, he tilted his head and found Vin's troubled gaze.
"Vin, I know you want to help Miss Grace, but you're pretty sick right now and you need to get better first." He stopped Vin's upcoming protest with a word. "Please, son." He waited until Vin looked like he was ready to listen. "Miss Grace is an adult and can take care of herself for now. You need to trust me and the doctors for now." He felt his eyes burn as he spoke. He adjusted his grip on Vin's small hand and when he spoke, his voice shook. "I've missed you so much. A part of me was missing right along with you and all I want is to make sure you are all right. I have to be sure before I can do anything else. Please understand." Chris didn't bother to wipe the tickle he felt on his cheek. He bowed his head.
After many moments of silence, Chris felt Vin pull his hand free and then he felt a light touch on his cheek as his son brushed away the tears. The touch trailed upward to the ugly scar that marred his eyebrow. Chris tried to hold back, but as soon as he looked up again and saw those soulful, aged blue eyes, he lost it.
The first sob was barely loose from his heart when he felt Vin's arms around his neck. Chris pulled him in tight and, together, they mourned lost years.