Prologue - Chapter Three
Chapter Four - Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight - Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven - Chapter Thirteen
This was how Dr. Will found them. He stepped just inside the door and stopped, clearing his throat and shuffling the papers in his hands to make them aware of his presence. When the pair seemed to be under control, Chris stood. Dr. Will stepped forward and offered his hand to Chris, noting that his other hand remained connected to Vin's shoulder.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," the psychologist greeted, meeting Chris' eyes. Then he turned to the bed and moved a little closer but respected the boy's personal space. Then he looked squarely at his patient's face and smiled. "Hi, Vin. It sure is good to see you again. I've missed you."
Vin unconsciously gathered the edge of the blanket into his fists and dropped his gaze, but the doctor could see that Vin's eyes were in motion, taking in every nuance. He looked to Chris, whose nodding acceptance of the doctor quieted most of the tense movement. Vin then opened one little fist and rubbed his stomach. Finally, he glanced up tentatively and whispered, "Hi, sir."
"You called me Dr. Will when I was seeing you before. You can call me that again when you're comfortable with it, okay?" Vin nodded mutely in response, dropping his gaze again to his lap. He frequently confirmed Chris' presence with furtive sideways glances. "I won't stay long, Vin. I just wanted to see you and say hi, and leave this with you."
Curiosity dampened the unease his eyes widened at the three ring binder Dr. Will placed on the bedside table. Clearly, he recognized it.
Dr. Will smiled. "You wrote in that, Vin," he said gently. "I suggested that you write down your 'feel bad' thoughts and what you did to turn them into 'feel good' thoughts. You were pretty good at that, I remember."
Vin graced the doctor a long, evaluating look before nodding and saying, "Thanks." One hand tentatively reached over and touched the notebook. His finger traced the handwritten "Vin Tanner" on the cover.
"I put some blank sheets in the back and I also have this for you." Dr. Will put a rectangular plastic box next to the folder. "There are pens, pencils and some new Crayons and markers in there in case you want to add anything to the book. Is that all right?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah," he replied shortly, some of the wariness gone.
"I'll be going now, Vin, but I'll be seeing you and your Dad again soon. Dr. Two Eagles will be here in a few minutes to look you over before you go home. Have you seen JD yet?"
The question chased any residual uneasiness away and his eyebrows quirked upward as he looked to Chris. "Is he comin'?"
"If you want him to, Vin," Chris answered lightly. "Is it okay?"
"Yeah," Vin nodded. "I'd like to see him."
Even without the small boy's physical presence, JD again managed to affect them all and chase away the awkwardness of the situation. Dr. Will grinned. "Okay, then, I'll leave you to your reunion plans. I'll see you soon, Vin." He turned and shook Chris' hand and headed to the door.
"Dr. Will?" Vin called unexpectedly.
The man paused at the door and turned. "Yes, Vin?"
Vin had captured the blanket again and fingered it nervously. "Thanks."
Dr. Will smiled and nodded. "You're welcome. Bye, now."
Chris sat on the edge of the bed then reached out and stroked Vin's hair away from his face. "You anxious to get home?"
Vin nodded, "Yeah . . . no . . . I don't . . ." he began to rub his stomach again with one hand.
"Hurts a little," Vin admitted. "I'll be all right. It's just . . ."
"You're a little scared?"
Vin dropped his gaze and nodded as he whispered, "What if JD don't like me no more?"
Chris covered the hand that clutched the blanket with his own. "It'll be okay, Vin. Trust me. JD still loves you. We're all glad you're finally home."
The little hand rubbing Vin's tummy ground a little harder. He frowned.
"Vin?" Chris stroked Vin's cheek with one hand as he held Vin's clenched fist with the other. "What's wrong?"
Without a word, Vin pushed away and doubled over in pain. He retched dryly, bile and blood spotting the hospital blanket.
Buck entered the hospital with some trepidation. JD, perched on his hip, happily tugged on a shiny Mylar balloon festooned with stars and exploding fireworks. The agent had to finally resort to carrying the excited boy when he'd tried to run ahead twice in the parking lot.
"I wish we'da had time to get somethin' else like a car or a toy or a stuffed aminal like Cat. Hey, Da, do ya think Vin needs 'nother Cat? Did Cat come home with him? Da?"
"Huh? What? No, no Cat's, um, not here, Lil' Bit, but we know where he is." Buck stopped at the elevator bank and reached to punch the button.
Buck tottered forward a step when JD leaned out and hit the silver button. "Hey, hey. Warn me next time, okay, Pard?"
JD laughed, excitement exuding from every pore, and Buck was thrilled he was back to being a regular ball of energy once again. Buck shook his head, chuckling, as the doors dinged open and they stepped inside.
"What?" JD asked. "What's so funny?"
"You," he replied tweaking his boy's nose. "I think you're just what the doctor ordered."
"Huh?" JD said, confused.
"I mean," Buck replied patiently, "Remember that Vin might be shy and even a little scared. You can help him get over that."
"Vin's not scared 'a me, Da," he answered with a roll of his eyes. The ding that announced their arrival at Vin's floor and cut the discussion short. "Look, look, we're here!"
Again, Buck tried to instill some measure of decorum into JD's bouncing body but he threw in the towel and set the boy down, keeping a firm grip on one tiny hand. JD tugged, surging out of the elevator and dragging Buck in his wake. Checking the door numbers as he moved, he finally froze when he reached Vin's door.
The world must have shifted on its axis because for the first time in their time together, JD was both speechless and motionless. Frozen.
Momentarily stunned, Buck hesitated, but as soon as he saw the first lines of doubt cross his son's forehead, Buck scooped him up and pushed open the door.
The world shifted instantly back on track.
Amazingly, the boy in the bed didn't twitch - but Chris did. Instead, Vin stared for a moment, open-mouthed, and then he broke into a big smile. Buck had to trot forward to counteract JD's forward lunge, and when they reached the bed he simply released his little whirlwind.
Somehow, the boys wrapped around each other without getting tangled in the balloon string or toppling from the bed. Vin's IV line even managed to behave and stay clear. Chris leaned back in the unforgiving chair and in spite of it, Buck saw the shadow of a relaxed smile on his friend's face for the first time in years
Finding his throat suddenly constricted, Buck took Chris' shoulder and squeezed getting a goofy grin in return - well, as goofy as a grin that Larabee could offer. "You okay?"
"More than okay," Chris said hoarsely, turning his attention back to the boys.
JD kneeled next to his beloved brother, heads bowed with foreheads touching, jabbering on about something they couldn't quite catch.
With the boys deep in conversation - well, actually, it was JD deep in chatter - Chris slowly stood and indicated with a nod for Buck to join him on the other side of the room.
"What did the docs say?" Buck asked quietly.
Chris ran a hand over his face. "There are some new scars - cigarette burns, belt marks, a few needle tracks." The last words were strangled. He had to stop for a moment and clear his throat. "He's got an ulcer, Buck. Ten years old and an ulcer."
Buck kept himself from groaning and, instead, gripped his friend's shoulder in support. Again in control, Chris continued.
"There are traces of THC and other drugs in his system. There are some healed breaks in his arm and ribs that weren't there before. He's anemic and too thin and his blood chemistry's out of whack but good nutrition should fix that. It's possible he was . . . violated . . . but there's no definite physical indication. Two Eagles doesn't want to rule it out."
Buck's stomach churned, not sure he could hear any more.
"I called Dr. Will during the examination. He mentioned post traumatic stress, Vin didn't say much. The trust has to be rebuilt but it was a good start. I think there's some Stockholm Syndrome . . ."
"With who?" Buck snapped.
Chris sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Some woman named Grace. Vin says she took care of him. From what he says, she sounds like an addict. I promised Vin I'd find her."
"Chris, you realize that she's an accomplice and you'll have to arrest her, right?"
"Of course I know that!"
Chris' tone caused Vin's head to swivel their direction. JD, oblivious, kept talking. Buck forced a smile and a wave. Chris did the same. Eventually, Vin turned back to JD but seemed to be a little on edge.
Chris took a deep breath. "The only things we have are the vehicles and the men we arrested. What do we know about them?"
"Travis assigned Wheeler from team two as lead. Ezra and Josiah are on light duty and can help with research. Nathan's working with Wheeler now. I'll check in and see what they have. You 'n me have the rest of the week off."
Chris jerked his head up.
"Travis insisted," Buck explained. "He wants updates on Vin's recovery, too. The man was positively giddy."
"Travis? Giddy?" Chris snorted. "I don't know what is more disturbing - visualizing Travis 'giddy' or you actually using that word."
Buck playfully backhanded Chris' chest. "Hey, I'll gladly use the words 'frolic' and 'gaily' if it'll help our boy get back to where he was." With that, the two of them turned toward the boys. Vin's posture had relaxed again and there was a hint of a smile around his mouth as he gazed with clear adoration at his acquired brother. "Looks like JD's worked his magic."
Chris nodded and one corner of his mouth twitched into a grin that didn't do much to banish the tired hollowness of his face or the charcoal smudges under his eyes. Even with that, the man finally looked connected with life again. Buck's heart lifted.
"So when are we taking our boy home?"
"As soon as his blood chemistry's acceptable. Two Eagles would prefer he gained a pound or two but I don't think that's required. Possibly tomorrow."
"I brought you some fresh clothes." Buck pointed to the bag on the floor. "Razor, that kinda stuff. I'll go get some food now, too. Anything in particular?"
"Something that won't antagonize an ulcer?" Chris said tentatively.
Buck nodded. "I'll think of something. Chicken noodle soup from that deli Vin liked?"
"Perfect. See you in awhile."
Buck approached the bed and told the boys he'd be back. JD was fine with it and said good bye, but Vin said nothing. The tall agent did note that Vin kept his eyes on him and finally graced him with a weak smile. Unable to stop himself, Buck reached out and stroked Vin's head, ignoring the twitch he felt at his touch.
"We'll get you back, Vin, I know it."
When Vin looked weary, Buck suggested that it was time to go home. Not surprisingly, JD protested and, surprisingly, Vin looked a looked hopefully at Buck, wanting his sibling to stay. Chris felt like the bad guy when he insisted that Vin needed rest. JD was crestfallen but acquiesced when Vin's eyelids flagged. The younger boy made sure the balloon was within Vin's sight and the card stuck to the wall nearby.
When Buck lifted JD from the hospital bed the boy yawned hugely and rested his chin on the tall man's shoulder as they left the room. He waved to Vin on his way out and Vin waved back.
Chris moved to the bed and adjusted the blankets, then helped Vin snuggle down to rest.
"I don't need no nap," Vin complained through a yawn.
"Just humor me, then. Your body needs to store up some energy before we go home." Chris tucked in the blanket. "There are some critters waitin' to see you, you know."
"Ringo? 'n Peso?"
"And a certain turtle, too. He's just coming out of hibernation." Vin's smile as his eyelids closed was the first true one Chris had seen. He hoped the good thoughts would influence his dreams. Chris stroked Vin's hair until sleep overtook the fragile form.
He was still sitting on the bed drinking in every angle of the sleeping boy when he felt, more than heard, someone come in the room. Chris glanced back and couldn't help but smile at the visage of a teary-eyed Nettie Wells just inside the door. One gnarled hand was over her mouth and the other clutched a brightly wrapped box to her chest.
"Oh, Chris," she whispered roughly. "I am so happy for you. All my prayers have been answered."
"Nettie," Chris replied quietly, returning his gaze to the sleeping boy. "I can't . . . it's still . . ." He took a deep breath. "He's been hurt so much. It's been a busy day. Dr. Two Eagles and Dr. Will were here this morning, JD this afternoon . . . he's pretty worn out."
He felt the warmth of the small woman's hand on his arm when she moved to his side. They were both silent, content to watch Vin sleep. Vin scowled at a dream and his head rolled to one side with a quiet moan.
"Shhh, Vin, you're safe. You're home," Chris softly soothed, stroking a thin arm. Vin quieted and his forehead smoothed as he let out a small sigh.
"I have absolutely no doubt that Vin is where he needs to be to recover from all this. No doubt at all." Nettie put the gift on the over-bed table pushed to one side. "Do you want a few minutes to clean up and change your clothes? I'll stay here."
"No, I don't . . ."
"Let me rephrase that. Get cleaned up and change your clothes." Nettie wrinkled her nose and scowled. "Please."
Chris laughed shortly, knowing she was the only person that could convince him so easily. "I'll be in the bathroom here." He indicated the one in Vin's room.
Nettie shook her head and gently shoved the man aside, replacing Chris' hand with her own on Vin's arm. "Keep it down in there," she ordered, trying to sound firm.
"Yes, ma'm," Chris replied as he backed away, ducking his head. Afterward, he had to admit that a bath - even a hand-bath with a washcloth - clean clothes and a shave did wonders. Nettie stayed a bit longer and left before Vin awoke.
The boy, still full from the noodle soup Buck provided, didn't eat much of his dinner which didn't surprise Chris. It didn't look very appetizing. All Vin managed to get down was a little rice, milk and the chocolate pudding. The gift from Nettie was a small model horse that looked very familiar.
After dinner, Vin's fingers traveled all over the plastic horse, hesitating at the white blaze. He glanced at Chris, then back at the gift.
"It looks like Peso, doesn't it?" he said softly.
"It sure does. I wonder where she found it."
Vin carefully set the model on the small bedside table. "D'ya . . ." he started.
"What?" Chris urged.
"Ya think he'll remember me?"
"I'm sure of it. That horse has a long memory. Remember that horseshoer he didn't like?"
Vin blinked, obviously thinking. "He had a red truck."
Chris chuckled. "Yeah. And that devil horse could hear him comin' a mile away."
That made Vin grin briefly before returning his attention to the model. Chris sat and rested his hand on Vin's, thrilled when the small hand turned and initiated a grip. They sat in comfortable silence for a little while, then it was time for evening rounds. After the nurses took more blood, things quieted down again and Vin slept, his hand still in Chris'. Through the evening, the other members of Team Seven dropped by in pairs, Josiah with Ezra, and Nathan with Raine, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Travis. Vin slept through all of it.
It was just before midnight when the night headed down a rough path. Vin slept deeply until then, but from that point on, Chris was jarred from his dozing just about hourly to calm him. The nightmares invaded relentlessly the rest of the night. Sometime around four A.M. a doctor took pity and introduced a sedative into Vin's IV which allowed a couple hours of uninterrupted sleep.
The increase of traffic in the hallway spooked Chris from his uncomfortable doze in the backbreaking chair. He stretched carefully, every joint complaining. As he did so, he tried to recall what day of the week it was - Tuesday, he thought.
The nursing staff had obviously taken him under their protective wing because there was a tall cup of steaming coffee and a Danish on the table near his hand when he wiped enough sleep from his eyes to notice. Chris inhaled deeply and savored the coffee scent.
Thankfully, his son continued to sleep soundly. Chris guiltily remembered the sedative and sighed. He couldn't wait to get Vin home. Any semblance of normalcy would do the boy nothing but good. He hoped, anyway. Dr. Will had suggested as much and Chris was more than willing to start down that path anytime now.
A light tap on the door caught his attention and Chris looked up to see Josiah leaning in. "Morning Chris," he said quietly. He held up a Starbucks Grande. "I see you're already set up."
Chris waved him in. "Can never have too much coffee, especially after a night like last night." Josiah limped in and set the cup down. "How's the leg?" Chris asked. He hadn't spoken much to the team the evening before.
"Just a scratch."
"Twenty-five stitches isn't a scratch," Chris growled. The profiler gave him a toothy grin in reply, causing Chris to snort. "So, you find anything on the vehicles?"
"I'll find out today. The state Department of Motor Vehicles was doing a hand search for me. Should hear something soon. The arrestees aren't talkin'. It seems that Faraday has instilled quite a feeling of loyalty in his employees."
"What about Faraday himself? Find any background on him yet?"
"Found a birth record in Columbus, Ohio. Expired driver's licenses in Indiana and Illinois. Some Social Security working records in Ohio, Iowa and Indiana. Nothing this far west, though, and nothing within the past ten years. The man hides well."
"What about this Grace woman Vin mentioned?"
"Sister. Birth records match up to a Grace Ellen Faraday from Columbus. She fell off the map about eight years ago. Found a marriage license in Nebraska from then to a fella named Giltner."
"Relatives? Parents? Grace's husband's family?"
"In the works, Chris. We'll find him. We did find a link between Faraday and Serritella."
Chris narrowed his eyes, too tired to ask. Josiah took the hint.
"Faraday fenced some electronics that Serritella took from a competing arms dealer. The initial meeting took place at Harold Evan's house."
Chris shot to his feet, all his pains forgotten. "When?" he asked. "When was that meeting?"
Josiah met his piercing gaze and held it. "Twenty-one months ago. Evans must have had Vin for three months at that point."
Three months; that monster had Vin for three months. The F.B.I. told him that Evans was a registered sex offender in New York and that Joshua Daniels, the boy found at Evans' home, finally admitted that Evans had raped him numerous times while in his company. Chris' stomach churned and he quickly put down the coffee, settling his stormy gaze on Vin's sleeping form along with a punishing grip on the metal side rails of his bed.
"Chris," Josiah said quietly. "This will do Vin no good. I suggest you have a meeting with Dr. Lowery sooner than later to resolve this in your head. Your anger won't help Vin at all, and I know you know that."
It took Larabee several long minutes to rein in the burning emotion. It was difficult - anger was what pulled him through both Sarah and Adam's deaths and Vin's disappearance. It was familiar and automatic; not a comforting place to dwell, but it had allowed him to survive. It wouldn't be easy to ignore.
But his reason for living now was asleep right in front of him in this hospital bed. Anger had no place here with this boy.
"I know," Chris growled from between clenched teeth. "I know. I'll try."
Satisfied, Josiah gripped his shoulder and gave him a shake. "Your word's good as gold, brother." He turned his eyes to the sleeping boy. "That is a beautiful sight," he breathed. With a final shake to Chris' shoulder he headed for the door. "I'll check in with you later, boss."
Vin's breakfast tray came with a rattle, nudging the boy from sleep. Chris sipped his coffee with his eyes locked on the small form in the bed, and knew precisely when Vin woke up; his relaxed form in sleep tensed just enough for Chris to notice. He also knew that his son was processing his surroundings before letting anyone know he was awake.
Chris felt the stirrings of contentment as caffeine began to flow through his body and cleared his head. With that, he was able to wait patiently for Vin to come face to face with the rest of the world. It took a little longer than Chris liked, but it did happen.
Vin slowly scanned the room, his gaze lingering on the model horse, the food tray and then on Chris. Their unique bond felt strong today and Vin looked more rested. The boy still needed weight but Chris could overlook that for now and simply be happy that his son was here with him. Vin refocused on the breakfast tray as most of his wariness slipped away.
"Mornin', son," Chris said as he put the coffee down and wrangled the rolling table away from the bed. "Do you need to use the restroom first?"
After a moment, Vin nodded.
Chris rolled the IV pole into place and reached for Vin, who managed to slide from the bed and avoid Chris' touch at the same time. Chris pulled back, disappointed, but respectful of his son's personal space as he slipped into the small bathroom. After the sounds quieted down and the door opened, the boy hesitated and nervously found Chris' eyes with his own.
Chris stood quietly, his heart fluttering from a confused mix of happiness, anxiety, anger and fear. Again, knowing how well Vin could read him, he tried to focus on one emotion, and he settled on relief. As soon as he did that Vin's entire frame seemed to soften and he physically relaxed. Vin even managed a weak smile, causing Chris' hopes to soar. He felt his face crack a smile in return.
Vin returned to the bed and allowed Chris to help him settle, the earlier wariness gone. Chris adjusted the tray in front of his son. Vin blinked at the plate of bland food and Chris recognized the remnants of the sedative in the boy's movements.
Just after Vin finished what he could, Dr. Two Eagles entered the room accompanied by a nurse. Vin stiffened. Chris kept his hand on Vin's as the nurse moved to his side and started removing the IV set up while the pediatrician talked.
"Good news," Two Eagles started. "The labs look good so we'll be releasing you today. I'm still concerned about your weight, Vin, so I'd like weekly visits to see how you're doing." He handed Chris some papers. "Here are some foods that won't antagonize the ulcer, and here's a prescription for something to help with the stomach aches. Also, vitamins, every day. You've set up appointments with Dr. Lowery?"
Chris nodded. Vin squeezed his hand.
"Good. Then we'll finish up the paper work and you can go home," Two Eagles said to Vin, smiling. "I'm glad you're home, young man. We've missed you."
Vin blushed slightly and ducked his head. Chris squeezed his hand in support. The pair breezed from the room and Chris pulled some clothes from the bag Buck brought in. "Let's get you changed, then."
Vin donned the clothes in the bathroom. When he stepped out, Chris' heart clenched again at the sight of his son looking like any other kid. A little pale, but Vin otherwise looked - normal. They didn't talk much. They didn't have to. Chris called Buck to let him know they would be home soon and while he was on the phone, the room door swished open and Ezra stepped in.
Vin automatically flinched at the sound of the door, and in response, Chris put his hand on the boney shoulder.
Obviously reading the boy's discomfort, Ezra kept his distance. He still wore a sling on one arm, and held a colorful gift bag tucked under the other. The smile that graced his face was genuine and warm.
"Mr. Tanner, I am glad to see you up and about," he said gently. "I am sorry if I hurt you at our first meeting. Forgive me?"
Chris closed his cell phone and dropped his gaze down to Vin, who had stepped back and behind his legs. "Vin?" he prodded softly. "You okay?"
Still staring at Ezra, Vin nodded once and took a hesitant step to stand alongside Chris. He found Chris' hand and gripped it tightly before looking to Ezra.
Ezra continued in the same gentle voice. "I have something here that I do believe belongs to you." He crouched down, coming eye-to-eye with his adopted nephew, and held out the gift bag.
Vin hesitated a few moments before releasing Chris' hand and taking the three small steps that closed the space between them. Vin's eyes shifted to the gift, then back up to Ezra's face. Only then did he reach out and take the bag. Ezra drew his hand back but held his low position.
Vin opened the bag and cautiously looked inside. After a moment, he gasped and then reached in. Curious, Chris looked over his son's shoulder just in time to see a familiar stuffed animal pulled free.
Vin's mouth hung open with astonishment as he stared, wide-eyed, at the cleaned and repaired Cat. Ezra somehow managed to match the remaining eye and re-attach the tail, but the fur on Cat's belly and chest remained smooth.
"I am pleased that we were able to recover him," Ezra started. "And I only hope he can bring you the same comfort that he has in the past."
Still speechless, Vin drew Cat slowly to his chest and stepped back until he pressed against Chris' legs. When he looked up to his adopted father, his blue eyes shimmered and his lips trembled. Chris could feel that Vin's entire body shook so he immediately dropped down, pulling the boy in close.
Vin accepted the action and, once safe in Chris' arms, looked back to Ezra. The undercover agent didn't even try to mask the emotion that shaped his face; his eyes glistened, and then he bowed his head and reached in a pocket for a handkerchief. "My," he said in a breathy voice. "It seems that I am unable to maintain my cool façade at the moment."
Vin twisted from Chris' arms and closed in on Ezra, stopping just short of hugging him. "Are you okay?" he asked in a wavering tone.
Ezra dabbed his eyes and looked up, smiling. "I am more than okay, nephew," he replied in a hoarse voice. "But I would be better if allowed a hug?" He held out his good arm and Vin moved into the embrace without hesitation.
"Thank you . . . Uncle Ezra," Vin said softly.
Vin stepped back toward Chris and Ezra's arm fell away. The undercover agent rose slowly.
"Yeah," Chris added, lifting Vin as he, too, stood. "Thanks, Ezra."
"It is my pleasure. Now when are you escaping the premises, young man?"
It wasn't soon enough for Chris, but they finally made their break just before noon. Ezra insisted early on that Chris take Vin home in the Jag, insisting the "death trap on wheels" that Chris currently drove was unacceptable. Ezra said he'd bring the motorized monstrosity to the ranch later in the day. Chris relented because the grin on Vin's face kept him from arguing. Apparently, Vin found Ezra's soliloquy quite entertaining.
Chris had to admit the Jag was not only fun to drive, but much more solid and safe than the Jeep. He mentally thanked Ezra as they pulled onto the highway.
Vin stared out of the window with Cat clutched tightly to his chest and Nettie's horse tucked beside him for most of the trip home. The two of them never needed conversation, but Chris was finding it difficult not to ask questions. Evidence of their eerie bond came to light when Vin started to talk while continuing to stare out the window. His voice was soft, making Chris thankful for the well-engineered quietness of the Jag.
"It looks like what I dreamed."
"What does? Outside?"
"Yeah." There was another stretch of silence. "I didn't . . . I wasn't supposed to go outside. Mr. Jesse said so. He'd . . . he'd put me in my room and lock the door or, sometimes, make me sleep."
Vin choked and swallowed in an effort to control the press of tears and continued to stare outside. "There was bars on the windows," he ended in a harsh whisper
As Vin's story trailed off Chris tried to ignore the augmented version that played in his head. The "making him sleep" and "putting in his room" parts were no doubt heavy-handed in nature, based on the newer bruises that adorned the boy's body and the drugs in his system. Chris' grip on the steering wheel tightened to the edge of painful - so many questions he wanted to ask, so many clarifications needed. Instead, he took a breath and willed his shoulders to release the angry tension. "Keep it simple," he thought. "So," he finally said out loud and amazingly calm. "How did you get outside to the truck, then?"
Vin continued to watch the passing scenery, his fingers absently worrying Cat's ear. "Out my window. I . . . I fixed it so's I could go in 'n out. Took awhile to do it 'n I nearly got caught a couple 'a times but Mr. Jesse didn't know about it. Neither did Miss Grace."
Chris' heart swelled at Vin's resourcefulness in a horrible situation. Still, there was the question as to why he didn't just run away sooner; even as the question parted his lips, he knew that was probably a question better asked in front of Dr. Will. "Why didn't you leave sooner, Vin?"
"Sooner?" The boy finally turned from the window to look at Chris. His forehead was furrowed in question. He started to rub his stomach.
"Yeah. If you could leave the house when you wanted, why didn't you go get help before?"
Vin looked more puzzled than anything else. "Weren't nowhere t'go," he replied.
Vin shook his head and his palm twisted against his stomach.
Backing off, Chris reached for the pharmacy bag on the console between them. "Stomach hurt?" Vin nodded. Chris pulled out the antacid prescribed by Two Eagles and managed to work the lid off. "Here. This should make it feel better. Looks like it's grape flavored."
Vin eyed the chewable tablet suspiciously before slowly taking it from Chris' palm. He brought it to his nose and sniffed it before taking a cautious nibble. Apparently satisfied, he put it in his mouth and chewed. Chris was saddened by Vin's cautious actions; trust was still not entirely there. He took another tack. "Vin, if you can describe what it looked like outside the house it would help us find Miss Grace." ". . . and maybe locate a stockpile of evidence."
Chris ignored the agent-style thinking. "Right now we don't know where Jesse is. We don't even know what he looks like. All we have are ten year old photos." Vin appeared to be thinking as he chewed the antacid. "What did it look like outside? Were there trees? A barn, maybe?"
"Fields," Vin finally replied. "Big fields all around of some . . . crop. That's what . . . Miss Grace called it. Th -there was a cement fence all around th' place. No one could drive to the house without Mr. Jesse knowin'. Didn't see any houses. Mountains all around but far away. There were big metal buildings behind the house, outside my window. Trucks loaded 'n unload all the time an' I couldn't go out to see what was in 'em . . . " Vin's voice trembled again so Chris reached over and held his hand.
"That must have been hard," Chris said lowly, knowing how Vin liked the outdoors. "I'm glad you fixed your window to get outside." The idea of his boy locked in the confines of a house all day, everyday, made him clench his jaw. He pointedly worked the muscles loose again before asking, "You didn't go to school at all?"
"No. Miss Grace taught me stuff. She was a teacher . . . before . . ."
"Before her son died?"
Vin only nodded.
"I'm glad she was nice to you." Chris said, returning his hand to the steering wheel. "But I don't understand why the skanky bitch didn't try to help you escape."
That little guilt-born voice in his head was going to be a problem, Chris realized. He changed the subject before he gave himself away. "We have an appointment to see Dr. Will tomorrow to help you with any 'feel bad' thoughts. Then maybe we can talk about Miss Grace a little more."
Vin didn't reply. Chris glanced over at this son and saw that he had twisted in the seat so his forehead pressed against the side window. Both arms were in front of him and his shoulders were set in a tense hunch. Chris guiltily thought that he wasn't able to hide his true feelings regarding Miss Grace and that Vin had picked up on it. He cleared his throat. "Vin?" he called gently. "What's wrong, Cowboy?"
The small form didn't move, didn't make a noise
When the dam finally burst Chris flinched in surprise.
"All I have are 'feel bad' thoughts!" Vin wailed from the other seat, sagging in defeat with Cat smothered against his tiny body. "I don't want 'em any more! Just make 'em go away!" The sobbing that followed stole away any chance of talking.
Chris immediately pulled off the road and parked, releasing his seatbelt and then Vin's. Between the confines of the small interior and the bucket seats, embracing Vin wasn't an easy task. He ended up pulling Vin into his lap, against his chest and just let the boy cry into Cat's newly cleaned coat. He felt his eyes burn but knew that this little soul needed his strength right now and he was more than willing to give it, and give it, and give it. The doctor warned Chris that there may be some mood swings as Vin's system detoxified, but he hadn't expected such a sudden onset.
Chris rocked and petted and uttered reassurance for many minutes in the tight quarters as cars whooshed by on the highway. The turnoff to the ranch wasn't far and he wanted to be sure Vin was in a good frame of mind when they got home. They had plenty of time for Vin to regroup. He pushed all the clues about Faraday's location to the back of his mind, forcing the agent in him into submission. The realization finally hit him that not only was Vin going to have a difficult time re-adjusting, so was he.
Agent Larabee and Dad Larabee would have to exist very separately in one body and Chris wasn't sure he could pull it off.
Ringo and Elvis both knew something was up. The waves of excitement rolling off JD were impossible for the dogs to ignore. Buck smiled as he wiped his hands on a dish town and leaned against the kitchen entry. JD had posted himself at the front window awaiting a first glimpse of the Jag. The dogs milled around his feet unable to sit still and fed by the boy's emotions.
Chris called when they left the hospital and told Buck about driving Ezra's vehicle because he knew where JD would be. As Buck watched, JD checked the balloons and hand printed banner for the zillionth time. Torkus the turtle was even present, corralled in his aquarium on the living room table looking a bit stunned. Buck could relate some to the amphibian's state; he felt like the entire household had been jarred awake after a two year hibernation.
Just when Buck was sure JD was going to explode from nervous energy, he heard the scream. "They're here! Vin's home!"
The dogs yipped and chased the boy as he raced to the door. Buck threw the towel over his shoulder and managed to snag his son's shirt just before he tore the door open.
"Slow up, there, Little Bit!" Buck laughed. "Wait until the car stops!"
Buck ushered him to the porch and managed to keep the spun-up dogs inside. He stood behind JD with his hands resting firmly on the boy's shoulders at the top of the stairs as a rolling cloud of dust chased the Jag up the long driveway. When the vehicle finally came to a rest near the bottom of the stairs, a slight wind blew the dusty tail away from them and Buck released his bundle of energy..
JD flew down the stairs and across the drive, yanked open door for his acquired sibling and yelled. "Vin! You're home!"
After a few seconds, when Buck saw that Vin seemed to be doing okay, he opened the house door and released the dogs.
Buck had to admire Vin's cool as he allowed his brother to hug him while being circled by a pair of cavorting dogs. Vin even managed to get one arm loose and return the embrace. As soon as they physically parted, Elvis and Ringo attacked with their tongues until Vin sputtered half-hearted pleas to stop. JD was non-stop chatter during the entire reunion.
Chris sauntered up to Buck's side with a relaxed demeanor that made Buck grin like a fool. "Welcome back, Pard," he thought. "How's he doing?" he asked lowly as the two of them watched the chaotic welcome.
"Can we go the barn, Chris? Th' horses have missed him, too!" JD loudly interrupted. Vin looked up for an answer, his face bright with anticipation.
Chris caught his breath at the sight; it was the face of the boy from two years ago. "Sure," he managed to choke out. "If that's what Vin wants. Vin?"
Chris didn't get a reply. Instead, JD grabbed Vin's hand and they ran to the barn with the dogs leading the way in a zigzag pattern.
"Don't go in the corral until we're there!" Chris hollered at their backs.
"Is that Cat he's holding?" Buck and Chris fell in behind the small herd at a more leisurely pace. "Last time I saw it I was sure it was a goner."
"Thank Ezra. He knows people with interesting talents."
"That he does," Buck agreed. Then he tilted his head in Vin's direction. "So, how was he on the way home?"
Chris ran his hand over his face and spoke lowly. "As well as you can expect, I guess. Emotionally, he's all over the map. He's still concerned about that Grace woman but he's happy to be home. He wasn't allowed out of the house, Buck." Chris rubbed his eyes as he gritted his teeth. Then he got a grip and dropped his hand with a sigh. "Vin managed to figure out how to get out his window, though."
Buck shook his head and chuckled. "That boy is the definition of a survivor."
The sight that greeted them just inside the barn cut off their conversation. The horses were loose in the back pasture. JD and Vin had climbed up on the fence so they could lean over the top rail to see them clearly. JD continued to chatter and point. Finally, JD quieted, probably to take a breath and Vin whistled a short, two-note tune and called Peso's name.
The horses stood together under a tree at the far end of the field. Chris and Buck could see that JD's boisterous arrival caused a few ears to twitch in their direction, but as soon as Vin whistled and called, one black head snapped to attention and turned to stare at them.
Vin called again and that was all it took for Peso to break away from his stable mates. With both ears sharply forward and his eyes fixed on Vin, the horse walked rapidly toward them. About half way, he broke into a trot.
"Well, will ya look at that," Buck said, amazed, as Peso trotted right up to Vin and stuck his nose in the boy's hair. Vin wrapped both arms around the black's neck as he greeted his friend. "And I thought the damn mule was deaf," Buck muttered. "He ignores me when I call 'im."
"Just ain't got the right voice," Chris teased, his voice thick.
Soon the other horses grew curious and wandered to the fence, too. The boys spent several minutes greeting them all before they backed down off the fence. Vin was smiling a real smile and seemed very relaxed, both good signs that gladdened Chris' heart.
"Come on, guys, let's see what's in the house to eat." Buck took JD's shoulders and turned him toward the barn door.
Vin stood at Chris' feet and twisted Cat's front paw between his fingers as he tilted his head sideways to look up into in father's face. "C'n I ride him?"
Chris gently ran his hand over Vin's hair. "Sure. But you need to eat something and get your boots on first, okay?"
"Boots?" Vin worried the furry paw. "I don't got boots, do I?" His voice was tentative.
Chris squatted down and firmly took both of Vin's hips in his hands. "You sure do, Cowboy. Buck and JD got some this morning. We knew you'd want to ride." Chris smiled and stood up.
"Come on, Vin! I'll race ya!" JD bolted through the barn.
Vin hesitated for a moment before he took off in pursuit. Buck saw a flash of panic cross Chris' face as Vin left his line of sight, but he then relaxed once they passed through the barn and could see both the boys with the romping, barking dogs.
Buck slowed Chris with a hand on his forearm. "How are you doing, Chris?" he asked suspiciously.
Chris threw him a dark glare and looked like he was actually going to deny anything was wrong, but, instead, he blew out a sigh and let his shoulders slump. "Let's just say that our appointment with Dr. Will tomorrow isn't soon enough."
Buck nodded and then released Chris' arm. "We'll, y' know, stud, that admitting there's a problem is half the battle."
Chris shot him an unbelieving look and then rolled his eyes and choked out a short laugh. "Jesus, Buck, you've been watching way too much Dr. Phil! Get away from me!" He broke into a jog after the boy and dog gang.
Buck laughed and brought up the rear. The rest of the afternoon went quickly, what with touring the grounds, going on a short ride and making dinner endlessly accented by JD's narrations.
Vin never was a boy of many words, he and Chris accused in the past of speaking six words a day between them, but this day Buck knew there was a good excuse for the reputation. Vin made it to bedtime with an expression he could only label as "shell-shocked". Chris, on the other hand, hovered too close for too long and by the time the boy collapsed in the shared bedroom, Buck was sure his best friend would simply fold up from exhaustion in the hall just outside the door.
"Listen, stud, you gotta relax," Buck offered as he shoved a beer in his boss and friend's hand. The two of them made it as far as the living room after putting the boys to bed. From there, Buck could tell by the way Chris kept glancing down the hall that he wasn't comfortable with Vin out of his sight.
Chris took a pull on the beer and ran his hand over his hair. He was the picture of exhaustion. "I know. It's just that . . . I don't . . . shit." He sank deeper into the cushions of the recliner. "I am so tired, but I don't think I can sleep. It's like . . . if I sleep . . ."
"You'll wake up to find it's all just a dream." Buck chuckled. "It does feel good. The house is full again, huh?"
Chris nodded and the pair dwelled in comfortable quiet until the beers were gone. Chris stretched and stood, moving slower than usual. "I'm going to check on him and go to bed. If it's anything like last night, it's going to be a long night."
"I am always with you, my sweet boy. Don't you know that?"
And then her hand would reach for him, her fingers soft and warm as they traced a line from temple to cheek. She smiled when she did this - a small, loving smile seemed sad.
"Ma?" The endearment was a mere wisp of air, light as a sigh.
"'bout time ya woke up." There was no gentleness in the hard words. "Ya ain't hurt bad, boy, just a lump on your noggin. You'll be fine with time." This voice was sharp and painful and wholly unfamiliar. The dream of his ma floated away out of reach but the love she'd had for him was still inside and tightly bonded with the love of his dad. With that lingering warmth he felt safe and only slightly curious about who was talking. Chris would be here soon, so the person here didn't really matter.
But then the pain started.
Vin jerked awake with a gasp. His heart raced as he blinked in the darkness and tried to orient himself. Cat was snug to his chest. The moon traced a silver rectangle around the window curtain and he heard soft snoring . . . below him.
Slowly, he leaned over with a runaway heart and looked into the darkness of the bunk underneath. He saw a small figure sprawled cross-wise and instantly recognized JD. Vin's heart, though, didn't slow. This was a familiar dream, too. He'd had it often after the crash, but not with such clarity. The dream itself was wonderful; it was the waking up that was horrible.
Vin pinched himself and gasped in pain. "I'm awake?" he wondered. Still not trusting his senses, Vin crawled down the ladder and stood next to JD's bed for a few minutes, clinging to Cat until his shoulders ached. The pull of sleep was strong but Vin refused it until he has some kind of proof that this wasn't a dream. He crawled in next to JD and, after feeling the reassuring warmth of the small boy's breath against his skin, curled into a tight ball with Cat in the very center. Only then did he finally allowed sleep to carry him away again.It took some time to gather the strength to open his eyes. In the meanwhile, as his other senses came online he absorbed his surroundings and tried to recall what brought him here. Dream? Reality?
It smelled musty and felt a little too warm. His head pounded. Loosening one arm from a rough blanket he shakily rubbed his cheek, clinging onto the covering with the other hand. His face felt gritty and tender to the touch.
The blanket felt stiff and dirty.
Something wasn't right.
When his eyes fluttered open he saw a sickly yellow ceiling with many dark cracks and peeling paint. Carefully angling his head to one side he saw a small, rickety three-legged table leaning against a wall and littered with red-spotted washcloths and an open bottle of medicine - the kind Chris got from a doctor in a plastic bottle with a plain label. The wallpaper behind the table was of scattered Army men and tanks scarred with little tears, scratch marks and crayon scribbling.
It wasn't home and it wasn't a hospital.
It was totally unfamiliar and foul smelling.
Alarmed, Vin tried to rise but the room rolled and bucked. The unfocused shape of a man came into view and reached for him, pressing him back down. Vin's stomach lurched and he rolled to one side to vomit.
"That's all right, son, I'm used to it. It'll get better."
Now void and completely spent Vin barely twitched when a needle pricked his arm. Before he could make sense of anything, he spiraled away.
This time Vin awoke screaming "NO!" JD jerked awake and Vin, feeling the motion, too, pushed JD away from him with his legs before pushing himself into the corner where he curled into a tight, impenetrable ball. He cried silently.
The next thing he knew a calm, even voice soothed him. Each sense slowly awoke as he shivered in the corner - Chris' scent, a soothing mix of tobacco and hay, was a balm, his voice a security blanket. The light, familiar stroke of Chris' hand on his shoulder and arm warmed his frozen heart.
Vin gasped, finally able to breathe again without tears, and cautiously lifted his head. He'd dreamed of this very scenario and was suspicious. Was it real?
"Hey, Cowboy, you with me now? Vin? You awake?"
"Chris?" Vin's thin voice trembled as much as his body.
"I'm here, son. I'm right here. You okay?"
Vin, still shaking, nodded slightly, unable to speak.
"You want to come to my room?"
Vin nodded again and allowed Chris to embrace him with his strong arms. Vin squeezed his eyes shut and melted into the motion, not entirely believing this was real and unwilling to unwind his protective posture. When he felt his body lowered onto a soft mattress, the familiarity of it made his breath hitch.
"Vin? Can you sleep now?"
Vin felt Chris stretch out next to him, his father's hand rubbing comforting circles on his back as he tucked a blanket around him. He nodded in response, unwilling to speak and break the dream if that's what this was. Soon, he drifted away again.Each time Vin woke he felt wrapped up in cotton.
He always woke up in the room with the Army men and tanks wallpaper and unable to move. He found himself staring at each camouflaged man, naming each one of them after an uncle and knowing where each man's twin was as the pattern repeated around the room. He vaguely remembered days of riding a horse, camping, laughing, JD and Chris and Buck . . .
His family. Every time he thought of them his throat constricted but when he tried to think of specific things, specific days, specific times with his family in detail, his mind would wander and he'd soon be simply floating
It certainly didn't hurt where he floated away, which wasn't the case whenever he woke up.
And wake he would as surely as the winter stole the leaves away. Vin knew something happened when he was "away" because when he came back again he was sore in places he was too embarrassed to ever mention aloud. He really didn't know what went on when he was away, or even the why and when of it all, but he did know something was gravely wrong.
There was a man, too, that he saw a lot. He always brought food and spoke to him kindly and told Vin to call him Mr. Harry but rather than admit the reality of Mr. Harry by speaking his name, Vin chose to stay silent and fight him off as a vision whenever he could.
Finally, one day when the ever-present fog finally parted he looked around and realized he was in a small room. Other than the wounded three-legged table and narrow bed, there was a small television attached to the wall. There were no windows and one door. When he tried to get up and check the door, he found his leg chained to the bed and that he all he wore was diaper like, pull-up underwear. Vin's cheeks instantly felt hot with shame, especially when he realized that the diaper was wet. Now assailed with claustrophobic panic and raging embarrassment he surged for the door, falling flat when the chain pulled him up short.
When the screaming started he couldn't stop as he fought blindly against the metal tether. He knew that he would soon be pressed to the floor and feel a cold pinch that brought a rush of warmth and stole his voice.
And as it happened the wide-eyed figure of an older boy would stare at him from the rectangular frame of light that was his only physical escape route.
He snapped his eyes open and looked wildly around, his frightened gaze locking instantly with the cool, dusty green he remembered so well. Completely undone, Vin burst into tears. Here it was barely dawn and he was completely exhausted. The comforting blanket of Chris enveloped him with calm reassurance, rocking him until his heart calmed and his breathing gentled. Chris murmured words that were unclear to Vin, but what his dad said wasn't as important as the fact that he was there.
Slowly, Vin became aware of his surroundings. He blinked, finding his chin resting on Chris' shoulder as his father held him close. Vin rolled his eyes to take in the surroundings and found Buck leaning against Chris' bedroom doorframe.
"Mornin', son." Buck winked, as if waking up to a screaming child was a normal morning event. He held JD close to his chest. The boy's shaggy head twisted in Vin's direction.
"Buck's gonna make waffles," JD announced, his arms wrapped around Buck's neck and his eyes looking worried. "You want some, Vin?" he asked gently. "We got snow."
Vin blinked, the word sinking slowly sinking in. "Snow" was that soft, fluffy sugar, he remembered. Vin also remembered that snow and syrup make a wonderfully sticky, sweet paste. "'n syrup?" His voice sounded shaky even to himself. Then he heard Chris chuckle near his ear and everything was okay.
"Plenty of that, too," Buck said brightly. "We'll get to workin' on it, won't we Lil' Bit?"
"Yeah!" JD cheered as they disappeared down the hall.
"Good mornin'," Chris said lowly as he released his boy. He smiled, but Vin thought he looked tired. He also knew why his dad was tired and sighed. "Ready to get up?"
Vin slowly unwound and looked around the room. "Sorry," he whispered, ducking his head and concentrating on Cat's mended tail.
"Vin." Chris' serious tone made Vin freeze. He felt his dad's finger lift his chin until he was looking right into those warm eyes he'd missed for so long. "Any change is scary. We've missed you and you belong here. It's a change for you and it's going to take a little time for you - and us - to adjust. We love you. I love you. I've always loved you and that will always be true. Just remember that when you're scared and that it's okay to be scared. Change is scary for everyone. There are a lot of scary things in this world, but it doesn't mean you have to fear them."
He made it sound so simple. Vin swallowed hard and nodded, hoping he could convince himself of that during his dreams.
"Chris, this Grace Faraday Giltner is going to be our way in to locate Faraday," Director Travis said over the phone as Chris stood in the kitchen preparing lunch. "I doubt we would have ever made the connection if it wasn't for Vin. Jesse Faraday is a master at covering his tracks."
Chris stepped to the kitchen door way and leaned against it. From there, he could both see and hear Buck and the boys playing in the front of the house. The adults kept JD from school for the next few days to strengthen the family's bond. JD would return to school the following week and Vin tested for placement. It seemed too fast to Chris, but Dr. Will said that getting back into a routine was what Vin needed. So right now, talking about this Grace woman was the last thing Chris wanted to do.
Travis continued. "It seems Jesse is using his sister as a shield. Everything is in a trust under her married name. He's the executor."
As Chris scrubbed his face, his fingers brushed over the puckered scar. "So the fact that Grace is more than likely an addict is a good thing for Jesse."
"Absolutely," Travis replied. Chris could hear the squeak of Orin's leather chair as he moved. "The question remains if he got her in that situation or she was already there when he started using her. Jesse still maintains control over everything yet his name isn't on anything. We have no eyewitnesses, so unless one of his crew turns on him, the best thing we can nail him for right now is probably tax fraud. If we find him."
Chris snorted at the injustice of it all. "Well, that's what they got Capone on. Sure doesn't seem like enough, though, but as long at it puts him away, I don't give a shit."
"I know what you mean." Travis agreed. After a slight hesitation, he went on. "Now that we have a name, we've come up with some hits on probable property locations. I've sent Nathan out on fly-overs of three likely spots." He let that information sink in for a moment before adding, "I'd like Vin to look at the shots they bring back."
Chris' head snapped up on that request. "No," he spat. "He's out of this. It's too soon . . ."
The Director didn't seem surprised at the reaction. His tone was low and even when he spoke. "He's our only eyewitness, Chris. We'll go slow . . ."
"I said no!" Chris barked. He'd moved rapidly to the great room window and watched as Buck scooped up a smiling Vin and tried to dodge JD. "You have those two we arrested to be eye witnesses. Vin hasn't settled in yet. He's still too fragile. He needs some normalcy . . ." "I need to keep him safe."
"Chris," Travis started after Larabee fell silent. "One of the arrestees was killed last night in lock up."
"What?" Chris bellowed.
"On preliminary questioning we determined that only one of the two arrested has actually seen Faraday and now he's dead. He was stabbed. There are no witnesses." Travis' disgusted sigh carried clearly over the phone. "On Faraday's order, no doubt, but we can't prove it. The other man can't describe Faraday for us so all we have are ten year old driver's license photos. Faraday's obviously spooked, so we have to move fast. If this guy's is as paranoid as we believe, when he does bolt, he'll leave no living clues behind. The man's a killer and does not take any chances."
"If he's so paranoid then he's already gone," Chris heatedly argued. "Making Vin relive that experience is a moot point if Faraday's already gone."
"Perhaps you don't understand, Chris." Travis' tone took on an authoritative edge. "You do not have choice. I've already arranged a court order. Vin will look at what Nathan brings back."
"If you can't handle it I can arrange to have Buck bring him in, but I'd rather it was you. There is no choice here, Agent Larabee." Travis' use of Chris' title made it abundantly clear where Chris stood. "Dr. Lowery agrees that a place away from home would be best for Vin to look at the photos. He's volunteered his conference room and will stand by."
Chris slapped his hand on the window frame. "Orin, this isn't right! It's too soon!"
"I don't like it either but I do believe Vin's stronger than you think," Orin said in a softened tone. "So get your head wrapped around this because it is going to happen and that boy needs you."
Realizing the discussion was over, Chris stalked to the kitchen counter and angrily slammed the phone back on the cradle. It took several minutes to loosen his tense muscles, the boisterous sound of play outside helping considerably. His hands still trembled as he finished assembling lunch and when finished, took a deep breath before going out to call the others in to eat.
Once outside, Chris paused on the porch and watched his friend of many years do what came naturally to him - bringing others out of their shells.
Vin was laughing - not as boisterously as JD, but laughing none the less and looking much more relaxed. He also looked weary and although Chris knew partially why from the doctors' reports, he also knew of his boy's current lack of sleep and physical activity in his absence.
The idea of Vin Tanner being trapped in a house and drugged into submission for two years made Chris sick all over again. The bond that came naturally to them played against Chris this time as Vin looked his way and immediately froze, the happiness gone in a flash and replaced with apprehension. Chris, now very aware of what his body language said, forced himself to relax and smile.
"How the hell am I going to make it through tomorrow?" he thought. Vin frowned at the same time. "Lunch is ready," he announced with false cheeriness. "Anyone hungry?"
"Yeah!" JD yelled. He bolted toward Chris but Buck managed to latch onto him before he hit the stairs.
"Hand washing first, boys!" Buck glanced behind him. "Come on, Vin! Let's put on the old feedbags!" He scooped JD up and dropped him at the top of the steps.
"We aren't gonna eat outta bags, are we, Da?" JD asked, his feet moving before they hit the porch. "Like at school?"
Chris ruffled the mop of dark hair as it passed by. "Only if we can strap it on so you don't make a mess," he teased.
By now, Vin slowly made his way up the stairs. Buck gave Chris a questioning look.
"Later," Chris said quietly. Then he turned to Vin. "Hey, kiddo, I bet you're hungry, huh? Doctor's orders say you get a chocolate shake with lunch."
Vin's face brightened a little. "Really?"
Chris reached for his hand. "Yup. He wants to see some weight on you and so would I."
After lunch, Chris suggested a nap for the weary looking boy but Vin refused with uncharacteristic venom, at one point he even jerked his arm from Chris and looked as if he was ready to take a swing at him. Buck took the cue to let Chris handle the situation and shuffled JD to the bathroom to wash up. Vin, breathing heavily, glared at his dad but Chris could only see fear in the intense blue eyes.
Shifting gears, Chris smoothly swooped in and picked Vin up. Vin struggled for a moment, but grew still when Chris opened the back door and stepped onto the wide porch. Chris settled in the porch swing with Vin sideways on his lap.
"I'm too big for laps," Vin grumbled, but he didn't make any attempt to break free.
"Probably," Chris agreed as he wrapped his arms around his son and kissed the top of his head. "But I need you here for now. Is that okay with you?" He started the swing into a gentle rhythm and mentally ordered his muscles to relax.
"I guess," Vin replied softly after a moment, not quite ready to admit how tired he was but clearly ready to stay put.
They swung for a while, the sun wrapping them in warmth and the slight breeze wafting a spring chill over their faces. As always, the silence between them was natural and comforting, fulfilling them in a way nothing else could. "A matched pair," Chris thought, citing the term often used to describe his and Vin's relationship. "Bookends."
Ever so slowly, Vin's body released tension and his head settled against Chris' chest with his ear pressed directly over his father's heart. It wasn't long before soft, regular breathing told Chris that his boy was asleep.
Leaning his head back, Chris, too, closed his eyes but instead of resting, he thought of what the next day would bring. Chris felt his parental side anxiety rise as all the possible bad outcomes paraded through his mind. Vin's emotions still swung so unpredictably.
Vin murmured in his sleep and pressed against Chris' chest. The motion made Chris aware that his body had grown tense and the gentle swinging had become jerky, both of which fueled Vin's reactions. Chris took a deep breath and mentally forced physical relaxation once again.
"Overthinkin' things again?" Buck's low voice asked. Chris wasn't surprised by his appearance. Buck had been looking out for his friend for a long time now and before settling on a nearby chair, he dropped a light blanket over the sleeping boy.
"Guess so," Chris sighed, shoulders slumping.
"Everything's gonna be okay, Chris," Buck whispered, smiling. "Look at him, here, with us. How could it not?"
With that, Chris felt his fears drain away as he looked down on the other part of himself. His eyes stung briefly and he bowed his head, smelling the fresh sweetness of his son's hair as his eyes closed. "Yeah," he breathed again, relishing the moment of quiet peace.
When Vin was deeply asleep, Buck stole away. Everything would be alright. Like Buck said, with them together again, how could it not?