Disclaimer: The boys don't belong to us, darn it! We just borrow them for entertainment purposes. No copyright infringement intended.
Vin Tanner leaned against the Pepsi machine and slid his hands into his jean pockets. He glanced over to the office and saw Chris still talking to the security chief, Walter Mccoy.
They were in the Amtrack train station in downtown Denver, on the Tuesday before Christmas. The day before, they had finished a long case where some of Denver's low life has decided to start smuggling their illegal firearms into the city using the train. The weapons were discovered two months earlier when one of the trains had been involved in an accident and the freight cars had derailed spilling part of it's load.
He and Chris had gone out for breakfast after picking up a gift that Chris had ordered for Josiah, and Larabee had wanted to stop by and update the security chief about the case. McCoy was a retired Denver Police officer who had worked with Chris and Buck when they'd been on the force. Vin had come out to get something to drink and once he'd finished his soda, he thought he'd do a little people- watching while his boss talked about the case and old times with his friend.
He'd been standing there for ten minutes when he heard a deep voice talking on the other side of the soda machine, near where the payphones lined the wall. Although he hadn't meant to eavesdrop, it was difficult not to. The man was obviously trying to explain to someone, most likely a wife or girlfriend judging by the number of 'honeys' and 'sweethearts' he was hearing, that the man wouldn't be able to make it home for Christmas.
Vin glanced outside and saw the melting snow still piled along the roadway, the remnants of a major blizzard that had passed through the state three days before. The airport had been closed for two days and they were still trying to clear the snow off most of the roads in the state. Vin shook his head, figuring the guy was just one of many who would miss spending the holiday with family and friends.
His thoughts starting drifting away again, but the man's voice interupted again when he heard his tone change.
"Hey, little buddy. How ya doing?....yeah, yeah, Daddy's trying to get home, I promise. ...I know, it's been a really long time, huh. ...yeah, I'm done fighting those bad guys in Iraq." He laughed. "Thanks, little buddy, that means a lot to me....look, I gotta go. I'm gonna try my best to get there before Santa comes, okay. ..I love you too, Tommy. Let me talk to Mama again, okay."
Vin took a quick peek around the machine. He saw a pair of long legs sticking out from where the man sat on a large duffle bag. The pants were clad in the tan camouflage color of a desert uniform. He saw the man slumped further down.
"Hey, Babe," the man said. "Yeah, I know. I miss him too, so much I can't tell you. Look, I don't how I'll do it, but I will get there for Christmas, if I have to walk all the way to Salina. Maybe if I can make it to the Kansas border, I can have my brother pick me up. Do you know how the roads are there?....Oh, okay. Look, I'll do my best. It might be late on Christmas night...yeah...I love you too, babe. Give Tommy a huge hug for me, okay?"
Vin heard a huge sigh as the soldier hungup the phone. Taking another quick look, he saw him shift forward. The man rested his crossed arms over his knees and lay his head on his arms. Another deep sigh escaped him. He sat there for several minutes.
Tanner slowly approached the man, causing the battle-worn soldier to look up. Vin could see the red-rimmed evidence of the tears he'd shed. He took in the Sergeant's stripes and the Airborne patch on the sleeve. The man was muscular and had short-cropped dark hair and startling light blue eyes. His skin was tanned dark, obviously by the Iraqi sun. Judging by how long his legs were, he'd probably be a couple inches over six feet tall.
"Morning," Vin greeted him. "Sounds like it's been a long one for you."
The man was able to smile, just barely. "Yeah. I missed my train this morning and the next one isn't until late tomorrow night. I promised my son I'd be home for Christmas this year. I've missed every other one."
"Four. I wasn't even there went he was born, always off with the military somewhere. This one was gonna be special." He sighed again and looked as his hands. "Damn, we never should have told him I'd be home this year. He's been disappointed so many times before. I've missed so much in his life." He looked up. "Sorry, don't mean to cry in my beer. I'm Nick Timper." He stuck out his hand, which Vin grasped to shake.
"Nice to meet you, Nick. Vin Tanner, ATF."
"ATF, huh. You trying to make it home too?"
"No, actually I live in Denver. I'm here with my boss. We had a case out of here a couple weeks ago and he's just comparing notes with the security guy, who happens to be an old friend from the Police Department. They're catching up," he remark, gesturing toward the office, where both men could see the two friends laughing at something one of them said.
"Sorry for eavesdropping, but I heard you say you're from Salina?"
"Yeah. You know it?"
"Been through there. Kinda in the middle of the state, ain't it?"
"Yeah, about halfway. If I could get to the Kansas border before tomorrow, I could probably get a friend or relative to pick me up there. But the train was my last chance. All the flights and buses are booked up through Wednesday. And there isn't a rental car in town anywhere that I can find."
"That's a rough break." Vin glanced over at the office and got a thoughtful look on his face. He smiled. "Wait here. I might be able to help you."
Without waiting for a reply, Tanner headed toward the office. Larabee glanced up as he walked in.
Glancing at his watch, he grinned. "Sorry, Vin. Didn't realize how late it was. We've been talking about Buck's first day on patrol."
"Sorry I missed that conversation. Chris, I got a huge favor to ask."
"I need the use of your truck for two days?"
"Two days? Tanner, Christmas is the day after tomorrow."
"I know, that's why I need your truck."
Larabee frowned and folded his arm over his chest. "Explain."
"When you were in the Police, were there ever times you couldn't be home to do things with Adam?"
Not expecting that question, Chris didn't reply for almost a full minute. When he did, his voice was soft and the sadness was evident in his eyes.
"Too many times, partner. Too many times."
"And what about when you were in the military. Were there times you couldn't make it home for holidays?"
"Of course there were, it's the nature of the beast."
"What would you do if your boy was four and Dad had never been able to make it home for Christmas and you finally had the chance to get there, but couldn't because of a blizzard that made you miss the last train home?"
Walt McCoy glanced out the glass wall of his office and saw the soldier sitting dejectedly on his duffle. "He just missed his train this morning. Ten more minutes and he'd have been on it."
Chris looked at McCoy and then, noticing that he was watching something behind him, Larabee turned and saw the soldier.
"You want to give him a ride home, Tanner?" Chris asked, both amused and not surprised in the least. Vin nodded. "Where?"
"It's only about an eight hour drive, Chris."
"Yeah, on a good day. But this snow is likely to double that. You do remember that we are supposed to have Christmas at Ezra's this year?"
"Yeah, I know. And I'll probably be back in time. But, Chris, if I'm not, the boys will understand. We'll have Christmas a day late. He just got back from Iraq, Chris. He's never had Christmas with his boy, not in four years. He promised his kid he'd be there."
"What about flying or renting car?"
Chris could see that his friend was serious and planned to drive the soldier all the way to Kansas. He shook his head and stood up.
"Let's go talk to him. Walt, good to see you again." McCoy nodded and watched the two ATF agents approached the Soldier.
"Sergeant Timper, this is my boss Chris Larabee. He's been kind enough to agree to let me borrow his truck to get you home."
Timper froze while reaching to shake Larabee's hand. "Say what?"
Chris smiled and shook Timper's hand. "Vin tells me you're not able to get back home for Christmas."
"He's right. I've been trying to figure out how long it would take me to walk. Or I could just hitch once I hit the highway, bound to find someone going that way."
"I understand the need to get back to family. Vin and I are both former military, Vin in the Army and me in the Navy. I missed a Christmas or three with my folks. I wasn't married when I was in the military, but I was later when I worked for the police department. I missed a few life moments with my own son."
Timper nodded. "Sir, I appreciate the thought, but I can't let you drive me all the way to Kansas."
"And why not?" Chris asked. He hadn't really given Vin's idea much of a chance, but seeing this soldier in front of him, and remembering his few Christmas's with his own son, he found himself warming to the idea. Yeah, it would be a long drive especially on the return trip. But it wouldn't be so long if Vin had a friend along. Larabee shook his head and smiled.
"Son, if you can trust an old Army sharpshooter and a former Navy SEAL, we'd be happy to give you a ride home."
"We?" Vin asked, grinning.
"We. You don't need to make the trip back alone. And besides, it's my truck, Tanner. And I've seen the way you drive."
"Sirs?" Both men turned to look at Sergeant Timper.
"Look, Sergeant, I know you don't know us." Chris pulled out his wallet and flipped it open, showing his ATF badge and Identification card. "We are legit, I promise you. And there's a couple of Denver PD officers just outside. I know them both and they'll vouch for me. I understand if you want a little reassurance."
Timper looked into Larabee's eyes. Whatever he saw there convinced him that he could trust both men.
Chris smiled. "Because I had a son, who died when he was five. I was able to be with him for every Christmas. I can't imagine not having those memories now."
Timper swallowed hard. "I'm sorry for your loss. And I'd be grateful for the ride."
"Good. Let's get started."
Tanner just smiled and followed the two men out the door.
"...yes, Buck, we know we're having Christmas at Ezra's. We should be back by then...no, it was kind of a last minute thing..." Vin rolled his eyes at Chris and nodded. "Yes, Buck, we picked up Josiah's gift. We had to go by the office to pick up our ready-bags so we'd have a change of clothes, so we dropped it off there. Could you or JD go by and get it and wrap it for us? That'll save some time if we're running late coming back...Great, Thanks...yeah, I'll tell him...Bye Buck."
"Geez, does he ever stop?" Vin asked, slipping his cellphone back into his pocket. "Said to tell you that you're insane."
"I'm not so sure he's not right," Larabee replied with a grin.
They were at one of the few open gas stations at the entrance to the freeway. Chris had topped off his tank and checked all the fluids for the long drive and Nick Timper was inside picking up some drinks for the trip.
"Chris, thanks. I know this was kind out of the blue, but..."
Larabee held up a hand. "Don't worry about it, Cowboy. I understand your motivation. And it is kind of insane. But, the man has been through enough shit during the last year, having to spend it in the middle of a war zone. The least I can do is make sure he gets home for Christmas."
Vin nodded and gazed out the window. "I just was thinking about the few Christmas memories I have of my ma. They're some of my best memories of her. You know, if he ends up having to go back over there, he could get killed and then his boy wouldn't have any memories like that."
He jumped slightly at the hand that settled onto his shoulder. "You're a good man, Vin Tanner. I wish Adam had met you."
Vin smiled, the pink of blush coloring his cheeks. "I'm glad you're going with me. It would have been a long drive back alone."
"You think I'd let you have all the fun?"
Any further conversation was put on hold as Timper returned. Since Chris' truck was a dual cab, the back seat was roomy. The Sergeant, who had also changed into jeans and a tshirt while he was inside, took off his heavy coat and laid it on the seat. He stuffed his now wrinkled uniform into his duffle bag and climbed into the back seat, stretching his legs along the bench seat.
Chris started the engine and the three men headed onto the freeway for the long drive to Kansas.
"...and then caught a ride with a buddy to the Colorado border, only to find the freeway totally closed. So we spent the night in his car at the rest stop and left early this morning to try to get to Denver."
"Walt said you just missed your train by ten minutes."
Nick shook his head. "Yeah. I kept thinking, if we just hadn't stopped to help that guy that was stuck, you know. But then, I feel guilty for thinking that way."
"Damned if you do, damned if you don't."
All three laughed at Vin's comment. "I wouldn't have felt right if we'd just passed by and not stopped." Both men nodded.
"And you probably would have spent Christmas wondering what happened to the guy," Chris remarked.
"I'm sure I would have." He glanced out the window at the passing scenery. Noticing a highway sign he checked his watch. "Burlington is the next exit. That's just before the border. Any chance we could grab a bite to eat somewhere. I'm starved."
Just at that moment, a growl could be heard from the general vicinity of Tanner's stomach.
Chris laughed. "Well, I guess that two votes for food. I'll make it unanimous. What are you in the mood for?"
"I don't care. I've been eating MRE's for the last year and a half, so I'd settle for bad fast food," Timper said.
"I think we can do better than that. How about steak? According to that sign, there's a Sizzler Steakhouse ahead."
"Oh, man, I haven't had a good steak since I was deployed. That sounds wonderful. My treat."
"You don't have to..."
"I want to. I can never thank you guys enough for driving me home. The least I can do is buy you dinner."
Larabee looked at the sergeant in the rear view mirror and seeing that the man wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer, he nodded. "Much obliged."
Timper leaned back, satisfied that they'd agreed. He glanced at his watch. They'd been on the road for about five hours and were almost to the Kansas border. He looked outside and saw bright blue sky and smiled. Pulling out his wallet, he opened it to the small photo of his wife and son. Soon, he thought. Soon.
"Oh, man, I am stuffed. I can't believe all the food I just ate."
"So, I guess you don't want the MRE pound cake we saved for you?" Vin teased.
"Please, that stuff is worse than my old Aunt Fannie's fruit cake."
"Hell, when I was in the teams, we were still eating c-rations," Chris said. "And I swear some of those cans had dates from the Korean War on them."
Nick chuckled. "I remember you said you were with the SEAL's. Man, those are some hard corps men."
"Still the toughest bunch around," Larabee bragged.
A snort from Vin had Chris glaring in his direction. Vin put up his hands in mock defeat. "We've had that argument before, Cowboy."
"Yes, we have, and I'm still right." He turned back to Nick. "So, Timmy is four. That's means he's at that stage where he's running instead of walking, finding all kinds of things to climb and jump off of, and is fascinated with blood and gore, and seeing as his daddy is a soldier, probably loves to play 'Army'."
Nick smiled. "Oh yeah." He pulled out the photo of his family and passed it to Chris. "His mother calls him her 'little soldier'. Of course, that makes me the 'big soldier'. That was taken just before I left last year. She's sent me a few more pictures via email since then and I can't believe how he's changed in such a short time. But that's one of my favorite pictures."
Chris saw a photo of a pretty brunette holding a small dark hair boy wearing camouflage pants and an olive green tshirt. He wore a too- large maroon beret on his head, half covering the right side of his face. And he held a sign that read, 'we love you, Daddy'. Chris smiled. He could easily see Adam in the photo, his own son had had a similar outfit, minus the beret, which obviously belonged to Nick.
"Cute kid," he said, passing the picture to Vin, who chuckled and gave it back to Timper.
Nick gently rubbed his finger over both faces before sliding it back into his wallet.
"I am so lucky I met you guys. I can't say thank you enough for what you're doing."
"Don't sweat it. Just consider it our way of saying thanks for serving."
Nick's reply was halted by the arrival of the waitress with more coffee and their check, which Nick snatched up before the others could do the same. He'd seen Chris start to reach for it. "Ah, ah, ah, I said this would be my treat."
"Hey, a guy's gotta try."
Nick paid they bill while Vin left a generous tip for the waitress, and the men returned to the truck. Vin took over the driving while Chris settled into the back seat. He turned sideways and pulled his legs up onto the seat and leaned his head back against the window. Five minutes later he was asleep, drifting off to the Christmas music from the station that Vin had tuned into on the radio.
"Shit!" Larabee startled awake at the curse and the not-so- shuttle shifting of the truck as they came to an abrupt stop.
"What the hell!"
"Sorry, Chris. Nearly got sideswiped by that idiot in the semi. Three lanes of frigging highway almost empty and he came within about a foot of our front bumper."
"You get his license?" Chris asked as he pulled out his cellphone and punched in a call to the closest law enforcement agency. "Where are we?"
"Yeah, I got his plate and we're about 2 miles east of the Mingo exit."
"Yeah, he didn't hit us. Sorry about the wake-up call."
"Hey, I'm just glad you avoided an accident...yes, 9-1-1? I'd like to report a reckless driver..."
December 23rd, 4:30 pm
"Buck, don't bug me. We're a couple hours out of Salina...Actually, the highway is fairly clear. We've been going near speed limit the whole way...No, we'll probably find a hotel somewhere and drive back in the morning...We won't miss Christmas!" Chris shook his head and rolled his eyes, causing Vin to laugh at the antics of Mother Hen Wilmington.
"Better not tell him about the near-miss," Vin whispered.
"Ssshhhhhhhh! What's wrong with you?" Chris asked reaching over the back seat the slap Tanner on the arm. "Nothing, Buck, it's just Vin having a not-so-funny moment. Yes, I'll call you when we leave Salina in he morning... Yes, Mother....yes, Mother....I'll will, Mother. Bye."
Chris slapped his phone shut and shoved it back into his coat pocket, which lay on the seat next to him. "He's worse than Nathan on a tear."
"Who's Nathan?" Nick asked, turning slightly to speak with Chris in the back seat.
"He's our resident medic. Always worried about us getting hurt and harping about eating right. Tanner here gives him fits. Eats almost no fruits or vegetables, scarfes down junk food like it was his last meal and yet still manages to have the lowest percentage of fat and lowest cholesterol of anyone on the team."
"Good genes," Vin said with a grin.
"And he's giving Nathan ulcers," Chris laughed.
"Buck Wilmington. My oldest friend. He and I were in the Navy together."
"He in the teams too?"
"Yeah, he was. Pulled my butt outta the fire on a number of occasions."
"And vice versa," Tanner reminded him.
"Yeah. He's on our ATF team too. He's the only one on the team who knew my wife and son. Without Buck, I'm not sure I could have survived their deaths."
"Your wife is dead too?" Nick asked, then could have kicked himself. "Sorry, none of my business."
"It's okay. She died in the same accident as Adam."
Vin glanced at Chris in the mirror. Sarah and Adam's accident had been a bomb under their car, but the man sharing the front seat with him didn't need to know that. Vin was sure he'd been up-close-and- personal with enough explosives in Iraq to give him any bad dreams about wives and kids being blown up too.
"Anyway, Buck is tall and gangly, with a mustache that would rival an old time cowboy, and fancies himself the ladies' man. Of course, that reputation isn't without some merit, although I'd never admit that to him. He's forever smiling and it takes a lot to rile him up, but when you do, watch out. Believe me, I've felt that heat more than a few times."
"No more than JD," Vin said. He glanced at Nick. "JD is the youngest of the team. Spent a couple years at Boston PD, then decided to try his hand with Federal Law Enforcement. He's a whiz on the computer."
"And not a bad agent either," Chris remarked.
"Who else is on the team?" Nick asked.
"Let's see, there's Josiah, he's our oldest. He's an old war- horse, spent some time in Vietnam toward the end of the war. He's our profiler. And our spiritual leader. He's the son of a preacher who isn't afraid to go 'old testament' on someone if they need it."
"Sounds like a man after my own heart."
"And then, there's Ezra."
"Ezra Standish. Former FBI agent who smartened up and joined the ATF. He's our undercover guy, can lie like his life depended on it, as it often does. He's a regular chameleon and can blend in to almost any situation."
"Unless, of course, it might cause him to have to do menial labor or get his clothes dirty," Vin insisted.
"Of course, that's understood," Chris said with a straight face.
"Sounds like an interesting group," Nick said.
"Interesting? Hmm, not the word I'd use exactly. Frustrating. Irritating. Make me want to shoot every last one of them on a daily basis."
Nick laughed. "Sounds like some of the men in my unit. We had a guy kinda like Ezra. Very fastidious about his uniform. He even starched his desert camies. Hated the dust and sand. He lasted about a month over there before he finally just threw up his hands and gave up on keeping his uniform wrinkle-free and sand-free. It just ain't possible over there."
"What do you do? I saw by your patch that your Airborne."
"I'm in demolitions."
"Hell, everything is dangerous in Iraq, even being a cook or a mechanic."
"Glad you made it out of there."
"Me too. I thought Afghanistan was bad, but we were in the mountains there. Not so many people. Bagdad is just too crowded and you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys. It'll be nice to home for awhile."
"You gotta go back?" Vin asked.
Timper nodded. "Yeah, got another six months to do. But my duties will change. I'll be training the Iraqi's when I go back, leaving the day-to-day demo work to the new unit rotating in. My unit comes back next month, but I extended for six months in order to get Christmas at home. It was a trade-off but one I thought was worth it."
"Hot damn!" Vin exclaimed. "Look."
They both looked up and immediately saw what Vin was looking at. The first sign they'd come across that listed Salina. The sign told them that Salina was just 120 miles away. Timper checked his watch and smiled.
"Two more hours," he said. "We'll get home just about suppertime."
"Do you want to call your wife and let her know?" Chris asked, pulling his phone from his coat pocket.
Nick took the phone, but then handed it back. "I think I'll wait. I know we're close, but..."
"Take no chances. We could always surprise her," Chris said with a smile. "She's not expecting you this soon. Why not just show up in the driveway?"
"Can you imagine the look on her face?" Nick asked with a grin.
"Will she be okay with that, you just showing up?" Chris asked.
"She won't care, as long as I'm there."
"Then it's a plan," Vin stated. "You know, I just thought of something."
"What?" Chris inquired.
"Nick, do you have presents for your family? Do you want to stop somewhere?"
"No, I'm good to go there. I did a lot of shopping on line from Iraq and had it all sent to my Dad's so he could wrap them up. My wife told me yesterday that he had already dropped the gifts off. But I appreciate you thinking about it."
"No kid should wake up Christmas morning without gifts. Especially gifts from their ma and pa."
"Yeah, I hear that. I got a few things for him that my wife doesn't even know about, so it's cool."
They talked for a few minutes about what he'd purchased for his son as they drove closer to Salina.
An hour later, they were just pulling back onto the freeway from a rest stop, when the driver entering the freeway behind them apparently decided they were going too slow and sped around them. The SUV was loaded down with luggage strapped on top and five or six college-age kids inside. The vehicle hit a patch of ice on the road and slid slightly, just missing Chris' truck, before gaining traction and speeding off. The men could see the occupants of the SUV laughing at the near miss.
Chris shook his head. "We'll probably find them down the road slammed into a tree or something."
"We can only hope it's a tree and not another vehicle."
Fifteen minutes after that, Chris' prediction came to fruition. As they rounded a curve, they saw brake lights up ahead. Chris let up on the gas, slowly coming to a stopped behind a dozen other vehicles. Off to the right, about thirty feet from the roadway, was the SUV. The luggage that had previously been strapped on top was now scattered on the ground. The vehicle had rolled at least once and now rested on its passenger side.
Several people were around the SUV, trying to figure out how to get to the passengers, one man standing on the driver's side, which was now the top, pulling on the driver's door. At least two others were on the phone, obviously talking to 9-1-1. Chris pulled his vehicle to the shoulder and the three men jumped out and ran toward the damaged vehicle. As they got close, the man on the vehicle was finally able to get the door open.
Chris called out, "Can you see how bad?"
"Let me get in there," the man called down. "I'm a paramedic. I'll give them a quick check and see if any of them can be moved. My wife is talking to fire dispatch and letting them know what we got here."
"How can we help?" Vin asked, as he and Chris both showed him their badges.
"See that green pickup?" They glanced back, then nodded. "My gear is in the back seat."
"I'll grab it," Nick said as he took off for the vehicle.
"Is the truck stable enough for one of us to join you up there?" Chris asked.
"No, I don't think so. It'll likely be ten minutes before anyone gets here. Maybe you could do a check with all these others and gather up some blankets and such in case we need them. See if anyone else has a first aid kit. I'll probably need as many bandages as we can scrape together."
"We've got one in our truck," Vin said. "I'll check with everyone else. Chris can stay here and help you."
Tanner turned back to their truck, calling out as he did. "Anyone here got first aid kits or blankets they can spare, we could use them." Several of the observers ran toward their vehicles. "Anyone else have medical experience?"
"I'm a nurse," a female called. She'd just pulled up and was at her trunk, pulling out a black gym bag and silver colored items that turned out to be thermal blankets.
Vin approached her. "There's an off-duty paramedic checking on the victims. I'll gather up what equipment might be useful if you could give him a hand."
"Of course," she said, slamming down her trunk lid and hurrying over to the vehicle.
Vin joined the other drivers who had stopped, gathering up the items that they were taking from their vehicles. He recruited several strong looking men, and a couple of females that looked like they could help as well, and had them start carting the donated items over toward the overturned SUV.
"The rest of you need to move your vehicles out of the way. We have rescue equipment coming out and ambulances, so we'll need the room along the shoulder. You need to move your vehicles at least a hundred yards down the road," he ordered.
A few of the drivers complied immediately, others stubbornly stood by until Vin gave them his own version of the Larabee glare, at which time they reluctantly got into their vehicle and moved them a short distance down the road, before pulling over again to watch the goings-on.
For the next hour, the three men assisted in getting the vehicle occupants out and treated, then continued on their way.
December 23rd, appx 7:30 pm
"Take a left there."
Vin slowed down, flipped on the turn signal and eased onto the street. He glanced into the mirror and saw his own grinned matched by one on Chris Larabee's face.
Nick Timper was leaning forward in his seat, his left knee bouncing up and down with excitement. This big, buff Army Ranger was as anxious as a kid in a candy store.
"There! On the right, the blue house with the ...oh man, with the huge yellow ribbon on the tree in front." He sniffed. "Man, you know I always hated that song. I guess it ain't so bad now."
Vin turned into the driveway and shifted into park, then turned off the engine. They sat there for a long minute before Chris leaned forward.
"You gonna get out, Nick?"
"I can't believe I'm home." The tears were running down his face. "Thank you. Thank you both. I just can't tell you..."
"Then don't," Vin said. "Cuz if I was you, I wouldn't waste the time you could be spending with her."
Nick looked over and saw his wife moving onto the front porch, curiosity on her face, not recognizing the truck that sat there. A huge grin blasted across Nick's face and he quickly undid his seatbelt and rushed out of the truck. Vin and Chris smiled when his wife finally realized just who it was.
"Nick! Oh my God! Nick!"
She raced down the stairs and literally jumped into his arms. She was a full foot shorter than Nick. His arms wrapped tightly around her waist and he lifted her off her feet. She wrapped her arms around his neck and plastered her lips against his.
Only the need to breathe forced their lips apart. That and a cry of "Daddy!"
Chris and Vin watched from the truck as Nick released his wife and pounded up the couple steps onto the porch. He dropped to his knees and opened up his arms. "Timmy! I missed you so much!"
"Daddy! Daddy! I missed you this much," the young boy exclaimed as he opened his arms as wide as he could. He ran straight at his father and was rewarded with those muscular arms wrapping around him and pulling him tight.
Nick turned and sat on the top step, tightly clutching his son to his chest. His wife moved over to join them. Nick moved one arm from around his son and wrapped it around his wife's shoulder. He closed his eyes and just held them close.
Five minutes later, Nick sighed. Tears were still running down his face as he leaned over and kissed the top of his son's head, then did the same to his wife. As he looked around, he noticed the truck still in the driveway. Chris and Vin were still inside, talking, and giving the family a bit of privacy.
"Honey, I want to introduce you to a couple of very important people," he told his wife as he moved to stand up. Still holding his son in his arms, he took his wife's hand and headed toward the driveway. Chris and Vin climbed out of the truck as they approached.
"Babe, this is Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. Two of the nicest people you'll ever meet. They drove me all the way here from Denver just so I could make it home for Christmas. Chris, Vin, this is my wife Holly."
Chris laughed. "Nick and Holly? Now that is appropriate for the season," Chris remarked. "Nice to meet you." He put out his hand, only to have it brushed aside as Holly hugged him tightly.
"Better yet, we met at a Christmas party!" Nick related.
"Destined to be, I guess," Chris replied.
Holly stepped back. "Thank you so much. I can't tell you how much it means to me...to us...to have Nick home for Christmas."
"Having spent some time in the military myself, ma'am, I think I can understand," Chris told her.
She hugged Vin as well and then introduced them to their son.
"And this is Timmy," she said proudly, running her hand over his head, pushing his bangs out of his face. "He's been the man of the house while his father's been gone."
The boy smiled at his mother's praise and stuck out his hand. "Nice to meet you," he said, mimicking what he'd seen others do. Both men shook his hand, giving his status as temporary man-of-the-house all due respect.
"Please come inside and join us for dinner," Holly said.
"No, ma'am, that's okay. This is your family time," Vin said.
"I won't take no for an answer," she insisted. "You drove all this way and you will join us for dinner."
"Ma'am, it's Nick's first night home..."
"Yes, thanks to the two of you. You have to let me thank you."
"Guys, it best not to argue," Nick informed them. "Don't worry. My family and I will have lots of time to catch up. You drove a long way and the least we can do is feed you. Please."
Chris and Vin exchanged a glance, then turned back to Nick. "If you're sure," Chris said.
"I'm sure. Let me just grab my duffle..."
"I'll get it," Vin said, opening the door and pulling out the heavy green bag and following the others inside. "You've got a more important bundle in your arms already." He winked at Timmy as the boy giggled.
Thirty minutes later, they were all gathered around the dining room table, getting ready to eat, when there was a knock on the door. Nick stood up and went to answer it. He opened the door to an older man who was glancing out toward the street.
"Holly, dear, who's truck is that in the driveway?" the man asked, his face still turned away from the door.
"It belongs to a couple of Santa's elves, Dad," Nick replied with a smile.
The man's head whipped around and he gasped. "Nicky!" As tall as Nick was, his father dwarfed him. Standing at least six-foot-seven, he was muscular and had the look of a man who spent a lot of time outdoors working hard labor. Those huge arms squeezed his son to his chest. Nick squeezed back just as hard.
Giving the two men some small bit of privacy, Vin turned to Holly. "That's Nick's Dad?"
"Yes," she said with a smile.
"Dang, can you imagine how big Timmy gonna be with those two in his family tree."
Holly laughed. "Oh, yeah. I figure Timmy will be taller than me by the time he's eight."
Chris and Vin laughed with her before standing up to greet the two men who were coming to join them at the table. Introductions were made as Mitch Timper sat next to his son, giving Holly and Timmy a kiss along the way. He shook hands with Vin and Chris.
"Nicky says you drove him all the way from Denver?"
"Yes, sir," Vin replied.
"What?! I'm just asking!"
"It's alright, Nick," Chris said, before looking at Mitch. "You want to know why? Because we could. And because it needed to be done. Vin and I are both former military. We both know what it's like to be away from home for an extended period of time. And we felt that Nick needed to be home with his family for Christmas."
Mitch just stared at Chris for several long moments, then broke into a grin and slapped him on the arm, nearby unseating him. "Well, I guess that's good enough for me, son!"
Holly rolled her eyes and shook her head, apparently used to this kind of attitude from her father-in-law. "When did you get back into town, Mitch?" she asked, setting a plate and utensils in front of him.
"Just drove in tonight," he replied, grabbing a roll from the basket Chris passed him. "Figured I'd stop to see if you needed anything before I headed home."
"Dad's a trucker," Nick explained to Chris and Vin.
"That can't have been an easy job the last few days with all this snow," Vin remarked.
"I'm used to it," Mitch shrugged. "I only drive the shorter routes now, never gone from home for more than a couple days. Most of my jobs are in Kansas, Missouri and Iowa."
"Mitch lives a couple blocks away," Holly explained. "He always stops by on his way home to make sure Timmy and I are doing okay." She smiled at her father-in-law.
After dinner, Chris and Vin said their goodbyes, intending on finding a hotel for the night
"Nonsense," Mitch said. "I won't have you paying for a hotel when I have a perfectly good home less than a mile away with enough beds to sleep a baseball team."
"We don't want to put you out," Chris insisted.
"Mister, you drove how many hundreds of miles just to get my son home for Christmas? Don't insult me," he said, indignantly.
"Chris, please, Dad's right. He has more than enough room," Nick said. "I wish you could stay here, but we just don't have the room."
"Well...okay, if you insist."
"Good. Let me get my rig warmed up and you can follow me over." He turned to Nick. "Son, it's good to have you home." He once again gathered his son into a bear hug, then did the same with Holly and Timmy.
"Are you coming back tomorrow, Grandpa?" Timmy asked.
"I'll be here bright and early, Tim-ster."
Timmy giggled as he hug his grandfather, then looked up at the two ATF agents. "Mr. Chris, Mr. Vin, will you come back tomorrow too?" he asked.
"Of course they will, Timmy," his mom answered. "They have to have a good breakfast before they drive back home, don't they?" She said this, looking straight at the two men and daring them to contradict her.
The exchange a look, shrugged and Vin replied. "Well, then I guess we'll be here in the morning." Holly smiled and gave them both a hug.
The small family stood on the porch and waved goodbye as Chris truck pulled out of the driveway and followed the big rig down the street.
December 24th, 7:00 am
"...should be back later tonight, Buck. We've been invited to have breakfast with Nick's family and we'll head out after that.....yes, I can call you when we leave...Alright, see ya then."
Chris hungup his phone and slip it back into his pocket. He ran his hair through his wet hair, having had a shower earlier. Vin was getting his shower now and once he was dressed they'd be heading out to Nick and Holly's house. Mitch was outside, gathering up some eggs from the handful of chickens in his coop.
Larabee picked up the cup of coffee that Mitch had handed him when he arrived in the kitchen after his shower. Sipping on the black liquid, he wandered around the room, which was filled with family photos. Seems like Mitch and his late wife had a large family. He was looking a one family picture when Mitch came up behind him.
"That's the last photo we've got of the whole crew," he said. "Taken two Christmas's ago, just before their mother died." He pointed out the striking woman standing next to him in the photo. "My wife, Agnes. She passed in March, last year."
"Thanks. She went quiet, just like I hoped she would. And all her family was here with her when she went. But I sure miss her like the dickens. Especially during the holidays. She sure loved Christmas."
"My Sarah was the same way. Christmas was her favorite holiday."
"Yeah. She and my son died together about, oh, nine years ago now." He shook his head. "Can't believe it's been that long."
"Sometimes it seems like forever since Agnes was here..sometimes it seems like yesterday."
Chris nodded. "You've got a huge family."
"Yep. Only three of them are blood." He pointed at the picture. "Nick there, his brother, Brady and their little sister, Gaby. The others are foster kids, but our kids all the same. Several we adopted along the way. Most of the others stayed with us for quite awhile, until they were old enough to move out and be on their own."
"You fostered kids?" Vin asked from the doorway.
"Yep, over the years, about twenty. A couple were able to be returned to their family, once mom and or dad got their shit together. The others...most were orphans or the family was so torn apart that it just wouldn't have been safe to send them back."
Vin stared at the photo of a happy family, and shook his head. He left the room.
"Something I said?" Mitch asked, concerned.
Chris shook his head. "No. Vin was a foster. His mother died when he was real young. No dad in the picture. He wasn't lucky enough to find a good foster home. In fact, he found several really bad ones. Spent a lot of years on the streets of Denver, looking out for himself."
"Yeah. I've often wished I'd known him then. I would kicked some foster parent ass!"
Mitch laughed. "You ever find 'em, you call me up. I'll come help ya."
Chris smiled and finished his coffee.
December 24th, 9:30 am
The simple family breakfast had been interupted several times with phone calls. The night before, Mitch had taken it upon himself to call the family members to let them know that Nick was back. So that morning, they'd all started calling to welcome him home. From what Mitch had said, they were scattered around the country and only a couple of them would make him back to Salina for Christmas the next day.
"We should be going," Chris said, placing his napkin on the table. "We really appreciate the breakfast."
"Really," Vin added. "It was delicious."
Holly smiled. "I'm glad you came. And really glad you happened to be in that Amtrack station yesterday morning," she said, reaching for her husband's hand.
"I'll never be able to repay you," Nick said.
"You already have," Chris told him.
Nick nodding, accepting the implied thanks. They all stood up and gathered around while Chris and Vin slipped on their coats. Holly handed Vin a tin of homemade Christmas cookies, which Timmy proudly proclaimed that he helped to decorate.
Nick opened the door and they walked outside. It was cold, but sunny. He stood on the porch and looked at the snow covered homes along the street. He smiled as his son, now bundled up in his snow jacket, boots and stocking cap. The others followed, walking toward Chris' truck.
"Vin. Chris. Again, I can't begin to thank you. Have a safe trip home." Nick pulled each man in for a hug.
Holly also hugged them both. She handed Vin a piece of paper. "You be sure to call us when you get back home. We want to be sure you get there safely."
Vin took the paper and nodded, stuffing it into his pocket.
"Boys, if you ever need anything, you be sure to call us," Mitch said, shaking Vin's hand, then muttering "Aw, hell," and pulling him in for a huge bear hug. He did the same to Chris, not allowing the man to pull away like he normally would have.
Timmy, on the ground between his parents, tugged on Chris' leg. Larabee squatted down.
"Hey, little guy."
"Mr. Chris, can I tell you something?"
Timmy put his arms around Chris' neck and whispered. "Thanks for bringing my Daddy home. This is the bestest Christmas ever!"
Chris fought hard not to let his tears fall, but gave up when Timmy added. "I love you, Mr. Chris."
"I hope every Christmas is always just like this."
A minute later, Timmy let go, then kissed Chris on the cheek and stepped over to Vin.
"Mr. Vin, thank you too for bringing Daddy home. I hope your Christmas is as good as mine."
Vin knelt down and hugged the boy to him. "It already is, my man. As soon as I saw you with your Dad, I knew this Christmas would be special. Now, you take care of your ma and pa, ya hear?"
Timmy nodded. "I will, Mr. Vin."
Chris and Vin got into the truck and Chris started it up. After a minute, he slid the truck into reverse and backed out of the driveway. As he slipped it into drive, he and Vin both glanced over and saw the family still standing in the driveway. They waved and headed down the road.
"You did what?!" Buck screeched.
"We gave a soldier a ride home," Chris said calmly, sipping on a cup of coffee in Ezra's living room.
"That is where he lived, Buck," Vin added. "Would you rather we took him to Texas?" he asked, sipping on the hot chocolate Josiah had handed him.
The others had been shocked to find out that they'd driven a total stranger to Kansas so he'd be home for the holiday. But Josiah had smiled once he'd heard the whole story and embraced each man.
"I'm proud to know you and proud you did such a selfless thing on the Jesus' birthday!" his big voiced boomed. "Merry Christmas!"
The two agents had made it back in time to meet the others at Ezra's on Christmas Day. Vin had called Kansas as soon as they arrived, to let them know they'd gotten their safety and to wish the family a Merry Christmas. In the meantime, Chris was explaining just what they'd spent the last three days doing.
Tanner stepped into the other room, so that he could talk without the noise of the other men. A few minutes later he returned, a huge smile on his face.
Chris glanced his way. "You get hold of Holly and Nick?"
"Yep. And they got the best Christmas present ever." Seeing Chris' questioning look, he continued. "Nick got a call from his brigade commander. Remember he told us that he extended six months so that he could spend Christmas at home?"
"Yeah. He said he was going have to return to Iraq in January."
"Well, it seems that the unit he was going to be joining in actually being rotated home early. So he won't be going back. Instead, he's heading to Fort Dix to do the extra six months training our guys."
"I'll be that just made their day!" Chris replied with a grin.
"Yep. And Timmy says to tell you again, that this is the bestest, bestest Christmas ever!"
Chris nodded. "This calls for a drink! Ezra, get out your best," he ordered, joining his undercover agent at the small bar in the corner of the room. Ezra unlocked a small door and pulled out a smoky gray colored bottle. Making a show of it, he meticulously opened the bottle, then showing the label to his boss, who nodded his approval.
Ezra then poured out seven snifters and placed them on a tray. Slinging a small towel over his left arm, he gestured toward Chris to proceed him, and the pair rejoined the others standing in front of the large stone fireplace. Ezra served the others, then grabbed the last glass for himself.
Lifting it high he made a toast. "To Chris and Vin, who played Santa's Helpers and made sure that a young boy had his father home for Christmas. To all the other children whose parents can't be with them. To my dear friends. I can not imagine spending Christmas anywhere else or with anyone else."
"Amen!" Josiah agreed.
The others all echoed their own Merry Christmas and sipped their brandy. Outside the window, a light snow began to fall, blanketing the trees with glistening light.
We live a fair distance from the rest of our family and don't really get to see them at Christmas time. But, as far away as we are, it would really be so easy to hop a plane or drive our car to see them.
However, there are men & women far away from home who can't do that. We want to thank them for their service and their sacrifices, both large and small. Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea or elsewhere, they all serve. And they all have our deepest gratitude. As do those family members who wait behind, praying for their safe return and wishing they were home for the Holidays. They also serve their country, by standing by their Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airmen and allowing them to serve.
So, thanks to all those who serve now and in past, in uniform or not. We wish you all a joyous season and a quick reunion.