ATF Alternate Universe
Sequel to ONE QUESTION
Thanks to Tidia and Winter, for their encouragement; Gina, for Robin Hood; and Nancy for putting up with the "WAIT! Don't post it yets."
The genial atmosphere was suddenly awkward and tense. No one knew quite what to say in response. The sharpshooter was staring off into the past, lost in whatever memory JD's question had triggered. Chris wanted to say something, anything to smooth over the moment, but he didn't have the first idea of what he could say.
The ATF leader shifted his gaze away from his best friend to his oldest friend. Buck, good old Buck. He could always be counted on for a lighthearted comment in the darkest moments. But, Buck was looking down at the table, as embarrassed as the rest of them. For once the rambunctious ladies' man had nothing to say.
And JD. The kid had started this with his stupid idea. Christ, when would they learn not to go along with his games. JD had set this in motion and now he was staring at Vin with a mixture of shame and pity on his face. Chris knew that JD liked Vin enormously, but sometimes the kid forgot that Vin's past wasn't exactly the Brady Bunch. He should have known better than to ask Vin a question like that. All they needed was for Vin to see JD looking at him like that. Chris glared at him and JD dropped his eyes. Chris was still trying to figure out someway to lighten the suddenly somber mood, when Ezra, of all people, did it for him.
"Excuse me, gentlemen. I seem to be lacking in refreshments. Can I interest any of you in additional libations?"
That got JD's attention. "Huh?" He asked in his most bewildered manner. The quick glance he threw Chris's way told the older man that JD's confusion was being exaggerated deliberately. Maybe he wouldn't shoot the kid after all.
"Our Southern brother is offering to buy us a beer, JD." Josiah's rich voice was soft.
"Hey Vin, Whatcha gonna have? Ezra's buyin' a round." Buck's booming voice was perhaps a bit too cheerful, but it did have the effect of drawing Vin out of his memories.
"What? Uhm . . . Yeah, I could use a beer." Vin drained his mug and set it down on the table. He could feel the tension in the false smiles of his friends. Shit. Unless he did something, this evening was going to leave a real bad taste in everybody's mouth. Vin pasted on a fake smile of his own. "It's my turn to ask somethin' now, ain't it JD?"
"Wha . . . ? Uh, yeah." JD's excited voice rose and the animation in his face was real. "You get to ask any one of them, anything you want."
"Think I'm gonna take my time and think on it, while I drink Ez's beer." Vin grinned at them.
"Why dontcha ask me about the Wilson twins," Buck suggested with a leer.
"'Cause he don't wanta hear no bull," Nathan dead-panned. The whole team, including Vin, laughed uproariously. Team Seven was back to normal.
"Nah, I wanta know how come Chris took offa work last Monday." Vin was grinning mischievously. Chris had called in on Monday, saying he'd be in Tuesday and nothing else. Josiah had answered the phone and Chris had told him in rather colorful terms that it wasn't any of their business, and he could take a day off whenever he wanted to.
"Shit," Chris cursed. "Remind me to fire your ass, Tanner."
"Sure pard, just as soon as you answer the question." The rest of the team was laughing and Vin grinned at his best friend.
"That new mare kicked me and I couldn't sit down to drive into the office." Chris glared at Vin, before giving in and joining in the rest of the Seven's laughter.
Chris grinned ferally at his team members. He could ask Nathan about . . . Buck, that was it. He'd ask Buck . . . No, Ezra. Chris finally settled on his victim. "Ezra, did you cheat when we played cards last Saturday?"
"Mr. Larabee, as an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agent, I would be remiss if I failed to point out to you that you have neglected to read the Miranda warning. Therefore, anything I say cannot be used against me in a court of law," Ezra pointed out Chris's oversight in a futile attempt to deflect the six pairs of eyes staring at him.
"Good thing we aren't in court then, isn't it Ezra?" Chris reminded his evasive agent. "Answer the question." Chris's demand was echoed around the table.
"Very well. Since I would not wish to be accused of cheating again, I'll abide by the rather odious rules of this childish venture," Ezra sniffed indignantly. "No, I didn't cheat. Unless of course, you can prove that I did."
The whole table roared with laughter. Trust Ezra to answer without really answering. "Now gentlemen, I believe I would like to know what Agent Sanchez knows about the young lady Mr. Larabee found in his chair when he returned from Houston."
Expectant eyes turned to Josiah. Chris had arrived from a conference and found a blow up doll in an indecent pose wearing a 'Welcome Home' sign and nothing else. Chris had been sure Vin or Ezra had been the prankster.
Josiah gave a philosophical sigh before speaking. "Brothers, I fear I have a confession to make." He looked contrite, as he continued. "I witnessed Brother Jackson arranging the young lady in that downright vulgar position." Josiah's contrite expression gave way to a cat that ate the canary smirk. "Since, I've already had a turn, why doesn't Nathan go next?"
Nathan turned disgusted eyes on him. "It's always them religious types you gotta watch out for. They'll turn on you in a heartbeat." The others were smiling broadly, impressed that Nathan had actually pulled off the prank without Chris discovering his identity.
Nathan grinned at Buck. They were the only two left and it was a showdown. Nathan had the first shot and he was determined to make it count. "It's you and me pard," Nathan smiled at Buck.
"Take your best shot," Buck grinned back.
"When Chris was at that conference, where'd you spend Friday night?" Nathan had a smug grin on his face. He knew exactly where Buck had been. Every one of them did, except Chris.
Buck's grin faded into a wounded expression. The puppy dog look he gave Nathan clearly said, 'How could you, pard?' Nathan just laughed and repeated the question.
Chris looked at his team suspiciously. Obviously, the rest of them knew where Buck had spent that night. And judging from the behavior of the others, Chris wasn't going to be pleased with his answer. "Yeah, Buck. Where did you spend that night?" Chris questioned dryly, giving his oldest friend a look that promised retribution.
"Well . . . you see . . . uh . . ." Buck looked contrite, as he finally managed to get out the words. "You know how you gave me that key to the ranch, uh . . . for emergencies? I had, uhm, I had a date with the new file clerk from records. And, believe me Chris, it was an emergency," Buck finished to laughter from all his friends including Chris.
"No problem, Buck," Chris's honey sweet voice didn't match the evil grin on his face, when he finished, "because, I've got a barn that needs cleaning out this weekend. And, believe me Buck, it's an emergency."
Buck's friends roared with laughter. The ladies' man laughed with them, and then looked across the table at the cause of his misfortune. "So, you wanta play dirty, huh Nathan?" he asked softly, just a hint of menace in his voice.
"Looks like you're the one who's gonna be playing dirty, Buck," Josiah pointed out, to another round of laughter. "This weekend."
"Laugh it up guys. Laugh it up," Buck responded thoughtfully. He rubbed his chin and stared at Nathan speculatively. "Hey Nate," Buck called innocently. "Tell me something pard. That little dinner Mary sent to Chris last month. You know, the one he decided he should take her to the movies, to thank her for? You happen to know anything about that?" Buck saw Chris's mouth tighten, and Nathan squirm uncomfortably. He winked across the table at his friend and told him genially, "Paybacks, pard. Paybacks."
Nathan knew he was caught and decided to just take the bull by the horns. "At the rate Chris was goin', Billy was gonna be goin' on a date before him. Figured it couldn't hurt none to help 'em along. Besides, he got to eat Rain's roast chicken with all the trimmings. Man oughta be thankin' me." Nathan risked a furtive glance at his boss. Chris was smiling and didn't look mad. Still, you could never be sure. Sometimes Chris was hard to read.
Chris gave Nathan a smile that sent a shiver of fear through the younger man's soul. "Nate, that was just about the best roast chicken I ever had. And, I really appreciate you helping me out with Mary." Nathan moaned audibly and his friends laughed as Chris continued. "As a matter of fact, you can let me thank you . . ." Nathan heard the ominous note in Chris's voice. ". . . this weekend, when you're helping Buck clean out the barn."
All seven laughed heartily. This was exactly the way they liked to unwind from a successful raid.
An hour later, Vin excused himself. "Been a long day fellas, I'm gonna head home."
'See you later' and 'Night Vin' followed him out the door. When he stepped out onto the porch, Vin took a deep breath and leaned against the faux hitching post in front of the saloon.
It was a cool night and the crisp autumn air felt good. Vin's thoughts soon took him away from the saloon and back to Pecos, Texas. He was so deep in thought, he didn't notice the saloon door open.
A hand on his shoulder startled him back into the present. Vin blinked and saw Chris watching him. "You wanta talk about it, cowboy?" Chris asked softly.
"Nothing to talk about," Vin responded a little too quickly.
"There's a diner a couple of blocks from here," Chris informed his friend. "You wanta take a walk? Have a cup of coffee? It'll clear away the cobwebs."
Vin nodded, and the two men ambled off into the Denver night. They walked silently, until Chris pointed out the lights of the diner ahead. There was a neglected air about the eatery and there were only two cars on the lot, but it was open. Vin pulled the door open and waited for Chris to step inside before following. A bell jingled noisily when the door eased shut. A bored-looking waitress got up from the end of the counter where the cook was leaning and waved her hand around the empty room.
"Just pick a table, and I'll be right with you." She smiled at them and picked up a couple of menus.
Chris and Vin headed to the small booth furthest from the counter and sat down. "Just coffee, please," Chris told her, before she handed him the menus.
"Sure thing, honey." The waitress was already heading to the warmer where a half full pot of coffee sat.
Vin turned both of the coffee cups on the table right side up. The waitress returned with the coffee and poured them both steaming cupfuls. "You need anything, just holler, I'm right over there," the woman told them as she moved away.
They sat silently sipping their coffee for several minutes. The silence was familiar and comfortable, settling around them like a warm blanket on a cold night. They finished the coffee, and Chris got up and moved toward the pot. The waitress noticed and started to get up, but Chris held a hand up and motioned her to sit back down. She smiled gratefully at him and turned back to the cook who had settled onto a stool behind the counter. Chris poured both of them another cup of coffee and replaced the pot.
Vin added sugar to his coffee. "Thanks," he said simply, taking a small sip. Chris nodded at his friend and added milk and sugar to his own coffee.
"I was in the fourth grade and the teacher told me to go down to the office." Vin's drawl was soft and Chris leaned forward to hear him. "Social worker was waitin' for me. I knew what she wanted 'fore she said a word. Shit, I'd already been in at least a dozen places. I didn't even bother to listen to what she was sayin'. I just sat down on the bench and waited for her to say it was time to go."
Chris listened without a word. It was rare for Vin to tell anyone about his past, even Chris. The few times Vin had shared his memories had been times like this, late at night, when it was just the two of them. Chris had heard about Vin's first bounty after a poker game at his ranch. He'd listened, as the young man told him about meeting Nettie in the hospital when he was sixteen years old. That time, Vin was in the hospital, after being shot in the shoulder during a raid. Chris had used his best 'Chris Larabee, ATF team leader voice' and cowed the hospital staff into allowing him to spend the night. Vin had awakened around midnight, and he and Chris had spent the next two hours talking, until Vin had drifted off to sleep again. Chris had guarded Vin's secrets, like Vin had known he would, without having to ask. He'd guard this memory too.
"My stuff was already in her car." Vin's soft drawl was far away and Chris could see his blue eyes staring unfocused at the window behind them. "I wanted to check it, but she said it could wait." Chris could hear the bitterness as the sharpshooter continued. "She didn't give a shit, it wasn't her stuff. We got to the new place and first thing, I dumped my stuff out, right in the middle of the living room. I noticed right off, that somethin' was missin'. It was a copy of Robin Hood. I kept it under my pilla, cause I didn't want nothin' to happen to it. My mom give it to me, the Christmas before she died." The drawl was softer now and it was a real strain for Chris to hear. "I told that social worker that I needed to go back and get my book, but she just told me not to worry about it, she'd get me another copy. I told her I didn't want another copy. I wanted mine."
"She told me to stop bein' a baby, a book was a book. I pitched a fit. Called her every name I could think of." Vin met Chris's eyes and they both smiled. Vin had been as stubborn as a kid as he was now. "She finally called that other lady and asked her about the book. Lady said she'd found it and thought it was trash, on account of it was so torn up, and threw it out." Chris could see the quick flash of pain in Vin's turbulent blue eyes. "I cussed that social worker good, I was so damned pissed." Chris knew that Vin was really telling him how badly it had hurt, to lose the book his mom had given him.
"The lady whose house we were in decided she didn't wanta take in no foster kid, right there on the spot. Social worker was pissed good, at me and her," Vin snorted contemptuously. "Like I gave a shit. I just started puttin' the rest of my stuff back in my duffel bag. It didn't much matter to me whether I stayed in that place or another place."
Chris was taken by the way Vin kept referring to the foster homes as "that place" and the foster mothers as "lady." He'd already built those walls, at nine years old.
Vin's voice was feather soft again. "I didn't have nothin' besides that book that was mine. The duffel bag, hell, even the clothes I had, all come from the social workers. But that book was mine. My mom gave it to me. Most of the time, I couldn't read it, but I'd look at the pictures and I could hear my mom wishing me Merry Christmas, like she did when she gave it to me. I knew right then, that they could take anything they wanted and there wasn't shit I could do about it. Next time one o' them ladies tried to gimme a hair cut, I told 'er no. I wasn't cuttin' my hair. She asked me how come, and I told 'er, 'cause it was mine. She looked at me real funny, but I didn't get no haircut. Only time I cut it since then was when I joined the Army."
Vin resumed staring silently out the window and Chris went back to his coffee, knowing that Vin didn't expect him to say anything. The two friends sat, each man lost in his own thoughts, occasionally sipping their coffee, until the waitress came over and interrupted them.
"Excuse me, but we're going to be closing in about fifteen minutes," she told them apologetically. "Do either of you want more coffee?"
Vin blinked and Chris shook his head, no. The waitress laid the check in front of them, and went back to the end of the counter.
"Ready to go, pard?" Chris touched Vin's arm to get his attention.
"Yeah," Vin responded, reaching into his pocket for his wallet.
Chris waved his money aside and laid $5.00 on the table. "My treat. You can buy the next time."
Vin put his money away and they left the diner. They walked back to the saloon in their customary silence. The saloon was dark and only Vin's jeep and Chris's SUV remained on the lot.
"It wasn't right for her to throw your book away," Chris said quietly.
"It's ok, Chris," Vin replied in his quiet way. "It doesn't matter now. I'll see ya at work." He grinned and waved as he climbed into the jeep.
TWO DAYS LATER
None of the others had arrived when Vin stepped into the ATF office. He hung up his jacket and was about to start coffee when he spied a thin package wrapped in plain brown paper on his desk. Vin examined the package and, finding nothing suspicious, tore open the paper. It took a long time for Vin to move again when he saw what was inside the package. Robin Hood. A beautiful leather-bound edition. He fingered the finely tooled leather and rich gold lettering across the top of the book. Where had Chris found it? When? Vin flipped the book open and saw Chris's writing on the inside.
"Yeah, it does," Vin whispered to himself and slipped the book into the top drawer of his desk.
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