Author's Note: This is dedicated to my parents, who have in just one hour erased about a month's worth of difficulties, social insecurities, financial worries, school worries, and just about everything else a 21-year-old can suffer from. I also wrote this for the request on the Muse board for an exploration of Vin's dad's character as something other than downright disreputable.
PART ONE: THE FIRST KIND
"Vin, remind me to never ever let you eat another one of those things for the rest of my life. Or your life, for that matter. Just watching you's makin' me sick" Chris Larabee eyed the wooden stick of rock candy in Vin Tanner's right hand and wondered why he couldn't hear the younger agent's teeth rotting.
"C'mon, Chris," Vin appealed, taking a quick lick of the crystallized sugar and sighing contentedly. "It was for charity, for Pete's sake. I'm glad t' sacrifice some tooth enamel if'n it'll help put a roof on that new clinic." He jerked his head backward to indicate the construction site from which they'd just departed.
"I don't know about you, but I find it kinda strange that a medical facility would use boiled sugar t' help pay for its construction," Chris remarked.
"Nah, they just know how t' maximize profits, that's all. What's it called? Supply n' demand." The blue food coloring mixed into the sugar had Vin's tongue turning an interesting shade of purple. "'Sides, you probably let Adam have somethin' sweet enough t' eat the paint off a car every now an' then, right?"
"Yeah," Chris admitted, thinking about cotton candy at fairs and Adam's first Halloween- Sarah had been out of town taking care of her sick mother and Chris, completely in the dark regarding how to make a Halloween costume, had sacrificed a white bedsheet to the cause. "Be interested to know where you got that sweet tooth of yours from. Can't believe your parents let you eat like that," Chris added and made a face as Vin crunched on some of the hard candy.
Unexpectedly, the younger man's face sobered and a sad smile crept across his mouth. "I think my Ma woulda had a heart attack if'n the cancer hadn't gotten her first," he said softly. "My dad... hell if I know what my dad would think."
Chris knew that Vin had lived with his father until he turned eight, but had been unable to extract any details regarding the younger man's homelife. Not really wanting to pry but curious nonetheless, Chris asked, "You got a clue?"
"Don't know," Vin whispered, bitterness edging his voice. "I don't remember much of 'im... mostly because he was never there to remember. That's all I remember of him... not bein' there."
Larabee knew that the young agent would not provide any more information on the subject; the closer to the surface Vin's emotions ran, the less he wanted to discuss them- or the cause of them. Thankfully, Chris could see Vin's apartment building and quickly parallel parked. Vin climbed out of the Ram and strode toward his apartment, Chris in hot pursuit.
He just managed to catch the lobby's door before Vin slammed it shut behind him. Tanner pointedly ignored Larabee as he checked his mailbox, rifling through bills, credit card offers, and...
Vin's face paled and he shook visibly. Chris approached the sharpshooter as cautiously as he could, trying to read the address over Vin's shoulder
"It's from my dad's old lawyer," he said hoarsely. "Smelly Skelly."
"What?" Chris asked, mystified. "Who?"
"His real name was Louis Skellers, but I always called him Smelly Skelly. He was... he was the guy who settled my dad's estate after he went MIA in the Balkans. My grandparents couldn't take care a' me an' I didn't have any aunts 'r uncles so Smelly Skelly packed me around to a buncha foster homes. Every time he came he smelled just like old cigars, so I called him Smelly Skelly."
Tanner looked around, becoming acutely aware that he was discussing private business in a very public area. He glanced surreptitiously at Chris, and finally asked, "You wanna come up for a beer?"
The request stymied the senior agent, but he nodded and followed Vin up the stairs. Vin opened the door to his apartment and stepped inside, absently tossing the forgotten piece of rock candy in the trashcan. As if nothing were amiss, as if his father's old attorney hadn't just written him a letter, Vin grabbed a couple cans of beer from a six-pack in the fridge and tossed one to Chris, who caught it reflexively. Tanner wandered into his small living room and collapsed on the sofa. Chris, not sure what to make of the situation, sat in a chair across the room and watched his friend.
Vin drained his can of beer in a few gulps, set the can down, and picked up the letter instead. He quickly shredded the envelope and yanked out a piece of paper.
Two pieces of paper.
He scanned the first one, eyes flickering disinterestedly over the words typed on heavy linen stock.
Dear Mr. Tanner-
Enclosed, please find a letter of your father's dated August 14, 1982, recently found among some of his personal effects which he had entrusted to my supervision after his departure for Greece. It was stipulated that, should he not return, this letter should be given to you upon your eighteenth birthday. Unfortunately, the letter was lost and has only just surfaced. Please accept my deepest apologies for the delay, my best wishes, and my salutations.
Louis J. Skellers, Esq.
Vin dropped Smelly Skelly's letter and, with shaking hands, stared at the college-ruled paper covered with his father's signature, angular scrawl- he vaguely remembered his dad commenting about how Vin had inherited his handwriting. His eyes roved over the letter, not seeing the words, just seeing his father.
By the time you get this, I'll be in heaven with your mom and hopefully you'll be able to read my handwriting. You see, I asked Louie to give you this on your eighteenth birthday if I didn't make it back from this mission- for now 'this mission' means my trip to Greece but later it might mean my trip to Africa, my trip to South America, my trip to the South Pacific... anywhere else they send me.
Your mom always had a hard life being the wife of a career Army guy, and toward the end I wished to God that I could have just dropped my commission and gone to be with her so we could have spent our last six years together in happiness. It didn't happen that way, though. I was in Saudi Arabia when you were born, and I remember getting first a call and then a picture from your Grandma. I couldn't believe how much you looked like both me and her and when your mom called me for the first time, she said she was glad she had a little something to remember me by.
It's a strange thing about the Army, son- it can be a tough habit to break. There's been a Tanner in the military way back into the Civil War, when one of your great-great-great-great-grandpas was a sharpshooter. His sons continued the tradition all the way through Vietnam and finally, up to me. Maybe everything's sunk so deep now that it's become part of the Tanner genes, just like blue eyes and brown hair- no matter what, we keep going back to it.
My dad used to give me this lecture about duty- I gave you the same one when you were eight and I left for Europe, but you probably don't remember that now. "Ryan," my father said, "there are two kinds of duty- duty to your family and duty to your country. You have to decide which comes first." In the Tanner clan, the country has always been our first duty- I hated it when I was a kid, but, when I look back on what my dad did, the sacrifices he made for us, I can better understand him.
I hope that maybe you can understand what I did.
I just wanted to let you know that, whatever you've done in your life, I'm proud of you.
Vin sat there for a minute, staring through the piece of paper.
"Vin?" Chris asked softly, moving over to sit down by the younger man, who continued to stare into nothingness. "You okay?"
For a moment Tanner hung between the past and present, remembering the hurt and confusion of a boy left behind by his mother and then his father, the blind fury of a resentful teenager, the solitude of the Ranger sharpshooter who'd given up the few things he had to fight.
And then, remembering his father's words, he felt a little easing in his soul and smiled at his friend.
"Yeah," Vin whispered, "yeah... I'm okay."
PART TWO: THE SECOND KIND
The middle-aged man leaned heavily over to his right side, trying to ease the ever-present aching in the stump which was all that remained of his left leg. He'd taken the prosthetic off some time ago because it pinched horribly but even the removal of that hated device didn't help; for a moment, he considered asking Tracy to bring in some of his pain medication, but decided against it.
He had to remain clear for what he was going to do, even though he wasn't entirely sure if he wanted to- but Ryan Tanner had an aversion to medication in any case and Tracy would convince herself that there was something seriously wrong with him.
Speak of the devil...
Tracy poked her head out of the kitchen and asked, "Well, aren't you going to call him?"
"He's at work still, probably- two hour time difference," Tanner hedged.
She rolled her eyes at that. "It's six o' clock their time, Ryan, for Chrissake."
"Well, I'd be interrupting his dinner then."
"I swear, I don't know how in the world your wife put up with you," Tracy snorted as she emerged from the kitchen holding the portable phone. "Now, as your occupational therapist, I have it on good authority from your physical therapist that, as opposed to your left leg, your fingers work just fine." She thrust the phone at Tanner, who took it before he could stop himself. "Call. Him."
"He probably hates me, Tracy. If he doesn't already, he'll hate me for being back in the States for a year and not getting in touch with him. But I... I couldn't let him see me like that." Tanner shuddered, remembering the shaking wreck the Croatians had sent back to the US military in a small crop-dusting plane- the same shaking wreck that begged and pleaded for the staff to not send word to his son.
"You won't know until you try, Lieutenant Tanner," Tracy said firmly.
"Already have tried," Ryan whispered, remembering the last conversation he'd had with his eight-year-old son.
"You have your orders, Lieutenant Tanner. Is there a problem with them?" Unspoken 'there had better not be a problem.'
"No sir. None at all." Carefully respectful, but defiant nonetheless. "I was under the impression that my request for discharge was being processed."
"Orders are orders, Lieutenant. Your orders are to ship for the Mediterranean in four weeks. My orders are to give them to you." The company commander thrust a packet of papers at the lieutenant, who accepted them automatically. "You've got the schedule for briefings, medical appointments for vaccinations, and training sessions and you will report to your company C.O- me, in this case- at 0800 hours on the fifteenth of August. Is that clear?"
"Good." Oliver Rice leaned back in his chair and studied the younger man across the desk from him, and the commander's lined concrete face softened a little with something suspiciously close to regret. "I know you've had a rough time these three years, after Laura died," he said in an unexpectedly gentle voice, "but we've given you all the leave we can. "
"I know," Ryan Tanner said hoarsely. "And thank you for it, but what about my discharge?"
Rice shook his head and all trace of sympathy drained away from the battalion C.O's weathered face. "Declined, Ryan- the brass just sent their decision down to me yesterday. We need you in Greece right now. It's only a six month tour, for Chrissake- Athens and back, practically. Like going to the store for milk."
"My son needs me here," Tanner shot back.
"Unfortunately," Rice said, his tone becoming sarcastic and condescending, "your son is not the Commander in Chief of the United States Army, Lieutenant Tanner. Dismissed."
"You're goin' away again."
Ryan Tanner looked away from the small mountain of paperwork and into two indignant, troubled blue eyes. He sighed, knowing that very little escaped his observant, quiet son- who of course had long ago noticed the connection between a lot of paperwork and his father's imminent departure. Tanner could remember the day his laughing, happy son had begun to disappear- the day they found out Laura had terminal cancer.
Tiptoeing around her after she got chemotherapy, being carted off to daycare because the radiation left her too sick to care for him, sitting still in a quiet room that smelled of sickness, setting a white rose on the coffin at her funeral... they drained the vitality from those blue eyes, turned a lively child into a silent, watchful one who stayed in the background, never wanting to step forward.
He had to deal with the present now, and his mind sought for a way to explain why he had to leave.
"C'mere, Vin," he ordered gently, pushing himself away from his desk. Vin shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest in a perfect imitation of his mother. His jaw, still soft with childhood, hardened in determination and Ryan knew there would be no talking to his son like this. "Vin," he said heavily, "I have to go. Ya know that."
Vin nodded and looked away. "Yeah, I know," he whispered. "But.. but you were only home for six months before they made you go to that place in Virgna."
Virgna? Ryan wondered. Oh... Virginia.
"You want to go out for ice cream? Talk about things?" Ryan negotiated.
"No!" Vin half-shouted. "Ain't anythin' to talk about." The blue eyes trembled on the verge of tears. "You're leavin'," he said flatly, his words sounding so dead and adult that Ryan wanted to cry.
"I'll be back, Vin," Ryan told his son. "Six months... c'mon, you like spendin' time with Grandma and Grandpa down at the ranch, right?"
"I like it okay," Vin said unconvincingly. "I'd rather be with you, though."
"C'mere then, kid," Ryan instructed in his best Stern Parent voice. Surprisingly, Vin climbed up on his lap, resting tousled brown hair against his father's chest. Sensing that he'd won a victory of some kind, Ryan continued.
"Vin... I made a promise to my country that I'd fight for it if they ever needed me to. Sticking by my promise is part of my duty to them and I wouldn't be doing the right thing if I broke that promise. See, there are two kinds of duty- duty to your country and duty to your family. Until I can get my discharge, Vin, I gotta go to Greece. But after my papers come through, Vin, you'll always be first."
"Yeah, sure... right. An' what if ya never come back?" Vin asked, sniffling a little. "What then?"
Ryan couldn't answer that.
+ + + + + + +
Less than twenty years later, he still couldn't.
Even being back in the States, the phone in his hand and Tracy breathing fire down his neck, Ryan couldn't give an answer other than he still owed someone that second kind of duty. Twenty years too late, his mind mocked. Don't call him... he won't want it. Still, Ryan found himself dialing the number neatly printed on a scrap of paper, his heart thundering in his ears.
"Hey, I'm not pickin' up the phone right now. Leave a message and I'll get back to ya."
It was a stranger's voice on the answering machine, but he knew it- it was his own voice, speaking back to him. Mechanically, he began to talk.
"Hi, Vin... it's... it's your dad..."
A click and then a voice not fogged by the static of a tape recording.
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