by Dierdre

ATF Universe

Part 5

Vin settled back on the floor and took a large swig of beer. He pushed the play button and the ceremony resumed.

"Hey Chris?" Buck's voice sang out, "That was real pretty. Who wrote that?" The laughter followed yet another Larabee glare.

The minister completed the ceremony and pronounced the couple man and wife. Chris took Sarah's face in his hands. He kissed each eyelid and then captured her lips. He pulled her close and their bodies melded.

"Yo Stud, this here's a family show." Buck warned. "Let's keep it clean."

Chris and Sarah finally broke the magical embrace. Buck handed the camera off to the minister and moved in to congratulate the couple. He embraced Chris and Vin's face lit up into a broad smile. There was something very special about Buck Wilmington.

"Congrats, Old Man," Buck choked, wiping his eyes. He pulled away and his tone grew serious. He shook Chris's hand and laid the other hand on his friend's shoulder. "Thanks for letting me share this, Chris. I'll never forget it."

"You're only sayin' that cause you're anglin' to kiss the bride." Chris replied, smacking Buck's back and giving the dark-haired man a grin.

"Sarah, honey," Buck hugged the blushing bride and kissed her. "You ever come to your senses and throw this bum out, you give Buck a call."

"The day after hell freezes over." Chris commented, slipping his arm around his wife's waist. "Anybody else hungry?"

"How romantic..." Sarah complained, kissing her groom. "Anything I can do?" She said huskily.

"Hey now," Buck warned the passionate kissing couple. "I ain't got bail on me, tone that action down some. Besides, I got a gift for you."

"Hope you spelled my name right and remembered all those 'zeros'" Chris teased.

"Aw, hell, Chris," Buck replied walking out of the camera range. "Anybody can give money, I got you something better."

"But I like green paper, Buck" Chris tossed back.

"This here's a little somthin' I wrote for a buddy of mine, Cat Stevens." Buck teased, settling on a nearby rock. The camera zoomed in on his handsome face as he picked up his guitar. His voice was rich and warm. Vin felt goosebumps and sat in awe of the heartfelt gift offered by the generous man. The camera left the soloist and panned in on the newlyweds, swaying gracefully and colored with passion.

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning.
Praise for the springing fresh from the world.
Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the firse dewfall, on the first grass

Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is morning
Born of the onelight Eden saw play
Praise with elation, Praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day.

The last sweet note Buck issued was carried heavenward, sent on the wings of a dove. Chris and Sarah kissed and then as Buck approached the pair, Sarah fell into his arms, sobbing.

"My God Buck..." She managed, her face buried on his shoulder. He grinned over her head as Chris gripped his shoulder. For a moment, neither spoke, then a faltering Chris found his voice.

"Thanks Buck."

"Hey, I can do a wicked 'Mustang Sally'." Buck suggested, breaking the tension. He disappeared for a moment and Chris whistled his approval at something out of camera range.

"Yeah..." Chris bellowed, as Sarah clapped.

Buck reappeared with a bottle of champagne and some paper cups. He filled each cup and Chris threw his arm around Buck. The three friends held up their glasses and toasted. The screen faded to black.

"They don't come any better than Buck Wilmington." Vin boasted, raising his beer bottle backwards again and waiting for Chris's clink. But no exchange was made. Vin frowned and hit the pause button. He turned sideways and looked up to see the dark look on Chris's face.

"Sometimes I wonder what I did right, Vin." Chris put his half-empty bottle on the table and ran a hand through his damp hair. "To deserve his loyalty. After Sarah and Adam died, I..." He swallowed hard, eased back and closed his eyes, a deep sigh ensued, "I went to dark place, an endless void without bounds or dimension. I didn't care about anybody or anything. Totaled two cars, trashed the house, punched out my boss" He blew out a long burst of air "I still don't know what Buck did to save my ass that time. But someone he got me a leave of absence. I got tossed out of every bar I stumbled into. Started fights, busted faces, got my own busted. It's mostly a blur...the one constant is Buck. Picking me up off the ground and out of the gutters and alleys, holding my head while I puked, cleaning me up...and taking every verbal insult and disgusting abuse I could throw at him."

Vin eyed the clenched fists that matched the tension-filled frame and jaw that gripped the body before him. Buck only spoke of that dark time once, and only to express sympathy for Chris and admiration for the courage it took for the blond to recover. Typical Buck, not to take any credit. Vin saw the green eyes finally open and the pain they held.

"He wouldn't leave, Vin. No matter how hard I pushed him away. Then the day finally came...God it was awful." He whispered, eyes dropping to his lap in shame. "I went on a bad bender, I don't remember exactly what happened. I woke up in more pain that humanly possible. I was lying in vomit and filthy. Then I saw blood...and" He paused, rubbing a hand over his face. " a bloody table leg in my hand...I almost died right there. I managed to get on my knees and then I saw Buck." He stopped and stood, putting his restless legs to work. Pacing the room, he felt Vin's concerned eyes following him. The younger man said nothing, but Chris could feel the emotion the blue eyes held. "I thought he was dead..." Chris's voice broke and several minutes went by. "There was blood all over, on his face, his hands...and under him. First time in my life I ever begged. I sat by his bedside for two days waiting for him to wake up...wondering what the hell I was going to say and scared to death. How could he forgive me?"

Chris returned to the sofa and sat on the edge. He glanced at his best friend's eyes and was surprised to see amount of pain they held. "He was busted up good. Broken ribs and a bad concussion. Exhaustion finally kicked in and I fell asleep. Later on, I felt something touch my head. I opened one eye and saw Buck looking at me. Not with hatred, pity, or condemnation, but with ...relief and concern. I started to ramble, don't know yet what the hell I said. But Buck shook his head and gripped the back of my neck. He looked real hard at me and said three words 'I missed you'. That was it, as far as he was concerned it was over. So you tell me Vin. How did I get so privileged to call such a man 'friend'?" Chris's voice was thick with emotion and Vin bit his lower lip. He took a small sip of beer and thought for a moment.

"Bucklin has a gift, Chris." He said softly, catching the blond's pained eyes, "When he looks at somebody, he don't see their face, or the color of their skin, he only sees their heart. That's why he stuck by ya."

Chris shifted on the couch and thought on Vin's words. Once again, he was amazed at the clarity the Texan possessed. Vin was a student of the world, and a master at reading people. Maybe it was due to the fact his blue eyes were an open book. Without a word, his emotions poured forth, in hues scored by the fragile soul within. Like Sarah, Vin was an artist, a gifted sculptor of humanity. For all the tools that Chris possessed, the degrees he held, the awards he'd earned, he'd never be the maestro. Vin Tanner would always be a cut above.

"What are ya grinnin' at?" Vin demanded, seeing the slow smile appearing.

"A sorry-assed Texan..." Chris answered, putting his feet on the table.

"Anybody I know?" Vin tossed, hitting the play button.

The next image was the interior of a house. A hallway, a staircase and small living room went by. A sliding glass door opened into a small patio. It was summertime and Chris was in shorts and a tee shirt. He was on a ladder, loudly addressing a problem with a hammer.

"Honey, can you come down for a minute?"

The camera followed the repairman as he descended the ladder and turned. Slowly the camera zoomed in, until Chris's whole face was in the picture. His hair was shorter and he pulled his dark sunglasses off.

"Everything okay?" He asked, face puzzled.

"We're fine." She replied almost lyrically.

"We? What do you mean..."

It was then his face changed. The stoic Larabee face dissolved into a youthful, blissful burst of wonderment. The green eyes grew wide and were riddled with shock. Vin smiled broadly and memorized that face. He stored it away carefully, it was something rare and special; something to be treasured.

"Are you sure?" Chris whispered, and the camera moved up and down, indicating a 'yes'. "I can't believe it." He awed, and then a toothy, cocky smile ensued. "Damn...how about that. A baby...Holy Shit...I gotta call Buck." He started to turn.

"Hey...Aren't you forgetting something?"

The camera angle changed, a swinging view of the cement, grass and a pair of white sandals. "I love you..." Chris said huskily. "Both of you."

A burst of static preceded the next image, which was a heart breaker. Vin once again was wearing a drunken grin. There was his best friend, cloaked in green surgical scrubs, holding a bawling, scarlet-faced, dark-haired, howling bundle of joy. He looked scared to death and Vin loved every bit of it.

"He's not going to break, Honey." Sarah said, from the bed.

"Breathe, Pard, Breathe," Buck coached, chuckling. "The hard parts over. Turn that boy around."

The close up revealed the perfect little Larabee features, all Chris save the dark hair and blue eyes, which Uncle Buck immediately claimed.

"Hey there." Buck voiced joyously, getting the baby to cease his squalling. The unfocused eyes stared up at him. "Hey, he looks just like me. How about that?"

"God forbid." Chris warned, "The universe isn't ready for two Buck Wilmingtons. Here, give me the camera."

The shift took place and Buck was holding the baby and looking completely at ease. He lay content, hiccuping and staring up at the proud uncle's face. "Damn fine looking boy, Chris."

"Thanks, I think we'll keep him."

"Hey, I had a little something to do with this." Sarah protested, smacking Buck's leg.

"Hey little fella," Buck held the baby up facing his mother. "You take a good look. That there is what we call a real "Lady'. A thoroughbred. You don't it yet, but you're the luckiest kid in the world."

"Thanks Buck," Chris moaned, "Now how am I gonna top that?"

"Oh I'd say you already did that, Pard." Buck said, his voice thick. "It's not everyday you get to create a miracle. What's his name?"

"Adam Christopher Larabee." Sarah said.

"It suits him." Buck decided as the baby's eyes drooped.

"I thought you only had that effect on women." Chris teased. "Guess your Godson is wise to you."

Another image for Vin to stow away, the sight of Buck's face at the word 'Godson' and the beautiful smile that followed. "The Godfather, huh?" Buck managed, then eyed both parents "I gotta tell you, I've never felt so honored. Thank you."

"I think that was my line." Chris said "Say Goodnight Gracie," He coached, and Sarah and Buck both waved.

The next image popped on so fast, Vin didn't have time to check on Chris. Buck again, holding a cherubic, blue eyed infant of about six months. His brown hair and fair eyes were his mothers, but the features were all Larabee. Buck was pretending Adam was an airplane. In the background were banners and decorations for Christmas. A football game was loudly playing in another room.

"Buck, I wouldn't..." Chris warned. "He just ate."

"He ain't gonna upchuck on Uncle Buck." the confident voice assured, "Aw, hell, Adam."

Vin broke into laughter and slapped the table as the camera zoomed in on Buck's face, now painted with formula. "Merry Christmas, Buck!" Chris laughed.

The next image was so tender it made Vin choke up. It was late and Chris was sleeping on the couch. The Christmas tree was right behind him. The twinkling lights resembled stars and 'O Holy Night' played in the background. Adam was sound asleep on his father's chest, safe and secure. One of Chris's strong arms wrapped protectively around him. Sarah zoomed in on the profile of her husband and son, both sleeping.

"Do you know how much I love you?" Her voice caught.

Vin heard the sharp intake of air behind him as the image faded. He stole a glance and saw the dry face but the green eyes were full and ready to spill. The body was tight and stiff, hands clenched in fists. Vin eyed the remote with a little guilt. Maybe Chris wasn't ready for the onslaught of memories. He reached for the remote, only to have his wrist snagged in a vise-like grip.

"Don't touch it." the snarling hiss issued.

Vin paused, pulled his hand back and stood up. The hand shot out and grabbed his forearm. He turned in time to see the request. The green eyes were silently pleading. He smiled and dissolved the fear.

"Hell, Cowboy, I ain't papertrained." He joshed, disarming the tension with a smile and nod.

He waited for the long sigh and walked behind the couch, heading for the first floor bathroom. He saw the blond head tilt as if to insure he wasn't heading upstairs. He slid his hand over the tension filled shoulder and placed it over the aching heart. He gave one firm pat and made a vow.

I'll always be right here he silently signaled.

He felt his hand locked in the brotherhood clasp and heard Chris's audible release. The blond head nodded slightly and another long breath was expelled. Vin made sure his absence was long enough to let Chris release those tears. As he returned to the den, he felt a swell of pride inside; that Chris had entrusted him with his most precious and painful possession. The gravity of the situation weighed heavy on the lean man's shoulders. The images forever preserved on tape were opening old wounds. Would he be strong enough to help Chris heal?"

Part 6

The time out seemed to allow Chris to corral his emotions. The movie started again and more highlights ensued. Adam crawled and then toddled through birthdays, holidays and seasonal events. Chris's chest was full with a mixed bag of emotional furies. Seeing his lost family for the first time since their deaths was painful, but hearing their voices was haunting. Then there was Vin, whose wry comments and dry humor dissolved the tension with a natural ease born to the Texan. Chris couldn't have gotten through the emotional roller coaster without Vin by his side. He studied the younger man's profile and watched a gamut of emotions evolve. From profound sorrow, through somber reflection and warmth. As if on cue, Vin's face changed, his eyes crinkled in mirth and a smile played on his lips. Chris drew his gaze away and stole a glance at the image on the screen. Adam was covered in chocolate milk.

"Another Larabee tradition is handed down." Buck laughed, appearing with a towel, "Boy, you're a sloppy drinker, just like your Old Man."

"I heard that," Chris called from a distance out of the shot.

After a short burst of static a pair of dark boots, off center and cockeyed appeared.

"Want some help there Slugger?" Buck's voice asked.

"No." a child answered.

"Adam..." Chris whispered painfully. Vin turned in time to see the outstretched hand, seeking to capture the innocent voice, heard for the first time in years.

"Here you go." Buck protested, pulling the camera away.

An irate little face appeared, dark hair slicked back and wearing a penciled on mustache. The eyes were blue, but there was something very familiar about the message contained within them.

"Me do it." The angry four-year protested.

"Damn," Vin laughed. "Baby glare!"

Only Vin could do it and the mischievous eyes glittered as they met his. The grin that broke forth chased the pain away. He smacked the chuckling head next to his knee and found himself smiling through the tears.

"Shh!" Buck whispered, putting the camera towards a closed door, "Daddy's coming. You all set?"

"Uh-huh!" Adam whispered.

The door lock clicked and it opened, revealing a gray-suited Chris Larabee. His face was puzzled for a moment then a brilliant smile burst forth. He laughed and entered the room, tossing his keys on the table.

"Oh My God..." Chris mused on the video, shaking his head. "Now that's scary. Here, let's show the folks at home." Chris took the camera and panned the room, stopping on the twin figures, dressed in identical black pants, capes and masks, with white shirts.

Vin immediately burst into laughter and Chris joined him. "Halloween?" Vin rasped, through his laughs.

"Yeah...Buck's idea, of course." Chris recalled warmly, "Adam sure did love him."

"Go on," Buck coached, tapping the boy's back. "Just like I taught you."

"Hot chicks...hubba hubba." Adam spouted, dropping his voice and shaking his hands.

"Nice Buck." Chris commented dryly from behind the camera. "Where you been taking him for those happy meals?"

More convulsive laughter from the shaggy-haired Texan. He wiped his eyes as the taller masked man tried to recover, bending over the smaller figure.

"No, not that. The other thing I taught you."

"Stinky Daddy..."

"No..." Buck pleaded, trying not to laugh.

Vin was fighting for air, sprawling sideways on the floor, hysterical. Chris smiled warmly eyeing his two best friends, one on the screen and one tearing on the floor.

"Studmeister..." Adam frowned at Buck, wondering why his beloved Uncle wasn't able to talk and his face was all red.

"You're flagged Buck." Chris offered behind the camera, between chuckles. "He'll be locked up before he gets to kindergarten."

Vin's convulsive laughter had turned into a coughing fit. Chris bent over the struggling body on the floor and hit the pause key. He pulled Vin upright, clapped him on the back and smiled at the heaving breaths and damp cheeks. Vin wiped away the tears of mirth and took several breaths.

"Man, I wish I could have been there." Vin rasped, coughing on last time. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned halfway, meeting the appraising green eyes.

"Me too, Cowboy." Chris said softly, "He could have learned a lot from you."

Vin dropped his head and wiped his damp eyes. He turned back, snapping his hand to Chris's forearm. "Reckon that's about the best compliment I ever got. Thanks, Chris." He offered and hit the play button.

"Zoro...to the wescoo" Adam piped proudly, flashing a small sword.

"That's great Adam." Chris praised, drawing a huge grin from the small boy. Buck smiled proudly, flashing his teeth.

More images of family outings flashed by. There was a sunny day on a baseball field. Several dozen six-year olds ran around in the background, wearing Little League Uniforms. The camera zoomed in on one proud player with Tigers written in aqua on the front of his uniform.

"Hi, Mommy." He grinned, waving with his free hand.

"Hi, Honey." Sarah answered, "Where's Daddy?"

"Over there with Uncle Buck." the boy pointed.

Movement followed as the mother and son approached the heated conversation.

"Go on Slugger," Buck stood behind Adam. "Show you Dad how's it done."

Adam took a crouched stance and narrowed his eyes, as if striking fear in the heart of the unlucky pitcher.

"No, straighten up a little and choke up on the bat," Chris decided, physically fixing the small boy.

"Who taught you to play? Stevie Wonder?" Buck disagreed, taking the bat

As the two continued their heated discussion, a wise six-year turned to the camera.

"Grownups." He shook his head. "Go figure. It about having fun and laughing in the sun. Right Mommy?"

"You got it, Slugger." Sarah agreed.

"Smart Boy." Vin saluted with his bottle.

"Like his mother." Chris said quietly as the image faded away.

The next picture was a darkened hallway. The camera-bearer stopped in the doorway, pausing so the occupants of the room wouldn't see her. Vin heard Chris's sharp intake of breath and felt the older man's hand dig deeply into his shoulder. He turned and saw the raw anguish that covered Chris's face. His agony in his eyes ripped through the younger man hard. He hit the pause button and waited.

"Ya sure?" He asked, of proceeding with whatever was to follow.

"No...but don't go." Chris's voice was barely audible.

"C-4 couldn't pry me away." Vin replied of the powerful explosive material. "Let me know when yer ready." Vin waited patiently until he felt a tap on his back. He then hit the play button.

The camera zoomed into the child's bedroom. A colorful quilt full of NFL logo's covered the small boy. His face was flushed with fever and his painful wheezing made Vin flinch. He was resting in his father's arms. Chris was talking quietly, trying to soothe the fevered body. Then he began to sing Danny Boy.

"Aw, hell..." Vin whispered, swallowing the large lump in his throat. He felt the fingers dig deep into the flesh of his shoulder, painfully so, but he never moved.

The voice was perfect and the soothing ballad combined with the gentle stroking of his father's hand on his back lulled the sick boy to sleep. It took all of Vin's strength to combat the tidal wave in his chest. He was doing fine, until he heard the single, agonizing sob from behind him. He turned as the damn finally burst, sending tears stockpiled for years pouring forth from the sea green eyes. Vin slid off the floor and pulled Chris off the sofa, embracing him.

Chris knew the tender moment was coming. He knew it would unleash the beast he'd kept hidden for over three years. At the first chord of the song, he felt the wall crumble. He heard the catch in Vin's throat and saw the blue eyes harboring pain. He let the tears come, and didn't fight the strong arms that comforted him. Three years he'd kept the emotional explosion locked inside. It was time to grieve and let go of the awful timebomb. Vin had shown him to embrace those treasured moments. After all, he may have lost Sarah and Adam, but he had captured them on film. Vin had nothing of his mother. He'd never hear her voice again. That courage is what allowed Chris to bare his soul to his twin spirit.

"Thanks Vin." He choked, pulling himself free. "I was never strong enough to watch that...until now." He held the other's gaze.

"Looks like we both have a lot to be thankful for." Vin relayed. "I had twenty years of guilt chokin' me. Never could have faced it without ya."

"Jesus, if this gets out, my reputation won't be worth spit." Chris grinned, wiping his face with the napkins Vin handed him.

"Hmm...The Cryin' Cowboy of Team Seven." Vin mused, "Reckon Mary could make a right fine story out of it."

"You got a death wish?" Chris grinned, nodding at the remote. "That's the end. You can turn it off. now"

As Vin bent to shut the video off another image appeared. He looked back at Chris and saw the blank stare. Whatever the next image was, he'd never seen it before. The date flashed on the bottom of the screen and Chris's knees buckled.

"Chris!" Vin dropped the remote and caught the swaying body, easing him down onto the sofa. Chris's face lost all color and he began to breathe rapidly.

"What's wrong?" Vin asked, laying a concerned hand on the tense shoulder.

"The date...day before they were killed." He choked.

"Shit..." Vin swore, "I'm sorry, Chris."

"Nothing for you to be sorry for, Vin." Chris rasped.

"Adam? Where are you?" Sarah called, "Uncle Buck's waiting for you in the car. Let's finish the tape and put a bow on it. Adam?"

"Buck took him to the zoo..." Chris said strangely, recalling the event through the mists of time. "The tape was Adam's idea. Buck loved watching the home movies, so Adam wanted him to have his own 'greatest hits' video."

"Hey, there you are." Sarah said. Adam was fully dressed and laying next to Chris on the bed. The older Larabee was sound asleep. Adam had both hands on Chris's chest. "What are you dong, Sweetheart?" She whispered.

Adam looked right into the camera, blue eyes wide. "Daddy always protects me, so I'm protecting Daddy's heart."

The answer caught the proud mother off guard and the camera slid to the bed. A partial image showed her easing the child from the bed and hugging him. Her soft cries undid both men, nearly as much as the proud little boy's comment had. It sent an arrow straight through the mourning father's heart.

The camera was shut off and both men sat mutely staring at the static on the screen. Vin brushed the tears out of his eyes. Chris had no tears left, but his face was twisted in pain. His fists were clenched and Vin felt the outburst approaching. The green eyes grew feral, a dangerous look that Vin was all too familiar with. He stood and prepared as Chris threw himself off the sofa.

"Why!" His agonizing call shook the house to it's foundations. "Fuck...fuck...fuck..." He slammed the walls. Vin watched and waited, patiently timing the angry, heartbroken release. Like a caged panther, he paced the room, cursing and slamming his palms on the wall. He finally slid to his knees and the angry turned inward. It was then, as the first signs of guilt crept into the room and attempted to possess the grief-striken man, that Vin took action. He battled the staunch enemy, placing both hands on Chris's shoulders.

"Don't go there, Chris, not now." He said sharply. "Don't ruin all the love they gave ya. Don't let the Devil win. Don't disgrace Adam and Sarah. Ya do and y'ell lose me. I mean it."

Chris shrugged off the arms and stood, glaring at the hostile tone of the voice and the penetrating eyes that bore into him. He wanted to lash out; he needed to hurt somebody back. He didn't want absolution, he needed to vent. Just who did Vin Tanner think he was talking to?

"What the hell do you know about it?" He snarled, pushing Vin away. "Some protector I turned out to be. It should have been me." He screamed, remembering the charred bodies.

"But it wasn't." Vin said simply, not giving an inch. "And ya make a fuckin' pathetic martyr. Y'all don't deserve a son as fine as him, he'd be as ashamed ya as I am."

The fist shot out without warning, three years of pain and guilt-ridden rage behind it, made stronger by the fresh open wounds that the video caused. Vin's head snapped back and he dropped like a rock, crashing into the table. He was out cold before he hit the floor. Chris stepped over him and tore the cabinet near the stereo. He fished out a bottle of Jack Daniels and took the video out of the machine. He eyed the unconscious form of his best friend, sprawled on the floor.

"You got no right." He accused; voice wavering as his conscience lashed at him from within. "I was doing fine until you came along. You with your fuckin' morals screaming at me through those damn blue eyes. Go to hell." He charged, leaving the room, while the Devil danced on Vin Tanner's chest.


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