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Bill Millers mind was reeling as he tried to decipher what had happened. Had he been hit by a bus? One minute he was standing in his living room and the next a great force was slamming him into the wall. His breath whooshed out of him as the twin forces slammed into him. One was an unmovable foundation and the other a body of unmistakable force with a face the picture of unadulterated rage.
Where? Is? He? The voice was almost demonic in its lightly whispered tone, each word enunciated with a frightening hiss. Chris focus was on one place and one man, knowing that his own agents and friends would watch his back.
They did, pulling their own weapons to hold off the natural instincts of the two officers inside the house. Tensions high and nerves on end, the group stood in a stalemate, unsure what to do.
Easy, brothers. Josiah chose to play mediator. Theres more going on here than I think youre aware of. Lets just all put down our guns.
Were on the same side. Nathan added as him and his fellow agents put their guns away.
The two police officers did the same, but kept their eyes on the scene playing out across the room, ready to step in, if necessary. They were outnumbered, but Miller was a fellow officer. And yet, werent these men brothers in arms?
Hes going to kill him, the younger looking policeman declared, his uncertainty showing plainly.
No, he just wants to talk. Josiah tried to sound convincing even though he wasnt so sure himself. Still, he wasnt about to get in Larabees way. Not when he was pretty close to wanting to do the same thing at the moment and knew his fellow agents harbored similar feelings. Besides, Buck would know when the line was crossed and they needed to intervene. Until then, he and the others would just watch, hope, and pray. Pray that Miller confessed all of his sins and offered up one unharmed Vin Tanner before it was too late.
Get him off of me! Millers voice was strained and strangely firm, considering his current position. He had been about to go and look for the missing boy when some force had accosted him. That force was now holding him firmly against the wall in his own home, with one hand on his chest and a forearm across his throat. In all his years on the force he had faced some pretty scary situations, but this one was the worst. The look of pure hatred in the green glare that was now focused solely on him told him Larabee knew.
Oh my God.
Miller felt all of his defenses faltering. A glance over his assailants shoulder showed two more of his agents and personal bloodhounds were flanking him.
Buck and Ezra took up positions just behind either side of their leader, not to stop him, yet, but to offer their own assistance and get in on the action.
He asked you a question, you sorry excuse for humanity. Bucks own booming voice quivered with rage.
We are aware of what has transpired here in this household, Mr. Miller. You did not cover your tracks effectively. Ezra was using his well-honed skills of cloak and dagger. Let the suspect think that you know it all and hell likely fill in the missing pieces. We spoke with some medical personnel at a small clinic just outside of Denver that will be more than happy to testify to your clandestine visits with a certain young boy who had obviously been abused. And Mr. Wilmington received a most distressing call this afternoon from a very frightened five-year-old.
Miller felt his throat go dry. They knew.
Chris saw the fear in the mans eyes grow and would have reveled in it had his own heart not been nearly beating out of his chest with worry. This man who had caused so much fear and pain deserved no less. But he would deal with that later. Right now there was something far more important.
Wheres Vin? The words practically dripped from his mouth like venom from the fangs of a cobra, coiled and ready to strike.
I dont know. He ran away. Miller could feel his will crumbling. All of the lies. All of the hiding. He couldnt take it anymore.
Youve been abusing Vin all along, havent you? The cold icy question from the man in his face was the last straw.
Chris saw Millers eyes look up in shock. The body he was pressing into the wall was now the body he was holding up as the man seemed to melt with his own confession.
Im so sorry. I never I mean Everything came out in a rush. I didnt know what was happening. After the death of my son I started drinking too much. It felt like my entire world had crumbled around me. Nothing seemed to matter. I threw myself into my work during the day and drank away my pain at night. Then those boys came here. I didnt mean to, its just that when I got drunk I couldnt seem to help myself. The memories of my son were too much. He reminded me of what I had lost. It made me angry. The man was beyond babbling at this point. I never meant to hurt him. Glancing over at Buck he practically pleaded out the next part. I never touched JD. My wife, she Hes special to her.
The silence in the room was uncomfortable as each man took in what they had just witnessed. Buck had to look away as the very thought of what this man had confessed to made him physically ill.
Ezra stood still, staring at him and watching for signs. Of what, he wasnt sure. There had to be some reason to this. Even though it was just as he had suspected something about it all still seemed wrong. It wasnt enough that the man had practically confessed.
Nathan was staring down at his hands. Hands that helped heal people and were also capable of violence, but hands he could never see striking a child. It was all so senseless.
Josiah had been mulling all of the evidence over in his head and as another idea struck him, he slipped unnoticed from the room.
Chris stood in shock, still holding the man in his grasp, but literally holding him up. The confession had affected him most of all. But it wasnt just what the man had done that now shook him to the core, but the excuses as to why. The events that had led up to this tragedy were hauntingly familiar. Letting go of the man like he had touched hot coals, he watched as Miller slumped to the floor like a deflated balloon. With a stricken look on his face Chris backed away, stumbling into Buck, who turned back around.
Chris? The ladies man was caught unawares by the pained look on his best friends face. It took him a few seconds to make the connection. No, Chris. You could never hurt a child. Its not the same.
Isnt it?! Green eyes stared into the past with remorse. I seem to remember a certain friend who woke up in the hospital with a concussion because of the very same problem. Who the hell am I to judge him?!
Buck had never told a soul about that incident. It had been a major turning point for Chris. While sitting at his best friends side in the hospital, terrifyingly sober, he had finally begun to realize not only what he was doing to himself, but to those who cared about him.
After the death of his family, he had spent many a night drowning his sorrow and guilt with alcohol, often growing violent as he wrecked the very things around him that were bittersweet reminders of a past that had gone up in flames. One dark emotionally stormy night that reminder had been Buck Wilmington. It had been an accident, as a yelling match had come to blows and a fateful shove. Hitting his head on the edge of an end table, Buck had awakened the next morning in a hospital bed, the figure of his best friend slumped in a chair by the bed.
The road had still been a long and difficult one, but many apologies and meetings with a counselor later, Chris had taken control of his life again.
Its not the same. And you know it. Buck was not going to let Chris do this to himself. This piece of garbage cowering on the floor would not harm Chris, too. Vin is a defenseless little boy who did nothing to deserve what happened to him. I was a grown man. I knew the risks. I could have walked away. Hell, Chris, you didnt look so spiffy yourself that next morning. He gibed, referring to the vivid bruises and black eye his friend had sported after the dust-up.
Buck was right. He would never have turned on some defenseless child, no matter how drunk he got. Damn. He was doing it again. Giving in to his personal demons instead of taking care of what really needed to be done. They had to find Vin and fast.
Ezra was listening to it all, as he walked around the home. Why was he still so unsettled? Watching as Bill Miller confessed he had felt it. A twinge in his gut. The carefully honed instincts he trusted more than most people screamed one fact. The man wasnt telling the whole truth.
What happened today? Chris turned back on Miller, who had managed to stand up on shaky legs. The answer didnt come immediately. You better hope to God that hes all right when we find him.
Miller swallowed hard. What was he supposed to say? It was a no win situation. The hole he had dug was already about to swallow him whole. And at the moment that didnt look like such a bad thing.
He never got a chance to answer as Josiah walked back into the room, his face even more somber than before. Brothers?
All eyes turned to the big profiler who held JD in his arms.
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Buck was at the boys side in a second. JD was still a bit groggy, but immediately jumped into the arms of the big man with the mustache.
You came! You came! JDs childish voice rang with a strange mixture of disbelief and certainty. I knew youd come.
Finding it hard to speak past the lump in his throat, Buck managed to croak out a reply. I told ya, Little Bit. All ya gotta do is say the word and Im here.
JD buried his little head in the big mans shoulder as he began to cry. I want Vin.
Every heart in the room was affected by that tearful plea.
Buck pulled the boy back from him a little to check him over. Cupping his hand on the back of the tiny head, he felt the lump as JD pulled away from the touch.
Nathan! I think you should look him over. Hes got a right nasty bump here.
The ex-army medic was at his side in seconds, checking on the boy.
Josiah did want them to look over the little boy, but he also had another purpose for bringing him into the living room. Nathan. When youre done, I think you should check on Mrs. Miller. The tone of the big mans voice held deep concern.
No! Bill Millers response was quick and vehement. You just stay away from my wife. The doctor already checked both of them out. Theyre fine. Ruths had enough to deal with. This is all my fault. Im to blame. Theres no need to get her involved.
Would that be the same doctor whos been hiding Vins abuse in exchange for a little inside information? Nathans voice was tight with anger and felt only a fleeting bit of satisfaction when Miller seemed to pale.
I think it would be best, Bill, if you didnt say anything else, the older police officer with a nametag that read Brunner advised softly. Youll only make matters worse.
Chris, whose attention had shifted along with everyone else when JD was brought out, returned to the matter at hand. Thats one right I would suggest you forgo for now. I want to know what happened to Vin. No more excuses!
I think JD can help us with that. Josiah hadnt been able to get the little boy to open up to him, but could tell he knew something. The natural bond that had formed between Buck and the dark headed boy was possibly the only way they were going to find out what was really going on.
Nathan? the ladies man questioned, feeling his growing anxiety over the little boys well-being.
He should be fine, but we need to take him in to be checked out, just to be sure. It was always a good idea to have any type of head wound inspected, especially on a child JDs age. Plus, he wanted someone to make sure there werent any other injuries, old or new, that needed to be documented. But it can wait a few minutes.
Sitting down on a chair, Buck adjusted JD so he was sitting on his lap. The little boys head was down.
JD was scared. He knew what was coming. Questions. Questions he wasnt supposed to answer. They wanted to know things he wasnt supposed to tell. Vin had told him never ever to tell. Grown-ups never listened to kids anyway. And sometimes when they did, bad things still happened. His cousin was big and wise. Then, of course, the Millers had told him not to say anything or the bad people would come and take him and Vin away and take them to different places and they couldnt stay together and . JD put his head back onto his new friends shoulder and began to cry again.
Hey there. It was breaking Bucks heart to see JD so upset, but he had to know what had happened. Maybe JD knew something that could help them find Vin. Rubbing the boys back he tried to comfort him. Its okay. You dont have to be afraid anymore, Little Bit.
JDs cries softened to sniffles and slight hiccups as he kept his face buried in the big shoulder. Chris came over and bent down in front of the two, trying not to frighten the boy any more.
JD? You remember me? Chris spoke softly and with a gentleness that had been missing before.
The little dark head pulled back a little and one hazel eye looked back at the man who had spoken to him. Still huddled in Bucks arms he stared, still a little unsure. He did recognize the man in the dark clothes. He had been afraid of him at first, but he also remembered him from another time.
Youre the man from the supermarket.
Four sets of questioning eyes went to their leader. Chris wasnt about to explain himself right now, if ever, and tried to hurry the boy along.
You know you dont have to be afraid of me, right? Attempting to smile at the boy, he couldnt help but wonder if he had succeeded. He was a bit out of practice.
I know. Is a little scared a you at first, but Vin said yous not scary, yous just really sad. He said you probably lost someone special who had to go away like our mommas did. Chris heard Bucks slight intake of air at the statement, even as he felt a chill run up his own spine. It felt as if his very soul had been laid bare. There was a lot more to these two little boys than anyone could know. Vin was special. Hed seen that from the start.
Taking a deep breath he asked the question he most needed an answer to and yet was afraid of at the same time. Do you know where Vin is?
JD shook his head as he sniffed and bit at his bottom lip.
When you called me today, you said Vin was in trouble. Buck thought maybe the little boy who had thought enough to call him might trust him enough to talk. What happened this afternoon, JD?
JD didnt know what to do. He had called Buck because he was scared and Vin wasnt there to tell him what to do. Mrs. Miller had told him that Vin had run away, and to stay in his room. Vin had never left him alone before. Staring back and forth between Buck and Chris he swallowed hard, then glanced over at where Bill Miller now sat on the edge of the couch.
Seeing the young boy flinch when he glanced up, Josiah quickly put himself between the boy and his foster father. He cant hurt you anymore, son. We wont let him, but we need to find Vin. Did Mr. Miller hurt Vin?
This is ridiculous. I already confessed. Theres no point in dragging the boy through this. I told you. Vin ran away this afternoon. Miller was adamant and started forward until Josiah turned around, putting a restraining hand on his shoulder.
Cold steel blue eyes bore down at the confessed abuser. I would suggest you refrain from any further comments unless we ask you a question. Why dont you just take a seat over in that chair? Josiah pushed Miller back into the recliner behind him and with one look dared the man to move again.
Chris was glad Josiah had intervened. He had seen the look on JDs face as well and was a second away from jumping up and silencing Miller for a good long while. Smart, Larabee. Poor kid aint scared enough already. Taking another deep breath Chris worked to keep his anger in check. This boy had seen enough violence in his life already.
We just want to help you and your cousin, but we cant do that until we know what happened.
I cant. I promised not to tell. JDs lip was quivering and tears welled in his big hazel eyes. Vin always took care of things and told him what to do. But now his cousin had run away and hadnt even taken him. Maybe Vin was mad at him for
Whod you promise, JD? Mr. Miller?
Chris had figured that Miller had threatened both boys to keep quiet, but this seemed strange? Why did Vin ask you not to tell?
Cause theyll send us away. We wont get to be together anymore. And
Its okay, JD, Buck tried encouraging him. No ones going to be mad at you for telling.
And, and, grown-ups dont believe little kids. Vin said hes tried to tell them before, but nobody ever believed him. JD thought about what had happened that afternoon and why he had called Buck. Are you gonna lock me up, Mr. Buck?
What? Chris and Bucks reactions were mirrored. The question had caught them both off guard.
Why in the world would you think that, Little Bit?
I was bad. I made a mess and got us in trouble. Vin was just trying to stop it. I didnt mean to drop the bowl. Really I didnt. It just slipped. JDs eyes were pleading, then his head dropped and his next words were a mere whisper. Vin gets locked up when hes bad.
Chris felt like he had been sucker-punched. Standing, two quick strides had him in front of Miller, his hand grabbing the front of the mans shirt and pulling him to his feet.
Buck was quick to pull JD into him so the boy wouldnt see. He wasnt sure if Chris could hold back much longer and wasnt sure he wanted him to as his own revulsion at the tykes revelation sunk in.
Despite the rage within, Chris was careful to keep his voice lowered, not wanting JD to overhear. What the hell does he mean?
Bill Miller stood in shock. He hadnt imagined that things could get worse, but they just had. Never in all of these months of pain and deceit had something like this ever crossed his mind. How could he have let this happen? He should have stopped it long ago. He should have sought help. It was too late now. Way too late.
I dont know. As the three breathy words escaped Millers lips the very effort seemed to drain the life from the man as he stood staring at the floor. He almost wished Larabee would just get it over with and beat him to death. He deserved no less and he knew it. The physical pain would never compare to the emotional burden now weighing on his soul.
JD felt the need to confess a bit more and tugging on Bucks shirt to get his attention he looked up, wanting someone to understand that he hadnt meant to get Vin in trouble. Is sorry, Mr. Buck. I dropped the bowl. I didnt mean to make her mad, but I couldnt help it. And Vin didnt mean it. Hes just trying to protect me. He wasnt trying to hurt her. He gots scared when she knocked me down. I never seen him so mad. Guess thats why he runned away. Hes mad at me for messin up. Is sorry. Please bring Vin back.
Buck was listening to JD and keeping an eye on Chris and Miller at the same time. The little boys words took a few seconds to fully penetrate his mind, but when it did he quickly refocused.
What did you say? Bucks words came out a little harsher than he intended, but he was just so shocked.
He said her. Ezra had felt all of the pieces suddenly fall in to place with that one word. Her. That had been why it all felt so wrong. Why he felt like Bill Miller was lying. He had been. He wasnt the abuser. His wife was.
No. Please. You dont understand. Its all my fault. Bill Miller was losing control. Too many bad decisions had led to pain and suffering for a lot of people. She doesnt know what shes doing.
Everyone was muttering to one another about this new revelation. Miller was still ranting about his wife not being well and it being his responsibility. Had the situation not been what it was, his loyalty might have seemed admirable. Now, it was only sad.
JD had started crying quietly again as Buck did his best to console the boy and refocus his mind after the startling revelation.
Chris felt like the rug had been pulled out from under him. Everything he had imagined had taken a sudden turn. It didnt matter who was doing the abusing it should never have happened. And anyone who was aware of it and helped to cover it was just as guilty in his book. It was all going to hell and he still didnt have an answer to the one question that haunted him most.
Enough! Chris voice carried through the room, causing immediate silence by all. We can sort the rest of this out later. Right now we need to find Vin.
Ruth said he ran away. It must have been after After, Miller insisted, not even sure himself what to believe anymore.
Youll excuse us if we dont take your word for it. Ezras snide comment was full of the anger he was having trouble hiding.
Mr. Buck? Can I have a drink of water? The innocent question came out of the blue. Buck had forgotten how easy childrens focus could change.
Sure, Little Bit.
Allow me, Mr. Wilmington. The undercover agent was more than happy to have something useful to do. His own emotions in turmoil, he also saw it as a good opportunity to compose himself in private. I shall return post haste with your refreshment, young sir.
Ezra couldnt help but smile as JD looked up at him, scrunching up his face in confusion. Huh?
Hes gonna go and get some water for ya, Buck translated.
Why didnt he just say so? JD frowned up at Buck, who couldnt help the slight grin that touched his lips.
Ezra headed into the kitchen as Chris came over once again to question JD.
JD? Chris waited until the dark headed boy looked up at him. What happened this afternoon wasnt your fault. Accidents happen, but that doesnt mean you deserve to be hit or pushed, ever. Do you understand? JD nodded, but Chris still wasnt sure if he was getting through. Its okay if you tell me what happened today. Im your friend just like just like Mr. Buck. He couldnt help the smirk just calling his best friend by that name brought him.
JD seemed to be mulling it all over. If I tell you, can you help Vin?
Thats exactly what Im going to do, Chris was quick to assure the boy. It touched him deep inside to see the concern the little fellow had for his older cousin who the blond was beginning to suspect might have been hurt in an attempt to protect the smaller boy.
Mrs. Miller was in the living room and wasnt feeling too well. She gets like that sometimes. All tired and sad. Vin says I have to be really quiet when she doesnt feel good and he usually takes me in the bedroom and plays with me. We stay real quiet sos she wont get mad. But I was real hungry and when Vin went to the bathroom I tried to sneak into the kitchen to get a bowl of cereal. Usually Vin does it for me, but his backs been hurtin him again and I wanted to do it myself. I didnt mean to drop the bowl. It was an accident.
The big hazel eyes looked frightened as if he was afraid no one would believe him.
Its okay, JD. We know you didnt do it on purpose. We all drop stuff from time to time. Chris tried to reassure the boy but continued to question him, being very careful. What happened after you dropped the bowl?
Lowering his head the next words were barely audible. She gots mad.
A nod was the only answer he got this time. Despite the need to get the information quickly, Chris also was careful about leading JDs answers. Too many years in law enforcement and hours of training seminars were the only things keeping him focused at the moment.
What happened when she got mad? Despite the fact he didnt really want to hear it he had to ask. He had to know. It was like watching an accident where you dont want to look, but you cant help yourself.
She gots real mad. I guess I woked her up and JD looked up at Buck with big tears in his eyes. She started shaking me and yelling. She dont ever do that to me. And then she pushed me and I felled down. The floors slippry. I slid and hits my head real hard. Then I heard Vin yell at me to go hide, so I did. Thens I couldnt see anymore, but she was still yelling at Vin and calling him by that name.
What name, JD? Holding the childs gaze Buck continued the questions. He could just imagine what the woman may have said.
Leave him be. Bill Millers voice shook with emotion, but it did nothing to soften the hardened hearts of the men around him. It was way too late for remorse. Ill tell you what you need to know.
Bill Miller decided that he had seen and heard enough. The damage was done and now all he could do was take responsibility and tell the truth. Maybe he could get his wife some help.
Hes been through enough already. Bill Miller felt the tears sting his eyes as he looked at the little boy in the agents arms. It could have been so different. It should have been. Ruth hasnt been herself since we lost David, our son. She started drinking, sometimes too much. Our family physician prescribed some sedatives for her, just to get her through the first few months, but then she started abusing those. I thought taking in the boys would help. Give her something to focus on. Something besides her grief.
Miller stared at the far wall without making eye contact with anyone as he continued his story. In a way, it did. Things were good for the first few months. But, as she grew more and more attached to JD, things started happening. She would have these episodes. Something would set her off and she most often took it out on Vin. For some reason she started associating him with Jason.
Jason? Josiah didnt recognize the name and had read all of Ezras files on the Millers and the boys.
Jason was the boy our son was playing with when he was killed. It was all just a terrible accident. They were down at the park just tossing a softball back and forth when it went into the road. David went Millers voice broke, but he swallowed hard and continued. The car couldnt stop in time. Ruth hasnt been able to get past it. I guess we all need someone to blame when something tragic strikes. Jason was older and Ruth blamed him for not looking after David better. Sometimes she gets confused and calls Vin, Jason.
It became abundantly clear to all that Vin had become the victim of a very emotionally unstable woman.
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In the kitchen Ezra had meant to gather his thoughts and get the young boy a glass of water, but his thoughts seemed to get away from him. He found himself struggling with uncustomary guilt. This could have been stopped months before. As he listened to the conversation in the other room his regret only grew, his stomach souring with each new piece to the gruesome puzzle. He had suspected something was wrong and even began investigating, but surely he could have done more. Why hadnt he done more? So much suffering could have been avoided.
Lost in his own self-reproach his gaze traveled about the room. Something in the trash by the kitchen door caught his attention and he moved to find an empty liquor bottle. The conversation out in the living area carried in to him and he felt his own sense of culpability grow. Had he only followed his instincts this whole
The thought died in his head as something else drew his immediate attention.
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It wasnt just the tone of his agents cry that spurred Chris into action, but the fact that Standish had used his first name. He couldnt even remember a time that had happened. Feeling a cold dread shoot through every fiber of his body he bolted for the kitchen.
Everyone else followed on his heels but was stopped abruptly when Josiah held up his hand, blocking the doorway. We dont need a lot of bodies in here. Josiah had already caught a glimpse of what Standish discovered.
Chris felt his heart leap into his throat as he too realized what his undercover agent had found. Shit.
He couldnt pull his eyes away from the darkened cloth that Ezra was holding with the tip of a pen. JDs head wound hadnt broken the skin and Josiah hadnt said anything about Ruth Miller being injured, so that only left one option. It had to be Vins blood that covered the discarded dishcloth that had been found in the trash can.
Turning around to face the others he started issuing orders. The situation had just changed from serious to critical. Buck, call an ambulance and get JD to the hospital to be checked out. With a tilt of his head Chris indicated for Buck to take the little boy out of sight and hearing distance.
Josiah, you go with him and you should probably have them take Mrs. Miller in, too. Nathan, check on her, but I want you to stay with me. He didnt need to say why. The ex-medic was already aware that his specific skills might now be needed if, no, when they found Vin.
Addressing the two police officers he continued. I think you guys better call this in. Get your watch commander here and tell dispatch that we have a missing seven-year-old boy who may be injured. Tell them to check the area where we found him and JD before.
Damn it. Running a hand down his face at the thought of what he was about to say he couldnt help the quiet curse. And you better get a forensics team down here as well. No one goes in or out before they get here. Is that clear?
The officers nodded, leading a devastated Bill Miller out. Even though this wasnt Larabees jurisdiction or even his job, he was obeyed without question. It wasnt something they were comfortable dealing with. Let the brass handle this mess. Plus, Larabee seemed to have a personal stake in things, though they had yet to figure out why.
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Nathan went to check on Mrs. Miller, who Josiah had said was barely coherent. He wasnt sure if it was whatever the doctor had given her or her own mental state after the days events. Most likely it was a little bit of both.
Chris and Ezra were left alone in the kitchen, each lost in his own thoughts.
Ezra wanted to look through the garbage more, but didnt want to be accused of tainting any of the evidence. God. How had this gone from a quiet little suburban foster home to a crime scene? It wasnt as if he hadnt seen his share of the evils of the world, but things like this still shocked and saddened him beyond words. Of course the day that it didnt would be the day to immediately seek some professional help. Putting the bloody cloth back down into the receptacle where he had found it he turned his attention to the only other occupant of the room.
Chris was still staring at where Ezra had returned the cloth when his quiet words broke the silence. Im sorry.
What? The undercover agent hadnt been expecting such a response.
I should have listened to you sooner. Standing straighter and bringing his eyes to meet those of his fellow agents, Chris took the blame. If Id only .
Ezra quickly raised his hand to stop his leader. We both know that there are enough what ifs in this situation to go around. But, not a one of them will change anything. He turned his own gaze to the floor. There are a number of things I wish I had done differently, but the blame is not solely ours to bear. The Millers were entrusted with the care of these two young gentlemen and not only failed miserably, but only served to add to an existence that had already seen far too much of this worlds wickedness.
Looking up with new conviction he added. I, for one, have many regrets, but I dont believe its what we didnt do that will ultimately make the difference. Rather, it will be what we choose to do now. And I vow to do whatever I can to give those boys every chance at the life they so richly deserve. It is the least I can do.
Chris could only nod slightly. His own emotions felt so close to the surface at the moment that he dare not speak, such a mixture of anger, fear, and remorse that it was almost overwhelming. Buck was taking care of JD. Now it was up to him to find Vin and see that he was taken care of, forever.
Where did that come from?
His own thoughts betrayed him as pictures of a happy carefree Vin running around laughing invaded his mind. Chris wanted to see it come true. He wanted to be the one to make it a reality. But even as those idyllic visions appeared they were quickly overshadowed by the sight of blood. What if it was too late? How bad was Vin hurt? A new image of a scared injured boy appeared. Big blue eyes stared out of the darkness, full of pain and loneliness. The ache in his heart seemed to match the one that shone within those expressive orbs.
Shaking himself mentally from his morbid thoughts he turned to his fellow agent for a clearer view of the situation. So what do you think happened?
That very thought had been playing in Ezras head for most of the afternoon, changing with each new piece of the puzzle that was uncovered. Sweeping his eyes around the small kitchen he looked for more signs as to what may have happened. Despite what they knew there was still a lot they didnt know and those things could prove invaluable.
I would hazard a guess that as young master Dunne said he came into the kitchen here to get some cereal. Mrs. Miller was already in a despondent state of mind. The child accidentally dropped a bowl. I saw some shards of said dinnerware in the trash. The lady reacted in a violent way, shaking the child, screaming, and eventually pushing him away from her and thus knocking him to the floor where he hit his head. Despite his efforts to keep a professional aura about him, his disgust at the play of events was obvious in his tone of voice.
Most of that information we received from what Master Dunne told us. The next part is the point at which more speculation comes into play. The boy may have been unconscious or simply dazed for a few moments. I believe this is when Master Tanner may have entered the fray. Seeing his young cousin being accosted was the key element, the very individual he is sworn to protect at all cost. In many cases of abuse it is defense of a loved one that will finally spur a victim to fight back. They have been made to feel as if they are to blame for the ill treatment they receive. That they are somehow bad or worthless. The words were nearly spat from the southerners mouth as if the very taste of them was an affront. He would allow the abuse to continue as long as he thought that not only was he himself to blame, but it was a way of protecting his cousin.
So, you think Vin fought back today. It was more of a statement than a question. Chriss own thoughts had been going in the same direction. At this point he took up the narrative. She probably wasnt expecting the opposition. May have hurt him trying to fight him off. He might even have fallen. May have been cut on the broken pieces of the bowl. I just hope it looks a lot worse than it really is. Standing with his hands on his hips he surveyed the scene again, voicing another supposition that didnt sit well with him at all. You think he got scared and ran off?
Perhaps he feared the repercussions of his actions?
I dont know. I just cant see him leaving JD behind like that. And JD did mention something about Vin being locked up when he was bad. Still, the officers outside said they checked the house over and didnt find anything. Glancing out the kitchen window at the darkened sky, his stomach lurched. Damn it, Ezra. Hes just a little boy.
Ezra followed Chris stare, his own worries deepening. God watches over fools and little children. I would gather we are all under his watchful eyes this evening.
The search went on for over an hour. After going over the house once more and checking every nook and cranny within a few miles radius, not a trace had been found. Josiah had taken up watch at the house and been left there with an unmarked police cruiser outside. Vin might return on his own and they didnt want to scare him away.
Forensics had finished with the kitchen, finding another bloody towel and the broken glass from the bowl. Chriss theory of Vin being injured by the glass seemed more plausible with the discovery of blood on some of the shards. The rest of the house was also checked, along with the garbage can outside, which revealed numerous empty liquor bottles, several unmarked prescription bottles, an empty cleaner bottle alongside more bloody cloths, and some discarded clothes, likely Ruth Millers, also with some blood on them. The new discoveries only heightened the distress of the men searching for the missing boy.
Word from the hospital confirmed their suspicions that Ruth Miller would be of no help at all. It had been discovered that she had overmedicated herself, either by accident or intentionally, and her condition had deteriorated to the point that they were not even sure if she would live through the night.
JD had been checked out and appeared to be doing well physically, with only a few bruises and a possible mild concussion. His mental state was highly agitated, with Vin still missing, and the child had virtually cried himself into an exhausted sleep. The doctors had decided to keep the boy for observation, wanting to await the outcome of the abuse investigation as well as run a few other tests the next day. Buck, who hadnt left the boys side the entire time, had appointed himself personal watchdog over the now sleeping form.
The sound of the door to the little boys hospital room opening a crack caught Bucks attention. A thin ray of fluorescent light from the hallway allowed him to recognize the outline of his best friend immediately. The agent had been sitting in the chair by JDs bed, watching some late night talk show that he really couldnt remember anything about. His thoughts had been elsewhere. Seeing Chris stick his head into the room brought him up instantly and he crossed the room in three strides, but hopes of a happy ending were dashed by the lost look in his friends eyes.
Nothing? The question was more a reaction than a need for any clarification of what was already obvious. Buck ran a hand over his face at the slight shake of the blondes head. He wasnt sure when hed felt so tired. True, the weekend hadnt left much room for sleep as the team had searched endlessly for something more on the Millers and what was happening to the young boys in their care. But hed been through worse. Long nights of stakeouts and following lead after lead on a case. This was different. This kind of tired came from deep within his soul and was caused by worry and anger over two little boys and the things they had suffered. The things they were still suffering. He felt so damn helpless.
Turning back to look at the bed and the tousled dark head that was just visible from underneath the bed covers he sighed. The young boy slept, oblivious to the turmoil going on around him. What do I tell him when he wakes up? He cried himself to sleep asking for Vin. Buck shook his head sadly as the memory of the tear-stained face once again popped up in his head. I didnt know what to say. I didnt want to lie to him, so I just kept assuring him that you were out looking for him. Hell, half the citys out looking for him. Even with his voice lowered the anger and despair were evident.
Reaching down to straighten the blanket and pull it a bit higher over JDs shoulders a sad smile touched his lips. JD had such a peaceful and angelic face when he was asleep. When he turned back around he felt his heart lurch. Chris had slid silently down the far wall and now sat on the floor with his head in his hands. With worry gripping him, Buck went to his knees beside his best friend.
Its not fair. Hasnt he been through enough already? Why does he have to get wrapped up in my own demons?
Buck didnt quite understand what Chris was saying. Maybe the worry and fatigue had finally caught up with the man. It had been obvious that the team leader hadnt been sleeping well for the last few months. The dark circles under his eyes and extra irritability, though hard to exactly pinpoint considering his natural disposition, were evidence of less than restful evenings.
Thinking back to their conversation in Chriss office from nearly a month before he began to wonder. Chris had said he had been having nightmares about Vin and that he just couldnt do it. Maybe it was time his oldest friend faced the facts. Just as Buck was ready to get his boss and friend to admit the truth Chris beat him to the punch. The tousled blond head rose and the eyes bore into him.
I dont want to lose him, Buck. I know that sounds crazy. Hes not mine and never was. But, I care what happens to him. More than Ive cared about anything in a long time. Chris laid his head back against the wall, feeling the wetness that threatened to spill from his eyes. God knows Ive tried my best not to feel, not to care, not to . His voice trailed off as the emotions came once again too close to the surface.
Sometimes we dont have a choice in these things. Buck glanced back at the still form resting in the hospital bed. Settling himself on the floor beside Larabee, he, too, leaned back against the wall. Just look at me. Never thought Id be waylaid by a pint-sized ball of energy. Hes special, Chris. Dont know what it is or why, but I cant deny that JD has me wrapped around his little finger. And I think you feel the same way about Vin.
I gotta find him. The blonds voice sounded raw. Its like Im looking for a part of myself. A part of my soul thats missing. I cant lose it. I cant face losing him.
Chris couldnt believe what he was saying. It sounded absolutely insane. He barely knew this little boy. But, ever since that day in the alley, something within him had begun to change. And to deny his feelings for Vin, or JD for that matter, meant to deny a part of himself that he hadnt realized he missed. Not until now. God, it hurt so bad, but he was feeling. Something he hadnt done much of over the past few years. It was like awakening from a long horrible dream. Reality might not be much better, but at least he felt like there was something he could do. Ways he could change the outcome. Right now the only way to make things better for all concerned and fight the demons of fear and guilt was to find Vin.
Balling his fists up and throwing his head back into the wall Chris grunted in frustration. If I just knew where else to look. Weve got to find him.
Are you gonna lock us up?
The tiny voice startled both men, shattering their thoughts.
Buck climbed up off of the floor with some effort and went to the boys side. JDs eyes were open, but he hadnt even attempted to sit up. Reaching down to brush the dark hair out of the boys eyes, he felt his heart melt all over again. He really had it bad.
What makes you think that, Little Bit? Bucks voice was soft and held a fatherly quality, which surprised even Chris. Hed seen his friend with Adam on many occasions. The natural way he had connected with the child had been partially due to the big kid within him. But, there was just something about this that seemed so right.
When wes bad when we gets in trouble JD hesitated, unsure. Vin was already going to be mad at him for the other stuff he told.
Chris saw this as an opportunity to find out more and possibly find a lead to where Vin might be. Maybe the boy had a favorite place to hide. What happens when you get in trouble, JD?
The boy looked up with eyes full of uncertainty. It was obvious to the two men that the boy had been warned not to say anything.
Its okay to tell us, Chris said, sitting down on the foot of the bed, hoping to try and bring himself more to the childs level. His fatherly instincts were coming back to him and he knew he needed to gain the little boys trust.
Buck followed suit by sitting down beside JD and pulling the tiny form up on to his lap. We want to help you and Vin, but we need to know what Mr. and Mrs. Miller have been doing.
JD looked up at the big man with the mustache. He liked Mr. Buck a lot and knew Vin would like him too, if he were here. Wheres Vin?
Were still looking for him. Chris felt like he should be honest. Thats why I need to know if Vin ever goes anywhere in particular. Does he have a favorite hiding place or someplace he told you to go to if something bad happens.
Vin always tells me to go hide when Miz Miller gets mad. I usually hide under the bed, but Vin doesnt like it under there. It scares him. Guess it reminds him of the closet. He really hates it in there. He calls it the dungeon. A strange look crossed JDs face. But, dont tell Vin I told you. Hed be mad at me for telling.
Chris felt his stomach lurch. Terrible thoughts were running through his mind. Just what had that woman been doing to these boys? Trying to control the quiver he feared would show in his own voice he dared ask. What closet, JD? The one in your bedroom?
Sometimes when Vin gets in trouble she locks him up. He dont like being locked up and he dont talk much after he gets out of there and he has more bad dreams at night. Why does Miz Miller locks Vin up? He dont do nothin real bad. Big hazel eyes looked up into blue ones, searching for an answer.
Buck tried his best to swallow the huge lump in his throat, but found that it only got larger. What was he supposed to say? Even he didnt know the answers. Honesty. That was all he could really give. I dont know why she did that. I think maybe shes sick, JD. She misses her own little boy so much that sometimes she just isnt thinkin straight. He, too, was thinking along the same lines as Chris. What closet, Little Bit?
Its kinda dark and scary, but she only made me go in there once and I had Vin with me. Usually she just yells at me a lot and I go hide like Vin told me to. But I was too loud. I was just playing, but Vin says when she feels bad we have to be real quiet and I try real hard cause I dont want Vin to get all purple. It hurtses him when hes purple. And he said its not my fault, but I still feel bad. JD lowered his head and stared at his hands as he picked at the blankets. He cant sleep at night cause it hurts. He dont thinks I hear him at night when he cries, but I do. Sometimes I go and get in the bed with him, but I cant gives him hugs cause it hurts too much. Fighting back a sniffle JD added, I dont want Vin to hurt no more.
Gathering JD up into his arms and pulling him close to his chest, Buck couldnt stop the tears that escaped down his cheeks. How could someone hurt a kid, let alone one with as big a heart as JD? And Vin, who had put himself in harms way to protect his little cousin. It just wasnt right. Dont you worry none. I aint gonna let another living soul lay a hand on you or Vin.
Rubbing his chin across the dark head he looked up to see not tears in Chris eyes, but unadulterated rage. It didnt matter what kind of delusions that woman may have been suffering, there was no excuse for the abuse these boys had suffered. And Bill Miller had a lot to answer for as well. He had been an accomplice. Covering up what was happening and doing little or nothing to stop it.
A closet? It wasnt bad enough the child had been beaten and tied down by bigger boys, now the adults whom he had been entrusted to had beat him and locked him in a closet. It was no wonder the child had nightmares and feared being touched.
A sudden feeling swept through the blond that was almost indescribable. Call it a premonition, a psychic connection, or a sign from God, but Chris could see Vin lying cold, bleeding, and alone in a dark enclosed space. He didnt know how he knew, but he really didnt care. Vin was in that closet JD had been talking about.
Oh my God, Buck. Hes still there. Chris felt the knot in his stomach grow. How could they have missed him? The officers had searched the house from top to bottom when they got there to be sure. Yet, somehow they had to have missed something. Vins still at the Millers.
Buck wasnt sure if the exhaustion was getting to his friend or what. But, they checked. You think hes in the closet?
He never got his answer because a dark blur had just run out of the room.
Please, God, let Chris find Vin and let him be okay, for all our sakes.
Buck continued to hold JD in his arms, unconsciously rocking him until he noticed the child had grown heavier as sleep had once again claimed him.
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