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Chris was on the phone to Josiah even before he made it to his vehicle.
Search the house again. Every nook and cranny. And start with the closets.
Just do it and Ill explain when I get there.
With that, Chris cut the connection and dialed his other two agents. They had split up to continue the search, but Chris had ordered them both to get something to eat and some rest, saying they would have to continue the search in the morning. He wanted Nathan there just in case. And Ezra had as much at stake as the rest of them, even if he tried to deny it.
Two more abrupt and cryptic phone calls later and Chris was nearly to his destination, thanking the powers that be for allowing no impediments along the way for him to have to explain later. Pulling the truck nearly sideways and half onto the sidewalk he ran up to the house, drawing the attention of the plainclothes officer watching the house who immediately followed.
Josiah had heard the sounds of his leader arriving and had just finished searching every room and closet he could find, to no avail. Meeting the man in the living room he shook his head. Nothing.
He has to be here. He wouldnt have left JD. I should have known that. I should have looked myself. Chris was on the border of panic. It was like when word had come of the bomb that had killed his wife and son. It didnt seem real. There had to be some other explanation, something he could do.
Josiah saw the raw fear in the blonds wild green eyes. In the time he had known Chris, he had never seen him so out of control. Maybe this whole experience had been too much for him. I know you want to find him, Chris, we all do. Lets check one more time. He knew Chris wouldnt be satisfied until he checked for himself and saw with his own eyes that Vin wasnt in the house.
+ + + + + + +
Buck could feel the muscles in his back and arms beginning to ache, but he wasnt about to put his precious load down. He needed to feel the warm bundle that was JD close to his heart. It was all he could do to keep his own feelings of helplessness at bay. He might not have been there to protect the boy from the life he had suffered, the abuse, the neglect, the fear. But, by God, he was here now and it would take more than some namby-pamby social workers to stop him from making sure he fulfilled the promise he had made the boy earlier.
He would do whatever it took to make sure that no one ever laid a hand in anger on this boy or his cousin again. He had seen too much of this worlds evil. Unspeakable acts that one human could do to another. But, though all had caused his heart to ache with their senselessness, nothing had touched him to the very inner core of his being like what had befallen these two little boys. It was as if they were his personal responsibility and he had been chosen as guardian to the precious souls that had already seen so much of lifes heartaches. They were only children and as such deserved an existence without fear or longing. Oh, he didnt delude himself to the fact that all must face hardship, but he could make it easier. He had to. It was as if his very life depended on it. Or at least, his own happiness.
The bundle began to squirm and moan quietly.
JD was caught up in a terrifying nightmare. Standing at the top of the stairs, or at least where they used to be, he felt cold. Those same stairs that would have taken him down to his cousin were now gone, eaten by the darkness. Now it was only a big shadowy hole.
Vinnnnn! He cried out as the darkness seemed to reach up at him. He knew Vin was in the closet again and couldnt get out. Mrs. Miller had gotten mad and probably hurt his cousin. He was too small to let Vin out. She always locked the door, but now he couldnt even get down to him. The sound of Vins crying echoed in the darkness, only making JD more frightened.
Buck heard the painful cry escape the tiny trembling lips. Big wet tears began to fall as JD came abruptly awake, screaming for his cousin. The squirming youngster nearly escaped his grasp as he worked to calm him.
JD! Its okay. It was just a bad dream.
I want Vin! The broken words were uttered between sobs and sniffles. Hes in dungeon I cant get him out. Is too small.
Its just a dream, Little Bit. He wasnt sure who he was trying to convince. Chris believed Vin was still in the dungeon as well, but then again, the blond was grasping at straws. They all were.
JD was finally beginning to calm down as his breathing began to even out, with just a few hitched breaths now and then. The stairs are gone and I cant get to him down there and the door that hides.
Hides? Bucks mind was whirling with the small clues JD was giving him trying his best to decipher what the child really meant. Downstairs? A basement? Door that hides? A hidden door in the basement? Lil Bit, is the closet in the basement?
The slight nod was his answer. Buck was whipping out his cell phone even as he asked. Hitting the preset he waited for it to be answered. He didnt even wait for the person on the other end to answer as he blurted out what he had just learned.
+ + + + + + +
By the time they had searched most of the house, Nathan and Ezra had arrived. Chris was wild eyed with mounting grief and they could tell by the look on the profilers face that he was worried about their leader.
Weve looked everywhere, but still nothing.
What makes you think hes still here? Nathan had only caught the part that Vin might still be here and immediately came over; the reasons why Chris thought this had been unclear.
JD said that Mrs. Miller used to lock Vin up in a closet, or dungeon as they called it, when he was No, that wasnt right. Vin was not that bad of a kid. No child deserved such treatment, no matter what they had done, but something told Chris that most of the time it hadnt been about what Vin had done, but how Ruth Miller felt. She used to lock him up when she was delusional.
Good Lord! Ezra felt the shock of what Chris was suggesting. Remembering the boys overwhelming fear at being tied down he could only imagine what terror would be wrought by being closed up in a small space. He felt a shudder run through him, right to his soul. How could she do that?
Im not trying to defend the woman, but she has obviously been mentally unstable for some time. Josiah was still trying to give some rationale to a completely irrational situation. Unable to come to terms with the death of her son she took out her feelings of anger and self-loathing on the person she blamed for his death. In her mind, the boy who was with her son when he was killed was at fault. Unfortunately, in her delusional state, Vin became that child.
And he accepted it. Chriss voice was a mere whisper as he felt his anger and fear begin to fade to nothing. He was going numb again.
And would have continued to, except she turned on JD, Josiah added. He has probably begun to believe he deserves it.
Deserves it?! Nathan voiced his outrage at such a suggestion. Even though he knew about abuse cases, this just didnt make any sense. I saw that boy stand off against five grown men, hell, he went up against that crook to save my life. How could he let this happen and not say anything, not defend himself?
Therein lies the key, my friend. To protect himself. He went after that crook to protect you. He stood up against us to protect JD.
But he wont defend himself? Nathan was incredulous at the implications. Why not?
Ezra beat Josiah to the answer. Because if enough people tell you that you are bad, if they continuously tell you that you are slow or stupid or worthless, you begin to believe it. He doesnt feel he has the right to defend himself.
The room fell into a depressing silence as each man thought about what had been said.
The ringing of Chris cell phone brought everyones thoughts to an abrupt halt.
Lara Chris voice trailed off and the other three men watched his face intently. One second Chris was standing in front of them with his phone to his ear, the next he was gone.
The words had barely penetrated his brain before his feet were moving, Bucks voice still echoing in his head.
The closets in the basement. Look for a hidden door.
He wasnt even sure what, if anything else, Buck had said, since the phone was down in his hand as he ran back into the kitchen. Flinging the door to the basement open he nearly tripped as he flew down the stairs. He didnt know if the others were following, but knew they would eventually. There was only one thing on his mind. Find Vin.
He and Josiah had searched the basement twice already and the police once. His brain was telling him that had there been something to find they would have found it already, but his heart couldnt relinquish its ray of hope. It was all he felt he had left at the moment. The thought of losing Vin, a boy he had just recently met but felt as if he already knew, was tearing away at the little bit of soul he had left. Pieces he hadnt realized still existed until he had met Vin and JD.
Like a man possessed he began tearing through the basement, throwing boxes and searching the walls for any sign at all of a door. The other three agents had finally caught up to him now, not sure what was happening and wondering if the man had finally snapped.
Brother, it might help if we knew what you were looking for.
Buck said to look in the basement, maybe a hidden door.
They still werent totally sure of what he meant or how he knew, but for the moment it didnt matter. Spreading out, the search began. It was just minutes later, but felt agonizingly more like hours, when Ezra made his discovery. If one thing could be said of Ezra Standish it was that he was thorough to a fault. Studying every detail of a case, even the most obscure detail, until he knew every piece of information. Thinking over everything he had learned about the Millers and where they lived, he remembered that the house was built back in the mid 1920s. Remembering something about one of the relatives houses that his mother had left him with for a time that had also been built around the same time he took a chance. His relations abode had a hidden room in the basement, for the concealing of alcohol during the era of prohibition. Though somewhat unlikely that this house would also sport such a feature it wasnt impossible. And, at the moment they needed all of the luck they could get.
With this thought in mind he headed for some seemingly innocent shelving in the far corner of the room. Nathan and Chris didnt see his actions, but Josiah did and went to observe the southerner. It only took about a minute for Ezra to discover that his improbable idea wasnt quite so much so, as he found a seam in the wall. Pulling on the bookcase he was shocked, but happy to find that it rolled easily out of the way to reveal a door.
Ezra felt two hands forcefully pull him out of the way.
Chris felt a tremendous mix of emotions rush through him when he turned around to see Ezra pull the shelves away from the wall. The hidden door now visible, the blond was once again in action. Even as his head was screaming in protest of what he might find, his heart shoved his body into motion. The single mantra still running through his head as it had been since he had been told what had happened.
Find Vin. Find Vin.
Reaching for the doorknob he quickly noticed the latch above. With a sense of anger he nearly ripped it off its hinges as he unbolted it. Had he been aware of much of anything at the moment he might have sensed the pain radiate through his hand at the violent action, but at the moment his whole attention was elsewhere. His joy at the possibility that they may have finally found Vin was at war with the fear that this could be another dead end or worse, what his mind feared most, that after all of this they might be too late. But even his own uncertainty couldnt keep him from opening the door wide. The sound of it banging against the backside of the shelving reverberated through the entire room. The space was dark except for the light that filtered in from behind the men now crowded around the entrance. But that meager illumination was enough.
Chris felt his knees give way at the sight that lay before him in the dimness and he managed a few steps before falling down next to the vision. Curled up in a tight ball was Vin. Chris stomach rolled at the foul stench signaling that the boy had been sick.
Nathan had no qualms about taking over. This was his territory after all. He was the team medic; this was his job. And from the current expression of distress on his leaders face he was not going to be a lot of help.
Josiah, get the paramedics here and alert the police that weve found him. Ezra, grab my bag from the living room and get me some blankets from upstairs.
Vin? Chris barely recognized his own voice as he reached out a shaking hand to touch the boys shoulder. He wasnt even sure he was breathing.
Careful there, Chris, we dont .
Both men were nearly bowled over as the tiny form reacted to the light touch on his shoulder like he had been burned. A muffled scream echoed as the tiny form suddenly sprang from its huddled position and disappeared into the darkness of the far corner of the small storage area they were now in. The room itself was barely four foot by four foot, with the two agents barely fitting into the space at the same time. Still, somehow Vin had managed to shrink himself into the corner and was breathing with deep gasps.
Vin? Its okay. Were not going to hurt you. Chris could feel his own heart hammering in his chest and could just imagine how terrified the little blond must be. It was still too dim to really tell much of anything.
Nathan was worried about what type of injuries Vin might have. The bloody cloths in the trash only added to his suspicions. The blood loss, any injuries, added up with the trauma of the whole experience could put the boy in shock. From the reaction, the paleness of the boys skin, and the trembling the medic detected coming from the corner, that was exactly what was happening and if not treated soon it could prove fatal.
But, this was all just assumption. He really needed to get a good look at the boy, examine him. Letting his eyes roam over what little he could see of the small enclosure, knowing Chris would be watching Vin, Nathan spotted an overhead light bulb with a short string pull. Not wanting to frighten the boy any more he tried to give him some warning, praying that somehow Vin would hear him.
Vin? Its Nathan. Nathan Jackson. You remember me, dontcha? He knew time was of the essence but rushing the boy was not likely to have a favorable result. Im gonna try this light up here. Hell, knowing their luck it probably wouldnt work anyway. Not making any sudden or threatening moves, the medic stood slowly then reached up and pulled the string, shutting his eyes as he did so as not to be blinded by the sudden light.
Oh, my God.
One moment Nathan was relieved that the light had worked and the next he wasnt so sure as he heard the quiet curse from his leader and looked into the corner.
Chris felt like every ounce of air in his lungs had all of a sudden been sucked out. His chest hurt and his stomach rolled mercilessly. With sweating palms and rubbery legs he slowly knelt in front of a vision worse than his own nightmares.
Vin was standing in the corner, his small frame shivering from cold and shock. His noticeably shortened hair stuck to his forehead and there were dark matted places visible in the now dingy hair. Those same dark spots were visible on his navy shirt and blue jeans. Dark red streaks covered the boy from top to bottom, the gruesome stains standing out against the abnormally pale skin. Evidence to the boys rebellious stomach also clung to the front on the shirt and in his hair on the right side. The left eye was darkening and the slight redness of his cheek was telling. But the thing that had riveted all of Chriss attention were the big blue eyes, rimmed with red from crying, full of such absolute terror that it literally took his breath away. The tiny face peeking through, covered in blood, filth, and tears, ripped through every barrier the man had ever built.
Nathan wasnt faring much better. The initial shock kept his natural healing instincts from kicking in automatically and it was a few seconds before he reacted. His eyes raked the floor and the dirty blanket on which the boy had been lying. It was stained with Vins blood and vomit, along with what by the smell in the room was likely urine. Another curse from behind brought him out of his daze.
Good Lord. Ezra had retrieved Nathans bag and set it inside the door quickly, but was just returning from commandeering the requested blankets when the light came on. With a shaking hand he held the blankets out to Nathan, practically dropping them when his action was ignored, then he turned and walked back out into the basement.
At the moment he didnt care if what he had just done looked cowardly. Knowing the boy was in the most capable hands with Chris and Nathan there, he felt best to get away from the sight. The pain that had knifed through his own heart at the sight of the blood and those stricken blue eyes was almost more than he could bear.
For as long as he lived, Ezra Standish figured to never forget the look in Vins eyes. It was crazy, he knew, but those soulful orbs seemed to be asking why. Guilt assaulted him. Why hadnt he done more? Why had he not done whatever it took to see to the safety of both of these children? His own childhood may have been less than stellar. With a mother who was not exactly a candidate for mother of the year, and who, more often than not, had shuttled him off to relatives or fancy schools, he still felt blessed at that moment. Though a few of those who had been a part of his upbringing had been indifferent and sometimes cruel, he had never imagined such an existence as he now was witness to. With great effort he managed to keep the meager contents of his stomach where they belonged.
It took a moment, but Nathan finally remembered who he was and why he was here. Not wanting to spook the child any worse, he, too, knelt near the boy, but just behind Chris. Vins eyes though not completely focused were trained on the black clad leader. They had all seen some type of connection between these two and the healer hoped it could prove advantageous now. Vin was terrified. Hopefully Chris would be able to gain his trust. They really needed to treat the boy immediately.
Chris. See if hell let you close to him.
Hes terrified, Nathan.
I know, but I need to look him over, soon. Hes probably going into shock.
Shock. That pretty much summed up how they all felt at the moment, but Chris felt his heart lurch even more as he watched Vins trembling grow worse. Reaching up with a tentative hand he never let his eyes stray from the boys.
Vin? Its okay. Im not going to hurt you. Do you remember me? The only reaction he got was for Vin to flinch back into the corner, squatting down to make himself even smaller. Still those big blue eyes never left Chriss.
Swallowing his own stomach contents back down, Chris tried to keep the anger he felt out of his voice. Vin had seen enough anger to last a lifetime. He wouldnt understand that it wasnt directed at him, but at the animals that had caused such harm to this innocent soul. It was tearing Chris apart, but this wasnt the time or place for such thoughts. Right now he needed to get through to Vin so Nathan could see to the boys injuries.
Vin. My names Chris. You remember me, dont you? He spoke softly, hoping to get through the shock and fear. Once again he reached out tentatively toward the boy, barely noticing how bad his own hand was shaking. His next words could not hide his own feelings of desperation. Please, son. Youre hurt. We just want to help you.
Weve been looking for you all afternoon. We were worried. Nathan also kept his voice low and soft. You remember us. We met in the alley that time. When you and JD ran away.
Though Vins eyes never left his own, Chris saw a reaction when the medic mentioned his younger cousins name. Maybe that was the key to getting through to the youngster.
+ + + + + + +
Vin hated being in the dungeon. He had started calling it that after the first couple of times Mrs. Miller had put him in it, remembering the dank prison cells he had heard about in some of the fairy tales about kings and castles. It smelled of dirt, dust, and mildew and was always pretty dark. Sometimes she left the light off, but a little light from the basement windows would slip in through the crack below the door. It wasnt much, but better than total darkness. She always got him out before Mr. Miller came home, making him promise never to say a word.
An old quilt was spread on the floor where he usually lay when imprisoned for hours and he would lie on it and dream of better places. Beaches that he had seen in books and horses like the ones JD always talked about. Anything to keep him from dwelling on his current circumstances and keep his mind off the pain of newly inflicted injuries.
Even though he tried not to, sometimes he fell asleep and then the nightmares would come again. It became a terrible cycle and he hated his own weakness when he would beg not to be put in the dungeon. After the first few times of begging he had learned that it did no good. Mrs. Miller would call him by some other name and didnt even seem to really know who he was, so he had resigned himself to the inevitable.
One time when she had put JD in there with him Vin had been ashamed of the fact that he was a little glad. Not that he wanted his little cousin to suffer the same fate, everything he did was to try and spare the younger boy of such horrors as he knew. But at least he had some company and someone to play with. And he didnt have to worry about what was happening to JD when he was locked away. It hadnt seemed quite as bad as when he was left alone in the near darkness for hours on end. Those were the dark times when he cried for his mother and wished so hard for something else, knowing it was never to be. But mostly just wishing he could leave it all behind and go be with her.
This time had been different. Today Mrs. Miller had hurt JD. Of all the times when their foster mother had not felt well and gotten angry, she always turned her rage on Vin. He had let her, too afraid of losing JD if he said anything. Even Mr. Miller had told him that if he ever told anyone, the social people would just take JD away and lock Vin up for being bad. At first he hadnt been sure, but Mr. Miller also said that the grownups wouldnt believe a little troublemaker like him anyway and that much Vin knew was true. It had happened before in Texas.
Back at the childrens home Vin had tried to tell the grownups about the bigger boys who were picking on him, but they hadnt believed him. He tried to tell them that he wasnt doing anything wrong and that it was the big boys who had played pranks on the other kids. Yet still he got in trouble. It wasnt fair. But at an all too early age, Vin had come to learn that very little, if anything in life, was fair. Survival was all there was and sometimes even that didnt seem like enough. It wasnt until after those bigger boys had beaten him, tied him up, and left him in the janitors locker that anyone paid any attention. And by then it was too late. JDs mother had come to the hospital to see him and promised that he could come and live with her.
Vin had even been afraid of her at first, but his aunt had been very nice and patient with him. He had a new home where he felt loved and safe. Having JD to play with was great. It was a lot like having a little brother of his very own. Then life had kicked him once again when his aunt had become ill, just like his own mother. Knowing what was coming didnt make it any easier and now he had to take care of JD. His younger cousin didnt know how mean other people could be. But Vin knew and made it his personal responsibility to protect him.
That was why he didnt tell anyone about the things Mrs. Miller did. First off, he knew they wouldnt believe him and worst yet, if by some chance they did, he could lose the only real family he had left. He could lose JD. He couldnt let that happen. He had promised to look out for the younger boy. So he took the abuse. The yelling, the hitting, and the hours spent in the dungeon. He never said anything and he never fought back. Until today.
It was a day like many others. Mrs. Miller wasnt feeling good. Vin could usually tell. She would drink a lot of the stuff from the lower cabinet and take the pills she kept all through the house. Then she would lie on the couch with the lights off and the blinds closed. That was when he would take JD back into the bedroom to play quietly. He tried to stay out of her way and keep his cousin quiet. JD was little and didnt know any better. He couldnt help that he liked to talk and play loud, so Vin figured out of sight, out of mind was his best defense.
He knew he should have taken JD to the bathroom with him, but his little cousin had insisted that he didnt need to go and he just wanted to finish working on the puzzle that Vin had gotten out for him to do. It was only a few minutes, but Vin was already moving a little slow from a few days before when he hadnt quite gotten out of the way of one of his foster mothers bad moods.
The yelling had reached him first. Feeling his little heart begin hammering in his chest he ran to the bedroom first, praying that JD was there. His heart nearly stopped when he discovered his little cousin missing. Racing into the kitchen he saw Mrs. Miller shaking JD like a rag doll and then watched in horror as she shoved him forcefully to the floor. The tiny body slid along the linoleum and JDs head slammed against the cabinet with a sickening thud. Vin lost control. All of the anger and fear buried within came out in a mad rush. Without true conscious thought, the little protector ran at the woman more than twice his size and rammed her.
Run, JD! were the only words he could get out as he attacked the person who had just hurt his little cousin. Not prepared for Vins attack the unstable woman had fallen back against the wall. Her own fury added fuel to the heated situation and she easily grabbed at the little arms that were now battering against her.
Vin had chanced a quick look back to make sure JD was safe and had seen his cousin disappear out the door leading to the living room. He had taught JD to hide when Mrs. Miller became angry and violent. He prayed he could keep her away from him this time. Slamming his tiny fists into the womans legs with all of the pent up frustration from within, he knew it was futile when he felt her hands wrap tightly around his forearms. He felt the pain from the tightness of the grip and knew hed have to wear more long sleeved shirts to cover these new bruises.
Mrs. Miller began screaming at him. You worthless little bastard. How dare you attack me? You should never have lived. It should have been you that died, not my precious little boy. The rest of her tirade was lost as Vin tried to extricate himself from her vise-like grip. Out of all of the times she had gotten angry and punished him, he had never seen her like this. Without fully understanding why it was happening in the first place, he wasnt able to recognize the warning signs of an impending breakdown. With a last ditch effort he kicked her hard in the shin.
The months of Ruth Millers precarious emotional state had reached its threshold. With too much medication mixed with too much alcohol rational thought flew out the window in a blind moment of rage. With Vin being the unfortunate victim. The woman she had been before her sons untimely death would never have imagined herself capable of such malicious acts, but that woman had been lost long before Vin and JD had come along. Though her moments of sanity left most to believe her just fine, it was the hidden times confined in her own home when her hold on reality slipped that proved dangerous. And over the last few months the sane moments had been diminishing. The thin threads of sanity she had been able to hang onto had now snapped.
One moment she was lying on the couch in a daze and the next she was in the kitchen screaming at the top of her lungs and violently attacking who she perceived as the object of all of her fear and hatred. Shaking him and yelling, then smacking him hard across the face.
Vin couldnt stop himself from falling as Mrs. Millers blow combined with his kick knocked him clear of her grip and to the floor, the back of his head bouncing off of the floor hard and dazing him momentarily. A sharp pain shot through his side as he tried to roll over and it felt like something was cutting into his arm. Thats when he realized he was lying on some broken shards of glass. JD must have broken something and that was why she was so mad. He never had a chance to get up as the enraged woman jerked him from the floor and then froze, her grip on his arm tightening.
Fear caught in his throat as he stood stiffly in her grasp, waiting for the next blow or slap. Then a thought crossed his mind and he felt his knees buckle.
No. Please dont put me in the dungeon, he desperately pleaded. He didnt want to go down there again.
When he didnt receive another blow he glanced up to try and figure out why she had grown so quiet. She was just staring at him with a strange look on her face. But she wasnt looking at his face, but his shirt. Too afraid to move and look down himself to see what had caught her attention he tried to appease her instead.
Is sorry, Miz Miller. Ill clean up the mess for you. You can go lay back down. I know ya dont feel good. I didnt mean to make you his voice trailed off as he felt a wave of dizziness flow over him. It was all he could do to stand up. As his vision seemed to be closing in around him he glanced down to his side to see what had caught her attention. The side of his navy shirt was turning darker. Now shes gonna be mad cause I messed up my shirt, he thought as he too was caught up in the rapidly growing stain.
Howd I do that? He was beginning to think that JD had dropped more than just a bowl as he reached down to touch the spot. Pulling his hand back away from the dampness he expected to see milk or juice, but his hand froze when he saw his hand smeared in dark red. It was blood. His blood?
As the strange sensation of his body floating surrounded him and the encroaching darkness pulled at him with a strength he couldnt fight, Vin wondered if this was what it was like. Was he dying? Could he go and be with his mother now? Even though it was something he had wished for many times and a part of him was momentarily delighted by the prospect of leaving his world of pain and fear behind to be with her, his last conscious thoughts were of JD and who would now protect his little cousin.
Since the altercation in the kitchen he had awakened a few times, realizing he wasnt dead. The first time he could tell from the dim light from under the door that he was once again in the dungeon. Afterwards, when he awoke to pitch black, the smells and feel of the cold raggedy blanket below him assured him he had not moved. He could smell the stench from where he had been sick a few times already, but he lacked the strength to move or even care. Pain assaulted him from every side. His head and side were throbbing mercilessly. But, worse than that was the uncertainty, his body trembling with the sheer force of that terror. What had happened to JD? Was he alright? Why was it so dark? Mrs. Miller usually came for him before it got dark. Thoughts of JD and all of the terrible things he had endured over the last few years invaded his conscious thoughts when he was awake, but he never moved. Vin lay as still as possible on the old blanket, shivering from cold, dread, and blood loss.
He had no idea how long he had lain in his darkened prison, alone and in pain. His thoughts had become muddled, but he thought he heard movement. Voices? His heart hammered in his chest. Please dont hurt me anymore. His only thoughts were of survival. Two green eyes popped into his head and he began to dream again of the blond man in the dark clothes who would ride in on his black horse with guns blazing to rescue him from the bad guys. It was just like some of the old westerns he had watched on TV. Reality was slipping from him once again as shock and trauma consumed what little strength he had left and he wasnt prepared when a hand touched his shoulder.
Gut instinct took over and he was on his feet and in the corner before he even knew what he was doing. All he knew for sure was that he never wanted another human soul to lay a hand on him again. To be touched meant to be hurt and he just couldnt take anymore. Two dark figures stood before him and his heart began to race even harder. It wasnt Mrs. Miller.
Theyve come to take me away. Noooo! Oh, please. Ill be good. I promise. It was hard to breathe and he gasped for each precious mouthful of air. His body was trembling and he felt too scared and too tired to move.
More voices. Then the light came on. And his eyes locked on the vision from his dream. It was the green-eyed man.
Frozen, he stared in disbelief. Was this a dream, too? It had to be.
The vision spoke his name and reached out to him. Pulling back instinctively he squatted further into the corner. Just make yourself smaller and maybe they wont see you, wont hurt you. Vin couldnt think clearly anymore, his world a mixture of fear and pain.
Then the vision spoke again and then another voice. Broken fragments of what they were saying slipped into his consciousness. Remember me... just want to help you been looking for you worried Each piece confused him more. No one worried about him. No one came for him. No one cared if he was hurt. He was just a little kid that no one believed and who couldnt do anything right, no matter how hard he tried.
His head was spinning with all of the voices. Then he heard it. A name. JD? Where was JD? Was he all right?
JD? The tired whisper came out as a half sob. Vin didnt even recognize his own voice.
Chris felt his heart soar with just the sound of the boys voice, even as its pitiful quality sent razors slashing through his stomach. Trying to keep his voice as calm and level as possible, despite his inner raging, he spoke softly to the frightened child. JDs okay, Vin. We took him to the hospital and they said he was just fine. Bucks with him now. You remember Buck? Big fella. Dark hair and a mustache?
Talks bout much as JD. The words were slurred, Vins distinctive Texan drawl even more prominent when he was so obviously exhausted.
Thats right. Chris smiled weakly, not really feeling it. Though Vin seemed to be coming around to them, there was no color to his face whatsoever and the voice sounded so weary. Not just physically, but mentally. It was almost as if it belonged to an old man rather than a seven-year-old boy. Of course, this wasnt a typical seven-year-old and that fact only pained him more.
Vin? Where are you hurt, son? Let me take a look at you. Nathan was getting more impatient. He needed to check the boy and soon. And where were those damn paramedics?
Vins gaze wandered to the medic for just a brief moment before coming back to rest on Chriss face. Then his head bowed.
You come to arrest me? The broken words caught both men by surprise.
What? Then remembering what Josiah had said about Vin likely believing he deserved the treatment he received he understood. Aw hell, I mean, heck. Vin? He waited for the boy to look up at him. Vin, look at me.
The last words held a hint of anger and Chris cringed when the sandy head snapped up at him with eyes full of fear. Im sorry, Vin. Im not mad at you and Im not here to arrest you. Youve done nothing wrong. You have to take my word on that one, Pard.
The blue eyes began to glaze and Chris knew this wasnt the time or place for this discussion. Vins physical needs had to be addressed first. The emotional healing would be a long and arduous process that they would have to work on later. If there was a later. Mentally cursing himself for his last morbid thought he tried again to reach out to Vin, almost surprised when the boy didnt move this time.
As his big hands wrapped around the tiny shoulders he felt Vin shudder and then collapse. Quickly gathering the boy in his arms he turned to Nathan. Lets get him out of this room first.
Nathan didnt argue; the smell and size alone were beginning to get to the normally detached medic.
Ezra had heard every bit of the exchange as he stood just outside the door, unable to go any further. Stepping out of the way as his leader barreled through the open doorway into the open area of the basement, he quickly snatched one of the discarded blankets he had brought down and laid it on the floor.
Chris was aware of the action, but didnt stop to acknowledge it as his full attention was riveted on the pale trembling form he held within his arms. Slowly lowering Vin onto the fresh blanket he felt his gut tighten at the feeble cry of pain that escaped the boys lips.
Is sorry. I didnt mean to make her mad. Is sorry. Ill be good. Dont take JD away. Please. The heart wrenching litany tore through every last bit of control Chris had.
Oh, God, son, its not your fault. You didnt do anything wrong. You didnt deserve this. Both you and JD deserve better. Chris words were broken off as his voice faltered under his own powerful emotions as a few tears streaked down his own face.
It was a sight his two coworkers had never seen or hoped to see. And yet it was like a whole new side to the tough no-nonsense ATF agent they had come to know and respect. It would not change how they felt about their leader but it did give a new perspective into the man and the tragedies that had shaped who he was today.
Josiah had seen it, too, coming down the stairs just as Chris had come out of the tiny hole with his precious bundle held close to his chest. Having left the police officers that had arrived upstairs to direct the soon to arrive paramedics he came to check on his friends and the little boy who, along with his little cousin, had turned their world upside down. Even he had been unprepared for the sight of the bloody little form that his leader had laid on the blanket and the sad voice that begged for forgiveness for something that wasnt his fault. Feeling his own rage building at the injustice of it all he wondered just where to place the blame. The social workers who should have more closely monitored the home life and health of the two boys. God knew they were overworked, understaffed, and underpaid. Mr. Miller for covering up what he knew was happening and not seeking help from the beginning. Mrs. Miller herself who had inflicted such physical and emotional harm upon both boys. He had seen firsthand the devastated state she was in just a few hours before and knew her fate was now in Gods hands.
Then again he could blame himself for not trying harder to determine if something was wrong when they had all begun to suspect something. Maybe he couldnt have undone all of the boys pain and suffering, but he might have been able to stop today from happening. And from the look of the boy, the grief in Chriss eyes, and the fear he could see in Nathans, this day just might have a very tragic ending.
Moving to the bottom of the steps he exchanged a look with Ezra and was a bit surprised to see the very emotions he was wrestling with mirrored in the undercover agents normally unreadable face. This was tearing at them all.
Momma? The pitiful cry brought everyones attention back to Vin as Nathan continued to check the boy carefully. Not wanting to frighten the boy any more he tried to move slowly. His eyes took in the largest stain on the boys right side and he went to pull up the shirt when Vin screamed.
It was a weak cry, but even at full voice it couldnt have produced a more profound effect as every man in the room stiffened in sympathy and remorse. This didnt have to happen. They could have stopped it. Vin didnt have to be bleeding to death on the floor of this cold dark basement. Though varying in degree and perception, each man was feeling personally responsible for the suffering the small boy was experiencing.
The raspy breathing broke through the silence that had overtaken the room after the scream had died away, echoing only in the minds of the four men.
Vin could feel himself slipping into the darkness once again. The pain that had been bearable while he lay huddled on the floor unmoving had reawakened with nauseating clarity when he had been moved and then when the dark skinned man had tried to pull his shirt up. The blood. He remembered the blood and thinking he was dying. Brilliant colors flashed in front of his eyes and he tried to see past them to focus on the face of his savior. The green-eyed man had come for him. He had to know. He had to be sure before...
Chris felt the boy tense even more. Though he had sat Vin down upon the blanket he hadnt allowed himself to fully release the boy who still lay somewhat cradled in his arms. He couldnt, he wouldnt break that contact. Whether it was for Vins sake or his own, maybe both, he wasnt sure. He just knew that he had finally found him and it would take God himself to remove him from the boys side.
Chris looked down into the pain clouded blue eyes that seemed to search right into his soul. Hes fine, Vin. Hes with Buck, he tried to reassure him once again.
Buck likes JD?
Yeah, Buck likes JD a lot.
Hell look after JD, not let nobody hurt em?
Chris breath caught on the lump in his throat. Even lying here in pain, this little man was more worried about his younger cousin than anything. How could anyone hurt such a valiant spirit such as this?
Yes, son, hell look after JD. Nobody will ever hurt him or you again. I promise you
Chris felt his voice die in his throat as with the very first bit of his words of assurance, Vins eyes rolled back in his head and the tiny body went limp.
His entire world began to crumble all over again. Flashbacks of a fire, lights flashing, sirens. Screaming and crying. A low guttural howl of inhuman rage sprang from out of nowhere. It came from Chris Larabee as he watched his soul die right in front of him and he sat once again helpless to stop it.
Nathan had watched the exchange between the man and child with interest while still trying to check over some of the more minor wounds. The one that had caused the large stain still worried him, but he figured it must have stopped bleeding and the shirt was now stuck to the wound. He would have to leave that to the professionals. Reaching over to grab another blanket to put over the trembling boys body, he fell backwards at the unnatural sound that suddenly filled the entire basement. Glancing back to the source he shrank back. The look on the blonds face sent a cold river of dread sweeping through the medic. It was the first time he could truly understand what Buck had faced the day Chris had lost his wife and son.
Hearing the sound emanate from his leader Josiah immediately went to help Nathan. Not sure what he could even do, he began to pray silently even as he moved to do whatever might be needed. There was little doubt in his mind from the look on Chris face that if indeed Vin died, there would be more lost this day than that little boy, as tragic as that would be. The ex-preacher felt that Larabees soul could not withstand another tragedy so close to his heart.
This boy had touched a part of Chris that had been buried deep after his wife and son had died. A part most, including Chris himself, had thought lost forever. But with just one look from those soulful blue eyes the ice had begun to thaw and a fire of life had been rekindled. Josiah prayed for the life of a brave little boy who deserved so much more than what life had given him so far. And he prayed for the soul of his leader, his friend, who had already survived hell once, but might not be able to a second time.
Ezra had been pacing nervously the entire time. Watching the proceedings out of the corner of his eye he wanted to help, but was unsure what to do. Nervous energy pervaded his body and he still felt the crushing weight of his own inability to prevent what had happened that day to the two boys. Halted in mid-stride by Chriss anguished cry, he felt his own blood run cold. He had heard the last words spoken and feared the worst. Vin had been asking if JD would be okay and after their leaders reassurance that his little cousin would be taken care of, he had gone limp in Chriss arms. It was as if he was passing over his responsibility before Please, God, no!
The next few minutes became a blur as the paramedics arrived, pushing their way through the agents to get to the patient. Nathan rattled off what little he knew and then helped Josiah to coax Chris into letting go of Vin.
Finally giving in to the voices and pull of his men, Chris felt the light weight removed from his arms. Staring down at the pale lifeless figure even as Josiah pulled him to his feet and out of the way, he couldnt quite grasp what was happening. Nothing made sense anymore. It was like being trapped in a nightmare where everything was slightly distorted. He watched transfixed as the two paramedics did their jobs. Checking vital signs, starting IVs, cutting away Vins clothes performing CPR. Hes dead was the only thought running through Chriss mind.
Voices blended together. Orders were being yelled out. Nathan was explaining what he knew. Josiahs quiet words of prayer drifted through the air beside him.
Then four words lifted the veil of night from his vision and he felt like he had just taken his first breath of air in hours.
We got him back. The relief on Nathans face said it all, but was still guarded. Vin was still alive, for now.
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