ATF Future-Little Britches Universe
Disclaimer: I do not own these people or any part of the Magnificent Seven. The closest I can come is that I was seven once. A long time ago. But I have never been magnificent- mores the pity. The title is taken from John C. Van Dykes description of Rembrandts life as one that proved the greatest truths and beauties are to be seen only through tears.
This work of fiction was inspired by Sheryl, who wrote a what if story about JD, and who was kind enough to permit me to pen my own offering in this vein featuring Vin.
Chris? You gotta pick up.
There was a moment of silence, then Bucks voice came through the machine again. Edgier this time.
I know youre there- I called the office and Josiah said youd left. Pick up.
Chris sat in the dark of winters early evening, swirling the whiskey in his glass. The faint clink of ice against the sides was the only noise disturbing the peace of the house, until Bucks voice ravaged the quiet once more.
Pick up the damn phone. Im at the police station-
Chris dove for the receiver then, heart racing.
Im here. What?
There was a brief silence at the other end. It was as if Buck could see down the wire and was trying to guess how long Chris had been there on his own, how much whiskey had made its way past his teeth and into his brain.
Buck? What is it? Everything OK?
Kind of a stupid question, Chris thought- not too likely Buck would be calling from the desks of Denvers finest just to tell him all was right with the world.
Is it JD?
No, no Chris, nothing like that. He got away, did he? I left some money out for him beside the cookie jar- did he remember to take it with? And his skates- they were by the back door- he didnt go off without them?
Chris didnt recall seeing anything by the door or on the counter when he had gone through the kitchen five minutes earlier. JD had left for a hockey tournament in Boulder, and wouldnt be home until Sunday night. It was lucky for him and Buck that JD and Tommy Potter were on the same team- they often traded off driving with Gloria and Gerry. Tommys step dad was the boys coach, and even though he and Buck made it to most of the games, sometimes work got in the way.
Yeah, and no .but you said you werent calling about JD.
Sorry. No, Im not. Listen Chris, you gotta come back to the city. I need you to meet me here at the station. A brief pause. You can drive, right?
Yeah, Buck, I can drive. Whats going on? I just got in the door. Im not really in the mood to turn around and head back into town.
You gotta come Pard.
Tell me why. Chris put the glass to his lips, thought better of it, and set it on the arm of the chair.
He could hear Buck weighing up what he should say next.
Its nothing to do with work. I just need you here. Please.
Chris chuffed out an aggravated sigh and ran a hand through his hair.
It was Chriss turn to pause.
All right. But this better be good.
He dropped the receiver in its cradle and fished in his pocket for his keys. What in Gods name was Buck up to now? Chris had been looking forward to this weekend all month. JD was away and Buck had plans to stay in town. He badly needed some time to himself- thought hed maybe putter around the barn, take Pony up into the mountains, get stinking drunk. It wasnt as if he did this a lot any more, the going off on his own and getting blasted thing. Buck had strict rules where his drinking was concerned, and over time Chris had come to obey them.
For the most part.
God, he really planned to get at it quick tonight. He hadnt even taken off his coat, let alone his boots - just got out of the Ram and headed for the liquor.
Maybe the weekend wouldnt be a total write off. Besides, he forgot to pick up coffee on his way home, even though Gloria had phoned twice to tell him that she hadnt remembered it when shed gone for groceries earlier. And there was no way he could face Saturday morning with no coffee- especially if there was a hangover in the works.
He buttoned his coat as he crunched his way across the yard to the Ram, his breath clouding in stagnant puffs in the February air.
Chris growled as he hunkered down further into his jacket. Yes, when he got home hed crank up the fire in the woodstove, put something mellow on the stereo and pick up where he left off. Surely this wouldnt take too long, whatever it was that had him traipsing back to the city just when he thought his week was done. Buck said it had nothing to do with work, and JD was out of town. That pretty much took care of the important stuff anyway. JD and work- these two things were his whole life. If his reluctant trip to the city had nothing to do with either of these- well, there was no way it could possibly be important. Buck hadnt done anything to cheese him off in awhile now. Maybe his best friend had recently developed a death wish- felt like living life on the edge- and was just trying to ruin Chriss weekend for the sheer hell of it. Chris smiled grimly to himself. Hed find out soon enough. Besides he hadnt terrorized anyone yet today, and he certainly didnt want to lose his touch in the terrorizing department.
He occupied his mind with the various ways in which he was going to castigate Buck for most of the drive in, and arrived to find Ezra and the object of his conjectures leaning on the counter of the tiny waiting area. Most of the heavy duty waiting here was done out back, in the cells, and Buck alone seemed to fill up more than half the room. He pulled off his gloves as he came through the door and gave Ezra a nod.
OK, Buck, Im here. Now tell me why.
Theres something I thought you should see, Chris.
Chris gave the pair his best glare.
This better be good.
The cop behind the desk, Keddy according to his name tag, picked up a ring of keys and headed toward the back of the office. He waved first at his partner, then at them to follow.
Eddie? Back in a few. Get the phone, eh?
Eddie grunted his compliance from where he stood in front of the filing cabinet and Chris let Buck and Ezra lead the way. They paused at a set of barred doors and waited for the electronic sentry to allow them through, then made their way down another overly bright corridor and through another set of doors. Chris felt like a rat in a maze- he had been in this place, and other places like this, more times than he could count, but he still felt trapped even on this side of the bars.
It had obviously been a busy day- the cells were full, and a heady cocktail of sweat and vomit, anger and resignation assailed Chriss nostrils as they made their way deeper into the warren. Finally Keddy halted in front of one of the cages, punched some numbers into a panel on the wall, and handed Buck the keys.
Ive overridden the electronic lock. If you want to go in, its this key here. When you leave, lock up with the key and press the red button there. Theyll see you on the monitors as you come down the hall and let you out. I dont think hell give you any trouble- hes not in any shape to do much of anything right now. Hes the last one left of that bunch- the rest were all taken up and arraigned or made bail. Ill be out front.
Chris looked through the bars to see a form huddled on the metal cot, face turned to the wall. Young, he thought. Dirty faded jeans, worn navy- blue windbreaker, mop of dark blond hair. He turned to face his friends.
And I am here because
It was Ezras turn to speak, and he did so without taking his eyes off the unmoving body before them.
You are aware that I was with Team Three today in the execution of the final stages of our overlapping agendas in the matter of one David Haggerty. You will be pleased to know that things went off without a hitch and Team Three was successful in their endeavours. We were executing the warrants- making a full sweep so to speak- gathering up all and sundry, including those who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong-
Ezra, for Gods sake, spit it out.
Ezra cleared his throat and for the first time, Chris noticed that this wasnt just Ezra being his usual overly verbose self. The unflappable undercover agent was- nervous? No, not that so much as shaken.
Chris? Buck finally took charge of the conversation and inclined his head in the direction of the bunk. In there? Its Vin.
Chris felt his heart jump as he turned to look at the body once more. It couldnt be. Not here, after all this time. Not like this.
That wasnt Vin.
He turned away and started back down the corridor. If this was Bucks idea of a joke- well, it just wasnt funny. In his heart he knew better- Buck could never be that cruel. Life could be, he had first hand knowledge of that fact. And not just could be- had been, as a matter of fact- first taking Sarah and Adam, and then Vin from him. In the long and lonely years after the deaths of his wife and son, he had actually started to think he had earned his way back into someones good books when Vin and JD came to live with them. But the reprieve had lasted only three short years before fate stepped in once more and decreed that he didnt deserve to be happy. It had nearly killed him, to lose his family all over again, and even though he was convinced he would never survive, he was surprised to find he did. Perhaps he had never put it all behind him, but he had soldiered on, thanks to Buck and JD, and he just knew he couldnt bear to have his world upended once again.
It had been five years since Social Services had been notified that Vin Tanner was really Michael James Parks and discovered that Michaels mother, Trina Parks, was still very much alive. The boy had been apprehended when he was five, with the proviso that once Trina got her life together custody would be returned to her. Somehow, Vin had disappeared from his foster home in San Antonio Texas, and managed to find his way to Denver where Chris and Buck found him and JD living on the streets. Child Protection Services had done what they could to uncover Vins background, but the boy was adamant in his insistence that his mother was dead and that he had never know his father. It was evident to all concerned that he had been badly abused both physically and emotionally during the course of his short life. Vin had been the object of much counseling and intervention, but even the child psychologists were unable to unlock the secrets the boy carried with him. His life and JDs were finally stable and secure. They flourished in this unconventional little family and over time Chris and Buck came to earn the full support of the social workers and all others involved in the boys case.
But ironically it was this very security and trust that triggered the events that would ultimately destroy the family and shatter Chriss life once again.
It seemed that Vin had changed his name, back when he left Texas, partly to sever his connection with a life that had treated him so cruelly, and partly to protect himself from ever having to return to it. But the guilt he felt at lying to the people he loved grew more burdensome the older he got. When he finally broke down and confessed the truth to Chris and Buck, they felt they had to do the right thing and advise Child Protection Services, who in turn contacted Vins mother.
She came to Denver then, every inch the wronged innocent, vowing to reclaim custody, overwhelming Vin in an avalanche of unspent motherhood. Chris and Buck were trying to do the right thing-give the young woman the opportunity to see that her son was loved and cared for, and give their son the opportunity to know his mother. They had no idea that Trina Parks would contest the adoption and try to take Vin from them. They and everyone around them were sure no court would order Vin returned to her, but they were haunted by the knowledge that stranger things had happened. Chris and Buck, hoping that the matter could be resolved in an agreeable manner, encouraged Vin to have contact with his mother. Every time she had supervised visits with her son at the offices of Childrens Services, Vin sat mutely in the corner and refused to even so much as look at her. Matters came to a head, however, when she was granted permission to have him for an overnight visit. He had gone, under protest, and stayed less than an hour before walking out of her motel room and into the snow. He was found a day later, on the side of the road on his way back to the ranch, wet, cold and crying for the only father he had ever known. He had come home only to be stricken with pneumonia, and it was while he lay delirious and semi- conscious in a hospital bed that his mother had spirited him away.
Chris and the team had done everything within their power to find their boy. They called in every favour that was ever owed them. They used every connection they possessed, alone and as a group, to try to track Vin down. They had the FBI, and all the police departments in Colorado and Texas, on the case. They were in regular contact with every missing childrens agency operating in the country, had Vins picture in every train and bus station and airport for miles around. Nettie Wells, his social worker, had been their eyes and ears in the Social Services department and its related government agencies, but they had never found any trace of either Vin or Trina Parks. Ms. Wells explained that disappearing with a child wasnt really all that difficult if one put ones mind to it, as long as you kept away from others, lived on the fringes of society, and moved on whenever anyone cast a suspicious glance your way. As the first year slipped by with no news, Chris was firm in his hope that he would hear from Vin once again. He was certain that, given half a chance, Vin would find a way to contact him. But as the months turned into a second year with no word, and then a third, Chris saw that hope dwindle away with every day that passed.
It was a long time before Chris allowed himself to think of Vin as gone for good. Not gone the way that Adam was, perhaps, but just as dead to him. And he was surprised to find that even this living death, where there really was no death involved, was every bit as painful, and caused him to suffer just as much.
It had broken Chriss heart to lose a son a second time, and there was no way he was going to risk that hurt again.
He was half way out the door by the time Buck and Ezra caught up with him. They followed him down the corridor and through the office, pleading with him to hear them out, and the only thing that stayed his course was his best friends unyielding grip on his arm.
Buck. Get your hands off me.
Cmon Chris. Youve gotta listen to me. I think Vins fallen on some hard times, and hes in trouble. You cant tell me that you havent spent every day for the last four and a half years wonderin where he was, what hes been up to and prayin that hes all right. We might notve been able to be there for him these last few years, but maybe we can help him now. If hes ever meant anything to us, I think we owe him that much.
Chris ran a hand over his face and turned to his teammates.
I cant let myself . I just dont have the energy to go through this any more. His voice dropped to a whisper. Hes not that same little kid we took in eight years ago. Hes almost grown up, and God knows where hes been, what hes been through, who he is .. Id say its not a good sign that were finding him here- in jail . Chris got himself under control and went on. Whats that all about anyway? Have you talked to him? What does he have to say for himself?
Buck and Ezra exchanged glances, as if trying to decide who should fill him in. It was Ezra who took up the torch.
Well, to start at the beginning- Ezra must have seen the look on Chriss face, because he held up his hand reassuringly. Yes, yes Mr. Larabee, Ill make it brief. We received a tip that the buy was to be taking place at a club on Carlton Street, and we proceeded there in anticipation of that event unfolding as per our information. It was decided that as soon as I was inside and everyone was in position, it would be expedient to make a clean sweep of the area. We would take every one in, and separate the wheat from the chaff at our leisure. Everything went as planned- we were able to detain the subjects of our investigation, and they have all been remanded and bound over until court on Monday morning. It wasnt until we were sifting through the assorted leftovers that it came to my attention that one of our guests was none other than young Mr. Tanner. Unfortunately, he definitely appears to be under the influence of some mind- altering substance, and indeed a vial of pills was found on his person. Preliminary examination seems to suggest they are Oxycontin, a drug that has found some favour as a heroin substitute. It would *appear* that Mr. Tanner was either trafficking, or intending to traffic in said drug. The odd thing is, once I realized who he was, I questioned all of our various players and hangers- on in relation to todays events and no one seems to recognize him or to have any knowledge of him. And I verily believe that to be the truth.
So hes lying in there hopped up on drugs, and you two think we should step in and try to help him. Chris couldnt help but voice his skepticism. *I* dont think we should get involved.
We cant just leave him here.
OK, Buck, what exactly did you have in mind?
Well, well take him home with us and-
Take him home! This isnt a stray dog were talking about! Were talking about a kid we havent set eyes on or heard from in over four years, and you want to have him waltz back into our lives just like that?
Buck looked at Chris, confusion clouding his affable features.
But hes our-
Our what? Responsibility? No hes not. Hes picked up carrying drugs, we find him in jail, and he looks like hes in the throes of withdrawal? I say we leave now. And we can pretend this was all a bad dream- well just forget this ever happened.
Buck bristled and drew his shoulders back.
I was going to say, hes our son.
I realize this has been a shock, Ezra stepped between them, but I know I speak for all of us when I say I have no intention of walking away from that young lad who so obviously needs us right now. Theres no question there are serious matters to be considered. Ezra paused and Chris could almost see the wheels turning. I have taken the liberty of speaking with the DA and Mr. Kontak assures me that even though charges have been laid, he is prepared to release Mr. Tanner on his own recognizance to appear in court on the day appointed.
Chris had often marveled at Ezras skill when dealing with the populace of the world at large, and himself in particular, and he found himself silently thankful that the undercover agent was so talented in this regard.
So whats he been charged with? Possession? Trafficking?
I am afraid the charges are trafficking, and procuring a drug without a proper prescription- the belief is that he was likely involved in a some sort of double doctoring scam which would explain the fact that the bottle he had on his person bore his name.
Ezra frowned and paused a moment.
Vin might not be too happy once he realizes that weve basically kidnapped him and spirited him away, but while that may be the case, we cannot turn him loose on the streets of Denver in his present condition. Ultimately, perhaps we will have to enroll him in some sort of a rehabilitation facility- let the professionals deal with him- but I dont think the drug treatment centres will take just anyone who shows up at their door. Hed have to have a referral, and would probably have to show some willingness to accept treatment.
Yeah, youre right Ez, but its too late today to look into anything like that. We should be able to handle him- theres three of us- four once Nate gets there. Besides, were just assuming hes stoned. Maybe hes just
What Buck? Tired?
Now Chris, before you go all high and mighty on us, Ez and I have run through the data base and theres no record of either Michael James Parks or Vincent Michael Tanner ever getting so much as a parking ticket .well, Im sure Junior doesnt have a car, but you get my point.
Chris groaned. Why did Buck have to go and call Vin Junior? Maybe he could still have managed to walk away if that nickname hadnt conjured up a small fine- featured face and the bluest eyes hed ever seen. Why did he let Buck do this to him? It was a terrible thing, to be cursed with a best friend who knew you better than you knew yourself.
We have a call in to Netties office but we havent heard back from her yet. Buck seemed to have easily forgotten that a mere three minutes ago he and Chris were at odds.
Chris let out a tired sigh. They were right. He was having a hard time convincing himself that he was prepared to walk out on the boy he had come to love as his own. He looked again at his coworkers.
OK, so whats the plan.
Like Ezra said, the police are ready to release him. We just have to pick up his appearance notice at the desk, collect his stuff, and we can take him out to the ranch with us.
Buck looked at Chris as if he was expecting an argument. If he was surprised when Chris merely nodded in agreement, he didnt let it show.
I thought maybe we could stop by Nathans on the way, but I remembered that he and Rain were going to the theatre tonight. I left a message on their machine and asked him to give us a call when they come in.
Chris sighed in resignation as he let the outer door swing shut and turned to follow his friends into the bowels of the precinct building once more.
The keys rattled noisily in Bucks hand as he went through them. He finally found the one he was looking for and inserted it into the slot in the big metal door, and it rolled noiselessly open on its track. Buck was the first to go inside, then Ezra, and Chris just stood. Now that he was finally here, only feet away from the boy he had lost but never forgotten, he didnt think he could move. He watched as Buck rolled the unresponsive form over onto its back and brushed the hair away from the pale face.
Hey, Junior. Remember me? Its Buck.
When he saw the eyelashes flutter and the first hint of blue peering through their length, it occurred to him that perhaps it was a good thing that his legs werent working, for all he wanted to do right then was turn and run away as fast as he could. He couldnt look away from that face, though. It was several minutes before Vins eyes seemed to focus and Chris could see the recognition glinting there.
Buck? How did you know ..you came?
The question was no more than a whisper.
You been waitin on me Pard?
Chris could see that Buck was making no effort to hide the fact that his voice was choked with emotion, and Vin lifted a hand to touch his face.
Yeah, Buck, I reckon I have.
Suddenly, the rough voice faltered and Vins eyes widened slightly. He grunted as he rolled onto his side once more and his body curled into itself. His jaw clenched and his breath hissed in and out over gritted teeth, but when Buck reached over to rub his back, Vin jolted further away across the mattress. For a long minute they all stood and listened to the controlled sounds of Vin breathing through a bout of what appeared to be pain, and no one moved until finally they saw his body relax again.
Maybe he should go to the hospital.
Chris stepped through the door then, and he could see Vin attempt to shove himself up on his elbow.
All of a sudden Buck moved aside and Chris took his place on the cot. He reached out and felt the arms go around his neck, felt the too thin body trembling against his shoulder and the wet stain of tears on his shirt.
Chris knew he was crying too. Crying for what he had lost, and for what had been returned to him. He didnt know what tomorrow had in store, but right now, it didnt matter. All that mattered was at this moment encircled in his arms and pressed tight against his heart.
If only it could always be this simple.
But it could never be. Simple, that is. Chris had lived long enough to know this to be true. If things were simple they would have helped Vin to the Ram, driven out to the ranch, and all lived happily ever after.
The part about helping Vin out to the Ram came to pass. The drive out to the ranch- it was going OK.
It was the happily ever after part that Chris didnt dare think on.
Vin fell asleep before they made it outside the city limits. Held upright mostly by the seatbelt across his chest, the shaggy head- badly in need of a haircut- lolled awkwardly against the glass of the passenger side door. He looked even paler than he had under the merciless glare of the fluorescent lights of the jail, and Chris felt the worry quicken in his blood when Vin failed to respond when he softly called his name. He reached out to shake Vins arm, and was somewhat relieved when he mumbled and shifted under his touch. Chris still couldnt help but feel they were making a mistake, bringing Vin home with them like this. He was convinced that once Vin sobered up, he wouldnt remember agreeing to come along and Chris was concerned as to what his reaction would be.
He really could use a drink, and the thought flickered in his brain that maybe he could duck into the house for a quick one before Vin came around and Buck arrived home behind him. However, there was always the chance that he wouldnt find himself in need of Jacks numbing solace for a good long time. Or maybe by the time the sun rose a scant few hours later he would be wishing for the comfort of a soft chair and hard liquor.
One never could tell.
Oh, God, the coffee. Had he mentioned it to Buck as they left the precinct parking lot? He couldnt remember. He decided hed play the optimist and put the water on to boil nonetheless. But first he had to get Vin inside.
It proved not to be as difficult a task as he had feared. Unsteady as Vin was, Chris was expecting the collapse and when it came he merely scooped the boy into his arms, carried him through the door and laid him on the couch. He reached for the lamp and stood at the edge of the circle of yellow light as he examined the form before him. Vin weighed practically nothing, and he looked as unsubstantial lying there as he had felt while in Chriss arms. His face was just as Chris remembered- young and vulnerable and innocent, although Chris knew there was no way he could still be the latter. He didnt even want to think about what this child had likely been through.
He was about as sad as he cared to be at the moment.
His reflections were interrupted by the sound of a vehicle in the lane, and he went to the back door to see whether Buck needed a hand. By the time he got there, Buck and Ezra were both on their way up the steps, loaded down with the bounty of a hasty trip to the department store. The first thing on the agenda was a quick dip in the tub, and it took all three of them to wrangle a semi- aware Vin out of this clothes. Buck and Chris lifted him into the guest room bath, Chris holding his head as Buck ran him under the soap and water, then they dried him off and wrestled him into a new pair of pyjama pants and a white tee shirt. Vin seemed moderately aware through most of the procedure, but thankfully not cognizant enough to be embarrassed by their ministrations. He looked marginally better with his hair freshly washed and out of the foul smelling clothes that were headed for the garbage can, but he was still too white and too obviously exhausted for their liking.
Maybe Ill go put on some soup. Buck was gathering up the towels as he spoke. That boy doesnt look like hes eaten since .he left us. I aint never seen anybody that skinny. It cant be healthy.
Buck stopped by the bed and stared into the blue eyes looking drowsily up at him.
MOK Buck. Aint hungry. Jist tired.
OK, well let you get some shut eye. Well check in on you in a bit.
Vin sighed when Chris reached out and pulled the blankets up and let his hand linger on Vins face.
Chris? Thanks. For ..thanks.
And then he was asleep.
Chris went to bed late. He and Buck and Ezra had eaten a hastily concocted supper, and spent an unsettled evening drinking coffee- Buck remembered- in front of the television with the volume set on mute. They checked Vin regularly, but he hadnt stirred. He seemed to be breathing normally, and to be truly asleep, so they had phoned Nathan and told him he could wait til the morning to stop out and have a look at him. Chris thought he heard Vin up through the night- thought he could hear the muffled sounds of him being sick- but when he crept out into the hall to listen at his door, all was quiet. He went back to his room then and fell into an uneasy slumber, and didnt awaken until the cold rays of a watered- down sun came poking in at the blinds. It wasnt the light, but a sound that roused him. He found himself once again heading for Vins door when he realized the noise was coming from the kitchen. He made his way in that direction, only to come face to face with Vin at the end of the hall. Clutched in his hands were the filthy clothes Buck had done up in a trash bag the night before.
We put clean clothes out for you, Bud.
Yeah, thanks- I jist had t git somethin out of m pocket.
Theres nothing in your pockets.
Chris knew this to be true as they had gone through them after Vin fell asleep. Vin merely stood and stared.
The drugs are gone. The police have them.
That was it.
Not the reaction Chris had been expecting. He thought Vin would have had something to say on the subject.
Excuses, explanations, apologies.
Do you remember us bringing you out here last night?
Yeah. I guess. Sort of. Thanks.
Weve got some stuff to catch up on. Things to talk out. Discuss.
Suddenly, it struck Chris that Vin wasnt the same half- dead creature they had carried into the house the night before. Well, he still looked half- dead, but something in his eyes had changed and it took a moment for Chris to realize what it was.
Vin was afraid.
It was as if he wanted to ask Chris a question, but wasnt sure whether he wanted to hear the answer.
Chris forced himself to relax, let the tension leave his body, gentled his voice.
What is it Vin? Tell me whats wrong.
Vin licked his lips and his face grew even paler.
Where ..wheres JD?
Chris should have known. The dread he read in Vins face and body language was not for himself.
Some things never changed.
Hes not here- I mean, hes away for the weekend-
That was all Vin needed to hear. Chris could see that the relief flooding that frail body was too much for him to bear, and he stepped forward just in time to catch Vin as he slumped toward the floor.
He pressed his face into the shuddering teens hair and held him tight. He couldnt believe how right this felt, to have his boy in his arms once more.
Its OK Cowboy, Ive got you, he whispered, Its OK.
This was how Buck found them, half an hour later, still huddled up together on the hall floor. Chris slanted his eyes in the direction of the bedroom and Buck bent down without a word and lifted Vin so Chris could stand.
Back to bed? Buck kept his voice at a whisper.
Chris nodded and when he saw Buck had everything under control, he headed into the kitchen to start the coffee. It was early- early for a Saturday, he thought, and a glance at the clock revealed it was seven twenty three. He leaned up against the counter and stared out the window as he waited for the kettle, and that was how Buck found him.
Buck sighed and ran a big hand through his hair.
I dont know. Hes been sick- made it into the bathroom- cleaned up after himself.
Yeah, I thought I heard him last night. I guess we should have Nathan check him out. He seemed pretty lucid this morning, when he was awake. But then again, Ive never seen anybody coming down off drugs. I dont know what to expect.
There was a lull in the conversation while Chris made the coffee, and nothing more was said until they were both seated at the table with a steaming mug in their hands.
I guess theres not much we can do until we talk with him. Its not like hes a little kid anymore- hes what? Fifteen? I dont think theres too much we can make him do if he doesnt want to.
Yeah, Buck, I know. Another silent moment slipped by. Do you suppose hes been here in Denver all along and we just didnt know?
No, I think we would have heard something if he was.
Chris couldnt help but hope that Buck was right. He couldnt even bring himself to think of Vin living on the very same streets he drove each day to work, crouching in the shop doorways, huddling over the steam vents.
His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a sleepy looking Ezra who came stumbling toward the stove. He picked up the coffee pot and stood staring stupidly, as if he had never seen one before.
You can have a mug, Ez.
Thank you so much, Mr. Wilmington. Contrary to what you might think, I am not intending to ingest my first caffeine the day straight from the carafe. I just had a thought, however. I could have sworn that you gentlemen were in receipt of the Cadillac of coffee makers from yours truly just this past Christmas. I think I am offended to find that you still insist on employing this outmoded and highly inconvenient method of brewing your morning beverage.
Chris and Buck exchanged guilty glances.
Philistines, both of you.
Ezra huffed and reached into the dishwasher for a cup, which he filled as he shuffled toward a chair.
How fares our young houseguest?
He was awake and up earlier, but weve ferried him back to bed. He was sick, through the night- Chris heard him up. Buck took another sip from his mug and looked at Chris. I meant to ask. What were the two of you doing out there in the hall?
He was looking for his clothes. Probably needed a fix.
Weve got to get Nate out here. If he hasnt called by nine, well have to give him a ring. Vin hasnt eaten anything yet, has he? No wonder the poor kid passed out.
I dont think that was it. He asked me where JD was. I think he thought JD had been taken away too. He was so scared- you should have seen the look on his face when I told him JD was just away for the weekend. Ive never seen anybody look that .
I dont know ..relieved.
He stood and took his mug to the sink.
Im going to check in on him now, then Im going to grab a shower.
He left then and started down the hall, slowing as he approached Vins door. It was slightly ajar and he paused there a moment, listening, and hearing nothing, pushed it open and went inside. Vin was lying on the edge of the bed, but there was nothing about his posture that spoke of sleep. His face was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, his body held tight against the pain.
Its started, Chris thought as he went toward him. God help us.
Vin? Are you all right?
Vin didnt even look up when Chris said his name.
OK stupid question.
Tell me where it hurts. Maybe I can do something -
No. You cant.
Vins eyes were squeezed shut, and he began to pant.
Kin ya take me t my place, Chris? Please? I gotta git somethin.
Maybe weve got something here thatll make you feel better.
I need m stuff. Its at m place. Please take me there.
I cant do that Vin. You cant have any more drugs. I know its going to hurt for a while, but youll be OK. Youve got to kick this thing, and were here to help you do it.
Vin moaned softly.
No, Chris, ya dont understand.
Chris had taken a seat on the edge of the mattress, and Vin caught at his wrist when he went to stand.
Im not going anywhere. Im just going to get a cloth to wipe your face. Its bad now, but itll get better.
No. I gotta go back t my place.
Vin. Let go. He reached to prise Vins fingers away. Youve got to get these drugs out of your system. You might not be too happy with me for awhile, but in the long run, youll be glad you did this.
You aint got no right to keep me here iffen I dont want t stay. And I dont. Please take me home.
Vin seemed to have gathered up every ounce of energy he had to make his stand, and he managed to push himself up against the headboard to glare at Chris.
Chris glared back. He had no intention of giving in to Vins demands. He obviously was in no condition to know what was best for him.
I dont need ya t drive me back t town. Ill git a cab.
And just how do you propose to pay for it? Last time I looked, you had no money.
Ill jist call Miz Nettie and shell-
Nettie? Youve been in touch with her? How long have you been back in Denver? Chris couldnt believe that the no- nonsense social worker had known of Vins whereabouts and had said nothing to him.
Where have you been these last four years? Did you ever plan to let us know what had become of you? Do you have any idea what Ive been through, worrying about you day and night, wondering if you were all right, not knowing whether you were dead or alive?
This was a conversation Chris had been playing over and over in his head- ever since he set eyes on Vin last night. He knew everything was coming out wrong- he knew he sounded hard and cold and resentful, but somehow he just couldnt stop himself. He saw that anger reflected back at him in Vins steely gaze.
Yeah, Chris, I think I do.
Buck chose that moment to come breezing into the room and if he felt a chill in the air, he didnt let on.
Hey, youre awake! Howre you feeling this morning? You actually look like you got a bit of colour in your cheeks. Dont you think so Chris?
Chris knew that anger had put that colour there, but he said nothing.
What can I get you for breakfast? Toast? Eggs? Cereal? All of the above?
I aint real hungry Buck. Thanks anyway. I gotta be headin back t town soon.
Back to town? What ?
Hes not going anywhere. Chriss tone brooked no argument. You keep an eye on him. Im going to call Nathan.
With that, he headed for the den. He stopped in the doorway when he saw Ezra was on the phone, and turned to leave so as not to disturb him. Ezra caught sight of him and motioned him to enter, so Chris went to his chair and sank into the soft leather cushions. He frowned when he thought about his conversation with Vin. Realistically he knew it was highly unlikely that Vin would simply walk back into their lives completely compliant and ready to obey their every command. He had been foolish to let himself hope that perhaps things wouldnt be as difficult as they seemed to have become. Perhaps they shouldnt be pushing Vin right now. God knew he didnt want to alienate him, but he certainly wasnt capable of looking after himself at the moment. What had Vin meant when he said- or implied- that Nettie Wells would help him? Did she know Vin was involved with drugs?
He would call Nate first, and then call Nettie. Chris knew they had her phone number around somewhere and he had to get some answers. Soon. They were never going to be able to deal with Vin at all until they knew more, but somehow Chris was afraid no matter how much they found out, it was never going to be enough.
But right now, he would take what he could get.
He was so occupied with these thoughts that he failed to notice that Ezra had finished his conversation. He was sitting on the arm of the couch, tapping a pencil on the palm of his hand, just as lost in his own thoughts as Chris had been in his.
Who were you talking to at this hour? Was that Nathan?
No, it was not. I was merely attempting to garner some information with respect to young Mr. Tanner. In the matter of the drug charges.
Who the hell would be willing to talk to you about that on a Saturday morning?
You would be surprised, Mr. Larabee. I can be very persuasive when I want.
Did you ever think that a lot of your success is the result of your annoying habit of badgering the living daylights out of people? To the point where it is easier for them to just give in to you, in the hopes that youll go away and leave them alone?
Ezras grin told Chris all he needed to know on that subject.
I thought so. So, Detective Columbo, what have you managed to find out?
Information. Interesting information. I think I shall be returning to the city posthaste to follow up on it. You would be amazed how much more accommodating people are when you take the time to interact with them face to face.
You mean, youre even harder to ignore when you show up on their back step with your foot in their door. You must have been an encyclopedia salesman in another life.
I have been many other things in many other lives, Mr. Larabee.
Chris could see the glint of a gold tooth in that smile. As infuriating as Ezra was, and that was most of the time, he was a good man to have on ones team.
Im going to give Nate a call and then Im going to get in touch with Ms. Nettie. Vin wants to go back to Denver- he says we cant keep him here against his will .but Im worried about him.
Well, perhaps it is best to avoid giving him any excuse to estrange himself from you right now. I am sure you will find him more amenable to accepting your help and support if you consider his wishes in all of this. You cannot force yourself and your will on him- if you do, you will likely end up driving him further away.
I know, I know . But I find it so hard to just stand back and watch him destroy himself with drugs.
Ezra passed the phone into Chriss waiting hand.
Did you ever consider for a moment that perhaps that is not what hes doing?
Do you know something youd like to share with the rest of us?
No, just asking a question. Ezra looked thoughtfully at Chris. Mr. Tanner was always a highly resourceful individual. I am willing to guess that no matter what misfortune may have befallen him that he has still retained some of his innate common sense and superior survival skills. All I am saying is, it might behoove you to give him a little latitude. Have Dr. Jackson look him over, and if he is of the opinion that it is safe for Mr. Tanner to return to his domicile on his own, I think you should accede to his requests.
Chris ran a hand over his face and sighed. Much as he didnt want to admit it, he knew Ezra was right. Given Vins age, he might not still be a ward of the state. He was almost old enough to quit school if he so wished, drive a car, father a child, live on his own. If he wanted to be a part of this boys life in any way, he would have to start treating Vin like the young man he had become. Much as Chris might wish to deny it, Vin was no longer the impressionable ten year old who had worshipped the very ground Chris walked on. His heart ached when he thought on all he had missed, but he shoved those thoughts aside as he dialed Nathans number. He would do what had to be done today, and worry about tomorrow when it came.
Chris called Nathan, and it was decided that since Vin insisted on being returned to the city anyway, it made more sense for them to drop in at the medics rather than have him drive out to them. Buck had tried his best to persuade Vin to stay- Chris stood back and let him go ahead, knowing that even Bucks trump card- his plea that Vin should at least stay til Sunday night so he could see JD- would have no effect on the determined teen. Vin had wavered though, at the mention of his little brother, but the indecision Chris saw flickering in those blue eyes was short- lived.
I do want t see him, Buck, really I do. But not right now- not when Im like this. Dont tell him I was here, OK? Not til I tell ya to ..I jist dont know where things is goin with me and all .and I dont want him t know about me jist yet. Promise yall wont tell him? Please?
Buck shook his head, and was about to argue the point when Chris spoke up.
Dont worry Vin. We wont say anything. He held up a hand to silence his best friend, who wasnt about to concede as easily. No, Buck, if its what Vin wants, well do it. Hes not saying he doesnt ever want to see JD- just not right now.
Buck had relented, and then tried to convince Vin to have some breakfast.
How about some tea and toast. My Mamma always said when you aint feeling your best, tea and toastll go a long ways to curing what ails you.
Vin broke down in the face of Buck in full mother hen mode, and managed to sit at the table and wash down two pieces of dry toast before they set out on the road.
So here they were. In addition to breakfast, Buck had managed to force a coat on Vin. It was JDs, an old one he no longer wore- too loose across the shoulders and too short in the sleeves for Vin- but right now he almost looked content settled between the two of them in the front seat of the Ram, dozing in the stifling blast of the trucks heater. They had almost reached the city limits when Vin suddenly jerked awake.
Buck- Im gonna- ya gotta-
Vins hand flew to his mouth and his eyes widened as Buck hastily pulled the Ram over to the shoulder. Chris leapt out and helped Vin from his seat and watched as Vin staggered the length of the vehicle to disappear around the end. He waited as several minutes passed and the painful sounds of retching diminished. He was about to go and give Vin a hand when he reappeared, white- faced and unsteady, ready to make his way back inside.
As Buck pulled away once more, Chris could feel Vin shaking in the seat beside him. He looked down and caught a glimpse of a pale hand as it disappeared into the pocket of JDs coat.
Buck! Hold up for a minute!
Buck pulled hard on the wheel and angled toward the shoulder once more.
But Chris was out of the truck and trudging through the white of last nights snowfall to the spot where Vin had been. It wasnt hard to find, the site where the snow was trampled and hastily kicked over the unsightly mess beneath it. Chris cleared it aside with the toe of his boot, and what he saw made his stomach clench.
It was blood.
Deep red against the blinding brilliance of the frozen crystals. Unfurling now, like a spreading flower in a garden of frost, terrifying in its beauty.
Chris turned and strode back to the open door of the cab. He reached in gently and removed the thin hand from the shelter of the pocket, and there it was. A dark pink smear running across the bony knuckles.
Why didnt you tell us?
Vins shoulders twitched and he looked away.
Buck. Were heading to Mercy General. Ill call Nathan and tell him to meet us there.
They wont take me.
Vins voice was flat and matter of fact.
Yes, they will.
I caint pay.
You let us worry about that. Are you going to help us out here- you know, to figure out whats going on- or do we have to keep guessing?
Vin merely shrugged through the shivering and Chris reached and pulled the blond head to rest on his shoulder.
You can tell us later. Weve got lots of time.
He had said it almost without thinking, but now Chris was beginning to fear that he might be wrong.
Perhaps time was something they did not have lots of.
When they arrived at the hospital, Buck pulled up at the Emergency room doors and Chris, despite Vins protests, had gone inside to procure a wheelchair. Their visit with the triage nurse took longer than it should have. Vin had been seen previously by a doctor at Denver Regional, on the other side of the city, and Chris insisted that his files should be transferred over the fax machine to Mercy General. Some of Vins previous hospital visits had been funded by Social Services, and it seemed it would take some period of time to apply to have them authorize any further medical intervention. Thank goodness for Nathan and Ezra, who arrived just in time to make some sense of the bureaucratic nightmare and spare Chris the frustrations of dealing with hospital staff.
An hour later found him and Vin finally ensconced in an assessment room, waiting for the doctor to appear. Vin was lying on the examination bed, trembling now in pain and exhaustion and Chris was just about to storm the nurses station in an attempt to compel someone to deal with them. The unsuspecting staff was spared the horrors of Chris in a fit of righteous indignation when the doctor finally arrived.
He perched on the rolling metal stool and peered down over his glasses at the file in his hand, then looked over at Vin.
So, Mr. Tanner, what can we do for you today?
Chris bit his tongue and waited for Vin to respond.
Well, I guess I aint feelin so good.
Vin- this is a damn sight more serious than you not feeling so good. Tell the doctor whats been going on.
The doctors gaze swiveled from Vin to Chris and back again.
Is this your father?
This heres Chris Larabee. Hes my friend. Vins voice was low, his words slurring slightly.
Do you feel comfortable discussing your condition with this man present?
Yeah, ya kin talk about me in front a him. There was a brief pause, and Chris heard Vin add, for his benefit only, Hed likely jist glare the information outta ya anyways.
Chris pulled his chair closer to the cot and took Vins hand in his own.
You watch your mouth there, Pard. You dont want to be getting on my bad side now.
Vin grinned up at him and gave Chriss fingers a squeeze.
Guess yer right. I aint never fergot the scary sight- Vins breath caught for a moment and he tightened his grip on that strong hand, of a hoppin mad Chris Larabee.
And if you know whats good for you, you never will.
They asked endless questions and filled out forms, they ran tests and took blood samples, they conferred and discussed. Chris was exhausted at the end of it, and all hed had to do was sit and hold Vins hand throughout. He could see that Vin was beyond tired, although he had been given something to help with the pain. The doctor wanted to keep him at least over night, and maybe longer, depending on what the test results were. They were preparing to move Vin up to his room, and Chris was ordered out to the lobby to wait. Buck and Nathan and Ezra were there, and they crowded around him, anxious for information. He told them as much as he knew, which at that point wasnt a whole lot. Only that Vin was a very sick young man, and the various doctors who had dealt with him both here and at Denver Regional were going to confer on his condition tomorrow and he would know more then.
Im going to stay the night with him. Theres no need for the rest of you to stick around.
Junior needs us. Im not going anywhere.
I would just as soon stay as well, if that meets with your approval. I have some interesting information to share, but I would rather impart it to you before we ascend to commence our bedside vigil.
He means he doesnt want Vin to hear it.
Thanks, Nate, but I think after all this time we can all understand Ezra speak.
OK, Ezra. Spill already. Buck looked at Chris. He wouldnt tell us anything until you got here.
Yes. Well. Where to begin Ezra leaned back in his chair. You will recall this morning Mr. Larabee, that I was engaged in conversation on the telephone with regard to our Mr. Tanner. I was speaking with the DA in the Haggerty case, and ascertained from him that ADA Jarvis will be handling the matter of our unfortunate young friends drug related charges. When I returned to Denver I met in person with Mr. Jarvis- he has a most charming home- spectacular view of the mountains and his partner- Anderson- in the accounts department in our building- has exquisite taste in-
Chris cleared his throat noisily and frowned at the southerner.
They were having coffee when I arrived and kindly invited me to partake. I have communed with Jarvis at social events in the past and have found him to be an exceedingly fair and sensible individual- quite a rarity in the DAs office in my humble opinion-
Another ahem from Chris was all it took to get Ezra back on track.
As I mentioned yesterday, the vial of pills found on Mr. Tanners person were inscribed with his own name. I had presumed that he had obtained said pills under false pretenses, but upon closer investigation I found that he was indeed issued a legitimate prescription for the drug Oxycontin. When I imparted this knowledge to Mr. Jarvis, he assured me that he would look into the matter further. He assured me that if this indeed turns out to be the case, he surmises that the charges against him will be dropped.
Well, that would be a good thing, Buck declared. I have a feeling Vins got enough on his plate at the moment, and that would be one less things to worry about. Although I have to admit, glad as I am to hear this, it makes me even more worried about that boy.
Yeah, we should be worried. Nathans dark eyes were serious. Its a pretty heavy duty pain killer, and not prescribed lightly. He unfolded his long body from the confines of the chair and stretched. If anything comes up, call me. If youre sure you dont need me to stay, Ill head out now, and come back in the morning. Its Rains night off, and I promised Id cook dinner.
Go ahead, Nate. Like I said, we wont know anything more til tomorrow. Itll be handy to have you around then- to translate the medical stuff for us.
Chris watched as the medic pulled on his jacket and made his way out the door. He turned to his two remaining friends and sighed.
It was going to be a long night.
He must have fallen asleep, and it took him a moment to remember where he was. He looked over at Buck and Ezra, sprawled out in their chairs, heads thrown back, snoring softly. He leaned toward the high metal bed when he heard Vin softly rasp out his name again.
Hey there Bud. Can I get you anything?
A drink mebbe, iffen it aint too much trouble.
Chris held the straw to the pale lips as Vin drank, then set the cup on the nightstand. He moved to return to his chair when felt Vin touch his arm.
Kin ya sit here a bit?
Vin was staring hazily up at him, floating somewhere between addled and aware.
He lowered the rail on the bed and sat facing Vin. Long moments passed, and Chris began to think Vin was asleep once more when he noticed tears leaking out of the corners of the closed eyes and running down Vins temples to soak the pillow.
Vin. What is it? Are you in pain? Do you want me to call the nurse?
Yes- I mean, no- dont call no one. Its jist .Im scared.
Itll be all right- youll see. Youve got me and Buck now, and JD and the others. Whatever this is, well get through it.
But thats jist it. Dont ya see? I werent scared bfore.
Chris waited while Vin took in a breath and tried to compose himself.
I- I got cancer, Chris. I got a tumor in m stomach- least thats what the other doc said. They was givin me some treatments- tryin t shrink it. I dont know whether they had in mind to operate- I dont got no money no how, so I aint sure what they had planned. But I done figured it didnt matter no how-
Dont talk like that, Vin. Chris ran his fingers across the damp forehead and through the tangled curls. Why didnt you get in touch with us? You know wed always be there for you, no matter what.
Back then when Trina took me from the hospital We went out t the coast- t California. She moved around a lot, got welfare when she didnt have no boyfriends t take care a her. I could never figure out what she wanted with me. She didnt never pay me no mind. I got sick a lot, and that made her mad. She drug me around awhile, and after a couple a years, I lit out on m own. Figured Id find m own way back t Denver, hook up with you and Buck and JD. I wanted t be standin on m own two feet when that happened though, so yall wouldnt feel like yas responsible. Ya know- we could be like friends. I didnt git much chance t go t school, and I wanted to git caught up some there and git a job- prove I could take care a mself- I wanted ya t be proud a me.
Vin paused, and Chris could see he was marshalling his strength to continue. He knew the boy shouldnt be wearing himself out with talking, but he couldnt bring himself to stop him.
I got back t Denver goin on six months ago- was goin t school, got mself a coupla jobs- workin at a carwash, rakin leaves, shovellin snow- stuff like that. It werent easy, but I was gittin by. Miz Nettie helped me out some. I asked her not t tell yall I was here. I got myself a room across town in Purgatorio- it aint much but leastways Is outta the weather then about two months back, I got sick. Sicker than I ever bin bfore. Thats when the doc said I got cancer. After awhile I couldnt go t school no more, I couldnt work . I got some money from the welfare folks, but it werent enough. I had t pay fer m room, and fer taxis when it got sos everythin was too far away fer me t walk. The other day at the club? I got t thinkin them pills I had . Maybe I could sell a few. I kept some out fer mself- figured I could jist tough out the pain when I had to. Theys worth a lotta money- about seventy dollars apiece on the street. I hadnt really made up m mind what Is gonna do .I know it were wrong .am I goin t jail? Is sorry, but I jist couldnt call ya. I dont know whats gonna happen t me Chris, and I didnt want t come back, and then go and .you know ..and see ya hurt all over agin.
Vin was choking on the tears then, and Chris pulled him up and moved in behind him, so the boy was leaning back against his chest.
Vin you should have come to us. You should have been worrying about yourself, not about us.
But I was worryin about mself, Chris. I done decided when all this happened that I could handle it. I didnt have nuthin I werent afraid t lose, ya know? Nuthin worth it made it easier, bein sick, thinkin I might die oh, God I wish ya never found me.
Chris hugged the quaking body to him.
Vin, the day before yesterday? When I saw you in that cell? That was the second best day of my life. The first one was when I saw you in that warehouse eight years ago- so small and hurt and needing me more than anyone ever needed me before or since. Well get through this. Just you wait. You concentrate on doing whatever needs to be done to get better, and let us worry about the rest. Well be there with you every step of the way, Pard. Nothing bads going to happen to you. I wont let it. Promise.
Suddenly, he wasnt afraid any more. Vin had been taken from him once and there was no way it was happening again. He could feel it in his bones and in his heart and in his soul.
You do believe me, dont you son?
Chris could feel the body relax against his shoulder as Vin tightened his grip on the arms that circled his chest. It was as if Vin was surrendering his heart to him, his trust, his love, his life.
Yeah, I do, Chris. I surely do.
He pressed a kiss to the top of Vins head and gave a contented sigh. He had not been at peace with the world in a very long time. But he was now. And would be as long as he had this boy in his life.
It was his turn to surrender now.
Vin was home.