Prologue - Chapter Three
Chapter Four - Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight - Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven - Chapter Thirteen
The whinny of hungry horses woke them hours later. The sun had wandered behind the house and the two of them were now in shadow. Chris chuckled at the second light blanket that covered his shoulders. Buck had obviously taken care of them as they both caught some badly needed sleep; how his roommate managed to keep JD quiet was a wonder in itself.
Vin rubbed his eyes and looked quickly around before slipping from Chris' lap. Blinking rapidly, he managed a small smile as he finally focused on his stretching dad.
"Well," Chris said with a yawn. "That was nice." A loud whinny again demanded attention and Chris looked at the corner of the pasture visible from the porch. "Alright, alright already!" he hollered, and then muttered, "Dang varmints nag worse 'n Ezra."
Vin's short laugh and tiny smile instantly lifted Chris' mood.
"We gonna sling chow now?" Vin asked brightly and a lot happier than when they first sat.
Chris was thrilled he'd remembered the phrase used to feed the animals. Without a second thought, he grinned and ruffled Vin's hair. "You bet," he said. "Let's go before they stampede the kitchen."
As Vin took off Chris realized his boy hadn't flinched with the affectionate touch. He headed to the barn with a light heart.
Vin was happily enthusiastic when caring for the horses. Ringo and Elvis kept him company as he went though the barn related chores and spoke often and cheerfully to dogs and horses. Chris had to remind him of what to do, but once reminded, Vin carried out the job completely. Soon, the stalls were cleaned, waters checked and mangers filled in good time. Then, they led each horse in one by one.
Father and son enjoyed the contented, relative quiet of barn's atmosphere side by side, leaning on Peso's stall door. After a few minutes, Chris' peripheral vision caught Vin studying his face. Chris tilted his head just enough to catch his gaze and raised an eyebrow.
Without a word, Vin's reached up and traced the scar that marred his forehead.
"Does it hurt?" Vin asked quietly.
"Not anymore," Chris instantly replied with a lopsided grin, knowing his response went deeper than Vin probably realized. Then again, maybe not, he thought as Vin smiled back at him. "I haven't gotten around to getting it fixed."
"It c'n get fixed?"
"Fixed enough to be less noticeable," he explained. "Only time can fix the inner ones, though."
The sereneness broke with the sound of a truck coming up the drive and Chris' vague wondering about the whereabouts of Buck and JD answered.
"Hey!" JD shouted as he leaped from the truck. "We got Kentucky chickens 'n smashed potatoes!"
At dinner, JD verbal tirade about his day entertained everyone. With the table cleared and the leftovers taken care of, Buck dragged his boy to the bathroom to clean up.
"You comin', Vin?"
Vin, obviously uncomfortable with the idea, absently rubbed the spot where Chris knew the doctor found the cigarette burns. Buck read the body language well.
"Hey, Little Bit, let's let Vin have the tub to himself for a while." He didn't give the boy a chance to argue before scooping him up and making him giggle all the way to the bathroom.
Chris smiled and winked at him as he dropped on the couch and lifted the remote. As he flipped through the channels, Vin wandered around the room eyeing everything. Chris was glad he hadn't changed anything during his son's absence. In the face of the familiar, Vin's tension drained away.
Vin hesitated, though, when he rested his hand on the front doorknob. He looked to Chris with wide, unsure eyes. Chris paused his surfing and nodded. "It's okay, Vin," With a reverence that stoked Chris' anger, Vin carefully and slowly opened the door and stepped outside. Chris nearly crushed the remote as he worked out his anger at Faraday on the device. With his peripheral vision Chris saw that Vin stood unmoving just outside the open door. "It will take time," he reminded himself. Again.
After several minutes Vin stepped back inside and closed the door. Just then, Buck called from the back of the house. "Vin! Time to get ready for bed!" JD squealed in the background.
Chris forced a tired smile and nodded in Buck's direction. "Go on. I'll be along."
Vin trotted down the hall and Chris perked up at the sound of Buck trying to keep control of the two boys as they maneuvered around in the bathroom. As Chris walked down the hall his anger evaporated entirely with the happy noise. Leave it to Buck to get Vin out of himself.
Vin chose to shower while JD brushed his teeth in Buck's bathroom and chose a bedtime book. After brushing their teeth, both boys gratefully sank into their beds. Vin looked exhausted. As Chris pulled the blankets up over the boy, Vin, hugging Cat tightly to his chest and gave a longing look at the window as Buck settled JD, and opened the book.
"Want me to open it a crack?" Chris asked softly. Vin's relieved smile answered the question so Chris worked the window open and returned to his son's bedside, Buck's voice regaling the very shortened tale of Treasure Island.
Only when he gently stroked Vin's soft hair back from his face did Chris allow himself to truly believe that things could get back to normal after all. With his head resting on his pillow, Vin's blink was slow and heavy but his smile was bright. It wasn't long before the weight of his lids couldn't be countered.
Buck closed the book when JD, too, fell asleep, and left it on the small desk. Chris and Buck watched them sleep from the doorway.
"Wasn't sure it would be like this again," Buck said softly as he rested a hand on Chris' shoulder. "Sure feels good."
"Yeah," Chris breathed. "Yeah, it does."
She was crying again.
His view was from a dark corner of the room and his fingers worried the stretched out edge of his t-shirt. He never knew quite what to do to stop her from crying, and had found it best to just wait and be near. When she got like this, his stomach felt twitchy and upset as if a flutter of birds were working to escape his belly.
She'd stop, eventually, and then she'd sleep for a long time. All he could do was throw a blanket over her when her eyes finally closed and wait. He was on his own until she woke up.
Or, until Mr. Jesse came back. He shuddered at that possibility.
"Austin," the woman moaned. Slumped on the sofa she turned her red-rimmed, puffy eyes toward him and raised an arm, beckoning him to come close. "Oh, my little Austin, come here. I've missed you so much!"
Wordlessly, Vin shuffled closer knowing any correction to his name would be futile. When he was close enough, she hooked him with her arm and drew him into a shaky hug. She never noticed how he stiffed at her embraces. He didn't like it, but he'd also learned that fighting it was useless, too; she'd simply cry harder, which was worse.
He felt sorry for her. Miss Grace had been nothing but nice to him since Mr. Jesse brought him here. Once Mr. Jesse made it painfully clear what the boy's role was in this house and he cooperated, the beatings became less frequent. But they didn't cease.
And Miss Grace was always there to comfort him afterward.
Vin felt growing apprehension as she hugged him. The sound of wheels on gravel grew louder. Vin's heart pounded faster when he suddenly realized that the house was a mess.
"He's home!" Vin whispered as he tried to break free. Mr. Jesse would be very angry. "Lemme go!" Vin pleaded. Miss Grace's embraced turned into a choke hold. Her chatter grew louder until her words were an intelligible shriek and still Vin could hear Mr. Jesse's footsteps as he approached the house. "Lemme go!" he pleaded. "We have to clean up!"
The arms around him turned into octopus tentacles, squeezing so tight that he couldn't breathe. Vin heard the key in the lock.
"LET GO! LET GO!" he screamed in the stifling grip. The door opened and a rotten smell hit his nose, turning his stomach. Terror ripped his gut and took his voice, Vin's mouth opened wide and he couldn't breathe.
The big man stepped through the doorway and for a fleeting moment, his face was clear. Then, after seeing the state of the room, Mr. Jesse's face flushed red and he turned toward them.
His face shifted into that of a monster and Vin screamed.
"Vin! Wake up! Vin!"
The waves of terror parted and the voice became clearer. Vin snapped open his eyes and looked wildly around.
"Easy, Cowboy, you're all right. Easy, now."
His heart pounded in his chest as he gasped for air. He felt warm, strong hands on his hips, holding him still. Something soft was tight to his chest in a death clutch. Vin's eyes finally settled on the window.
It was open and the room was different.
"You awake now, son? Vin?"
Vin dazedly scanned the room before meeting Chris' worried gaze.
"You okay now?"
Vin nodded mutely and gulped. The hallway light was on and a warm light angled into the room. His and JD's room. Vin remembered now where he was and without having to look, knew it was Cat he hugged to his chest.
Vin blinked and nodded once, his heart slowing. "JD?"
"He's with Buck. I had a little trouble waking you." Chris' hold on his hips relaxed and Vin felt Chris' wide, warm palm stroked across his cheek, pushing his hair back.
"Sorry," Vin muttered, relaxing his hold on Cat.
"It's all right. I expect it's going to take a little bit to settle in again, Vin." Chris' voice soothed him. "I told you that change is hard. Talking to Dr. Will can help."
Vin shrugged and Chris started to pull back. "No," Vin begged. "Don't go."
Chris smiled and rested his hands on Vin's thighs. "You want to come in with me?"
Vin nodded again as he unwound. Chris pulled him into his arms and off the upper bunk. Vin threw one arm around his father's shoulders and snuggled close, closing his eyes as he took in the soothing scent. The images from the nightmare receded as Vin absorbed Chris' every detail - the way his arms felt, his smell, his voice, his gait, the feel of his muscles under his t-shirt.
Chris flipped off the hall light and turned to his bedroom, talking softly all the while. By the time Chris sat on his bed, Vin's grip on him had relaxed enough that his dad could settle him under the covers and turn off the light. Normally, the darkness would scare him but in this house the windows remained open and unbarred and Vin could see the bright moon between the space in the curtains.
The bed bounced a little as Chris situated himself next to Vin. He felt a protective arm slip under his head and another drape over his waist. "You're safe now, Vin," Chris whispered softly as he drifted to sleep. "I love you, son."
Sleep dragged Vin's eyelids closed.
"I love you, Austin."
He and Miss Grace spent a lot of time together in this house. Miss Grace tried to keep it neat because she, too, was under the rules of Mr. Jesse. There was usually food to be found but Miss Grace didn't really feed him regularly because she didn't eat much herself. Vin managed to find enough to quiet his stomach.
Miss Grace dressed nice but under the colorful clothes was a thin body patterned with lots of scars. Vin couldn't help but notice how they lined her arms and ankles as purplish bumps or bloody bruises. Sometimes they oozed and stained the long sleeves of her shirts.
She never left the house, either. Sometimes they both sat on the front porch, but that was a rare and relished treat for Vin. They both knew if Mr. Jesse found out, there'd be trouble.
Miss Grace spent part of the day teaching Vin and cleaning. The other part spent on the couch after "taking something to relax." She insisted that she would quit "the stuff" because now that her Austin was back she had all she wanted, but she kept putting it off.
"Tomorrow, maybe," she said, petting Vin's hair as the medicine took hold. "I just need a little more time, that's all."
When she rested Vin spent a lot of time with books because the television made Miss Grace act scary. She'd laugh too hard or cry uncontrollably or yell at the screen. When she finally fell asleep, Vin would turn it on and keep the volume low. That way, he could hear when Mr. Jesse got home.
When he was there, Vin noticed that Mr. Jesse looked at Miss Grace with hard eyes. Mr. Jesse kept saying he didn't want to hit her but she just didn't listen and it was for her own good. It was her fault she'd lost her Austin and it could just as well happen again if he eased up on her. Everything Mr. Jesse did was for Miss Grace's own good and she just had to realize that.
That reasoning awoke memories of another life long faded in his memory. He'd lived with people that said the same thing to him after his mama had died. The boy hadn't had anyone on his side back then, but he could at least be on Miss Grace's side now. It was the only thing he had any control over.
So, Vin let her call him Austin and tried to protect her from Mr. Jesse. Maybe if he'd have been older at the time, he could have done the same for his real mama. And maybe when Miss Grace was all better they could run away and find his dad, whose face, he realized, was becoming more difficult to visualize with each passing day.
Vin found himself through the iron bars and outside the dark window. His stomach churned painfully with fear, igniting a burn that didn't allow for sleep. He focused on the land before him, painted bright by the full moon. He couldn't see any other houses nearby. The only signs of other people were tiny dots of light in the distance moving along a road. Mr. Jesse didn't even get any mail here. Vin had no idea where he was. When he asked Miss Grace, she'd say, "Oh, it doesn't matter as long as we're together, Austin." He didn't think she knew or cared.
He'd asked Mr. Jesse once and got painful reminder about asking questions.
Vin scanned the scene closer to the house and saw a pair of trucks parked next to the half-dozen metal containers on the property. Sometimes he saw men loading and unloading the trucks whose license plates were all different colors. Outsiders never entered the house.
The sound of tires on gravel announced Mr. Jesse's return. This spurred Vin to take a final lap of the house, making sure everything looked neat. When Vin circled through the kitchen he saw a newspaper on the counter.
He'd seen Mr. Jesse carrying it around earlier that day, something he'd read in it exciting him to the point of being on the phone most of the morning. Vin peeked at the front page. He recognized the words "Denver Post", and his heart jumped a beat. Now curious, he scanned the front page. His eyes stopped on a photo of a group of people. A uniformed policeman walked next to a handcuffed man. He was about to turn away when a face in the background, behind the cuffed man, caught his attention.
Chris. His Chris. His dad.
Vin froze and instantly felt sick. His vision swam, and he hastily brushed his eyes. The one person he thought he'd never see again and who could save him and Miss Grace.
The sound of a car door slamming announced jerked Vin from his discovery. He ripped off the page and stuffed it in his pocket, then stuffed the rest of the paper in the trash. He ran to the living room and threw a fearful glance toward Miss Grace - she was lying on the sofa, one arm draped to the floor and the light blanket askew. In sleep, her eyebrows frowned and she muttered. Mr. Jesse would not be happy.
Vin's stomach burned. He moved to stand between her and the door, his heart pounding. He heard heavy, booted feet approach the house and keys clatter at the lock. Vin's tummy rolled and his palms turned damp. He made little fists to stop the sweat. The door swung open and Mr. Jesse stepped in, his gaze falling on Vin after a quick sweep of the room. The big man's coal colored eyes narrowed in anger.
"Get out of my way, boy. You're as worthless as she is."
Vin didn't move. They'd played this game before and Vin always lost, but he simply couldn't find it in his heart to stop because it was one of the few things he could do for Miss Grace.
As the big man came closer his arms reached out and turned into monster tentacles, snaring Vin by the neck as he turned to run. The hairy force squeezed him tight and he couldn't breathe . . .
He sat up with a gasp, clutching at his throat and gulping great mouthfuls of air. His heart raced wildly.
"Hey, it's okay," a voice soothed. "Vin? You're okay."
Vin's vision cleared and his gaze dropped to the feel of a hand on his thigh. He blinked at it -Chris' hand. He blinked again and looked up to a worried face. "Chris?" he choked. "Dad?"
His father drew him in and Vin trembled, feeling guilty for waking Chris again. Vin noticed the room was veiled in the gray light of pre-dawn. Safely embraced, he was now able to calm his heart and think.
"They'll fade, Vin." Chris had again read his mind. "The dreams will fade. Dr. Will said that as you start to feel safe again, the dreams will go away. It's like your mind taking out the trash so good thoughts can take their place."
Vin smiled slightly. He liked that comparison but he wasn't sure he believed it. He didn't think he'd ever forget, and not because of what had happened, but because of what hadn't happened.
"I don't . . ." Vin started, trying to pick out the right words to express his conflicted emotions. "I need . . ."
Chris separated enough to look down at his son. "What do you need, Vin?"
He held his father's gaze for a long moment. "I need to know she's okay," he finally said softly. His fingertips nervously twisted a piece of Cat's fur and he dropped his eyes downward. "I'm sorry."
"Vin." Chris lifted the boy's chin with a finger until their gaze met again. "Don't feel guilty. You don't have to apologize. I understand and it's all right. We'll find her."
Satisfied after a few moments of intense scrutiny, Vin nodded and turned away. Chris watched him slide from the bed and head to the bathroom. Chris sank his face into his hands as soon as he heard the bathroom door closed and swore softly.
"Everything okay in here?"
Buck's soft question made Chris twitch in surprise before he looked to his best friend. He should have expected the big man to appear.
"It will be," Chris muttered, finally accepting what he'd been fighting all along. "I think Vin needs to see those surveillance photos after all. He's not going to have any closure until he knows about this Grace woman."
Buck chuckled. "Don't cha just hate it when Travis is right?"
"Shut up, Buck."
That only made the man chuckle again. He disappeared from the doorway, footsteps retreating toward his room.
When Vin was finished in the bathroom he stopped at the side of Chris' bed and plucked at Cat's fur, eyes cast downward. Chris recognized the reluctance.
"What's on your mind?"
"I saw ya in the newspaper," Vin said quietly.
"I know. I found it in your pocket."
Vin continued to pluck Cat. "I heard Mr. Jesse talkin'. I knew the trucks were goin' to Denver."
Chris kept silent so Vin would say what he obviously needed to say.
"He . . . I heard him hit Miss Grace again. I wanted to help her . . ." Vin stopped picking Cat long enough to rub his cheek. Chris wondered if he was rubbing away an old, remembered injury and he had to fight himself to keep still. "But I knew I couldn't so . . . so I sneaked out the window 'n hid in the truck. I knew you'd help her."
Vin's fingers returned to Cat as Chris struggled to keep his initial reactions to himself. "He escaped to save that woman, not himself," Chris realized, angry at the thought. He knew he had to be in control before speaking, and swallowed hard. Instead, he shoved the blankets down and patted the bed. "Come here," he whispered.
Vin crawled in next to him and Chris pulled him close, relishing the solidness of his son's presence. Chris lay on his back with Vin snuggled close to his side, his boy's warm breath tickling the hollow of his throat.
"It's been too long, hasn't it?" Vin whispered. Chris immediately detected the slight tremor in his son's voice that warned of imminent tears.
"Too long?" Chris repeated, thinking fast. "You think it's too late to get her out?" Vin nodded and snuffled. Chris stroked his son's soft hair and kissed the crown of tousled waves. His feeling just confirmed. "How about starting today?"
Vin stilled. "Today?"
"Yeah. Nathan's got some photographs for you to look at. Gotta start somewhere, right?"
"Yeah." With that one word Chris felt Vin's body relax. It wasn't long until his breathing evened out in sleep and Chris closed his eyes and contentedly followed.
Buck's voice was soft but insistent, so Larabee finally peeled his eyelids apart and groggily turned toward the persistent disturbance. "Huh?" was all he could muster at the moment as he made out the lanky form leaning in his bedroom door.
Buck chuckled shortly. "Hey there Sleeping Beauty," he whispered teasingly. "I'm taking JD to Mrs. Potter's for awhile so you two can get some sleep and headin' into work. The critters are taken care of so go back to sleep. Y'all need it."
As his friend spoke, Chris became aware of the small body tucked into his side, deeply asleep. Instead of answering, he nodded once and waved Buck away before letting his eyes close again. He heard the door snick closed which muffled Buck's and JD's whispered voices, and then heard the front door close and lock. Chris fell asleep to the sound of Buck's truck departing the ranch.
The next time he woke, Chris felt the weight of Vin's stare on him and looked down to find two sleepy eyes blinking at him. "Hey," he said. "Good mornin'." He yawned and stretched, and both of them sat up. "Hungry?"
Vin nodded, and after hitting the bathroom, they perused the kitchen.
"It's quiet," Vin noted, sitting at the table swinging his legs with Cat in his hands.
"JD's at Mrs. Potter's for awhile and Buck went to work."
Vin didn't say much more while they ate. Chris noticed that he absently rubbed his stomach and wondered if it was the ulcer or simple worry over the photographs, or even the visit with Dr. Will.
"How soon will I go back to school?" The question was quiet.
"We'll see how you do. I think Mr. Rockman wants to see you next week to see where you are, so your first day will only be to take some tests. I'd say a couple weeks from now."
"Will I be with JD?"
Chris smiled at the worried face. "I don't know. But we'll only take this as fast as you can handle, Vin, so don't be afraid to speak up, okay?" That seemed to ease the boy's mind some as he cleared the table. "Now go get dressed. We slept late like a couple of lazy bones. We need to be at Dr. Will's in an hour."
Their departure was delayed when Vin requested to see the horses before they left. Chris couldn't refuse him. He doubted he could refuse Vin anything at this point. He felt a rush of satisfied warmth as the black gelding nuzzled the small boy's cheek. Peso had been wating at the gate and Chris had to wonder if Vin and the curmudgeonly horse had the same non-verbal connection that he had with his son.
Murmured goodbyes ended their greeting and as Vin turned away from the corral, something caught his eye and he stared, unmoving.
Chris knew exactly what caught Vin's attention and his gut clenched. Sucking in a bracing breath, he nonchalantly moved to his son's side and squatted down. One corner of the battered Ram's rear bumper jutted out from the corner of the barn, uncovered where the wind had blown back part of the plastic tarp. Lightly, Chris settled a hand on Vin's tense shoulder.
"I couldn't get it fixed," Chris stated gently. "Now that you're back, I'll get a new truck."
Vin thought that over. "You couldn't get it fixed or wouldn't get it fixed?"
Chris was astounded at his son's astuteness and his mind fumbled as it tried to catch up. "I . . . ah, I'm not sure. Both, probably," he finally sputtered.
"Like your scar?"
This time Chris was speechless. He felt his mouth open and close, but no noise came out. Vin's head tilted aside as his soul-searching eyes focused first on Chris', then flicked to Chris' eyebrow.
"Uh . . . I . . . well . . . yeah. I guess so."
Vin's eyes sparkled mischievously. "You goin' to see Dr. Will, too?"
Chris snorted and stood, his knees popping as he straightened, and chuffed a short laugh as he stroked Vin's hair. Inwardly, he was thrilled to see a flash of the Vin humor and knew that his eyes reflected the feeling. "When did you get so smart? So maybe we'll go truck shopping next week."
With one more lingering look at the covered truck, Vin found Chris' hand and they walked to the sorry Jeep. Ezra and the others would be nagging him 'til kingdom come until he got rid of it, he realized as he secured belt buckles. "They're right," he mused. "These belts don't seem like enough." At ten, Vin was tall enough and heavy enough to use adult seat belts but to Chris, he looked small and fragile in the seat. Vin, though, was thrilled with the vehicle and happily tipped his head back and enjoyed the wind from the open top and sides.
By the time they reached the medical building, Vin was as relaxed as Chris had seen him. Once in the parking garage, though, a little of the stiff wariness returned. He gave him a reassuring grin, which seemed to help.
Vin held Chris' hand tightly as they walked to the elevator and Chris noticed how he squeezed his eyes shut during the ride to the second floor. Vin let out a relieved breath as the door slid open again and Chris had to wonder how he was really coping.
The pair didn't wait long in the reception area. Anita, the receptionist, hadn't said much but Chris could tell by her smile that she was happy to see Vin again. Vin kept his head bowed and squeezed next to Chris when they sat on the small couch. Tension was building in the small body.
When the office door opened, Vin startled.
"Mr. Larabee, Vin, it's so good to see you. Please come in." Dr. Will opened the door wide and followed them to the play area. Vin stuck close enough to his father to impede his walking stride and the doctor must have noticed. "How about if your dad stays with us for a little while today, Vin?"
Vin nodded, his fingers twisting in the hem of his shirt. Dr. Will pointed him toward the toy box while he and Chris settled in chairs. "So, how has it been going at home?"
"Pretty good, I guess. We haven't made it through a night yet."
"Is that right, Vin? Are you having trouble sleeping?"
Vin nodded and then sat next to Chris with a Matchbox car. He held it upside down and spun the wheel with a finger.
"Have you looked at the notebook I gave you?"
"Did it help?"
"Did you show it to your dad?"
Vin shook his head. To Chris, Vin was shutting down a little more with each passing second. He glanced at Dr. Will, trying to keep his worry from showing on his face.
Dr. Will, though, appeared unflustered by the limited responses. After getting some answers from Chris, Dr. Will asked Chris to wait outside. Vin reacted by snapping his head up and staring wide-eyed as the door closed on his father's heels. Dr. Will sat across from Vin, knowing Chris was watching them from behind the one-way glass of the observation room.
Vin's fidgeting was nearly unwatchable, but Chris had to give him credit for not bolting. He was sure the room was closing in on his son and he could tell by the way Dr. Will spoke to Vin that he realized it, too. The last few minutes of the appointment focused on Vin's looking at the photos Nathan was going to show him. As the doctor explained the airplane view, he had Vin imagine being a bird and looking down. Chris saw his son relax with the exercise and sighed in relief.
The observation room door opened behind him and Chris turned. Nathan greeted him with a smile. "Hey, Chris," he said.
"Nathan. Those the picures?" He nodded to the manila folder in his teammate's hand.
"Yeah. And there's something else," he said, causing Chris to stiffen at his tone. Nathan held out another paper.
Chris' head jerked up. "That's a photo line up," he snapped. "Travis didn't say anything about that."
"Vin is the only eyewitness that can identify Faraday, Chris. We have to cover all bases before we go in." Nathan was calm, refusing to react to Chris' anger. "We can't afford to skip any steps."
"Travis arranged this?"
Their connection must have flared again because on the other side of the glass, Vin stiffened. He glanced up at the mirror in his room. Dr. Will rose and directed him to the door.
Chris had no time to argue and Nathan wilted slightly under Larabee's glare. Without another word, he left the room and met Vin in the hall. Nathan stayed behind. Dr. Will directed them to the conference room and then departed.
Vin's eyes were huge as he looked at Chris. Chris put his anger aside and smiled. "You know I'm not entirely happy about you looking at these photos. I'm afraid you'll get scared again."
Vin visibly relaxed and he reached over and patted Chris' hand. "They're only pictures," he said quietly. "They can't hurt me."
Chris smiled, amazed. "You're right. They can't. So, you ready, then?"
Vin nodded. They sat down and Nathan and Dr. Will entered.
"Hey, Vin. How are you feeling?" Nathan was a big man, always a good one to have at your back, but when he smiled, as he was now, his eyes engaged and softened his features.
Vin automatically smiled back and uttered a quiet, "Hi, Unca Nathan," as the man sat across from him. He set a manila folder on the table between them. Dr. Will stood to one side.
"You ready to look at some pictures?" Nathan asked brightly.
Vin nodded and gave his dad a nervous smile. Chris rested his arm across the back of Vin's chair.
"Okay, then. Remember, these were taken from an airplane." Nathan flipped the folder open and laid out six photos in front of Vin. "Let's group these together. There are two photos of each location."
Dr. Will had suggested letting Vin pair the photos to engage his mind and distract from the immediate purpose of the viewing. The plan worked. As Vin studied each photo and paired up matching landscapes the tension in his stiff posture drained away as the simple act of doing something gave him a feeling of control.
"Recognize anything, Cowboy?" Chris asked softly. Each of the three locations matched Vin's description, including a block wall, surrounding fields and shipping containers. All were owned by Grace Faraday Giltner. With one finger, Vin drew one of the photos closer.
"This one," he said quietly.
"Are you sure?" Nathan asked.
"Yeah. There was a porch," he tapped an edge of the house. " 'n my window faced this part of the wall. I could see that tree from my bed." He tapped the one property that had a large tree near the fence. "There was a bird nest in it and sometimes an owl sat on the top branches." Vin sat back in his chair as his fingers intertwined nervously. When he spoke and his eyes darted around to the other photos on the table as if unable to look at the place of his imprisonment.
"Very good, Vin. That's just what we needed." Nathan started to gather the pictures.
"Now we can find Miss Grace," Chris said softly.
"One more thing, Vin," Nathan said, "Do you recognize anyone here?" He slid a paper with six headshots on it to Vin.
Surprised, Vin glanced at Chris. "Remember, they can't hurt you."
Vin turned back to the lineup and studied each face. "No," he finally said.
That got both Chris and Nathan's attention. "What?" Chris asked, surprised. He knew that one of them was from Jesse Faraday's old driver's licenses. "None of them are Mr. Jesse?"
Vin shook his head. "No."
"His picture is ten years old. He may look older." The investigator in Chris came forth and gentled his tone and body language.
Vin looked at him again and shook his head. "None of 'em are Mr. Jesse." Then he looked at Nathan and bit his lip nervously. "I'm sorry . . ." he started, beginning to fidget.
Nathan reached over and quieted Vin's hands by resting his palm on them. "You did great, Vin. Don't worry."
"Vin," Dr. Will interjected, stepping forward. "How about you come and choose a sticker to take home for your folder?" He pulled Vin's chair back as the others stood. "I want you to pick out a sticker that shows how you felt when you came home."
Vin stood and automatically grabbed Chris' hand. Dr. Will left first with Chris and Vin next. Nathan followed. While Vin looked through a collection of stickers, Chris spoke quietly to Nathan.
"I don't like this, Nathan. I know how Travis thinks. Vin's gonna have to I.D. Faraday, and he's going to have to do it in person before we act."
"When we get to the place we'll detain everyone there and send photos electronically. Vin doesn't have to be there."
Chris ran his fingers through his hair and muttered a curse. "No, Travis won't let us detain anyone until we're sure Faraday is there and we can't take the time to set up surveillance. In that open area, a surveillance team will be spotted. Vin's gonna have to be near by and I don't like it."
"I understand, Chris, but don't you think closure to all this would be the best thing for Vin?"
"Don't tell me what's best for my son!" Chris snarled harshly, turning on his teammate. "Don't you dare tell me what's best for Vin! That's my job and my job alone!"
Nathan dropped his eyes for a moment but physically held his ground. When he spoke next, his voice was almost a whisper and his eyes were soft when they met Chris'. "There's where you're wrong, Chris. You two do not stand alone. You don't think any of us know how hard this is for you and for Vin? Yes, the final say is yours and always will be yours but don't shut us out. We deserve more than that, and you know it. That boy is as much a part of our lives as he is yours."
Chris deflated before Nathan's eyes and ducked his head and there was a few long seconds of silence. "You don't understand, Nathan." The medic was taken aback at the resignation he heard in his boss' voice. "Vin isn't part of my life, he is my life."
Speed was a necessity and the team knew it, so the operation was slated for that very night. Faraday was certainly a flight risk anyway, and, along with the realization that no one other than Vin knew what the subject looked like added a new and different edge to the planning.
While Chris and Buck went home to let JD and Vin play awhile, the rest of the team collaborated with Team Two.
"Maybe Jesse Faraday is more like a corporation," Nathan suggested to his teammates as they processed information in their office. "There's more than one person using the name."
"Another Dread Pirate Roberts?" Ezra said with one raised eyebrow. Technically on light duty, he was rarely out of the office and unusually cooperative. Nathan gave him a blank look and Ezra smirked as he returned to his computer. "Give Mrs. Jackson a treat and rent The Princess Bride some day, my dear man."
"It's a classic," Josiah added from his corner. When the other two looked his way, he continued the original discussion. "As interesting as that idea is, I tend to think our Mr. Faraday is one, single, very intelligent, very paranoid sociopath. He rules via dictatorship, using fear to feed his power."
"So it's all about control," Nathan summed up.
Ezra snorted. "When is it not?"
Nathan looked thoughtful, then walked to the profiler's desk and hitched a hip on one corner. "The way you talk, Josiah, it sounds like it's a miracle that Vin survived him."
"It is, actually. And knowing Vin, it would have been a simple matter of time before Faraday killed him. Vin connected emotionally with Grace Giltner. Given time and a little more physical bulk, he would attempt to stand up for her and, sadly, pay the price."
The three of them mulled that over in silence. It was true, and they knew it. Vin stood up for JD as a mere child and took his lumps then; imagining him doing the same as a young adult wasn't any stretch of the imagination.
"I hate to say it, but I'm glad Wheeler has lead on this," Josiah added. "Chris needs to be with Vin and vice-versa. They're both conflicted right now. Chris needs to be father first and agent second, and Vin hasn't resolved which way he wants it to be. His need for Chris to 'save' Grace Giltner battles with his need for Chris."
"And there's not a selfish bone in that boy's body. No wonder he has nightmares," Nathan muttered, moving away. "That's a lot for an adult to deal with. Are you two ready for Wheeler's briefing?"
Ezra nodded and slowly rose, concealing his injury with practiced grace. Josiah moved stiffly, but also refused to be side-lined. When they entered Team Two's briefing room, Buck joined them. Travis and Wheeler stood at the blow-up surveillance photo which now had multicolored arrows, boxes and lines drawn all over it.
The clatter of the rest of Team Two entering caused everyone to grab a seat. It was show time.
The plan built on a "shock and awe" approach. Because the property was so open, they had to wait until nightfall, but nightfall had its own complications.
Travis insisted on confirmation of Faraday's presence. The initial team in would focus on intelligence - pinpointing the location of every body within the walls and get raw footage. Vin would be in a nearby vehicle, viewing the feeds as they came in. There would be no assault on the property until Faraday was located.
Sunset fell on the fourth day of Vin's return with Chris' emotions spinning at the speed of events coming at them. He longed for time away with his son, but he also knew that Vin would never move forward until the Grace situation was handled. Hopefully, this night would be the end of this chapter in Vin's short, rough life.
The less-than-pristine undercover SUV encountered its planned flat tire a quarter mile from Faraday's property just as the last of dusk was overrun by night. Team Two, dressed for stealth, slipped from the vehicle and melted into the dark. While one agent very slowly went through the motions of appearing to change the tire, Chris, Vin and Ezra, acting as the electronics specialist, huddled together around a tiny video monitor. A majority of the little screen showed nothing but indistinct, bouncy shadows, but the even smaller screen-in-screen showed a diagram of moving dots.
"Each team member is tagged," Chris said lowly, pointing to the miniscule green dots. "We can tell where they are so when they send us footage to the bigger screen, they don't have to tell us where they are since their job is to be quiet. Green dots are our guys, red dots are everyone else."
As they watched the initial team's progress, there was a whispered greeting at their window.
"B team is assembled and ready," Wheeler told Chris.
Vin craned his neck and peered out the vehicle windows. He knew there were about a dozen agents out there in the night but he couldn't see or hear any of them. It warmed him to know that men trained like his father surrounded him and he felt perfectly safe in the car snuggled between Chris and his Uncle Ezra.
Vin knew Chris wasn't happy with him being here. And he had to admit just to himself that he didn't really want to be here, either. He was glad they arrived at dark so he wouldn't have to see the place where he was trapped for so long; the idea of being so close made his stomach burn, and he'd seen the hard line of Chris' mouth when he took one of the grape-flavored tablets that lessened the pain.
"They are inside the fence line," Ezra noted. "Two in the house, none around outside." One red dot joined the green ones on the picture-in-picture overlay.
"There's an outgoing call," Josiah quietly reported at the window, one finger pressed against an ear bud. His face was blacked out with greasepaint and he was dressed in black. Vin had watched them prepare and even had his own smear of black high on each cheekbone. Josiah's teeth looked bright white when he grinned and winked in Vin's direction. Vin managed a tiny smile in return. "Someone's calling in an order, it sounds like."
"Tell surveillance to hold," Wheeler ordered from near by. "Let's hear the order first."
Before the order was given, the screen in the SUV flickered to life. The wavy, black shadows were replaced by a jerky shot of the interior of the house. A couch, cold fireplace and coffee table came into focus, the view behind and slightly to one side of the couch. Vin let out a tiny gasp.
"You're safe, Vin. I'm here." Chris took his hand and squeezed it reassuringly. Vin held on tightly.
"It's her," Vin breathed. "Her hair . . ." He pointed at a dark line that trailed over the top edge of one arm of the couch and dangled loose. "There's her hand." It was flung out and rested, palm up on the coffee table in front of the couch.
"I see her, son. She's still there." Vin wondered why Chris sounded unsure and glanced at him. "We're almost done."
The picture vanished as the team received Wheeler's order. Vin shifted in his seat. Suddenly, the close confines of the SUV seemed suffocating. Chris must have felt or heard the change in his breathing, because the vehicle door opened and Chris pulled him outside. Chris dropped to one knee and gathered him close. Vin immediately felt better, and after a few moments, his heart slowed.
Chris spoke lowly to him and Buck materialized out of the night and rubbed his back. Comforted, Vin told them he was okay. Before stepping away, Buck whispered in his ear. "You're doin' great, Junior. Not much longer." Vin felt him kiss the top of his head before he moved off.
Chris murmured, "I'm proud of you," in his ear, but didn't loosen his embrace as he turned his head and spoke to Wheeler. Vin stilled in his father's arms and looked over Chris' shoulder into the darkness as he waited, a bit calmer now. As his eyes adjusted to the night he was able to pick out a few of the camouflaged men. Buck approached one man and they knelt down to talk, their inclined heads nearly touching as they spoke. Vin slipped from Chris' arms, insisting he was all right, and pressed close to his father's side, watching Buck.
It took him a moment to notice that another man stood close to Buck's back, facing Vin. He was also the only man, Vin realized, that was squarely standing tall on both feet, not attempting to hide. He held a short rifle across his hips, the muzzle pointing directly at the back of Buck's head.
Vin frowned, old warnings about pointing guns at people dredged up from somewhere, and let his eyes trail upward to the man's face. The eyes that bore back at him turned Vin's heart to ice.
Jesse Faraday was standing there, staring at him with a stomach churning smile.
Mr. Jesse was dressed just like one of the agents, bullet proof vest, grease paint and all. Vin's gut lurched and burning bile rose in his throat. They were all set up. He knew if he made any wrong move, Buck would be dead so he froze. Buck stood and Faraday backed off a step, but the gun stayed trained on target. After a few more words, Buck eased off into the darkness. Vin inhaled to yell, but Jesse just smiled and shifted the gun so it pointed directly at Chris.
Vin held his breath as Mr. Jesse's smile was replaced by a stern expression well known to Vin - someone was going to be hurt if orders weren't followed. Vin vaguely heard Wheeler walk off as Chris stood, and twitched when his father's hand rested on his shoulder.
Instantly, Chris was on guard and his hand went for his gun, but he didn't turn around as his instincts screamed to do that very thing when he heard Vin's frightened voice.
"Don't," Vin gasped as the man of his nightmares stepped closer, the rifle still pointed at his father. Vin's trembling started at his knees and traveled upward, his fisted hand latched onto Chris' pant leg keeping him upright and trying to prevent Chris from moving. "Please don't move," he mentally pleaded Chris.
Faraday stepped in behind Chris and leaned in. "You drive," he growled in his fathers' ear, the rifle less than an inch from Vin's face. Jesse plucked Chris' gun from his hand and pointed it at Vin's face, dropping the rifle so it hung nonchalantly from his shoulder. "Get rid of the passenger or your own gun will kill the kid."
"Uncle Ezra," Vin realized - and it all came to focus. His whole family was threatened again as those ugly words Mr. Harry used exploded in his head, "I'll kill your entire family and it will be your fault."
Last time Vin had frozen and obeyed.
Chris' words swooped through his mind: "There are a lot of scary things in this world but it doesn't mean you have to fear them."
This time, Vin acted.
He grabbed the gun with both hands and twisted aside. A deafening bang rang his ears and his hands burned, but he held on, his entire focus bearing down on that one thing. Faraday growled and Vin felt his huge hand snare a fist full of hair. Vin hunched over the object and his hands, and went completely limp, the sudden weight pulling Faraday aside just enough.
The gun went off again and Vin felt the burn against his stomach, but there were no more shots. For a moment, he was lifted from the ground by his hair, the pain sharp and blinding. Still, Vin hung on and screamed one scream that drowned out everything else. The next second found him on the ground, stunned and unable to breathe with a hard lump beneath him. As the world turned gray, he heard scuffling feet and fading shouts through ringing fog.
At the first shot and sense of motion, Chris saw red, spun and lunged with a feral roar. Faraday suddenly lurched aside and the gun went off again. Chris hit the bigger man full body, the strike knocking Vin aside where he bounced on the hard ground like a rag doll. The two men managed to stay on their feet.
Enraged, Chris hit hard and fast with a furious flurry of strikes. Faraday tried to fend off his foe but, for the moment, could only defend against the relentless attack. Chris drew first blood, but Faraday managed to land a few pile-drivers to the agent's face before Chris' backup finally shifted gears from frozen shock to action.
Buck was first in, latching onto Faraday's back like a tick in an effort to engage a successful choke-hold. Wheeler appeared at Buck's side, grabbing the front edge of Faraday's assault helmet and yanking backward, the chin strap pulling his jaw up to expose his throat. Buck finally got a hold and hauled back, nearly breaking the man's neck before he gagged and sputtered, into oblivion.
Chris, however, would not be stopped and continued to pummel his opponent, one bloody fist ensnared in Faraday's collar to hold him while the other struck over and over like a possessed, venomous snake. Buck and Wheeler tried to pull him off, but couldn't, and each landing punch sounded wetter and wetter as Faraday's face was slowly pulverized.
"Chris, stop! Let him go!"
He only stopped when Josiah's trunk-like arms physically trapped him. The combined weight of three of them drove Chris to the ground, his hoarse screaming fading to gasping breaths.
"Jesus, Chris," Buck panted. "You gotta stop. You gotta see to Vin, you hear me? We got Faraday. You go see Vin, okay Pard? Chris? See to Vin."
Bucks words finally sank in and Chris' struggles slowed enough for Josiah to release him.
"Vin," Chris croaked from his hands and knees. "Where's Vin?"
"Nathan's with him," Buck said as he hauled his friend to his feet. "Come on." He dragged him to where Nathan squatted near the truck, the darkness shrouding the form before him.
"God, Buck, what if he's . . ." Chris' voice strangled to a halt as his throat closed.
"Shut up, Chris. Don't you fuckin' say it." Buck's words were thick as they pushed through gritted teeth.
They stumbled to a stop just behind Nathan, leaning on each other to keep their feet. Chris' stomach twisted sickeningly and he thought he would lose it, but then he heard that all-healing voice.
"Dad? Where's dad?"
Chris fell to his knees next to Nathan as the medic helped the boy to sit up. Once their eyes locked, Vin's wild and Chris' desperate, Chris swept him into his arms.
The rest of a night was a blur. Chris felt completely drained and was grateful that he and Vin were left alone in the SUV, both of them silent and unable to release each other.
Chris was vaguely aware that the raid on the Faraday property continued without him, but he didn't care. One by one, each of his team made contact throughout the night, checking their welfare and updating Chris on the situation as it unfolded, but they immediately backed off and gave them space.
It was hours before Chris allowed Nathan to look at his hands and face and only because Vin insisted. The boy also insisted on being there during the exam, refusing to leave Chris' lap. After Chris hands were cleaned, bandaged and wrapped, and his "head examined" (according to Nathan), Vin was cajoled into taking something for his headache, then the pair started to engage with their surroundings.
"How about we get you home?" Chris finally asked as he gently probed his tender cheek. "I think they can spare someone to take us. I don't think I can hold a steering wheel right now."
"No." Vin's protest surprised Chris, but as soon as he met his son's gaze, he knew what had to be done. "I have to see her."
Any protest Chris had died on his tongue. They had to finish this, for Vin's sake and for his own. With Grace behind them, they both could move on. He sent Ezra to find Grace's status and a ride to the house. Ezra's face was unreadable when he returned, but Chris knew the story with the one glance Ezra gave Vin.
"It's all right, Ez. Tell us."
"I am sorry to report that Grace Faraday has passed. She apparently died of an overdose ten to twelve hours ago. The live persons in the house were Faraday's miscreants." He squatted down in front of Vin, who met his eyes. "I am sorry Master Tanner. I know that she is the real reason why you are here today."
Vin nodded in understanding and thanks. "Can I see her, please?" he whispered.
"Follow me. Your carriage awaits." Ezra stood and led the way to the SUV.
Ezra drove them through the iron gate and up to the house, now bright with lights and the photographer's flashes. He opened the car door for his boss, who managed to slip out while carrying Vin. They stood still and looked at the house, Chris waiting for a clue from Vin.
"The Coroner is just now departing the structure." Ezra indicated the man overseeing the path of a gurney just exiting the house. A black body bag was strapped to the mattress.
Oddly, Chris felt relief from his son and knew it stemmed from the fact that Vin wouldn't have to enter the house again. "Are you ready for this?"
Vin tipped his head back and squinted up at him. "Yeah," he said softly. "I haf to do it."
Chris ignored the odd look from Ezra, which was followed by an eye roll when the gambler realized why he hadn't heard the question. "I see that things are returning to the status quo," he muttered.
Chris smiled tiredly at his boy and they started toward the Coroner's van. The Coroner must have been expecting him because Chris thought there would be a fight to view the body but, instead, encountered no resistance as if a beaten up man and a young boy wanting to say goodbye to an unrelated dead woman was the norm at a crime scene like this.
The Coroner unzipped the bag just enough to expose Grace Faraday Giltner's face. On one hand Chris saw just another O.D.'d junkie but on the other, he saw an attractive young woman with a pretty face framed by long, dark hair that simply couldn't live anymore without her son. Chris found that he related with her and even understood to a small degree. He also doubted that he could ever have saved her, even if they had gotten here in time.
Vin held on tightly to Chris. When he spoke, his voice was soft and gentle. "Bye, Miss Grace and thank you for bein' nice. I'm glad you're with Austin now."
After a few moments, Vin rested his cheek on his dad's shoulder. Chris nodded to the Coroner, and as they turned to go home the sound of the body bag being zipped closed confirmed that this part of their lives was finally over.