ATF Universe

Chapter Fifteen

Vin stood with his forehead leaning against the glass of the apartment window, looking out into the darkness. Chris had left more than an hour earlier. Vin noted how alive the streets were even at night but, then again, in this part of town the streets were always active. That was how he had come to live in this particular apartment building.

Vin had been nearing his sixteenth birthday, or at least he had thought it was near, when he had stumbled on this part of town. He had a tendency to lose track of the days on the streets. He had found a few shops in a couple of blocks that would allow him to sweep or clean up every day for a couple bucks. With that and the informal family of street kids, he had managed to get by.

He was still picking food from trash bins but he had found a restaurant where the pickings were fair and several other kids ate there as well. If he kept his money for himself, he probably could have purchased a few meals, but then he wouldn't have his support system or someone to watch his back while he slept.

Gangs were constantly after him, trying to recruit him and some of the other kids. Vin staunchly refused. He had done too many things already that would disappoint his mother. He sure wasn't living up to the Tanner name.

He was headed for the butcher shop to sweep up when he saw some kids harassing an old woman. One of the boys knocked the bag of groceries from her arms and grabbed for her purse, pushing her down. Vin never hesitated. He ran right into the action, knocked down the kid that tried to steal her purse and took the handbag back from him as the other kids scattered.

"Are ya all right, ma'am?" he asked as he helped up the Hispanic woman.

She was hesitant, unsure whether he was going to keep her purse. Seeing her hesitation, Vin handed the purse to her and started picking up the groceries. He put everything back into the bag, except the carton of eggs. They were unrecoverable.

The woman smiled kindly as he returned the bag of groceries. "Sorry 'bout the eggs, ma'am."

"That's all right, Chico. It wasn't your fault. I am Carlita Perez. What is your name?"

"Vin Tanner, ma'am. Could I carry those for you?"

Carlita was a good judge of character. This boy may be down on his luck, but there was a good boy hidden beneath that grime. The twinkle in his eyes was so much like her Pedro's, and his smile brought strong memories of her late son.

"Si. Gracias," she replied offering the bag. Vin took the groceries and slowed his pace to match the older woman's. They walked several blocks to a rundown apartment building. He silently climbed the three flights of stairs with her to her apartment. "I'm so sorry, Chico. The elevator is broken. It is broken more than it works, I'm afraid."

"No problem, ma'am." Vin tipped his baseball cap to her, preparing to leave.

"Where are you going, hijo?" asked Carlita.


"You think I would allow a young man to save my life, then carry my groceries and not offer some reward?"

"I didn't do it for a reward, ma'am."

"I know that," she smiled, pinching his cheek. "But you are skinny and I have too much food. You will stay for dinner."

Vin chuckled. He liked this woman. "Yes, ma'am."

"Make yourself comfortable, hijo." Carlita busied herself in the kitchen as Vin looked around the small apartment. Soon, she found Vin in the kitchen with her.

"Do you have a hammer and some nails, ma'am?"

"In that drawer by the refrigerator," she replied. Carlita didn't quiz the young man. She knew he had seen something that needed fixing, and wanted to help. Soon she heard the tap, tap, tap of the hammer in the living room. A few minutes later she brought in a plate of fajitas and watched Vin swinging the door of the cabinet. He closed it, pleased with the results.

"You must eat now, Chico. Put some meat on those skinny bones," said Carlita, offering him the fajitas.

Vin took the plate gratefully. "Thank you, ma'am."

It was a start of a friendship that would eventually draw Vin off the streets and help him finish school. He walked Carlita home from her job at the laundry each day, making sure she arrived safely. More often than not, she insisted on Vin staying for dinner.

As their friendship grew and Vin began to develop trust in Carlita, she began to push him to finish school. Vin was reluctant, but Carlita spent many hours talking with him about what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to go into the Army like his grandfather but knew he couldn’t unless he got his high school diploma. Soon Vin found himself living with Carlita. She saw a bit of her son in Vin and he filled part of what was missing in her heart. Carlita became a surrogate grandmother to Vin. He had never known his grandmother, but Carlita was definitely what he thought a grandmother should be.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked away from the window. He needed to check in on Carlita. He had been away from the apartment too long on the arson case. Instead of heading towards the door, he flopped down on the ancient couch, squishing the padding in the arm cushion so he couldn't feel the wood under his head. He would check on Carlita in the morning. He shook his head with a small grin. She would insist on feeding him. It was just her way and Carlita always got her way. Vin remembered how hard Carlita worked at getting him back into school.

School was not easy. He was far behind, not just because of his reading difficulties, but because of the length of time he had been out of school. Vin quickly found out that he was not the first kid Carlita had taken in. The school counselor and English teacher, Nettie Wells knew Carlita very well. Within a week of Vin's entrance into Jefferson High School, Nettie was testing him for dyslexia.

Vin was a hard worker. He no longer feared the judgment of his peers in school. Living on the street had driven that from him. If someone laughed at him, he popped him, which created a different problem for Nettie.

The two women took Vin under their wing for the next two years and worked hard with him to overcome his difficulties. In addition to his attending high school, he took some additional GED credits at the community college to enable him to graduate with his class.

Vin couldn't believe he was actually excited about graduating. His grade point average was marginal, but it was enough to graduate. He was attending his graduation this afternoon, and in two days, he would leave for boot camp. Life was changing quickly. He could see Carlita's excitement and pride on his behalf, but he also saw the moments when she would dab at tears, knowing her Chico was leaving the nest.

Nettie found herself struggling with the same emotions. She thought of Vin like a son and she would certainly miss him, but she was proud of his hard work. The boy was going to make something of his life.

Carlita sat in the stands on the football field, watching the ceremony. Nettie stood on the platform and watched her students as they accepted their diplomas. Pride filled their hearts as Vin crossed the platform and received his diploma. Nettie laughed at Vin's whoop of joy and his uncharacteristic hug.

After most of the crowd had gone, Vin and Carlita lingered, waiting for Nettie to finish the business she needed to do for the school. They planned to celebrate with a nice dinner out.

Vin turned when he saw Carlita's eyes widen in fear. He reached out and put a hand on Carlita's arm to reassure her that everything was alright. She had seen a black Labrador quickly approaching the two of them and was worried about their safety. Vin could see that the dog was ancient if you went by the graying hairs on its snout. The dog wagged its tail and gave a friendly woof, walking right up to Vin. The dog leaned against his leg and Vin chuckled. "It's okay, Carlita. He's friendly. I used to play with a dog like this all the time. His name was Bo." The dog barked.

"What happened to el perro?"

Vin smiled. He loved the way Carlita mixed Spanish and English. "I don't know what happened to the dog. My grandfather retired from the army and I went to live with him. When he died, well, the family didn't want me anymore."

"Is that how you really remember it?" asked a low male voice from behind him. Vin spun around. He hadn't heard that voice in years, but knew immediately it was Joe Donlan. Officer Joe and Mrs. Becky and three teens were standing nearby. The youngest boy called for Bo and the dog went with the kids as they headed for the car. Vin stood there, unable to say anything.

"Son, we always wanted you. After your grandfather passed, well, we wanted desperately to take you, but the state wouldn't allow it," said Becky. "We had these little ones to care for and they wouldn't let us take you too."

Vin watched the children he had been jealous of for so long as they reached the car. They had each other. They had Becky and Joe. "I thought there were four," he said absently.

"There were," said Joe. The sadness in his voice pulled Vin's attention back to Joe.

"Jimmy died of leukemia last summer," Becky explained softly. "That's why we moved to Denver. The children's hospital here has some of the best cancer doctors."

Vin felt guilt wash over him. He was embarrassed at his jealousy of the kids.

"Son, we had no idea you were in Denver. If we had, we would have looked for you."

Vin snorted in disbelief.

"Chico," scolded Carlita, "Don't be rude."

"Sorry," he said sincerely. "How'd you find me now?" asked Vin.

"The graduation list in the paper. Danny is graduating Wednesday. Looking at his last name, Tavish, we saw yours. I called the school," said Joe.

"And you talked to Miss Nettie." Vin shook his head. Nettie and her conspiracies. Vin could stand it no longer. He wrapped his arms around Becky, and Joe wrapped his arms around both of them. "I missed you so much," whispered Vin.

"Son, we missed you, too," said Joe. "I wish things had been different, Vin. I'd really like it if we could spend some time together."

Vin stepped back and shook his head. "Our timing stinks, like always. I'm leaving for boot camp in two days."


Vin nodded.

"Chico, you go spend some time with them. Nettie and I will celebrate with you later."

"Are you sure?" asked Vin. Carlita and Nettie both agreed, and Vin spent the rest of the day with the Donlans. That night he took Nettie and Carlita to a fancy restaurant to celebrate and two days later he left for boot camp.

After a four year stint in the army where he served in Special Forces, Vin returned to Denver to find out that Joe had passed away and Becky had moved back to Texas. Carlita still lived in the same apartment building, which just happened to have an empty unit next door. Vin took the apartment and began the next phase of his life.

He intended to go into some kind of law enforcement but was discouraged to find that all the local law enforcement agencies required a college degree. He sat in a bar one evening commiserating with one of his Ranger buddies. Through their conversation, the buddy connected Vin with a bounty-hunting friend, and the rest was history. He bounty-hunted very successfully until that fateful day he saved Nathan Jackson's life in an old warehouse during an ATF sting operation.

Vin got up off the couch and headed for his bedroom. The memories of the Donlans spurred him to move. He moved over to the closet and opened the safe that was pushed back into the far corner. While he allowed the neighborhood kids free access to his apartment, his bedroom was always locked when he wasn't home and his guns were kept in a safe. With reverence he picked up the beat up old cigar box from the shelf and closed the safe.

Vin sat on his bed and opened the lid to the box. He began to pick through the mementos that represented pieces of his life. His grandfather's harmonica. Vin remembered tooting on that beat up instrument all summer long, and his grandpa just smiling at him. He figured his grandfather probably got tired of hearing it, and Vin had asked him about it one day. His grandfather had simply told him that he had done the same thing with that harmonica as a kid.

Setting the harmonica on the bed beside him, Vin picked up the next item. It was a Ranger patch from his grandfather's jacket. It was frayed around the edges where it had been torn from the uniform. His grandfather had been strict, but Vin had never doubted the elder Vin's love for him.

Laying aside the patch, Vin pulled some papers out of the box. A ticket stub from when Joe took him to a Cowboys game. His birth certificate. He stopped at the next item. It was a photograph of him when he was seven. He was with Joe and Becky, and Bo was lying at his feet. Vin brushed his fingers solemnly over the picture. That had been a good time in his life. The next photo was of him with his mom and grandpa. He was maybe three or four. Vin smiled. It had been so long since he had gone through this box, he had forgotten about the picture. He should put it in a frame, but he found it difficult to remove any item from its home in the box.

The next item was an envelope. Glancing inside, he saw it was the lock of his mother's hair. Vin stroked the hair with his index finger before closing the envelope carefully and setting it with the other items on the bed.

Vin chuckled at the next item he picked up. It was an old dog biscuit. His reminder of Bo. Well, it had been important to a seven-year-old. Vin set the biscuit aside and picked out the "clear-eye" marble, a pretty rock that he had sworn was gold, and an arrowhead. He looked back in the box for something he knew was not there, but his heart still hoped for, his mother's locket. Vin's smile faded as he remembered when the locket had been stolen away from him. Refusing to go back to that place in his mind, he picked up his memories and placed them back in the box, trying to convince himself that not everything that was precious to him had been snatched away.

Clutching the box, Vin laid down on the bed wondering if he would ever pull it together. In the midst of his thoughts, the Texan drifted into a restless sleep.

Chapter Sixteen

As promised, Vin was at the office the next morning. He performed his duties without enthusiasm. He didn't talk unless he was required to do so. He gave away nothing verbally, always saying he was fine, and smiling the tight smile that never reached his eyes. There was an underlying tension that was gradually building, and Chris could see the explosion was not far away.

Vin busied himself in the weapons room for most of the day, meticulously cleaning and checking each weapon. He found that if he kept focused on the tiniest details, the memories and emotions couldn't attack him.

Vin looked up slightly startled, to see Chris standing at the door to the weapons room. "Are you about finished?" the blonde asked.

Vin shrugged.

"Quitting time was over an hour ago, Cowboy. All of the guys except for Josiah are waiting for us at Inez's. He's resting up at home, but he'll be back to work Monday." Chris watched as Vin continued to work. His movements, precise and confident, were evidence of a highly practiced specialty.

"I need to finish up," claimed the Texan quietly.

Chris grabbed Vin's hand, stopping his movement. "It can wait."

Vin looked Chris in the eye. Chris was almost begging him to talk. Vin dropped his gaze. He didn't want to disappoint Chris but he knew that if he started to talk about all that was going on his head, Chris would be disappointed in what he had done and who he was. If he didn't talk, Chris would be disappointed that he didn't trust him enough to talk. It was a no win situation.

"Well, then I guess I'll head home. Promised Carlita I'd fix some things at her place."

Vin didn't look up as he finished putting away the weapon he was working on. He could hear the exasperation in Chris's voice. "It's only drinks, Vin."

"Tomorrow," said Vin, locking the cabinet.

"JD will be disappointed." Chris hoped a change of tactic would help. Maybe just a smidgen of guilt would trap Vin into joining the group. "It's his first night out since he was injured."

"And who's fault is that?" said Vin slamming the box on the table.

Chris grimaced. The words were pointed, but not anything worse than he had already told himself. He was responsible for sending JD into a dangerous situation. In the process, he had placed the responsibility to keep JD safe on Vin's shoulders. Chris could see that Vin was angry with him for sending JD in, but the Texan was even angrier with himself for failing to protect his teammate.

Vin threw the cleaning materials in the box, each item thudding with the severity of the toss. "What the hell were you thinking sending him under?" Vin stomped out of the weapons room, heading for his desk. "He's an inexperienced kid. The streets would have eaten him alive." He put his key to the weapons room into his desk drawer and slammed it shut.

"JD is a trained ATF agent. Going undercover is part of the job, Vin," said Chris, following in the sharpshooter's stormy wake.

"Fine," growled Vin. "Throw him to the lions." Vin turned on him with a burning glare. He took a threatening step toward the team leader.

"I didn't throw him to the lions. JD was prepared..."

"Prepared for nothing!" exploded Vin. His right fist delivered a strong uppercut to Chris's jaw, forcing Chris to stumble back a couple steps.

"He could have died," shouted Vin, advancing again towards the blonde. "I could have died! Josiah almost did die, because I wasn't..."

When Vin paused, Chris saw the remorse cross his face. He wasn't sure if it was remorse about the punch or remorse over Josiah.

Vin combed both hands through his hair in sheer frustration. His voice was suddenly soft and filled with deep sorrow. "Josiah could've died because I was too busy worryin' over JD and watching my own backside to back him up."

Chris said nothing. He simply stood in the corridor rubbing his jaw. Vin had finally let go of one small piece. Chris hoped the rest didn't hurt as much.

Vin backed away physically and emotionally, fleeing the office before Chris could stop him.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah wrestled himself out of the recliner. His back protested the movement as he went to answer the knock at the door. He opened the door, smiling at the sight of a long-haired Texan standing on his front porch.

"Come on in, Vin," said Josiah.

Vin slowly followed Josiah into the house. "I just wanted to see how you were feelin'," said Vin. Josiah motioned for Vin to sit on the couch as he returned to his chair. The large man sat down gingerly, grunting softly as his back protested the movement. They shared a few minutes of small talk about how Josiah was doing before falling silent.

Vin fidgeted with his watchband, repeatedly flicking opened and closed the latch that kept it on his wrist. He had something on his mind, but couldn't seem to push himself over the edge to talk.

Josiah believed that Vin needed to take the first step, so he remained silent, letting Vin struggle with himself. After nearly ten minutes of silence, Josiah realized Vin had already made the first move. He had shown up on Josiah's doorstep. Josiah took the next step for the reticent Texan. "Somethin' on your mind, Vin?"

Vin picked absently at a string on the arm of the couch, regretting that he had come, yet needing to talk to his teammate. Needing to make things right. Vin was unconsciously looking for someone to tell him that it was going to be okay. Josiah had done that for him once when he was a kid. Without realizing it, Vin was looking for him to do it again.

"I'm sorry, Josiah," said Vin softly.

"For what, Vin?" asked Josiah gently. He watched the young man on the couch. Vin's head was bowed, shoulders slumped under the weight of heavy guilt.

"For you getting' hurt, Josiah. It was my fault," said Vin. "I should've known Randall was going to target the mission." Vin closed his eyes, and rubbed his hand across them. This was even harder than he thought it would be. "If I wasn't keepin' m'self so busy watching out for JD and watching my own butt, I would've realized that you needed help."

"Vin, it wasn't your fault," said Josiah. "There was no way you could have guessed which target he was going to go after next."

"I didn't back you up," mumbled the Texan sadly. "I failed you and I failed the team."

"Vin. It wasn't your fault," repeated Josiah. "If anyone is responsible, it's Douglas Randall. You were doing your job. Your job was to get close to Randall, not watch out for me. JD was there to do that."

Silence filled the room again. Josiah knew that in spite of his words, Vin would struggle with acceptance that he was not at fault.

"You know that I remembered you, don't you Vin?"

Vin nodded quietly. "Didn't figure you would. I was only there that one time."

"It all came back when I saw you and JD in line at the mission that night. Why didn't you ever say anything?" asked Josiah.

"You must've helped thousands of people in your lifetime. Didn't figure you'd remember one lousy kid." Vin looked over at the big man as Josiah chuckled. "'Sides, I didn't make the connection 'til I was in line with JD."

"It's hard to forget a kid with a cigar box and a plastic baggy," said Josiah with a smile.

Vin briefly returned the smile. "Hard to believe that a plastic bag could make such a difference."

"Did you go to the Youth Shelter?" asked Josiah.

"Yeah, I went to the shelter a few nights," said Vin. "Kept myself clear of the gangs. You know, did what I had to do to survive. Eventually made my way back to school and the rest is history."

Vin sat on the edge of the worn couch, staring at his shoes. He couldn't look Josiah straight in the eye. While he was basically telling the truth of the facts, he wasn't telling the whole truth. Vin knew that if he looked at Josiah eye to eye then he would either buckle under and spill everything, or be forced to lie outright to his friend.

"I wish I had done more," said Josiah.

"More?" scoffed Vin. The Texan stood and began to pace. "Hell, Josiah, I'm just another piece of trash on the street. Why would anyone take any notice?"

Josiah flipped down the footrest on the recliner and stood up. Vin's self-demeaning words made his blood boil. "You aren't a piece of trash. Why wouldn't anyone take notice of you?" he scolded.

"Think about it, Josiah. This whole case. There were homeless people dying in warehouse fires and nobody gave a rip until a firefighter died. Only then did the locals call in the ATF to help. The mission worker dies and the media goes into a frenzy. You ever even hear one of the homeless peoples' names? No, 'cause we don't matter. We're just trash on the streets that everyone avoids."

Josiah laid his hand on Vin's arm, stopping the Texan's incessant pacing. "Stop it, Vin. You aren't homeless any more. You're not that boy on the streets. And you're certainly not a piece of trash." Josiah paused. Vin was still skirting around the edges, not really addressing what was wearing on him.

"You don't got any idea what it's like, Josiah. You never shoplifted your dinner. You never had to pick your food out of a dumpster. You never..." Vin's voice faded as his fear resurfaced. Fear that Josiah would know too much, and his teammates would look on him with pity or disgust.

"Maybe not, but I do know who I see standing next to me. I see a man who has survived the impossible. Who has struggled and won his battles to become a person who gives back to his world. Who knows what it is like to be without and cherishes what he has. I see a man who is hurting because he has no idea how much he is needed and respected."

Just then, Josiah's back spasmed and he grimaced slightly. Vin saw his teammate's discomfort and knew he had overstayed his time. He didn't want to cause Josiah any more pain than he already had. "Are you all right, Josiah? Is there anything I can do?"

"I'm all right, Vin. It's just time for my pain killer." Josiah knew that he had said the wrong thing when he saw the guilt settle on the Texan's face.

"If you're okay, then I'm gonna head for home. Let you get some rest."

"You don't have to go," said Josiah, hoping that Vin would stay and talk.

"No, no. You need rest. I'll check on you tomorrow," said Vin, relieved that the previous conversation hadn't had a chance to go further. "I'll let myself out," he said as he walked toward the door.

"Good night, Vin," said Josiah.

Vin stuck his head back in the door. "Josiah?"

"Yes, Vin?"

"I really am sorry," said Vin.

"I know, Vin," responded Josiah, watching the Texan close the door. "I just hope you can find it in yourself to forgive yourself," he whispered to the door.

Chapter Seventeen

Chris hadn't really felt like going out with the boys after his run in with Vin, but made an appearance anyway. He explained that the Texan wasn't joining them, had his dinner and went by Vin's place before heading home. When he got there, the long-haired sharpshooter was no where to be found. Carlita said she hadn't seen him in several days and that she was worried for the young man.

Upon arriving at home, he found the message light on his answering machine flashing at him. Chris walked over and pressed the message button.

"Hey, Chris. Um..."

It was Vin. Chris sighed with relief that the younger man had at least checked in.

"'m really sorry for hitting you, Cowboy. Looks like it's gonna take a little longer to get m'head together than I thought." Vin's voice paused as if searching for the right words. "Since it's the weekend an' all, I'm gonna take a couple days. I'll be okay. I just didn't want ya ta keep worryin'. Although fer the life of me, I can't figure why ya worry in the first place. Hell. I hate talkin' to these things."

That was it. Vin was still avoiding him, leaving a message on a machine, not risking a personal confrontation. Of course, after the result of their last confrontation, Chris's jaw was still a bit tender.

Vin was exhibiting all the signs of critical incident stress, maybe burnout. He didn't need to be alone. He needed to be surrounded by the support of his friends. Vin was acting so strangely right now that Chris was afraid that the Texan would just disappear and not come back. In spite of Vin's phone call, Chris spent the weekend checking all of the sharpshooter's normal haunts. He went to all of the secluded spots Vin liked to visit, stopped by the Aviary, and even to a few of the bars around Purgatorio. Vin was no where to be found.

One very tired Chris Larabee entered the federal building Monday morning, disappointed that Vin's Jeep was not in his parking spot. The sharpshooter's habit was to arrive early, usually beating everyone to the coffee maker. The Texan made horrible coffee. How he could drink that mud straight, no cream or sugar, Chris couldn't understand. Chris pushed the button to call the elevator. Maybe the amount of sugar Vin consumed in all that junk food offset the blackness of the coffee.

Chris entered his office and tried to make it appear that he wasn't watching for the Texan to arrive. He observed each of his team members arrive. Nathan appeared first, looking sharp as always. Chris smiled as he watched Nathan pick up the coffee carafe, swish the liquid around in the container and decide it would be palatable. Nathan put some items in the small refrigerator and then went to Vin's desk. Chris couldn't see what Nathan did at the desk, but the EMT trained agent gave him a smile and a "Good morning, Chris" before returning to his own desk.

Buck and JD burst into the office. Chris was truly grateful that the kid was back to his boisterous self, happy that his injuries had been minor. Chris sighed, thinking about what might have been. JD had a bag full of goodies that was the focus of the first argument of the day between the two men. The younger man dug into the bag, pulling out what he wanted before handing off the bag to the self-appointed ladies man. Buck pulled out some gooey confection and bit into it before mumbling "Morning, Chris," through his mouthful of food. Chris shook his head and waved his hand.

Ezra and Josiah came in together. Josiah's presence drew the others from their desks, everyone congratulating the agent on his return to work. Ezra looked surprisingly alert in spite the early hour. The southerner was always perfectly groomed, but mornings were not a welcome part of the day for Ezra. Josiah looked good. He seemed rested. His movements were a little guarded, but he seemed all right. Chris walked out of his office into the bullpen and greeted Josiah as well.

Chris involved himself in the conversation, but found himself constantly checking the elevator for Vin's arrival. He smiled in relief when the elevator doors opened and the Texan stepped out with a couple of grocery bags in his arms.

"Hey, Vin!" called JD. "Look who's back!"

Vin nodded toward the group but headed for his desk.

"What'ya got?" asked JD pulling at the top of one of the bags to look in. Vin twisted away from him, pulling the bag out of his reach.

"It's mine," said Vin, threateningly.

JD raised his hands and backed off. "Okay, okay. Jeez, Vin."

The Texan continued to his desk, apparently oblivious to the stares of everyone in the room. The team watched as Vin emptied the grocery bags into his desk, filling the drawers with junk food, then locking it. He set a packet containing a cupcake, and his double shot cappuccino on his desk, noticing some items that didn't belong there.

"What's this crap?" he snarled, picking up a banana and a plastic container of carrots. "Who's been messin' with my desk?" he asked, waving the items angrily.

"Now Vin," said Nathan trying to calm the building storm, "I didn't mean any harm. I just thought you could use some fresh fruits and vegetables, instead of all that junk you usually eat."

"It's my space," growled Vin. "Ya don't mess with a man's space. Stay clear." He flipped the container of carrots to Nathan. "And I don't need ya being my ma."

"When you've been through a stressful situation, it's best to stay away from sugar and caffeine," said Nathan. "Eat lots of fruits and vegetables." Vin took a defiant bite of a cream filled cupcake, took the lid off his coffee and took a swig, staring obstinately at Nathan.

"All right," said Chris, trying to stop the challenge from going any further. "Let's get to work. Vin? I'd like to see you in my office."

Vin grimaced. He knew this was coming, but that didn't mean he was ready for it. He scooped up his cupcake and his coffee and followed Chris into his office.

"Close the door," said Chris softly. He watched as Vin shifted his cupcake, cradling it and his coffee with his left arm, refusing to set them down as he closed the door. "Have a seat, Vin."

Vin perched a hip on the windowsill, keeping his distance. Chris rolled his eyes, exasperated.

"What?" asked Vin, in response to the rolled eyes Larabee gave.

"I thought you might use the chair. That's what it's here for," said Chris.

"You didn't say to sit in the chair."

"Vin!" said Chris with a sigh. Vin was still dancing him away from the subject at hand. "How are you feeling?" asked Chris seriously.


"Right," scoffed Chris. "You look like you haven't slept in a week."

Vin shrugged.

"You wanna talk about it?" asked Chris.

Vin shook his head.

"You're going to have to talk to someone. You have to see the department psychologist, you know that."

Vin nodded. He was more than aware of the rules. All undercover agents were required to undergo a psychological review after a case. And Chris would have thirty days to submit his evaluation to Assistant Director Travis. Vin wondered briefly what it would do to Chris if he couldn't pull it together. He would have to give a negative evaluation and Vin would be out. Chris would blame himself and their friendship would go down the tube.

"I'm sorry, Chris," said Vin softly. "I'm sorry fer hitting you. I'm sorry fer screwing up with JD and Josiah." He paused, sorting his thoughts. "And I'm real sorry I put you in this position."

Chris cursed softly. "Vin, you didn't cause any of this. You're under a lot of stress. You need to talk about it. Now I'll admit, I'd really like to be the one you share with because I care about you. If you feel more comfortable with someone else, that's fine, but you need to talk. And whether you like it or not, you need to be around your friends."

"I know."

Chris looked at Vin curiously. Vin set his coffee cup on the windowsill and pulled out his wallet. He pulled out a business card, walked to Chris's desk and handed it to him. Chris took the card and examined it. It was an appointment card for a psychologist. The appointment date was the previous Saturday. Chris looked at the doctor's name and smiled. Ezra. The card belonged to the psychologist the southerner used to debrief after each case. The Bureau had had a fit initially over the choice, but eventually had accepted the doctor on their approved list.

"You saw him?" asked Chris.

"Yeah. Got another appointment this afternoon." Vin sat down in the chair. "I'm pretty screwed up, Chris. He says it's gonna take awhile." Vin rubbed his hand across his face tiredly.

Chris nodded. "I went once a week for nearly six months."

"You?" asked Vin in surprise.

"Yeah, me. Couldn't deal with losing Sarah and Adam. Believe me, Vin, you'd be glad you didn't know me then. I was a real jerk. Treated Buck like dirt when all he was doin' was trying to help me."

"Like me," said Vin guiltily.

"That's not what I meant, Vin."

"It's true." Vin stood and walked to the window. He drank down the last of his coffee while he stared at the building across the street. "Chris?" asked Vin, turning back to look at his friend.

"Yes, Pard?"

"I really wanna talk to you about some of this stuff, but, but I ain't ready yet. I need some time, a little space."

"All right. But you don't have to do this on your own. You know?"

Vin nodded.

"All right. You have work to do. Get to it," said Chris.

Vin gave him a half grin and walked toward the door. He stopped and turned back. "Thanks, Chris."

Chris nodded to him and Vin walked out to his desk. As he sat down, he could feel all eyes on him. He picked up the banana that was left on his desk. He leaned back in his chair propping his cowboy boots on the desk. "Hey, Nate," he called. Vin peeled the banana and began to eat it. "Thanks."

Chapter Eighteen

While Vin's conversation with Chris relieved some of the tension, it was far from a cure all. Things were happening that Vin didn't seem to be aware of, indicators of the toll going back to the streets had taken on the young man. Vin was moody and not always able to keep it in check. He was overly protective of anything that was "his." He refused to take his coat off, even in the warm office. He kept his desk locked at all times, not allowing anyone to filch from his snack hoard. When snacking or even drinking a cup of coffee, he never set the item down, risking it being taken.

On Tuesday, JD unintentionally ventured into Vin's territory. He was going over some notes with Ezra and his pen ran out of ink. Without a second thought, he picked up the pen from Vin's desk and continued with the notes. When they were finished, JD headed back to his own desk to commit the notes to his computer, not realizing that he had forgotten to return the pen.

Vin came back from the weapons room and picked up the notepad from his desk. "Where the hell is my pen?" he yelled, looking frantically around his desk for the item.

"Mr. Tanner, what is the problem?" asked Ezra with concern.

"Who took it?" Vin stormed. "Who stole my pen?"

Hearing the angry tirade, JD reached up and removed the pen he had tucked behind his ear. "Uh-oh," he groaned. He stood and walked back to Vin's desk. "Uh, Vin? My pen ran out of ink when I was making notes. I borrowed yours. Forgot to put it back. Sorry."

Vin grabbed the pen, yanking it away from JD, clutching it possessively in his fist. "It's mine, JD. You don't take another man's stuff."

"Jeez Vin. It's an eighty-nine cent pen. It's not gold," said JD.

"You don't take another man's stuff," repeated Vin angrily.

"And you aren't on the streets anymore," replied JD, referring to the instructions Vin had given him that first night on the streets.

Vin looked up, surprised, as the implication of JD's words sank in. The kid was right. He was acting as if he were still on the street. Vin's heart crumbled a little more at the reaffirmation that inside himself he had never left the street. His time with Carlita, the stint in the Army, his bounty hunting, and now the time with Team 7, it was all a ruse. He had been fooling himself to think he could ever get away from the streets.

"Sorry," he whispered, heading quickly down the hall to the restroom.

+ + + + + + +

On Wednesday, it was Buck's turn to make the lunch run to the local deli. They rotated the duty between all of them, each man contributing the cost of his lunch to the pot. No one worried about making change unless it was a couple bucks or more. Small change went to the delivery boy.

Trying to get the reluctant Texan to let go of the six bucks for his lunch was something Buck hadn't expected to be a problem. He had to physically pull the money out of Vin's grip while assuring him he would be back in a few minutes with his lunch.

When Buck returned to the bullpen, Vin grabbed the bag away from him before anyone else could get to it. He emptied it on the desk, grabbed his ham sandwich and pickle, and stepped away from the others, backing into a corner. Vin ate hurriedly, as if he were afraid someone would steal his food if he paused. Buck had the distinct impression of a wild animal, leery of the hand offering food, snatching the tidbit away and huddling over it protectively.

When Vin finished eating, he walked back over to Buck. "Where's my change?"

"Excuse me?" asked Buck, truly surprised by the question.

"You owe me twenty-three cents," insisted Vin, holding out his hand for the change.

Buck looked at the sharpshooter sadly, wondering if they would ever get the real Vin back. He reached in his pocket, pulled out his change and flipped Vin a quarter. He avoided saying anything, knowing that Vin was still having a hard time. He watched as Vin reached in his own pocket, went through his change and laid two pennies on the desk. He wanted to argue and refuse the coins, but Buck silently picked up the change and pocketed it as he watched Vin walk back to his desk.

"We gotta do something," he said quietly, looking around the room at his teammates who were nodding in agreement.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was interacting with the team in a limited way during work hours, but still avoiding them after work. Chris had talked to Carlita several times during the week and found out that Vin had not been home except to change clothes, check on her, and head out again. Carlita didn't think he was sleeping at the apartment. She didn't know what he was doing, but sensed that his heart was troubled, telling Chris as much.

Vin's empty seat at the table glared at the remaining six as they met at Inez's after work on Friday. Vin's erratic behavior was the topic of discussion, each man desperately hoping for a way to help the Texan regain his balance and become the sharpshooter they all knew and loved.

Between Ezra's practical experience, Nathan's medical knowledge and Josiah's psychological skills, the team was learning a lot about Critical Incident Stress, and how to deal with it. Each one of them would do anything to help the Texan "come home" to their family.

Josiah read the list of symptoms, "Re-experiencing the event, flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, exhaustion or hyperactivity..."

"Jeez, that's Vin alright," said JD.

Buck whapped him on the back of the head. "It could be any of us, JD," he warned.

"I know that! I just meant that those things are what Vin's going through," defended the younger man.

"Guilt, depression or anxiety, anger or irritability," Josiah continued reading. "Marital or family problems, numbing, withdrawal or isolation, decline in job performance, memory loss or confusion, Loss of appetite..."

"That rules Vin out," said JD. "He eats all the time."

"You don't show all of the symptoms, JD," explained Nathan patiently. "You have some of them, but not all of them."

"Uncontrollable emotions, and nausea," said Josiah. "That's the list."

"So what do we do?" asked JD. Vin was a good friend and he sincerely wanted to help him. He owed his life to Vin.

"It's different for everyone, Mr. Dunne," said Ezra.

"Does your report have a list for this too, Josiah?" asked JD.

The profiler nodded. "Let's see. Alternate strenuous exercise and relaxation for the first 24 to 48 hours after the incident. Keep busy. Structure your time. Be with people, especially those who have 'been there'."

Ezra shifted uncomfortably. Vin had met secretly with him several times in the past few days, sometimes just sitting with him, but sometimes asking questions about Ezra's experiences. It was uncomfortable for the southerner, but to help his teammate, his friend, he was foregoing his guarded privacy.

"Remember that your reactions are normal and expected," continued Josiah. "Don't label yourself as "crazy" or "weak." Keep your life as routine as possible. Avoid making any big life changing decisions. However, you should make a lot of small choices about your daily life; this will return a sense of being back in control to you. Avoid alcohol and drug usage. Any relief that is felt will be short lived and your feelings afterwards will be more extreme than before."

"Aw hell. And I've been pushing him to go out for drinks with us," said JD guiltily.

"This one is probably the hardest," Josiah editorialized. "Give yourself permission to feel rotten." He looked up at Nathan. "Here's one for you, Brother Nate: Watch your diet. You should avoid sugars and caffeine. Eat regular, balanced meals. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables."

"See. I knew it," said Nathan. "You guys are killing yourselves with all that sugar anyway."

"Realize that others have gone through this before and have felt the same way you are feeling now," Josiah continued. "Don't hesitate to call a trusted and experienced peer anytime you need to talk. That's it."

"So, what do we do to help?" Buck asked. Eyes that normally danced with laughter now showed deep concern for his friend.

"Brothers, all we can do is be available to Vin. We don't push him to be with us, but we don't let him hide either. We're going to make mistakes. Vin will get mad. Feelings will get hurt. But we have to remember, he will get through this. It will just take time."

"We've been available, Josiah," said Chris, breaking his silence. He had observed the entire conversation, but had not offered any input. "Vin won't talk. He's not coming to us."

Josiah looked at his teammates. After his conversation earlier in the day with one of his co-workers at the mission, he discovered what Vin had been doing all week after work. He thought for a few moments. This might be one of those mistakes he had mentioned, but at least it would give the team a way to do something. If Mohammed wouldn't come to the mountain, they'd bring the mountain to Mohammed.

"Brothers, if you're willing to get your hands dirty, I have an idea."

+ + + + + + +

Vin stood quietly surveying the work, hammer in hand. They had a long way to go before this place was livable. One of the community members had donated a warehouse to be transformed into a temporary shelter until the mission and the youth shelter could be rebuilt. Vin had spent every waking hour here, except when he was at work or with Ezra. He was running himself ragged, avoiding sleep. It was filled with nightmares anyway. When he was too tired to keep hammering away, he would walk around the neighborhood looking for kids sleeping on the streets. He had worked a deal with the manager of the sleazy hotel to board any kids he found. It was costing him a fortune but he didn't care. It was his fault those kids were on the street and not in the shelter. He should have been able to stop Randall from setting those fires.

"Hey, Vin!" called the construction supervisor.

"What's up, Mark?" Vin looked at him curiously when he caught sight of the silly grin on his face.

"Could you use a few extra hands on your crew today?" he asked.

"Sure," nodded Vin. He watched as Mark waved over his new crew. Vin snorted, then chuckled. Standing before him was the rest of Team 7 in work clothes, ready to dig in and help.

"I don't know, Mark. A couple of these guys are pretty clumsy. And this one," he said, nodding to Ezra, "doesn't do menial labor." Mark laughed and waved off his comment as he headed back to his work.

"Where do we start *boss*?" asked Chris. Vin shook his head and showed them what needed to be done.

As everyone dug in and started to work, Chris planted himself next to Vin. "Hand me that two by four," said Vin.

Chris passed the board to Vin, not letting go when the Texan grabbed hold of it. "You okay, Vin?"

Vin shook his head. "No."

Chris let go of the board, surprised that Vin had actually said he wasn't okay.

"But, I'm getting there," said Vin. "Ya see, I got this passel of brothers watchin' out fer me. Ain't got no choice but ta get through this." Vin winked at Chris and the blonde smiled. "Now get to work. We got a shelter to build."

Chris held the board and Vin nailed it into place in the same way that Chris held Vin's reality, and the Texan began to nail the pieces back together. He was rebuilding the shelter of his family that had been lost while he was on the streets. Vin would have his moments of doubt. He would have his struggles dealing with whatever was at the pit of his unrest, but Team 7 would not let Vin forget that he was safe and he was home.


Comments to:

March 2001

Continues in Tuesday's Child: Lessons of Grace