ATF Alternate Universe
This story should be read after One Question and One Reason
"Thanes Chrissss," Vin slurred, as he swayed in the doorway of his apartment.
"Uh huh," Chris answered, without really paying any attention to him. He fumbled with the doorknob, careful to keep one hand locked around Vin's arm. He'd already had to pick the sharpshooter up twice, and he was getting damned tired of it. For a skinny guy, Vin weighed a ton.
Chris finally got the door open and dragged Vin inside and unceremoniously shoved him down onto the comfortable sofa.
"Hey, wha'sha do tha for?" Vin struggled to climb up off the soft velour cushion.
"Just stay there, pard," Chris responded patiently, as he put a hand on the other man's shoulder and pushed him gently back down. Vin didn't get drunk very often, but Chris was his self-appointed caretaker when he did, unless he was too inebriated himself. He'd drank club soda all night, for just this reason. Inez had dropped them off, even though Chris was cold sober. No way he was leaving the Ram outside all night without a guard. Buck had already agreed to pick him up tomorrow afternoon and take him back to the Saloon.
It had been a great party. Vin had been surprised and a little embarrassed when he'd walked into the saloon like they did every Friday night and saw the cake and the balloons. He'd been uncomfortable with being the guest of honor at a surprise birthday party for a while, but they'd all been relieved when he'd finally relaxed and really seemed to enjoy himself. Of course the fact that they kept his mug filled with ice cold beer probably had something to do with the marked improvement in his mood.
Vin started to get up again and Chris sighed in exasperation. "Nope," he said firmly and pushed his friend back down onto the sofa for the third time. "You're not going anywhere."
Vin looked at him with an expression somewhere between deeply hurt and outrage and he looked so pathetic that Chris couldn't help laughing.
"Wha'sha laugh'n at?" Vin demanded, as indignantly as the better part of two pitchers of beer would let him.
"Nothing pard," Chris said and just managed to grab a small wastebasket lined with a blue plastic bag and shove it under the sharpshooter's head, before half of that beer came back up.
Chris held Vin's thin shoulders until the younger man stopped heaving. Tanner groaned and leaned against the back of the sofa, suddenly markedly more sober. Unfortunately, his head ached in direct proportion to his increasing sobriety.
"I'll be back in a minute." Chris took the wastebasket to the kitchen and tied up the plastic bag. He found another bag under the sink and dropped the soiled one inside of it and tied that one up too. After hastily washing his hands, Larabee hunted in Vin's cabinets until he found a jar of instant coffee. He microwaved a large mug of water until it was nearly boiling. Adding a large tablespoon of the coffee, Chris stirred it until the flaky crystals were dissolved. He added a little cold water, so that Vin wouldn't burn himself. Chris wrinkled his face in distaste, as he stirred four teaspoons of sugar into the mug. Vin liked his coffee stronger than dirt, but he added enough sugar to make the American Dental Association have a cow.
Vin's head hung down into his hands and he was moaning softly when Chris eased down beside him.
"How about some coffee?" the older man offered quietly. "Strong and sweet, just the way you like it."
Vin didn't reply, but he looked up and reached his hands out. Chris put the mug into his hand and carefully closed his fingers around it. Vin tested the temperature with his upper lip and then took two large gulps. He closed his eyes and Chris watched him closely, ready to rescue the cup if Vin lost his grip. It was an unnecessary precaution, as Vin opened his eyes and looked around, seeming to register for the first time that he was home. He downed the rest of the coffee and set the mug down on the coffee table in front of him.
"You mind grabbin' me some aspirin?" Tanner requested, with a soft groan.
Chris didn't bother answering him. Instead he went to the bathroom and returned quickly, with a Dixie cup of water and three round tablets.
Vin washed all three down at once and tossed the empty cup onto the table beside the coffee mug. "Some party," he said flatly.
"You seemed to enjoy it," Chris said uncertainly. Something was not right, but he wasn't sure what it was. He knew Vin well enough not to bother asking. Sometimes Vin shared things with him, but only when the sharpshooter himself initiated the conversation.
"Yeah," Vin replied distantly.
Chris waited. He was now certain that Vin was about to share another one of his secrets. Larabee could never predict when Vin would divulge one of his closely held memories. But, the older man was always left a little more in awe of his best friend's lion's heart. Vin's childhood had been hell pure and simple, but he'd perservered and come through it with a quiet dignity and a passion for justice. Still when the words came, Chris was so startled, his mouth dropped open.
"Ain't my birthday," Vin said simply, staring at the wall across the room.
"What are you talking about?" Chris demanded. "I checked your file myself. May 14, 1980 is on every form."
"Yeah, but it ain't my birthday," Vin said sadly. "It's just the day they picked, when they couldn't find out my real birthday."
"What do you mean they couldn't find out your birthday?" Chris was having trouble making sense of this. "What about your birth certificate? Or your mother? Didn't she tell them before she died?"
Vin turned haunted eyes on him and Chris shut up instantly. He knew how hard Vin found talking about his past and he knew that prodding would make the younger man clam up.
"Ain't got no birth certificate, neither." His drawl was thicker than it usually was, when the Texan continued, "My mom had this boy friend, Bobby. He was a mean sonovabitch and he'd beat the shit outuv 'er. He never hit me though. She wouldn't let 'im. I was playin' in my room one day and I knocked over some blocks and woke 'im up. She was hangin' up some clothes on the line in the yard and she heard 'im yellin' and she come in the house and he was shakin' me. I thought my teeth were gonna fall outta my head, he was shakin' me so hard. She come up behind him and shoved 'im and grabbed me and pushed me outta the room."
His tormented eyes met Chris's and Larabee laid a steadying hand on his shoulder. "Easy, pard, take it slow," the older man advised softly.
Vin nodded and closed his eyes for a moment, steeling himself to tell the rest. "I heard 'im hittin' 'er. She was cryin' and tellin' 'im she was leavin'. He told 'er, he'd find 'er and kill 'er if she ever left 'im.
When he come outta that room, he took 'er purse and flopped down on the couch and went back ta sleep. She took me in my room and we waited till he was good and out. She told me we were playin' a game. We were gonna be spies. We hadda be real quiet and couldn't wake Bobby. I liked that idea real well, not wakin' Bobby. Anyway, she grabbed a few things and stuffed 'em in a suitcase and she let me get a few cars, the book she gimme, and this old stuffed dog I slept with. She got some money outuv a jar on her dresser and we snuck outta there. Chris, she didn't even have 'er purse, cause Bobby was a mean shit, but he wasn't a stupid one. He didn't think she'd be able to go anywhere without it. She went across the street and begged the old man who lived there ta give us a ride. He drove us right ta the bus station and in no time, we was headin' for the other side o' Texas. We stayed on that bus all day and all night and all the next day. The only time we got off, was ta get somethin' ta eat in one o' them rest stops. I didn't mind so much, we got away from Bobby and I hadn't never been on no bus b'fore that. We got off the bus in this little dirtwater town, Pecos, Texas. I guess that's where the ticket run out, or just the last place she figured Bobby'd ever look for us."
Chris heard the speculation in the sharpshooter's voice. How many times, the older man wondered, had Vin had this conversation in his own head?
"Them next few weeks were the best time I ever remember," Vin said wistfully. "She found us a room, where she didn't have to show 'em no ID. Just paid a month's rent in advance. I didn't have ta go ta school." The Texan's eyes were thoughtful, as he mused, "I think it was 'cause she was scared ta register me."
Chris could tell that Vin had thought about this many times and that he still had trouble reconciling it all in his head.
"She was real sad and real quiet, but she hugged me all the time and told me that no matter what, I had ta remember, that I was a Tanner, that she loved me a lot, and ta make her proud."
Vin's raspy voice was suddenly husky and he had to close his eyes and bow his head quickly. Chris was sure he was trying to keep his emotions from overwhelming him. When his blue eyes met Chris's again, they were distant and full of a pain, that Chris could only guess at.
"You don't have to tell me, cowboy. You know that, right?" Chris offered gently. Larabee knew that, while the shrinks might think talking about your pain was helpful, the reality was, that sometimes you just had to live with it. Vin had had a hell of a lot more than his share of pain and Larabee wanted him to understand that Chris would listen to whatever he wanted to reveal, - or not reveal.
Vin studied his best friend's face for several minutes, reading the friendship and support the older man was giving him. He'd never told anyone, not even Nettie, about this, but somehow, it seemed right - and safe - to tell Chris. He trusted the man with his life and he trusted him with his secrets.
"I know," Vin's soft voice began again. "But, I wanta tell ya, Chris. Seems like somebody else oughta know what she went through. What she did for me."
Chris was puzzled by that last statement, but he kept silent. Vin would tell him exactly what he wanted to tell him, no more and no less.
"I don't know how long we'd been there, but she was startin' ta relax. She smiled a lot more and she laughed at me a lot. At night, we'd snuggle up together and she'd sing me a song about a mockin'bird and a diamond ring that didn't shine. And she'd read me Robin Hood. Every night, she'd tell me she loved me and tell me ta promise 'er that I wouldn't ever forget. That I'd make 'er proud."
His voice broke, but he continued on. "Chris, I think she knew what was gonna happen. I think she wanted ta make sure that I'd have somethin' ta hold on to, when -" he paused and met Larabee's eyes again, searching for confirmation.
"Yeah Vin, she probably did," Chris said softly, swallowing the lump that he suddenly found in his throat.
Vin's eyes burned and he looked away, and went on with his story. "I don't know how, but the sonuvabitch found us. I come in from playin' and he was standin' in the middle of the room, and she was cryin'.
"He started pointin' at me and she pushed him and said somethin'. I didn't know what they said, but they were lookin' at me. I remember 'er wipin' a tear away and I was scared Chris. I was so scared. I just wanted him ta go away."
Chris could see the tears sliding silently down his face. He'd seen enough domestic violence cases, to know that there wasn't going to be a happy ending.
"Get rid o' him. Bobby told 'er and she come over and knelt down in front o' me and hugged me real hard. She kissed me a couple o' times and she zipped up my coat. I remember 'er tellin' me she loved me more'n anything. She whispered it real low, so he wouldn't hear. I love you, Vin Tanner. No matter what, you promise me you'll always remember that I love you. She kissed me again and hugged me and said, Remember, you're a Tanner, make me proud I kissed 'er and promised. I promised I'd make 'er proud. She told me she wanted me to go play on the swings and stay there 'til she come and got me. She told me, Don't come back here,'til I come get you. And she took me ta the door. I was halfway down the hall, when she called me back. I come runnin' back and she handed me that book. He grabbed 'er by the arm and slammed the door."
"I never saw 'er again."
Vin bowed his head, unable to continue. Even though his best friend made no sound, to Chris, the telltale dark spotting on the younger man's faded blue jeans was a dead give away. He also knew that Vin would be very embarrassed, if he realized that Chris knew he was crying, so he quickly offered to get a glass of water for the younger man. The blond made a hasty retreat into the kitchen, his mind reeling.
Damn Vin! he thought shakily and sat down in one of the two chairs under the small round table. When he'd checked Vin out, and found out he was an orphan, he'd just assume that Vin's mother had died from some illness. How the hell had Vin managed to grow into the man he was today? God, he'd lived through so much shit. Every time Chris thought that Vin had told him the worst things he'd endured, the Texan's next revelation shot that to hell. And this was the worst secret yet.
He sat at the table, allowing Vin the privacy he needed to get himself together until he heard Vin moving around. The older man quickly found a clean glass and filled it with water from the plastic jug in the refrigerator. Returning to the living room, he found Vin standing at the window, staring out into the night. Chris handed him the glass and put his hand on the younger man's shoulder and squeezed briefly, before sitting at the far end of the end of the sofa. They'd never needed words before, and Chris wasn't about to try to come up with any in this situation.
"Shit," Vin cursed dejectedly and slumped back down onto the couch studying a crack that ran down the opposite wall and disappeared behind the television.
"Yeah," Chris was in complete agreement with Vin's assessment.
"I musta sat on them fuckin' swings for two hours. I stayed there waitin' and waitin', just like she told me ta do. I stayed there when I heard the sirens. I stayed there when I saw the police cars. I stayed there when the goddamned police went up the goddamned stairs and I stayed right where I fuckin' was. I never moved at all, not even when a bunch more o' them police cars showed up. I saw the lady who gave my mom the keys when we first got there, talkin' ta the police. She pointed at me and I seen one o' them cops come walkin' over ta where I was sittin'. I can remember every step that man took. I held my breath, hopin' he'd just go away. I just knew that if he went away, my mom would come and get me."
Vin paused and looked directly at his best friend. Chris could see the pain and anger in his eyes, before he turned away again and began talking again in his soft drawl.
"He didn't. He just kept walkin' t'wards me and he got about 2 feet from where I was kickin' my feet back and forth in the dirt and he crouched right down in front o' me. I just ignored 'im and kept on kickin' that dirt. I knew he had somethin' real bad ta tell me. He talked real soft and real nice. Said his name was Danny. I can see his face, clear as day. He was real young, maybe no older'n JD. He had blue eyes and bright red hair and he was kinda fat. And he told me his name was Danny and asked me what mine was.
"Vin Tanner," the blue eyed boy lisped.
"That's a real nice name. Do you mind if I call you Vin?"
"Vin, do you live here?"
"Uh huh, my mommy and I live here," the small boy with the big blue eyes responded.
"Does your daddy live here too?"
The little boy shook his head no and resumed kicking the dirt.
"Vin, does your mommy have a boyfriend?"
There was fear in the blue eyes and he shook his head up and down vigorously and whispered, "Bobby."
"Do you know where your daddy is?"
The child shrugged his shoulders.
"Where does your daddy live?" and "What's your daddy's name?" got the same response.
The officer tried again, "Vin what's your mommy's name?"
The little boy looked disgustedly at him, as if he'd asked a ridiculous question. "Mommy," the child replied disdainfully. Sometimes grown ups sure did act stupid.
"Where's my mommy?" the little boy demanded.
Two other policemen and a woman joined them at the swings. The little boy heard whispers;
"Mother's got a boyfriend, Bobby, probably our perp."
Softer, the woman speaking. "Has he told you anything?"
"Just his name, Vin Tanner. His mother's name is mommy."
The grown ups shared a funny sounding laugh, like they didn't think it was funny at all. And then the lady knelt down in front of him.
"Vin, my name's Noelle, are you hungry?"
He nodded vigorously and whispered, "I gotta go pee too."
"OK Vin, how about if you come with me and we'll get you something to eat?"
The child panicked. "NO! I can't go nowhere with you. I want my mommy. Where's my mommy? MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY!"
His keening wail pierced even the hardest hearts among those veteran cops. Danny picked him up, screaming and cradled him gently, listening to the desperate cries fade into terrified whimpers of, "Please get my mommy. I want my mommy. I'm not s'posed ta go with you. Mommy's gonna be mad. Where's my mommy?"
"Jesus Vin," Chris couldn't keep from exclaiming softly.
Vin turned haunted eyes on him. "The bastard killed 'er. He strangled 'er and the landlady came by collectin' rents and the door was open and she saw my mom layin' there and she called the cops. They come and they found me sittin' on them fuckin' swings and took me away. That lady, Noelle, she asked me a bunch o' questions, but I couldn't give 'er no answers. And then that cop, Danny, he gave me a bowl of chicken noodle soup and I kept askin' 'em where my mom was and when she was comin' ta get me. Finally she sat down on a chair and told me, I hadda be a big boy. That my mom had an accident and she went ta heaven ta live with God. I went back about five years ago and tried ta find out somethin' more than what was in my file. But, I didn't even know where I was born, or what my mom's real name was."
"Hell," he continued bitterly, "I never even knew my father. Don't even know if Tanner was his last name or hers. They never caught Bobby either. I tried ta find him too. But, when all ya got ta go on is a guy named Bobby, who killed his girlfriend fifteen years ago -" Vin shrugged and stopped talking.
"They couldn't find anyone who knew your mother?" Chris asked him softly.
"They tried. But there was no police computers back then and they didn't even know where ta start lookin'. That lady, Noelle - she come ta see me a couple o' times. Told me they were gonna try ta find my family and if they couldn't they'd try ta find me a new one. They couldn't though. And, I read in my file, when I finally got ta see it, I couldn't be put up for adoption. There was a big red stamp "Not available for adoption." across the papers. Some judge decided somewhere, that maybe my real family," Vin said the words "real family" derisively, " would show up wantin' me. Shit. There hadn't been no real family but my mom my whole life."
"I always thought they kept me in foster care, 'cause they couldn't find no family that wanted ta take me. But, it was just 'cause some asshole judge decided that I should wait for my real family." Again, the words real family dripped with venom. "He fucked up the rest o' my life with that goddamned red stamp."
Vin met Chris's eyes again, and Chris nodded encouragingly and waited for Vin to continue. The sharpshooter's eyes dropped again and he was silent for a long time. When the words finally came, they hit Chris hard.
"Ya think there woulda been someone who wanted ta keep me, if they coulda?" Vin's drawl was so low, Chris had trouble hearing it.
Chris closed his eyes and swallowed hard and moved close enough, so that he could put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Yeah pard, I do," he said simply.
Vin allowed the contact for a brief moment, before he leaned away from Chris's hand and sank against the back of the sofa. "Gettin' kinda tired," the Texan said with a yawn.
Chris knew, that Vin was done talking about his past for tonight. "Yeah, me too," he agreed with the younger man.
"Why don'tcha take the bed?" Vin offered tiredly. "I think I'm just gonna stretch out here," he said and began untying his sneakers.
"OK pard, you want an extra pillow or blanket?" Chris asked him.
"Nah, I'm fine," Vin said wearily and leaned over onto the small pillow that matched the couch.
Chris clicked off the light and started to head for the bedroom, but stopped in the doorway and made his way back to the couch.
"What's wrong?" Vin demanded uncertainly.
"Nothing," Chris responded. He picked up the afghan off of the back of the couch and spread it out over his friend.
"Thanks mom," Vin said, not entirely sarcastically.
"Welcome," Chris told him, meaning it entirely. He used the key Vin had given him to let himself into the bedroom. It was a never ending source of irritation to Chris, that Vin left his front door unlocked, but tonight wasn't the night to argue about it. "Night," he said as he closed the bedroom door.
"Vin, can you come into my office, please?" Chris called from the doorway of his office.
Tanner got up and grabbed his coffee. "Sure cowboy," he called, ignoring the questioning looks of the others.
Chris stepped back and indicated that Vin should sit down.
Closing the door, Chris sat down in his own chair and met Vin's eyes. The sharpshooter waited patiently for him to begin. Now that the moment was at hand, Chris was feeling very anxious.
"You know...," he began nervously.
Vin frowned. Whatever Chris had to tell him was making the older man uncharacteristically nervous. It wasn't a good sign.
"Things have changed a lot in twenty years," Chris continued on. "I have a friend who's a whiz on research. Give him something to find and he finds it. He especially loves a challenge. I went to see him and told him what I wanted and he found it. Took him a couple weeks, but he found it."
Vin listened patiently to Chris rambling on about what, he didn't have any idea. "Uhm, that's real interestin' Chris, but what's it got to do with me?" he asked in confusion.
Chris sighed and handed him a thin brown envelope, marked with a return address from Texas. It was addressed to Chris and Vin looked at him questioningly.
"Just open it. I hope you don't want to shoot me after you do," Chris told him.
Vin opened the envelope and was surprised to see an official looking document. His mouth dropped open and he stared at it in astonishment.
Certificate of Live Birth
Vincent James Tanner
June 6, 1980
Mother: Emma Rose Wilson
Father: James Vincent Tanner
"Chris," he whispered, unable to think coherently.
"Everybody oughta have their real birthday," the older man said quietly. He got up and left his office, pausing to squeeze Vin's shoulder briefly, before he closed the door behind himself.
"Lunchtime," Chris ordered the five startled men, working at their desks. It was only 11:00 and they usually ate around 12:30. Exhanging glances, they grabbed hats and jackets, and exited the office.
"Vin's not hungry," Chris answered the unspoken question, leaving them all more puzzled than they already were. None of them had ever known Vin not to be hungry. They didn't bother asking for more of an explanation. Chris and Vin had secrets they weren't privy too, and they all knew Chris would never tell them what had happened in his office in the last half hour.
Thirty minutes later, Team 7, minus it's sharpshooter was having lunch at Inez's place, when Chris raised the coke he was drinking and whispered, "Happy Birthday, cowboy."