Quicksand - Part 24
Chris sank down onto the sofa and stared thoughtfully at the cardboard mailing envelope in his hands, the rest of the day’s mail laying forgotten on the coffee table. Mingled anticipation and uncertainty rippled through him as his eyes traced and re-traced the return address so neatly printed on the envelope.
Had he done the right thing after all? He’d pried into Vin’s past, using his team and government resources to do it, had stepped over boundaries he just wasn’t sure he had any right crossing. True, many of those boundaries had been ripped away by the events and revelations of the past weeks anyway, but shouldn’t that make the ones that still existed all the more sacrosanct?
Maybe he should’ve said something, should’ve at least tried to gauge how Vin might take this. God knew the last thing Tanner needed was more ground ripped out from under him when he was still trying to find his footing on that which remained. He was getting better, true, but, considering where he’d started from, “better” was still a helluva long way from “good.”
Christ, what if he’d made a mistake?
He exhaled sharply and rose again to his feet, pacing around the den and absently tapping the envelope against the fingers of his left hand. It was done, and there was no undoing it. Buck and JD had leapt at their assigned tasks and proved again just how very good at their jobs they were. They’d found the two cops – well, cop and former cop – and the Walkers without breaking a sweat, and Chris had already contacted all of them.
And from just one phone conversation that had lasted almost two hours, he’d damn near fallen in love with Sadie Walker.
He stopped pacing and stared down at the envelope, again remembering the conversation that had resulted in whatever was inside. It had taken him more than an hour just to work up the courage to dial the number JD had given him, and he’d been on the verge of hanging up when Joe had answered. And even though he’d known full well where he was calling, the sound of that booming voice marked by a heavy drawl had momentarily startled him.
God, could there really be a whole state full of people who talked like Vin Tanner?
He chuckled softly and shook his head, then resumed his pacing. Hell, he’d almost blown it at first! Without thinking, he’d instinctively identified himself as “Chris Larabee, an agent with the ATF” and had been answered by a long stretch of silence. He could almost imagine Joe Walker running down a list in his mind, trying to figure out which one of his kids, past and present, had attracted the notice of the federal agency. Then the man had answered with an obviously habitual and somewhat old-fashioned politeness that reminded Larabee immediately of Vin. “What can we do for ya, sir?”
And Chris had decided then and there that he needed to find some reason to go to Texas.
He’d made an awkward job at first of trying to explain why he’d called, and had wondered if maybe the others weren’t right after all when they said his people skills needed work. But the whole mess had been salvaged the moment he’d mentioned Tanner’s name–
“Vin?” Sadie Walker had breathed into the phone, alerting him for the first time that she was on a second line. “You know our Vin?”
Hell, who was he kidding? He’d fallen in love with her right then. “Our Vin,” she’d said, laying immediate and heartfelt claim to a boy, a man, so many others had been so quick to cast away. “Our Vin,” with no hesitation or second thought to it, her light, sweet voice cracking slightly and a wealth of feeling rushing through that crack.
And every last doubt and bit of reserve in Chris had cracked, too, then shattered, and he’d been stunned to hear himself pouring out the whole painful story. He’d explained everything, told them what Vin was to him, told them about the team and what Vin was to them, told them about what the seven of them were to each other, putting into words what before had only existed in his heart. They’d listened, asked questions, talked, had shared their own stories of and feelings for the boy who’d come into their lives as a ward of the state and then left as “theirs.”
They still had his picture hanging on their wall, along with those of every other child they’d fostered over the years. “Family photos,” Joe had called them; “our kids,” Sadie had said. Chris hadn’t even bothered to wipe away his tears. And when he’d told them about Castro, about what the bastard had done to Vin, what that whole mess was still doing to him, Joe had erupted in horror and anger while Sadie had asked every question any mother would: “How is he now?” “Is he eating?” “Does he sleep?” “Is there anything he needs, anything we can do?” “Is my boy all right?”
Is my boy all right? And Chris Larabee, the baddest bad-ass of them all, had broken down and cried like a child. My boy. God, how could the state have torn Vin away from that?
By the time they’d hung up, they’d all cried, and laughed, shared stories and so much else besides. Chris had a standing invitation from Joe to “come down and see us any time you’re of a mind, there’s always room fer one more,” and had been ordered by Sadie to “tell that boy it’s high time he came back home for a visit. You tell him that, you hear?”
God, Buck would’ve split a gut laughing at the meekness in ol’ Bad-Ass Larabee’s voice as he’d promised her he would. And Chris couldn’t help wondering if there were any way he could ever get Sadie Walker and Nettie Wells together.
He looked down at the envelope again, and a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. There was no way in hell this could ever have been a mistake.
He returned to the couch and sat down, setting the envelope down at his side and reaching for the other mail. He could hear Vin shuffling down the hall – stubborn sonuvabitch still refused to use the crutches Nathan kept shoving at him – and idly looked at his watch. Tanner’s first real session with his therapist was still more than two hours away, but he’d been getting ready for it all morning. Chris had lost count of the times Vin had checked the appointment time written on every calendar in the house, had lost count of the times he’d called Josiah to ask what he should do, what he should say, what he should wear, had lost count of the times Tanner, whose absolute lack of concern about clothes often drove Ezra to despair, had changed outfits.
“Hell, on the damn Mental Status Exam I had t’ take, there’s a whole section on how clients – that’s what I am, y’know, not a patient, but a client, like I’m some kinda customer or somethin’ – ‘present themselves,’” he’d explained as he’d dug through his closet after pulling off yet another shirt while Chris had merely sat on the bed and watched in amazement. “That means are we so far gone that we cain’t even dress ourselves no more.” He’d turned and fixed a serious gaze on Larabee. “Reckon I should wear a tie?”
And Chris had damn near choked. “Only if you want her to watch you strangle yourself when you try to rip it off!”
The blue eyes had narrowed, the wide mouth had twisted into a scowl, and that chin had lifted. “Ain’t much help, are ya, cowboy?” he’d growled. “Hell, I’d ask ya what y’ wore t’ yer sessions, but,” he’d lifted one brow, “I jist ain’t got that much black.”
Now, two hours and God knew how many changes later, Vin was limping down the hallway, and Chris prayed he’d finally settled on something. He knew Tanner was nervous. The younger man had hardly eaten, and that very little bit only because his meds required it, and had been so restless that Larabee had decided to forgo the morning therapy session. All the sitting down, standing up and pacing Vin had done had to be giving his knee a more than adequate workout.
Hell, just watching him made Chris’s knees ache.
Hearing the uneven footsteps coming closer, Larabee turned on the sofa and smiled as Vin stepped into the doorway. He’d settled on a heavy sweater of dark blue and deep green knitted for him last Christmas by Nettie. Even over the denim shirt, and probably two or three other shirts, he wore beneath it, the bulky sweater still hung loosely on him, emphasizing his thinness. But at least his jeans fit, though only because Josiah and Ezra had taken him out over the weekend, both to get him clothes that wouldn’t fall off and to give Chris some much needed time alone.
Larabee’s lips twitched at the memory. Ezra had suggested a trip to the nearest Abercrombie and Fitch, the only reputable source in his opinion for the jeans Vin insisted on getting. But Tanner had put his foot down and said he wasn’t about to spend a fortune on clothes he wouldn’t be needing once he got “fattened back up” – and only Vin Tanner could consider his normal spare build as anything approaching being “fattened up” – and had said they could just go to the Goodwill store.
Chris had thought they were going to need an ammonia capsule to revive Standish.
But they’d gone, Josiah declaring it would be good for Ezra’s soul, Vin declaring that Ez and his soul could just wait in the car, and Chris praying his afternoon wouldn’t be interrupted by a call from the Denver police or Mercy General. They’d returned hours later, Vin satisfied with his “temporary” wardrobe, and Ezra absolutely ecstatic. Turned out the Goodwill store was also a “charitable” outlet for various name department stores in the area, and the Southerner had discovered to his delight that he could buy designer clothes for next to nothing.
Vin had muttered some comment about the smell of mothballs coming from Standish’s wallet, and Josiah and Ezra had exchanged triumphant smiles. They’d all wondered how Vin would hold up during his first real trip back into the world, worried about the effect of being out among strangers upon his less than predictable nerves. At his very best, the solitary Texan disliked crowds. At his worst–
Shit, at his worst in public Vin could raise the national terror alert status another level or two.
But Josiah and Ezra said he’d done well, considering. True, he’d needed at least one of them with him at all times, and had panicked and nearly hyperventilated at having to stand in line with so many others so close around him. But Josiah and Ezra had talked him through it and he’d stuck it out, though Josiah’s arm already carried the bruise from his grip, and they’d celebrated his victory with a picnic of chili dogs and cheese fries in the park.
Chris figured that Nathan never had to know about that part.
But now, out of the baggy sweatpants and loose, long-sleeved tees that had become his most frequent outfit, Vin looked more like his old self than he had in some time, if a thinner and paler version. His hair was longer than usual, now falling just past his shoulders, but it was clean and had been brushed to a glossy sheen, and he was freshly shaved. He hovered just inside the doorway, hands shoved into his pockets, and stared through wide, dark eyes at Chris, looking for all the world as if one remotely disapproving word would send him fleeing back to his room.
But Chris had no intention of disapproving. Easily able to feel his friend’s nervousness, he smiled warmly and nodded. “You clean up pretty good, pard.”
Vin exhaled deeply and relaxed visibly at that. All morning, he’d felt like his stomach was clawing over every one of his nerves in an effort to hurl itself out of his body, and he’d done all he could to abuse his knee in the hope that he could justify taking a pain pill just to settle down. But he wasn’t sure that showing up for his first visit with the therapist drugged out of his mind was all that good an idea, and had talked himself out of the pill.
And now, with Chris so steady and sure before him, he wasn’t really sure he needed it.
He managed a small, grateful smile and dipped his head in a brief nod, then started slowly into the den. Walking with the brace was hard, and it played hell with his balance, but he just couldn’t bring himself to use the crutches unless he was really hurting. And chose to ignore Nathan’s suggestion that using the crutches more would result in his hurting less.
“Reckoned it was time I stopped bein’ stupid an’ jist settled on somethin’,” he rasped as he approached the sofa.
“It’s not stupid to be nervous,” Chris assured him, scooting down to make room for him. “This is a huge step, Vin. And being the right step doesn’t make it an easy one.”
He eased himself down onto the sofa and lifted his left leg to prop it on the coffee table, then sank back and let his head drop against the cushioned back with a slow, deep sigh. “Jist feel like … there’s so much ridin’ on this,” he breathed, staring up at the ceiling. “I don’t wanta let y’all down–”
“Hold it right there,” Chris cut in firmly, turning to face Vin. “Forget about us. This isn’t about us. This is about you. You’re what matters here, you’re the only one who matters here. The only way you could possibly let us down would be to stop trying altogether and just give up. And, face it,” he smiled and reached out to grip Vin’s shoulder, “you’ve just never been good at that.”
Vin lifted his head and turned it to meet Larabee’s gaze. And what he saw in those eyes – faith, certainty, trust – warmed and strengthened him and deepened his still fragile faith in himself. “Reckon I ain’t always good at knowin’ when t’ quit, huh?” he finally allowed, giving a shaky smile.
Chris chuckled softly and squeezed his shoulder firmly, then pulled his hand away and shook his head. “Shit, Tanner,” he answered, “bulldogs could take lessons from you.”
Vin snorted and scowled. “Pots an’ kettles, cowboy.” He swept his gaze slowly over Larabee, taking in the man’s black boots, black jeans and black sweater over deep red shirt. “Hell, y’ even dress the part.”
Chris heaved an exaggerated sigh and closed his eyes, bowing his head and shaking it. “I don’t suppose therapy’ll do anything about that smart mouth of yours.”
Vin lifted two brows and stared mildly at his friend. “It do anything fer yers?”
“Shit, I’m sunk,” Chris muttered dourly, though inwardly he delighted in the exchange. Over the past week, since Vin had made the decision to seek help, they’d begun to talk openly about therapy, both about the need for it and what to expect from it. And to his own surprise, Chris had found it fairly easy to open up about his own experience with it, about what had driven him to it and what he’d gotten from it. He knew Vin needed it, but was startled to realize that he did, too.
Like Buck had said, it was time all the walls came down.
Vin knew what it must have cost Chris to open up like that, to lay so intimate and sensitive a part of himself out before someone else, and respected the man all the more for it. He was gradually coming to realize exactly how much of themselves his friends had sacrificed for him, were sacrificing still, and it touched him, awed him, more than he could say.
They’d never been good at giving up either.
“Wish I could tell y’ what it means … havin’ y’all with me through all of this,” he said softly. He dropped his gaze from Chris’s and stared down at his hands, lacing them together in his lap. “I know … I gotta do this fer m’self, but I also know I … I couldn’t ever do it by m’self. I jist …” He winced and shook his head. “I jist ain’t that strong.”
Chris reached out and again set his hand on Vin’s shoulder, not gripping, just laying it there, a strong and solid weight. “You’re stronger than you know,” he said quietly. “You’ve had to be just to make it this far. The things you’ve had to do, had to fight against … A weaker man wouldn’t have made it. Hell, I’m not sure I would’ve made it. Not unless I had you and the boys at my side, like we’ve been and are gonna be at yours.”
Vin thought a moment, then lifted his head and looked at Chris, frowning slightly. “I reckon that’s the point, ain’t it?” he mused. “Wouldn’t any of us get through any of this alone. But at least together we got a fightin’ chance. An’ I reckon that’s all any of us can ask fer – a fightin’ chance, an’ somebody t’ fight beside us.”
Chris smiled warmly and nodded. “It’s all we can ask for, and all we need.” He winked. “I think we’ve all proved that a time or two.”
Vin stared steadily at Larabee, his eyes clear, his shoulders squared. “I ain’t crazy,” he said firmly, not a hint of doubt or question in his voice. “And I am gonna get through this. Cain’t promise ya when, cain’t promise it’s gonna be easy, but I can promise, I do promise, I am gonna get through this. Got too many folks on my side not to.”
Chris swallowed hard and clenched his jaws against a sudden rush of emotion, nodding and squeezing Vin’s shoulder firmly. “You do have folks on your side, pard,” he said at last, his voice rough with feeling. “Maybe even more than you know.”
Vin frowned at that, not understanding. How could he possibly have, or need, more than the friends who’d become a solid wall around him?
Chris saw that confusion and knew now was the time to tell Vin what he’d done. He still wasn’t sure how Tanner would take it, but the man had a right to know. He sighed and dropped his hand from Vin’s shoulder, causing more confusion to creep into the blue eyes regarding him so steadily. “Need ta tell you somethin’, pard,” he explained. “It may piss you off, and if it does I’m sorry, but,” he shrugged, “it was somethin’ I felt like I needed to do.”
Vin stiffened as Chris’s words sent a ripple of uneasiness through him. “What is it?” he asked softly, eyes wide and dark.
Chris exhaled slowly, tried to figure out how to start, then decided just to plunge ahead. “I got to thinkin’ about everything you told us that night,” he winced and dropped his gaze, “that night it all came back to you. So many people let you down,” he breathed, pain and sorrow stabbing into him anew, “so many people hurt you. And as much as I wanted to punish them all for what they did, or what they didn’t do, I knew there was no way in hell I could. But then I remembered the others you mentioned, those few who were there to help when you needed it most, and I figured there was somethin’ I could do for them. I could thank ’em for what they’d done for you. Of course, to do that,” he slowly lifted his gaze back to Vin’s, “I had to find them.”
Vin still didn’t quite understand. He shook his head slowly and frowned, unable to decipher what Chris was saying. “Sorry, cowboy,” he said in confusion. “Reckon I still ain’t quite with it. Yer gonna have t’ help me out here.”
Chris smiled slightly and nodded. “Guess I’m not makin’ much sense.” He thought for long moments, then nodded and continued. “You told us about Joe and Sadie Walker, what they did for you, what they gave you. And you told us about Graciella Ortiz and Abel Nunez. Those people were there when you needed them most, and they went out of their way to show you that you were worth helpin’. Worth savin’. And when I thought about how many others hadn’t done that, it just seemed that … I don’t know,” he sighed, shrugging. “It just seemed like I needed to find them and thank them. And I did. Or, rather, we did. Buck and JD helped me.”
Vin just stared at Chris, stunned by his words, by what he’d done. That he’d gone through all that trouble …
Chris didn’t know what to make of Vin’s silence, of the expression on his face. No anger, or none yet, but shock certainly, though whether of the positive or negative sort he couldn’t say. Still, whatever the outcome, he knew he had to continue.
“Buck still has contacts on the force,” he said, “and he used ’em to track down Ortiz and Nunez. He gave the information to me, and,” he braced himself, “I got in touch with them.”
Vin sucked in a sharp and sudden breath and went more rigid still, his wide gaze, midnight blue against his pale flesh, riveted to Larabee’s face. When at last he could speak, he croaked, “You m … you met … Abel an’ Graciella?” Chris only nodded and he exhaled convulsively, still stunned almost beyond comprehension. He tried to speak, but words wouldn’t come, thought wouldn’t come, both completely choked off by the chaotic roil of emotion within him.
Chris had done this … for him …
Chris grew increasingly uneasy at Vin’s reaction, or lack of one, and began to fear that he’d dealt Tanner another shock for which he simply wasn’t ready. Maybe, on top of his anxiety about today’s visit with the therapist, this had been too much …
“I’m sorry, Vin,” he said softly, worriedly, “I didn’t mean to pry, or to push. I just … What they did for you, what they gave back to you … I just wanted them to know–”
“It meant that much to ya?” Vin finally rasped, sounding – and feeling – more than a little dazed. “What they done?”
Chris frowned at that, not understanding how Vin could even ask. “Of course it did! They didn’t have to do it. Their jobs were done when they got you to the hospital and filed the report. After that, they could’ve just walked away and never given you a second thought. They sure as hell wouldn’t have been the first! But what they did–”
“She brought me a Christmas present,” he murmured, now staring past Chris and into that time when he’d lain in that hospital bed, racked by pain, awash in shame and achingly alone. Until he’d looked up from his bed and seen someone far too pretty to be a cop smiling at him as if she were truly glad to see him. She’d called him hijo, touched him and talked to him like he mattered, like he was a real person and not just some shadow to be looked around or through. “Graciella did. Wrapped an’ ever’thing.”
A faint, unsteady smile ghosted about his mouth as he remembered that package, wrapped in red and green paper and tied with a gold ribbon. He’d thought it just about the prettiest damn thing he’d ever seen; except for the patrolman smiling down at him. “’S a book, Huckleberry Finn. She’d even wrote my name inside it–” His voice broke and he ducked his head to hide the tears in his eyes. “I couldn’t read the damn thing,” he whispered hoarsely. “Beaten I’d taken had messed up my head worse’n usual, an’ I wasn’t any good at readin’ anyways. But still it meant somethin’, meant more’n I could say, an’ I held onta that thing like it was gold.” He lifted his head suddenly, pride and defiance flashing in his eyes as he fixed them almost fiercely on Larabee. “An’ I did finally read it,” he declared roughly. “Took me damn near forever, but I read it, ever’ damn word. An’ I still got it, too. She gave it t’ me. T’ me, put my name on it an’ made it mine.” His gaze softened, his voice wavered, and a single tear slid down his pale cheek. “Been a long time since anybody’d done anything like that fer me,” he whispered.
“I know,” Chris said softly, easily able to imagine the expression that must have chased across that boy’s face when Ortiz had handed him that package. Hell, he didn’t have to imagine it; he saw it too often now when someone rocked Tanner to his core by doing him a simple act of kindness. “That’s why I had to find her, had to meet her, had to let her know that what she did then mattered. It mattered to you then, and it matters to me now.”
“But … why?” Vin asked, confusion filling his voice and eyes. He stared at Chris, trying to understand and failing. “That was so long ago. How could it possibly matter ta you–”
“Because you matter to me,” Chris said in a low, rough voice, green eyes snapping with intensity. “Because she could’ve been just one more person who turned her back on you, and she didn’t. Because she exerted herself to help someone who is important to me, and, goddamn it, Vin, that means something to me!”
Vin exhaled slowly and sat back, hardly knowing what to do with those words, with the feeling they gave him. And wondering yet again what he’d ever done to deserve so fine a thing as this man’s friendship.
“She remembers you, y’know,” Chris went on, voice and eyes softening. “In fact, you became a kind of inspiration to her.”
Vin stared at him, startled. “Me? How could I inspire her?”
“Because she never forgot you,” he said quietly, remembering the petite, pretty detective whose dark eyes had snapped with passion when she’d spoken of the boy she and her partner had found half-dead in a frozen alley all those years ago. “Because she never forgot what happened to you. The bastards who hurt you like that were never caught, and that ate at her. Got her so pissed that she’s dedicated herself to going after those kinds of predators.” He smiled slightly and arched a golden brow, even now deeply impressed by the woman he’d met. “She’s now a senior detective in the sex crimes and domestic abuse division of the DPD, and she’s got a master’s in social work. She doesn’t just go after the perps, she tries to help the victims, too.” He nodded. “Just like she did when she walked into a hospital room and gave a scared and lonely boy a Christmas present.”
Vin listened in amazement, and with a feeling of pride. He could believe that of Graciella; she had a fire in her soul and a compassion in her heart that would make her perfect in her chosen work. “She’s doin’ all right then?” he asked softly. “I ain’t seen her since I enlisted–”
“Yeah, and don’t think she didn’t bring that up,” Chris said wryly, remembering the barrage of questions about Vin he’d had to answer. She knew what had happened with Castro – hell, there wasn’t a cop in Denver who didn’t – and, knowing what she did of Vin’s background and with her own training, had been deeply concerned about his recovery. “If you don’t call her soon, she’s likely to issue a warrant for your arrest and have you dragged to her office in cuffs.”
Vin chuckled and shook his head. “Yeah, that’s her,” he said. “She always was a feisty one. Abel used t’ say she was like a chihuahua. She’d gnaw at yer ankles ’til ya fell or yap ya t’ death, but either way she’d wear ya down.” He sobered then and shot a sharp look at Chris. “What about Abel?” he asked suddenly. “Ya said ya talked ta both of ’em.”
He nodded. “I did. He’s a good man, too. Retired from the force now. He’s got his own martial arts studio, but still teaches it at a community center in a neighborhood a lot like Purgatorio. Does what he can to give the kids there an alternative to gangs. Also tries to get as many of ’em off the streets as he can.” He fixed a pointed gaze on his friend. “He considers you one of his success stories, Vin. He’s kept up with you, and he’s proud of you. And he wants to see you.” He winked. “Said any time you need a workout, he’d be glad ta kick your butt.”
Vin laughed and shook his head, his eyes alight. “Hell, he could prob’ly do it, too! Abel’s tough. He grew up in Purgatorio, knows as much about street fightin’ as he does the formal stuff. He taught me how to protect myself, but did a whole lot more’n that. Gave me a reason t’ think I could do somethin’, be somethin’. Showed me I’s more’n street trash …” He thought a moment, then nodded slowly. “Reckon I should go see him. Ain’t sure I’ve ever thanked him fer all he done–”
“He doesn’t want your thanks, Vin,” Chris said. “He just wants to see you. He knows what happened and he’s worried about you. He cares about you. You were one of ‘his kids,’ and I get the feeling that, with him, that’s somethin’ nobody ever outgrows.”
He bowed his head and stared down at his hands, overcome by everything Chris had said. By the memory of what Abel and Graciella had done then, by the knowledge of what they were doing now. By the realization that he’d mattered to folks who had no reason in the world to care about him at all. That he mattered still.
God, Lord God, how’d he ever get all these angels on his side?
Chris could see the tide of emotion rising in his friend’s eyes, could almost feel it coursing through his body. Color stained his high, hard cheekbones and fine tremors shook the thin, long-fingered hands clasped so tightly together in his lap. Chris moved closer and laid a warm, steadying hand to the back of neck, and wondered yet again how a man as deeply intuitive as Vin Tanner could have so little sense of his own worth to others.
Vin closed his eyes and leaned instinctively into Chris’s hand, into his strength, all but undone by the gift Larabee had given him. Lately he’d been so lost in the ugliness, the pain, of his past that he’d forgotten that it hadn’t all been brutal, that there’d been people, maybe even more than he knew, who’d gone out of their way to help him, who’d somehow, even if only for a little while, managed to heal him.
He drew a long, unsteady breath and lifted his head slowly, opening his eyes and turning them to Chris. The concern and compassion he saw in the man’s deep green eyes tore that breath right back out of him and brought the sting of fresh tears to his eyes. “I d … I don’t … know what t’ say,” he whispered brokenly. “Y’ done this … fer me …”
“Yeah, well,” Chris rasped softly, his own emotions running high, “it wasn’t all for you.” At Vin’s questioning look, he managed a tight, shaky smile. “Those folks … they played a part in keepin’ you goin’, keepin’ you alive, givin’ you somethin’ to hang on to. To hang on for. If they hadn’t done that, you’da been lost a long time ago. And I–” His voice broke, but he swallowed hard and forced himself to continue. “And I would’ve missed out on havin’ a really good friend in my life. So I figure I owe ’em, too, and I just wanted ’em to know how grateful I am for that.”
“Lord,” Vin breathed, stunned, and deeply touched, by Larabee’s words. “And y’ thought I’d be pissed about this?”
Chris shrugged. “I wasn’t sure. I went diggin’ around in your life, your past, without askin’. I wasn’t sure I had any right to do that–”
“Hell, Chris,” Vin sighed, a rueful smile teasing his lips, “my past has been makin’ a mess of yer life fer a good while now, and it don’t look like it’s gonna let up anytime soon. I reckon that gives you the right t’ dig around as much as y’ need to. I jist–” He grimaced suddenly and dropped his gaze. “I jist hope the shit there don’t stick to ya.”
“We’ll find a way through the shit together, remember?” Chris said softly, squeezing Vin’s neck lightly. “All of us.”
“Yeah,” he breathed, lifting a wan smile to his friend. “I’m finally startin’ t’ see that.”
“Good.” Chris reached down for the envelope still laying beside him. “And I got somethin’ else here I want you ta see.” He lifted the envelope and watched Vin’s gaze track to it. “Abel and Graciella aren’t the only ones I talked to. JD worked some of his computer magic, found this couple in Texas for me. Real nice folks. Real good folks. And,” he pressed the cardboard mailer into Tanner’s hand, “they’re waitin’ for their boy to come home for a visit.”
Vin’s hands, and then his whole body, began to tremble uncontrollably as he read the name on the mailing label. His breath caught and then solidified in his throat and his heart launched itself into a wild rhythm in his chest. Tears sprang to his eyes, blinding him, and then ran in streams down his face, and all at once, for long, wonderful moments, he was back in Sadie Walker’s big, sunlit kitchen, bent over a textbook at the table with her beside him, her arm around him, while the smell of baking cookies filled the air.
“Oh, God!” he gasped, clutching the envelope to his chest as if it were his dearest treasure and feeling the dam inside him break. “Sadie!”
And Chris couldn’t help himself. Without hesitation he pulled Vin to him in a hard embrace, cradling the younger man to him. Vin’s body shook as he sobbed, and Chris stroked his back with a gentle hand, saying nothing. Words were impossible, his own throat so tight it ached. Tears rolled down his face and he let them fall, knowing there was no shame or weakness in them.
Vin clutched the envelope to him with one hand as he cried, but freed his other to twist it into Larabee’s sweater. Chris had given him back Joe and Sadie, had sought and found the people who’d given him back himself, and the power of it was almost more than he could bear. The Walkers had taken in and sheltered a scared and lonely, hurting boy, a child beset by cruel black demons that were only too real, and for a little while at least had set him free and given him peace. Given him healing. And Chris–
God, Chris! He’d done the very same, giving shelter and safety time and again to a scared and hurting man, had faced Vin’s demons as if they were his own, was facing them still, fighting them with everything he had for the sake of a friend. He’d jumped into that goddamned quicksand and refused to be budged until he was certain that they’d be coming out together.
Jesus, how could he ever have thought he was lost?
“They’re worried about you, Vin,” Chris said at last, his voice thick and shot through with cracks. He could feel Vin’s sobs losing force, but never loosened his hold on the younger man. “I told ’em everything, about Castro, that bastard in the boys’ home, everything. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help it. It all just kinda came pourin’ out. And a lot of it they already knew. Knew even when you were with ’em.”
That got his attention. He stiffened and went absolutely still inside, stunned by Chris’s soft words. “They … they knew?” he whispered dazedly. “But …” He pulled out of Chris’s arms and stared at the man in utter bewilderment, his face pale and streaked with tears. “How? I never … Hell, I couldn’t even remember! How could they–” Another thought struck him then and he shook his head, the meaning of it more than his brain could decipher. “But they said they loved me!” he said plaintively, not understanding this at all. “They fought fer me, said I belonged with ’em, made me feel like I was theirs– How could they do all that, knowin’ what I done?”
“Because,” Chris lifted a hand and gently wiped away Vin’s tears with a thumb, “just like they said, they loved you. They knew what you did, they knew why you did it, and they would’ve moved heaven and earth to make sure you never had to do anything like that again. Yeah, Vin, they knew what you did,” he said quietly. “More than that, though, they knew you, and they loved you, love you still, for the boy you were and the man they knew you could be. And I told them about that man, made sure they knew all about him.” He smiled warmly into his friend’s shocked eyes. “And they really wanta meet him.”
“They still … think about me?” he whispered almost fearfully.
Chris laughed softly and nodded. “Oh, hell yeah! Your picture’s still hangin’ on their wall. And every year on your birthday, Sadie said they get out the last letter you sent ’em and read it, and wonder where you are now.” He lifted a hand and cupped it around Tanner’s neck. “Don’t make ’em wonder any longer, Vin,” he urged softly. “They wanta see you, wanta see for themselves that you’re all right.” He smiled slightly. “Sadie made me promise to tell you that it’s high time their boy came home for a visit.”
The tears fell again, though Vin couldn’t imagine how he had any left. “’Their boy,’” he whispered, love and longing and wonder filling his broken voice. “Lord, I’d forgotten that they used t’ call me that! Thought Nettie was the only one– Lord God, how could I forget a thing like that?”
“Maybe because you’ve waited too long to hear it again,” Chris suggested. “Maybe because that battle that’s been goin’ on in your mind for so long just crowded it out. I don’t know. But I do know that Sadie was right. It is high time you went back, Vin. They helped heal you once before. Maybe, just maybe, they can help you do it again.”
Vin stared at him for long, silent moments, knowing instinctively that he was right. And knowing instinctively that not even Joe and Sadie, with all the wonders they could work, could do for him what this man, and five others just like him, already had.
“Well,” he said softly, smiling slightly, “reckon I’ll ponder it some.” His smile grew and a new light kindled in his reddened eyes. “Ain’t been back t’ Texas in a while. Ain’t seen Mama an’ Gran’pa’s graves in years– Think mebbe it’d do me good t’ see ’em again.”
“I think so,” Chris agreed with absolute sincerity.
Vin nodded, then sniffed and dropped his gaze to the mailer still in his hands. “Think we got time b’fore we leave fer me t’ open this?”
Chris glanced down at his watch and nodded. “Oh, yeah, we got plenty of time. Won’t need to leave for almost another hour yet.”
Vin just continued to stare down at the envelope. “They overnighted it,” he murmured. “That’s kind of expensive fer them.”
Chris shrugged lightly. “I got the feelin’ they think you’re worth it.”
Vin ran a sleeve over his eyes and nodded. “Reckon I should open it then,” he breathed, strangely afraid to do that. He knew, knew, that Joe and Sadie would never do anything to hurt him, yet … still …
“Want me to do it?” Chris asked softly, understanding his friend’s hesitation. Vin was only now truly learning how to hope, and the protective instincts cultivated over years and out of need still warred against that fragile sense. It was a sad fact, and one he and the others were determined to change, but, just now, it was still a fact nonetheless.
But Vin was learning how to hope, and he wouldn’t be cheated of it now. “No,” he said firmly, turning the envelope over and gripping the opening tab. “Might still need ya fer some things, but I c’n do this m’self.” He ripped the tab and opened the mailer, then reached inside it.
Chris leaned over and watched raptly as Vin pulled out the contents. A folded, multi-page letter, photos, and a sealed business envelope. Vin set that aside and immediately went through the pictures, smiling brightly as he held one aloft. “Lord!” he breathed, eyes shining. “It’s them!”
Chris looked at the picture and smiled warmly, his instincts about the couple confirmed. Joe was a big, burly bear of a man, dark hair and full beard lavishly peppered with silver, his broad face wreathed by an even broader smile, crinkled eyes seeming to sparkle against the photo paper. His long, thick arms were clasped lovingly around a small, smiling, red-haired woman whose face was untouched by makeup but seemingly lit from within. Her head didn’t even reach Joe’s shoulder and she was slender as a willow branch, but Larabee could sense the strength and fire in her that, as Vin had recalled, had had her wielding a wooden kitchen spoon like a weapon against the social worker who’d come to take “her boy” away.
The two stood before a wall covered with picture frames, a gallery that had to reach from ceiling to floor and that seemed to stretch into infinity. Those were no doubt the “family photos,” and Chris had to wonder how many of the kids enshrined on that wall knew how blessed they were to be there. To have been taken into that particular “family.”
“Joe’s a little grayer, but Sadie ain’t changed a bit,” Vin said, running loving fingertips over the smiling couple. “She’s somethin’ else, lemme tell ya. Jist a younger version of Nettie. An’ she makes a mean chocolate chip cookie! Them things could cure whatever ailed ya.” He reluctantly set that picture aside and picked up another, then laughed out loud. “Oh, Lord!” he crowed. “I remember this!”
Chris looked, and was stunned to find himself looking at a young Vin Tanner, all eyes, hair, elbows and knees, thin as a rail and brown as a nut, clad only in rough cut-offs and holding up a catfish almost as big as he was. A huge smile split his face, and wide blue eyes shone brilliantly. Joe was kneeling at his side, one big arm thrown over the thin shoulders, a look of fierce and loving pride on his bearded face. Without thinking, Chris reached out and gently took the picture from Vin, unable to tear his gaze from that laughing boy with the long, sun-bleached hair.
“There was a river run through their land,” Vin recalled quietly, the light of fond memory in his eyes. “Joe used t’ take us boys there on Saturdays if we’d been good, let us fish fer supper. I reckon we spent near as much time in the river as by it, but that was all part of the fun. There’d been tales of a big ol’ granddaddy cat that lived in the deeper part of the river, under some brush, but folks figgered he was jist a legend. Y’know, the one that always got away. Only that day,” pride filled and warmed his voice, “Ol’ Granddad didn’t get away. Joe had t’ help me wrestle him in, but I got him.” He nodded fiercely. “Got my picture in the local paper, too, an’ free cokes fer a month at Simpson’s Drug Store.”
“Was he good eatin’?”
Vin snorted and shot a look of near-disgust at his friend. “Hell, Lar’bee, don’t you know anything about catfish? Once they get that big, they’re too old an’ tough t’ eat. We threw him back. Figgered we’d come back in a year or two an’ try fer him again.” He sighed and reached out, running a forefinger over the picture. “Never got the chance,” he said wistfully. “State come an’ took me away again jist a few weeks after this was taken. Didn’t even get my full month a’ cokes from the drug store.”
Chris started to hand the photo back, then noticed the writing on the reverse side and turned it over to read it. “Ol’ Granddad’s still here,” someone, probably Joe, had scrawled. “Still waiting for us to try again.”
“He’s still there,” he said, doubting Vin was in any shape just now to decipher the less than neat writing. “I think they’re tryin’ to bribe you.”
“Don’t think they’re gonna have t’ work too hard,” Vin breathed, holding up another picture. This one was of him and Sadie, taken at night with fireworks flaring brilliantly behind them. The night of his “independence day” celebration, when they’d finally gotten him off those drugs. He remembered that night, remembered how free, how clean he’d felt without them muddying up his mind. And how warm and loved he’d felt with Sadie’s slim arm about him. “I wanta go back,” he whispered, his voice breaking.
“We’ll get you there,” Chris assured him solemnly, reaching across Vin for the long envelope he’d set aside. “I swear it.”
Vin nodded and looked at his friend. “If you can manage the time, I’d like you t’ go, too,” he said. “I want y’all t’ meet. Y’all’d like each other.”
“Got news for ya, pard,” Chris said, opening the envelope. “I already like ’em. Hell, I’m damn near in love with– Holy shit!” he whispered, suddenly thunderstruck. He handed the envelope to Vin with a shaking hand, eyes wide and dark with wonder. “My God, they were serious!”
Vin took the envelope hesitantly, mouth and throat gone dry, his chest tight. He stared at Chris a moment, then dropped his gaze to the envelope and reached inside …
And felt sobs well up again within him when he pulled out two plane tickets, one in his name, the other in Chris’s. “Oh, Jesus!” he gasped thickly, a breath away from crumbling again.
Chris saw the small note sticking out of the envelope and reached for it, his own tears falling freely. Opening it, he blinked to clear his eyes, then began to read aloud, his voice breaking frequently. “Vin, we decided that just asking you to come home wasn’t enough. We miss you and need to see for ourselves how you’re doing. And we want to meet your friend Chris, too. From our talk with him, we can see what a blessing he and the boys he spoke of have been to you. He’s got a place here, too. Come home, Vin. Change the dates if you have to, just come home. There’ll be a plate of cookies waiting for you, and a case of cokes from Mr. Simpson. We love you, son–” His voice broke completely then and he let the note fall to the couch, then covered his face with a hand, his strong shoulders shaking.
But Vin didn’t cry. Tears streamed down his face, but he didn’t cry. With a gentle hand, he lifted the note from where it had fallen and stared lovingly at it. He couldn’t read it, not yet, but he didn’t need to. He raised it to his lips, kissed it tenderly and whispered, “I love y’all, too. An’ I’ll be home real soon.”
The long drive into town to the Aspen Counseling Services center was made in near silence, words few and infrequent between the two men. Chris couldn’t help thinking, though, that this wasn’t the usual easy, comfortable silence that marked their times together, but one fraught with tension and uneasiness, emanating mostly from Vin. The younger man would normally have been leaning in a loose-jointed slouch into the corner between seat and door, but for once he was actually sitting upright, back rigid, head thrust back against the padded neck rest, his every muscle tight. Now and then, casting worried glances from the corner of his eye, Chris could see Vin clenching his jaw and hands convulsively, his eyes closed and his Adam’s apple working furiously, could hear him struggling to control his breathing. When he saw the fine sheen of sweat glistening over his friend’s face, though, he knew he’d waited long enough and turned the Ram down the nearest exit ramp.
At the access road, he pulled the truck into the parking lot of the convenience store on the corner, wheeled into a space and shifted into park. Beside him, Vin hardly seemed to register the stop, and that only heightened his worry. He turned in his seat and fixed anxious eyes on his friend, but resisted the urge to reach out and touch him. Vin was wound so tightly that the air around him nearly vibrated, and Chris had no desire whatsoever to set off the Texan’s formidable defensive instincts in so confined a space.
“Need me to open the windows?” he asked quietly, well acquainted with the signs of a panic attack in the making.
Vin didn’t unclench a single muscle, didn’t open his eyes, didn’t say a word. He only nodded once, and that, too, was tight.
Chris immediately hit the window switches, lowering his and Vin’s at the same time. Sharp, cool air flooded the truck, and Vin took what seemed to be his first breath in hours with it. Then he started gulping it in, taking in too much too fast, inhaling far more deeply than he exhaled, and Chris could no longer restrain himself. Removing his seatbelt, he leaned over quickly and set a gentle hand on Tanner’s shoulder, gradually tightening his fingers.
“Easy, partner,” he soothed in a low voice. “You’re gonna hyperventilate if you don’t slow down. This air’s not goin’ anywhere.”
Vin opened his eyes suddenly and shot him a panicked look. “I need … I cain’t–”
“Yes you can,” Chris countered firmly. He locked his gaze on Vin’s, staring compellingly into the frantic blue eyes. “I need you ta stop, Vin,” he continued with a deliberate calm. “Need you to hold your breath until I tell you, then let it out slowly. Can you do that?”
He shook his head wildly, certain he’d suffocate. Hell, he couldn’t get enough air as it was–
“Trust me,” Chris urged, still holding that desperate, frightened gaze. Then he reached down for Vin’s tightly clenched fist, took it in his hand and began gently prying the long fingers open. “Thought you weren’t gonna do this anymore,” he said, carefully pulling Vin’s nails away from his palm.
“Cain’t help it!” he gasped.
“Yeah, you can.” Chris managed to open Vin’s hand somewhat, then slipped his own immediately between the Texan’s fingers and palm. “You need somethin’ to squeeze, you use me, understand? Squeeze as hard as you want, I won’t break. But we need to slow down your breathin’.”
And Vin clamped down against Chris’s hand with all his strength, clutching at it as if it alone could keep him from drowning in the sea of air he was trying feverishly to drag into his lungs.
“That’s it,” Chris said, ignoring the nails driving into his hand. “Now, look at me, listen to me, and just hold your breath, okay? C’mon, pard. You know I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.”
Vin knew that, he knew that; at times he swore it was the only thing he did know. So he trusted to it now as he had so often before and forced himself to hold the breath he’d just taken, ignoring the frantic screaming of his own mind and placing himself once more under Larabee’s protection.
Chris smiled reassuringly at him and nodded. “Good. That’s real good. I know you feel like you can’t breathe, but you can. You just have to do it right.” He mentally ticked off the seconds, never once looking away from Vin. “Okay, now,” he said when he’d reached his mark, “I want you to exhale. Slowly,” he added quickly before Vin released the gust he could see coming. “Let it out slowly and completely, then hold again until I tell you, okay?”
The panic reared again, but he fought it down, still staring at Chris, still clutching at his hand. With an effort, he released a slow and steady stream of breath, then dug his fingers more deeply still into Larabee’s hand as he fought a physical battle against the urge to inhale.
Again Chris counted down silently, then again he nodded. “Okay, breathe in. Slowly.”
And so they continued for several minutes, Chris gently controlling Vin’s breathing and smiling as he felt his friend gradually begin to relax. Vin finally closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the neck rest, still holding but no longer punishing Chris’s hand, letting the man’s low, calm voice wash over him as oxygen began to flow through him.
And never noticing when he took up the measured rhythm of breathing on his own.
But Chris noticed, and felt a sharp stab of relief though he was careful to conceal it. He merely continued the quiet litany of soothing words, doing nothing to disturb Vin’s breathing or call the man’s attention to it.
Finally, though, Vin realized what was happening and tightened his fingers momentarily against Chris’s. “Thanks, cowboy,” he rasped, turning his head slightly and cracking open an eye.
Chris smile and winked. “That’s what I’m here for. You doin’ okay now?”
Vin thought a moment, then nodded faintly. “Think so. Reckon I jist … let it get t’ me.”
“That’s all right,” Chris assured him. “Like I said before, this bein’ the right step doesn’t make it an easy one. You just holler if it starts to happen again.”
Vin gave a small, strained grin. “You gonna stop an’ hold my hand again if it does?”
Chris lifted two blond brows in a teasing challenge. “You got a problem with that?”
Vin scowled weakly and made a show of freeing his hand from Larabee’s. “Hell, yeah, I do,” he retorted with a flash of spirit. “Bad enough my head’s a mess. Don’t want nobody thinkin’ I cain’t git a decent date either!”
They arrived at the center without any further mishap, though Vin had withdrawn once more into silence the last fifteen minutes of the drive. And by the time they pulled into the parking lot, both his hands were thrust flat between his thighs and the seat to keep his fingernails out of his palms. But he was here, he was breathing on his own, and he was determined to do this.
He was also scared absolutely shitless.
Chris killed the engine and unlocked the doors, but made no move to exit the truck as yet. Staring out the windshield, acutely aware of the fear of the man beside him, he said simply and calmly, “Just remember, we’re all in this with you for the long haul.”
Vin swallowed hard and nodded once, then turned his head to study his friend’s profile. When he could find his voice, or some dry semblance of it, he answered, “I know. An’, jist so you know … I’m in it fer the long haul, too.”
Chris turned to face him then, smiling slightly as he met that frightened but determined gaze with his own. “Well all right,” he breathed, his smile growing as he watched Vin’s chin lift in the familiar sign of stubborn resolve. “Let’s do this then.”
Vin shifted yet again in his seat in the waiting room, trying to find some way to sit comfortably and failing. The chairs themselves were all right, nicely padded and fairly roomy, nothing like the molded plastic back-breakers in hospital waiting rooms. But the brace immobilizing his leg forced him to sit awkwardly. To sit up straight, he needed to elevate his leg, and there just weren’t any empty chairs around him. To keep the leg down and his heel on the floor, he had to slide down in his chair in such a way that his back soon began to hurt. He’d tried every conceivable position short of just sitting on the floor, and so far nothing had worked.
When they finally let him out of this brace, he was gonna burn the fuckin’ thing.
Chris watched him until he finally couldn’t take any more. Without a word, he rose from his own chair and crossed the waiting room to a low table covered with magazines and a potted ivy. Silently daring anyone to say anything, he transferred the magazines and plant to the floor, lifted the table and carried it back to where they were sitting. He put it down before Vin and set his hands on his hips, arching a brow in a wordless command.
Vin looked at the small table, past Larabee to receptionist staring back them in tight-lipped but silent disapproval, then up at the man himself. A small, appreciative smile tugged at his mouth as he slowly lifted his leg and propped it on the confiscated table. “Cain’t take you anywhere,” he quipped.
Chris snorted and dropped back into his own chair. “It’s the company I keep.”
Now more comfortable, Vin tried to relax but still couldn’t, and half wished he had some forms to fill out just to keep himself occupied. But he’d taken care of all that already on his preliminary visit two days ago, when an intake counselor had gone through the seeming reams of paperwork with him, reading it aloud to him and filling it out. He’d been grateful for that, his dyslexia so aggravated by anxiety and the lingering effects of his skull fracture that he was once more barely literate. Josiah had brought him then, Chris figuring the profiler’s background and experience made him the more logical choice to shepherd Vin through what would no doubt prove a nerve-wracking ordeal. It had been the right choice. Josiah had been able to explain every step in the initial process in terms Vin could understand. Most of all, though, the big man had simply been a calming, steadying influence, his solid presence and deep, rumbling voice acting like a balm upon Tanner’s raw nerves.
Much as Chris was doing now.
He exhaled slowly, deeply, and closed his eyes, letting his head fall back against the wall and again trying to will the painful tension from his body, one tightly clenched muscle at a time. And when he felt the familiar weight of Chris’s hand descend upon his shoulder, he had to smile. He knew there’d come a day when he’d have to do this for himself, make this trip alone. And it would be easy to think that the only reason he wasn’t doing that now was because he simply couldn’t drive.
Would be easy to think that. Would also be wrong. Even if he were whole and healthy, he’d still have one of the boys, and likely the very same one he had now, planted firmly at his side. Of course, if he were whole and healthy, he wouldn’t need them here. Wouldn’t need to be here himself.
And, Christ, he wished he were anywhere but here right now …
He wrapped his arms tightly about himself and squeezed his eyes shut, desperately trying to wish himself away as he’d done from so many other places so many other times in his life. Tried to distance himself from this place, from the torment that had brought him here, from the dark and hurtful memories and the terror that could still come upon him without warning–
“Stop it,” Chris ordered, his low voice close to Vin’s ear, his hand tightening on Tanner’s shoulder. “You’re not doing this anymore either, remember?”
Vin rocked forward in his chair with a guilty groan and unwound his arms from his body to bury his face in his hands. Oh, God, he didn’t want to do this! Couldn’t do this! Not now, not yet. He wasn’t well enough, wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t ready to rip himself open like he knew he’d have to–
“Ssh, it’s okay.” Never caring about the others in the waiting room who might be watching, Chris leaned over Vin and circled a strong arm around his back, setting his other hand on the younger man’s thigh. “It’s okay to be scared, pard, it’s okay not to wanta do this. And if you tell me you can’t do it right now, then we’ll get up and leave and try again another time. No questions asked. We’ll just get up and walk. It’s up to you, Vin, and I’ll go with whatever you decide.”
Oh, God, how could Chris trust him like that? The man had to know how easy it would be just to get up and bolt–
Had to know. Did know. Because he’d been through this himself. Had done this himself. Had done this …
And he had to do it, too. Could do it. Didn’t have the first idea how, but he would. Somehow. Because if he didn’t–
Quicksand’s got me good.
And it would have him until he pulled himself free.
“Cain’t go,” he whispered hoarsely, never raising his head. “Ain’t sure I c’n stay, but I know I cain’t go. Not if I ever wanta git free.”
Chris nodded and absently rubbed slow circles into his friend’s tight, shaking back. “Okay, then we’ll try to stick it out. We’ll find a way to get you through this.”
“Is it ever gonna git easier?” Vin asked softly, fearfully.
Chris thought a moment, remembering his own struggles to make it through the early stages of therapy. “Yeah,” he finally breathed, “if you stick with it. But I won’t lie to ya, Vin, it’s gonna take a while to get to that point. It will get easier, but it will never, ever be your favorite thing to do. And if you try hard enough, you’ll always be able to find some reason not to do it, or to screw it up. Trust me.”
Vin did sit up then, slowly, dropping his hands from his face and turning his gaze to Chris. “You tried?”
Larabee nodded and pulled back, giving Vin the space he needed to collect himself. “Oh, yeah. I showed up to my first session drunk, just daring Kathi to help me.” His lips twitched in a wry smile at the memory. “And she did. She called Buck, told him to come get me, told me if I showed up drunk again she was terminating our sessions. Told me either I wanted help or I didn’t, and there were too many others who did for her to be wasting her time with me.”
Vin’s eyes widened and he gave a low whistle. “Damn, cowboy, she sounds tough!”
“She had to be,” Chris admitted, remembering the woman who’d worked so hard, and sometimes with so little assistance from him, to help him deal with his grief and rage. “I didn’t give her a choice.” He smiled again. “I’ve been told I can be … difficult.”
Vin snorted sharply. “Hell, you can be a goddamn pain in the ass!” he declared, winning a disapproving stare from the woman two chairs down. “Too bad she couldn’t help ya with none of yer social skills.”
“Oh, this from the man who can make a rabid wolf look downright friendly!” Larabee returned.
“Mebbe so,” Vin allowed. Then a weak grin teased his mouth. “But at least I’m cute.”
Chris almost choked. “Jesus, Tanner, aren’t you a little old for ‘cute’?” he chided.
Vin regarded him innocently. “This mean y’ don’t wanta hold my hand no more?”
The woman two chairs down got up and moved to another seating section.
Chris ignored her, more concerned about Vin than about some stranger’s easily offended sensibilities. While he was grateful to see Tanner’s humor resurfacing, he couldn’t help wondering if it meant the younger man was working to regain some sense of control over his unsteady emotions, or simply using it as a way to mask what he couldn’t face.
Vin saw the man’s worry, saw the green eyes searching his face intently, and managed a small, tight smile. “I’m here, Chris,” he reassured him, knowing what Larabee feared. “Mebbe jist hangin’ on by a thread, but I’m here. I jist ain’t got the strength t’ shove this shit down no more. Ain’t got no choice but t’ face it.”
“That’s where it starts, partner,” he said. “Not by choice, but from necessity.”
Vin nodded and bowed his head again, recognizing that truth even though he wished it otherwise. He knew he had to do this, but that didn’t mean he knew how he’d do it. Chris and the others had told him time and again that he was stronger than he thought. And, given what he thought of himself just now, he figured he almost had to be.
The sound of his name brought his head up sharply and sent a cold blade of panic stabbing through him. He stared helplessly at the woman waiting for him in the doorway that led to the inner warren of offices, his stomach launching itself into heavy, queasy rolls. He couldn’t do this. He’d been wrong, so wrong! He wasn’t stronger than he knew, he wasn’t ready–
Jesus Christ, he couldn’t do this!
“Vin?” This time it was Chris’s voice, close to his ear and pitched low, the man’s hand again a warm and solid weight against his back. “You all right?”
But he had to do this. So much was riding on it … hell, he was riding on it! If he ever hoped to get his life back together, get it back period, he had to do this.
“No,” he finally breathed in answer to Larabee’s question, “I ain’t. But I reckon that’s why I’m here, so’s I c’n start gettin’ that way.”
Chris felt a hard, hot wave of pride sweep through him at those words, at the courage he knew it took to utter them. He’d meant what he’d said – he’d have been up and out of here with Vin in a moment if Tanner truly wasn’t ready for this. But something in the wide, unblinking eyes of the frail man at his side assured him that wouldn’t be necessary.
Vin wasn’t all right, was about the furthest he could get from that. But he was ready to start fighting his way back to it.
He drew a slow, deep breath, lifted his head and squared his shoulders, then eased his leg to the floor. He wanted desperately to ask Chris to come with him, but clamped his mouth shut against the invitation before it could escape. Chris had done enough, maybe too much, already. It was high time he started shouldering more of his burdens alone. So he merely looked at Chris, nodded once, then rose stiffly to his feet and started slowly forward.
And felt a powerful rush of relief and wonder when Chris rose without a word and walked with him as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Which Vin suddenly realized it was.
Bolstered by that strong presence at his back, he made his way across the reception room to the door where the woman waited, acutely conscious of his awkward gait and half wishing he’d brought the damned crutches. Could be he needed to start listening to Nathan more …
“Hello, Vin,” the woman greeted, a warm smile spreading across her face as she gazed up at him. “My name’s Lynn. It’s good to meet you.”
He smiled shyly and ducked his head, blushing faintly at the sincerity in her voice. She wasn’t what he’d expected, neither cold nor clinical in her bearing and informal enough in her appearance to put him more at ease than he would’ve thought was possible just now. Her eyes gleamed warmly from behind wide, round glasses, her face was untouched by makeup and she wore a long, loose purple roll-necked sweater over faded jeans. His smile grew stronger when he saw that her tennis shoes were purple, too.
He lifted his head again and nodded at her. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he drawled softly. “It’s nice t’ meet you, too.” He suddenly remembered the man behind him. “An’ this here’s Chris Larabee. He’s a good friend.”
Lynn smiled up at the tall blond. “Hello, Chris. Will you be staying with Vin?”
“If that’s possible,” he answered, his tone strongly suggesting that it should be made possible.
She studied him for long moments, noting the challenge in his expression and his protective manner toward Vin, and nodded appreciatively. In reading Vin’s file she’d learned that he had no family and had worried that he wouldn’t have the support so crucial to anyone undergoing therapy. But from what Josiah had told her of the friends he had around him, and from what she could see now in Chris’s eyes and bearing, she knew she didn’t have to worry.
Her smile widened and she winked at Larabee. “I think we can always scrounge up another chair.” She gestured with her head down the hallway. “Let’s all go get comfortable.”
She turned and led them into the offices within, over thick carpet and past framed prints of mountain vistas, keeping her stride slow for Vin’s sake. Josiah had given her general details of his injuries and how he’d gotten them, but she had purposely not asked too many questions, wanting to leave as much as possible open for Vin to tell her.
At her office, she opened the door and led them in. Again, it was not at all what Vin had expected. The entire back “wall” was, in fact, one huge picture window that looked out over a small, heavily wooded creek, lending a welcome air of serenity. Through the window he could see stone and wooden benches and a picnic table scattered about the little “park,” and felt a small hope dawning that some of their sessions might be conducted out there, once he was better able to move around. He turned reluctantly away from the window to survey the office’s interior, and found it just as comforting.
Book cases lined one wall, with numerous framed photos scattered throughout. Stuffed animals, the majority of them bunnies of every conceivable color, were everywhere. A long sofa, its dark rose fabric decorated by small pale blue flowers, sat against the other wall, a heavy and colorful afghan folded over its rolled back. A coffee table fronted the sofa, its centerpiece a flowering cactus. A notepad, pen and tape recorder sat on the table, but he chose not to think too much about them.
There was a desk, a heavy, formal looking thing, but it was pushed almost into the far corner and littered with a computer, file folders, books, papers and a case of Diet Coke, attesting to its use more for storage than anything else. Clearly Lynn did most of her work around the sofa.
But he already knew he wouldn’t be sitting there. On the other side of the coffee table were two chairs, one a wingback whose upholstery matched the sofa’s, the other a heavy wooden rocker fashioned of gleaming dark wood. Unconsciously he moved slowly toward it, a small smile curving about his mouth. He stopped at the rocker and reached out, brushing his fingers lightly against the quilt draped over its high, wide back.
“You can sit there if you’d like,” Lynn invited quietly, noting the longing that played over his face. “It was my granny’s. When she died, I brought it here.” She shrugged lightly. “It’s like having a little piece of her with me. She always said there was no better tonic for a troubled soul than a rocking chair.”
“It got a creak?” he rasped softly, still staring at and stroking the quilt.
She lifted two brows in surprise. “Wouldn’t be a real rocker without one, would it?”
He turned to face her, relaxing visibly and smiling more easily. “No, ma’am, I reckon it wouldn’t.”
She smiled broadly at him. “It’s ‘Lynn,’ not ‘ma’am.’” She winked. “No sense makin’ me feel older than I already am.”
He chuckled quietly and nodded, deciding he liked her. “I’ll remember that, m– Lynn.”
“Good,” she answered. “I’ll tell you right now, I’m not big on formality.” Her eyes gleamed behind her glasses. “I know you can’t tell that by looking at me.”
Chris stood aside and watched her interact with Vin, watched her warmth, humor and open, affable nature put his friend at ease. He’d have to thank Josiah for recommending her.
“Why don’t you go ahead and sit down,” she suggested. “I’ve worn a knee brace before, and I know how uncomfortable they can be. And feel free to rest your leg on the table. It’s here to be used.” She turned to Chris, eyeing him with a knowing grin. “I’m assuming you’ll be sitting in the chair next to Vin?”
He had to smile in return, wondering if anything ever got past her. “I think that’s a safe bet,” he agreed, feeling himself relax. He watched Vin settle himself into the rocker, noted the soft sigh that escaped him and the faint smile that lingered on his lips, then went to the wingback chair and sat down in it. “Leg up,” he ordered as Vin simply sat and rocked.
“Jist cain’t resist bein’ bossy, can ya?” Vin grumbled even as he lifted his leg and propped it on the table. “Y’ got real control issues, cowboy.”
“No, I got stubborn friend issues,” Chris retorted. “And I’ve told you a thousand times, don’t call me ‘cowboy.’”
“Beats the hell outta some other things I could call ya,” Vin muttered.
Chris let his head fall back against the chair and rolled his eyes. “And I could be at the office now, fighting with Ezra over his expense reports.”
Lynn settled herself on the sofa and watched them closely, taking careful note of the pointed but easy banter between them. Their friendship was an almost palpable force between them, and her last doubts about Vin having adequate support melted away.
But, knowing it was time to start, she cleared her throat quietly, getting the two men’s attention at once. Still smiling, she looked at Vin and leaned slightly forward, folding her arms and resting them across her thighs. “Before we start, I want to explain just a few things,” she said. “First, I’ll be taping all of our sessions as well as taking notes. But everything that’s said here is strictly confidential, and that includes the tapes. The only other person besides myself who will ever have any access to them is my immediate supervisor, and then only if I feel there’s a problem that requires her help. The tapes aren’t kept. Once I’ve transcribed them, I’ll record over them. They’re a tool to help me, and nothing more.
“Second, I know you’re an ATF agent, and I know the Bureau has its own psychologist that usually works with agents. If you need to clear the sessions with me through him or her, let me know and I’ll take care of it.” She smiled. “There’s no sense in you complicating your recovery by swimming through red tape.”
“I ’preciate that,” he breathed sincerely, having dreaded dragging his need for counseling through channels.
“And if you need any help,” Chris put in, “contact Orin Travis. He’s assistant director of our division and my immediate supervisor. I’ve already told him about this, and he said he’ll do whatever he can to help.”
Vin shot Chris a startled look at that, never having heard it before. “He knows?” he asked sharply.
Chris looked at him and nodded. “Yeah. I called him yesterday. And he said to tell you that he and Evie send their hopes and good wishes.”
He blinked, taken aback. Then he remembered the times the gruff AD had come to visit him in the hospital, visits that had nothing to do with official business, the times Evie had called out to the ranch just to see how he was doing, and knew he really shouldn’t be surprised at all.
Maybe he could do this …
Lynn felt a twinge of relief of her own. She knew something of federal agencies, and had wondered how one like the ATF would treat an agent so “damaged” that he needed extensive counseling. But it sounded like she had nothing to fear.
“All right then,” she said, “I’ll call Director Travis tomorrow morning and see what we need to do.” She looked at Vin and smiled. “Seems like you’ve got powerful friends.”
“It does, don’t it?” he breathed in wonder.
“And here’s my last point,” she continued. “I don’t have many rules. In fact, about the only one I do have is this – you be honest with me, and I’ll be honest with you. A lot of what we’re going to do is here is going to be painful, sometimes so painful that you’ll wonder how you’ll ever get through it. But you won’t be alone, I promise. Whatever happens, I’ll be right here with you every second, every step, and,” she glanced at Chris, “I have a feeling that I won’t be the only one. But the only way, the only way, this will ever work is if we’re completely honest with each other. Okay?”
He stared hard at her, eyes wide, and slowly licked suddenly dry lips, understanding that but fearing it nonetheless. “I h … I hear ya,” he rasped.
She smiled gently at him, easily able to see his fear, his pain, in his eyes. “You’ve been hurt in ways no one should ever be, Vin,” she said softly, sadly. “And I’m truly, deeply sorry for that. But I promise you, I’ll do all I can to help you deal with that hurt, to help you put your life back together. It’s gonna be a long road. It’s gonna be a hard one. But if we work together, then I think we can do it. That is, if you want to.”
And there it was, the one question whose answer would decide where he went from here. All day long he’d been asking himself if he could do it, but he knew now that was beside the point. Could or couldn’t would come later. First of all, before anything else got done, he had to answer that one question that came before all others.
Did he want to?
And he thought about it, long and hard and honestly. Thought about where he was now, where he wanted to be, where he’d been before all this had started. Thought about what Charlie Castro had done to him all those weeks ago, what the bastard in the boys’ home had done to him all those years ago, what other nameless, faceless ghosts had done to him through the years in between.
And what Chris and the boys and so many others had done for him when he’d needed them most. People who’d believed in him when he hadn’t believed in himself, people who’d helped him when they had no reason to, people who’d reached out or down and pulled him to his feet when he’d sworn he could never get up again. People who’d given him back himself, who’d made him see that he was worth something after all, that he wasn’t just some throwaway bit of trash or a stray who needed putting down.
Boy, you’re a Tanner. Don’t ever forget that.
His mama’s dying words came back to him, clear as the day she’d uttered them, reminding him of just who he was and what he was fighting for. He was a Tanner. He was Vin Tanner.
And, goddamn it, that was who he wanted to be again.
“Yeah,” he rasped at last, lifting his chin and staring unflinchingly at Lynn, squaring his thin shoulders for the fight that lay ahead. “Yeah, I wanta do it. Reckon you an’ the boys might have t’ kick my ass a few times along the way, but I ain’t ever backed down from a fight before an’ I don’t plan on startin’ now. I’m tired of bein’ lost. I’m tired of bein’ scared. That ain’t me, an’ it ain’t gonna be me. Not if I can help it.”
“Well then,” Lynn said softly, smiling at him as she leaned forward to turn on the tape recorder, “let’s see if we can’t do something about that.” She took up the pen and notepad, straightened on the couch and said, “Start by telling me about yourself. Tell me who you are, and tell me why you’re here.”
He hesitated a few moments, trying to gather his thoughts, then turned his head to look at Chris. Larabee looked back at him, warmth and pride and trust filling his green eyes and pouring from him in waves. Then Chris smiled slightly and nodded, and Vin felt every bit of the man’s certainty rushing into him and filling the cracks in his shattered soul. He breathed in that certainty, let it steady and strengthen him, then turned back to Lynn.
“My name’s Vin Tanner,” he said, his soft drawl the only sound in the room. “An’ I’m here because when I’s thirteen years old, I shot an’ killed a man who was tryin’ t’ beat me t’ death. Bastard tore apart my life, threw me in hell. Used t’ lock me in the closet ’til I couldn’t stand the dark. I still cain’t stand the dark.” He leaned forward in the rocker and stared imploringly at Lynn. “I’m here,” he said hoarsely, pleadingly, tears rolling down his pale face, “’cause I’m tired of bein’ scared. I want outta the dark. I want outta that closet. I’m here ’cause I wanta get my life back. Can ya do that fer me?”
She smiled softly at him and shook her head. “I can’t do it for you, Vin, but I’ll do everything I can to do it with you. Why don’t you tell me what you remember, and let’s see what we can do about getting you out of the dark.”
Chris sat out on his porch, cheroot between his teeth and a glass of bourbon in his hand, and watched the setting sun paint streaks of color across the twilight sky, grateful for this peace at the end of the day. Grateful for the end of the day.
The session with Lynn had been wrenching. For an hour, Vin had poured out the poison festering in his soul, had relived a childhood he should never have been forced to live in the first place. And though he’d heard it before, it had not been any easier on Chris this time around.
Had certainly not been any easier on Vin.
Tanner had broken down repeatedly, sobbing like the child he’d been then. But he’d also raged, shouting out his anger, at times almost screaming, and cursing people, events and circumstances with a filthy and scathing fluency. He’d run every gamut of emotion, purging himself, exhausting himself.
And twice on the drive back to the ranch, Chris had had to stop the truck while Vin was violently sick on the roadside.
When they’d finally gotten here, he’d taken two pain pills and gone straight to bed. Chris had checked on him every hour since, just waiting for more of the nightmares, for another of the “episodes,” for something, anything, that would tell him that Vin simply wasn’t up to this yet. So far, though, he’d only slept. And even under the influence of two strong painkillers, Chris couldn’t imagine how he did it.
Jesus, maybe Vin really was stronger than he was.
He withdrew the cheroot from his mouth and took a long drink from his bourbon. His own painkiller. He never wanted to go through a day like this again. And yet he knew he’d be right there for Vin’s next appointment Friday. Didn’t know how he’d do it, just knew that he would.
Knew also that he’d have plenty of help.
He’d called Josiah once he was certain Vin was asleep, and they’d talked for an hour. He’d intended just to give Sanchez a report on how the first therapy session had gone, on how Vin had responded to Lynn, on how he’d held up. Somewhere along the line, though, after just one or two canny questions from the profiler, he’d ended up giving a report on himself, too, had poured out his horror and rage and grief in his own mini therapy session.
Maybe that was how he’d do it, how they’d all do it. Not so much agreeing that it was time all the walls came down as admitting that they already had and just trying to help each other limp out of the wreckage. And then holding on like hell to each other through all the aftershocks to come.
Sounded like a plan.
He took another, smaller sip, then lowered the glass and returned the cheroot to his mouth, taking a slow, deep drag and letting his gaze drift once more to the blushing sky. And was surprised to hear the door behind him open. Vin had looked to be still sleeping soundly when he’d checked not quite an hour ago, had shown no signs of waking any time soon. He felt a stab of fear that maybe one of the damned nightmares had come after all and rose immediately to his feet, ready to help Vin put another piece of himself back where it belonged.
When he turned, however, he was surprised again, on two counts. Vin wasn’t quite steady, still had that drugged looked to his dull and heavy eyes, but he wasn’t shattered, either. No nightmare, then. And he was on the crutches, their padded tips thumping softly on the wooden porch as he maneuvered himself toward the chairs and table. Chris couldn’t help staring, couldn’t prevent the questioning lift of his brow and, when Vin’s eyes met his, color flared in the Texan’s washed-out cheeks as a sheepish smile touched his mouth.
“This a sign of the Second Coming?” Chris asked wryly as Tanner hobbled toward him.
Vin made his way to the lounge that had become his usual seat out here and, using the crutches for support, lowered himself gingerly down upon it. A long, slow sigh escaped him as he stretched out his legs and sank back against the thick cushion. “Naw,” he breathed reluctantly, studiously avoiding meeting Larabee’s gaze. “’S jist a sign that all them drugs’re messin’ me up.” His drawl was thick, his words slightly slurred. “Woke up ’cause I had t’ take a piss, but didn’t feel like goin’ back t’ bed. Only …” He winced and ducked his head, long fingers picking absently at the waistband of the sweatshirt he’d put on before going to his bed. Two stops on the highway to heave up his guts had pretty well forced a change of clothes. “Only I couldn’t git the brace on. Head an’ fingers ain’t workin’ t’gether too good, couldn’t manage all them straps. An’ my knee’s jist hurtin’ too bad t’ walk on it without somethin’.” He sighed heavily and shook his head. “Crutches seemed better’n fallin’ on my ass.”
Chris nodded and and dropped his cigar into the ashtray on the table, then went to the lounge and sat down at Tanner’s feet. “We’ll get the brace on later,” he said quietly. He studied Vin’s downturned face intently, searching for any residual signs from the emotional upheaval of the therapy session. “How you doin’?” he asked softly.
Vin looked up at that, meeting that anxious gaze and knowing the question, and the concern, had nothing to do with his knee. He wanted to smile, to erase at least some of Larabee’s ever-present worry for him, but just couldn’t manage. A smile would be a lie, and he’d stopped lying to these men. “I don’t know,” he admitted in a soft, hoarse voice. “I mean, I know I gotta do this, but …” He sighed heavily and winced deeply, again bowing his head, still picking at his sweatshirt. “What’s it say about what’s wrong with me that takin’ razor blades t’ my soul is the cure?” he whispered unsteadily.
Chris reached out at once, setting one hand on Vin’s shoulder and laying his other over the man’s thin fingers, stilling their fidgeting. “But you did it,” he said quietly, “and that says a helluva lot about you. You could’ve decided not to. Hell, I was waiting for you to do that very thing. And I would’ve let you do it.” He shrugged. “What’s that say about me?”
Vin looked up again, into the eyes still so intent on him, eyes still so anxious for him, and found the smile that had eluded him before. “Says yer a man t’ ride the river with.”
Chris’s eyes widened at that and he sucked in a soft breath, the words sinking straight to his soul. Then a small, tremulous smile touched his lips and he squeezed Vin’s shoulder hard, nodding firmly. “And we’ll ride that river, pard,” he said in a sure and steady voice. “All of us together.”
Vin stared at him, new clarity slowly chasing the shadows and dullness from his eyes, new strength filling and starting to knit the fractures in his soul. Chris’s hand on his shoulder steadied him as nothing else could, and in that touch he felt the warmth of other hands, felt the strength of other men, and knew that somehow, somehow they would all ride this river and come out safely on the other side.
And he no longer had to fear the quicksand waiting to trap him and pull him down.
It was still there and at times it might still get him good.
But these men would always have him better.
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