A quiet two weeks had passed since Chris was assaulted. The members of Team Seven had long since learned to take advantage of the quiet times as, with them, they were few and far between.
"What are you doing JD?"
JD looked up at Nathan, a slightly guilty look on his face as he hurriedly collapsed the window he had been working on. "Nothin'," he mumble evasively.
Nathan raised an eyebrow. "You're missing lunch for 'nothin''?"
JD blushed a deep crimson. "Promise you won't tell Chris?" The youth looked around guiltily, but there was no one else around to observe their conversation. The others were still at lunch, the only reason that Nate was back was he had been having lunch with Rain and she'd been paged.
"As long as it's not something that'll hurt anybody," Nathan said warily.
"It's nothin' like that," JD assured him vehemently. Intrigued, Nathan moved around the desk so he could see the computer.
JD fidgeted nervously as Nathan perused the screen. "We need a sharpshooter, Nate," JD explained, words coming out quickly in an attempt to justify his actions. "I'm not sayin' that Chris wasn't right to get rid of Grant, but not having a sharpshooter endangers the rest of the team."
Nathan sighed heavily and rubbed a large hand over his face. "I know that JD, reckon we all do, but Chris isn't ready to replace Vin yet. None of us are, really."
"I know that!" JD exclaimed. "But I'm not gonna sit by and watch another of my friend's die. Getting another sharpshooter isn't replacing Vin. You know as well as I do that it would just piss him off that we don't have anybody watching our backs."
"I know, JD," Nathan's calm voice soothed the impassioned youth, "but it's gonna take a while longer for Chris to accept that."
JD nodded his agreement.
"Got any good prospects?" Nathan asked, seeing that JD understood what he was trying to say.
JD shrugged noncommittally. "'Don't know."
"Well, if you had to pick a sharpshooter, who would ya pick?"
"Vin," JD replied immediately.
Nathan sighed, getting a new sharpshooter was going to be difficult for all of them.
"I mean," JD hastened to add, "I know that we can't have Vin, but it's hard to replace him, ya know?"
"Can't replace Vin. Wouldn't be able to if you tried," Nathan said quietly. "Whoever we finally decide upon, will have to carve out their own niche, they'll never be able to fill Vin's."
"It ain't fair, Nate," JD lashed out. "Why'd he have to die? We need him so much more here." His voice broke, coming out as something akin to a sob.
Nathan wondered if JD had ever really grieved for the Texan. Every one had been focused on making sure that Chris didn't shatter or turn in on himself, none of them had paid much attention to their own grief. "I can't answer that question JD, maybe Josiah could, but all I know is that I lost a good friend, and it hurts like hell."
"I never thought - I never thought it would be like that," JD admitted quietly. "I always knew it was a possibility, but I guess I thought that if one of us was going to go out, the rest of us would be right there beside him."
Nathan heaved a great sigh. "Me too, JD. Me too." He slowly made his way to his desk, detouring slightly in order to pause at Vin's desk. A single tear traced its way down his dark cheek as he reached out and spun the spur sitting proudly on the desk. So much had been lost that fateful day; none of them would ever truly be the same. JD had matured, Buck had become more subdued, he and Josiah had aged, every now and then when you looked into Ezra's eyes you saw a haunted knowledge that made you wished you'd never looked. And Chris - well, it seemed like the fire and spirit had gone out of him. Vin Tanner had represented the best that was in each of them, and they had all lost an integral part of themselves when they lost him. It would take nothing less than a miracle to get that back.
Chris Larabee had never been much one for quiet and calm. He was a man of action, and nothing, not even pain and heartache, could remove that from him. Which meant of course, that nearly two weeks of relative quiet didn't sit well with him.
That was not to say that he necessarily enjoyed being shot at, and under no circumstances would he say that he enjoyed sitting in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about a gravely injured friend. What it was to say was that he was less than happy about being virtually confined to either the office or the ranch while Ezra and Buck danced around a volatile gun dealer.
Unfortunately after nearly two weeks of working the case, they had gotten almost nowhere with the elusive and overly cautious felon.
Working on the outside Chris, Josiah, JD and Nathan had been just as unsuccessful. Everyone had become frustrated by the lack of progress, even the normally exuberant JD was becoming surly and snappish from hours cooped up in a surveillance van.
Only the brave of heart and the strong of will ventured near Team Seven's office nowadays, and even then they usually left feeling like they'd been rode hard and put up wet. And that was on a good day.
That particular Monday afternoon saw most of Team Seven working at their desks, though true to form, Ezra had disappeared somewhere shortly after lunch. He would probably surface by the end of the day with some useful tidbit of information that Chris wouldn't want to know how he got. From his vantage point in his office Chris could see that his team's level of productivity had more or less plateaued. Josiah and Nathan stood together outside the door to the breakroom, talking quietly and watching as Buck and JD teased and taunted each other mercilessly. Likely there would be little more work done today on any of their parts.
Chris's phone rang, distracting him from the scene playing out before him. He shook his head with an amused snort, didn't look like he was doing much better than his team.
"Larabee," he reported into the phone.
"Chris! Good to hear from you," a jubilant voice crooned into his ear. "It's Jack. You remember me, don't you Chris? Good old Jack? I've got some info you might be interested in. For a price, obviously, but that won't be a problem, will it old buddy?"
"Not if it's good information," Chris replied warily. Jack Larson, aka Shady Jack, had been one of his informants while he was a cop, but Chris hadn't heard from him in years. The sly conman, who's fashion sense was like Ezra's on LSD, only did for himself, and though his information had always been good, it had also been pricey and hard to get out of the slippery felon.
"Oh, it's good, brother, it's good. I'll meet you in half an hour, same Shady place, same Shady price. Tootles." There was a click followed by a dial tone. With a suspicious frown, Chris hung up the phone.
It wasn't that there had been anything different in Jack's demeanor, he had always been a ostentatiously condescending, but something felt slightly off here, and Chris couldn't put his finger on what it was. Maybe he was just uneasy because it had been so long. It didn't matter, Chris decided, pushing himself to his feet with a sigh, Jack could well have information that could provide a break in the case, and he couldn't pass that up.
"Buck," he called, entering the main office.
The ladies' man made a face at JD, then turned to face Chris. "Yeah, Boss?"
Chris raised an eyebrow at the supposedly grown man's antics. "Never mind," he turned to Josiah. "Josiah, you're in charge until I get back."
"Where're you going?" JD asked, his arm poised to throw a koosh ball at Buck.
"Got a call from a snitch, says it's good."
"Which one?" Buck's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Chris," Buck's concern was obvious, "are you sure? I mean, Shady Jack wasn't the most trustworthy of your snitches, and it's been years, I don't think you should trust him."
Chris sighed. "I don't trust him," he said seriously, meeting Buck's eyes squarely, "but if he has good information I'll be careful, I promise."
"Maybe one of us should go with ya," Nathan suggested.
"I'll be fine," Chris assured. "One of you comes along, it'll probably spook him, then the price'll be twice as high."
Buck snorted derisively. "He's right about that, at least. Damned jackass would do anything for a quick buck."
The words sent a shiver down JD's spine. He didn't think this was a good idea, but Chris seemed to have convinced the others, and was already out the door.
"Am I the only one who's getting the feeling this isn't a good idea?" Josiah asked into the void left by Chris's departure.
"Damned fool's gonna get himself killed," Nathan muttered.
Buck and JD both murmured their agreement. Seemed the only one who though this was a good idea was Chris.
"Señior Vin, he's leaving."
Vin, being the kind of person that he was, had very quickly upon moving in gained the trust and respect of the neighborhood kids. Appealing to their sense of right, he had set some of the older kids with the task of keeping tabs on Chris during the day while he was at work. They were happy to do it, and it made Vin's life easier as well as keeping them out of trouble.
"What?!" Vin snapped, sitting upright and clutching the phone to his ear, the 'City of Denver' map he'd been working on, marking known hide outs and recent sightings of Juan Marintez Senior, forgotten. "Where's he going?"
"I don't know." The voice on the phone sounded slightly panicked. "His truck just left."
Vin took a deep breath. "Follow him if you can, but try not to draw any attention to yourself. Stay on the line and keep me updated, I'll let you know when I'm close enough to take over."
Vin turned to Jake, who had been lounging on the steps to their building with him, watching as Vin worked. "I have to go," he said. "Damned fool don't know enough to stay where he's safe." The corners of Jake's lips turned up slightly at that. "I'll be back later, don't get in too much trouble."
Jake grinned at his brother and gave him an impudent two-fingered salute, a mannerism he'd picked up from Vin. As he climbed into his jeep Vin noted with a bemused smile that he'd been picking up a lot of things like that lately.
Ezra had had a thoroughly unsuccessful afternoon, and was now headed back to the office to report his failure. Unfortunately for him though, the most direct route went through one of the poorer sections of town.
Resigned to his fate, Ezra drove through the dilapidated villa with all his senses on alert. Visiting Vin on occasion in Purgatorio had gotten him acquainted with this particular aspect of city life, but it wasn't something that Ezra thought he'd ever be truly comfortable with.
Movement in the corner of his eye caught Ezra's attention and he turned his head slightly to see what it was that had attracted his interest. A man stood on the stone steps to one of the buildings nearby. His back was to Ezra so all he could see was the semi-tense stance and bleach-blond hair. He was talking to a kid of about fifteen with longish, dark brown hair. As Ezra watched the kid casually gave the man an impudent two-fingered salute.
There was something about the scene playing out in front of him that attracted Ezra's attention and interest. He sat watching, spellbound, the car idling at a stop sign. It shouldn't have mattered to him, but there was something very familiar and comforting about the whole proceeding.
After the man left Ezra shook himself from his reverie, seemed to realize where exactly he was, and got into a better part of town as fast as he could, but his mind lingered back on the scene he had witnessed.
Chris scanned the streets as he parked by the old warehouse and climbed out of his truck. There didn't appear to be any unsavory characters hanging around, but Chris was wary nonetheless. He had been completely honest when he told the boys that he didn't trust Jack. Even back when he was dealing with him on a regular basis, Chris hadn't trusted the slick hustler any more than about three feet less than he could throw him, and this was highly irregular.
It hadn't helped when Chris had thought he was being followed earlier. Either he was paranoid, or they'd given up. A part of him said paranoid, but another part, in a voice that sounded quite a bit like Ezra, had informed him that he was only paranoid if they weren't out to get him.
Standing out in front of a warehouse in a district that hadn't seen better days in a long time, Chris couldn't help but think that they were out to get him.
Chris checked his watch and swore silently. He didn't have time to stand here debating. If he didn't get in there, Jack would leave, taking what could well be important information with him.
Chris entered the warehouse, moving slightly to the side of the door as he paused to let his eyes adjust to the shades and shadows of the interior. The place hadn't changed much since he'd been here last, it certainly hadn't changed for the better, in any case. Chris wondered if the city had condemned the building yet. Maybe he'd put a call in to the appropriate authorities and suggest it when he got back to the office.
Chris approached the figure standing in the center of the warehouse. He squinted a little at the bright yellow of Jack's pseudo-sports jacket. It should be a crime to make things that obnoxious, more over anyone who wore them should be taken out back and shot.
"Chris!" Jack exclaimed as the ATF agent drew near. Chris stopped when he was still several feet away, wary of the man. "Long time no see. You really should have stayed in touch, man."
The uncompromising expression that had settled on Chris' features as he approached didn't even flicker. "As I recall, you were the one that dropped out of sight."
"True, true," Jack dismissed. "But that's not important now."
"What've you got for me, Jack?" Chris's tone was harsh.
"That's the problem with you, Chris, you're not very friendly. Ah, well, do you have my money?"
"You know I don't work like that."
"Come on Chris, just so I know you have it."
"Have I ever cheated you?"
"Well, no, but - "
"Then you'll just have to take it on faith that I have it until you tell me what I want to know."
Jack sighed. "You know Chris, you were always good business, I regret having to end it." Chris's eyes narrowed, this didn't feel right. "But, I got a better offer. Sorry pal." He smiled then, raising a gun that Chris hadn't even realized he had.
Two shots sounded almost simultaneously, and Chris was knocked sideways as a searing pain erupted in his left shoulder.
Vin entered the warehouse cautiously, knowing that being seen by either of the men just wasn't an option. He slowly and quietly made his way closer to where the two men stood talking in the center of the room, silently cursing the lack of cover more extensive than the shadows.
Vin drew his gun as he moved closer. The most dangerous thing about Chris's companion to the untrained eye would seem to be his fashion sense, but Vin's instincts were screaming at him that this man was as dangerous as a snake, and likely to strike just as quickly.
As soon as he saw the gun in the snake's hand, Vin started running, bringing up his own weapon and firing off a round with the speed of thought as he knocked Larabee down with the force of his own body, and, hopefully, out of harm's way.
Vin watched Chris's assailant from his position on the floor. There was no doubt in his mind that he'd hit his mark, but it was better to be sure. After a few seconds, Vin climbed to his knees and turned his attention to Chris.
The blond lay on his back, blood pooling around his left shoulder.
"Ah shit Chris," Vin breathed, scrambling over to his injured friend, fumbling for his cell phone.
Assuring himself that Chris was still alive, Vin settled Chris's head on his lap, applied pressure to the wound and called 911, quickly and efficiently relaying their position and Chris's condition to the dispatcher.
Chris was brought to awareness by the painful pressure on his shoulder. He'd been shot often enough to know what it felt like, so he knew that whatever else had happened, Jack had gotten a shot off and it had hit him. Although the additional pain would indicate that someone with a vested interest in keeping him alive was in the immediate area. Maybe one of the boys had followed him; he guessed he couldn't be too mad at them for saving his life, but that didn't mean he couldn't try.
Chris focused his eyes on the blur above him. The face resolved into the worried visage of a Texan Chris hadn't seen in far too long. "Vin?" he whispered painfully.
"I'm right here, Cowboy. Don't you fret," the soft drawl was one that Chris had missed since Vin left, what had to be months ago.
But wasn't Vin " Dead?"
"You're not dead yet, Larabee," the soft voice laughed. "And if you do die, I'm gonna be real pissed."
Chris snorted. "Real scared."
"Y'all outta be, Larabee. I could kick your scrawny ass, an' you know it."
"Who you callin' scrawny?" Larabee growled. "'S like the pot callin' the leaves black."
"Wha's that supposed ta mean? You callin' me scrawny, Cowboy?"
Chris cocked his head slightly and paused to consider. "Yep, guess I am." He squinted up at the Texan, he looked different. "Hair?"
"What, you losin' yers, Larabee? 'm told that happens ta some men when they get older."
"You ungrateful little " Chris growled.
"Ain't m' fault yer gettin' old, Pard."
"I'm not losin' my hair," Chris growled. "Not old, either."
"D'nial ain't healthy, Pard."
Chris let out a pained chuff of laughter. Chris closed his eyes against the pain. He felt a feather light touch on his face, distracting him from the pain in his shoulder. He opened his eyes and studied the worried face hovering above him, a face that he'd thought he would never see again. "Thought you were dead," he said quietly.
Vin sighed and glanced away. Chris's practiced eye read the tension in the slim body. "Am dead, ta you. 'm sorry Chris. 's better this way."
"Vin," Chris called quietly, reaching for him with his good hand.
"Don't Chris," Vin said quietly.
"Missed you, Cowboy," Chris said softly.
"Missed you too. All a' y'all," the young Texan sighed.
"Why - " Chris began to ask, but it was at that moment that the paramedics arrived, forcing the Texan out of the way. "Vin," he called, searching for one familiar face among strangers, but his plea wasn't heeded as the sharpshooter disappeared from Chris's life once more.
There had been a time when Vin had known the waiting rooms of Denver's hospitals almost as well as he knew his own name, could have figured out where he was by the patterns on the floor, the wall paper, or the number and placement of cracked tiles in the ceiling. And when you had a memory like Vin did, those weren't things you forgot easily, what he had forgotten, or rather forcibly blocked from his memory, was how much time he had spent in places like this and the fear that settled in his chest during these waits.
He wasn't thinking about that now though. He was sitting near the corner on the back wall of the waiting room in one of the more comfortable hospital chairs he'd encountered, trying to stave of the fear that had rooted itself in his chest the second he'd realized Chris had been shot.
They had asked him to fill in forms for Chris when he came in, but Vin had told him he was just the one who found him, and wanted to know if he was all right. The nurse at the desk told him Chris was in surgery, then had directed him to the waiting room and told him he'd be informed when they had anything to relay.
So now he was sitting cross-legged, head resting against the wall with his eyes closed, waiting. Waiting for news on Chris, waiting for the rest of the boys to show up. Waiting.
He didn't have a long wait. When the five men stormed the hospital, Vin had been immediately aware. It was the kind of thing that you'd have to be dead to miss, like a herd of elephants stampeding over your campsite.
Vin heard them storm up to the information desk, heard Buck demand information, heard Nathan smooth the situation over after Buck had been dismissed, then heard them directed to the waiting room. Vin only heard the voices and inflections, but his mind could insert the words, he'd been in that scene more times than he cared to count.
And now they all were waiting for news on Chris here, together. It was comforting in a way, almost like before, before his life went to hell. Josiah was sitting against one wall, praying quietly, deep rumble of a voice soothing and grounding in the fear and confusion. Nathan was seated next to the preacher, occasionally getting up to ask about Chris. Buck, in typical worried Wilmington fashion, was pacing impatiently, tension exploding from him in a sporadic flurry of angry words. JD was currently seated, but he would flicker from one friend to another, asking anxious questions. Ezra sat against the wall opposite Josiah and Nathan, calmly shuffling a deck of cards. Vin saw all of this without ever opening his eyes, his ears set the scene and his mind filled in the details.
He had no worries that they would recognize him. With his shorn and beached hair he barely looked like the Vin they knew, and they were all too preoccupied with Chris's plight to give the stranger sitting unobtrusively in the corner a second glance.
All of them except Ezra. Ezra sat, deftly manipulating the cards with his supple fingers, but most of his attention was on the slight form sitting forgotten in the corner. The rest of the team had dismissed the man as not being a threat, then proceeded to ignore him, but Ezra's attention had caught on him and held there. He did nothing to draw attention to the other man, knowing it wouldn't be appreciated, but it had been months since he'd seen Vin, and he wasn't going to let him slip away while he wasn't paying attention.
"I knew it was a bad idea for Chris to meet with Jack," Buck burst out suddenly. "The man isn't trustworthy."
"It confounds me how anyone could believe that someone with that particular moniker was a trustworthy individual," Ezra drawled calmly.
"Huh?" JD looked up, perplexed.
"Brother Ezra doesn't think that 'Shady Jack' could ever be the name of a trustworthy person," Josiah explained with a slight smile.
"I'd like to know why he shot at Chris," Nathan said thoughtfully. "I mean, did he have a grudge against him or something, Buck?"
Buck paused in his pacing and frowned. "I don't think so," he ventured. "It's been a while since Chris's even heard from Jack."
"Well, perhaps we can ask Mr Larabee ourselves," Ezra suggested.
"Only one problem there, Ez," Buck snapped.
"Are you here for Mr Larabee?" a young woman asked.
Buck whirled, flushing as he realized the potential fallacy of his words. "Yes ma'am. Is he all right?"
"He's going to be fine, but we'd like to hold him here for a few days. The bullet entered his left shoulder, right under his collar bone, but there shouldn't be any permanent damage."
"Can we see him?" JD asked anxiously.
"Sure," the doctor smiled. "We're getting him settled in room 214, you can go up as soon as you're ready."
Almost before the words were out of her mouth, there was a mass exodus from the room. Shaking her head in amusement, the doctor left too, leaving only two men sitting quietly in the room.
Vin knew that Ezra was still there, knew too that he was waiting. With an internal sigh, he opened his eyes.
"I must say, Mr Tanner," Ezra proclaimed, not actually taking his eyes from his cards, "I'm not sure I like what you did to your hair."
Vin grinned. "Well hell Ez, and here I got it cut jest fer you."
"While I am touched by the sentiment, I must say that I do not appreciate the gesture. Are you planning to visit Mr Larabee?" He looked up and looked Vin square in the eye.
"No," Vin sighed. "Jest wanted ta make sure he's gonna be okay."
"What confounds me," Ezra drawled, "is that I never figured you as a coward."
Vin's head shot up, eyes wide and injured. This was an attack from a quarter he hadn't expected.
"Well, you are running, correct?"
Vin stared at him. "I - I ain't runnin'."
"Oh?" Ezra didn't look up. "Could've fooled me." He shrugged, "What do you call it then?"
"Y'all don't need me, Ez, don't need the risk. I ain't worth it."
Ezra looked up at that, staring at the Texan as he struggled to his feet. The calm, self-deprecating declaration startled and disturbed him. Vin had always given the impression of being very self-assured; to bear witness to his low self-worth shook the very foundation of Ezra Standish's world.
Vin shuffled to the door of the waiting room, shoulders slumped a little. Ezra couldn't help but think that he looked exhausted. When he got to the door, Vin turned back to look at Ezra. "Take care of him for me Ez," he instructed. Ezra had no need to ask who 'he' was, there was only one person it could be.
"Only until you make your triumphant return," Ezra consented conditionally, standing up.
Vin shook his head sadly. "I cain't Ezra."
He turned away again, and Ezra had the feeling that this time he wouldn't be back, not without more persuasion than he could provide. "Take care of yourself Vin," he said quietly. He saw Vin pause, but he didn't turn back again.
Ezra stood motionless, watching after Vin for a while. Finally he seemed to make up his mind and moved purposely out the door to follow the errant sharpshooter.
Chris was sitting up when four concerned ATF members charged into his room, Buck, predictably, in the lead. "Boys," he greeted, taking stock of who was and wasn't there.
"Jesus Chris, what the hell happened?" Buck demanded
"I was shot, Buck," Chris raised an eyebrow. "What'd you think happened?"
"I think," Buck roared, "that you went knowingly into a bad situation without backup and nearly got your fool self killed!"
"Now, Brother Buck," Josiah tried to intercede.
"No, Josiah, I want to know what the hell he thought he was doing!"
"I thought I was getting valuable information," Chris growled.
"And instead you nearly got your head blown off!"
"As I recall, Buck, you didn't object at the time," Chris's soft growl was a direct opposite of Buck's enraged shouts.
"Only 'cause it wouldn't have done any good to say otherwise. Once a jackass gets an idea in his head, it's damned hard to get it out."
"Yeah, 'cause I've put up with you so long."
"Brothers!" Josiah interrupted. "This is getting us nowhere."
Both men took deep breaths and stepped back, figuratively, from the argument. "Where're Ezra and Vin?" Chris asked after a second.
The four men exchanged worried glances. "Ezra was right behind us," Buck told him, "He outta be in soon."
"Chris," JD put in tentatively, "Vin's dead."
Chris stared at the youth, then comprehension hit. "No, he's not. He was there in the warehouse with me, before the ambulance came."
"That isn't possible," Nathan said quietly. "You know that, Chris."
"No," Chris protested vehemently. "I saw him. Talked to him."
"I know you don't want to hear this, Chris," Buck tried, "but Vin's dead. He has been for a coupla months now. You know that."
Chris shook his head in denial. "I saw him, I know he was there." But there was doubt in his voice now, he was remembering how he'd heard Vin say 'am dead' in a quiet, resigned voice.
"Chris," Nathan put his two cents in, "you had just lost a lot of blood, it's possible that what you thought was real was some sort of conjuration of your half-conscious mind."
Chris didn't argue, knowing he wasn't going to win, and that he didn't have the strength or energy to put up that kind of fight. He closed his eyes and resigned himself to his fate. He just wished they'd leave.
Of all of them, Josiah was the only one who didn't comment on Chris seeing Vin, but he couldn't help but think of the conversation he and Chris had had several weeks ago, and wonder if there was any connection.
Faced with an unresponsive Chris, it didn't take long for the four men to go their separate way, assured that their leader was all right, physically if not mentally. Buck stayed at the hospital, reluctant to leave his old friend alone in the hospital, especially after the bombshell that Chris had dropped earlier.
"Chris - " he tried when the two of them were alone.
"I don't want to talk about it," the clipped tone brooked no argument, so Buck dropped it and the two of them sat in silence.
Ezra exited the elevator and turned toward the room he had been told Chris was in with a tired sigh. He had driven around the city for over an hour, looking for Vin, but the elusive sharpshooter had slipped through his fingers and was long gone before Ezra had a chance to follow.
Ezra was greeted in the door to Chris's room by an anxious Buck Wilmington, who had been positioned in such a way that he could see the hall from Chris's bedside.
"Where have you been?" the ladies' man demanded, worry for both his friends making him curt.
"I had some business that required my immediate attention," Ezra replied calmly, cool and detached. "I trust that I haven't missed anything."
Buck snorted sarcastically. "Oh no, you haven't missed anything. What, if I may ask, was so important that you deserted your injured friend and left us to wonder what had happened to you?" Buck growled.
"That is not pertinent at this point in time," the Southerner drawled. "It is still something I'm developing, however it may prove important in the long run."
Buck stared at the Southerner, shaking his head and letting his anger go with a sigh. "If you can sit with Chris for a while, I need some coffee."
"That shouldn't be a problem."
"Listen, Ez," Buck said, "Chris has been saying he saw Vin. He was asking where Vin was. Try to avoid the subject, okay?"
"I will approach the subject with the utmost tact," Ezra vowed.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't approach the subject at all," Buck sighed. Seeing no quarter in Ezra's eyes, he let it drop. "I'll be back in a while." Buck turned and walked away, a noticeable slump to his shoulders.
Ezra watched him walk away. It had to be difficult to hear one of his best friends spouting something so seemingly implausible and insane. Buck was a practical person, and practical people didn't believe in ghosts. And, with the facts he had, that was one of the only explanations that Buck could conceive, the other options weren't very appealing either.
"Gonna tell me I'm crazy too?" the harsh voice assaulted Ezra as soon as he entered the room. Buck hadn't kept his voice quite low enough, and not only had Chris heard him, he'd heard what Buck was implying as well.
"Why ever would I tell you that, Mr Larabee? Merely because you happen to have had an encounter with Vin?" Ezra inquired, coming to sit in the chair by the bed.
Chris narrowed his eyes, studying the Southerner.
Standish continued, seemingly oblivious to the scrutiny. "I, myself, engaged Mr Tanner in conversation earlier in the waiting room, and I hardly count myself a candidate for the asylum."
"Vin was here?" Chris demanded.
"Indeed," Ezra replied. "It seems he wanted to assure himself of your continued good health."
"Why didn't he - why didn't you make him - ?"
"Mr Larabee, do you really think that anyone can make Mr Tanner do anything?"
Ezra's calm voice cut through Chris's anger and confusion. "You knew," he accused softly. "All along, you knew." There was no question there. Ezra had seen the body, was the only one who had seen the body. He would have known from the start that Vin wasn't actually dead, and yet he had said nothing.
Ezra heard the quiet accusation and the subtle tones of betrayal underneath. He met and held Chris's gaze. "I knew. I also knew that someone wanted Vin dead, had gone to great pains to assure kill a man whom they thought was Vin Tanner, and make no mistake Mr Larabee, whoever he was, the dead man was made to look very much like our Mr Tanner, and certainly had all the identification to prove it. In deference to the fact that Vin was in a particularly vulnerable position, with a hit out on him and no one to watch his back, I concluded that the best course of action was to allow Vin to be dead."
"You could have told us, could have at least told me," Chris accused.
"Can you honestly tell me that you could have acted in such a way as to fool the world into thinking Vin was dead?"
"It wouldn't have mattered, I would have known Vin wasn't dead."
Ezra shook his head sadly. "And you would have continued business as usual, so that when some illustrious hitman looked to you for clues about Vin, they might divine the truth, and Vin might very well be dead. Really dead."
Chris let his head fall back with a sigh. "How long 'til you were going to tell us?"
"I had planned on telling you when Vin came back to Denver."
"For some inscrutable reason Vin didn't enlighten us as to his presence when he returned, as I would surmise that he has been in town for a while. Otherwise it was a very lucky coincidence that he happened to be passing through the warehouse district this particular afternoon."
"You think that Vin's been watching out for us?"
"When have you known Mr Tanner not to watch our backs, as it were?"
Chris had to concede Ezra's point. "Wish he'd do it somewhere where we could watch his," the blond muttered.
"I wouldn't count on that happening," Ezra observed.
"Why not?" Larabee demanded harshly.
"For whatever reason, it doesn't appear that Vin has any plans of returning to the safety and comfort of our fold." Ezra decided to leave Vin's disturbingly self-deprecating claim of 'not being worth it' unvoiced; Chris didn't need to hear that now. If Vin ever returned, then they could deal with it.
"Why?" Chris demanded once more.
"Is there some reason that you believe that I hold the secrets to our elusive sharpshooter. You are the one who is intangibly linked with him in some sort of telepathic bond."
Chris scowled at the undercover agent. "You talked to him last."
"Not long after you yourself were conversing with Mr Tanner."
Chris's scowl deepened. "What do we do now?"
"I suppose, being left with little other recourse, we wait. It is up to Mr Tanner to make the next move."
They could only hope that he would.
Juan Marintez Senior had proven more difficult to locate than Vin had anticipated, weeks of searching on Vin's part could attest to that. Perhaps he had heard someone was after him and gone to ground, perhaps he was just a well ensconced man, whatever the case Vin had been looking for him since two weeks after his return to Denver, and had had very little luck. But Vin Tanner was a tracker, a hunter, and Marintez had made a fatal mistake: he'd gone after Chris Larabee.
After Chris was shot, Vin had gone hunting. It hadn't taken long to find him then, and it had taken even less to convince the man to take the hit off Larabee. Then Vin had sat back and watched the tired old man eat his own gun. In the end, it was a sad ending to the once proud and vital man, and strangely anticlimactic. It should have been harder, there should have been a fight, or some kind of struggle, mental, physical, verbal, something. This man had, without ever once lifting a finger, been an unseen and deadly threat to Chris's safety for months now, and suddenly it was over.
And just as suddenly, Vin had no purpose, no direction in life. The only things that he had left were his memories and Jake. On the one hand, neither would demand anything from him that he wasn't prepared to give, but on the other, there was a huge hole inside him where Chris and the boys should have been. It wasn't new, but where before he could carefully avoid it, he now felt it pulling him in.
Despite all the uncertainty and emptiness, the one thing that Vin did know was that he was exhausted, and he was going back to the apartment and sleeping for at least twenty-four hours. After that he'd deal with the aftermath.
Jake watched silently as an exhausted Vin dragged himself into the apartment they shared. He looked totally drained, barely glancing at Jake before making his way to the room and collapsing on the bed.
Jake followed him in, studying the haggard planes of his brother's face to determine if he was hurt. Satisfied that he was all right, just tired, Jake didn't push him. "You get him?" he asked.
"Yep," Vin mumbled, not opening his eyes or moving at all.
"What happens now?"
Vin sighed, "Now, I'm gonna sleep." He opened his eyes to study Jake briefly. "Then we'll go to DC. Not tomorrow though, Friday's early enough."
"Always wanted to see the capital," Jake grinned. "You all right?"
"Yeah," Vin sighed, replying to the soft, heartfelt query. "'m fine, jest tired."
"'kay." Jake withdrew, noting absently that Vin's Texan accent got thicker when he was tired. He didn't think he'd ever seen Vin so exhausted and vulnerable, it was sobering to see his seemingly infallible big brother so spent.
Jake glanced at a clock. Ten pm would probably too late for visiting hours tonight, but there would be time tomorrow.
Jake paused outside the door to the hospital room. Inside a blond man of almost forty sat on the side of the bed, it looked like he was leaning over to pick something up. It also looked painful.
Jake had meant to be here earlier, but he hadn't wanted to leave before Vin woke up, which, uncharacteristically, wasn't until after two in the afternoon. Worry about his brother had kept Jake at the apartment even longer after he got up, and then he'd had to wait until visiting hours started at five, following which he'd waited until Larabee's friend had left, unwilling to approach more than just Larabee. Now Jake was wishing he had come earlier, because it would be over now that way. Jake took a deep breath, and entered the room.
"Are you Chris Larabee?" The quiet, uncertain voice startled Chris and he sat up quickly, probably too quickly. If that didn't take the breath out of him, finding himself staring into Vin's eyes did. "Vin's Chris?" The voice was a little stronger this time, and the boy took another step into the room.
"Yeah," Chris shook himself out of the shocked stupor. "Who are you?" Surveying the boy, Chris recognized that he was too old to be Vin's son, although there was a remarkable resemblance. The boy looked to be about fourteen, give or take a year; he was skinny, but in a few years he would grow into the lean look that Vin had. His face bore similarities to Vin too, and his eyes - looking into his eyes, there was no way to say that the boy wasn't related to Vin. His hair was a darker brown than Vin's was, and shorter, though still shaggy; it was cut in a similar style as JD's hair, perhaps a little longer.
"I'm Jake," the boy said quietly. "I - I wanted to give you this." He moved forward quickly and laid a scrap of paper on the bed next to Chris, then retreated swiftly.
"What is it?" Chris asked, picking up the folded scrap, but not once taking his eyes off Jake's face.
"'s where we're stayin'," Jake all but whispered, looking slightly guilty. "But we're pullin' out tomorrow. I thought - Vin, he's lost without y'all. Most of the time he doesn't say anything, but you can see he misses you." The words that tumbled out of Jake's mouth were quiet, but fervent nonetheless. "What you had - what you have - that's something special, you can tell, not somethin' you should go throwin' away."
Chris watched the boy closely. He seemed to know Vin, and there were certain traits and mannerisms that seemed to have rubbed off on Jake. One of the things that struck him was the sincerity obvious in the boy's words.
"I can't get him to listen to me, but I thought maybe you could "
"Why won't he come back?" Chris couldn't help the question slipping out.
A look of pain flashed across Jake's expressive face. "He doesn't think he's worth it," he whispered. "But he is," the vehemently stated fact were accompanied by a flash of fierce determination in those oh-so-familiar eyes.
"I agree," Chris said quietly, "Vin is so much more than just worth it." Jake's eyes softened at that. "When are you planning to leave tomorrow?"
"I'm not sure," Jake admitted, "but I'll try to stall him if I can."
"Appreciate it," Chris nodded his thanks, then watched as Jake turned and left silently. He wondered if Jake thought he, Jake, was worth it.
At that moment, completely unaware of the momentous event that had just occurred, Buck entered, practically bouncing of the walls. "So pard, you ready to blow this pop stand?
"Hell yeah," Chris grinned at his oldest friend. Tomorrow he'd worry about ditching Buck and finding Vin. He'd never get away from Buck and JD tonight. Vin wasn't leaving until tomorrow, so he could wait. Lord help him, he could wait to find Vin. He justified it by reasoning that he'd been waiting for months, he could wait one more night.