Disclaimer: I do not own or profit from this bit of storytelling involving seven seriously gorgeous men. Thanks to Mog for creating the ATF universe, about which I remain essentially clueless.
Warnings: The usuals - cursing, violence, vin-hurting.
Comments: The plot has been done before - but it's all in the execution, right? Didn't someone say that once? I aimed for something a little different, a little thought-provoking (hopefully without being preachy or offensive). The title is, of course, taken from a song, since I have absolutely no originality when it comes to these things, (Counting Blue Cars by Dishwalla, if you really want to know).
ATF Universe, Vin and Chris, with a good bit of the others, too
Please God, help me. I try not t' ask much . . . try t' make my own way . . . but I don't understand what's happening. I can't do this . . . please . . . help me.
Vin didn't know where he was . . . or how he'd gotten there . . . or why. He only knew that he was alone . . . in the dark . . . with no air.
And he hurt all over; everywhere. It hurt to move, to breathe, to think. His head pounded, his heart raced. He felt warm fluid running in a stream down his temple and across his jaw. Blood, more than likely, coming from someone somewhere and he disjointedly thought it might be his. He could taste it in his mouth, too - bitter, metallic, and he tried to swallow it away, but it gagged him.
It was cold. He was cold. No, cold didn't cut it. Freezing. Shivering, trembling, shaking - and that hurt, too.
He was lying on the ground; cold, hard, damp ground. With cool, damp, musty air settling deep in his lungs and choking him rather than giving him the life-sustaining oxygen his body craved. He was suffocating with every hard-fought, pain-wracked inhalation.
Darkness pervaded every thought and every pore of his being. No light anywhere, not a sliver. Panic set in as he struggled to pull himself up on hands and knees. Only one thought pushed its way through the muck of his brain: get out.
He crawled haphazardly, clumsily, with one hand holding him up and the other stretched out in front of him to feel his way. Dirt walls on one side. A few feet and he found another dirt wall. Turning the corner of his prison, he continued to creep along the packed earth until he reached the next corner, and his hand connected with yet another dirt wall. Surrounded by dirt walls and the dirt floor; buried alive.
No light. No air. No way out.
Oh, God! Ohgod,ohgod,ohgod!
He gulped and tried to pull in a deep breath that he knew wouldn't come. Ignoring the incessant pain in his chest, he fought for it; fought to make his lungs expand and his heart to beat.
One more wall to find and feel, and he reached despairingly for it, already sure it would be more dirt. But it wasn't. There were bars on this one, and it gave him a ridiculous surge of hope. His prison was not a dirt box. He was in a cell, probably in a cellar or basement.
A cell in a cellar. A cage within a cage.
In the dark. With no air. Alone.
He grasped the bars and pulled himself up with a grunt, pain flaring in his back and ribs. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that he could stand. And if he could stand, then he could move. And if there was room enough to move, then surely there was air enough to breathe. At least for now. At least until Chris and the boys found him.
He could do this.
But why did he have to?
God, what happened to me? Why am I here?
He was on the ground again, unsure of how he'd gotten there - curling up to find some warmth while he sought some glimpse of memory in his mind, some clue.
He remembered that the heater was out on his jeep again. But it hadn't stopped him from taking the long way in to work. He'd gotten up early, as usual, and decided to take the out-of-the-way way. He liked the drive, even though the sun was still a good hour from making its appearance and he really couldn't see the scenery. Buck had installed a new cd player in his jeep as a Christmas gift, and he liked to listen to music and just drive.
Buck said he bought it because Vin was the only one who appreciated real music. They'd both grown up on the twangy, country stuff that made the other boys groan. But Vin liked a lot of different things. Nathan had introduced him to jazz, Ezra to classical, and Josiah to everything from Celtic to Reggae. JD listened to the new stuff and Chris listened to the old stuff and Vin listened to it all, with equal interest and enthusiasm, depending on who he was with at the time.
What was he listening to last? He couldn't remember, though it seemed absurdly important at the moment. As if the particular track he had on his cd player was the key to how and why he was now alone in the dark with no air.
He'd never made it to work. He was pretty sure of that. He was pretty sure he'd headed out in his jeep and took the long way and popped in a cd - not sure which one - and then he was here.
Where ever here was.
It didn't matter. He could take it, wherever he was for however long. He could do this. He wasn't a kid anymore. He could stand being alone in the dark. He could stand it because Chris would figure it out. Chris would find him.
God, you know how much I hate this. Please . . . let him find me . . . soon.
It would have to be soon, because no matter that his cage had some moving room and no matter that his cage was within a larger cage, he still couldn't breathe.
He still hurt all over.
He was still freezing.
He was still alone.
Please God, I'll do anything . . . just please get me out of here. Please listen t' me.
I make my own way. I'm not even going to ask for your help. You won't listen anyway. And if I stay out of it, maybe Vin will have a chance.
Chris paced the room for the thousandth time. He knew every inch of his office by heart - every tiny knick in the ornate cherry desk; every stain on each ceiling tile; every minute tear in the wallpaper.
He needed a new office. A new job. A new life.
But he'd settle for a call from Vin.
An hour late was all he was, but an hour may as well have been a day for the punctual sniper. Chris knew then that the tickling sensation creeping up his spine was founded. Then an hour became two, and so he'd gotten in his car - to the amusement of the others - and driven Vin's route, hoping to find him stranded along the road.
They weren't laughing now. Six hours later and still no word from Vin. No call, no answer on his cell. No one at his run down apartment who saw or heard anything.
It doesn't matter what I say or do or promise, it won't change anything, will it, God? You'll still do it your way.
"Chris?" Buck asked softly, keenly aware of his friend's dark mood.
With lead-like movements, Chris turned towards Buck, but he didn't respond. Nothing was working properly - his entire body felt sluggish; his brain detached. He could see by Buck's face that there was no news, or at least, no good news.
Taking a deep breath, Buck moved into the room and spoke up. "JD's checking out Vin's computer - looking for anything out of the ordinary. Ezra's on the streets. Josiah's still talking with Vin's neighbors. Nathan's looking into past enemies. I got the APB out, but it took some doing. They thought I was nuts, Vin only bein' gone half a day."
Six hours and twenty-three minutes. That they knew of. Vin could have been missing since last night, for all they knew. No one at that damn run-down seedy apartment where Vin had no business living knew for sure if he was even there last night.
When had Chris last seen him? Heard from him?
Five-forty-five pm yesterday. He distinctly remembered looking up at the clock when Vin stuck his head through the door. "You leavin' soon, Cowboy?" he'd asked.
"Yeah," Chris had answered.
Vin had smiled doubtfully. "Anything I can do t' help you finish up?"
A distracted, "No . . . but thanks," was his answer.
He'd hardly even looked at his friend. He figured he'd finish up his paperwork and head on home and see Vin in the morning.
Only Vin never showed. And those yahoos on the force thought six hours was too soon to get out an APB? He should've done it when Tanner was six minutes late.
Buck was talking again. "We're kind of between cases right now . . . can't think off hand of anyone who'd be after Vin, can you?"
Chris made a sound that came out strangely like a snicker. Vin probably had more enemies than the other five put together. The only one who topped Tanner in that department was Chris himself, and there was no consolation in that. Hell, he was constantly afraid that one his enemies would get the notion to get their revenge on him by hurting one of his men; hit him where it hurt the most - his heart.
He didn't even dignify Buck's question with an answer, sure that Wilmington realized how ridiculous it was as soon as the words had left his mouth. Buck was trying, though, trying to find something hopeful to hold onto in this.
JD shuffled through the door about then, looking frayed already and only six and a half hours in. "Vin's due in court next week?" he asked.
"What? What for?" Buck questioned, looking genuinely puzzled.
Chris frowned. He knew something about it, but couldn't quite remember. It had been one of those off-hand comments Vin had muttered when Chris was up to his eyeballs in paperwork.
"Where did you come up with that, JD?"
"A note on his calendar. I didn't think we had any cases coming up. You know anything about it, Chris?"
Shit. Why didn't he listen better? Vin never said anything that wasn't worth saying. Never wasted words. He'd told him for a reason. Said something about the neighborhood . . .
"Look into it, JD. See what it's about." Could have nothing at all to do with where Vin was now.
Which could be anywhere. Under any circumstances. In any condition.
I can't do this again.
Don't ask me to.
I can't do this again. I can't stand it. Please, God, don't do this to me. What do you want from me? Whatever it is, just tell me and I'll do it.
I'll be good . . .
What time was it? How long had it been? Hours and hours - days, maybe. But still, no one came.
What had he done? And who had he done it to?
Vin tried hard to think past the pain and the cold and the dark; past the panic that sat just below the surface of his consciousness. Which enemy - past or present, did this to him? Which action, which bullet, which sin was he paying for this time?
It really didn't matter. He'd have to handle it. He'd have to sit here in the dark, alone, and wait it out. And he could do it. This wasn't the same. He wasn't that scared, little boy anymore. He'd gotten past his past. Moved on. Made a life, and a damn good one at that.
He was a good man now. Or he tried to be.
I swear I've tried.
He had friends who cared about him; friends out there looking for him right now. He just had to keep his head and hang on. He wasn't dying. Hurting and cold and scared and lonely and fighting for every single breath, maybe, but he wasn't dying.
He would not die here. He'd fought too hard to get out of darkness and loneliness and hurt and he damn sure wasn't giving in now.
But maybe it wasn't up to him.
Maybe all of Josiah's talk about retribution meant something after all. Maybe all of the things he'd done wrong in the past had all led to this moment. What goes around comes around . . . Karma . . . God.
He didn't understand God. He'd been tossed around from church to church as often as he'd been tossed from one foster home to another. Nearly all of his surrogate parents went somewhere, professed some kind of faith. A few of them actually lived it, too, but he didn't stay with them long, for one reason or another. He had no more opportunity to attach himself to a faith and a God than he did to a family.
But he prayed anyway, during the dark times. Prayed to some obscure force in the most general of terms, "God help me," and lately, recently, he'd begun to think it had worked. There was no other explanation for how a groundless man like him had ended up completely and totally rooted in a team with ties so strong and deep and true that he'd kill or die for any one of his mates. Completely and totally contented and happy, too, for the first time in his life - and he let himself believe in all the things he'd talked himself out of wanting or needing for so long.
He always understood about right and wrong, though, and he always figured if there was a God, he stood a lot better chance of getting His help if he aimed for the good side. There was his name, too, and even though he wasn't at all sure why he was supposed to guard it with pride, he intended to do so if only to keep a small child's promise to his dying mother.
Still, life hadn't handed him an easy road, and there were times when he fell to desperation and the less than moral path. So maybe this was repayment for those times. Maybe he was being forced to lie here alone in the dark with no air so he'd remember all of the times when he failed to live up to his name.
Or maybe God was trying to teach him another lesson . . . the same one he apparently hadn't learned when he'd been locked in cold, dark places years before . . . places he'd left behind long ago. Or thought he had.
No, he had. He definitely had. Sure, he avoided small, tight spaces - never rode the elevator when he didn't absolutely have to, but he otherwise lived a perfectly normal life. All the shit the psych majors, Josiah included, threw at him didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. He had coped and moved on and made his life just fine.
And he could do this. Whoever got their kicks locking him in a black hole would be sorely disappointed that Vin Tanner could and would live through it.
And he'd do it alone, just like he used to do everything else.
Until Chris and the boys came.
They would come. Soon. They would get him out.
Because he had to get out.
He had to get out now.
Up again, pulling himself against the metal bars, shaking and twisting and beating against the unforgiving metal until he gasped for air; until he felt his ribs grind and his stomach roll . . . until he was again curled up on the ground, his sobs stealing more of the precious air and piercing the never-ending silence.
Please help me, God. I was wrong - I can't do it. Why are you doing this to me? I can't be here alone - I can't die like this. I'll be good. Please. Please don't leave me alone.
Why are you doing this? When will it be enough? When will I ever be good enough for you to just leave me and mine the hell alone.
Just leave me the hell alone.
Twelve hours, eighteen minutes and counting. Chris took the corner of the prison walkway with slightly less than his usual grace. He seriously doubted he was on the right trail, but the leads were few and far between. He'd take what he could get.
Vin was testifying against a two-bit street punk on Monday, three days from now. His name was Eddy Gonzales, a gang member from Purgatorio that Vin had caught in the act of knifing another street kid. It was no wonder he'd only casually mentioned it to Chris. Vin likely knew how his best friend would react. It was a long standing argument. They all put their lives on the line on a regular basis in their professional roles - there was no reason to live their personal lives equally dangerously.
Vin never did see it that way. Ezra had christened him 'Robin Hood' and it fit. It didn't matter a whole hell of a lot to Chris at the moment, though. If Vin was missing because of this punk, he was going to lasso his friend's noble ass and move him and his eclectic assortment of belongings to a decent home in a decent area and there would be no discussion about it. He should've done it long ago. Should've told Vin either he moved someplace safe, or he left the team. That would have done it. It would do it and that was exactly how he was going to play it with Tanner.
As soon as he found him.
The guard let him into the conference room and Chris looked at his prey with disdain. Body piercings and tattoos and shaved heads - for young people who wanted to stand out and be different, they all looked the same to him.
Eddy denied it all, of course. Denied he had even seen Vin the night of the stabbing, let alone had anything to do with his disappearance. Chris bought it, too, if only because he believed Gonzales wasn't smart enough to get the drop on Vin and, conversely, that he wasn't stupid enough to attempt to take down an ATF officer that was the beloved hero of Purgatorio.
Chris left the prison doors and stepped into the cold January air, his breath frosty white in the inky blackness. Vin was cold - always. Wore his damn coat well into spring.
He was cold right now, at that very moment. Chris knew it, sensed it, and he took it for the grain of hope that it was. If he could feel Vin's discomfort, then his friend was still alive. A small consolation, and how long would it last? How much time did they have? Why, who, how, when? Most importantly, where? Too many questions with no answers and certainly no great revelations unfolding in the starry sky above him. Not that he expected any. Not that he expected any help at all from anyone other than his own team. He surely would like to know the answer to one question, though.
Why him, God? He's never done anything except try to be a decent human being in spite of the misery you put him through. It's me you should be after. I'm the one who can't forgive and forget. Leave him out of it.
Josiah and I talked about it once. Talked about when Jesus was up on the cross and how he said he felt forsaken. Josiah said he was separated from God and that's the worst thing that can happen to a soul. Feeling totally alone - like even God don't want nothin' t' do with you. Why'd you let that happen? You're supposed to be a loving father, right? Why would you want one of your own t' feel like that?
Vin couldn't seem to move, but he couldn't stop shaking, either. His whole body felt stiff, frozen, numb. He was past the point of hoping for a quick release. Now, he only prayed for sleep or more to claim him . . . for the darkness to take him to a place of dreams; a place of light and air and warmth.
When the light came, he gasped, unsure if he was truly dreaming or imagining it. A small, round circle of white drifted down and across and closer to his prison, stopping just outside the iron bars. He pulled himself up to sit and held up his palm to shield his eyes from the sudden intrusion of the bright, oh-so-precious light that sent daggers of pain through the sensitive lenses and deep into his skull.
He soon realized it was a flashlight, shining directly into his face so that he couldn't see who was behind it, but he didn't care - dear God, he didn't care. His breath caught in his throat, and he strangled the sound that tried to emerge. He wanted to beg. He wanted to plead for a blanket, a drink, a light, a sound - for his freedom.
"Not so tough now, are you, Tanner?" the voice said. It was rough, but young and maybe strung out and Vin cringed. A doped up nut case wouldn't help his cause much.
The light was still piercing his eyes, but he squinted and tried to make out whose arm held the object. It was someone who obviously knew him, but he couldn't make out even the slightest clue in the shadows.
"Brought you some water. Don't want you dyin' on us just yet. We might want t' have a little fun before this is through," the voice said with a quiet laugh. The door opened with a squeaking groan and a water bottle landed at Vin's feet.
He'd said 'we', but he was clearly alone. Alone, in the cell, with the door open. For now. So now was his best chance - his best chance to get out.
Get . . . out . . . now.
With a groan he couldn't suppress, Vin staggered to his feet and tackled his unknown captor. But he was so tired and weak and everything, everything hurt, and the younger, stronger man threw him off without breaking a sweat. Vin felt the toe of a boot strike his already aching rib cage, before another blow caught him low in the stomach. He would have been sick then, except he hadn't eaten or drank in days or weeks or months, and so he gagged and choked as he once again tried to pull in the oppressive, stale air.
The voice laughed again as the figure turned and exited the cell. The lock slid closed with a final clang and the precious light moved across and up and away.
And Vin nearly begged for him to come back.
Don't leave me alone! Please God, don't . . . leave . . . me. Don't forsake me, too.
"Nathan, you hardly slept at all. Just give yourself a few more minutes," Rain pleaded softly.
With a shake of his head, Nathan answered, "Slept more than the others, I'm guessing."
It was true, he was sure of it. He'd left the office well after two am, and even then, he'd felt guilty. Like he was leaving the others to figure it out; like he was deserting Vin.
Rain wrapped her arms around Nathan as he slid onto the edge of the bed and pulled on his socks. "You'll find him. I know it."
Meeting her eyes, he questioned, "Yeah? How do you know that? How can you be so sure?"
Without hesitation, she answered, "Faith, Baby."
He scoffed now and pushed himself up from the bed. "Now's not the time, Rain. Don't be goin' down that road with me."
Sadness filled the beautiful young woman's eyes as she replied, "One of these days you'll figure it out, Nathan. One of these days you'll believe again. I'm praying for it, and I know it will happen."
"Save your prayers for Vin."
He had no use for them. He'd seen too much. There were too many times when a loving, merciful God was just not in the picture; when God had simply forsaken his own. His mother believed - never missed a Sunday and carried her Bible with her wherever she went. Yet she was wrenched from her family, brutalized, and left for dead. He'd often wondered what prayers she'd uttered as she lay dying in the filthy, deserted alley. Where was her God then?
No, he'd put his faith in medicine, in science, in technology . . . in Chris and Buck and JD and Ezra and Josiah. In Vin.
But then again, if anyone's prayers meant anything at all, it would be those of the sweet woman he loved. And so as he folded her in his arms and kissed her goodbye, he repeated, "Say your prayers for Vin."
I think I'm losing my mind, God. That part of the plan? That have anythin' at all t' do with why I'm here? 'Cause if you're wantin' me to be learnin' somethin', it might be too late. I'm too cold and sick and scared.
And I think I'm losin' my mind.
How long it did it take to go crazy? And did you know it when it was happening? By definition, being crazy meant being out of your head, so did you know it when you were already gone?
And was it different for everyone? Of course it was - it would have to be. For some people, being locked up, alone, in the dark, with no air would be enough. Some people couldn't take it.
Could his friends take it? Would this be enough to make them crazy? Probably not.
Josiah would use this time for introspection; puzzle out the hows and whys, and maybe finally achieve that penance he's always looking for. Vin couldn't get past the 'why', and if he hadn't done his penance by now, he'd never be paid up.
Buck probably had enough fantasies to keep him occupied for weeks. But Vin couldn't conjure up the image of a soft, sweet companion no matter how hard he tried.
Ezra could play a hand in the dark - no doubt he knew the feel of every card by heart. Would that be enough? Enough to keep him sane? Of course, to hear Chris talk, Ezra's sanity was questionable as it was.
JD would talk to himself and maybe that was crazy in and of itself, but who was he to judge? At least JD knew how to talk to people, that was more than Vin could say for himself.
Nathan would be thinking about survival . . . saving his strength and assessing his injuries. Vin would rather not know.
And Chris would be planning his revenge. Vin could picture his best friend stalking the cell and plotting exactly how his captor was going to pay for locking him in the dark. Some people might think that was crazy, but Vin understood it. He understood Chris in all kinds of ways that others never could.
They'd all last longer than he would, when it came right down to it. They all had coping mechanisms for this sort of thing that he'd missed out on. Josiah would be proud that he'd thought of the term "coping mechanisms". Actually, he did have his own means for coping - and it consisted of staying out of small, dark places.
God, please don't leave me here. I can't take it. I'm not like them.
Vin felt sick and beyond tired, though he didn't think he could really sleep. It was too dark and too quiet and too damn cold to sleep no matter how badly he wanted it.
His chest and his back hurt all the time now, and he'd developed an annoying, agonizing cough, in addition to the incessant pounding in his head. His stomach hurt, too, and he wasn't sure if it was hunger pains or something worse.
With a soft moan, Vin tried to sit himself up to ease the various aches. His hand brushed against the forgotten water bottle and he vaguely thought of how good it would taste, if he could just coordinate his brain and hands and mouth to work together. He managed to grasp it, actually had it in his hands - but he was shaking so badly that he couldn't twist the top off.
It was a joke; some kind of twisted, stupid joke. Water within his reach, and he couldn't get the top off.
He was wrong. He would die here. He'd freeze to death; catch pneumonia; starve . . . go crazy. No, dehydration would get him first . . . with the goddamn water bottle right in front of his nose.
Really, really stupid.
"Just do it, Vin. Just open the bottle and drink."
Well, that was different. Nate's voice. So maybe he would go crazy first. Apparently, he was already gone - and he knew it. Answered his question, at least.
"Listen to me, Vin. You can do it. You have to do it."
His fingers would not stop shaking. He was too cold and too tired and he wanted nothing more than to go to sleep. "Can't, Nathan. Don't matter anyhow." And it didn't. Hell, he was going crazy and suffocating and freezing all at once - a swallow of water would hardly be his salvation.
"Open the damn bottle, Tanner!"
Shit. Larabee's voice this time.
The man was bad-ass cranky even when he wasn't really there.
"Open the damn bottle for me," Vin mumbled, aware that he was speaking to no one but taking an odd comfort in the act anyway.
Chris's voice was softer now, floating on the edge and just out of reach. "You have to do this, Vin. You have to hold on and wait for us."
Yeah. Okay. Whatever.
He would hold on and wait because hell, what choice did he have? And later he would drink. But right now, he suddenly couldn't hold his head up another minute. He felt his upper body slide along the dirt wall and hit the ground, his head impacting with the hard floor of his cage. The darkness changed into something different, and he thanked God for it.
Lord, I know I ain't exactly been a candidate for an altar boy, but I always figured you and me had an understanding of sorts. I've always appreciated the good things you give us - beautiful women, romantic sunsets, good friends - did I mention beautiful women? Now I ain't gonna stand here and promise you I'll change my ways - reckon we both know I'm a little long in the tooth for that t' happen. I don't figure you're one for making bargains, anyway.
But I am gonna ask for your help, if y' don't mind. I could use a clue. I ain't picky. I'll take anything at all. Just point me in the right direction . . . please?
Buck hovered over the edge of the cliff, his clear blue eyes scanning the rocky ground below. He'd driven the route three times, and had spent the last three hours walking along the ledge. There was something here; he knew it - if he could just see it.
It was Vin's out-of-the-way way. Chris got after him for taking the mountain road, mostly because of the unreliability of his vehicle. It was at once funny and heartwarming the way Chris fussed after Vin; Vin acting put out about it but secretly relishing the fact that their leader cared so much.
Be easier on them all if he didn't care so much right now. Buck was relieved to have this assignment just so he wouldn't have to look at Chris's face for a few hours.
They'd sent up a chopper in the morning, but they didn't spot anything. Vin's jeep could easily blend in with surrounding countryside, though, so Buck came on up anyway. He knew Chris was back in the office, going over every single case they'd recently tackled with a fine tooth comb. He could see the man glancing at the clock, seemingly every few minutes. Marking the time, knowing that the chances of finding Vin alive dwindled with each passing hour.
Buck looked down at his watch. Thirty-three hours plus since Vin hadn't shown up for work. And soon it would be nightfall again.
Please, God - I ain't a begging man, but I'm on my knees here . . .
Ambling a few feet down the slope, he noted some flattened brush maybe twenty yards to the left of him. His heart leapt, knowing even before his head did that something had happened there.
He was scrambling now, clumsy and awkward and about half sure he'd end up on his butt - if he was lucky - somewhere yards down the canyon. He'd give a week's pay for JD's youth and Vin's agility about now. His left leg suddenly slid out from under him, and he reached up and grabbed a hold of a stocky bush, twisting his upper body and hanging on for dear life until he could get his footing once again.
And there it was. Through the thick pines and scrub brush and massive boulders that should have blocked his view - but somehow, miraculously didn't - there was the jeep, lying on its side maybe thirty yards down.
He pulled himself onto relatively stable ground and got out his cell, knowing it would take him several minutes that Vin may not have just to reach the wreckage.
"I found the jeep, Chris," Buck responded breathlessly, his heart hammering.
Buck could hear it in his oldest friend's voice - hope and fear and desperation all coming through loud and clear in just one word, one question.
"Don't know yet. I have to reach it. Get some help up here."
It took him a few minutes to pinpoint the location and then he hung up, promising to call back as soon as he reached the shattered vehicle. Chris would practically be here by then, though. With a deep breath, he continued on.
Thank you, Lord. I reckon I owe you good for this one.
Alright, I'm asking; begging if that's what you want. I'll say, do, promise anything . . .
How could it take so long to drive twenty miles? Why the hell didn't Buck call?
Chris had told Vin time and again not to take that route. It was ridiculous. Added a good half hour onto Vin's drive for absolutely no reason at all. It was dark most of the time when he came and went from work anyway - what was the point?
He'd put on the lights and the sirens and still it was taking too damn long. He didn't bother to look, but he knew Nathan sat beside him, clinging to the dash for all he was worth . . . probably throwing a few dirty looks his way, too.
The ambulance was on its way, along with squad cars and the rest of the cavalry. He'd get there first, though, and he'd pull that scrawny sniper from the wreckage of that damn worthless piece of junk he drove and he'd breathe the very life back into him if he had to.
Chris was off the road and down the hillside without much conscious thought - only vaguely aware of Nathan's cautioning comments behind him.
Buck was already next to the crumpled jeep, running a hand through his hair and looking at Chris - baffled and bewildered and utterly, bitterly disappointed.
"I can't . . . I can't find 'im," he said when Chris arrived at his side, apology and despair all wrapped up in his soft words.
"Maybe he was thrown?" Chris questioned, his brows furrowed as he scanned the surrounding area. His heart raced and he was so light-headed, he wasn't sure he could keep on his feet.
"Maybe," Buck responded. But it was clear he didn't think so.
It was soon dark and they had to call a halt to the search.
It didn't matter anyway. JD had been the one to discover footprints; footprints that could only lead to one conclusion - Vin had been forced off the road and taken somewhere else.
There was blood in his jeep. He'd been hurt in the crash. Chris could see it: Vin tossed around like a rag doll. Could see him bleeding and confused; hurt. Maybe he'd called for help; maybe he'd called for him. But instead of getting that help, he'd been wrenched from the mangled metal and taken somewhere else.
Somewhere cold and dark.
Chris shivered and swallowed the bile that rose up in his throat.
What is it this time? What point are you trying to make? What lesson am I supposed to learn? Because I'm not getting it. So go ahead . . . do whatever the hell you want with me. Just take care of Vin. Please.
"God! What did you do to his face?"
"Nothin'. I didn't touch his face. Must've happened when he went down that cliff."
"Man, Eddy's gonna be mad. He didn't say nothin' about tossing him off some cliff. Just said t' get him out of the way for awhile."
"Hey, it ain't my fault he drives some worthless piece of shit. I tried to just nudge him to the side. Damn thing practically caved in and went on over. Don't matter anyway. He's still breathin', that's all that Eddy cares about."
"Won't be for long, the way he looks."
Vin could hear their words, but he wasn't sure if they were really there or not, and he was pretty sure he couldn't open his eyes to find out. Be easier to stay where he was, in the darkness; to forget for a few minutes longer that he was trapped alone with no air.
The light was the thing, though - the hook to draw him back. He could feel it on his eye lids, drifting on his face, and he yearned for it.
"He ain't breathin' right, either, Ricky."
"Could you breathe down here? Shit, it smells like a sewer."
"How'd you even find this place?"
Laughter, and Vin recognized it from the day or night or week before.
"Cool, huh? Eddy don't even know about it."
Eddy? Oh shit. Eddy. He was supposed to be testifying against him. Chris was going to kill him for getting involved in another street fight . . . except he'd already be dead. Or crazy out of his head. But then, Chris always said he was crazy to live there and do what he did. Apparently, Chris was right. Apparently this being crazy business wasn't a new state of mind.
It took more effort than he figured it should have, but Vin finally managed to pull open his eyes and push himself half way up onto one elbow. He groaned and cursed himself for letting these punks know he was hurting. The light was shining brightly into his face once again, but he was pretty sure he couldn't have focused his eyes, anyway.
"Man, he looks bad. I'm not in for killin' a cop. Especially this one."
"He ain't a cop . . . he's nothin'." Disdain dripped from the voice, and Vin tried to remember what he'd done to earn it.
Then from nowhere and for no reason at all, Vin felt the boot connect with his side once more. The pain was a white hot dagger in his freezing body, and he curled in on himself to keep it from ripping him apart. He gasped; searching for a breath, but it was too hard to find. Distantly, he heard the closing of the door, the retreating footsteps, and he knew he was alone again.
Please, God - I can't breathe. I can't be alone. It's too dark. I can't do this. Don't leave me alone. I can't . . .
"Sure you can, Vin. You just hang on, Buddy, 'cause we're on our way."
Buck's voice; calm, soothing. Warm. He'd never noticed before how warm Buck's voice was.
"Might wanna . . . put a . . . rush on it . . . Bucklin." Wasting breath he didn't have, talking to people who weren't there.
"I ever tell you that story about that time down in Mexico City?"
Only a hundred times or more. "Yeah, Buck, you . . . mentioned it a time or two." He was so far gone . . . having whole conversations now with his imaginary friends.
"Well, it's worth repeatin', don't y' think?"
It was. It was a good story, like most of Buck's were. And Vin drifted off to sleep with that soft, warm voice wrapped around him - the pain and breathlessness and all-consuming loneliness momentarily forgotten.
Alright, Lord - let's make a deal. Tell me where he is, and you get that ten percent. Unless, of course, that figure is negotiable?
It was all about bargaining, game playing, winning and losing. The stakes were too high this time, though, so Ezra was not about to lose. He'd hit all of his sources in two endless days, and he was just about to start again, when he heard that one of Gonzales' gang members was bragging about taking out an ATF agent.
Stupidity was a trait Ezra could not abide, but in this case, he was undeniably grateful for it. It could very well be, in fact, the break they were looking for. He'd ascertained the approximate location of the simpleton, and was now impatiently waiting for backup, although he was sorely tempted to go in on his own. Any fool who thought he could get away with kidnapping one of his team members obviously had, to quote Buck, shit for brains.
It had been an interminable two and half days - or 56 hours - since they'd realized Vin was not among them. There had been little sleep the first night, and last night was no better. The discovery of the jeep only confirmed their worst fear, that Vin had been abducted, although a small amount of comfort could be taken in the fact that apparently he was wanted alive.
Still, there had been no ransom demands, no calls, no obscure terrorist group claiming responsibility. It was personal, which led back to one Eddy Gonzales, the only man who might benefit from a missing Tanner. And that fact led Chris back to the prison and Ezra back to the streets and Josiah back to Purgatorio.
Ezra pulled his coat tighter around him. It was getting colder. When Chris wasn't watching the clock, he was watching the weather. He seemed to sense something - to know that Vin was suffering proportionately with the drop in the temperature. That Chris could have such a link with Vin wasn't worth debating. They all knew it and accepted it, but it was painful to see at times; painful to watch Larabee's struggle to keep himself in control, intact.
Josiah arrived first, parking his car a few blocks away and walking towards Ezra, his open coat flapping in the wind. Ezra resisted the urge to ask the older man where his head was and why he didn't zip up in the frigid weather when he got a glimpse of Josiah's face: tired and worn and tense; an air of desperation hovering around the profiler that set Ezra even more on edge.
"You get anything from Vin's kids?" he asked, his words visible puffs of smoke in the cold air.
Josiah shook his head and sighed. "They don't know anything - none of them."
Ezra quickly grasped that Josiah hadn't limited his interrogations to Vin's friends. Chris would blow a gasket if he knew Sanchez had hit up the tough gang members on his own.
Then again, maybe not.
"It's a limited job. I'm guessing Gonzales has just one or two involved - if he's involved at all," Josiah added.
"My source seems to believe he is," Ezra supplied.
"Yeah," Josiah replied skeptically. It wouldn't be the first time gang members had claimed responsibility for something they had nothing to do with in order to gain some notoriety; some warped version of respect.
There wasn't time to say more. Buck and Chris approached the pair, and Ezra inwardly winced. Determination mixed with more than a little anger colored both men's eyes, and for the first time in a long time, Standish worried his team just might play it all wrong. It might have been better to play out this hand alone, for with one wrong move, it could all backfire and fast.
Surely Buck and Chris knew that. Surely they'd keep their cool long enough to find out what they needed to know.
But just in case . . .
Alright then, ten percent to the mission of your choice, which I assume you will make known to me through Josiah. Deal?
"You're running out of time, Vin. You've got to drink."
It was amazing what a pain Nathan could be.
"Do it. I'm not telling you again, Tanner."
Of course, he was nothing compared to Larabee.
Vin wasn't going to waste energy and breath he didn't have arguing with either of them. He was hurting deep down inside now, something definitely wrong there. Or maybe he was just hungry. He hadn't eaten for what? Weeks? How long could a man live without food? Longer than without water, he knew that. Probably why Chris and Nathan were being so persistent, pushing the water issue.
"You'd help me more if y'd just get me . . . the hell . . . out."
God, where are they? Why haven't they come for me? Have you all forsaken me?
"Come on, Vin. Pick up the bottle. Drink."
Nathan sounded a bit desperate. Perhaps he'd forgotten . . .
"Can't open it," Vin reminded the disembodied voice.
"Dammit, Vin! I've seen you crawl a hundred yards across a warehouse floor with a bullet in your chest. You mean to tell me you can't open a damn bottle? Thought you were tougher than that. Thought you were a Tanner."
"Argument's . . . gettin' old, Chris."
Crazy. Nuts. Insane.
"Don't give up, Vin. Do it for me." Chris's voice again; urging, desperate, and . . . sad.
He felt for the bottle, not bothering to sit up - unsure if he still could. His hands still shook and he couldn't for the life of him remember how to make them work. Slow, simple steps as he aimed for one thing at a time - finally managing to shove the bottle into the crook of his arm and manipulate his frozen fingers to grip the bottle cap.
He couldn't twist it, though.
I don't want t' do this anymore, God. Can I go home now?
"No way, Vin. Try again."
And then, suddenly, Chris was there - his hand over Vin's, and just that easily, the cap was off and the bottle was at his lips. The water was icy cold, and it hurt his chest as it went down, but it was more than worth the pain.
He looked up, wanting to see Chris's eyes, to thank him, but he was gone.
Of course he was gone. He was never there to begin with.
But somehow, Vin didn't feel as alone anymore.
He was a stupid, worthless piece of shit and he'd wasted Chris's time.
Even worse - so, so much worse - he'd wasted Vin's.
Chris believed that Eddy Gonzales had no idea where his man had put Vin. He believed him because, without Vin's testimony, the kid would soon be back on the street - with six angry ATF agents on his back and his face. Hell, the kid was stupid, but he wasn't that stupid.
Eddy honestly believed if he kept Vin out of the way for a few days, he'd be let off the hook. A few days later, Vin would be released as mysteriously as he'd been taken, and that would be the end of it. Eddy wouldn't take the rap - he'd been in prison, after all.
Kid watched too many cop shows, coming up with such a lame-brain idea. Apparently he never stuck around to the end, though - apparently he didn't quite catch on that that never worked. Good guys always win.
Who am I kidding? Jesus was the ultimate good guy - and he didn't exactly win. Yeah, I know the story, I don't need a review. And even if it's true - even if you did raise him from the dead - what about all the saints that came after? All the men who died in his name? All the men dying today in the name of religious ideals? Are you paying attention?
Are you paying attention to Vin? Have you even noticed the man he's become?
It didn't really matter in the long run, because Ezra had a lead on the guy who had taken Vin, a Ricky Something or Other. It was just a matter of getting him to talk, and that shouldn't be a problem.
It didn't stop Chris' heart from banging out of his chest as they approached the run down bar, though. They could be minutes away now, minutes away from finding Vin. After fifty-six hours and fifty-two minutes and a drop in temperature of eighteen degrees, they were almost there.
Almost home, Vin. Almost.
Ricky and his friend stood out in the crowd of maybe eight others for their age alone. They didn't belong in a bar, but shutting down the owner was hardly the priority at the moment.
Both young men tensed when the agents stalked through the door; the large figures of the four men casting imposing shadows in the dimly lit tavern. Chris could tell immediately by the rebellious glint in his eye which one was Ricky. He wanted to blow the little bastard half way across the room, and likely would have, if he'd any choice in the matter at all. The second kid looked nervous or maybe scared out of his mind - and that wasn't good either. Likely to make mistakes - big ones, and Chris kept his eye on him, too.
Everyone else in the small, dark room backed off, moving to the corners or maybe into the street. Chris didn't notice and didn't care. He hadn't said a word or made a move, just kept his eyes on Ricky, his hand concealed on his gun.
It was Josiah who took the lead, holding his big palms out and away from his body as he approached the young men - keeping just a few feet ahead of Chris, with Ezra and Buck close behind.
"Just want t' talk. Just keep calm," Sanchez said, and it seemed like a reasonable thing to say and his voice was just so deceptively sincere that Chris would never, ever understand why they didn't buy it.
He'd never, ever understand why the stupid kid pulled his gun and aimed it at Josiah and forced Chris to pull the damn trigger. Although for just a second, for one split second - he hesitated. For one millisecond, he knew, he knew that he could be trading Vin's life for Josiah's.
Chris tried to aim to wound, but he was too close and somehow, he just knew the stupid, stupid, stupid kid would be dead.
And then the second kid panicked and did the same damn, stupid thing.
Buck took that one out, and he did manage to wing him, but the kid fell back hard, hitting his head on the bar. He might live, but it would be awhile before he'd be talking. If he even knew anything . . . just because he hung with Ricky didn't mean he knew where Vin was being held.
No, there was only one person who knew for sure where Vin was . . . and Chris had just killed him.
He actually made it back out to the street before he threw up. He cursed God between every spasm and never even noticed the tears streaming down his face, into the dirty mess he left on the littered curb.
Hell, yes, you're paying attention. You manage to screw me every chance you get. But why do you have to do it through Vin? I can't do this anymore . . . God help me, I just can't.
I know I'm not important. Figured that out a long time ago. You got better things to worry on than me. I don't expect no extra attention - never have. Don't think I've asked for too much along the way.
I'm askin' now. Don't want Chris t' find me like this. He'll take it all on himself. He's had enough, y'know? You been payin' attention here, God? Noticed what kinda man he is? He's had his share, and he don't deserve more sufferin'. Time to move on t' somebody else.
I ain't tellin' you your business, just hopin' you'll consider what I have t' say.
They were the clearest thoughts he'd had in some time now. He knew it was the cold finally shutting his body down, closing up his brain.
It was alright. He didn't have the strength to fight it anymore.
"It's not alright, Vin."
JD. He hoped the kid wasn't the one to find him, either.
"Oh, we're gonna find you alright, Vin - but you're gonna be breathing when we do."
"Don't . . . know, JD," he rasped, or thought he did. He wasn't sure if the words came out of his throat as clearly as they did in his head. But did it matter? JD wasn't really there to hear them anyway, right?
"I wholeheartedly agree with young Dunne's assessment of the situation."
He should have expected that Ezra couldn't keep silent.
Didn't matter though. They could say and think what they wanted; the fact was that he was running out of time nearly as quickly as he was running out of sanity. Too bad he wouldn't get the chance to tell Josiah about this - the profiler would be mighty interested in how his head had chosen to compensate. Although, Josiah had been strangely silent, now that he thought on it.
"Takin' too long, boys," Vin whispered, putting what he thought was an effective end to the conversation.
"Don't, Vin. Don't let me find you too late."
It was a hell of a lot easier to give in and let go when Larabee wasn't around.
"Best start . . . sayin' your prayers then, Larabee."
"I don't pray. I don't believe anymore, you know that, Vin."
Yes he did. Nathan was the one who didn't believe, but Rain would take care of him. Maybe Chris needed a reminder, though. "You believe. You're just . . . mad. Hell, I don't know nothin' about God . . . but even I know . . . most of what happens ain't His fault."
"He won't listen to me." Chris's voice seemed to be getting farther away.
Is that true, God? Are you listening?
Long seconds passed and he could hear nothing but the beating of his heart. He felt the panic well up again as he pleaded in a dry, desperate whisper, "Come back! Don't leave me, please."
Don't leave me. I'm scared.
I don't wanna be alone.
"You're not alone, Vin. You're never alone."