Unseen Force

by Winnie and Renegade

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“Allow Mr. Larabee to say goodbye to his friend,” Tasker sneered as they dragged the struggling blond toward the table where his friend lay.

“Let me go! Jesus! Vin!” Larabee yelled and tried to break free of the hands that held his fast when his eyes adjusted to the lighting around them.

Chris’ eyes took in the specter before him. Vin was strapped naked, save for a thin strip of cloth that afforded little to no modesty. His fevered body shivered against the cold metal beneath him. Tanner’s breaths were rapid and ragged. He was fighting to draw in enough oxygen against the sickness that was consuming his lungs and the tight metal bands that encircled his chest and abdomen. Ribbons of blood snaked along the metal bindings where the sharp edges had sliced tender flesh. The shackle around his friend’s neck was now coated in a thin layer of blood as the neck wound continued to seep slowly. A dark pool of blood collected beneath his right shoulder where the spike was still embedded.

What breath Chris had left in his lungs was exhaled sharply as he looked down into the blue orbs of his friend. “Vin…” he breathed. Blue eyes that were glazed from fever and pain stared aimlessly upward, not focusing on anything. Chris struggled once more and fought to lean down closer to his friend. “Oh God, Vin…It’s Chris. I’m here, Vin. I’m here.” The blond swallowed back the lump in the back of his throat as the blue eyes tried to focus on his face.

“S…shouldn’t…h…have…c…come….” Vin rasped harshly, his voice barely above a grating whisper. “Tas…ker…kill…you.”

“I think not, Mr. Tanner,” Tasker retorted. “I have other plans for Mr. Larabee.” He nodded to the men holding Chris. “No further contact between them…especially eye contact. Make sure that strap is secure so Tanner can’t move his head.”

Chris was yanked back harshly and cried out in angry frustration, twisting and kicking violently to break free. “No! Leave him alone, Tasker! It’s me you want! Let Tanner go! Can’t you see he’s sick! He needs medical attention!”

“He’ll need a hell of a lot more than that when you get through with him, Larabee.” Tasker laughed maliciously as the blond was dragged kicking and struggling toward a similar table only a few feet away.

“What?” Chris stared at him questioningly, realizing with sickening dread that his worst nightmares were about to become reality once more. “No…dear God, not again….”

Five pairs of hands forced the angry blond down on the table. Securing his ankles and wrists tightly to the metal device, they laid him in a spread eagle fashion. Once secured, the table was tilted at a seventy-five degree angle. His clothes were cut away, leaving him in his boxer shorts. He shivered against the harsh cold of the metal and the biting air of the warehouse.

The blond couldn’t help but wonder how cold Vin was. His eyes were glued to the fevered form as it shuddered uncontrollably now. Tanner’s breathing was becoming more labored with every breath he took and the spasms were causing the metal bindings to cut deeper into the sharpshooter’s flesh. Only serving to add to his discomfort and confirm to Chris that he needed to get Vin out of there as soon as possible.

Chris closed his eyes to check his internal clock. It had now been close to six hours since he had found Vin barely conscious from the fever consuming him. Chris cursed himself silently for attending the conference and leaving his sick friend. He should’ve known when he felt uneasy about getting on that plane for Seattle that Tanner was in danger. Now, as he listened to the labored breathing of the sharpshooter, Chris knew without a doubt that fluid was building in Vin’s lungs. Pneumonia…please God no. Fight it, Cowboy. Hold on. I’m here and I swear to God I’ll get you out, he promised, in desperation, silently willing his thoughts to his chosen brother.

He yanked futilely on the restraints, cutting the flesh on his wrists. He grimaced as one of the

hackles scraped along his left wrist bone. It didn’t matter, he mused. He needed to get free of the bonds that held him to the table. Not just to be free of the table. The blond wanted to get free and race to his friend’s side. To touch him and clasp his hand in the handshake that was theirs and theirs alone. To hold onto the life thread that he knew was beginning to fray with every breath the sharpshooter took.

God how he wanted to make eye contact with the tracker, he thought. He wanted to let Vin know he wasn’t alone. He wanted to see for himself that the blue eyes still harbored a fight behind them. He needed to…because what he sensed he didn’t like. His thoughts turned angry. Come on, Cowboy. Fight. Fight! Damn you! Don’t you dare give up on me!

“Please! Let him go, Tasker! He needs a doctor!” Chris repeated over and over again. His pleas to release Tanner went ignored, answered only with demonic laughter that resonated through the empty space they now occupied.

+ + + + + + +

“God, I should have gone back with Chris,” Wilmington said and tried to smother a yawn.

“I believe we are all wishing we had been so fortunate,” Standish agreed.

“God, if we have to hear Nichols tell his story one more time I think I’m going to puke,” Dunne said.

“Do it, Kid, least it’ll add some excitement to the evening,” the ladies man said with a smile.

“Just think only one more day and we’ll be headed for home!” Jackson said.

“Oh to sleep in my feather bed once more,” the gambler said wistfully as the speaker finished his talk and several hands were clapped before they realized it was over.

“Jesus, I thought he’d never shut up!” Wilmington whispered.

“Buck, they certainly aren’t clapping because of his speech,” Sanchez observed.

“You got that right,” came a voice from the next table.

“They’re clapping because he finally ran out of that pompous jackass fuel he’s been shoveling,” another chimed in.

“Shoveling shit has always been part of his job description,” Dunne quipped and joined in the laughter. They stood up as the room began to empty and shook hands with the men at the tables around them before heading out of the room. The dinner and subsequent speeches had gone on longer than they were supposed to and the five members of The Firm were wiped out. They’d agreed early on that they would eat dinner in the room Buck and JD were sharing and headed for the fifth floor.

“Okay, Boys, room service or delivery?” Wilmington asked.

“I believe room service is in order. Perhaps Escargot…”

“I ain’t eaten no snails!” JD said shivering in disgust.

“I’ll have you know that Escargot…”

“Snails,” Buck, Josiah, and Nathan said as one and the group laughed.

“Is a delicacy.”

“Tell the truth, Ezra. The only reason you eat them is because they’re so damned expensive,” Jackson said.

“I’ll have you know that I enjoy the taste. It is pleasing to the palette!”

“Like hell it is,” Wilmington said and opened the door to their room.

“Why don’t we order pizza?” Dunne asked.

“Now pizza with anchovies sounds good,” Jackson said.

“Mr. Jackson, little fish do not belong on pizza,” Standish said.

“All right, so no snails or fish! Anyone got any other ideas?” Sanchez asked.

“Chinese food,” Wilmington suggested and smiled when everyone agreed with the choice. He made a list of everyone’s preference and went through the list of delivery services until they found one that would deliver to their hotel.

“I suggest we find something more entertaining than watching television while we await the arrival of our evening repast,” Standish said when Wilmington finished placing the order.

“What do you suggest?” Jackson asked, knowing the answer before he completed the question.

“A game of five card stud could prove to be interesting.

“Sounds good to me,” Sanchez said and moved to the small table.

“Count me in,” Wilmington agreed.

“I’m game. What about you, JD?” Jackson asked when the youngest member of the team pulled out his laptop and signed in.

“Count me out for now. Chris asked me to make sure the paperwork was up to date and I want to check my e mail.”

“JD, you keep this up and we’re going to have to explain to the ER docs why your hands are fused to that damn keyboard!” the gentle rogue rebuked.

“Ha ha,” Dunne said and began adding the day’s expenses to the file.

+ + + + + + +

Buck smiled as he counted the small pile of bills he’d just collected from the others. He couldn’t believe the run of good luck he’d had and knew it wasn’t often that he got the upper hand in a card game against Ezra Standish. Before he could begin to rub it in there was a knock at the door and he smiled as he stood up.

“Dinner’s on me.”

“Thanks, Buck,” Dunne said.

“There’s no need to thank me, Kid, I’ll be putting in a requisition for it as soon as we get home!” the ladies man said and opened the door. He quickly counted out the amount of the bill and added a generous tip before closing the door.

“Let’s clear the table, Boys, I’m starving,” Sanchez ordered.

“Buck, you got an e mail from Chris,” Dunne said.

“What’s it say?” Wilmington asked.

“Don’t know. I didn’t open it ‘cause it’s got your name on it,” Dunne answered.

“Probably telling me to make sure the rest of you are behaving. I’ll check it after we eat,” the ladies’ man said. He turned toward the table and frowned before turning back to the younger man.

“What’s wrong, Buck?” Dunne asked when the older man dropped the take out food on the table and moved to the bed.

“Probably nothing, Kid, but I think I’ll take a look at that e mail now. Why don’t you get yourself something to eat?”

“All right,” Dunne said and turned the laptop over to his roommate.

Buck sat on the edge of the bed and pressed several keys to open the email window on the computer. He glanced over several before finding the one he wanted. He opened it and cursed as he read the words.

“Sonofabitch! That fucking bastard!”

“Buck, what’s wrong?” Jackson asked, food forgotten in the wake of the other man’s outrage.

“Tasker, he’s got them!” Wilmington explained.

“Who?” Dunne asked worriedly.

“Chris and Vin! That bastard took them both. JD, get on the phone and call Craig. Tell him to get the jet fueled and ready for takeoff!” Wilmington’s hands fisted at his sides as anger and frustration surged through his body.

“Easy, Buck, what does Chris’ message say?” Sanchez asked.

“Tasker has Vin! Old warehouse section! Remember Powell!”

“Who is Tasker?” Standish asked.

“Ex-Seal. He was in Chris’ unit until he went rogue. Sonofabitch doesn’t give a damn who he hurts. Jesus Christ!” Wilmington cursed and ran his hands through his hair. His hands were shaking so badly as flashes of images assaulted his senses and drove him into a frenzied rage.

“Buck, sit down!” Jackson ordered and touched the other man’s arm.

“No! Jesus, Nathan, there’s no time! That bastard nearly killed Chris and damn near sent him over the edge with his fucking mind games. If he’s using Vin to get to Chris then we need to move now!”

“There’s nothing we can do until we get back to Billings. I take it you know where the old warehouse is?”

“Christ, yes,” Wilmington whispered, as a vision of such intensity, that it made his heart beat faster and the blood rush to his head, left him feeling weak and drained.

“Craig says he’ll be ready to take off in an hour!” Dunne told them.

“Buck, you and JD get your stuff together. I’ll make sure there’s a car waiting for us,” Jackson said, worried about the pale faced trembling man sitting beside him.

“Tasker hates Chris, Nathan. He makes Whelan look like a pussycat!” Wilmington told them and knew they understood whom he was talking about. Barry Whelan was a torturer for hire and had been hired by an old friend turned bitter enemy of Vin Tanner. The man had used his skill without blinking an eye and yet Buck was telling him Tasker was far worse.

“You can tell us about Tasker on the plane, Buck,” Sanchez said softly and watched the dark head bob once. He looked over the man’s head and saw the worry on the medic’s face. “Nathan, you stay here with Buck. Ezra and I will get the rest of the bags and meet you back here in fifteen minutes! JD can call the desk and have a car ordered for us!”

“All right, Josiah,” Jackson agreed.

“Ezra, you’re with me!” the ex-preacher ordered and the two men hurried out the door.

+ + + + + + +

Space and time seemed to grind to a halt for the blond. Slowly and methodically, thin needles attached to filament wires were imbedded under his skin at various points all over his body. Chris cursed the fates. Tasker was a pro at this kind of torture. He always had been, only now the blond knew that the madman had perfected the fine art to a precise science.

Chris fought to control the discomfort and sharp tingling sensations as the needles pierced his skin and were driven into the muscle and sinew beneath. It was a painful process. At times excruciating as the needles severed nerves. Yet through his own haze of pain, he heard the pain filled words from his friend. Willing him strength. Strength the sharpshooter did not have to lend and couldn’t afford to do so.

“H…ho…hold…on…Chris. D…don’t…let him…b…beat you. He…can’t…win.”

“He’s not going to win, Vin. I swear to you he’s not going to win,” he promised through the haze and then glared at Tasker. “Do with me what you want,” Chris said and struggled against the bindings, grimacing as they bit and cut further into his flesh, “but leave him the fuck alone!”

“Oh I am going to leave him alone, Mr. Larabee.” Tasker stepped forward and placed himself in front of the blond, blocking Chris’ view of the table holding his friend. “You see I’m not going to harm him any more while he’s under my hospitality.”

“Then let him go!” Chris hissed.

Tasker grabbed Chris’s jaw and turned his head sharply, causing the blond to grimace and cry out a series of curses. “You didn’t let me finish, Chris.” He grinned wickedly. “You see, I’m not going to harm him…but you will.”

“Not fuckin’ likely, Tasker.”

“Really? Well, we’ll just have to see about that now won’t we?” Tasker released Chris and stepped aside, drawing his hand along the taut chest and down the blond’s abdomen.

The blond shifted away from the offending touch. Yanking vainly on the restraints that secured his arms over his head, he glowered at Tasker, burning him with the fiery daggers from his eyes. “I’ll see you in Hell!”

“Oh but we’re already there, Chris!” Tasker laughed and slapped his knee. “I would think those fires being set off under your skin right about now would be proof enough of that!” Tasker drew his hand along Chris arm and down his side, knowingly setting off sharp stabbing pains into the blond as he touched the needles. “Bring back any fond memories?”

Chris screamed as every nerve in his side ignited into a blazing inferno and he twisted once more. “Fuck you!”

Tasker ignored him. “You see, Chris. Unlike so many years ago, I’m sure you’ve noticed that you’re not restrained in the same manner that your friend over there is. There’s a reason for that.” Tasker’s grin broadened. “Surely a man of your intellect has surmised, albeit remembered, that these leads which are attached to various points on your body mean that they are to be used for some purpose other than to cause you pain and discomfort. Perhaps this time, you even think they are to be used to monitor your heart and respiratory rates, as well as your blood pressure.”

Green eyes flashed as the blond tried to regain control of his breathing and slow his heart rate down.

“Hmmm…. Then again, maybe not.” Tasker turned to look at the other table and then back to his blond victim. “But if you must know they form an elaborate series of relays to the table holding your friend over there.” Tasker’s lips curled sinisterly. “You see, Chris. I’ve perfected my hobby. Unlike the table you are strapped against, the table that Mr. Tanner is strapped to is a ‘bed of nails.’ Spikes approximately one quarter to three quarter inch in diameter and ranging in length from one to eight inches are embedded beneath the cold slab your friend rests upon.”

Chris struggled once more, breathless and gasping in pain. “You’re a fucking lunatic, Tasker! It’s me you want to hurt! Let Vin go!”

Tasker threw his head back and cackled maddeningly. But as soon as the laughter erupted, he stopped and turned on the blond, leaning in close once more. Wrapping his hand around Chris’ throat he sneered into the blond’s ear. “Oh don’t worry, Chris. I know you’re anxious to take a trip down memory lane. I’m going to hurt you…physically for sure. There’s no question about that. By the time I finish, your muscles are going to be a quivering mass of jello. The real question, however, is how much mental anguish I’m going to inflict on you, by seeing just how long it will take you to control your own pain. Control it enough to keep your friend over there from suffering unbearable pain and agony at your hands.” He pulled out a Merlin stiletto knife from his pocket and flung it open. “You see…these leads will sense every movement you make…even the slightest tremor at each onslaught of pain that you feel and can’t control.” He raised it over Chris’ right thigh and nodded to one of the men standing next to the table where the sharpshooter lay.

A sharp intake of air crossed Chris’ lips when he heard the distinct sound of the electrical current kick on. His eyes darted from the knife to the face of his friend. “Don’t.”

“What was that?” Tasker tilted his head slightly. “Don’t believe me?” He raised the knife higher, “Please allow me to demonstrate then,” and brought the blade down swiftly, slicing deep into the blond’s thigh.

A scream erupted from Chris’ lips and he lurched against the table.

At that precise moment, an agonizing cry was torn from Tanner’s throat as an eight-inch spike was released beneath his right thigh, impaling him.

His own pain forgotten, Chris’ eyes were drawn to Vin’s face, which had suddenly drained of color. The agonized cry morphed into low moans and the blond’s heart shattered. They sounded like whimpers as they left the sharpshooter’s quivering lips. Larabee knew too well his friend was fighting to gain control of the pain by the rapid series of breaths and the tightly knit eyelids that could no longer force back the tears. The blond’s eyes quickly scanned his friend’s body, finally coming to rest on the bloody tip of the spike that protruded above Tanner’s thigh. Blood flowed forth from around the spear and drenched the sharpshooter’s leg. Chris’ breath caught and his chest tightened in a vice at the bloody image. He swallowed hard and quickly to force back the bile that lapped at the back of his throat. “Oh my God…Vin…”

“You see, Chris. I didn’t touch Vin. But you did. You just drove an eight-inch spike through the center of your closest friend’s thigh, because you couldn’t control your pain and stop yourself from reacting to it the way you did. Such a pity. No doubt it scraped along bone on its journey upward. Perhaps even severed the bone. Those pneumatic releases are very powerful and can drive a spike through steel if need be.”

“Fuck you!” the blond yelled, twisting and yanking on the restraints. “Vin! Vin, open your eyes! Please! Please hold on!” he screamed, trying to get the sharpshooter to open his eyes.

Tasker wiped the bloody knife off and looked into Chris’ eyes. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Larabee. The current is still on, however, my man over there has his finger on the safety switch. That was just a little demonstration to show you the magnitude of power I have over you and which you in turn have over your friend’s health. One nod from me, he releases that switch. Then we can see just how many more spikes get released into Tanner’s body because in addition to your pain levels, you can’t even control your own rage.”

Chris fought to contain his anger, breathing heavily to still the rage coursing through his body. His thigh began to burn and throb mercilessly. Green eyes locked on Tanner, welling with bitter tears as he struggled to hold back his emotions. Dear God…I’m so sorry, Vin. I’m so very sorry, Cowboy.

Tasker’s voice drew his eyes back to their tormentor. The green eyes blackened as Chris glared at him. “I’ll see you in Hell for this, Tasker. I swear to God, I’ll kill you.”

“Kill me? For your own inadequacies, Larabee? I think not. You can’t seem to protect the ones you love, can you? All you do is hurt them, don’t you?”

“Don’t.” A weakened voice rasped.

Tasker turned. “What was that Mr. Tanner?”

Chris’ eyes shot to Tanner. His heart closed in and around itself at the pain evident in his friend’s face. The blond knew Tasker had placed the strap over Tanner’s head to prevent him from turning his head, but he could tell the clouded blue eyes were searching him out. Straining to turn and focus his fevered eyes on Chris’. Now more than ever, the beleaguered Firm’s leader wanted…no needed to make eye contact with his friend – to will him his strength. To let him know he was not alone. I’m here, Cowboy. I’m here.

“D…don’t…l…listen…Chris.” Vin grated across clenched teeth. “T…trick…ya…in…believin’…false…hoods.” A harsh cough erupted from the trembling lips and the sharpshooter gasped for air as the coughing spasms continued. “L…lies….” he finally choked out.

Tasker looked to the experienced tracker and laughed. “Lies, Mr. Tanner?” He turned to face the blond and stared straight into Chris’ eyes.

The tone of the laughter sent a chill down Larabee’s spine but he forced a frosty glare to his eyes as he met Tasker’s gaze. “Lies,” he echoed his friend’s agonized declaration. He watched the slight tilt of Tasker’s head and tensed against the restraints, only to be rewarded with a severe blow to his left side. What breath he had left was expelled forcibly and he gasped in pain. Through the stars that erupted, he watched in horror as Tanner jerked under the metal bindings, a sharp cry leaving Vin’s lips when he did so. “Vin!” Chris yelled and his eyes locked on the spike that now protruded above Vin’s left side.

“Oh…what a pity, Chris. You just drove a spike into Vin’s spleen.”

“No!” Chris cried and twisted against the bindings. “Let him go you fuckin’ sonofabitch!” Tasker lips curled wickedly and for one brief moment, Chris swore he had just seen the Devil himself.

Tasker stepped back and smiled in satisfaction. He motioned to the men around them. “Come, Gentlemen. Dinner and drinks are on me this evening. Let’s allow Mr. Larabee some time to reflect on the price of his friendship with Mr. Tanner. Or should I say, the cost of Mr. Tanner’s life?”

Clifford nodded toward Tanner. “Do you want to leave the current on?”

Tasker took a deep breath and tilted his head. “No. Turn it off for now.” He turned away from Chris and walked to the table holding Vin. He leaned down and whispered to the sharpshooter. “Do rest uncomfortably, Mr. Tanner.”

“Fuck you.” Vin rasped and spit the blood collecting in the back of his mouth into Tasker’s face.

Tasker smiled and wiped the blood off with his fingers. He stood upright and walked back to Chris, meeting the green glare with one of his own.

Chris glowered at him as Tasker grabbed the blond’s chin firmly and raised his fingers toward Chris’ lips, only to wipe Vin’s blood onto them.

“Vin sends you a goodnight kiss, Chris,” Tasker sneered.

Chris tried to pull his head free, but felt Tasker’s nails dig into his skin. He suddenly felt sick when he felt Tasker’s fingers on his lips and then tasted the blood. Words of hatred formed in the back of his throat but he couldn’t speak. He swallowed hard to force back the rising tide, but it was no use and he vomited the meager contents of his stomach just as Tasker released him and stepped back. Convulsing against the restraints, he heaved over and over again at the taste that lingered on his lips. His whole body screamed in pain and his head pounded in rhythm to the throbbing in his right thigh and left side. His ears heard Tasker’s voice disappear into the darkness, further sickening him with the knowledge that he had tasted his best friend’s blood.

“Did Vin’s blood taste good, Larabee? I’ll bet it was sweet, wasn’t it? I know that was just an appetizer, but I’ll make sure you’re able to feast on it tomorrow. Come along, Gentlemen. I’m hungry for ox blood soup.”

+ + + + + + +

“C…come…on…Cowboy.” Chris choked out through the haze of pain. His nerve synapses were firing again and his whole body felt as if it were on fire. He moaned, trying to stop the incessant throbbing in his side. At least his leg was now numb, he thought derisively.

The warehouse was dark, save for an amber light over the table where his friend lay. It cast a ghastly glow on the fevered sharpshooter, lengthening the shadows and darkening the pools of blood mixed with the sweat that continued to collect beneath him.

Earlier, another series of coughing spasms had threatened to choke the longhaired man in his own phlegm and mucus. The rise and fall of Vin’s chest became almost indiscernible and Chris had panicked when his friend suddenly stilled. The blond had thrashed in his own restraints. Tearing flesh on his wrists and ankles further as metal raked across raw bone. He screamed at Vin until he was hoarse, but the blue eyes had remained closed. The only indications that gave the Firm’s head any hope the sharpshooter was still alive, were the constant tremors coursing through his friend’s body from the fever that raged and the dangerous rumbling he heard with every rasping breath Tanner took.

“Open your eyes for me, Vin. Please…Cowboy,” he pleaded into the darkened distance between them. “Please open those baby blues.” His pleas to the man he called brother had gone unheeded for the past four hours, yet the blond continued his quiet mantra to Tanner.

Chris tried to calculate how long it had been since their nightmare began. He knew it had been well over fifteen hours. Larabee silently prayed he and Vin had the strength to hold on until the team arrived. The blond had little doubt they would find them. He just hoped it would be in time.

His body now shuddered constantly and he wondered how much of it was due to the needles piercing his nerves or from the surrounding cold air.

He dragged a swollen tongue across cracked and bleeding lips. Despite being inside a cold warehouse, protected from the harsh sun, they were in danger of dehydration. Both of them were in desperate need of water. Especially Vin, Chris thought. The blood loss from the wounds already inflicted was slow but steady, and it was evident by the thin layer of moisture covering his friend’s body that the fever had spiked dangerously high in the last several hours. He cursed once more into the darkness. “Fuck you, Tasker. So help me God if Vin dies, I’ll tear you limb from limb before I leave your carcass to rot in the sun.”

Tasker and his men had returned only once to check on their victims, but had refused his pleas for water – particularly for Vin. Instead, Tasker had taunted the blond with the taking of Tanner’s temperature, laughing maliciously when he read the digital panel. ‘Oh my…103.9.’

If Chris had any doubts before, he didn’t any more. Vin’s bronchitis was now a full-blown case of pneumonia.

“Please,” he had pleaded desperately, “he needs a doctor.” Barely able to hold his head up, his own strength fading rapidly from the nervous tremors, he managed to look into Tasker’s eyes. “Please. I beg of you. Give him some water.”

Tasker only laughed and walked into the darkness once more, leaving his victims shuddering in the cold and at least one of them yelling threats of retribution until his voice was finally gone.

+ + + + + + +

The jet was in the air nearly fifteen minutes and the flight attendant was serving coffee and sandwiches. Jackie knew the five men well enough to know that something was wrong, but she didn’t question them because she understood it was not information she should be privy to. She quickly moved away from them and began making a fresh pot of coffee as Wilmington’s voice reached her ears.

“Robert Tasker trained with Chris and me, but it wasn’t until Chris was given his own team that Tasker showed his true colors. He resented being passed over in favor of Chris, but the truth is the man lacked leadership qualities. He was cruel and taunted the new guys and Chris reprimanded him for several serious charges. Tasker went rogue soon after we got back from Beirut, but he kept sending Chris cryptic notes.” Wilmington looked at the strong coffee and wished it was something even stronger, but he needed to keep his wits about him if he was going to be any help to Chris and Vin. He took a drink of the hot liquid and let his head rest back against the comfortable seat. How many people had Tasker tortured over the years and how many more would he hurt before he was stopped?

“I take it that’s not the last time you saw him?” Jackson asked.

“No, I wish to God it was, Nathan, but Tasker hates Chris. I don’t know why he became so fixated on Chris, but the bastard really had it in for him.”

“What happened, Buck?” Sanchez asked when the man grew silent once more.

“It happened a year or so before Chris took the job Orrin offered him. Chris saw it as a way of spending more time with his family. Sarah had just told him she was pregnant with Adam. God, he was so happy I thought I’d shoot him myself,” Wilmington smiled when he thought of Chris’s exuberance when Sarah had told him the news, but it was short lived as he continued his tale. “Tasker sent him a message telling him he had a young SEAL from Chris’ team. A young man named Richard Powell. Chris had taken him under his wing because he saw something of himself in Powell. Guess that was Powell’s death sentence because Tasker jumped on it.”

“Here, Buck,” Jackson said and handed the man the bottle of water Jackie had given him.

“Thanks, Nathan,” Wilmington said and drank the cold water. It eased his dry mouth and he continued his story. “Anyway Chris gets the message from Tasker and takes off without a word. He did leave me a message, but I was late coming home that night and didn’t notice it until the next morning. I drove to the warehouse on the lower east side and by the time I found Chris and Richard it was too late to stop what Tasker put in motion. The bastard had them hooked up to some kind of relay system and every fucking time Chris was shocked and he moved, the restraints around Powell’s body would tighten. He was nearly dead when I freed him and Chris wasn’t much better off. The electrical shocks left him weak and shaken. He spent nearly a month getting past the damage. They were both alive because Tasker’s system was flawed and it tripped the breakers and cut the electrical current.”

“Did Richard Powell survive?” Jackson asked.

“Yes, but he was never quite the same and refused to speak to Chris. That was Tasker’s doing. The miserable sonofabitch worked his little mind game and was telling Powell that Chris was the one causing his pain, but that wasn’t all of it. At one point in time Tasker cut Powell and rubbed the blood on Chris’ lips. He told Chris something about it being a rite of passage or some shit like that.”

“It’s a wonder Mr. Larabee survived,” Standish said.

“It was close, Ezra, but once Chris knew Powell was going to be okay and that he was going back to the SEALs Chris seemed to recover. Don’t get me wrong because it didn’t happen overnight, but Sarah seemed to know just what he needed.”

“Never underestimate the power of a good woman,” Sanchez said with a warm smile.

“Sarah was good for Chris,” Wilmington agreed and again rested back against the seat. He heard the others talking as his mind drifted back to the scene he’d found at the warehouse. Larabee and Powell were close to death and it had taken the quick thinking of the medics to save them both. Powell had blamed Larabee at first, but he had come to realize the truth about what happened. Unfortunately he still could not face Chris Larabee and had transferred out of his team. If Tasker was up to his old tricks, Buck feared the fallout that would occur between his two friends. Please God, don’t do this to them, he thought just before drifting off to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

He shuddered once more. His mind was clouded with pain. Every nerve in his body was once again on fire and his muscles twitched sporadically and uncontrollably now. The images of those spikes embedded in Tanner’s body, the sounds of Vin’s screams and the lingering taste of Vin’s blood on his lips continued to nauseate him. With no water for over twenty-four hours, Chris wondered how he could have anything left to heave, but he did – repeatedly – every time he forced himself to look over at his closest friend.

What strength he had, left him over four hours before and he sagged against the restraints. He heard footsteps approaching and raised his head to gaze through hooded eyes at his nemesis.

“Good evening, Mr. Larabee.”

“Go to Hell,” Chris choked out through the pain.

“Oh…now is that any way to greet your host?”

“Fuck you.”

“Perhaps I should teach you some manners at your friend’s expense, eh?” Tasker approached Vin. He drew his hand across the fevered brow and smiled sinisterly as glazed eyes opened to stare up at him. “How are you feeling, Mr. Tanner? You don’t look well at all and I must say that rumbling in your lungs sounds absolutely dreadful.”

Chris watched Vin try to speak and he knew his partner was cursing the man standing over him. That’s it…Cowboy. Fight!

“You know you really should take better care of yourself, Mr. Tanner. All that junk food that you eat just serves to weaken your immune system. But I guess it’s too late for me to be telling you that, isn’t it? Since you’re suffering from pneumonia right now.” He wrapped his hand around the spike in Vin’s shoulder and twisted it. “Among other things, I dare say.”

A guttural moan escaped past Vin’s tortured lips and Chris’ felt his breath catch in the back of his throat. Chris swallowed hard and tensed when he heard the current. His clouded eyes glared at the back of Tasker. “D…don’t…d…do this, Tasker. Please…let Vin go…h…he’s so sick. H…haven’t you…you d…done enough damage? Leave him alone! Please! No more!”

Tasker turned and stepped closer to the blond. “Oh…how touching. Even when you’re in such extreme pain, you’re still pleading for the life of your closest friend – your brother.” He put his gloved hand against Chris cheek. “I’m afraid I can’t comply with your wishes, Chris. You have to learn to control your pain.”

Chris jerked his head away from the offensive touch. “Leave us alone!”

Tasker only smiled and nodded. “In due time, Chris. In due time.”

Chris caught sight of a man stepping forward with a foot long rubber hose. Another nod from Tasker and the man raised his arm.

Chris bit back the cry of pain that threatened to erupt from his lips as the hard rubber first made contact with his ribs. The cries, however, became harder to contain. Over and over again, the blunt object was laid across his chest and abdomen with such force that it formed welts and bruises on the tortured flesh upon making contact. Repeated blows to his arms and legs left them quivering with tremors of pain as the muscles constricted. A severe strike to his right arm and he felt the bones in his forearm snap. He couldn’t contain the gasp of agony and yelled out. “Fuck!”

He tried to keep from moving, to remain still and to keep quiet. Knowing in his mind that it would cause further damage to his friend, but his body wouldn’t respond to the commands he was sending it. Every nerve in his body ignited once more as electrical impulses were triggered repeatedly between the blows from the pipe.

He groaned continually as the sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach magnified and he tasted blood. Chris knew he was bleeding internally now but he had to hold on, he thought. Agonizing screams were being torn from Tanner’s damaged throat and they only served to intensify the blond’s pain. Through tears he watched Tasker approach Vin again and lean over the tortured victim.

“Yesterday we talked about lies, remember? You said I was lying, Mr. Tanner. But I ask you. Who’s lying now? I’m certainly not. Not like Larabee over there.” Tasker sneered and leaned in close, drawing his hand down the sharpshooter’s tortured face. “Awww…yes. I know it hurts, doesn’t it? Chris has lied to you, Vin. All these years, he promised you that he’d never hurt you, didn’t he?”

“F…fu…fuck...you! C…Chris…d…didn’t…lie!” Vin cried as tears streamed from his eyes. Spasms tore through the weakened body as spike after spike was released into it. Tearing the screams from his throat with each release. More blood began to collect and form darkened pools beneath him, joining with the ones that already existed. Some pools seeking a path of escape inched over the edge of the metal table, leaving a thin trail of dark red ribbons as they streamed to the floor.

“Vin!” the blond screamed once more. He knew he was going to be sick. Jesus…please no. He inhaled through his nose, trying to quell the erupting liquid and force it back down to the burning inferno in his stomach. Closing his eyes to the pain coursing through his body, he tried to regain control, but it was no use. Tasker was winning the game. Oh shit…

Suddenly, bitter liquid and blood spewed from his mouth as the spasms erupted from the tortured blond. The convulsions wracked through his body, sending shards of pain through his sides and into his brain. He couldn’t hear the maniacal laughter around him. All he heard were the screams being ripped from his friend’s throat.

Slowly, the convulsions ebbed but the effects had been devastating. Of that he knew. He didn’t want to open his eyes. He didn’t want to see what he had done. Vin’s screams had told him enough.

A sinister voice pierced the haven of his self-imposed darkness.

“Open your eyes, Chris. You don’t want to miss a moment of the entertainment.”

“Fuck you Tasker! Leave him alone…” Chris grated, inhaling sharply when he felt his ribs break after the next blow to his left side. Reflexively he jerked his chest away, but the sudden painful hiss from across the few feet that separated him from Tanner caused his eyes to snap open. He drew them back to Vin’s tortured face. Dear God…no…

Chris slumped against the restraints in defeat, his eyes glued on the man he called his brother. “Vin…” he gasped. “Forgive me….”

Vin’s mouth opened but no sound came forth this time. Instead, a strangled cough left his lips as he strained against the restraints to control the last of the spasms. A final gasp for air and he stilled against the table, his eyes slowly closing as blood escaped past the corners of his mouth.

Green eyes locked on the trail of blood that stained Vin Tanner’s cheek. Tears now flowed freely, uninhibited down the face of the Firm’s leader. Chris didn’t need Tasker to tell him what he had done. He already knew. He had just driven a spike through his best friend’s left lung.

+ + + + + + +

What fight had remained in the blond, left over three hours ago when he had opened his eyes and watched the eyelids of his friend close. The blood, sweat and dirt on the blond’s face were streaked with trails of salty tears. He had closed his eyes at first to the scene before him, yet his mind still saw the bloody images and refused to release him from the guilt that came with them, so he no longer bothered. Instead, he kept them locked on the face of his friend.

The blood continued to bubble forth. Oozing past partially open lips with every ragged and labored breath Vin Tanner took. There was no color left in the once tanned skin. It was now a ghostly shade of gray. The long locks of hair that had framed the handsome face now lay plastered back by sweat and blood. The lean body was gaunt from the sickness and fever that consumed it, leaving it shuddering uncontrollably beneath the metal bindings that were slick with precious blood.

It was a miracle, Chris thought, that Vin was still alive. He was thankful for that, but he cursed the heavens above in the same ragged breaths. He wondered how much longer the sharpshooter would live. How long he would have to watch the closest friend in his entire life slowly die before his eyes?

The ‘connection’ they shared was still there at least – always present, but weaker now that their lives hung by a thread. Despite that unnerving fact, he knew how much agony his friend was in. He knew because he could feel the pain in his own heart with every slow beat of Vin’s. He knew…because he had caused it all when he couldn’t control his own rage and pain. He laughed sardonically and silently. His voice was now barely recognizable and hardly discernable.

Navy SEALS are trained to endure physical and mental pain as part of their survival mode. They are taught to control their emotions, to mask them and hide them away from their enemies. For years, the blond had excelled in those lessons. He had achieved success every step of the way and had gained the upper hand in the deadly games he continued to play.

Only now…now Tasker had finally won the game that had been played on numerous occasions over the years by the two ex-Navy SEALS. Chris Larabee was a defeated man.

He had failed to control his pain. He had failed to protect his friend.

He had failed as a brother.

+ + + + + + +

“Too bad for Vin that you failed to control yourself, Chris.” Tasker said menacingly, leaning over the prone body of the sharpshooter. He opened the closed eyelids and shook his head, clucking his tongue. “Oh…dear…looks like it won’t be long now.”

Chris raised his head wearily and glared at the demon across from him. “G…get…y…your…Goddamn…f…fucking…hands…off him, Tasker!” he spat across cracked lips caked with blood.

Tasker turned his head but didn’t rise. Instead, he looked at one of his men and nodded succinctly.

A full jolt of electricity coursed through the blond and Chris screamed as the needles turned white-hot beneath his skin. He lurched violently against the table. Through his tears he watched in horror as spasms tore through his friend’s body. “No!” he cried. “Stop! Please stop! You’re killing him!”

Tasker stood erect and approached Chris. “I’m not doing a thing to him, Chris. You are.”

“No!” Chris’ head thrashed to and fro as he fought the pain. “No!”

Tasker nodded.

The current decreased and Chris jerked in a delayed reaction. He felt the electricity still coursing through him, sickening him and sending dull throbbing pains to his brain. With every ounce of energy remaining in his body, he forced his body to go rigid and tensed against the constant twinges. He glared at Tasker.

“Do you want to put an end to Vin’s pain, Chris?” Tasker asked, raising an eyebrow.

“W…what…do…you think…you…dem…demented sonofabitch?!”

Another nod and the current increased once more.

Chris felt like his heart and lungs were going to explode, but he clenched his jaw tighter and balled his hands into tight fists. “Fuck you!”

The current was turned back down. Tasker grinned and turned around. He walked back over to the table and drew his hand along Vin’s tortured face. “You hear that, Vin? He would rather fuck me than end your pain.”

“Leave him alone!” Chris yelled. The sharpshooter’s eyes were now open, but Chris could tell they were glazed and confused. Tears streamed down his friend’s temples to soak the long dark brown hair.

“He told you that he’d watch your back and protect you didn’t he? Yet, here you are…a pawn in the game that Chris and I have played on several occasions over the years. If he had kept his promise to watch your back you wouldn’t be here now…enduring all this…now would you? He’s lied to you, Vin. You believe that now, don’t you?” Tasker prodded, leaning over the tortured man. His lips curled into a wicked grin when the sharpshooter opened his mouth but no sound came forth. “Oh you don’t have to say anything…just blink once for yes. Twice for no.”

Blue eyes gazed up at Tasker and blinked once.

“Don’t listen to him, Vin! He’s lying! Listen to me! I’ve always tried to watch your back and protect you! I never wanted to hurt you! You’ve got to believe that and fight!”

“Does it hurt much, Vin?” Tasker pressed his hand against Vin’s cheek. “Your whole body is in agony, isn’t it? Your wounds are on fire aren’t they? Throbbing? Stabbing pains? It hurts to breathe doesn’t it?” Tasker asked, stroking the long hair back from the tormented eyes. “You want it all to end don’t you?”

Once more, a single blink was given, punctuated by a nod that was barely discernable but Chris saw it and he felt his heart leap into his throat. Oh God…please no. Don’t do this. Don’t listen to him! Come on, Cowboy. Fight. Please!

“He’s hurting you, isn’t he, Vin?” Tasker said quietly.

Blue eyes stared upward and tears welled once more. Another nod…more apparent this time.

“Chris has always wanted to hurt you. You know that now, don’t you Vin?”

“No! Vin! Please! Don’t listen to him! He’s lying!”

Tasker removed his hand and the current surged once more.

“No! Stop!” Chris moaned and thrashed against the searing pains. “Vin!”

The sharpshooter lurched against the bindings, further cutting open his flesh. Hoarse screams were once again ripped from his throat, as he jerked against the existing spikes while others were driven into his back, arms and legs. Wounds that had closed around the protruding barbs were re-opened, tearing swollen flesh. The blood flow that had slowed earlier now streamed freely once more.

Tasker nodded and stepped forward next to Vin again as the current was turned off. He leaned over close and wiped the tears from the younger man’s eyes. “You see, Vin. Chris is torturing you with this game he’s playing. He’s hurting you and he won’t stop. He likes doing that to you, Vin. He takes great pleasure in seeing you in pain.”

“No….” Chris sagged against the restraints. “Please…” came the strangled plea from the blond. “D…don’t…listen…Vin. Lies…all…lies. I…I…never…lied to…you…Brother.”

“Chris won’t listen to me, Vin. I’ve tried to tell him to stop. But he just keeps on and on, causing you more pain…agonizing pain doesn’t he?”

A weak nod and a low moan was the answer.

“Oh yes, I thought so…and I know it hurts. Only he won’t stop until you tell him to, Vin.” Tasker said and looked into the dazed blue eyes. “Do you want Chris to stop? Do you want him to stop hurting you?”

This time, Vin opened his mouth and rasped his answer. “Y…yes.”

Chris felt his heart crack when the word was choked past the trembling lips of his friend.

Tasker grinned sadistically and turned his head, lowering his ear to Vin’s mouth. His eyes locked on Chris’. “What was that Vin? I didn’t hear you and I know Chris didn’t.”

The crack in the blond’s heart traversed into a thousand hairline fractures until it shattered in the wake of his friend’s mournful plea.

“P…please…stop…C…Chris.” Vin grated and gasped for breath. His whole body trembled. “D…don’t…h…hurt…me…any…anymore.” A sharp intake of air and Vin shuddered, falling still against the table.

“Vin…” Chris breathed. The Firm’s leader could only stare at the still form of his closest friend through tears. His silent pleas to his chosen brother now fell on deaf ears. Vin Tanner no longer responded…and Chris knew in his heart that the sharpshooter no longer cared to listen – believing instead the lies that Tasker had made him accept as truths.

The blond’s strength and resolve were now completely gone. He lowered his head in defeat and accepted the sinister laugher that erupted around him as Tasker’s victory cry. Tasker had not only succeeded in breaking him. The demon had broken the bond between him and the man he called his brother. “Oh God, Vin…please…I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I hurt you, Cowboy. Please…forgive me….”

+ + + + + + +

“A little late to be asking for forgiveness don’t you think, Chris?” Tasker said, grinning wickedly when he turned to face the blond. He wiped Vin’s blood off his hands and then handed a small object to Clifford, stepping forward to the table holding Chris. “Oh he’s not dead…yet…but it won’t be long. I doubt he’ll be alive when your friends arrive to rescue you.”

Chris gazed at him through slits. “Fuck you. You’re a walking dead man, Tasker.”

Tasker leaned in close and grabbed a handful of Chris’ hair. He yanked the blond head back harshly. “You’re not in any position to be making idle threats, Larabee! You’ve just destroyed the only thing that mattered to you! Your relationship with Vin Tanner! You’ve hurt the one person other than Sarah and Adam that you’ve ever loved! He was your closest friend! Your brother! Look at what you’ve done to him, Chris!” He grabbed the blond’s chin and forced him to face the grisly scene before him. “Look close, Chris! Look how much pain he’s in! Look at those wounds! See how much blood there is?!”

“No!” Chris struggled futilely within Tasker’s grasp. “Vin!”

“You’re going to have to live with that for the rest of your life, Chris! You’re going to have to live with the fact that you killed your own brother!”

“No! I didn’t kill him! I didn’t! I didn’t!”

Tasker leaned in closer and sneered at the struggling blond. “Oh but you did, Chris! And you’ll be able to tell your friends that when they find you.”

“No! Vin! Wake up! Please!”

“Cry for him all you want, Chris. He can’t answer you any more. He won’t answer you any more!” Tasker growled. He lowered his voice and continued to harass the weakening man he held firmly in his grasp. “You’ve betrayed and lied to him, Chris. You hurt him when you promised you wouldn’t. You killed him, Chris,” he whispered sinisterly.

A chill ran down Chris’ spine and he shuddered uncontrollably. “No…Vin…” Through his clouded haze of pain and anguish, he watched Clifford step forward and hand Tasker a large vial. His eyes widened in fear when his mind realized what the vial contained. He yanked on the restraints, ignoring the sharp lancing pains through his right arm and the fire in his sides and right leg. Chris tried to pull his head free, groaning when Tasker dug his fingers further into his jaw. “No!” he choked out between gasps. “No!”

Clifford yanked the blond head back, helping to force Chris’ mouth open.

Chris’ eyes watched the vial being raised above his mouth and he tried to force out a curse. Instead, his voice fell silent as the shock of what was about to happen consumed him.

Tasker only smiled and tilted the vial. “You’ve already spilled your brother’s blood, Chris. Now you can feast upon it.”

Chris gagged as the warm thick liquid coated his tongue and then ran down the back of his throat. The empty vial was brandished in front of him. His jaw was clamped shut and he was forced to endure the lingering sensations until the last drop of blood reached the pit of his stomach.

Released from the rough hands that had held him fast, violent heaves overcame the blond and he convulsed against the table. Over and over again he vomited, his body rejecting the dark red substance that had been drained from his friend. His mind was on overload, wanting to reject the thoughts as to what had just happened…refusing to believe the images he had been forced to watch. Wanting to forget that he had just drank Vin’s blood.

+ + + + + + +

They deplaned in Billings and hurried through the building and out into the airport’s parking lot. Josiah had parked The Firm’s club van close so there would be no need to call a cab when they returned from the conference. Neither man spoke as the tension and worry mounted. The warehouse district was a half hour drive from the airport and one look at Buck told them time was running out. Time Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner didn’t have.

“Nathan, did you get through to Orrin?” Wilmington asked.

“No, but I thought he mentioned going out of town with Mrs. Travis. Something about visiting Mary and Billy.”

“Damn. All right we do this on our own. I don’t want the police involved until there’s no choice. Tasker’s no fool! If he gets wind of the cops he’ll kill Chris and Vin and take his chances on a shoot out. We have a better chance of getting them out alive!” Wilmington explained as Josiah drove out of the parking lot.

“I hope you’re right, Buck, because from what you’ve told us about Tasker there won’t be any second chances,” Jackson observed.

“We’ll be lucky to get a first one, Nathan. Tasker doesn’t believe in leaving anything to fate! He’ll kill them if given the opportunity!”

“I suggest we do not give him the option,” Standish said, anger evident in his tone. The man could usually hide his emotions, but when one of his friends, ‘his family’, was threatened, Ezra dropped any façade of calmness and readied himself for the job at hand. This one could mean life or death to two men he cared about.

“Buck, do you know how many exits there are from the warehouse?” Dunne asked, the traffic was heavier than normal and they took the time to go over the details of the sting operation.

“There are only two. That’s why Tasker used it.”

“Easy to defend,” Sanchez said.

“Exactly. There are doors at the north and south entrances, but the room he used was at the very back of the warehouse. We need to go in quiet and make damn sure if Tasker is there he has no warning that we’re coming!” the ladies’ man explained.

“We know the drill, Buck,” Dunne said and knew the tension was getting to them all. He slumped back in the seat and watched the traffic moving around them, oblivious of how the hand of fate had touched two men and could be used to kill them.

+ + + + + + +

“Maybe Tanner’s blood will give you pause to reflect on what he sacrificed for your inadequacies, Larabee.” Tasker said. He waited until the blond was spent and the convulsions had ceased before moving within range of him. “In the interim, I’m sure the poison that was laced into it will allow you the opportunity to remember the taste of the precious substance of Vin’s life…with every heave you make over the course of the next few hours.”

He smiled and placed his hand on Chris’ face. “Oh don’t worry. It’s not a deadly poison. Not by any means, but it does cause painful cramps and convulsions.” Tasker drew his fingers across Chris’ lips and sneered sinisterly. “Guess now you can consider that kissVin gave you as the ‘kiss of death’, Chris. Cause Lord only knows you’re going to wish you were.”

He stepped back and looked at the beleaguered Firm’s leader and then to the bloody sharpshooter. “Oh there is one more thing you need to be aware of, Chris. There’s one more spike that hasn’t been released yet. I do hope your friends find you before you trigger it.” Tasker turned and motioned to the men around him. “Gentlemen, our work here is through. Let’s leave Mr. Larabee to his pain and Mr. Tanner to his death.”

Laughter erupted, echoing in the darkness as the men walked toward the entrance of the warehouse. Leaving the tortured blond to remember the last words from Tasker’s mouth.