Unseen Force

by Winnie and Renegade

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The words hung thick in the air around them. Painful silence engulfed the area outside of room 412. Two nurses that had been sitting on that side of the desk stood and walked over to the other side, busying themselves with paperwork and making copies – anything to afford the five men a moment of privacy as they dealt with the ramifications of the news.

JD hitched a breath and buried his face in his hands.

Buck sank into the chair next to JD and clutched his arm against his chest, once again mindlessly rubbing the cast on his hand and forearm.

Ezra moved away and stood next the window, his gaze locked on Chris and the team working on the blond’s leg.

Josiah ran his hands over his face, stopping to press his fingers against the inside corners of his eyes.

Nathan shook his head, his shoulders sagging as he turned to place his hands on the nurses’ desk. “Oh dear God…Chris knew…he knew…” the medic breathed.

Buck stared at the floor. “Chris really knew Vin was in a coma?” he asked, an undercurrent of disbelief running through his voice. “How’s that possible? I mean…I know they’re close and all…but…he knew? I don’t understand….”

The Firm’s resident prophet sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. He turned and looked down at the ladies’ man. “How can we understand what cannot be explained, Buck? As incredible as it may sound, Chris knew about Vin before we did.”

Buck looked up at Josiah. “And that he was dying…” the ladies’ man added with remorse.

“He’s not going to die,” Josiah said with determination, a stern look in his eyes.

Wilmington stood abruptly and pointed toward their leader’s room. “So what happens to Chris if Vin dies?! You saw what just happened!”

Sensing that the playboy was about to lose control, Josiah stepped forward and grabbed Buck’s shoulders. “Nothing!” Josiah yelled, turning the angered man to face him. “Nothing is going to happen, you hear me?! Vin is not going to die! And neither is Chris!”

Buck twisted in Sanchez’ grasp. “How can you be so sure?! You saw what Tasker did to them! You heard Silverman! Chris has had three fuckin’ heart attacks for Christ’s sake! He’s on life support now! And what about Vin?! You saw those spikes! The blood! You felt the heat from his body! Heard the rumbling in his lungs! Hell! He was as good as dead when we found him! All we did…all these damn doctors did…was prolong the inevitable! Vin is going to die and Chris right along with him!”

Though Ezra, JD and Nathan had all turned away from their comrades, trying to stay out of the rising conflict, the sound of flesh hitting flesh caused three pairs of eyes to suddenly lock on the two men standing near them.

“Damn you!” Josiah bellowed and backhanded Buck across his jaw.

Buck staggered backward, dazed from the sudden blow.

“I don’t want to hear that kind of talk! I won’t tolerate it! You understand me?!” Josiah yelled and grabbed after him, raising his fist to lash out at the ladies’ man once more.

Shaking his head, Wilmington’s eyes locked on the ex-preacher. Drawing the back of his hand across his lip, he cursed when it came away stained with blood. “Why you fuckin’ sonofabitch!” He balled his hand into a fist and started to lunge toward the older man.

Nathan wrapped his arms around Josiah’s shoulders. “Josiah, No!”

“Mr. Wilmington, please!” Ezra pleaded and grabbed Buck’s shoulders, hauling him back as JD placed himself between the two irate men.

Placing a hand on each of their chests, JD locked his elbows and glared at both of them. “Enough! Are you two fuckin’ nuts?! You think killing each other is going to make everything all right?! Save your ‘hell bent for leather’ attitudes for Tasker! That maniac hurt two people we care about and walked away!”

Nathan tightened his hold around Josiah’s shoulders as the older man twisted and struggled to get free. “JD is right! Fighting with each other is not going to do Chris or Vin any good! Right now we need to be concentrating our efforts on keeping Chris and Vin alive…not tearing each other apart!”

Josiah slowed his struggles and pulled his arm away abruptly when Nathan loosened his grip. He turned away from the other four men and inhaled deeply. Exhaling sharply he turned and raised a finger toward Buck. His voice became low and threatening. “I know you’re close to Chris and you don’t want anything to happen to him, but don’t you dare give up on Vin. You understand me?” Josiah turned his harsh gaze on the other three men. “Any of you.” With that he turned on his heel and strode down the corridor.

Buck pulled free of Ezra’s hold and started after Josiah.

Nathan grabbed his arm and stood in front of him. “Let him go, Buck. It’s over.”

“No it’s not.” Wilmington said, looking into Nathan’s eyes and shaking his head. “I can see it in your eyes,” he said, turning to face the other two. “All three of you. You think Josiah’s right. You think just because Chris is my oldest friend that I only care what happens to him and that I don’t give a damn about Vin.” He stepped back from them, shaking his head once more in disbelief. He ran his hand through his hair and then shook his fist at them. “Well you’re wrong! Damn wrong!” Buck yelled and then whirled around to stride quickly toward the elevators.

“And so it begins,” Ezra said flatly, watching the departing form of Wilmington.

Nathan sighed turned toward the con artist. “What begins?”

Standish stood stoically, his face emotionless. “The end.”

“The end?” JD asked, looking at him with a questionable gaze. “The end of what, Ezra?”

“Our brotherhood, Mr. Dunne…our brotherhood,” the conman replied. “It appears that Mr. Tasker has succeeded in his objective to destroy what Mr. Larabee holds most dear – the brotherhood that we share and the close relationship that Mr. Larabee has with Mr. Tanner. Mr. Tasker has won the game.” Standish turned back to face the window. “To the victor go the spoils.”

Nathan grabbed his arm and turned him around. “Don’t you dare say that, Ezra! Tasker hasn’t won! You understand?!” He turned his gaze to JD. “Do you?!” Facing both men, Nathan clenched his fists. “Tasker only wins if we let him! And I for one am going to fight to keep what I hold most dear! I’m not going to let him destroy us…or Chris and Vin! I’m going to fight to keep them alive with every ounce of energy I have and with every breath I take…until it’s my last if I have to!”

+ + + + + + +

“If I have to,” Silverman hissed, stepping into the hall, “I’ll have you boys barred from ICU for the duration!” He closed the door to Chris’ room and glared at the three Firm team members. “Now keep it down!”

Nathan turned and looked at the surgeon. “Sorry.”

Silverman shook his head. “Look…I know you’re all worried and on edge right now, but arguing in the middle of the corridor is not going to do you or Chris any good,” he said and nodded toward the room.

JD stepped closer and looked through the window. “How is he, Doc?”

“Stable. We managed to get the bleeding from the leg wound stopped. Dr. Moreland had an emergency but is on his way up now and the nurses are prepping Chris for surgery.”

“Surgery? But he just came out of surgery!” JD exclaimed. “I mean…is that wise? Since he just had a heart attack?”

Nathan put his hand on JD’s shoulder. “Take it easy JD. I’m sure they wouldn’t be operating on Chris if it wasn’t necessary or if there were a risk he wouldn’t pull through. Right, Doc?” he asked, seeking confirmation to offset his growing fears.

“Chris is stable, Nathan. Right now, that’s enough. Moreland is going to have to repair that tear as soon as possible, otherwise further nerve damage could occur. It’s a calculated risk, I’m afraid.”

“So there is still a possibility that Mr. Larabee could die?” Standish asked, his eyes following the gurney holding Chris out the door.

Silverman turned, nodded to the nurses, “Dr. Moreland is waiting in OR 3,” and then faced the three worried men. “Look…as long as we can keep Chris calm for the next few days, he’s going to be all right. Now go get something to eat. It’ll be a couple of hours yet.”

Nathan stood next to the gurney and wrapped his hand over Chris’. He leaned down close and whispered to his unconscious friend. “You hold on, Chris…you hear me? You hold on and not worry about Vin. OK?”

JD put his hand on Chris’ arm and squeezed it gently. “Yeah…hold on, Chris. We’ll take care of Vin for you.”

Ezra took a deep breath and placed his hand on the blond’s shoulder. “Have no fear, Mr. Larabee. We’ll ensure Mr. Tanner does not take leave of your absence…or ours,” he said and locked eyes with Jackson and Dunne, a determined expression setting onto his face.

+ + + + + + +

When the elevator doors closed, all three men took a collective breath and turned to stand face to face with Buck Wilmington and Josiah Sanchez. The normally tanned features of both men suddenly paled in the fluorescent lighting of SICU.

JD looked at his mentor and stepped forward quickly. “It’s okay, Buck. They just took Chris back into surgery to mend his leg again, that’s all. Doc said he’s stable and he’s gonna be fine.”

Buck nodded and sighed but the color did not return to his face.

Nathan’s eyes narrowed and he looked between the two men. “Buck? What’s wrong?”

“Vin…” Josiah began and then stopped. He took a deep breath and continued slowly. “He’s on his way up from recovery now.”

“Buck…you all right?” JD asked and frowned, placing a steady hand on his friend’s shoulder.

Buck shook his head and turned away to wipe the tears from his eyes.

“Buck?” JD pressed.

Josiah put his hand on JD’s arm and pulled him back slowly. “JD…” he said softly and looked at Ezra and Nathan in turn. “All of you…you need to be prepared when you see him.”

Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “Josiah, we’re not new to this routine, remember? Chris and Vin have been on life support more times than I’d personally like to remember.”

Sanchez swallowed hard and shook his head. “Not like this, Nathan. Vin…he looks bad.”

Buck turned around quickly and glared at the ex-preacher. “Who are you kidding, Josiah? Why don’t you just tell them the fuckin’ truth?! He looks dead! Hell! He is dead! It’s those Goddamn machines that are keepin’ him alive!”

“Buck! That’s enough!” Josiah admonished harshly.

“It’s the truth and you know it! Hell! Chris knew it and he had a fuckin’ heart attack because of it! What the Hell do you think is gonna happen now? Huh?!” the ladies’ man challenged. “Do you really think Chris is going to wake up after surgery on his leg and not know that something is terribly wrong with his closest friend…the one man he considers to be a brother?!”

“Buck,” Josiah growled.

“Well do you?!” Buck cried in frustration. “And what’s worse, Chris is going to blame himself! No matter what we tell him!”

“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Buck!” JD argued. “Hell only knows it won’t be the first time that Chris has bore the guilt for Vin’s injuries!”

Buck turned on his young apprentice. “Yeah? Well I’m fuckin’ tired of Chris blaming himself for every Goddamn thing that happens to Vin! It’s destroying him!” He turned to rage at the other three. “It’s destroying us!”

Josiah grabbed Buck’s good shoulder and flung the ladies’ man against the wall. Pressing his arm across Wilmington’s chest, the ex-preacher leaned in close. “Destroying us as in the team…or destroying us as in your friendship with Chris?”

“Josiah! Stop it!” Nathan reprimanded and started to put his hand on the older man’s chest to separate them.

“Why you sonofabitch!” Buck yelled and shoved Josiah back harshly, using both hands to do so. The playboy grabbed his right hand and crumbled to the ground, moaning in agony as he rocked back and forth.

JD grabbed after him. “Buck!”

“Leave me alone!” Wilmington hissed and twisted free. He stood on shaky legs and glared at his four team mates. “Just leave me the fuck alone!” he ordered, holding his injured hand tightly against his chest. The ladies’ man clenched his jaw and staggered back. Tears welled in his eyes and he stared at Sanchez. “You’re wrong, Josiah! You’re all wrong! I do care what happens to Vin! But you just don’t get it! None of you do!”

“Mr. Wilmington, please. I believe you have re-injured your hand and think it wise if you have a doctor examine it.” Ezra prodded and stepped toward the injured playboy.

Buck shot him a warning look and stepped back further. “You think Chris is going to be all right? That we’ll be able to take away his guilt like we’ve always done?”

Nathan stepped forward. “There’s no reason to believe otherwise, Buck. We’ve always supported each other before. Now is no different! We’ll get through this! Together! Just like we’ve always done! Now for God’s sake…let me take a look at that hand!” he pleaded.

The ladies’ man shied away, side stepping the medic. Wilmington shook his head and stared at him. “No different? Are you listening to yourself, Nathan? Did you even hear what Doc Midland said downstairs earlier?”

“What difference does that make now?!” Nathan snapped.

“Oh no fucking difference at all, except what are we going to do if Vin still blames Chris?” Buck sneered at him. “What do we do then…when he refuses to see or talk to his closest friend…his brother? What do you think that’s going to do to Chris?” The ladies’ man looked at each of them. “Or have you been so wrapped up in your own grief about Vin you hadn’t thought that far ahead yet?”

“That’s enough, Buck!” Orrin Travis bellowed and stepped toward his team. “From all of you! Just listen to yourselves! You’re squabbling with each other like a bunch of toddlers over the last toy in the box!” He put his hand on Wilmington’s shoulder and squeezed it firmly. “Now calm down all of you, especially you, Buck. I know you’re worried about Chris and how he’s going to react to all of this, but getting upset is not going to help matters any. It will only make things worse and you know it. We’ve got to keep our wits about us so we can help pull both Chris and Vin through this.”

“Sorry, Orrin.” The ladies’ man nodded and turned away from his boss and long-time friend. “I guess you’re right. It’s just I know what all of this is liable to do to Chris,” he said quietly, rubbing his hand once more. “It’ll destroy him.”

Josiah sighed heavily and put his hand on the playboy’s shoulder. “It will only destroy him if we allow it to, Buck. You know that’s not going to happen.”

Buck looked at the ex-preacher through tears. “I’d like to believe that, Josiah. Only this time, I’m not sure we can keep it from happening. That bastard Tasker knew exactly what he was doing. If what Doc Midland says is true, he succeeded in turning Vin against Chris. The sonofabitch didn’t need to physically kill Chris. Tasker killed Chris the moment Vin blamed him for everything.” He grimaced and closed his eyes.

“Let me have a look at this, Buck.” Nathan stepped next to him and took the broken appendage in his hands. He frowned. “I think I’d better get you back downstairs and have them x-ray it. Feels like you may have shifted the bones again.”

“It’s fine.” Buck hissed through clenched teeth. Opening his eyes he gazed at all of them. “Think about it. After everything that has ever happened to us…to them…not one of us has ever blamed each other for our pain. Particularly Vin and Chris! They’re always trying to shoulder the blame and guilt themselves…they’ve never blamed each other! Never that is, until Tasker got a hold of them!” He took in a sharp breath and doubled over, holding his hand to his chest. “Fuck!”

“That’s it! I’m getting you back downstairs!” Nathan admonished, wrapping his arms around the playboy’s shoulders to help support him.

The sound of the elevator doors opening and the voices of the nurses and orderlies drew their eyes in that direction.

Buck closed his eyes and turned his head away. He’d already seen his fallen comrade in the corridor downstairs when they were starting to bring Vin out of recovery and if Josiah hadn’t happened upon him when he did, he would’ve passed out from the shock. Their rift momentarily forgotten, together they had pleaded with the doctors and nurses to allow them time to prepare their brethren. Only their own concern and anger had now gotten the better of both of them and they had once again argued. Failing to warn the others of the ghastly specter they would see when Vin Tanner was wheeled into ICU.

The playboy’s heart shattered when he heard the gasps from the other members of the team. At least Chris isn’t here to see this, he thought to himself. He willed his eyes open and slowly stood; thankful that Nathan’s arms were still about his shoulders because he needed the extra support to endure the next few moments. He could feel the tremors start in the trained medic’s hands and travel upward through the strong arms until Wilmington sensed it was him that was supporting Jackson – instead of the other way around.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Ezra raise his hand to his mouth and turn away quickly. Quickly glancing at Josiah, he was grateful that the ex-preacher was standing next to his young friend. JD seemed to falter and Josiah’s hands were on his shoulders. Buck nodded his thanks to Sanchez, for he knew instinctively that JD’s knees had just buckled.

Wilmington watched the owner of the Firm visibly pale and place his hand over his eyes for several seconds before drawing it down over his mouth, inhaling deeply when he did so. He reached out a trembling hand and placed it on Orrin’s shoulder. Travis raised his other hand and wrapped it over Buck’s, squeezing it in turn. The ladies’ man sighed and wondered if either hand was able to give much comfort considering how badly they were trembling.

It was pretty amazing, Buck thought sardonically, how six men could be at each other’s throats arguing loudly in the ICU corridor one minute, only to be trying to support each other and plunged into total silence the next from the shock of seeing a loved one at death’s door. He swallowed hard as the gurney and nurses quietly passed and entered the room two doors down from Chris’. Taking a deep breath he looked around at the faces of his comrades. None of them had moved. Frozen in place where they stood. No doubt on shaky legs. At least as shaky as his own, he figured.

If the bloody image of Tanner’s body when they rescued the sharpshooter and Chris didn’t haunt them, Wilmington knew in his heart the image of the body that just passed…or rather the shell thereof, he corrected himself…would.

The thin sheet that had covered Tanner’s body left little to the imagination. The once tanned sharpshooter was a ghostly shade of gray and looked like a mummy. Gauze covering the numerous bandages encircled what seemed like every square inch of the sharpshooter’s torso, neck, left leg and both arms, leaving only his hands exposed. IV’s were attached to both hands and the endotracheal tube running down his throat and NG tube through his right nostril were secured by tape, leaving little to no skin exposed on his drawn and pale face. Along with the central lines and chest tube inserted into Vin’s chest, drainage tubes were running from his neck, abdomen and other various points on his tortured body – all combining to make the sharpshooter look more like a machine than a human being. The surgical cap that had kept the long locks of hair out of the way during surgery was still in place. Blood, however, still caked in the dark brown hair around the sharpshooter’s face was all too evident, lending a more ghastly appearance to the horrific image. A temporary cast was in place on Vin’s right leg, affording the doctors the opportunity to tend to the other wounds from the spikes that had been embedded in it.

Buck took a deep breath and stepped toward the other three members of the team and Orrin Travis; once again thankful that Nathan’s arm was wrapped securely around his shoulders for support.

+ + + + + + +

Standing shoulder to shoulder in silent support of each other, six pairs of eyes solemnly watched through the window of the room as the nurses positioned the life support equipment and connected the multiple lines and tubes that would keep Vin Tanner alive.

After what seemed like an eternity, Dr. Martin Chadwick stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. He took a deep breath and stepped toward the six men by the window.

“Gentlemen,” he said, nodding slightly. “Orrin…good to see you again. Just wish like Hell it was under different circumstances,” Chadwick continued, extending his hand to shake Travis’.

Orrin shook it, “Martin,” and nodded toward the room. “How bad is it?”

Chadwick clenched his jaw and swallowed hard. “Bad, Orrin. Real bad.”

He put his hand on Travis’ shoulder and looked at each of the men standing before him. “He’s critical, gentlemen. Comatose. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It would probably be easier for me to tell you what’s not wrong than to tell you what is. Among other things, Vin is suffering from severe blood loss. Unfortunately, what Deaconess sent wasn’t enough. That bag you see hanging from that IV pole is the last unit of B positive until more arrives from St. James tomorrow. We’re trying to compensate with plasma until then.”

The learned surgeon drew another long breath and continued. “Multiple puncture wounds, gashes and abrasions. Right femur was severed. Frost had to put pins in to set it. Fractured right collarbone and left humerus. A punctured left lung that we’re still having problems keeping inflated. The pneumonia is not helping matters any. Some of those damn spikes caused massive internal bleeding which we’ve been able to stop but his liver was severely bruised. We’re watching that closely. Also, his right kidney was damaged when one of the spikes nicked it. We’ve placed him on dialysis.”

Nathan found his voice. “For how long?”

Chadwick sighed and shook his head. “As long as it takes, Mr. Jackson. The dehydration and fever are causing all sorts of complications and his kidneys are shutting down. Right now his temp is at 104.5 and we can’t seem to break it. What’s worse is that I’m afraid I had to take Vin’s spleen. Damn spike mangled it. There wasn’t anything I could do to save it. I’m sorry.”

JD sagged against the window and pressed his forehead against the glass. “With no spleen…that means…” He struggled to get the words out.

Martin nodded and lowered his gaze briefly. “Yes, JD, without a spleen his body can’t ward off infections as readily.”

“Or diseases…like pneumonia,” the computer wizard choked out.

Chadwick stepped next to the young man and put his hand on JD’s shoulder. “Or pneumonia.” He looked at the five others in turn. “We have him on a full series of antibiotics to help his body fight. The next seventy-two hours will be critical in determining whether or not we can get that pneumonia under control.”

“He’s on life support though, right?” Buck asked.

“Yes,” Chadwick nodded, “full life support I’m afraid.”

Nathan swallowed hard and looked Chadwick in the eye. “Brain patterns?”

“Minimal at best.”

Josiah’s shoulders sagged. “Oh dear God.”

Orrin took a deep breath, ran a hand through his hair and around the back of his neck. “Worst case, Martin. We need to know.”

The learned surgeon studied each of the worried men in front of him. Delivering bad news about a loved one to strangers was one thing, delivering it to friends was another all together. He sighed heavily, trying to choose his next words carefully to lessen the blow, but he knew in his heart no matter how he tried to tell them, the result would be the same. The six men standing before him would be devastated…not to mention the seventh that was in surgery at that very moment and was still in very serious condition.

“Look…we’re going to do everything within our power to keep Vin alive, but I think you need to prepare just in case and make arrangements.”

“Arrangements, Dr. Chadwick?” Ezra asked his eyes narrowing as he stepped forward.

“Yes,” Chadwick replied. “Since Vin has no immediate family, you need to realize that there may come a time when one of you will have to sign the order to take Vin off life support.”

“Fuck…no.” Buck breathed and closed his eyes. He sank into the chair he was standing next to. “This can’t be happening,” he whispered, shaking his head. “This fucking can’t be happening. Chris…dear God…no…it’ll kill him…it’ll kill him.”

Chadwick frowned and looked at the ladies’ man. “Chris is strong, but I’m sure he wouldn’t want to have Vin suffer any longer than necessary, Buck.”

Buck shook his head, “No…you…don’t…understand,” he rasped. “It’ll kill him.”

Josiah put his hand on the playboy’s shoulder and squeezed it gently. “Dr. Chadwick…you need to make sure that time does not come.”

Martin shifted his gaze to the ex-preacher and then to Wilmington once more. Buck kept repeating, ‘it’ll kill him’ and then buried his face in his hands and shook his head. Chadwick knitted his brows in consternation and faced Josiah. “I told you that we would do everything in our power to save Vin, but I think you all need to know the truth. There is a very good probability that he will die, you understand?”

“Oh we understand, Doc,” Sanchez agreed. “But you need to understand that Chris is blaming himself for Vin’s injuries. The man that took them captive hooked relays to Chris that sensed every movement he made. Every time Chris couldn’t control his pain, a spike was released into Vin’s body.”

“Oh dear God!” the surgeon exclaimed.

“Only what makes it worse,” the ex-preacher continued, “is that Chris is the only one that holds power of attorney over Vin’s life. He’s the only one that could make the decision to disconnect his closest friend…the man he considers to be a brother…from the machines that are keeping him alive.”

It’ll kill him. Wilmington’s words were now ringing in Chadwick’s ears. Knowing the fragile condition of the Firm’s team leader and the risk another shock posed to the blond’s heart, the surgeon looked through the window at his patient and now wondered if he and Tom Parker wouldn’t wind up signing two death certificates instead of just one.

+ + + + + + +

The police had been unsuccessful in their search for Robert Tasker and his men. The trail seemed to have died and with it any chance of finding the rogue SEAL, until he made a mistake. Captain Robert Miller had set down orders that the two injured Firm Members would be under guard until it was determined whether they were still targets.

Buck nodded to the cop outside Larabee’s room, but he knew the man was not needed. Tasker’s MO had never changed over the years. He’d strike when you least expected it, take what he wanted, and then run before he was caught and arrested. His own heart ached as he thought back to the time he’d saved Robert Tasker’s life. If he’d only let the man die, none of this would have happened. Chris and Vin would not be fighting for their lives and facing a hellish recovery if they did survive.

“Buck, are you okay?” Jackson asked, worried about the lines of strain evident on the man’s face. The others had gone to grab something to eat, although no one had any real appetite. The others would be back before long, but right now his concern was the shaky man standing before him.

“I’m fine, Nathan, just don’t see the point in having these guys guarding Chris and Vin,” Wilmington answered.

“Tasker could come back!”

“He’s a coward, Nathan! The bastard strikes and then takes off before anyone can catch him. I know him and he’s off somewhere gloating over what he did to Chris and Vin.”

“That may be, but what’s to stop him from coming after them again?”

“Oh he will come after them, but he’ll wait just like he did after Powell! He’ll wait until Chris is least expecting an attack and then he’ll come back! He’s not going to try and get to him here and I know damn well it’ll be a long time before he strikes again.”

“Are you willing to take that kind of chance with Chris and Vin’s life?” Jackson asked, staring in at the activity in Vin’s room.

“Let’s just say that I’d bet on Tasker waiting a few years before he decides it’s time to play his mind games again. It might not be Vin involved the next time. It could be you or me or JD or any of the others, but he won’t take the chance of being caught because he hates closed in space. Sonofabitch is claustrophobic and wouldn’t last an hour in a closed in space like a jail cell!”

“You may be right, Buck, but for now the police are keeping them under protective custody.”

“God, how much shit can one man cause?” Wilmington whispered and leaned heavily against the wall.

“Too much,” Jackson answered simply and knew the gentle rogue was living with his own guilt. There was no doubt in his mind that Buck held himself accountable for what Tasker had done to his friends. Someday he would find out exactly why he held such a load of guilt.

+ + + + + + +

One more hour gone from their lives, Josiah thought wearily as he watched the hands of the clock. One more hour of waiting, wondering and worrying…gone…just like the sands in an hourglass.

Another hour of worrying if the young man just two doors down would live to see another sunrise, or enjoy the quiet solitude of a sunset over the Montana mountains that surrounded his home, with the man that he was closest to. The man, according to Stacey Midland, that he now blamed for his pain.

Another hour spent worrying about what he and the others would say to Chris Larabee when he awoke from his second surgery. Wondering how they would broach the subject with their friend and leader, that Vin Tanner was in critical condition, comatose and being kept alive by a room full of machines. Machines that might have to be disconnected if the sharpshooter’s condition didn’t improve in the next several days…but disconnected only by a horrible decision their blond friend may have to wind up making.

The ex-preacher sighed and shifted his gaze. He stared at his hands, dangling loosely between his knees. He’d been sitting in the same chair in the corridor of ICU for over two hours. For the first time that he could remember, he felt helpless – helpless to ease the pain and suffering of the men around him with words of comfort and quiet strength.

They were all still in shock over seeing their normally active friend so pale and lifeless. Yet that shock only magnified when within minutes after the sharpshooter had been wheeled into the room, he had suffered complete respiratory failure and it had been several agonizing minutes before the team of specialists was able to resuscitate their injured friend. Forbidden to enter Tanner’s room afterward, they had to watch helplessly from the window as the machines fought for his every breath…every beat of his heart.

Tempers had been on edge since and several times t

ey once again found themselves at each other’s throats. Even the normally calm owner of The Firm had allowed his bitterness and concern to get the better of him. He had snapped at the nurses when they didn’t give him a satisfactory response to his question as to the status of Larabee’s condition and when they expected the leg surgery to be completed.

Nathan and JD had finally coerced Buck back downstairs so that his hand could be tended to and now the Firm’s scoundrel was lounging in another chair. His dark head lying haphazardly against the back of the chair as he dosed, finally succumbing to the shot of Demerol he had been given for the pain. At least, Sanchez thought derisively, Wilmington was no longer pacing a trench in the floor of ICU.

The older man studied the ladies’ man with concern. It was all too evident that though Buck was sleeping it was not peaceful by any means. Lines furrowed the playboy’s handsome features and the ex-preacher knew his friend was plagued by nightmares filled with darkened images from the past twenty-four hours.

Sanchez was glad when Nathan had finally pulled JD away from Buck’s side, forcing the young computer wizard to join him downstairs in the cafeteria for something to eat. Being the youngest member of the team, Dunne was resilient and had always been optimistic in the face of adversity, his youth lending an idealistic view of the world. However, the last twenty-four hours had taken their toll on the young man and now he was near the breaking point.

Josiah glanced toward the Firm’s conman and resident gambler, standing alone in front of the window to Vin’s room and frowned. Ezra Standish hadn’t moved from that spot since Tanner had been placed in ICU. That was well over three hours ago. What was worse, Josiah thought, was that he had noted the gambler’s mask crack. Not once, but several times over the course of the last few hours. The man of few emotions, who hid them well behind a mask of false bravado, had trembled with emotion when they spoke about Tanner’s condition and what to tell Chris when the time came.

The ex-preacher sighed heavily, remembering that Ezra’s words had been distant, strained at best…a rarity for the normally verbose conman…particularly rare since he had spoken in the first name vernacular. ‘There was so much blood and I couldn’t stop it, Josiah. I pressed my hands against Vin’s throat in a vain attempt to halt the flow of blood from the wound where that last spike had lanced his neck, but it just kept coming. It just kept pouring and wouldn’t stop. My hands were soaked with it and there was nothing I could do but watch his life flow through my fingers with each beat of his heart.’

His own words of comfort to the gambler had seemed hollow. Shallow assertions that Ezra had helped keep Vin alive by doing what he did. Only watching the sharpshooter through a pane of glass, alone and being kept alive by the myriad of cold machines surrounding him, Josiah had finally come to believe that perhaps Buck had spoken the truth earlier. That perhaps they had only prolonged the inevitable…the death of a close friend.

So he had left Ezra alone with his thoughts and planted himself in the chair he now occupied – once more impatiently waiting for Chris to return from surgery so they could finally tell him the truth.

The truth that would destroy him.

+ + + + + + +

‘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! Look close, Chris! Look how much pain he’s in! Look at those wounds! See how much blood there is?!’

No! 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!

‘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! You’ve betrayed and lied to him, Chris. You hurt him when you promised you wouldn’t. You killed him, Chris.’

No…Vin…No! No!

‘You’ve already spilled your brother’s blood, Chris. Now you can feast upon it.’

Oh God! Blood! I drank his blood!

A bone-chilling cry of anguish left the blond’s lips as green eyes snapped open and Chris convulsed, heaving the bitter contents of his stomach. “Oh God…Vin…what have I done? What have I done?” he gasped, rocking back and forth as he clutched his good arm to his midsection. “Vin…Vin…” the blond moaned repeatedly.

“Take it easy, Chris,” Nathan soothed, trying to lay the tormented form back against the pillows. “It’s all right.”

“Vin…where’s Vin?” Chris asked, gazing up at the medic through tears.

“Take it easy, Stud. Everything is gonna’ be fine. You just lay back and relax. Don’t want you ripping open your leg again.” Buck interjected.

Dazed and confused, Chris tired to focus on the five men hovering near him. Their faces were washed in concern and fear. Fear? Fear of what, he wondered. What could they be afraid of?

He glanced at the clock. How many hours had he lost he wondered, and searched their eyes for information about the lost period of time in his life. Their eyes held the answers. They knew something. Something they didn’t want to tell him.

His mind tried to replay the events of the last few hours. Slowly he remembered. Fragments. Splinters of nightmares. Pain. Horrible pain. Sharp lancing pains that set every nerve on fire. Dull squeezing sensations that wrapped around his heart and lungs. Agonizing breaths. Finally, a sense of loss…an overwhelming loss, that consumed him and left him empty.

Cowboy, he thought, the dull squeezing sensations returning to wrap around his heart. Oh Jesus…Vin.

“Mr. Larabee, we m-must request that you remain calm,” Ezra implored cautiously.

Chris’ eyes narrowed as he looked at the conman. He may have been dazed from the anesthesia but one thing he knew was for certain, Standish’s normally stoic voice had just faltered and his eyes were rimmed in red. He’s been crying. His eyes finally focused and the blond gazed up at each man in turn. They all have…Oh God…no…

Larabee closed his eyes and sank further into the pillows. Vin…answer me…where are you Cowboy? When he didn’t sense anything, he felt the sting of tears under his tightly woven lids. Slowly opening them, he turned his gaze to Josiah. “Vin?” he rasped once more, trying to get the older man to tell him the truth he sought.

Josiah opened his mouth to speak and then lowered his head, turning away quickly.

Chris reached out his left hand through the side rail and touched the ex-preacher’s hand.
”Josiah…please…tell me. How’s Vin?” he choked out through emotions that were starting to collect at the back of his throat.

“Chris…” Nathan started, “if we tell you, you have to promise you’ll try and remain calm, all right?”

The blond swallowed the growing lump in the back of his throat.

“Promise, Pard. Shit, you’ve only been off that respirator for a couple of hours and don’t need to be put back on it. We can’t take any more scares like you gave us earlier. Hell, my dark pepper hair is getting more and more salt in it, thanks to you.” Wilmington said, forcing a strained smile to his lips.

The forced humor fell on deaf ears. Chris slowly nodded, unable to speak as he struggled to force back the rising tide of emotions and fears that were consuming him. He watched the medic take a deep breath and felt a hand on his shoulder. Chris locked his eyes on Nathan’s.

Nathan swallowed hard. “Chris…Vin is in critical condition.”

“H…how…bad?” the blond rasped.

“He’s in a coma, Chris,” Nathan answered quietly, “on full life support.”

“No…” Chris gasped, clenching the sheet beneath his hand.

Josiah wrapped his hand over Chris’. “Easy, Son. The doctors are doing everything they can for him.”

“But…but what? Y…you…haven’t told…told me all of it….” the blond grated, pulling his hand away from Josiah’s. “Spit it out, Preacher Man! And don’t you fuckin’ lie to me either!”

“Chris!” Nathan scolded and pulled his eyes away from Chris’ to look up at Josiah. When the ex-preacher nodded, the Firm’s medic continued. “Look we’re not going to lie to you! But unless you can stay calm, we’re not telling you any more!”

“Fuck you! Fuck all of you!” Chris clenched the sheet tighter in his fist and tried to sit up. “Tell me what is wrong with him for Christ’s sake!”

The monitors jumped and Nathan pressed his hand against the blond’s shoulder. “Not if you don’t calm down!” He reached for the button on the morphine pump. “You calm down, or I swear to God I’ll press it!”

“Hey, take it easy, Pard!” Buck yelled and stepped closer to Nathan’s side. “You know he’ll do it!”

“Chris, please!” JD pleaded from the foot of the bed.

Ezra remained quiet as he stood next to the young computer wizard.

He’s too damn quiet, Chris thought briefly. What the Hell are they not telling me about Vin? Vin…please…Cowboy…answer me…answer me. The blond fought the threatening tears. He knew if he succumbed to his emotions, Nathan’s finger would depress that damn button and send him into a drug-induced sleep. He looked back at Nathan. Green eyes ignited when they locked on warm brown, but Chris knew the look in Nathan’s eyes too well. The medic would do it without hesitation if he thought it was the only way to calm him down. Resigned to defeat, Chris relaxed his hand and collapsed back against the soft confines of the bed. “P…please…Nathan…tell…tell me all…all of it. I…I h…have to know.”

Nathan slowly nodded and took a deep breath. He pulled his hand away from the pump and placed it on Chris’ forehead.

The blond watched him struggle with his emotions. He knew Jackson was trying to find the right words to soften the blow. Only what words could the medic use to lessen what he already knew? He had seen the blood. He had heard Vin struggle for every breath. He had felt his brother’s pain. Chris turned his head slightly and gazed up at his friend. “Tell me, Nathan…tell me everything,” he said softly.

The muscles in Jackson’s jaw twitched as the medic clenched it tighter. “All right, Chris. But the minute you can’t stay calm, I’m going to put you to sleep. You hear me?”

Chris nodded weakly, trying to keep his tears at bay.

Taking another deep breath, the medic spoke. “The pneumonia is worse, Chris. His fever is out of control right now and they’ve placed him on ice. They’re also pumping him full of fluids and antibiotics to try and bring it down.” Casting a quick glance at the monitors, he continued. “There are multiple cuts and abrasions from the metal straps. Vin’s right collarbone is fractured, as well as his left arm. His right leg…” Nathan paused and swallowed hard, “well…the spike severed his femur, Chris. Dr. Frost had to set it with pins.”

Pins? Oh dear God, no…. Chris felt the tears beginning to breach his defenses and closed his eyes tight. “Go…go on…”

“The spikes…” Jackson swallowed once more. He pressed his hand against Chris’ shoulder and squeezed it gently. “The spikes did a hell of a lot of damage, Chris. Multiple puncture wounds, some were pretty deep. You were right. One did pierce his left lung and the doctors are having trouble keeping it inflated. The pneumonia is only adding complications to that. There was severe internal bleeding and his liver was bruised pretty badly. One spike apparently damaged his right kidney and they’ve placed him on dialysis until they can determine the full extent of the damage.”

Dialysis? Oh dear God…. The blond felt the tears stray down his temples and choked back the lump. “W…what else?”

Nathan inhaled deeply. “Dr. Chadwick had to take his spleen, Chris. He didn’t have a choice.”

“Oh…God…no.” Chris rasped and opened his eyes to gaze up at the five men around him. He didn’t hold back the tears any longer and allowed them to flow freely. “No…Vin…oh God…” Chris rasped, choking on the painful words. A question burned in the back of his mind. A question he wasn’t sure he wanted the answer to but he needed to ask it just the same. He focused his eyes on Nathan’s once more. “B…blood…d…did they have enough blood?”

“No,” Jackson answered and lowered his head. Raising it, he looked into the blond’s tear filled eyes. “Vin’s blood loss was severe, Chris. Deaconess only sent over five units. More is supposed to be arriving from St. James in Butte this afternoon.”

Vin’s blood loss…severe…Vin’s blood… Chris closed his eyes and tensed against the sheets. Oh God…

“Chris?” Josiah asked a worried tone in his voice.

Vin’s blood. The words kept echoing through his mind. Reminding him that he had drank the blood of his closest friend…his brother. He remembered the coppery taste on his lips and tongue, the sickening sensations he felt as the thick substance coated the back of his throat. The instant nausea he had felt as it flowed into his stomach.

The blond started to shudder as waves of nausea erupted. He swallowed back the bile that was starting to collect in the back of his throat. Willing the growing nausea aside, he slowly opened his eyes and looked up at the team’s medic once more. He had to know the rest of the answer. “The two units that they sent up to me…would they…would they have been enough?” he asked across quivering lips, swallowing the bitter liquid that had managed to reach the back of his throat.

Chris watched Nathan, Buck and Josiah exchange quick glances and his heart shattered. They were about to lie to him.

The medic shook his head. “No. They wouldn’t have made the difference, Chris. The blood loss was too severe.”

“But they would’ve helped…” Chris grated out, his voice faltering.

Jackson leaned in close. “No, Chris. You were already in surgery. Those two units were needed there. Stacey made the right decision. The only decision she could make, Chris.”

“That’s fuckin’ bullshit!” Chris cried and fought the convulsion that started to come over him. “She sacrificed Vin’s life to save mine!” He inhaled through his nose, trying to take in more oxygen through the small canula tubes in his nostrils. He couldn’t get sick. Not yet…not until he asked one more question.

“Chris!” Josiah yelled and reached for his friend’s shoulders. “That’s not true and you know it!”

Chris shoved his hands aside and glared up at him. “Don’t you touch me, Preacher Man! Don’t you fuckin’ preach to me, either! I don’t want to hear your shallow words and assurances!” He turned his fiery gaze to Buck. “And you let her do it, knowing I would be against it!”

Buck’s eyes welled with tears. “That’s not true!”

Chris glared at the ladies’ man. His voice turned venomous. “Isn’t it?! You’ve always been jealous of my relationship with Vin! Was that your way of finally getting him out of the way?! Hoping that he would die from the blood loss if those last two units were used to save my life?!”

Buck inhaled sharply and stepped back from the bed. JD stepped to his side quickly and grabbed his mentor’s shoulders to steady him.

“Chris! That’s enough!” Nathan yelled and reached for the button.

Adrenaline on overload, Chris’ left arm flew across his chest and he grabbed the medic’s wrist. “Press it and I’ll snap your wrist, Nathan. I swear to God I will,” he hissed sharply, tightening his grip.

Larabee kept his eyes locked on Wilmington’s, releasing the last of his stinging barbs. “Get out of here you fuckin’ murderin’ sonofabitch! Get out! I never want to see you again!” he bellowed vehemently, his tone harsh. “Get out!”

“Go,” Josiah nodded sternly at JD, “now.”

JD pulled Buck toward the door. “Come on, Buck. Let’s go get some coffee.”

“You bastard!” Buck twisted free and lunged toward the bed. “You have no fuckin’ right to say that to me!”

JD and Ezra grabbed after Buck. Nathan yanked his wrist free from Chris’ grasp and turned, placing himself between the two raging friends. “Get him out of here, JD! Now!” he ordered and grabbed the front of Buck’s jacket. Keeping a firm hold, Jackson pushed him back. “Calm down, Buck! He doesn’t mean it!”

“I mean every word of it,” the blond sneered. “He wants Vin dead so he’ll no longer be a threat to our friendship! Well…here’s a news flash for you, Wilmington! Our friendship is over! Over! You hear me?” Chris spat, his green eyes flashing.

Buck trembled and his face grew red with rage. “I hear you, Larabee. I hear you just fine!” His breaths grew rapid and his chest heaved. Raising a finger he shook it at the blond. “But you hear this, you fuckin’ sonofabitch! It won’t be my hand that finally kills Vin! It’ll be yours!”

“Mr. Wilmington!” Ezra shouted and grabbed the outstretched arm of the ladies’ man.

Buck yanked his arm free and glared at his friend. “You think about that when you have to sign that order to take him off life support!” he yelled and turned on his heel.

Yanking the door open with force Wilmington stormed out of the room, followed closely by Standish and Dunne. Their voices pleading with him to stop as they followed him down the corridor.

Chris gasped. He felt his lungs start to constrict from the heinous words Buck had just uttered. Collapsing against the pillows, tears streamed down his face and he stared at the ceiling. “Oh God! No…no…please no. Please no….”

“Take it easy, Chris.” Nathan said, soothing the blond hair back from Chris’ forehead. “It won’t come to that. Vin is a fighter. You know that.”

“Nathan is right, Chris. You have to believe that Vin is going to make it. That he’s going to be all right.” Josiah preached.

“Can’t believe in anything, any more. Can’t believe anything except it’s all my fault. It’s all my fault.” Chris sobbed. “Vin…please…forgive me…I’m so sorry I hurt you…”

“Chris, please. Calm down and listen to us.” Nathan pleaded softly. “You’ve got to stay calm so you can get well. Vin is going to need you, Chris.”

“No…” The tormented blond shook his head slightly and moaned in anguish. “He blames me…believes I wanted to hurt him.”

“That’s not true, Chris!” Sanchez argued.

“Yes.” The tears flowed freely now down the face of the Firm’s leader. “Yes, it is, Josiah. He told me so.”

Sanchez grew angry. “Chris, you can’t believe what Vin said while he was strapped to that table! Tasker was manipulating him! Using Vin’s pain to make him believe falsehoods and turning him against you!”

The blond shook his head once more and struggled to find the words. “No…not…not on the table…here…last night…w…when…he came…came…to…to say…good…bye.”

Nathan and Josiah exchanged quick glances, their eyes narrowing in concern.

“Tell…tell me the truth, Nathan.” Chris pressed and raised his hand, reaching for Nathan’s arm. He wrapped his hand around the medic’s forearm and gently squeezed it. “That last spike…the one that sliced his neck…”

Nathan swallowed and nodded. “Yes?”

“If…if you hadn’t moved Vin when you did…where would it have struck him?”

Once more the medic and the ex-preacher locked eyes. Josiah nodded and Jackson finally drew his eyes away and back to Chris’. He inhaled and let it out slowly. “It…it would’ve pierced the base of his skull, Chris. Death would’ve been instantaneous.”

His final question had been answered. Chris closed his eyes and choked out his response. “Then…then he would…wouldn’t have suffered…any more….”

Jackson lowered his head and shook it. “No…he wouldn’t have suffered.”

Green eyes opened and stared once more at the ceiling. “Not…not like he is now…”

The medic nodded, unable to respond.

Chris felt the tightness return to his chest and the dull squeezing sensations around his heart increased in intensity. The monitors reacted in kind.

Nathan looked at Josiah quickly. The medic pressed the button on the morphine pump.

Hitching breaths, Chris’ sobs grew stronger even as he felt the drug race into his system. He felt the strong hands of his friends on his shoulders and felt Josiah’s hand wrap over his. He didn’t look at them. He couldn’t.

Instead, he kept his gaze locked on the white ceiling tiles above the bed. They were barren of color…of life, he thought. Just like he was. Just like he wanted to be. He had hurt his closest friend…his brother. He no longer wanted Vin to pay for his mistakes. He no longer wanted his chosen brother to endure the pain he had caused.

The words left his trembling lips as he shuddered once more in his friends’ grasp.

“Tasker was right…I do want Vin dead…so…so he w…won’t have to…to be in pain any more…”

He heard two sharp gasps and his eyes closed to the drug that pulled him into the comforting blackness. He prayed it would keep him there forever. Please…God…just let me die. I’m so sorry…Cowboy.