Main Characters: Vin, Chris, Buck
Disclaimers: I still do not own even a smidgeon of anything remotely related to the Seven, but how many fics do I have to write before I get to have one teeny, tiny piece of Vin?
Warnings: Violence, cursing, usual stuff you'd find in an ATF h/c featuring Vin (sigh) and Chris. Possibly some gratuitous puking, too (because some people like that go figure). Oh, and I'm not exactly sure what smarm is, but I think this first part might be full of it.
Comments: This was originally written for my good friend and pard, Xiola. She wanted a sick Vin on a boat. I can think of a whole lot of ways that I want Vin but that's another story. Thanks to my Pards on the B&B list whose encouragement coerced me into finally finishing this.
Size: Approx 240K
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
"God damn it! How the hell did this happen?"
Chris stormed off without waiting for an answer; out the door, down the alley, behind the dumpster. He was going to throw up and he'd be damned if he'd do it with prying eyes watching his every move.
Shit. Even there, in the filthy street away from the dark shadows of the icy warehouse, he could still see it. He could still see Vin hanging like a mangled puppet from a tangled cord--limp and lifeless and bloody and shit--how the hell did this happen?
They'd checked it out, done their homework, covered the bases, and it was supposed to be simple. It was always supposed to be simple and it never, ever was. Someone always got hurt. This time it was Vin. Some punk they hadn't counted on--and hadn't caught--took him out on the high beam. Thank God his line was secure or they'd be burying Tanner instead of cutting him down and loading him up in an ambulance.
Chris thought for sure he was dead. In the span of the twenty seconds it took him to run to the scene, he'd visualized it all: Josiah lowering the harness to the floor; Nathan grimly looking in his eyes and shaking his head; the body bag and the ambulance and even the funeral. He'd bury Vin next to Sarah and Adam. He didn't know when he'd made that decision, but he knew that's where Tanner belonged. Vin would be okay with that.
He saw it all, and even when it didn't happen that way--even when Nathan said Vin was alive--he still felt the bile rise up in his throat. Because sooner or later it would; sooner or later it would happen exactly that way.
Chris fell to his knees, mindless of the broken glass littering the cracked cement, and threw up.
It was JD who found him, maybe ten minutes later. He was still on his knees, his hands fisted up in his lap and his head down. He might've stayed that way for hours, if he hadn't noted the look of shock and something like fear on the kid's face.
"Chris?" JD questioned tentatively, "You gonna come back? You want us to . . . finish up?"
He really wanted to ask why Chris wasn't following the ambulance. He really wanted to ask what the hell their team leader was doing sitting in the street, a block away, staring at his own vomit. Chris was dead certain that was what JD really wanted to know, but he wouldn't have the nerve to ask.
Standing on weak legs, he answered the young agent, "Yeah. I'm coming back and I'll tie it up."
Neat and pretty and who really cared? Would it make a real difference? Would it all be worth it in the end? Maybe this time, but maybe not the next or the time after that, because one of these times the price would be too high.
"Anybody go with Vin?" Chris asked, almost as an afterthought, and JD looked at him like he was mad or maybe just disappointed.
"Nathan," was his answer, short and sweet. And by the time Chris thought to take a step, JD was already yards ahead of him.
+ + + + + + +
It took Chris awhile to get the loose ends wrapped up, and then a few more hours to type up the report. He didn't call the hospital, knowing one of the men would call him if he was needed. Better for him to keep busy than wear out the tile in the waiting room. Been there, done that, and everyone was equally better off if he stayed out of the way.
Vin would be in surgery a few hours, anyway, then a few more in recovery. Chris would get there at about the time Vin woke up, and he'd sit at his friend's side and make small, meaningless talk. A few days would pass--or weeks, if it was bad--and he'd take Vin home. Just so they could do this all over again next month or next year and one of these times, it would be different.
One of these times, he'd lose Vin.
He didn't know why he knew that. He didn't know why he'd already picked out the place where he'd bury his best friend. He didn't know why he repeatedly tempted fate and tested God with the lives of those he loved. Must be a sickness; there was probably even a name for it.
Turning out the light in his office, he shrugged away the negative thoughts and walked slowly through the empty corridors. He entered the elevator of the federal building and exited the hospital elevator, with no awareness of how he'd gotten from one place to the other. He shrugged that off, too, chalking it up to a tough day.
Chris was surprised that none of his men were in the waiting room. He checked both the surgical area and the intensive care unit, but they weren't there. He nearly stopped breathing when he checked at the desk and found they had no Vin Tanner registered. But surely someone would have told him; someone would have called or come for him.
He took the stairs back to the ER and felt a small measure of relief when he saw Gladys at the desk. A stern, competent nurse with salt and pepper hair and a dry sense of humor, she knew Chris by sight and merely rolled her eyes when he approached.
"He's already gone," she offered, pushing her glasses back up on her nose and resuming her study of somebody else's chart.
No. That made no sense. "But . . . there was blood." And if that didn't sound pathetic and downright stupid, he didn't know what did.
"Of course. You and your men can't cross the street without blood being shed. But he's not here."
"So what happened? Where is he?" Someone was going to pay for not keeping him informed. Unless . . . maybe he should check his cell phone.
"You apparently turned it off again, Larabee. And you didn't answer the phone in your office. Tanner is gone, so get out of here and let me get something done before you and/or one of your men comes back for another round."
"Gladys . . ."
"There's this new thing called HIPPA. You heard of it? You know I can't tell you anything."
Chris leaned over the desk and used his best smile, though he knew it was hollow. "Where?"
"Charm will get you nowhere--as if you had any of that, anyway. Now Wilmington, there's a man who understands how to get what he wants."
She sighed. She was going to tell him and they both knew it, but she had to protect her image and at least act aggravated. "Jackson's."
The drive to Nathan's house was maddeningly slow, largely because Chris couldn't grasp why he was making it. He'd thought sure that Vin was badly hurt, but maybe it was a dream. The nightmares were coming regularly now, and he wasn't all that certain anymore what was real and what wasn't. Seemed real, though; it seemed like Vin was torn up good and had no business being discharged. That's what he got for not being there and taking care of things, but Nathan should have known better.
He'd pretty much talked himself into a tizzy by the time he rang the doorbell to Jackson's bungalow. Nathan opened the door and practically slammed it shut when he saw Chris standing in the doorway. But instead, he huffed a little and moved aside as he mumbled, "'Bout time you showed up."
Chris ignored the dig and went straight to it, "How is he? And why the hell isn't he in the hospital?"
Nathan narrowed his eyes and Chris could see he was weighing his words carefully. "Wasn't near as bad as it looked. Which you would've known had you chosen to stick around or for God's sake turned on your damn phone."
Okay, he had a point, and Chris visibly deflated. "You're right. Now will you please tell me how he is?"
"Wasn't shot, for one thing. Took a good knock on the head and it bled all over the place. He got thirteen stitches and a mild concussion for the trouble."
Chris sighed in relief and whispered, "Thank God."
Nathan continued, "Worst of it is, he wrenched his back with the fall. He's gonna be sore tomorrow, that's why I brought him here."
Not so good, then. Vin's back was a constant source of aggravation for him, though he was generally too stubborn to admit it. Pulling his hand over his eyes, Chris wondered if his sudden headache could be attributed to sympathy for his friend or his overall lousy attitude. "Can I just see him, Nate?"
"No. He's asleep and he's stayin' that way."
Then again, Nathan's attitude was nothing to write home about, which was precisely why Chris felt very little guilt when he pushed past Jackson and headed into the spare room.
Vin was indeed asleep, although lines of pain still marred his pale face. There was a bandage taped from his just above his left eye to just over his left ear. They'd had to shave some hair and that was likely to upset Tanner more than anything.
He was definitely alive, though, so Chris turned abruptly and left the room; left the house and didn't say another word on his way out. He heard the door shut behind him, and only then did he give in a little and grip the railing for support. It really was alright this time.
But there would always be a next time.
+ + + + + + +
Chris woke up in a cold sweat, which was incredibly unoriginal and getting old fast. The nightmares were consistent, although the content differed. He used to dream of his lost family, but no longer. Now he dreamed of JD being run over, or Ezra being knifed, or Josiah taking a bullet.
It was never Buck and never Nathan. He figured Buck was just too resilient; too reliable and too necessary a force in his life for him to even contemplate losing the man. His psyche probably couldn't take it. And Nathan had to be the one to make it all come out right. Without Nathan to fix it -- to fix them--there would be no turning back. Nathan couldn't be the one hurt. The few times that he was injured in real life, the entire team had been strangely rattled, almost unable to cope. No, they needed Nathan too much.
Vin was the only one who died in his dreams . . . repeatedly and gruesomely and without mercy. And in some sort of ghoulish epitaph, Chris would see him buried, too; the dirt falling in soft clumps on his white skin, his blue eyes open and unseeing.
This one was particularly vivid; Vin covered head to boot in blood and the smell so real that Chris was sure he retched in his sleep. He forced his eyes open and ran for the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face as he took a deep breath and told himself over and over that it was just a dream.
It was just a dream. He'd seen for himself that Vin was alright . . . this time.
It was natural and normal and completely understandable that he'd worry about his team. Saying their jobs were dangerous was the proverbial understatement. It didn't take a psych major or a profiler like Josiah to figure out why he saw such tragedy in his sleep.
But the nightmares starring Vin had become more frequent and more intense over the last few weeks, torturing him so badly that he sometimes had trouble looking Vin in the eye. He began to think that maybe if he distanced himself from Tanner; relied on him less, socialized with him less, cared about him less . . . the dreams and the foreboding and the god-awful feeling of loss would go away.
But he couldn't do it. He'd become oddly dependent on Vin in a multitude of ways that should have felt wrong but didn't. And now he was afraid of losing him. Afraid of losing any of them, really, but apparently Vin even more so.
Unless the dreams were a portent of things to come . . . but no, that was too sci-fi, too other world, too spiritual . . . depending on your point of view. He thought about talking with Josiah about it all, but he wasn't quite that desperate yet.
The ringing of the phone disturbed his musings. He saw by the caller ID that it was Nathan and he had the receiver in his hands by the second ring, "Yeah?" Ridiculous, the way his heart was pounding and the way his mind raced to the assumption that something was wrong. Maybe he should have that talk with Josiah.
"Can you come over for a few hours? Vin's pretty sick and I need to run out and get a few things."
The vision of Vin hanging limp and lifeless floated before him, and he had to choke out the words, "I'll be right there." It sounded flat and emotionless and Nathan probably thought he didn't want to come; that he didn't care and God, how much easier it would be if that were the case.
Nathan met him at the door again, his reception only a few degrees warmer than the previous evening. He handed Chris a bottle of Gator Aide and said, "See if he can keep any of this down. Between the muscle relaxants and pain pills and the concussion, he's been sick most of the night. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Chris nodded and managed to mumble, "Take your time."
It was Saturday and he had no place to be and he almost regretted that. It would be so much easier to immerse himself in work and at least pretend that it all mattered; that getting a few monsters and weapons off the streets actually made a difference.
The blinds were drawn in the spare room where Vin lay, and it took Chris several minutes to adjust to the darkness. He thought maybe Vin was asleep, until he heard that raspy voice mutter, "I'm awake."
He drew closer to the bed and took a long look at his friend. Pretty much what he expected--Vin looking like shit--and he sighed at the injustice of it. Not worth it, and now it was an every day thing to question why he consistently led his best friends to the slaughter.
"Y' don't have t' stay. I'm fine," Vin said, obviously misreading Chris's reaction.
Chris ignored him and poured the green juice in a cup. "Nate says you need to drink this."
Vin didn't move. He just peered through the shadows, blue eyes melding with green, and he asked, "You alright?"
It should have been a totally absurd question, in light of the circumstances, but of course Vin would know. He would know about his disappearing act the night before; would know he'd turned off his cell phone; would know it had nothing to do with not caring and everything to do with running away.
"Can you sit up?" Ignoring Vin again, and that was answer enough.
With a sigh, Vin shifted up a bit in the bed, but he groaned at just that slight movement.
"You'd best be quick, Larabee, because I ain't guaranteein' that'll stay down long," Vin said as he reached awkwardly for the cup.
"Won't be the first time I've worn your puke."
"Likely won't be the last, either," Vin replied with a weak laugh.
It wasn't funny. And it really wasn't funny when a painful spasm tore through Vin's back and he dropped the cup in his lap. Vin grit his teeth and tried to breathe, but it came out more like a pant--dangerously close to a whimper--and it was Chris who had to concentrate not to throw up.
Long minutes passed and gradually some color returned to Vin's face, but he still didn't move; just sort of sat half up and half down and it seemed like even turning his head was too much to contemplate.
Chris leaned in behind him, supporting Vin's back and head with his arm and shoulder, and he whispered, "Think a hot bath would help?"
Vin slanted his eyes towards the bathroom and ground out, "Long walk."
"Don't gotta make it alone," Chris replied.
Vin did turn his head then, just enough to meet Chris's eyes, and he said softly, "Neither do you."
Not yet, anyway, Chris thought, the words materializing before his very eyes.
He had to stop this. He had to stop these incessant premonitions of grief. He could live without Vin if he had to, but he wasn't going to have to. Right now, all he had to do was get Vin some relief. That single motivation was enough to banish the ominous whisperings in his head and spur him to action.
Nathan returned a few hours later and, to his surprise and relief, found Vin sleeping peacefully. "He do alright?"
"Yeah. Took a hot bath. Seemed t' help."
He left out the part about Vin kneeling at the toilet, losing the Gator Aide, and Chris right beside him. That was taking the togetherness thing way too far and the guys would never let them hear the end of it.
"I'll take him back to my place, once he's up. He'll need a few days before he comes back to work," Chris added.
Nathan shook his head. "A week--Doc put him off for a week. And you live too far out for us t' help out. Be better t' leave him here."
It was unusual for Nathan to argue with him, but he supposed the way he'd been acting, it was to be expected. He obviously had some things to work out and maybe Vin was the man to help him do it, so he responded, "I'll be taking the week off, too."
And for the first time since the whole incident began, Nathan's features softened as he replied, "That's a good idea, Chris. I'll help you get him settled, and after that, you just call if you need us."
A lot more said there than the words implied, and Chris nodded in gratitude. Apparently Vin wasn't the only one who caught on that he was screwed up . . . or rather, more screwed up than usual.
+ + + + + + +
It was a matter of pride. It had to be. He certainly didn't do this job because he had some pie-in-the-sky, do-gooder compulsion to make the world a better place. He simply wasn't that good a person.
Vin was, and probably Nathan, too. Josiah felt like he owed somebody something and Buck liked playing the romantic hero. JD was probably in it for the adventure and God only knew what motivated Ezra. That said, they were all good men--willing to take a bullet for even a stranger without batting an eyelash.
If Chris was really honest about it, he liked having the best team in the ATF bureau; hell, the best team in the whole damn government. And he might have been a reluctant leader at first, but he grew into the job. He liked making his own decisions, and fortunately, he had a boss who understood and even encouraged it. Except that lately, he couldn't close his eyes without remembering that any one of those decisions could have drastic, painful consequences.
As if to prove the point, Vin lumbered out of his spare bedroom, hobbling down the hall like an old man, but at least he was upright and moving. Tanner had thrown out the pain pills and the muscle relaxants, sticking with old fashioned Tylenol and hot showers. He still looked miserable, but at least he got his appetite back, which was more than Chris could say.
He'd had Vin at the house for two days and two long nights. Vin slept fine, blissfully unaware of the excruciating deaths he was experiencing via Chris's tortured mind. Last night, he dreamed that Vin was hanged. Crowds of people gathered and threw stones at his friend's swaying body and Chris was powerless to stop them. The memory sent a shiver down his spine, and he took a gulp of steaming, hot coffee in an effort to burn away the image.
"Chris? What's wrong?"
He hadn't realized that Vin had made it all the way to the kitchen, and he stood quickly to pull out a chair for the injured man.
Tanner sat with far from his usual grace, but if it hurt him too much, he hid it well.
He could repeat that nothing was wrong, but Vin wouldn't buy it. He wouldn't push though, either, and that was part of what made him so essential to a man like Chris. Vin knew exactly who he was--and accepted him anyway. He deserved an honest answer.
"Been having dreams . . . nightmares, really."
That was all he said, but Chris could see that Vin was a bit puzzled by his answer. Still, he didn't push.
Chris kept his eyes on his coffee. "About the guys . . . getting hurt . . . dying, sometimes."
Vin shrugged. "I reckon that's natural, Chris, considerin'."
He did look at Vin then when he said, "About you mostly." He added under his breath, "Scares the shit out of me."
"I reckon it does."
Encouraged by the quiet acceptance, Chris went on, "I even . . . even bury you, Vin . . . right there next to Sarah and Adam," and now there were tears in his eyes. Just the thought of it . . .
Vin appeared a bit bleary-eyed, too, when he responded softly, "That would be real nice, Chris."
What? Nice? My God! What were they talking about?
"It wouldn't be nice, Vin. There is nothing nice about this! Don't you understand? It could happen. It could happen next week or next month and there would be nothing I could do to stop it. I've tried over and over in my dreams, but you still die and there is nothing I can do!"
He was standing now, his elbows locked as his hands tightly gripped the edge of the table. He peered across the orange juice and coffee cups and the ridiculous cowboy tablecloth that Buck had bought, at Vin's stunned features. But Vin simply took a breath and calmly said, "Sit down, Chris."
And because Vin never asked anything of him that wasn't worth doing, he sat down.
"You're right. It could happen . . . t' me, t' Buck, t' any one of us. It could happen t' you. And there's not a damn thing any one of us can do t' prevent it or stop it or change it." Vin's voice was silky smooth, a far cry from his usual rasp, and so quiet that Chris had to lean forward to hear when his friend added, "But it didn't happen this time. I'm alright. And we'll deal with what comes, when it comes."
It sounded sensible and logical, but Chris didn't think he could do that. He wasn't really sure what he could do anymore; he was only becoming surer of what he couldn't.
"I don't think . . . I don't think I believe any more, Vin." The crux of the matter, and funny how it just came to him, right at that moment.
Vin smirked as he leaned forward, meeting Chris halfway across the table, and he said, "You believe more than any of us, Chris. You're just going through a bad time. You're just a little . . . uptight right now. It'll pass, and 'till it does, we've got your back."
Chris knew his friends were looking out for him, and he wanted to believe the rest of it, too. But he didn't.
That night, he dreamed about water. He was swimming hard, pulling something heavy behind him, but he couldn't keep going. He was too tired and he was going to go under; he'd have to let go. Releasing his grip, he turned back in time to see the object he'd been dragging sink under the waves. It was Vin . . . dear God, he'd let go of Vin! Vin's eyes briefly filled with panic, before calm acceptance flooded his face as he sank beneath the rolling water.
Chris called out for his friend, dove below the surface time and again, but it was no use.
Vin was gone, washed out to sea . . . and this time there would be no body to bury.
+ + + + + + +
"Ah hell, Chris, can't you do somethin'? You've gotta get us out of this!"
Buck sounded genuinely distressed and it made Chris laugh out loud for the first time in weeks.
"Sorry, Pard, you guys are on your own. We owe Travis more than just a few days of training recruits, and you all know it. Go and have fun."
"Well damn, thanks a lot for your help," Buck responded sarcastically. He added, "You two will be on your own, seein' as how we'll be stuck up in the mountains for the rest of the week. It's a shame Vin ain't here, this is right up his alley."
Chris stole a glance towards the living room where Vin was gingerly trying to extract himself from the recliner. "You're right. I'm sure he'd rather be doing anything else about now."
"He doin' alright?"
Vin gripped his back as he stood, but the mask fell quickly in place when he saw Chris staring at him. Larabee muttered under his breath, "Damn stubborn fool," but to Buck he merely answered, "Yeah. He's alright. We'll talk to you at the end of the week."
"You could wait for help, you know," Chris called out as he followed Vin towards the bedroom.
Shooting a defiant glare in his direction, Vin mumbled, "Lots of things I could do . . ."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hit the sack Sleeping Beauty, you're late for your nap," Chris teased as he helped his friend ease his aching back to the bed.
"Glad t' see y' back t' your old charming self, Cowboy, but . . . Chris!"
Vin's eyes grew wide as he cried out Chris's name in warning.
It was too late. Chris never felt the blow that rendered him unconscious.
+ + + + + + +
The groaning was pitiful . . . and annoying. In conjunction with the pounding in his head and the rolling of his stomach, it was unbearable. He'd have to put a stop to it.
Chris opened his eyes and tried to make sense of the shadows. His eyes were immediately drawn to the only source of light in the room, three small, round windows lined up near the ceiling.
Well, that made no sense.
He could have sworn he was moving, too; a gentle, rocking motion that kicked up the queasiness into full-fledged nausea. Where the hell was he?
At least the moaning had stopped, with the exception of an occasional whimper, and when he figured out where he was and why he felt so bad, he'd look into it. Chris closed his eyes and tried to get his bearings. He tried to remember where he was last and what he had been doing, but all he could see was Vin's face, pale and bloody.
That explained it then. He was having another nightmare.
But something wasn't right; his back ached from the cold, hard surface he was lying on, and still the rolling motion continued. Damn, just what had Buck talked him into drinking last night? Apparently, the only way to stop this misery was to open his eyes and force his weary body out of bed. Prying his lids open again took more concentration than seemed at all reasonable; he would have been tempted to just forget that whole thing, if it weren't for the weak voice that called to him.
"Chris? You . . . awake?"
Vin? He turned his head towards the voice and waited for his vision to clear. It looked entirely too real. Vin was lying a few feet from him, on his side, with blood from the laceration he'd gotten a few days earlier caked and dried on his face. Apparently, Tanner's stomach was acting up, too--judging by the puddle of foul-smelling liquid he was practically lying in--and this nightmare business really was getting out of hand.
"Chris?" Vin questioned again, with an edge of desperation that Chris hadn't noted before.
With a defeated huff, Chris pulled himself upright; he might as well play along until his mind caught up with reality. A wave of dizziness washed over him, and he steadied himself by pulling his knees up and bracing one hand on the floor. His vision was still bleary, so he rubbed his other hand across his eyes and took a deep breath.
"Chris . . . please," Vin choked, and that got his attention.
He crawled over to his friend, trying and failing to ignore the irritating rocking that just wouldn't go away. It hit him, just as he reached out to grip Vin's shoulder, that they must be on a boat.
Had to be a dream; Tanner's body felt solid beneath his fingers, but it couldn't be real.
Vin took a shuddering breath as he turned his eyes to Chris and asked, "Can you help me sit up?"
Instead of answering, Chris took his finger and traced the new bruises that lined Vin's jaw. Tanner's left eye was a deep purple, as well, and several of the stitches that lined his temple had been ripped out, explaining the dried blood on his face.
His voice shaking, Chris asked, "Is this real?"
Vin dipped his head a fraction and answered, "'Fraid so, Pard. I think we're in a heap of trouble."
Shit. His stomach was really rebelling now, but fortunately, his adrenaline kicked in at about the same time the fuzziness in his head started to clear, and he fought the nausea off.
It wasn't going to happen. He'd lost Vin in his dreams because he had no control. But this was real life and he'd fight to the death to keep the nightmares from coming true.
Vin groaned when Chris pulled him up to a sitting position, but he seemed to breathe a little easier. He propped Tanner up against the wall and sat next to him.
When it appeared Vin had gathered himself, he asked, "You have any idea what happened or where we are?"
"Two men . . . they knocked you out . . . injected you with something. I tried . . . t' stop 'em. Woke up here." Vin swallowed and looked away when he added, "I feel sick, Chris."
Misunderstanding Vin's statement, Chris assured him, "There was nothing you could have done."
"No. I mean, I feel bad . . . real bad."
Determined to stay positive, Chris masked his concern. "It's okay, Vin. You were already hurt. Getting knocked out and hijacked couldn't have helped."
His eyes plastered to the three small circles of light, Vin replied, "Reckon not."
Being locked in a small space wouldn't help, either. Chris kept his hand on Vin's arm as he took in their surroundings. They were definitely in the bowels of a boat, probably in a small storage room just off the engine room, judging by the loud hum coming from behind the door just yards away from where they sat. The only door, from what he could make out.
The ceiling was just high enough for him to stand, so Chris got up on shaking legs to check the door. Locked, of course, but nothing fancy and just maybe he could force it open; just maybe there was a way out.
But a way out to where? He crossed the small space and peered out of the window. The water level was just below the windows, but it didn't make much difference. There was nothing to see but blue . . . endless blue sea and infinite blue sky. They were so screwed.
Feeling powerless again, but determined to hang onto some hope, he returned to Vin's side.
"Tell me about the men. What did they look like? What did they say?"
With a sigh, Vin shrugged. "Never saw 'em before."
"Come on, Vin, you can do better than that."
Vin closed his eyes and mumbled weakly, "Chris . . . I can't." The words had no sooner left his mouth than he doubled over with a gasp.
"Vin! What is it? What's wrong?"
Vin's arms were tightly wrapped around his middle, and he grunted in pain. Chris knelt beside him and gently massaged circles along his friend's curled spine. He winced in sympathy when Vin began to vomit dark brown bile; Tanner's entire body quaked with the spasms.
When the spell finally passed, Vin fell back against Chris, and for several frightening moments, fought to catch his breath. And it all returned to Chris like a crushing blow: the frightening visions, the sense of despair and hopelessness, the overwhelming grief when he laid his friend to rest. Vin was going to die, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
No. That was nonsense. Tanner was sick, that was all. He'd been through a lot in the past few days. He'd be fine. Keeping Vin secure in his arms, he murmured, "It's alright now. We'll get out of here and you'll be back under Nathan's dictatorship before you know it."
A feeble laugh was Vin's response, but it was for Chris's benefit and they both knew it. Vin didn't believe it, either.
It didn't stop Chris from continuing the charade, though. "The boys are probably on their way right now."
It was a lie, flat out. He never had the chance to tell Vin that their teammates were high up in the Rockies. It would be the end of the week--days away--before anyone even knew they were missing.
Vin simply responded, "Yeah." Then he shifted a little and laid his head back on his friend's shoulder with a heavy sigh.
Snuggled up together, and wouldn't the guys get a kick out of that? If only they'd come busting through that door right now, Chris would gladly take their ribbing for the rest of his life. If only . . .
The dream where he'd lost Vin in the water came flooding back, and Chris tightened his grip on his friend. No way was he letting go.
+ + + + + + +
Hours passed; he could tell by the fading light in the windows. It was nearly dark, but fortunately he'd found a flashlight. There were several crates stored in their prison, most of which held nothing of value for their current predicament, but at least he'd come up with the light and a few blankets. Vin had finally fallen asleep, and Chris had stuffed one blanket under his friend's head and covered him with the other. Tanner was shivering now, the chills from a fever adding to his misery. Something was very wrong.
He couldn't figure out the why and the who of this. It didn't seem to be related to any of their recent cases. Between them, he and Vin had more enemies than they could count, but not many had access to a boat--a fairly large boat, from what he could tell.
And what was the point of dragging them out to sea? They could have killed them at the ranch, if they wanted them dead. Which brought up another point . . . he had installed high tech security measures at his place; who had the knowledge and the means to override them?
Vin moaned a little, and Chris went to his side, prepared to roll him over should he get sick again. There was little left to come up, but the heaves continued to torture him at regular intervals. This wasn't sea sickness, or even leftovers from the concussion. As much as he'd like to know the source of Tanner's illness, it didn't make much difference from a practical standpoint. The comfort he could offer was limited to a supporting hand and a soothing voice.
Not enough by half, and he was tired of sitting around and doing nothing. In the cover of darkness, surely he could overtake two men and commandeer the boat. Of course, there may be more than two, but he'd faced worse odds before.
He contemplated waking Vin up and telling him the plan, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Maybe he'd wait a little longer; let Tanner wake up on his own and then fill him in. Vin needed to be awake to protect himself, should things go wrong, and wasn't that a ridiculous thought? His friend couldn't even sit up by himself.
It became a moot point when the door suddenly opened and three men appeared. In the fading light, Chris had trouble making out their faces, but no immediate sense of familiarity grabbed him. Two of the men had guns, but the third, a man so tall he had to crook his neck to fit in the doorway, appeared to be unarmed. It was the tall man who spoke.
"Mr. Larabee, nice to see you again. I trust the accommodations are satisfactory?"
He knew that voice, but he couldn't quite place it.
"Well, I was kind of hoping for a cabin with a balcony," he replied.
"Ah well, maybe the next trip."
Chris wasn't in the mood for games of sarcasm, and any semblance of patience he'd once possessed was long gone. In spite of the tenuous circumstances, he demanded, "Who are you and what do you want?"
"You don't remember me? I'm hurt," the man answered playfully. But the levity was quickly replaced with bitter anger when he added, "Perhaps you remember my brother then. You put a bullet in his heart twenty years ago today."
Twenty years ago? Oh . . . God . . .
"You were a young, hot shot cop--trying to make a name for yourself."
It was true; he was.
"I begged you not to do it. Got on my knees and pleaded for my brother's life."
He did. Chris could see it all clearly. He'd told him to stand up and act like a man.
"But you killed him anyway."
He didn't have a choice; the stupid guy went for his gun. He didn't have a choice.
It turned out to be a real mess. Ian and Jimmy O'Connor were sons of a prominent Denver businessman, but they were too ambitious and greedy and smart to sit back and rest on their father's laurels. It was purely by accident that Chris and his partner had stumbled on one of their clandestine operations; an accident that turned out like some hokey scene in a bad B film. In the end, Jimmy was dead and Ian was in prison, but not before Chris went through hell with internal affairs and the media.
"I didn't have a choice," Chris explained. But the defense was weak, even to his own ears.
Ian ignored his statement. "You told me to act like a man," he said. Walking over to Vin, he stared down at the injured man and continued in a low, deadly whisper, "Tell me, Larabee . . . is there anyone in your life you'd get on your knees for? Any life you'd beg to be spared?"
A shiver ran up his spine as Chris unconsciously moved closer to Vin. "What do you want from me, Ian?" he asked.
"Nothing. Nothing at all. All you have to do is stay here and think. Think about all the people you've hurt and the lives you've ruined. And in the meantime, you can watch your friend die. But not to worry; I'm sure you'll take it like a man."
Chris's heart hammered in his throat as he implored, "What have you done to Vin?"
Ian pushed a strand of coal, black hair from his forehead and smiled as he answered, "A slow acting poison that only I have the antidote for. You can choose to beg for it--beg for his life--or not. But of course, I may not have a choice whether or not to give it to him."
Before Chris could wrap his mind around this new information and formulate a response, the men were gone. As the door softly closed behind them, Chris slumped to the floor. None of the visions, the dreams, or the premonitions had prepared him for this. He'd never even considered an enemy from twenty years ago coming back to make hell for him . . . to make hell for Vin.
"Not your fault, Chris," Vin said softly, his hand snaking out from under the blanket to reach for his friend.
Chris squeezed Vin's hand as he shook his head and replied, "I'm not gonna let this happen, Vin. I swear, you're gonna get through this."
Vin nodded weakly, but he gasped and bit his lip as a wave of pain washed over him. Chris held on tighter and repeated, "You're gonna be okay. I won't let you die."
He'd do whatever it took, including go down on his knees, to make sure Vin came out of this alive.
+ + + + + + +
He'd done it before; suffered through nights of endless waiting and nights of inconsolable grief. But this was the longest night of his life.
Chris sat propped against the wall with Vin held tight against him. And though he was wrapped in both blankets, the younger man still shook violently in his arms and writhed in misery as intense spasms ripped through his body, stealing his breath and any coherent thought.
"Help me, Chris," he begged repeatedly, "get Nathan."
Chris pulled him closer and whispered soft lies in his ear, "Help is coming . . . Nathan's on his way . . . it'll be over soon."
And just as O'Connor had asked, he'd spent the long hours holding Vin and thinking . . . thinking of the people he'd hurt and the lives he'd ruined. Vin would pay the price for his mistakes, just as his wife and child had.
It was his old stint as a Denver police officer that ended up costing him his family; the same job that would end up costing him his best friend. Not his current occupation at all, and wasn't that ironic? He'd been contemplating giving it all up, in some grand, idiotic gesture to somehow keep Vin safe--and look what happened. They were trapped at sea by some madman from his past, with no where to go and no way to get there.
And Vin was dying.
A feeble rasp, barely there at all, and Chris tilted his head closer to Vin's face to hear.
His forearms were bruised from where Vin had held on desperately during the night. But now, as the pale morning sun finally cast a soft glow through the round windows, Tanner's grip had grown noticeably weaker.
"What is it, Vin?" he asked, already formulating more lies in his head.
"Did y' mean it?"
It was impossible to tell what track the sick man's mind was taking now. "Mean what?"
"You'd bury me . . . by Sarah . . . and Adam?"
He couldn't breathe. It took every ounce of concentration and every bit of his strength to hold back the sob that ached to explode from his chest. But he couldn't stop the tears from spilling down his cheeks as he laid his head on Vin's and he answered, "Yeah. I meant it."
"Be like . . . part of your family," Vin whispered.
"You are my family, Vin."
He could not continue this conversation. He just couldn't. He wanted to tell Vin to just stop right there; don't say another word and don't think about it and then it won't really be happening. It will be just a dream; it had to be just a dream because he couldn't handle it any other way. He just couldn't do it.
He felt Vin twist a bit in his arms as he tried to see Chris's face. "You can do it," Vin said, reading his mind like he had a hundred times in the past. Offering his support; comforting Chris when it should have been the other way around.
But Chris was through with lying. "I can't. I won't."
"Obviously you can and you will." The cold voice of Ian O'Connor broke the moment and filled Chris with such rage that it was all he could do not to dump Vin on the floor and wrap his hands around the man's skinny, white throat when he suddenly appeared in the doorway.
"Have you thought it over, Larabee? Was it worth firing that bullet twenty years ago?"
"Vin did nothing to you," Chris said, appealing to a sense of decency he knew didn't exist. "I'll do whatever you want. Poison me, for God's sake--I'm the one you want."
Ian ignored him as he squatted down to the floor next to them. O'Connor raised his hand to brush Vin's face, but Chris grabbed his wrist before he could make contact. "Don't touch him," he growled.
The tall man laughed. "Ah, I get it. More than friends then. Never would have guessed that, Larabee, but I should have known--the way you two are cuddled up together. Very interesting."
Vin groaned as Chris inadvertently jostled him in an effort to get to his feet. The bastard was going to pay.
"No, Chris," Vin pleaded breathlessly, "don't let him bait you."
Easing Vin to the floor with a bit more care, he answered his friend as he rose to his feet, "Why not? What the hell difference does it make?"
Returning to his full height, Ian met Chris face to face and reminded him, "Tanner's not dead yet. You still have . . . choices."
"Do I? Then give 'em to me. Tell me what the hell I have to do. You want me on my knees? You want me to beg? Just say the word."
With a smirk, Ian responded, "Come with me. We'll discuss it."
No way. "I'm not leaving Vin."
"Suit yourself." With a flourish, O'Connor pulled a handgun from beneath his coat and pointed it at Vin. "I can end this quickly for him; put a bullet through his heart. It would be the humane thing to do. Not to mention, there would be a certain poetic justice in the action, don't you agree, Larabee?"
Chris didn't think he'd do it. Didn't think Ian would spoil his fun by bringing an abrupt end to his sick game. But he couldn't take the chance. Besides, the only way he could get the lay of things and formulate any kind of plan was to get out of this room.
But the thought of leaving Vin like this . . .
"Go on, Chris," Vin mumbled. And even though Tanner's voice was barely there and his eyes were closed, Chris felt the swift kick in the butt his friend had just provided. This wasn't over yet.
+ + + + + + +
He was on his knees, exactly where Ian O'Connor wanted him. Thick, plush carpet cushioned his bones, and the smell of rich hardwood filled his nostrils, but the luxurious surroundings only added to the indignity. Three men--presumably the crew of the ornate yacht on which they were being held--circled him, laughing as they downed the toast their employer had offered on Larabee's behalf.
But O'Connor remained impassive; his face like stone as he kept his eyes fixed on his showcase.
"Say the words, Larabee," Ian finally spoke after several, long minutes had passed. "Beg for your friend. Or, beg for yourself, if you prefer."
It shouldn't have been so hard. He may have a hard time swallowing his pride to save his life, but not Vin's. Vin was worth a whole lot more than a few minutes of humility. It was the anger that held him back; it was conceding defeat to an enemy who played unbelievably dirty by using his best friend as bait.
And besides, O'Connor had no leg to stand on; no reason for his vindictive rage. His brother had gotten exactly what he'd asked for and exactly what he deserved. At least, that was what Chris had told himself for twenty years.
Could he have done it differently? He'd spent the entire night rolling that question around in his head, and he still didn't have an answer. But maybe the fact that he'd considered it would appease his captor. Maybe the fact that he wished it had gone down differently would be enough.
"I . . . could have handled it differently . . . your brother. I wish I had."
Blue eyes met his, the same hue as Vin's, in fact, yet so very different. Ian's eyes were an icy blue, like the Arctic sea or a winter sky. And his words were shards of ice, crystallizing in the air, "I'm sure you do." Little said, but the intent was clear: no forgiveness, no understanding, no chance.
Ian turned then to two of his men and demanded, "Get Tanner."
Vin couldn't walk. The men dragged him up the stairs and dumped him on the floor next to Chris and he barely even moved. Chris wasn't sure he was even aware anymore of what was happening, and maybe that was for the best.
"Say the words," their torturer repeated.
So he did. And once he started, the words flowed like a swift-moving stream. "Please help him. Please don't let him die. I'll do whatever you want, anything. I'm begging."
The granite face cracked for just a moment as Ian seemed to consider his words. Or maybe it was just the memory of that night twenty years ago, when it had been him on his knees and Chris holding all the cards.
The men around them laughed again, but Chris was oblivious and completely uncaring as he watched the muscles twitch in O'Connor's face. When the man turned and dismissed everyone in the room, he had a glimmer of hope that maybe it would be enough; that maybe this nightmare would end after all.
"Get up, Larabee," Ian ordered when they were alone.
Never one to mince words or waste time, Chris asked as he stood, "What now?"
Ian ambled over to the bar like they were in the midst of some pleasant, social gathering, and poured himself a drink. He turned back to Larabee and took a swallow, then answered, "You have a choice to make. I can kill you both now; make it clean and easy and put Tanner here out of his misery."
"Or?" Somehow, Chris knew the option wasn't going to be a free ride to civilization, antidote in hand.
"Or I can set you and Tanner off in a lifeboat. More than likely a slow death, but there's always the chance you could make it."
Ian walked over and knelt by Vin's side, "Not much chance he would, though. He's got maybe another long, agonizing twenty-four hours left." He lightly fingered Vin's hair before turning a meaningful look to Chris. "If he were my best friend, my brother, my . . . lover? . . . I'd do the right thing. Make it quick and easy."
Chris growled as he pushed O'Connor away from Vin and replied, "He's not your anything and I'm not you! Keep your hands off of him and give me the damn antidote."
"I don't recall that being a choice."
He could take him. O'Connor was all long bones and soft muscle and Chris could take him out in minutes. But what good would it do? He'd still be stuck at sea with hostile men and no clue where Vin's salvation was hidden.
Only more begging could change the situation, and there was only a thread of hope in that. "Please . . . just help Vin. He's innocent."
"No one is innocent, Larabee. But you've made your point . . . Tanner had nothing to do with my brother's death, so he deserves a chance. Not the antidote, mind you, but a chance. The boat it is."
It felt like a dream; he and Vin casually tossed in the small, rubber raft like yesterday's trash. Ian wasn't even present when they were cast off from the boat and left to drift aimlessly in the never-ending sea.
Vin came to when they first hit the water, groaning with the sudden impact. "What's going on, Chris?" he asked.
There was no answer, or at least no good answer, so he lied again. "We're gonna be fine, Vin," Chris said as he inched his way across the rubber floor to help Vin curl up on his side and get reasonably comfortable.
Tanner nodded and closed his eyes, but he managed a weak smile, "We do get ourselves in some pretty deep shit, don't we, Pard?"
"Yeah, you could say that," Chris responded with a grim smile. "But we always find a way out," he added. His gaze followed the blue of the ocean until it blended with the blue of the sky. Not a cloud or a sign of land in sight.
No way out.
+ + + + + + +
The hours passed in a sort of blurred oblivion. Endless and timeless, and Chris wondered if this was what Purgatory was like; stuck in between heaven and hell with no signs to point in either direction.
The pain returned, and Vin moaned pitifully for hours and hours, until Chris thought he'd go crazy with the sound of it. He tried to comfort Vin, but touching him only made it worse. So he crawled to his end of the raft and held his hands over his ears and closed his eyes, and shut it all out until finally it stopped. Finally it was silent and there was nothing but the sound of the waves.
It didn't occur to him for a long, long time that maybe Vin was dead. He didn't check because he decided he didn't want to know. What would the knowing change? Nothing he could do if Vin was dead; nothing he could do if he wasn't.
It didn't feel at all right--this calm acceptance he'd suddenly acquired. After all of his promises to Vin and to himself to hang on; after all of the nightmares and the despair and the bitter emptiness they brought; after all of the fight he'd waged to keep this very thing from happening, it just didn't seem so big in the end.
He figured it was because he was dying, too. Soon he'd dry up and wisp away into nothing and his only real regret was that the boys would never know what happened to them. He wouldn't be buried next to Sarah and Adam, and neither would Vin. He did feel bad about that; Vin had seemed to want that, to take comfort in it.
Exhaustion hit swift and sudden, and he found he could no longer focus. Voices swirled around him; Buck and Josiah, he thought, telling him to rest. That made no sense but it didn't matter. He took their advice and let the darkness come.
+ + + + + + +
The first thing he noticed was the sounds . . . whispers and footsteps and the soft beep of monitors. The second thing he noticed was the smell . . . the clean, antiseptic non-odor of a sterile environment. Obviously a hospital; he'd been there enough to know the signs without even opening his eyes.
And for a minute, he had hope. Somehow, someway, he'd survived.
But had Vin?
It seemed too unlikely, too impossible to even consider, and so he kept his eyes closed to hide the truth just a bit longer.
"Chris? Chris, you awake?"
He knew that voice, and he knew he should respond . . . should tell Buck that he heard him and that he was still there inside his dried up husk of a body, or at least part of him was. He'd bury another part of him with Vin. He wondered vaguely how many deaths he could experience--how many pieces of himself he could bury before there was nothing left. Just an empty shell; he was damn close to that now.
"Chris? The Doc's waiting to talk with us. You need to wake up."
Shit. What could there possibly be to say worth hearing? But he pulled himself up with a groan, and was mildly surprised to find that he was sitting in a hard chair. Damn. You'd think after spending eternity drifting in a boat, a man could get a decent bed.
Chris finally opened his eyes and there was Buck, his lips turned down and his eyes creased in concern. "Y' okay, Stud?"
Hell, no. What kind of a question was that?
Chris opened his eyes a little wider and peered about him. A waiting room? And a familiar one at that. How did they get back to Denver? How did anyone find them? How could Buck sit there and ask him if he was okay when they would soon be burying Vin? What the hell was going on and why the hell was Buck looking at him like that?
"Buck? What's going on? How did you find us?"
Buck tilted his head and asked again, "Y'okay? What do you mean how did we find you?"
It shouldn't have been that hard a question. What was wrong with Buck?
Maybe the Coast Guard found them? That must be it. They must have rescued them and flown them back to Denver. Yeah. That must be what happened. Didn't explain Buck's odd behavior, though. Didn't explain where Vin was . . .
Buck had that funny half grin he gets when he's kind of nervous about something. "You're scaring me, Chris. Vin's right where we left him a few hours ago . . . in his room."
Oh God. He was alive? Could it be possible? "You mean he's still alive?"
Buck cocked his head like Chris was some sort of unsolved mystery, but he finally answered, "Of course he is. Take more than some punk with a sharp knife t' take Vin down."
He and Buck had had their differences in the past, but never such a huge gap in communication. He tried again, "Buck, just tell me what happened. How did we get here and did they find an antidote for Vin?"
Buck sighed and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Look, Chris, you're overtired and you're a little mixed up. After we get the latest from the doc, I'm taking you home to rest."
Chris got to his feet and said again, with a definite edge this time, "What happened? How did we get off the boat? And what is going on with Vin?"
Buck stood, as well, and gripped Chris's shoulders as he looked him straight in the eye. "Boat? There is no boat. You've been here for the past four and a half days with Vin. You're not sleeping or eating, and quite frankly Pard, right now you're not making a hell of a lot of sense."
No boat? Four and a half days? That couldn't be right. He must be dreaming . . .
Dazed and confused and miles past exhausted, Chris collapsed back to the chair. "From the beginning, Buck."
Any other time, the look of complete bewilderment on Buck's face might have been funny. "The bust at the warehouse didn't go quite like we planned. Vin was hurt. That ring a bell?"
Chris pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Yeah. Of course it does. But Vin came home with me after that. He wasn't hurt that bad."
Buck's eyes went wide. "Not hurt . . . ? Chris, we almost lost him. The knife went in below the vest and straight up. He nearly bled to death. And then the concussion from the fall . . ."
No. No. He didn't fall. He didn't. "The line was secure," Chris mumbled weakly. It couldn't be true. Something was all wrong. Everything was all wrong.
"Well, yeah, but he hit his head on a beam on the way down. He's been in bad shape, Chris. And then he had that reaction to the drug and he got so sick on top of it all. Only time he was halfway comfortable was when you were holding him. Ain't no wonder you're . . . confused."
"But . . . we were on a boat. And Vin was poisoned and he was so sick. And Ian O'Connor was determined to make me pay for killing his brother . . ."
"Whoa. Hold on, Chris. Obviously you had one helluva nightmare."
Nightmare? No. It couldn't be, could it? Maybe . . .
But if what Buck said was true, then reality wasn't looking much better. Of course, the problem was . . . which reality was real? Maybe he and Vin were still floating in the sea . . .
"And who is Ian O'Connor?" Buck asked, his confusion real enough.
Chris ignored the question and peered around the waiting room again. Four days? How could he have been here that long and not remember? Nightmares didn't last that long . . . even his. It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense. The only thing to do now was find the one person who always seemed to know how to make it make sense. "Take me to Vin."
Buck nodded and led Chris by the arm to the first room in the hall. "Take a look," he said, and Chris didn't miss the obvious concern in his voice. He wanted to tell his old friend to save it for Vin. After all, he may be flitting about from one dream to another, but at least he was up walking, while Vin was dying in any and every reality.
Vin looked pretty much like he had on the boat--mostly dead--and Chris had to grab the side rail to hold himself up. Tanner's face was black and blue on one side, stark white on the other, and the ugly black stitches still lined his temple. At least that part was the same.
"He looks a little better today," Buck offered.
The soft reassurance hung heavy in the air and Chris almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it, but instead he just asked, "He wake up at all?"
Apparently another stupid question, judging by the way Buck narrowed his eyes and frowned. "The Doc's waiting for us. We'll talk after."
Afterwards, Chris wasn't sure why they'd bothered. The Doctor told them that Vin was holding his own and something about labs looking better, but he didn't buy it. He'd yet to dream up a happy ending. Buck wanted to take him to a coffee shop and talk things out, but they weren't exactly on the same wave length, so he wasn't buying that, either. The only reality he was currently interested in was lying in the bed down the hall.
Vin stirred a little when they entered the room, and since Buck had never answered his earlier question, Chris repeated it, "Has he been awake at all?"
Buck pulled two chairs up close to the bedside and motioned for Chris to sit before he answered. "Some. Hasn't made much sense, but he's come around a few times. Chris, don't you remember anything at all?"
Buck would have him committed if he told him what he remembered. And, unlike Vin, Buck would push until he got his answers.
"Tell me about the nightmare, Chris. Tell me about this boat."
Chris wasn't entirely convinced he wasn't still on the boat and that this wasn't all a dream, but he had nothing to lose by talking to Buck. The only problem was, he didn't know where to start. He wasn't sure where life had ended and the supposed dream had begun. So he started with the warehouse and went forward, in detail, hoping that maybe Buck could make sense of it all.
When at last he finished, Buck leaned back and pulled on his mustache thoughtfully for several seconds before responding, "Kinda did happen that way."
Now Chris was the one looking doubtful - maybe he should have waited for Josiah. Buck lived in fantasy land about half the time; he probably wasn't the wisest choice to help sort this out.
Wilmington continued, "You did stay at the warehouse and close up shop, Chris. You were there a long time and Nathan called you and reamed you out. Vin was real bad, but you didn't want t' hear it. Even when you got here and the Doc laid it on the line, you didn't believe it. You were more worried about his back. Nathan said you weren't facing reality and Josiah said it was a defense mechanism."
He got it, and some part of his brain even registered a vague memory of something like that, but hell, it wasn't the first time he hadn't bought what the experts were selling. "Go on, Buck."
"Well, it went smooth for the first day or so--Vin woke up a few times and asked if you were okay--but then he developed complications and the docs were real worried. Nathan said they wanted to try some new drug on him, but you were his POA and you had to give approval."
New drug? He would never approve of that with Vin's history.
"You said 'no' at first, but Vin kept getting worse and so you let 'em try it. And it was like a poison for him. He got real sick--you were the only one that could even touch him. The doctors said there wasn't much they could do, that they were running out of options."
Chris listened intently, imagining the helplessness and rage he must have felt . . . the same hopelessness and anger from his dream.
It started to make some sort of twisted sense. But where did Ian come in? Why would he think of the man now? And he seemed so real; it all seemed so real.
He said so to Buck, "But it felt real . . . O'Connor and the boat. Why would I dream about him? What could he have to do with this?"
"You were busy blaming yourself for lettin' the docs use that drug. I'm not Josiah, but I'm guessing you were torturing yourself for getting Vin into that mess in your dream, too. You shot O'Connor's brother twenty years ago, and your brain must have somehow connected the two events. I'm sure that's all it is, Chris."
Maybe . . . but it was so real. He could feel the thick carpet under his knees even now.
"And Chris, there's one more thing. You were on your knees . . . in the chapel. I didn't mean to spy on you or anything, but . . . that happened, too."
Chris had his differences with God, but he'd hardly equate praying with begging a cold-blooded killer for mercy. Still, maybe it was a reasonable explanation. "I . . . I guess that makes sense."
Buck shifted closer and put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Listen to me, Stud. It's been hell. You've been here night and day, under a mountain of stress. It's no wonder you're a little out of it. You just need some real rest, that's all. Sleepin' in that chair don't cut it."
Maybe. He was so very tired. "Alright. Give me a few minutes with Vin, and then I'll find a bed."
Buck nodded as he headed for the door, but he turned back with a puzzled frown. "Chris? In your dream, where did you say the rest of us were?"
That was the least important detail as far as Chris was concerned, but he answered, "Up in the Rockies, helping Travis train recruits."
Buck stood stock still and oddly silent.
"What? Why are you asking?" Chris wondered.
Hesitating, Buck finally replied, "Well, it's just that Travis called me about that very thing not two hours ago. He said you knew nothing about it and not to bother you with it until Vin was better." He shrugged and added, "You must have heard about it somewhere."
But he hadn't heard about it.
Buck was already half way down the hall by the time Chris caught up with him. "Have JD check out Ian O'Connor," he said sharply.
"Chris . . ."
"That guy on the beam, the one who took Vin down, he wasn't with the others, was he?"
"See? You're starting to remember." Buck immediately regretted making light of the comment when he saw the fire building in his friend's eyes.
"Answer me, Buck."
"No. We don't know where he came from or why. Ezra and JD are still working on it."
"Check out O'Connor," Chris repeated before turning around and heading back for Vin's room.
Returning to Vin's side, he picked up one limp hand and held it in his own. The stark bruises on his forearms caught his eye, and he relived Vin's strong grip as he suffered through that long night. No, that wasn't real. He wracked his brain, trying to remember the nights he'd spent here, in this room, but he couldn't do it. All he could clearly see was that night on the boat; that night that never really happened.
He sighed, the sound soft and sad, but it was enough to bring Vin around. Tanner opened his eyes a slit and mumbled something weakly. Chris lowered the rail and leaned in close. "How did we . . . get here?" Vin asked.
Chris's heart quickened and he felt light-headed. "What? What do you mean, Vin?"
Vin opened his eyes wider and turned his face towards Chris. "The boat . . . how did we get off the boat?"
A shiver swept through him, but before Chris could pull his startled thoughts together, Buck stepped through the door and up to the bed, and he stuttered, "Oh my God. Did he . . . did he just say what I think he did?"
Still stunned, Chris could only nod.
"But Chris, I swear this is real. I swear you and Vin have been here the whole time. How could he have the same dream as you? What the hell is going on?"
Chris finally found his voice. "Get Josiah."
+ + + + + + +
"I see," Josiah said thoughtfully for the tenth time, and Chris wanted to throw something at him. The big man was settled back in the waiting room chair, his fingers stroking his chin, a far off gaze in his eyes, and all he needed was a pipe to complete the look.
"For crying out loud, Josiah! Get to the point. What's going on?" Buck had run out of patience. This was just too weird and Chris figured it wasn't sitting at all well with Wilmington's rather simplistic view of the world.
"Buck, why don't you get us all some coffee?" Josiah asked, his intention not lost on either man.
It was clear Buck didn't want to leave, but he did with a huff and a roll of his eyes at Chris.
Josiah leaned forward in his chair, his clear blue gaze resting so intently on Chris that the blond turned away. But Sanchez spoke up anyway, "Dreams can mean a lot of things. They can be a way of expressing frustration or fear, or of working out a problem."
"I don't need a dissertation on dream interpretation, Josiah," Chris said crossly.
"I figure your dream was a combination of all of those things," Josiah continued, as if Chris had not spoken. "Fear of losing Vin, frustration that nothing seemed to work, and a need to put a face and a name to the situation--someone to lay the blame on, so to speak--someone such as Ian O'Connor."
Well, thank you, Josiah, but that all seemed pretty obvious. Chris was beginning to wonder why he'd bothered to call Sanchez.
"Of course, there is also the possibility that there is more to it. That the universe or God or some other mystical power is trying to give you a message; point you in the right direction and warn you of dangers ahead."
Or remind him to get on his knees once in awhile . . .
"All well and good, Josiah, but how do you explain Vin and I both believing we were on a boat?"
"What you and Vin have has always been beyond understanding, Chris. I can only say that the bond between you has never been so strong as it has these last four days."
And with that simple statement, the floodgates opened. Chris remembered coming to the hospital after the tragic bust and arguing vehemently with the physicians and Nathan and anyone else who dared to get in his face and say that Vin might die. He remembered holding Vin as he threw up and moaned in pain upon coming out of the anesthesia. He remembered that they couldn't stabilize his blood pressure and they couldn't get his blood to clot and the doctors kept spewing stuff in his ears--pushing him to make decisions that he didn't understand. He remembered his hand shaking as he signed his permission for the experimental drug; knowing it was the wrong thing to do, but backed against the wall with seemingly no choice and no way out. He remembered holding Vin again, Tanner's long fingers squeezing all sensation from his arms as he rode out the spasms until he became too weak to hang on any longer. Chris had whispered soft lies and made promises he couldn't keep and hated himself for it; hated himself even more for giving in to the experts when he knew in his gut they were wrong.
He remembered one long night when it felt like he and Vin were all alone in the world, fighting a losing battle that no one but them could understand or participate in. Adrift in an endless ocean . . .
But he didn't remember even once thinking of Ian O'Connor. That had to have come from somewhere deep down inside; a place he hadn't visited in years. The shooting twenty years ago must have bothered him more than he thought.
Either that, or Josiah was right about an unseen power pointing him in the right direction.
+ + + + + + +
"How do you feel, Tanner?"
"You mad at me or somethin'?"
Chris cocked his head at his friend in the bed. "No. Why?"
"What's with the 'Tanner' thing?"
"I always call you that."
Vin shook his head. "Only in the field or when you're in a hurry or when you're teasin' . . . or when you're mad."
Chris smiled. "I'm not mad. Hell, we've practically been in bed together for the past week, just thought I'd . . . you know, do the guy thing."
"Why? Y' worried about what that man on the boat said?"
"Vin, there was no boat. And no man. And what thing are you referring to?" Chris played stupid.
"You know. About us being--you know--more than friends."
"Hell, Vin, tons of people think we're more than friends . . . and there was no man because there was no boat."
"So you've said." Vin frowned and added, "Tons of people?"
"I couldn't care less what other people think about us. Now answer the question, Vin."
"I feel like shit, which is a considerable step up from what I can remember."
Chris shuddered as he remembered just how close it had been. "Yeah," he said. "It's a definite improvement."
"It's okay, Chris. I'm okay. But hold that spot for me . . . next to Sarah and Adam, just in case," Vin said softly, his eyes fixed on his best friend.
Chris nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
It didn't make sense. His and Vin's recollections of the dream were almost identical, including the conversation about where Vin would be buried when he died. The familiar feeling of foreboding washed over Chris. He'd thought it would ease up, now that the worst had happened and Vin had survived, but it didn't. He still felt unsettled, like something was . . . unfinished.
The vibration of his cell phone startled him and he nearly jumped out of his skin.
"It's just your cell, Cowboy. Get a grip, Larabee," Vin teased.
The number showed up as Buck's, and he knew he needed to take the call. "I'll take this outside and be right back," he told Vin.
"No hurry. I'll be here," Vin said. He added, "It really is alright this time, Chris."
This time. A sense of deja vu gripped Chris, as he recalled thinking those very words in his so-called dream.
The sun shone bright and ten degrees warmer than usual for Denver in November, but he couldn't shake a chill as he stood in the hospital parking lot and dialed Buck's number.
"What is it? Did you find him?"
"Sorry, Chris. We know O'Connor got out last month, but there's no sign of him."
"Chris . . . it was just a dream. He probably had nothing t' do with this." Buck's voice played devil's advocate on the other end of the line.
But Chris knew better.
"I said, keep looking."
He slipped the cell phone in his pocket and took a deep breath. It wasn't over at all. It was just beginning. Josiah had hit the nail on the head when he said a higher power was pointing him in the right direction; warning him of things to come. He knew it in his gut and it made him sick to his stomach.
Chris thought about quitting his job, but that wouldn't change what had already happened. He couldn't change the past, and he felt powerless to affect the future.
His gaze drifted across the parking lot to a church that sat on the opposite side of the street. He followed the line of the steeple as it reached high into the blue sky, and he focused on the shiny gold cross at the top. It was absurd and totally against his character to believe it was God who'd given him the dream, but--as Josiah reminded him--that had frequently been the Lord's M.O.
And it couldn't hurt to have a higher power on his side. As Chris re-entered the hospital door and made his way up to Vin's room, he came to the conclusion that the only way he and Vin were going to get through this was with more help than the guys could provide.
It looked like he was going to be spending more time on his knees.