Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part Two: Head Held High

It was just a dream. Well, the boat thing, anyway. He was pretty sure the stab wound and the concussion were real, judging by the way he still ached all over. But the boat thing wasn't, according to Chris. According to all of them, but Chris's opinion was the only one Vin was concerned with.

Chris was there with him the whole time . . . on the boat; the boat that didn't exist that they weren't really on. Except it felt like they were and it felt like it all happened, and even though Vin knew he'd been real sick, it sure seemed real to him.

It seemed real to Chris, too. Oh, Larabee tried to shrug it off as some sort of weird coincidence, but Vin knew the truth. They were both spooked by the fact that they had nearly identical dreams. Chris was as unnerved by the whole experience as he was.

But Chris was worried about something else, too; something more. Too bad Vin had no clue what it was. Chris was taking his calls outside the hospital room, and the guys acted like they were deaf and dumb every time Vin tried to ask them a question about the case. In fact, they treated Vin like spun glass and danced around Chris like he was set to explode with the slightest provocation.

None of it made sense, and Vin was sure he hadn't hit his head that hard. Although, judging by the incessant drumming inside his skull, that was a distinct possibility. With a deep sigh, he settled back in the bed and tried to pull his thoughts together.

He remembered the warehouse, vaguely. All of the cases sort of ran together in his mind, and there was nothing to set this one apart. A routine bust that seemed to go as planned, until some guy attacked him on the beam. Vin didn't remember much of anything after that, except waking up on a boat, sicker than a dog. There was a tall, skinny guy who seemed to know Chris--who seemed to enjoy tormenting Chris--and who said he'd injected Vin with some kind of slow acting poison.

Vin believed that part, too. He'd never felt so bad . . . so goddamn, excruciatingly, terrible in all of his life. That had to be real. Oh sure, they had an answer for that, too--something about a new drug and him having a bad reaction to it--but he didn't buy that, either. Chris would never have agreed to it, knowing how various drugs had affected him in the past.

He could still see Chris's face as he held him on the boat-that-wasn't. His friend had looked like he just couldn't do it; couldn't take it and couldn't accept it and couldn't fight it, either. And that hurt most of all, seeing his friend so miserable because of him. Well, maybe not most of all because he was feeling pretty damn bad, but it hurt a lot, and he was pretty much powerless to do anything about it.

After that, he recalled being thrown into a lifeboat. The rubber was hot and sticky and it stung his over sensitive skin so badly that it hurt to move or even to be touched. But no, that hadn't really happened, either.


Vin wasn't buying it. His friends were hiding something, every one of them. He couldn't figure out their motives, but no one could convince him that he hadn't drifted through hell in a cramped, miserable raft with Chris for days and days. He could still feel the rolling of the waves and smell the salt in the air. It had to be real.

But most importantly, he remembered Chris being there for him, wrapping him in his arms when the pain was unbearable, and at least all agreed that that had happened. There was no doubt that Chris had stuck with him through it all and that wasn't new or different, but it still gripped Vin hard whenever he thought about it.

The skinny man on the imaginary boat had chided that they were more than friends, he and Chris, and Vin knew what he was inferring. It didn't matter because they were more than friends; maybe not in the way that some people thought, but in a way that couldn't be totally understood or put into words.

So maybe he and Chris did have the same dream. Maybe they were that connected to each other . . . almost freakishly linked. Maybe it really didn't happen.


+ + + + + + +

The guys always made cracks about his eyesight, but no, he really couldn't shoot the wings off a fly. It was more about sensing things--going with the gut--then the actual physical senses, anyway. Like now; he sensed someone was in the room with him, long before he heard or saw.

It wasn't one of the guys, and whoever it was moved too quietly to be a nurse or doctor, so Vin lay very still as he slowly opened his eyes to scan his room.

For a moment his heart stopped while he focused on the lone figure standing near the doorway. Black hair, white skin, icy blue eyes . . . the man from the dream.

No. Not real. He was obviously dreaming again, and he closed his eyes and willed himself to wake up.

"I'm not your imagination, Tanner," a voice whispered, breaking the stillness and sending a hard shiver up his spine.

Vin wasn't a coward, but he had to admit that he didn't want to open his eyes and look. It was too crazy, too confusing, and where the hell was Chris? Maybe it was something like 4am, but Chris needed to be there to see this . . . and oh Lord, he should have kept his eyes closed because this guy looked every bit as evil as he remembered.

The tall man moved closer to his bed, and Vin instinctively curled in as he fumbled for the call bell to summon help.

"Don't bother. It's not there. No one is coming. We're alone and we have much to discuss."

Vin's head was pounding and he thought he just might throw up, but he turned his face to his attacker and tipped his chin up. "Can't even imagine what you think we have t' talk about, Mister, considerin' I don't know you."

Not to mention the fact that he wasn't real.

He looked real, though. The man's glacier eyes bore right through him, and his feral grin did nothing to still the trembling of Vin's heart.

"True. You don't know me. But we have a mutual . . . friend."

A friend who really needed to get his butt in this room now, Vin thought.

The intruder moved closer and Vin shifted, biting back a groan when his wounded torso objected to the movement. During the warehouse attack, his assailant's knife had went up under the vest, ripping him up good inside, and he could have sworn he felt the pull of every suture and every staple that held him together as he twisted. But there was no way this man was touching him . . . be he flesh and blood or apparition.

He tried though; his long, bony fingers sought out Vin's hair and he said in a low caress, "You are quite beautiful. It's no wonder Larabee is so taken with you."

"Get the hell away from me!" Vin cried as he jerked away again. He wanted to scream, but he couldn't make his voice work and wasn't that the way it was in dreams?

But the man suddenly and forcefully gripped his arm, and he knew then that it wasn't a dream at all . . . and he was in serious trouble.

"Give Larabee a message for me. Tell him his twenty years of misery are just beginning."

The man stepped back then and grinned cruelly as he pulled a syringe from his pocket.

No. Not again. He wouldn't survive another round and he wasn't going to let himself be poisoned again. Vin cursed the drugs that remained in his system, dulling his senses and slowing his actions, as he flung himself over the side rail. The tall man nimbly stepped aside, and Vin hit the floor with a thud and a deep groan. His vision blurred, but through the haze he saw the syringe connect with the IV tubing that ran directly to his veins.

There was a sledgehammer in his head and a fire in his gut, and all Vin wanted to do was curl up and die, but he wasn't going to give this guy the satisfaction. Besides, Chris would kill him. Spots danced before his eyes as his vision narrowed, but he fought it. Not now; he couldn't pass out yet. His hand shook as he tried to rip the tape off his arm. For one terrifying moment, it stuck fast, and he almost giggled insanely at the absurdity of it. Poison filtering through his veins and he couldn't get off the damn tape to stop it. But just when he thought it was useless, the adhesive gave way, and with one quick flick of his wrist, he pulled the tubing free from his veins.

He could feel the blood dripping freely from his arm, making a tiny puddle on the floor. No big deal, but Gladys, his nurse, wouldn't be happy. Now that he thought on it, she was more likely to be upset that he was on the floor, and why was that again?

Oh yes. Oh God, yes. Where was he? The tall, skinny man with the impossibly white face and black hair and arctic eyes?

Vin groaned again as he tried to pull his feet beneath him, but between the pain and the dizziness, he didn't come close. He settled for climbing to his knees when it became clear the goal of actually walking wasn't going to happen. He would get out, one way or another, and he managed to crawl a few feet before running into an obstacle. Black sneakers . . . he knew them well and he could have kissed them in sheer relief.

"My God, Vin! What the hell happened now?"

He didn't even care that Chris was seriously pissed.

On their knees, both of them, as Chris wrapped an arm across his shoulders and eased him to the floor. Vin was shaking, the tremors starting at his toes and rattling clear up to his teeth, and Chris quickly threw a blanket over him while hollering at the top of his lungs for Gladys. Obviously Chris had no problem raising his voice in a dream.

But no, it wasn't a dream. He was definitely on the floor and he definitely felt like shit all over again and the man was definitely there and he had to tell Chris.

"Go after him!" Vin shouted, thankful that he'd managed to finally get his mouth and brain to coordinate.

"After who?" Chris looked too genuinely puzzled to be putting on and that could only mean the skinny man was long gone.

But he was there and he'd put something in the IV and Vin had to pull it together long enough to get that message across. "The man . . . from the boat. He was here and he put something in my IV," Vin said hoarsely.

Chris rose quickly and raced through the door, bumping into Gladys as she entered. "For goodness sakes, Larabee! What have you and your partner done now?" she asked with a shake of her head.

Chris hesitated with one foot in the room and one in the hall, torn between going after Vin's possible assailant and making sure he was taken care of. Much to Vin's chagrin, his concern won out and he rushed back to Vin's side, speaking tersely as he moved, "Vin says someone put something in his IV."

"Go after him! He'll get away!" Vin repeated, struggling now to get up and do it himself if that's what it took.

"Lie still, Vin!" Chris shouted back, the words bouncing off Vin's skull in an excruciating staccato.

Vin grit his teeth and laid his head on the floor and decided passing out would feel a lot better right now than chasing after a madman anyway.

At least Gladys had it together as she paged the doctor to Vin's room stat. She'd read Vin the riot act later, but that was okay. The stern, older woman was his favorite nurse all around, mostly because she didn't let Chris intimidate her.

"Ah shit, Vin, you're bleeding," Chris's voice said from some distance away.

"I pulled out the IV," Vin mumbled, stating the obvious.

"No. I mean from your wound, damn it. Do I have to stay here with you day and night?"

Chris didn't mean it. He was just frustrated. But he was also right. He shouldn't have to sit with him like he was some kind of helpless child.

"I'm sorry," Vin rasped.

But Chris had moved on. "And where the hell were you, Gladys, when Vin threw himself on the floor?"

"There are other people in this hospital, Larabee," she answered, while lifting Vin's gown to peer at the ruptured sutures. "And if Tanner would just stay put for a change, we'd all be better off."

Well, that hardly seemed fair. Vin was pretty sure he didn't make a habit of throwing himself out of bed.

Chris sat back on his heels and pulled his hand through his hair before turning to face Gladys. "You think it's possible? Could someone have messed with the IV?"

Oh, so now they thought he was making it up . . . throwing himself on the floor for no good reason.

Gladys stood stiffly and reached to the bedside stand for a pair of gloves and a dry dressing. She slid the latex over her hands and knelt by Vin's side once more, pressing the dressing to the oozing wound. Ignoring the hiss that slipped through Vin's lips, she turned her gaze to Chris. "I didn't see a soul," she said softly, and Vin knew she was hoping he didn't hear her. "It's possible someone got passed me, but not likely."

"We're not taking any chances," Chris replied tightly.

"Of course not," she agreed.

There were all kinds of commotion then; hands lifting him and voices rising, and Vin knew he'd completely lost control of the situation. Seeing no sense in fighting it any longer, he closed his eyes and let the darkness take over.

+ + + + + + +

"No. I want someone here 24/7. Don't argue with me, Buck."

"Lower your voice and listen t' me, Chris. I ain't arguing. Hell, I know better. I'm just sayin' that between the drugs and all this talk of dreams, it's no wonder Vin's seein' things. If you want t' keep him safe, you need someone at his side, not outside the door."

Seeing things? Keeping him safe? Vin kept his eyes closed and listened to the conversation. Maybe he'd finally get some idea what they were all keeping from him. But wait a minute, what was that about him seeing things?

"You didn't see him, Buck. He was on his knees, crawling, shaking like a leaf, and blood everywhere. Someone could have been in this room."

Someone was in this room.

"The tests came back negative; nothing in his IV. Nobody saw anyone that even came close to O'Connor's description come in or out. Vin scrambled his brains and tore himself up again over a nightmare. We don't need to post a guard at his door and tie up someone from the force, Chris. We'll take turns with him. And maybe you should let one of Josiah's friends talk to him."

Josiah's friends? Oh man, now they thought he was crazy.

"He was real, Chris," Vin said, startling the other two men.

"Well, hey Pard, didn't know you was awake," Buck said, red-faced and flustered.

Vin ignored him. "Chris, he was here. The man from the boat. He said to tell you that your twenty years of misery were just beginning."

Chris blanched, trying and failing to act casual. "There was no boat," he said. On automatic pilot, Vin thought. Say it enough and they'll both believe it.

Okay, so he couldn't win that argument, but he wasn't giving up on this one. He was damn tired of being left in the dark. "He was here," Vin repeated. "A tall skinny guy with black hair and blue eyes and he's not gonna stop until one or both of us are dead. And I'd sure like to know why. I remember some of it from the boat . . . dream . . . but not enough to put it all together. I figure I got a right to know, Chris."

He could see what little color was left in Chris's face drain clean out. But instead of answering Vin, Chris turned to Buck. "How would he know that, Buck? He's never seen Ian O'Connor. How would he know exactly what he looks like?"

"Because you've talked about this before . . . when you had your other dream . . . the boat thing. And lots of guys are tall and skinny and have dark hair and blue eyes, me being one of them," Buck argued.

"Who is he, Chris? And why is he after you?" Vin tried again to get to the point.

Chris sat in the chair by his bed while Buck stood behind him, hands on his hips as he sighed in exasperation. "Don't make this worse, Chris," Buck warned, and Vin wondered what he meant by that.

"His name is Ian O'Connor. I shot his brother twenty years ago when I was a rookie cop. I also put Ian in prison. He completed his sentence last month," Chris said flatly, the muscles in his face tight and tense. Trying not to give too much away, but Vin knew that this was really getting to his friend.

The pieces of his 'dream' came together and Vin nodded in understanding. "Have a picture?"

"Now Vin," Buck interrupted, "there's no call for this. This guy had nothing t' do with what happened t' you in the warehouse. And he's long gone. He got out of prison and left the state--hell, probably the country. You and Chris need t' put this nightmare behind you and move on."

"Show him the picture, Buck," Chris demanded.

Shaking his head, Buck produced a faded black and white print, but the image was clear enough.

"Yeah, that's him. He was in my room," Vin said softly. "I swear it, Chris. It was real. He was here. And whatever he's up to, he's just gettin' started."

Chris stood abruptly and turned to Buck. "I want one of Denver's finest outside this door every minute of every day until we find him." When Wilmington didn't move, he added, "Now."

"Alright, Chris. Maybe you two got something here. Maybe we need t' look a little harder," Buck conceded. But he sighed again as he turned and exited the room.

"You believe me." A fact, not a question, and Vin felt the weight lift just a little.

"Yeah, Vin, I do. Wish I didn't, though. I wish it really was just a dream and this was all over."

"Why didn't you tell me this sooner? Why did I feel like y'all were hiding somethin' from me?"

"I don't think you realize how bad off you were, Vin. The guys didn't believe there was anything to this--hell, they still don't believe there's anything to this--and we all agreed there was no reason to give you something else to worry on just yet. Last thing you needed to hear was that there really might be some lunatic out there trying t' get to me through you."

"But you believed it all along, didn't you?"

"I did. And I do . . . and it scares the shit out of me."

+ + + + + + +

Chris had the whole team out checking the security at his place. He had a damn clipboard with a check list, in fact, and in spite of the seriousness of the situation, it made Vin smirk.

It was the first time ever that Chris didn't want Vin home with him, but there wasn't much choice. The doctors wouldn't let him climb the stairs to his place, and there was no way he was putting Nathan's family in harm's way. Buck and JD didn't really have room, and neither did Josiah. Ezra's mother was visiting, so he was out. All the guys had stood around his hospital bed, arguing over it and acting like Vin wasn't even there, and it left him feeling even more like a burden than usual. Buck finally assured Chris that they would check out his place and keep watch, and that's exactly what they were doing.

Vin eased back against the soft leather of Chris's couch and closed his eyes while he listened to the by-play going on around him. He still hurt everywhere; was still dizzy when he moved too quickly and he could hardly eat anything, but it was such a huge improvement from where he'd been two weeks before, that he wasn't complaining.

"Alright, Chris, the perimeter is secure." Vin heard Josiah's voice drift in from the deck outside.

"That's not possible and you know it. The area is just too big," Chris responded negatively. He added, "Don't make blanket statements like that, Josiah. Hell, anybody could get on my property and O'Connor is too smart to let a minor inconvenience like a mediocre security system stop him."

"If he's so smart, why did he sit in prison for twenty years? Why was he never let out on parole?" Josiah countered.

"Because he's crazy." JD's voice joined the two men. "He came up for parole lots of times, but he couldn't pass the psych evaluation."

"Well, thank you, JD. That's just what Chris needed to hear." Buck this time and Vin didn't have to see his face to know he was irritated.

"I already know he's crazy. And last time he had no trouble at all stealing Vin and I from this house."

Oops. Chris had slipped up. Vin could tell by the pregnant pause that the others were just waiting for him to realize it.

"I mean," Chris quietly clarified, "that they had no trouble in my . . . dream . . . and that there's no way to guarantee it won't happen again . . . that way."

"Actually, there may not be a guarantee, but I do have some reassurance to offer." Ezra had joined the group.

"What?" Chris snapped, and Vin had the feeling it was going to be a very long day.

"I just received word that the whereabouts of Mr. O'Connor have been verified. He is currently abiding in Miami with his father."

Vin sat up with that new information and prepared to make his way out to join the others. His back was killing him, too, and every move was a calculated effort. He figured he must have wrenched it in the fall and lying in bed for two weeks hadn't helped. He'd only just made it to his feet when he heard Buck's hearty laugh.

"Well, there you go, Chris. You and Vin can rest easy now."

As Vin hobbled his way to the deck, he wondered how Buck had gotten so far off the Chris-radar. There was no way Chris was going to let this go so easily.

"Rest easy? You think this is over? You think he's just decided to let it go and move on? You're the crazy one, Buck."

"Come on, Chris. We don't even know he did anything to begin with. There's absolutely nothing to tie him to the warehouse incident and nothing to tie him to Vin's . . . accident . . . in the hospital. All we have are . . . dreams."

Dead silence.

Vin finally shuffled onto the deck. All heads turned towards him, but he kept his eyes on Buck as he spoke calmly, "You may be right, Buck. Right now, I'm prayin' you are."

He wasn't right, of course, but Vin hated the conflict brewing, and arguing wouldn't solve anything.

Buck noted Vin's attempt to make peace, and he nodded and smiled appreciatively, but all that seemed to do was infuriate Chris more.

"Where's O'Connor been for the last month? How did we just now figure out he went to his father's? And who the hell attacked Vin on that beam? You got an answer for that, Buck?"

Vin sighed. He wasn't helping matters and he felt useless. He couldn't remember anything about the warehouse incident. One minute he'd been preparing to climb down, and the next he felt someone grab him from behind and shove a hot poker up his gut. It could have been anyone for just about any reason.

Buck shook his head as he answered Chris, "I don't have all the answers. Never said I did."

"Well, I have one answer," Ezra spoke up. "The senior O'Connor's residence was the first place JD and I checked. It would be an obvious destination for a man recently released from a twenty year sentence with no home of his own to return to. Although, I have to say that I would be hard pressed to live with my parent, even under the most trying circumstances. Her visits are difficult enough. Why just this morning, she--"

"Finish it, Ezra," Chris commanded with a roll of his eyes.

"He wasn't there a week ago. My sources tell me he only just arrived within the last few days."

Chris glared at Buck before turning to face the others. "You all can think what you want. And if you don't want to take this seriously and see that Vin is kept safe, then I'll find men who will."

Vin sighed again and leaned back against the deck railing. Suddenly exhausted and depressed, he couldn't even summon the energy to find his way to a chair. But almost magically, a strong hand gripped his arm while a soft voice found his ear. "Come on, Vin. Let's find you a place to settle a spell."

He let Nathan guide him to the spare room and ease him onto the bed.

"Got you some Gator Aide and I want you to drink it," Nathan instructed as Vin fought to keep his eyes open.

"Aw hell, Nate. I hate that stuff. It makes me puke."

"No. The antibiotics and pain pills make you puke. The Gator Aide keeps you from going back to the hospital for IV fluids," Nathan said with a smile.

He pulled the blanket up over Vin's chest and started to head out, but Vin stopped him. "What do you think about all of this?"

Nathan moved over to sit on the side of the bed and met Vin's gaze. "I don't know, Vin. You and Chris have both been through hell and it could be the dreams were just your mind's way of dealing with it."


"But somebody attacked you on that beam. And it don't make sense that you'd dream about a man from Chris's past you've never met. I'm planning on sticking close by."

Vin nodded as his eyes closed. His mind immediately drifted to Ian O'Connor. The man was in Miami, Ezra had said.

Lots of boats in Miami.

Lots of ocean, too.

Good thing the guys were sticking close by.

+ + + + + + +

"You've got to be kidding me!"

Vin pulled himself up a little in the recliner at the sound of Chris's raised voice. He had been dozing when the phone rang, and he could immediately tell something wasn't right.

"Yes, Sir, I understand that. But it's only been a week since Vin . . ."

Ah, AD Travis, no doubt. And it didn't sound like something Chris wanted to hear. He probably needed to go back to work, which Vin had been telling him all week. Chris had actually gone in a few times, trusting Vin's care to Nathan only, but it really was time for their leader to get back to it full time.

"Yeah, but . . ."

Neither of them had had any more dreams, and Vin was starting to think it had all been their imaginations. But Chris was more on edge than ever, if that was possible.

"I know Ezra's sources say he hasn't left Florida, but that doesn't mean . . ."

Oh. So this was about O'Connor. Vin sat up straighter, but groaned when the muscles in his back tightened. Chris looked over at him with a frown, but kept talking to Travis.

"He's doing . . . okay, but I still don't like this one bit."

Chris was biting his tongue, Vin could see it written all over his friend's face, and he would have laughed outright if the man didn't look so damn worried. Finally, the call ended and Chris walked numbly into the living room where Vin sat. Larabee was shell-shocked and dazed, and now Vin was nervous. What the hell was going on?

"Chris? What's up?"

Chris sat on the coffee table and met Vin's eyes. "It's happening, Vin," he said softly, and if Vin didn't know better, he'd swear Chris was afraid.

"What? What's happening?" Obviously he'd missed a lot in that phone call.

"All of it. Your back and the gator aide and the guys taking off for the Rockies. It's just like before," Chris replied, his eyes set on some far off place that Vin couldn't see.

"Chris, I don't know what you're talking about."

Turning to Vin, Chris said very slowly, "My dream started like this. You were here and your back was hurting you. And you kept throwing up that damn Gator Aide until you finally threw out the pills and . . . and then Buck called and said that Travis was sending them all up to the mountains to train recruits."

And now he was looking at Vin like it should all make sense, which it did because Vin could always read between the lines--Chris's lines, anyway.

"It's not the same, Chris. For one thing, Buck didn't call."

Chris stood and started pacing. "Details. That's all." He stopped abruptly and peered out the sliding glass doors to the property beyond. "We're getting out of here," he demanded sharply. "We'll go to a hotel until the boys get back."

Okay, now it was getting weird. Well, technically it wasn't getting any weirder than it already was, but Chris was definitely acting weird and totally out of character.

"Chris . . ."

"Don't argue, Vin. Let's get a few things together and get going."

"So we're running?"

That made his friend pull up short, just as Vin knew it would.

"Don't play head games with me, Tanner."

"Hell, Larabee, where have you been? This whole thing has been one big head game from the start."

One big, painful head game, but still a head game.

"Pull up your shirt, Vin."


"The bruises on your face are nearly gone, and your hair will eventually cover that scar on your head, and but those scars on your belly you'll keep for the rest of your life."

Chris moved closer, squatting next to the chair where Vin still sat, and he added softly, "Ian O'Connor did that to you. I know it. And I won't let him hurt you again. I won't let this happen. Now get up and get ready to go."

No choice then. No say. And that didn't sit well with Vin. Not at all. He might be practically crippled and weak as a new born calf, but he'd be damned if he'd be treated like a child.

"Think I'll stay," he said, as he settled back in the recliner and put his feet up.

Vin saw it in Chris's eyes; the gamut of emotions ranging from anger to frustration to the realization that he'd played this all wrong. Well, good. Chris needed to get himself together and most of all he needed to remember who he was dealing with. Vin wasn't an incompetent greenhorn or a yellow-bellied coward or any other color of any other word that might apply that he couldn't quite think of at the moment.

"Please, Vin."

Aw hell . . . two words . . . two itty bitty words were all he had to say. Larabee did know exactly how to play him after all. But when it came down to it, it wasn't Chris's words that made the difference, it was his face; tired and drawn, like mile after mile of real bad road. And Vin realized he hadn't gotten the worst of this deal--Chris had. Watching Vin suffer was so much harder for Chris than being hurt himself could ever be. And somehow, O'Connor knew that.

So okay, the scumbag had Chris right where he wanted him; strung tight and jumping at shadows, not because he was afraid for himself, but for his best friend. So maybe said best friend should be a bit more understanding, reasonable, sympathetic. Well damn, maybe that best friend should just cooperate and be done with it. Didn't feel right to run, but he wasn't exactly in the best position to argue anyway.

"Alright, Chris. If that's what you want."

With a tight nod, Chris answered, "It is."

He turned then and headed off towards the bedroom, but Vin hadn't even made it out of the chair before he was back. "Damn," he said. "I forgot about the horses."

"We can drive back up in the mornings, can't we?" Vin offered hopefully. Surely Larabee didn't think they were going to spend the next five days and nights locked up in a hotel room, did he?

But apparently that was just what Chris planned because he answered, "I'll get my neighbor to take care of them. Of course the old coot won't answer his phone, so we'll have to drive over and talk to him."

Vin rolled his eyes. "We don't have to drive over and talk to him. I can stay by myself for an hour, Chris. Besides, I'm tired; didn't get my nap this afternoon."

Chris hesitated for several moments before finally nodding and grabbing his coat. "I'll be back shortly."

But he didn't even make it out the door before he turned back around. "No. I'm not leaving you here alone. Come on."



"Chris . . . Ezra has people watching O'Connor. Travis has people watching us. I've already agreed to spend a week in a hotel with y'. Just think what people will say about that. We might just as well head t' Rhode Island and get us hitched when this is all over. Now chill out and get goin'."



"Same sex marriages are legal in Massachusetts, not Rhode Island."

"Yeah, okay. I hate t' break it to y', Pard, but I'm not gonna marry you. Right now, I'm hard pressed not t' shoot you. Lucky for you I'm too tired t' make the effort."

He was tired. Tipping the chair back just enough to ease the ache in his back, Vin sighed and closed his eyes. He heard Chris huff as he left; heard him check the locks--twice--too. It would have been funny, if it wasn't so . . . weird.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was sure he'd only had his eyes closed for five minutes when something woke him. It was probably the pain pills, distorting time as well as wreaking havoc on his stomach. He'd waited until Chris left before he took two, not wanting to let on to Larabee that his paranoia had given Vin a pounding headache. He couldn't get comfortable either, and he blamed that on Larabee, too. In fact, he was just about to get up and forget the whole idea of resting, when he finally started to drift off.

Minutes later, he heard something; a sound that was off or maybe just a feeling in the air, and shit, this was all Larabee's fault. Now he was jumping at shadows and . . . oh God, there was a shadow . . . and a voice to go with it.

"You look a little better, Tanner. Of course, that isn't saying much, is it? Considering how bloody you've been in our previous encounters."

Not real. No way. Ezra had said just that morning that the guy was in Florida. Maybe Vin wasn't so hot at geography but he knew that Colorado and Florida weren't exactly neighbors. So no. No way. Had to be another dream.

"Not real," he whispered, but the lump in his throat and the hammering of his heart felt real enough.

Ian O'Connor smiled and moved into the room. "Not real? Well, I guess time will tell won't it?"

Vin pulled himself upright in the chair and berated himself for taking that pain pill. He knew he should have thrown the damn things in the trash.

"This is certainly real enough, don't you think, Vin?"

The long blade of a sharp knife glinted in the sun streaming through Chris's windows. O'Connor took his thumb and rubbed it gently along the sharp edge, drawing a tiny bead of blood.

Vin stood quickly and clumsily, concentrating just to stay on his feet. If he could just make it to the bed, maybe he could wake himself up and end this horror film. He took a single faltering step, but O'Connor blocked his path and raised the knife. Vin was mesmerized when the shiny metal reflected the arctic blue of his tormentor's eyes.

"I remember what it felt like--plunging the dagger into your body. It was a challenge, working it up under the vest and getting the angle just right. There was just the slightest resistance. Do you remember?"

Oh God. Either this guy was totally insane or Vin was totally insane for dreaming this up. Neither alternative was good, but given the choice, he'd take the latter.

"I even remember the sounds you made; the faintest grunt when the knife went in and the lightest gasp as you fell. It was most disappointing. I'd expected more . . . fight. Of course, it was even more disappointing when you didn't die."

O'Connor leaned in, and now Vin could almost feel his breath on his face. He knew he needed to move, but his feet were rooted to the floor.

"But now that I've seen your considerable charms for myself--how extraordinarily beautiful you are--I feel differently. It could be beneficial to delay this little game of ours. I think Larabee would agree. Don't you?"

Vin wanted to say something biting and sarcastic, but apparently the man rendered him speechless as well as paralyzed. Dreams worked that way, right?

It was a dream.


"We have time. I promised Larabee twenty years. No reason to end this too soon."

Ian turned away then, back towards the shadows where the sunlight didn't reach, and Vin thought maybe it was over - the dream or the not-dream. It didn't matter so long as the villain in this feature made his exit.

Except he was a tricky one, this phantom, and he doubled back around and grabbed Vin from behind before he had yet to move a single step. One hand around his waist, and the other up against his throat, and Vin felt the cool blade slide along the exposed skin of his neck. He tensed and tried to remember the moves; he'd been trained and he'd practiced and God knew, this wasn't the first choke hold he'd been in, but he couldn't for the life of him think what to do.

It didn't matter much because before he could react, O'Connor had twisted him around in his arms and delivered a solid punch to his tender, aching middle. Familiar fire engulfed him, and Vin fell to his knees and curled up on the floor. A week's worth of Gator Aide made its reappearance, and he swore he'd never touch the stuff again, no matter what Nathan said.

When he finally stopped heaving, he turned his head to see where Ian had gone, but there was no trace of him. Not a sound or a shadow to even indicate which way he'd come or gone.

And once again, just when Vin thought he was going to die on the floor in an embarrassingly yucky puddle of green vomit, Chris appeared. What was the saying? A day late and a dollar short? No, that didn't sound right, but the being late part sure fit.

So when Chris rushed to his side, mumbling and cursing about not being able to leave Tanner alone for five minutes, Vin said the first thing that came to mind, "Your timin' sucks, Cowboy. Thought we was supposed to have some sort of freaky connection . . . thing."

"Well shit, Vin, can I help it if you get off on throwing yourself on the floor and giving me a damn heart attack?"

That was when he decided that he wasn't going to tell Chris about the visit. Chris's eyes were filled with worry and worst of all, fear, and Vin couldn't stand to see it one more day. It wasn't natural. The whole universe was off kilter and he was sick and tired of having no control over any of it. First he'd figure out what was real and what wasn't, then he'd take care of the problem. And then maybe--just maybe--he'd let Chris in on it.

"I'm sorry, Chris. I just . . . I had a headache and y' know how them pills rile up my stomach. I just . . . didn't make it up in time."

Chris gripped him under his shoulder and helped him sit up, but the pain in his stomach doubled him over again.

"That's it! We're stopping at the hospital," Chris barked.

"It's nothin'," Vin argued.

But it didn't feel like nothing. It felt like someone had punched him good right where he could inflict the most pain and do the most damage. He sucked in a breath and tipped his head up enough to scan the room once more. Could it have been real? Could O'Connor have somehow found a way in?

"Everything okay outside? You see . . . anything?" Vin hinted.

Chris peered at him suspiciously, "No. Should I have? Is there something you're not telling me, Vin?"

Vin pulled his knees up and lowered his head to rest on them. If he told Chris about the dream, Larabee was likely to have the whole damn PD out there searching the grounds. Talk about embarrassing . . .

He shook his head and mumbled, "Could use a hand up."

Between the fire in his middle, the ache in his back, and the renewed pounding in his head, he almost changed his mind and asked Chris to leave him on the floor. But that would just worry his friend more, so he bit his lip and hoped Larabee didn't hear the hitch in his breath when he finally made it to his feet.

By Larabee's pinched expression, you'd think he was the one in pain, though. So Vin decided to lighten the mood. "You best have gone first class this time around, Larabee. I want a Jacuzzi and room service and a king size bed all t' myself."

Chris didn't even smile; just shook his head and kept his grip on Vin's arm.

It was going to be a long week.

+ + + + + + +

"I don't make house calls, Larabee."

"Yes, you mentioned that, Gladys."

"I'm not even a doctor."

"I know that, Gladys. It's just that Vin's spent so much time at the hospital already, and he'll be miserable waiting in the ER. But I told him that if you thought he needed to go, he'd go," Chris said contritely, while Vin shook his head behind his back.

"And Wilmington knows he's taking me out for dinner?"

"Of course. Buck can't wait to get back and repay your kindness," Chris lied. Buck would do it, though, and he'd treat the older woman like she was his most special date.

Gladys rolled her eyes. "Give it up, Larabee. You'd think after all the time you two have known each other, some of that Wilmington charm would have rubbed off, but I guess not. Fortunately for you, I happen to have a soft spot for Tanner."

Now Vin rolled his eyes. He'd often heard that the nurses argued over who got to be assigned to him, and he couldn't understand the attraction. He was universally known as a miserable patient. He couldn't believe Chris had called the nurse to come to their room and check him out, or that she'd actually agreed to do it.

The examination was mercifully quick and Vin endured it without his usual complaining. When she was through, Gladys pushed up the glasses that were forever sliding off her nose and turned to Chris. Now that was aggravating; Vin was pretty sure he was the patient.

"I don't see any new damage. But he looks exhausted and he's still too pale and too thin. Make sure he keeps that appointment with Doc on Thursday. And in the meantime, don't let him do anything. I mean nothing. Got it?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Make him eat, too. And by the way, why are you stuck inside a stuffy hotel room when you have a perfectly lovely home with real mattresses and fresh air?"

"Long story," Chris muttered.

"Hmm . . . well, maybe there's some truth to those rumors about the two of you," Gladys said with a wink in Vin's direction. "Lord, there will be a passel of disappointed nurses at Denver Memorial," she added with an exaggerated sigh.

Chris didn't take the bait, though. He just said flatly, "Buck's still free. I figure he's enough for all of you."

Not the slightest hint of a grin, either, as if his face would crack, and Vin just shook his head. Chris was not nearly as somber as everyone thought, except for now, and it tore at Vin's heart. Time to end this, one way or another, and he almost hoped Ian O'Connor would leap from the shadows and bring it on.

Gladys left then, pretty much barking orders all the way out the door. Chris nodded and thanked her again and then he slid the dead bolt in place and finally met Vin's eyes.

"What did he say?"

"Who?" Vin asked, genuinely confused.

"O'Connor. What did he say when he attacked you at the ranch?"

God . . . he was good.

"Don't bother denying it, Vin."

"If you thought that, then why didn't you do something?"

"Like what? Go chasing after him in the woods and leave you alone in the house so he could finish what he started? Call in help? Who believes us? We both know they wouldn't find a trace of him. Travis would have us both sitting at the shrink's office inside of an hour. The fact is, we're on our own. So . . . what did he say?"

Vin hesitated; he still wasn't sure he hadn't dreamed the last encounter. Chris must have seen the uncertainty on his face, because he moved closer to where Vin reclined on the hotel bed. Leaning forward, he brushed a lock of hair off of Vin's neck and ran his finger over the pale skin.

"He marked you, Vin; a slight cut that you probably never felt. Your hair hid it from Gladys, but I saw it the minute I found you on the floor. It's there and it's real."

Okay, too creepy for words and Vin shivered as he sat upright on the bed.

"He said he wasn't in a hurry to end this. Something about taking his time."

"Why? What the hell is he up to?"

Vin shrugged. "Don't know, but . . . he seems t' sort of . . . like me."


Red-faced, Vin mumbled, "Keeps tellin' me I'm . . . pretty . . . or somethin' like that."

Finally a smile and what do you know? Chris's face didn't crack after all.

"Ain't funny," Vin reminded his friend.

"Well, no. Nothing is funny about this, but . . . I guess Buck is right."

"About what?"

"He's always said you were damn near beautiful. Not that he's interested in that way, but . . ."

"Can we just get back to the subject?"

"Alright. I don't like this cat and mouse game. And I don't like questioning everything I see and everything I hear--wondering what's real and what isn't."

"Yeah. So?"

"So what?"

"So what are you gonna do about it? Why the hell are we hidin' out here in a hotel room instead of meetin' the bastard head on?"

Chris sighed as he sat on the foot of Vin's bed. "Dreams got me so spooked, Vin, I halfway believe that O'Connor is some mystical being from the dark side . . . that he can walk through walls and mess with our minds. But I figured even he couldn't snatch us from a public place like this."

Vin snorted. "Hell, you just said he messed with our minds; you think a little obstacle like us changin' our location is gonna make a difference? We'd have been better off t' stay put . . . let him come."

"Let him come, huh? You think you're up to that, Pard?"

"Hell yes, Chris! I'm as sick of this game as you are. We ain't goin' down on our knees again, Larabee. I say we hold our heads up and do what we do best . . . take him down."

"That your definition of 'doing nothing'?" At Vin's puzzled frown, Chris clarified. "Gladys said you were to do nothing. Whether you want to admit it or not, you're in no shape to take on a homicidal maniac."

"And since when have you taken up makin' decisions for me?"

Chris's face paled but he didn't look away as he answered, "Since you were lying half dead in a hospital bed and I was your POA." He added softly, "I don't want to go there again, Vin. I won't take the risk. When you've recovered, we'll go after him . . . hold our heads up and take him down. But not until then."

The subject was closed. Chris stood and walked over to the window, and Vin knew he was checking out every shadow.

Well, Chris could think and say what he wanted, but Vin was pretty sure there would be no choice in the end. O'Connor was playing this his way, and he and Chris were pretty much sitting ducks--just waiting for the mysterious man from the dark side to make his next move.

Either that . . . or it was all a dream.

+ + + + + + +

His head was pounding, his stomach churning, and his back aching. And it had been what? Three weeks? Surely he should feel better by now.

"Easy, Vin. Just take a breath."

Chris, of course; rubbing his back and acting like he didn't mind playing Vin's personal nursemaid. The man deserved a medal.

"I'm so sorry, Chris," Vin groaned as he rolled onto his back. Damn. This hotel had the worst mattresses; felt like he was laying on a board . . . a rolling board.

"Shit. Can you make the room stop spinning?" Vin moaned, closing his eyes and breathing through his mouth.

When Chris didn't answer, he opened one eye to take a peek at his friend. Chris sat back on his heels, his eyes dark and weary and desperate. Desperate?

Propping himself up on his elbows, Vin felt his blood run cold as he gasped. Three small, round windows lined up near the ceiling and nothing but blue beyond them. Oh God.

"Chris! How . . . what happened?" He tried not to sound panicked, but he knew he did. He heard it in his voice and in the wild thumping of his heart, and he slumped back to the floor with a weak cry that would have been embarrassing if he wasn't so freaked out.

"Don't you remember, Vin?" Chris asked sadly. But he shook his head as he whispered, "Of course you don't. You've been so sick."

Yeah, he was sick--was being the operative word. "But I'm better . . . we got off the boat that wasn't really there . . . and I got better and . . . how did we get here again?"

Chris put a hand on his forehead and pulled the blanket up over his chest. "Shh . . . don't worry now. It'll be over soon."

"No. No. It is over. Or it was over. We got off the boat . . . except there was no boat because we were dreaming. Remember, Chris?"

"I'm sorry, Vin. You've been out of it for hours . . . you're confused. We're still on the boat, but I swear I'm going to find a way out. You just have to hang on."

We're still on the boat.

No. No. No!

"Let me up!" he screamed as he pulled himself from Chris's grip. "This isn't real! I'm not staying here!"

"Vin! Lie still, you'll hurt yourself!"

No. No. No!


If he could just close his eyes and breathe, it would all go away.

"Vin! For crying out loud, Tanner! Wake up!"

Didn't Chris get it? That's exactly what he was trying to do, but his heart was exploding in his chest and he was too terrified to open his eyes.

"Shit, Vin. O'Connor won't have to kill you; you'll manage it all by yourself."

Wait a minute . . . Chris sounded almost normal.

"Are we off the boat?" Vin asked faintly, his eyes still closed.

A big heavy sigh before Larabee answered, "There was never a boat. And why the hell do you keep throwing yourself on the floor?"

Vin slowly opened his eyes and took in the generic décor of the hotel room before meeting Chris's cool green gaze. "I'm sorry . . . it's just . . . I don't know what's real . . ."

Softening instantly, Larabee nodded. "I know. Let's get you back into bed and try to get a good night's sleep, okay?"

He was tired, though closing his eyes was the last thing he wanted to do. But Chris needed to rest, so Vin took a deep breath and consciously slowed the hammering of his heart as he crawled back into the bed and huddled under the covers. "I don't keep throwing myself on the floor," he mumbled, unable to stifle a gaping yawn.

"Right. Go t' sleep, Vin."

Even with his eyes wide open, the images from Vin's dream came flooding back. O'Connor could do it . . . he could get them on a boat for real; steal them from their room and whisk them off to Florida and set them adrift in the ocean.

"How you reckon he'd do it?" Vin ask, thinking out loud.

"What? Kidnap us?"

That was spooky, too, that Chris could follow his train of thought, considering how he kept jumping the track from one reality to the next.

"Yeah, for starters."

"I don't know. His family has money and I suppose nearly anyone can be bought. Probably could get a security guard to look the other way," Chris said as he turned out the light and collapsed on the bed.

Vin nodded in the dark. "He could put us in one of those big laundry barrels."

"They only do that in the movies, Vin."

"Well, it always works."

"In the movies."

"It could happen."

"Not likely to."

"But it could."

"Go to sleep, Vin. We'll figure it out tomorrow."

"Does thinkin' count?"

This time Chris stifled a yawn. "Count as what?"

"Doin' nothin'?"

"Long as you stay put in that bed, you can do all the thinkin' you'd like," Chris muttered softly, and Vin knew the man was almost asleep.

He'd do some thinking, alright. It was time for a plan. And it was time for him to do more than cause Chris grief; looking after him and cleaning up after him and worrying about him all the time. Sooner or later, they were going to get their chance to confront this demon from Larabee's past, and Vin would be ready when the time came.

Chris was right when he'd said they were pretty much alone in this mess. But they'd agreed to ride through hell together from the start; no reason to turn back now. The only stipulation was, Vin was going out with his head up.

Part 3