PART ONE | PART TWO
PARTS THREE and FOUR
Vin slowly raised his head as a flock of swans flew overhead, calling to each other as they went. Despite the peace and quiet of his surroundings, he felt himself wishing that he too could take flight and join the swans, just leaving everything behind. As they disappeared from view, he sighed and lay back down, shading his eyes from the sun that streamed through the aspen trees, casting shivering shadows across the nearby lake.
It was so peaceful there he did not want to move ever again. Gently his eyelids closed and he slipped into a light doze. Some time later, although he was unsure how long it exactly was, he was woken by a snort from Peso. Carefully he struggled into a sitting position, feeling every rib on fire as he did so and he could not help the small moan that escaped from his lips. He glanced round and smiled faintly as a familiar shape came towards him; he might have known that he could not escape from Chris for long. The man seemed to have been transformed into a mother hen recently, Vin reflected wryly; and although part of him rebelled against the cosseting, another part of him was grateful for the concern shown him. His early life had not been one where there had been much of it and he was unaccustomed to people caring for him; but that did not mean he didn't enjoy it when it happened - not that he would let any of the team know that.
"Hi, Chris," he said as the other dismounted and approached him, carrying a large picnic basket.
"Going off without telling me," Larabee grumbled. "Good thing, you're a creature of habit!"
"Didn't ask you to nursemaid me," Vin pointed out.
"No, guess you didn't," Chris grinned. He planted the basket at Vin's feet and looked expressively at the young man.
"Thought you could do with some food, since it seems to have escaped your notice that you do actually need to eat."
Vin had the grace to blush as Chris sat down beside the basket and opened it up. He sat up straighter and bit his lower lip to stop the moan that rose unbidden. Although he was busy unpacking the picnic, Chris was more than aware that the young Texan was still in acute pain. How he had managed to ride out to the lake with his ribs still hurting him Larabee did not know; knew he could not have done it.
They sat munching in companionable silence although Vin's appetite was soon satisfied. The drugs Nathan had given him to try and counteract all the others suppressed any desire for food and for the moment he ate only because he knew he needed to. When they had finished Chris lay back with a sigh and watched Vin as he too lay back on the grass, although it was clear that it hurt to do so. Chris, however, knew Vin would not accept help from him.
Chris was glad that Vin had accepted the invitation to stay at the ranch. He knew the Texan missed the open spaces of his native state and loved riding the horses that Chris reared. It was with a sense of relief that Larabee watched the tautness fade from Vin's thin body and a little colour return to the white cheeks. By the end of the first week and despite still being in pain, he was almost back to normal. Not one for riotous laughter or clowning around, he was smiling and ribbing Chris the same as usual. Larabee would have let himself believe that everything was all right if it had not been for the sudden silences and black moods that descended without warning. Then Vin would go off by himself, white and miserable, rubbing his still bruised arms and savagely sending Chris away.
He might be gone ten minutes or two hours, Chris could never tell and while it worried him to let Vin wander about on his own, despite his promise to Travis, he was not about to intrude into his friend's privacy. He always returned to the ranch, a little apologetic. But what frightened Chris most of all was the ill concealed misery and fear that still haunted Vin's eyes.
At last the sun began to set behind the hills at the far side of the lake and it started to grow cold. Chris got to his feet and began to ready the horses for their return to the ranch. He was mildly surprised when Vin allowed himself to be helped up. The ride back was silent and Chris could see that Tanner was in more pain than usual.
On arriving back at the ranch, Larabee took Peso from Vin.
"I'll look after him," Chris told the younger man. "You go and get yourself some painkillers."
Without a murmur, Tanner turned and walked across the yard to the house. As he entered he became aware of JD's voice coming from the lounge. Stopping off at the bathroom to down a couple of painkillers, he walked into the room. JD was sitting on the couch next to a slim blonde girl. As Vin entered they both looked up at him.
"Hi, Vin," the youngster said. Vin managed a thin smile through his pain and then his eyes drifted to the girl.
"Hello, Vin, how are you?" Sonia asked, rising to her feet and crossing over to him. He looked at her blankly for a moment before speaking.
"Do I know you?" he asked softly. She took a step back as if he had slapped her across the face and her eyes filled with tears.
"You saved my life," she said. "I've come to say thank you."
"I'm sorry," Vin responded even more softly. "I don't remember you; I don't remember anything. I'm glad I helped you, if you say I did, but I don't remember."
"JD can we go, please?" Sonia asked as Chris entered the room. JD nodded. She turned back to Vin.
"I'm sorry, so sorry; it's all my fault. If you hadn't helped me, you'd have got away." Vin frowned at that.
"Not your fault," he said. "Can't have been your fault; must have been mine. Shouldn't have got caught." His eyes clouded over and he moved past her to sit down on the sofa.
JD crossed to Chris and handed him a packet.
"The photos you wanted, Chris. I'm taking Sonia home. He doesn't remember her." He looked over his shoulder and they all stood to look at Vin who seemed to have retreated himself.
"That's okay, JD. Thanks for trying Sonia."
She smiled sadly up at him.
"It wasn't his fault, you know," she said.
"I know," he assured her.
After JD and Sonia left, Chris opened the packet he had been handed and looked through the surveillance pictures. He tapped them gently against his open palm considering what to do. Vin glanced up at the sound.
"What have you got there?" he asked.
Chris took a deep breath before answering slowly,
"Just some photos."
Chris held them out to Tanner, his heart thumping. Vin took them and looked down. His face went completely still and pale; he suddenly had difficulty in breathing.
"When did you get this?" he rasped. The top picture was one of him in the mall, dressed all in white.
"Buck took it the day you met the church members in the mall for the first time," Chris tired to keep his voice neutral.
Vin shook his head slowly and slumped back on the couch.
"No, I don't remember. At least I don't think I remember. Now that you mention it, it feels right but......." he ground to a halt. "I don't know. Can't explain." He let the picture flutter from his fingers onto the floor.
Chris watched him carefully as he looked down at the next one in his hand. There was no change of expression, no start of recognition. Nothing.
"Who's this?" Vin asked disinterestedly.
"You're joking," Chris remonstrated. "You must remember him."
Vin looked up, puzzled.
"But I've never seen him before in my life."
"It's Dawson," Larabee said in exasperation. "The smooth Matt."
Vin shrugged. Chris stared at him, then took the photos from his hand. Placing most of them on the table, he put a shot of Menzies gently into Tanner's hand, hating himself as he did so.
"Do you recognise him?" he asked softly.
Vin shook his head helplessly.
"Chris, I'm telling you, I've never seen any of these people before and I know I'd remember that girl if I'd met her."
"You lived with those people for weeks. How can you not remember?"
"I don't know," Vin shouted, leaping to his feet. "Do you think I like it? You tell me that I lived with them and I believe you because I know you wouldn't lie to me. But I'm not lying either! I just don't remember." From a shout his voice had died to a whisper on his last words. He slumped back down on the couch, running a hand over his face.
It was only then that Chris realised that Tanner truly did not remember; until that point he had harboured the secret belief that somewhere, in a corner of his mind, Vin knew what had happened and who these people were. He dropped to his knees beside the young Texan.
Vin took a deep shuddering breath and flinched as his ribs complained.
"It's okay," he whispered painfully, "I know what you're trying to do. It's driving me crazy, this not knowing. And I'm worried about those youngsters."
"Bad medicine, Vin, this is supposed to be a rest and recreation job," Chris said. He picked the photos up off the table. "Forget about these. It was stupid."
"Bit late for that," Vin said tiredly.
"I'm going to finish the horses," Chris said.
"I'll get on with my book while you do that," Vin said. "I'll have the coffee ready when you come in." He got up slowly from the couch and moved towards the kitchen. As he passed Larabee, Tanner touched the older man's shoulder briefly, a small gesture of thanks and reassurance. Chris looked at the pictures in his hands and cursed himself roundly as he threw them into the bin. Upsetting Vin had been a stupid thing to do and he felt really bad at Vin's generosity in forgiving him.
Chris finished the horses, drank his coffee with Vin and then made sure that the younger man was settled and asleep before retiring for the night. Some time later, in the early hours of the morning, he was dragged from sleep by a scream from Vin's room. Groping for the bedside light, he scrambled out of bed and rushed into the next room.
The young Texan was huddled against the wall, face buried into the pillow and his arms curled protectively over his head. Despite the low light he could see that Vin was shaking uncontrollably. Chris crossed the floor and reached out a hand.
At the sound of a voice, Tanner jerked and tried to get closer to the wall.
"No," he muttered, his terror plain to hear even though his voice was muffled. "No."
"Vin, it's me Chris. It's all right. You were dreaming," Chris said gently. He sat down on the side of the bed and gently stroked the brown curls. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
Inch by painful inch Vin uncurled himself and turned to look at Larabee. His expression was one of complete dread, his eyes were lifeless and the whole room was filled with the sound of his ragged breathing. A small moan escaped his lips.
"Sit back and relax while I make you a hot drink," Chris said. By the time he had returned with a steaming mug of hot chocolate, Vin was lying back on the pillow, eyes closed, his breath wheezing.
"Here you are, get yourself round this. It'll do wonders for you."
"Thanks," Vin said in a very subdued voice. He sat up and accepted the mug, still shaking a little, and sipped the drink gratefully. When it was finished he put the empty mug on the bedside table and carefully moved down under the covers, closing his eyes.
"You okay now?" Chris asked gently.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Vin shook his head violently.
"Would you like me to leave the light on?"
Vin nodded again, reluctantly, ashamed.
"You sure you'll be all right?"
"I'm sure," Vin said huskily. "Go back to bed, Chris. Sorry I woke you."
"No problem." Chris adjusted the covers and straightened up. "See you in the morning."
The door closed quietly. Vin rolled onto his side, drawing his knees up to his chest, trying to ignore the pain that that caused him. He wrapped his arms round his knees and lay like that, afraid to go back to sleep.
If he closed his eyes he would see the faces again, all twisted into grotesque masques of agony and death; their staring eyes accusing him and blaming him for their suffering. Somehow, although he was unclear how, it was his fault that they were dead and the guilt was a weight that threatened to pull him down. He could not breathe. His ears still rang with their screams, moans and shrill screeches that tore through him.
A fresh wave of horror threatened to engulf him and unwittingly he pressed his face into the pillow, biting down, trying to stifle his whimpers. Mixed up in it all were the two faces that Chris had shown him earlier, the men he had called Dawson and Menzies. Why them? And why did that girl's face fade in and out amongst it all? He tried to recall them all in the context of his dream but they slipped from his memory like smoke through fingers. The only solid thing was the pain, both emotional and physical. He forced himself to look at his hands. Could they really be unmarked? He had seen them burn; watched the flesh crisp and fall away. The pain had been real not part of his dream.
With a groan, Vin sat up. He fought for breath and then reached out for his book like a drowning man reaches out for that which will save him.
Chris scrutinised Vin closely the next morning when he came out for breakfast, noting the heavy, pain filled eyes and the hollow cheeks.
"You didn't get back to sleep, did you?" he said gently.
"Couldn't." Vin dropped onto a chair and took the proffered mug. He looked at the slice of toast, dripping with honey, which Chris held out to him before taking it and putting it on his plate.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Chris asked gently, sitting down opposite him.
"It was ........ frightening. Like a video nasty. People dying. Killing. Animals. Blood. Lots of blood." Vin could not stop the shudder that shook his entire body. "And somehow it was all my fault. I'd done something. Don't know what."
"Sounds like a simple case of guilt," Chris observed softly. "You know you know something but you can't remember it. You're worried that people are going to suffer because you can't remember. So, you have nightmares."
"Maybe," Vin whispered. "But somehow Dawson, Menzies and that girl were all mixed up in it."
"Coincidence," Chris said. "I showed you those pictures, which I bloody well shouldn't have." He could see that Vin was not convinced and was ready to sit round all day thinking it over and working himself into an even deeper depression. "Forget it, Vin, it was just a bad dream. We all have them. Forget it and we'll go fishing, okay?"
Larabee was so obviously worried; so determined to make everything all right again that Tanner did not have the heart to refuse.
"Sounds good," he murmured. He picked up the toast and looked at it, unsure whether he was going to manage to eat even that the way he felt. Seeing Chris glare at him, he nibbled off a small corner; but it stuck in his throat and made him cough until he was racked in pain. When he finally stopped coughing and fighting for breath he found that he was seated on the floor wrapped in Chris' strong arms. Weakly he leant back against the other man.
"God, it hurts, Chris."
"I know," Larabee murmured soothingly.
They spent the day fishing on the lake in glorious sunshine and caught enough for their evening meal. It was a quiet day; neither man known for his conversation but they enjoyed the company of the other, even in silence. Vin gradually relaxed, putting the bad dreams of the night before behind him and when they turned in early, tired from the fresh air, Chris was hopeful that the young Texan would sleep the night through.
"See you in the morning," Vin said.
"And not before," Chris replied.
Larabee stripped off, climbed into bed and fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. At three in the morning, however, he was woken by a stifled scream from next door. He scrambled out of bed and padded into the guest room to find Vin sitting bolt upright, tears streaming down his face, cradling his arms to his chest as though they hurt him beyond anything he had ever experienced.
Chris took Vin by the shoulders.
"Vin? Are you awake? Vin?"
Tanner looked up with a face full of pain and Chris' heart bled for him.
"My hands," he moaned, "Burning."
"There's nothing wrong with your hands, Vin," Chris said softly, taking the young Texan's hands in his and gently prying open the clenched fingers. "Look at them, Vin."
Slowly and fearfully Vin opened his eyes and looked at his hands, expecting to see charred stumps.
"See, there's nothing wrong with them. It was just another dream." But Chris felt his helplessness in the face of the subconscious machinations of Vin's mind. "Was it the same as last night?"
Vin nodded, wiping the tears from his face with the back of his hand. Chris passed him a tissue and watched as he slipped slowly back under the bedclothes.
"But worse," Vin admitted in a whisper. "Fire and blood."
"Can I get you anything?"
"No. I'm all right. Just go back to bed, Chris. Sorry I woke you again."
Chris nodded and got off the bed. Vin in this mood was unreachable.
"I'll see you in the morning," Larabee murmured as Vin turned away from him with a moan. He went out, shutting the door softly behind him and leaving the light on.
When Vin woke again, screaming, from an afternoon nap Chris decided it was time to call Travis.
"We have a problem, sir."
"Vin's having nightmares. Very badly. The last two nights and again this afternoon, while he was having a rest."
"Do you think it's connected?"
"Perhaps." Chris took a deep breath. "I think I might have triggered it. I showed him some photos of Dawson and Menzies."
There was a short silence at the other end of the telephone.
"Are they in his dreams?"
"Yes, along with lots of blood and fire if I understand him correctly."
"Good god. What are you going to do?"
"Try and ride it out here until Josiah gets back. If he's going to have nightmares, he may as well do it in the fresh air."
"In that case I'll tell you what Jackson has discovered. Tanner has been pumped full of hallucinogens. If he's dreaming these terrible things......"
"He could be flashing back," Chris finished for him. He thought hard for a moment. "He keeps saying that somehow it's all his fault, what's happening; that he's done something wrong. It's more than his normal sense of guilt."
"Perhaps he talked," Travis suggested quietly.
"Could be. But it could just be nightmares."
"Can you cope?"
"Neither of us is sleeping much but, yes, I can cope."
"Good. I want to see you on Friday when Sanchez is back. On your own."
Chris replaced the handset thoughtfully. If Travis was right then Vin was in his own private hell. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. How was he going to help the young Texan?
Friday followed a tense few days and Chris was almost relieved when it arrived. He managed to persuade Vin to have some breakfast, a simple routine that had become a battle as the days had passed. As Vin sipped disinterestedly at his coffee, Chris sat down opposite him. Swallowing hard, he told Vin that he was going to the office. Vin looked up at him with eyes that had become increasingly blank over the last week.
"To discuss my nightmares with Travis?"
"Yeah. Sorry, Vin, I didn't want you to know; at least, not yet."
"Can read you like a book, Chris. Anyway I'm getting an idea for dealing with them, so don't you and the judge worry yourselves none."
Chris looked at him sharply, not liking the edge to Tanner's voice. He rested a hand gently on Vin's and looked him directly in the eyes.
"Don't do anything stupid before I get back."
The young Texan looked at him with what might have passed as a faint smile in his eyes, even as he disentangled his hand from Chris'.
"You know me, Chris, I don't go in for stupid. That's Buck's department."
"Hm." It had sounded like the old Vin but to Chris' ears there was a false note in Tanner's voice that disturbed him. Reluctantly he stood and moved to pick up his jacket. At the kitchen door he stopped and turned. Vin was sitting where he had left him, his head resting on folded arms and, as he watched, silent sobs shook the young Texan's frail frame. It took all of Chris' willpower not to go back and fold Vin in his arms in a desperate attempt to smooth away his troubles.
When he arrived at the District Attorney's offices he walked into Travis' with only the most precursory of knocks.
"I've been thinking," he announced. Travis looked up at him and slowly closed the file that he had been reading.
"So have I. How was the rest of the week?"
"Horrible. It got worse until Vin could hardly close his eyes without seeing it all. A couple of times, when I was trying to wake him up, he thought I was someone else. He's strong. Got a good set of teeth too," he told Travis ruefully. "He's absolutely...... terrified, sir. I don't think I've seen him quite so bad before."
"Did he say anything? Call you a name?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Kept saying I didn't talk."
Travis sat silent for a few moments, then exhaled softly.
"Brainwashing, it's the only explanation."
"Yeah, I know," Larabee agreed softly. Travis looked up at him sharply.
"Has he mentioned the possibility himself?"
"No, but he's not stupid; he knows as much about it as we do. He'll reach the same conclusion himself sooner or later - if he hasn't already."
"Pump him full of drugs; make him believe that there will be suffering and violence if he reveals what he knows...."
"And, as the icing on the cake, convince him that he'll burst into flame if he does open his mouth," Chris added darkly. "The bastards." He swallowed the rest of the obscenities he was about to utter, remembering where he was.
Travis shook his head slowly.
"Of course, what they didn't take into account was Vin's innate sense of justice."
"Or his capacity for guilt," Chris grimaced. "I mean, they used it against him, to stop him talking; but what they didn't realise was that that same sense of guilt would start to push him towards remembering."
"So, his subconscious is fighting the conditioning and trying to surface. Hence the nightmares."
"I don't know about all that," Chris shrugged. "All I know is that he can't take much more of this. He's coming apart at the seams."
"Well, hopefully, Sanchez will be able to shed some light on it for us. I'll see him later this afternoon and I will brief him, not you Larabee."
"Josiah's done work on interrogation techniques and de-conditioning; and he knows Vin. He has to be the person for the job."
Chris returned to the ranch later than he had intended. After his talk with Travis he had called in at the office to catch up on the news and update the team on Vin's progress, such as it was. When he finally pulled into the drive he was surprised to see the house in darkness. As he climbed the steps and inserted the key in the front door, a tingle of fear began to germinate in the pit of his stomach, which grew as he searched every room for Tanner. At last he came to the conclusion that the young Texan was not in the house and, with a sense of dread gnawing away at him, he crossed the yard and searched the barn. He knew immediately that Peso was missing.
His heart missed a beat and he found himself tacking up Pony with hands that shook. Where the hell are you, Vin? he wondered. Given Vin's strange mood that morning he had to be sure he picked the right way to ride now, otherwise God knows what the young Texan might do. Chris was under no illusion that Vin was perfectly capable of doing something really stupid, despite Tanner's assertion that morning.
Once up in the saddle, he looked round the dark yard. Where are you, Vin? And then suddenly and with certainty he knew and it seemed to him that they had got their connection back. He was, however, totally unprepared for the black wave of despair and self-loathing that then swept over him. Turning Pony in the direction of the lake and, despite the dangers of night riding, he urged the horse into a canter.
As he approached the lake through the avenue of beech trees, he saw Vin standing knee deep in the water, illuminated by the full moon that shone brightly down. He had his back to the shore and seemed to be looking out across the lake to the far hills, which were sharply silhouetted in the moonlight. As he slowed Pony to a walk and got closer to the water's edge, Chris could see Vin's shoulders shaking uncontrollably and then something glinted coldly in the hand that hung lifelessly down at the young Texan's side.
Dismounting swiftly Chris took a step into the water.
"Vin!" he called softly.
The brown curled head shot up at the sound of the voice and Tanner spun round, raising his gun as he did so. Chris swallowed hard as he saw the barrel of Vin's gun pointing directly at his chest. He spread his hands out wide to show that he was unarmed.
"Vin, it's me Chris," he said softly.
Slowly the gun was lowered and Vin wiped a hand across his face as he realised how close he had come to shooting his friend.
"Fucking hell, Chris," he snapped, "you looking to get yourself killed?"
"Not particularly," Chris replied as lightly as possible. "Just came to see what you were doing."
Vin turned away from him and looked towards the hills once more.
"Go home, Chris, leave me be."
"To do what?" Chris pressed, thinking he knew, but not wanting to believe it.
"To blow my fucking brains out before the nightmares do it for me," Vin replied desperately.
"Why?" Chris pressed, taking a tentative step forward.
"Why do you want to blow your brains out?" He took another step forward.
"Because they brainwashed me. Because they didn't have the bottle to kill again so they made damn sure I'd never remember what I found out. Pity they were gutless," Vin whispered.
"Stop it, Vin," Chris said sharply.
"They messed with my mind, Chris. At least a bullet's clean! You can't dream when you're dead! I'm just going to finish it for them! Go home, Chris." As Vin spoke he started to raise the gun towards his mouth. Without a thought for his own safety, Chris dived across the gap between them, grabbing the gun and flinging it away into the watery depths even as he tackled Vin and knocked him over.
Coughing and spluttering, Tanner emerged from the water and, rolling out from under his assailant, managed to land a punch on Larabee's jaw. Chris grabbed the hand before it could give him another upper cut and pushed it down against the stony bottom of the lake. The action caused something in Vin to snap as he perceived his choice being taken away from him and he struggled against Chris' grip. Desperate to escape, and not caring if he hurt his boss, he fought as viciously as a wild cat. Larabee, however, was hampered by not wanting to hurt the younger man as they fought in the shallows of the lake for Vin's life.
Eventually lack of strength, brought about by his having not eaten much over the past few days, was Tanner's downfall and Chris was able to subdue the Texan until they lay side by side in the water, breathing heavily. Chris fought to regain his breath first, knowing that he had to be able to help Vin and once he had regained it, he scrambled to his feet and turned to pull Tanner to his. Holding out his hand, he frowned when Vin refused to take it and turned away from him trying to curl up and make himself invisible in the water.
"Not here, Vin," Chris said kindly, placing a hand on Tanner's shoulder. He was startled and not a little saddened when Vin leapt to his feet with a snarl and backed away from him. He had never seen such desolation in anyone's eyes as he saw in Vin's at that moment and he filled with fury, wanting to kill the people responsible for taking the gentle young man in front of him and ripping him apart as if he were a piece of tissue. Slowly he moved towards the young Texan who retreated from him until his feet scrunched on dry pebbles. At the sound, Vin turned to run up the beach to where a pile of rocks stood, outlined in silver.
"Go home. Let me die. Can't go on. Won't go on."
"And let those bastards who did this to you win?" Chris asked as he followed him slowly but resolutely.
Vin sat down in the shadow of the rocks, hugging his knees to him and looking away from Chris and back to the dark purple hills in the distance.
"Don't care any more," he whispered harshly. "Can't do this any more. Always expected to cope, to deal with things. You're a survivor, Vin - isn't that what you're always telling me? Well, I can't do it no more. I'm tired. I'm hurt and I'm sick of it all. Just want it all to go away for ever. Please, Chris, let me go."
The pleading tone in Vin's voice cut right through Chris and he felt the tears start to his eyes. He had never realised, not even stopped to think about, how much it cost the younger man each time they made him face and fight his demons; and he did not suppose that the others had either. Sitting down beside Vin he instinctively wrapped his arms around the Texan and drew him into a warm embrace.
"Can't do that, Vin," he murmured, "And you know it."
"Why not?" Tanner asked, shivering.
"Those youngsters need you," Chris reminded him, knowing he was being cruel but what was that old saying? You have to be cruel to be kind?
"I can't help them. I can't remember; so what does it matter?" Vin's voice was completely devoid of inflection.
"Travis thinks you can do it - with Josiah's help," Chris said, trying to sound encouraging.
"Travis is an optimistic old fool."
"Does that make me an optimistic young one?"
"Don't know." Vin shifted uncomfortably in Chris' arms as he spoke, memories flooding back.
"Let me go," he whispered suddenly, licking his dry lips. "Don't ...... don't hold me."
Chris released him in surprise; his holding a distraught or hurting Vin had never been a problem in the past. Leastways, he had never objected to it before. What, he wondered, had happened to change that? Carefully he moved to set up some distance between them and looked intently into his friend's face. Even in the half light he could see the sheen of sweat on Vin's face and the panic that had entered his eyes.
"No one's going to touch me like that ever again," Vin whispered to the hills. Chris grew cold all over as he realised that Tanner had just confirmed his worst fears.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked quietly, half hoping that Vin would not.
"No, just want to go home," Vin sighed, too tired to argue with Chris any more.
Home? Perhaps that was a hopeful sign, Chris thought as Vin got slowly to his feet. He got up and followed him over to the horses, frowning as the younger man's feet seemed to falter. Vin climbed painfully into Peso's saddle and turned to look at Chris for the first time as he swung up beside him.
"I can't promise, Chris," he said, instinctively knowing what Larabee had been going to ask. "Please don't ask me to because I may just have to break that promise and I don't want to do that - not to you."
The ride back to the ranch was silent, even the night birds seemed affected by the men's mood and were silent. The horses were left to pick out their own path and meandered slowly through the trees. At last the dark shape of the ranch house loomed through the trees and Chris had never been more relieved to see it in his life. Peso slowly led the way to the porch where Chris slid off Pony before turning to help Vin. The young Texan sat swaying for a few moments in the saddle but still managed to find the energy to glare at Larabee when he moved towards him. Then he slowly dismounted. As he set foot on the ground, he gasped sharply as pain shot through his chest and he clutched at his ribs.
"Vin!" Chris started towards him again.
"Don't touch me," Vin ground out between clenched teeth. "I'm all right."
"You don't look it," Chris pointed out.
"Then shoot me and put me out of my misery," Vin snapped back as he climbed the stairs painfully and entered the house.
Josiah sipped his coffee thoughtfully and nodded at the man in front of him.
"I've given it a lot of thought," he said in his soft voice. "In fact, I haven't thought of anything else while I've been away. I'm not sure I'm the best man for this."
"I think you are. You have an understanding of interrogation techniques and de-conditioning. But, more importantly, you know Officer Tanner and that can only help," the District Attorney countered.
"Hm," Josiah was not convinced but Travis was not the sort of person you said no to when he looked as he did now. Not only that he knew that young Vin would be bleeding inside and it might be better if a friend, rather than a stranger, were to do this. "I can see the dilemma here. Finding the missing youngsters is of paramount importance; but since all the eggs are in one basket, we mustn't rock the boat; if you'll excuse my mixed metaphors. I think that hypnotic regression is the best solution we have and Vin certainly would need to trust the person carrying that out. Are you familiar with that at all, sir?"
"Some, through reading, but not enough to really understand it. Would you care to elaborate?"
"It can be very useful, especially when someone is as traumatised as I suspect Vin is. Hopefully I can use it to calm him down and perhaps even put a stop to the nightmares." Josiah tapped a finger against the side of his mug. "You do realise that it's going to take Vin some time to get over this, don't you? Whatever they did to him, judging from what Chris has told me, it's upset him very deeply."
"Exactly what are you trying to tell me, Officer Sanchez?" Travis asked, leaning forward very slightly.
"Oh, I don't think it's going to make him unfit for duty, just a little hard to live with."
Travis smiled wryly at that.
"You mean more than usual?"
"Yes......no......I," Josiah stammered, realising what he had just said. Collecting his thoughts he tried to explain more clearly. "I would expect mood fluctuations and a low boiling point for our usually equable young officer for some weeks. I suggest low key assignments for the moment and see how he goes."
"I agree. Will you tell Officer Larabee?"
"I will. Chris needs to be warned since he's the one who partners him mostly."
"Fine. Now I'd like a word with the two of them before you see Officer Tanner. Fifteen minutes?"
"Thank you, Officer Sanchez." Travis said, dismissing Josiah.
As he left the D.A's office Josiah looked at Vin who was slumped in the chair next to Chris'. Even from across the corridor he could see the grey pallor to the skin, the slightly parted lips trying to ease the breathing, the eyes closed against god knew what and the air of despair. Josiah caught Chris' eye across the bowed back of the young man and he saw the pain and concern in the older man's face.
"Travis wants to see you now," he told Chris quietly. Larabee nodded and turned to Vin. A huge sigh came from the young Texan as he stood slowly and moved towards the office.
"Let's get it over and done with," Tanner muttered in the same inflectionless voice as he had used the night before.
Chris and Vin sat down opposite Travis, Tanner moving his chair ever so slightly closer to Larabee's as if he needed to draw strength from his boss. The District Attorney regarded them for a moment as if weighing up the situation anew now that he actually saw the Texan.
"Officer Tanner you have an appointment with Officer Sanchez in fifteen minutes. We believe that by using hypnotic regression he will be able to recover your memory and remove the nightmares."
"It's been done before," Vin agreed, staring intently at the desk and licking his dry lips.
"I've received instructions from the state governor," Travis continued, feeling Chris' eyes turn on him in concern. He concentrated on the young Texan, however. "I've been ordered to head an official, no holds barred inquiry into the whole business. That means I must use all the means at my disposal in order to reach a successful conclusion to the investigation in this election year. Poetic as it may sound, Officer Tanner, your memory is like a pirate's treasure chest, which has been locked by a very large key, now lost. Somehow, with Officer Sanchez's help, we must find the key to unlock that chest."
Vin raised his eyes to the D.A at that.
"And what happens if we can't find the key?"
"Then we use a pistol."
"You could smash the chest."
"Yes we could," Travis agreed softly, keeping his eyes on Vin's face.
A small, bitter smile twisted Vin's mouth.
"So, what are we waiting for?" he asked. Having made the decision, Vin was ready to co-operate his usual one hundred and ten per cent, regardless of the personal cost to himself.
Chris looked from one man to the other, dawning comprehension chased away by black fury.
"Are you two serious? If Josiah pushes too hard it could......" he swallowed hard, not brave enough to look Vin in the face, knowing that it was he who had convinced Vin that he had to help find the youngsters.
"Yes," Travis agreed with apparent complacency.
Chris turned to look at Vin.
"Because, as you so rightly pointed out last night, I knew what I was getting into when I joined that bunch," Tanner replied, resting his aching head in his hands. "Those youngsters had no idea what they were getting involved with. I don't like this idea anymore than you do, Chris; less in fact since it's my mind we're talking about. It's probably too late to help the Chief's daughter and the others who were there with me, but it might not be too late for some other poor girl. And, let's face it, I won't have any peace of mind unless I know. It's a risk I have to take." He looked up at Chris, willing him to understand; needing to know that he understood.
Chris just looked at him, helpless in the face of Vin's cool argument. Anger twisted his face. After last night, he was now only too aware of the price Tanner would be paying - always paid - and the knowledge made him angry at everyone, including the young Texan.
"You and your fucking martyr complex," he hissed venomously and was on his feet and out of the office before the other two men could stop him.
Vin flinched as if he had been physically hit in the face. Then, after a quick glance at Travis, he pulled himself painfully to his feet and followed Chris out of the door. The D.A reached for his telephone.
"Officer Sanchez? There's going to be a slight delay I'm afraid."
As Chris stalked through the hallways, people scattered like chaff in the wind before his aura of palpable fury. After he had passed they turned and stared at his retreating back in amazement, exchanging astonished glances with each other. Larabee flung open the door of the small kitchen and, mercifully, found it empty. Out of habit he went over to the kettle and, finding there was some hot water in it, proceeded to make a mug of strong coffee. Too angry to sit down at the table, he paced the room clutching his mug.
Pirates' chests, keys, pistols! What did Travis think he was doing sitting there calmly discussing the possibility of Vin's being pushed over the edge. Not only that, that bloody, irritating, stupid Texan actually agreed with him! What was Travis anyway? A robot? Didn't he care? Chris found that his hands were shaking. Placing the empty mug in the sink, he put his hands on the wall in front of him and rested his forehead on the cooling tiles, trying to regain his equilibrium.
When Vin warily pushed the door open and walked in he spotted Chris immediately and felt the man's anger crackling all around him like an electric storm. Larabee sensed his approach but refused to turn and look at him.
"I take it you're going through with this?" he said tightly.
"What choice do I have?" Vin asked helplessly. He took a deep breath and forced himself to put a hand gently on Chris' shoulder.
"What's the matter, Chris? I thought this was what you wanted me to do."
Larabee sensed Tanner's confusion and willed himself to calm down for the younger man's sake. Slowly he turned and rested against the edge of the sink.
"I just don't want anything to.........go wrong."
"And you think I do?" Tanner retorted. "Chris, look at me." He waited until the older man had raised his eyes to him. Blue eyes locked with green. "You were right. I can't let those youngsters down. They need me. It's as simple as that. And deep down inside, you know that."
Chris looked at the young man in front of him and wondered, yet again, how in his hard life Vin had managed to learn such selflessness.
"I don't like it," he said.
"It's the only way," Vin reiterated.
"I suppose you're right."
"I usually am," Tanner responded with just a hint of his normal spirit.
"You see, I'm scared," Chris admitted simply, his fear showing in his eyes.
"I know. So am I," Vin told him as, with a supreme effort, he forced back the memories that again rushed to the fore front of his mind and put his arms around Chris. Larabee felt the warmth of the embrace and guiltily realised that Vin, despite his own feelings about being touched, was trying to comfort and reassure him in the only way he could think of. That was wrong, it should have been the other way round, he should have been the one who had moved to comfort Vin. Gently he wrapped his arms around the younger man trying to reciprocate the gesture and they stood quietly in the kitchen for some minutes before Vin disentangled himself.
"Got to get this show on the road, Chris," he said gently and, turning his back on the older man, walked resolutely out of the room leaving Chris to return on his own to the D.A's office to face a furious Travis.
As Vin entered the small room set aside for the purpose, Josiah looked up and smiled. Vin could not help responding to the man's warmth and returned the smile as he sat down in the indicated chair.
"Are we going to do it now?" he asked nervously. "Want to get it over and done with."
"That's understandable," Josiah rumbled, "but I want to talk about what we are going to do first of all. Nervous?"
Vin nodded and licked his lips; bloody petrified would be more like it, he acknowledged candidly to himself.
"Well, I can't promise you that everything will be all right, Vin, and I know you wouldn't thank for me for that. I'm going to be completely honest with you. You've suffered a severe shock and it will take time to recover. We are going to have work very hard and carefully to make sure that this doesn't upset you any more than is absolutely necessary - because it will. Travis says you've been suffering from nightmares?"
"Yeah," Vin admitted, shifting in his chair. "Ask Chris about it; I've kept him awake these last few nights."
Josiah smiled gently.
"Is there anything you want to ask me before we start, Vin?"
Taking a deep breath and raising his eyes from the hands in his lap, Tanner asked the question that had been uppermost in his mind ever since the regression therapy had been suggested.
"Josiah, there isn't any chance of me.....that I......oh, you know......" He could not bring himself to finish the question.
"Will go insane?" Josiah placed a gentle hand on Tanner's shoulder and looked into his eyes so that Vin could see the truth in what he said. "No, I wouldn't worry about that. It's going to be traumatic, there's no way we can avoid it. You're going to relive whatever it was that those people did to you so you must be prepared for some unpleasantness. The most important thing for you to remember, however, is that you're safe. It's only a memory and the reality is that there are people here who care for you and want to help you."
Vin sighed softly.
"Can we get started, Josiah, please, before I lose my bottle?"
Chris stood stiffly to attention while Travis gave him the best dressing down he had ever had since he was in seventh grade. The District Attorney let him know exactly what he thought of the conduct of Team 7's leader over the past few weeks and that afternoon in particular. He reached heights of invective and simile that had seldom been scaled by mortal man. Although much of it was true, the knowledge did nothing to appease Chris' burning resentment of Travis' attitude that the job came first. The job came first, of course it did, except when it meant that Vin's sanity was in danger. Then the job could go play with itself so far as he was concerned. He had never thought any different and Travis knew that. He had never made any secret of his feelings about that, so what did the D.A expect him to do?
Chris became aware firstly that Travis was coming to an end of his tirade; and secondly that he had, in reality, heard very little of it.
"Concern for Officer Tanner not withstanding. Is that clear?"
"Which means that I can expect a marked change in your attitude from now on?"
"Sir." But it was a lie and both men knew it.
"Very well then," he continued. "I want you to supervise Team 3's surveillance operation for the Dixon case."
"But, sir, I......" Larabee protested, startled by the order.
"On your bike, now, Officer Larabee, and if you're not pedalling hard within a minute of leaving this office I will personally make sure that you are assigned all the night surveillance duties available for the foreseeable future!" Travis' patient understanding had been exhausted.
"Sir," Chris acknowledged, knowing what Travis was doing and hating it. He was being got out of the way. Shrouded in black fury, Larabee turned and left the office. When he was gone, Travis heaved a great sigh and reached for the bottle of Scotch whiskey that he kept in a desk drawer.
"Why me?" he asked, glancing heavenward.
Chris had never been involved with such a shower as Team 3 turned out to be. Someone had put in the wrong requisition which had resulted in them being provided with the incorrect electronic equipment and no one had noticed until they had got it all to the site and were preparing to install it. Having learnt some new choice epithets from Travis, Larabee was only too happy to share them with 3's unfortunate team leader. The delay meant that he did not get away until late and he drove fast across the city, ignoring the glares and outraged horn blasts from more sensible motorists. On the dot of five, he arrived at the ATF building and screeched the car to a halt in the parking lot. Flinging the door open and taking the stairs two at a time, he almost fell into Team 7's office, desperately seeking out Tanner.
Josiah spotted Larabee as soon he entered the office, having waited behind knowing that his boss would be coming to find Vin.
"Chris," Sanchez rumbled.
"Where's Vin?" Larabee gasped, desperately trying to catch his breath after his headlong flight.
"He went home."
Chris caught the slight edge in Josiah's voice.
"But not the ranch."
"No, he went to his flat. Chris......." Sanchez's voice stopped Larabee as he turned for the door. He looked at Josiah. ".........It's been hard on him. I don't think he expected to find out what he did. He's hurting badly."
Chris nodded in acknowledgement.
Pulling in behind Vin's battered Jeep in the poorly lit parking lot in Purgatorio, he cut the engine, took a deep breath and entered the apartment block that Vin called home. He made his way up the rank smelling stairwell, knowing from previous experience that the elevator would either be broken or full of disgusting un-nameable substances.
He knocked at the door and when Vin eventually came to see who it was it took only one look to see that the Texan was slightly but quite definitely drunk. After some thought, Tanner waved expansively.
"Come in," he invited.
Chris came in, marvelling once again at how homely Vin had managed to make the tiny apartment. He looked the young man up and down as he wove his way back to the kitchen.
"You've been drinking," he observed in surprise.
"Yep, I've been drinking," Vin agreed with a slight slur in his voice. "Any objections?"
"Who me? Hell, no," Chris soothed hurriedly. "Got any left?"
"Help yourself," Tanner muttered, waving vaguely in the direction of the table where a couple of bags stood with various cans of alcohol in them. Chris raised an eyebrow at the eclectic mix of drinks that Vin had bought. Carefully he sought out a beer, flipped it open and took a deep draught. Letting the cool liquid trickle down his throat, he took a close look at Tanner.
Vin was un-naturally flushed which was probably the effect of the alcohol he had consumed but underneath that flush the skin was grey. Blue eyes were unfocussed, flickering unceasingly yet at the same time seeming lifeless. His movements lacked their usual fluidity and grace as he prowled round the apartment, reminding Chris of a caged wolf. Occasionally he licked his lips and took a swig from the can he held so tightly in his hand that Larabee was surprised he did not crush it.
"So, how did it go?" Chris asked at last, after a few silent minutes.
"How did what go?" Vin asked, suddenly fascinated by the smooth wooden back of one of the kitchen chairs.
"This afternoon with Josiah," Chris expanded.
"It went," Vin replied with a shrug.
"And?" Chris prompted gently.
Vin's eyes slid round the apartment and Chris recognised the sign that he was ready to bolt. Planting himself firmly in front of the door he repeated the question. With his only escape route effectively blocked, Vin backed away from Larabee until he was brought up short by the fridge.
"It didn't work," he said eventually when the silence had stretched almost to breaking point.
"What? Not at all?" Chris exclaimed, aghast.
Not for the first time since he had known Vin, Chris found himself confused by the Texan's verbal skills.
"Vin, either you remembered or you didn't," he said softly. "Which was it?"
Vin gave a hollow laugh and turned to rest his arms on the top of the fridge.
"Oh, I remembered what they did to me to make me not remember; but I didn't remember what it was they wanted me to forget. That's all." Vin dropped his head onto his arms after this uncharacteristically long speech as Chris stood trying to work out what he meant.
"Oh," Larabee said finally in a subdued tone. He took a step towards Vin, wanting to take the young man in his arms, but suddenly remembered what Vin had said the last time he had done that and stopped. Instead he asked,
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Vin shook his head, not trusting himself to speak and wishing that Chris would just leave.
"I'm so sorry, Vin," Larabee said gently and that gentleness was Tanner's undoing. His face crumbled and he placed his head on his arms, weeping silently. Great shudders racked his body and all Larabee could do was stand and watch him, wanting to comfort but, for once, not knowing how. Eventually he found a box of tissues and pressed one into Vin's hand whilst removing the can that was in danger of being poured down the back of the fridge. He laid a hand tentatively on Vin's shoulder but it was immediately shrugged off.
"Do me a favour, Chris, go home," Tanner rasped huskily.
"Can't leave you like this," Larabee contradicted softly.
"Yes, you can. Go," Vin snarled at him. Snatching an apple from the fruit basket that sat on top of the fridge, he spun round and threw it with full force towards Chris who just managed to side step the missile in time. As the apple smashed to a pulp against the wall both men looked at it in horror. That simple display of uncontrolled violence showed Chris the true state of Vin's mind whilst Vin slid down the front of the fridge to the floor; his face a frozen mask, his eyes haunted.
"I could have hurt you," he gulped. "I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry." He covered his face with his hands, still crying.
"That settles it, Vin. Whether you like it or not, I'm staying," Chris told the huddled figure. "Go take a shower and I'll fix us something to eat."
As if in a dream, Vin obeyed. He climbed stiffly to his feet, stifling a cry of pain as his ribs once again shot hot fingers of fire through his chest, and made his way into the bathroom. He stripped off mechanically and stood under the shower until all the hot water had gone, allowing his mind to go blank. He then pulled on his baggy pyjamas and rubbed his wet hair before making his way back to the kitchen where Chris had set out a simple meal for them.
Eating, however, was beyond him. He picked at the food that Larabee put in front of him, managed to drink a few sips of milk and then his stomach warned him that much more and it would rebel. Despite it still being early in the evening, he made his excuses and went to bed. By pulling the heavy drapes across the windows and pulling the door to, he could make believe that it was dark outside, appropriate considering the darkness that was in his soul. In the external darkness he could hide from prying eyes but he could not hide from the darkness inside.
Ghosts of memories flitted through his head like a butterfly dancing round a buddleia bush; hovering in anticipation and darting in quickly but not lingering for long. So his memories hovered on the edge of being remembered. His thoughts, however, were firmly rooted. It was so ironic; after all that effort to help him remember, all he now wanted to do, more than anything, was forget. He was engulfed by overwhelming sensations of shame and self-loathing and broke out into a sweat. How could he live with himself now that he knew the truth about his so called courage? How could he reconcile the moaning, grovelling, craven coward with the tough, solid, reliable ATF agent? Everything he had always believed about himself, that the others believed about him, was a lie. The session with Josiah had revealed that and Sanchez now knew it was a lie too. How long before his fellow agents also knew?
He had thought he had been well trained by the army; that he would be able to withstand torture of all kinds and he had resisted before. But now he had discovered that he was nothing more than a whining, snivelling schoolboy who would do anything in return for peace....... Vin groaned and turned his face into his pillow. What would Travis say? He would have to listen to the tapes. But, even worse, what would Chris say? The thought of those deep jade green eyes looking at him with contempt made Vin curl up as small as possible and he shook uncontrollably. Why had he let Chris stop him from blowing his brains out? Because he was a coward, a voice whispered. How long could he hide it from the team? Chris must never know. The others must never know. Even if it meant destroying the tapes, Chris and the others must never know the full extent of his cowardice. He could not stop Josiah hinting at it but they must never know the complete story. He had to have someone who still believed in Vin Tanner since he no longer did.
Later in the evening Chris poked his head round the bedroom door to see how Vin was doing. Once again he was struck by how young and vulnerable the Texan looked when he was asleep. The grey pallor to the skin, however, was still there, made more apparent by the sheen of perspiration that covered it. Damp hair was scrunched up on the pillow, promising trouble for the morning.
He stood in the doorway for some time, noting the tracks of the tears running down Vin's cheeks and listening as the younger man muttered incoherently in his sleep; every now and again throwing up his arm as if warding off a blow. Larabee stood for some time watching the sleeping man who was as dear to him as a brother. Finally, worn out himself from the emotions of the day, he turned and headed for the bathroom which he tidied up before settling down for the night on the recliner in the lounge.
Orin Travis sat at his desk, looking much older than his fifty odd years, listening to the tape in front of him. Although he had heard it before, he was still filled with disbelief and horror at its contents. How was it, he wondered, that such things could happen? What had God been doing while Vin Tanner was writhing on the floor in the grip of a narcotic nightmare whilst another human being strove to break his will and distort his memory beyond recovery. Had He been sleeping as Tanner wept and tried to resist the insidious voices that promised blessed relief if only he forgot? Tried to resist but to no avail.
Did God actually exist, Travis wondered, because if He did was he really that indifferent as it appeared or did He grieve, as he grieved, that such things should happen to good men? The doubt crept like a shadow, dogging his days, advancing little by little every time an agent died or was maimed or suffered because of his orders. Gradually it corroded his battered faith and sapped his energy until, some days, all that kept him going was the memory of how it felt to be strong, sure and untouched by that shadow. He looked at the blond man sitting across the table from him, whose face was displaying the emotions that were threatening to overpower him.
Chris Larabee heard the tape as though from a distance. There was a rushing noise in his ears and he shut his eyes tightly to try and shut out the pictures his imagination was painting of the obscene suffering Vin had endured. But inside his head the images continued to form and, with their formation, came the anger, the guilt and the unanswerable question - why?
The same pictures waited and watched on the edge of Travis' mind like circling wolves round a campfire while the tape wound its way to the end. As it finished neither man had the strength to reach out and switch it off. For some minutes the tape slapped the heads in repetitious revolutions until finally, summoning the strength from somewhere, Travis stretched out his hand and flicked the switch.
"Sanchez thought you should hear it so you would understand what he's gone through," he said softly. Then he steeled himself. "Also, if there's anything in there that might help us find those youngsters, I want to hear it." For a moment he thought that Larabee was going to lynch him as the blond man leapt to his feet.
"Damn you to hell and back," Chris snarled as he rushed from the room, allowing the door to slam heavily behind him. Finding his way to the restroom just in time, he had soon emptied the entire contents of his stomach. At last he was able to make his way unsteadily to the wash basins and rinse his mouth out; then he rested his head against the cool tiles. Tears began to spill down his cheeks as he turned and slid his back down the wall.
"Oh God, Vin, what have I done?" he groaned, hugging his knees to his chest.
The door to the outside world opened and then shut quietly. Chris looked up sharply to see who had invaded his cocoon. When he saw that it was Josiah who stood in front of him he sighed and looked down again. Sanchez sat down on the floor beside him.
"You've heard the tapes then." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Yes, I've heard them," Chris responded in a small voice. He looked up again, green eyes dark with anguish. "God, when I think of what Vin went through all I want to do is pound someone's head into a pulp."
Josiah rested a comforting hand on Larabee's arm.
"I know, but he will be all right Chris, given time. He's coped in the past; he'll cope now, I'm sure. He's strong; stronger than the rest of us. He may be hard to live with for a while but he will be all right."
"I'm not so sure this time. Josiah, Vin was going to top himself a couple of nights ago. If I hadn't found him, God knows what he would have done." Chris looked back down at the marble floor.
Josiah gave a low whistle at that piece of news.
"I didn't know."
"No, I didn't tell you. Didn't think Vin would want anyone to know. But now....... well, you were there with him." Taking a deep breath he asked, "He said you didn't learn anything of use. The block, is it strong?"
"Very strong. I had no hope of breaking it yesterday and to be honest, Chris, I doubt if I ever will."
Larabee looked up sharply at the stressed word.
"Then we've failed."
"Not necessarily," Josiah replied quietly. "I spent most of the night thinking it over and Vin is obviously frightened. I'd even go so far as saying terrified......."
Chris nodded his agreement at the observation; he had witnessed that terror first hand.
"You heard what happens if I push him, he gets hysterical. I think the problem is that he doesn't trust me." He held up a hand to stop the protest that leapt to Chris' lips. "He may appear to trust us," Josiah continued, "but with all of us he still has that element of doubt. He just doesn't believe me when I say he'll be all right. There's only one person whom Vin trusts implicitly and that's you, Chris. He takes your word without question. I think if you were to question him, it might work."
"But I'm not trained in anything like that," Chris protested, horrified at the thought of having to listen, in person, to Vin's worst nightmares.
"It wouldn't matter; I'd put Vin under and feed you the questions. The important thing is that he would be reacting to your voice, not mine."
"And you really think it would work?"
"I think it's our only hope," Josiah told him plainly. "And for Vin's own sanity, he needs someone to take some of the load from off his shoulders."
Chris sat for a few minutes, wrestling with his conscience. He would walk to hell and back to save Vin's soul, but he was damn sure that Vin would not want him to hear what the session would reveal. If it was anything like the stuff he had already heard on the tape.......no, he was sure that Vin really would not want him to hear all of his pain and fear. But, and it was a big but, it might help to put those bastards away and help rescue the youngsters. God, now he was beginning to sound like Travis. It would help Vin, though, wouldn't it, by allowing him to unburden himself? He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and made his decision.
"Then we do it," Chris said, looking directly at Josiah.
"I'll let Travis know," Josiah said quietly. "And, Chris, I know it won't be easy for you but it is the right decision."
Chris nodded abruptly, once, wondering what he had really let himself in for as he climbed back to his feet. As he followed Larabee out of the restroom, Josiah offered up a fervent and almost desperate prayer. Please, God, let me have made the right call with this.
Always look on the bright side of life, dee-doo, dee-doo, dee-doo, dee-doo, dee-doo. The absurd words ran round and round Vin's mind. He did not know where he had picked them up from but now he could not put them down. He stood in the parking lot and looked up at the ATF offices in front of him, his heart thumped as if he had been running a marathon. He did not want to go in and have to face all the familiar faces; to laugh, joke and make small talk (something he had never been very good at before all this) just like nothing had happened. He knew that they would know something bad had happened to him and they would be speculating about it behind his back.
"It's no good, Vin, you can't wish it away. Believe me, I've tried."
Vin turned to see JD standing, grinning at him.
"It's good to see you back," JD said. "Got to run, Buck and I have a report to finish."
Vin smiled, ever so slightly, some things never changed. The smile soon died, however, and panic began to set in. But, like it or not, he had to go into that building and act as if nothing had happened; as if his life had not been taken, turned upside down and inside out with a brutality that still sent him reeling. He had to face Travis, knowing that he would have heard the tape from yesterday.
Grimly he turned his thoughts away from that. That way led to madness. Would it really matter if he did not turn up for work today, he wondered. Would anyone really miss him? The fact he felt that they would not, had him almost turning round and heading back to his Jeep. He had to fight hard against the urge to run; to go home and drown himself in a sea of alcohol with no need to think or feel. But Vin knew it was no good; sooner or later he would have to go through with it. Today was a good day to die.
Taking a deep breath he walked towards the doors and pushed them open. Ignoring the elevator, he walked slowly up the stairs feeling the walls of the stairwell moving in on him until, by the time he reached Team 7's floor, he was pale, clammy and breathless. As he walked along the corridor, he passed face after face. Was it his imagination or did pity lurk behind their friendly smiles? Surely they were staring? What was the matter with him? Had he got two heads? Had his hair suddenly gone sky blue pink? Had the rumours started already? What was the scuttlebutt saying about him?
The external office was empty and he dropped into a chair, looking out of the window and across a rain sodden city. His hands were bunched into his jacket pocket, reflecting his tension. He sighed. Was it always going to be like this? Him having to wind himself up to come in every day? Wondering if they knew? Putting on a brave face? Would he always be surrounded by the compassionate glances, the hastily discontinued conversations as he entered the room, the solicitous attentions? He could not bear it if people started being kind. That would finish him off once and for all.
The words of that ludicrous song had just started to run round his head again when the outer door opened and Nathan walked into the office.
"Hi, Vin, it's good to see you back. If you're looking for the boss he's in his office with Travis and Josiah."
"I wasn't," Vin responded curtly. "But thanks anyway," he continued as Nathan's eyebrow shot up to join his fringe.
"Anytime," Jackson said, as he collected his jacket from where it lay on a chair and walked off.
Vin rested his head on the cold glass of the window, dispirited. He imagined what was being said to Larabee inside that office. Be nice to him; don't hurt his feelings; he's not a well agent, you know. And Chris would, fuck him, because he was basically a kind man under that exterior of gruffness; unless, of course, they played him the tape. Vin went cold all over and he shuddered violently. He ran a hand through his tangled curls, catching the knots. Imagining Chris' reaction in all its permutations had kept him awake most of the night; tossing and turning until, by dawn, he had been a sweat-soaked, tangle-sheeted huddle.
He had not heard the door open and he spun round to face Larabee.
"Yeah?" He licked his lips and looked to see if he could make it through the outer door before Chris could stop him.
"Travis wants to see you now."
Nope, there was no way he could run. He slumped visibly; the newly acquired demons hovering over his shoulder were laughing and singing that damn song. His eyes pleaded with Chris to get him out of there, but Larabee either did not understand or chose to ignore him.
"Okay," he gulped, pushing away from the window and walking in front of Chris to enter the heart of Team 7; a condemned man taking his final walk to the scaffold.
"Ah, Officer Tanner, do sit down."
Travis indicated an empty chair; his expression closed, unreadable and Tanner sat down. All three men looked at him and he forced himself to hold his head high and look back at them. Josiah smiled slightly and Chris regarded him thoughtfully.
"You're aware that yesterday's session yielded nothing useful, aren't you?" Travis began gently.
"Yes, sir," Vin replied stiffly.
"We are going to have to try again," Travis continued.
"Again?!" Vin shot back, his nerves jangling at the thought.
"We have to recover your information, Officer Tanner."
Josiah lent forward and placed a hand on Vin's knee. Chris flinched in sympathy with the young Texan.
"We think, perhaps, if Chris were to talk you through events. Somebody you can trust......not all of it, you understand," Josiah rumbled.
Vin moved his knee out from under Sanchez's large hand. It was on the tip of his tongue to refuse; to tell them where they could shove their hypnotic regression; to tell them all where to go. He wanted to scream and shout at them for asking him to go through that again. He gripped the arm of his chair tightly, holding himself there when all he wanted to do was jump to his feet and flee.
"I'm afraid it is an order," Travis informed the pale young man, firmly.
Vin could see he had absolutely no choice; he had been skilfully manoeuvred into a box canyon and there was no hope for him. There was a rushing noise in his ears; dark spots danced before his eyes; his mouth went dry and the room began to spin. On the periphery of his vision, flames leapt up. All thoughts of flight were replaced by the necessity of not passing out in front of these men. He took a few deep breaths and then, suddenly, found a glass pressed into his hands. Taking a risk and opening his eyes he saw, amongst the swirling spots, Chris standing looking down at him, dark green eyes showing his concern. Vin gratefully gulped down several mouthfuls of water. Then he carefully lifted his head and looked through the dark snowstorm straight at Travis.
"All right," he agreed, his voice devoid of any emotion. "Why not? What have I to lose?"
"Good," Travis said. "Let's not waste any time then. Officer Sanchez?"
Josiah stood and Vin followed suit.
"Are you sure you're okay with this?" Sanchez asked Tanner quietly. Vin just looked at the man standing in front of him. Josiah shivered; it was like looking into the eyes of a dead man; the essence of Vin Tanner seemed to have fled that body leaving only an empty husk.
The three officers left the office, Chris stopping at the door to glare balefully at the District Attorney before he trailed after the others to the small office that had been set aside as Vin's torture chamber.
Vin sat wrapped in the sweet smelling smoke of the sweat lodge; hidden from prying eyes by the dense clouds that rose from the fire. Here he felt safe. Strange that, he had never thought of the sweat lodge as being safe before; after all, it was the place where visions came to you and led you down paths from which you might never return. But now he felt safe, confident that nobody would want to follow him into that alien environment.
He seemed to be floating just above the floor, warm and comfortable, caressed by a low voice that promised peace and contentment. He knew the owner of the voice, could have pictured the face had he so wanted, but he really could not be bothered; it was far nicer to just sit back and drift in the smoke. He was somewhere between trance and sleep, anchored to reality only by that voice. It was a low voice that rumbled and purred as it guided and instructed him in a way that he found comforting. He answered its questions slowly and thoughtfully; speech was possible but annoying and detracted from the smoke.
Then there was silence. The smoke of the lodge swirled and danced ever closer round him and time seemed to cease completely. He was mildly surprised that no vision came but revelled in the comfort and warmth that enveloped him.
Eventually another voice started to wend its way through the smoke, sending small eddies scurrying around the lodge walls. It was a cool voice, clear and strong like molten metal. A face started to materialise through the smoke. It was a strong, well-known face that he respected and admired. At the perimeters of the lodge something nasty started to put out tentative fingers towards him and he whimpered but the smoke pressed in on him, cutting those fingers off and forcing the nastiness to retreat, defeated for the moment. He sighed and put a name to the face. Chris; and with that thought uppermost in his mind, he was prepared to snuggle back into the smoke and wait.
Chris spoke to him again and he answered positively, curious but passive. Another pause and then he spoke again and with the words images formed in Vin's mind and flashed before his eyes like a video playing in fast forward. It was accompanied by a garbled soundtrack with snatches coming through as clear as a bell. There were fragments of conversations; packets of matches scattering; concerned green eyes; dampness on his cheek. The images flew past and then drifted away on the smoke as it rose up towards the hole in the roof of the lodge. Darkness followed in their wake.
There was a sudden lurch forward, prompted by another question, which left him feeling slightly nauseous. While he fought to quell the feeling, he was aware that he was being led gently but irrevocably on to night and the quiet breathing of sleepers. There was a need for stealth now, footsteps light and smooth; no margin for error.
Somewhere in a corner of the lodge, a flame leapt and twisted towards Vin, fanned by a sudden breath of fear. The breath became a breeze and the flame grew, hungry for oxygen and eager to search it out. He moved away from it; the breeze died away and the flame sank back into the smoking pile. Vin waited for the smoke eddies, caused by the breeze, to dance away and then turned his attention back to Chris.
Another quiet question and the flame roared into life, leaping across the gap towards him, fuelled by a gust of terror. Frantic to still it, Vin withdrew rapidly trying to beat down the flame by closing his mind to the vision that momentarily flickered in his mind. The flame crackled evilly and died away leaving the lodge serene and smoke filled; but tinged with the threat of fire. It was clear to Vin that Chris was threatening his feeling of well-being. Not wishing to hurt his boss' feelings, Tanner pointed this out to him, slowly and kindly.
Chris did not take the hint. The question was repeated and the flame leapt up again, joined by others. Unbidden, Vin was dragged forward in time down the stairs into a room filled with filing cabinets and a ringing telephone; then out into a garden and straight into a wall. Trapped between the wall and the flames, he desperately tried to hide from the images; suddenly, suffocatingly, terrified. He became aware of two faces which tugged at another part of his memory, encouraging him to try and catch something that was almost intangible and make it solid - something that was overwhelmingly important.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, he felt hands grab him and drag him; hands all over him. Somewhere someone screamed and then everything exploded around him in a white ball of heat and light, shattering the peace of the lodge and dispersing the smoke to the far walls. Amidst the chaos of his own terror, phantoms rose from the floor as the walls around him dissolved. Distorted faces of those who would suffer, bleed and die because of him swam around him. Their screams echoed through the lodge and his screams joined with theirs, begging them to forgive him; promising to keep his silence. And through the mêlée, in the distance, a herd of buffalo thundered towards a cliff edge.
He could hear Chris, desperately trying to make himself heard over the cacophony. The familiar voice was a lifeline and he reached out through the faces and the buffalo to grasp it, even as he screamed. Chris's voice continued, telling him to ignore the phantoms; reminding him that they were only illusions. None of it's real, Vin. You must remember and tell me what you know. Do it for me, Vin.
Cast adrift, Vin was tossed mercilessly on a sea of doubt by conflicting desires; his loyalties being torn asunder. How could he refuse Chris? He owed him everything. Yet the phantoms had a claim on him as well; their voices pleaded with him and if he obeyed Chris, they would die and their deaths would be on his conscience until the South Star reigned over the earth.
Come on, Vin, you'll be all right. That was Chris, cajoling, persuasive, their closeness giving a warmth and comfort to his words.
No, screamed the phantoms as they continued to swirl around him, hollow eyed and racked in pain, while buffalo whirled in confusion.
Abdul, Vin whispered and then watched in horror as his hands began to smoke. Small flames crept along the fingers and his flesh began to curl and crisp. The voices laughed triumphantly and opened their arms to embrace him as he joined in their agony. Mollified, their faces began to recede from his sight but he had eyes only for his flaming hands. The pain was beyond anything he had ever experienced before. He could hardly hear Chris through the roaring in his head. How could this be illusion? Small, white bones began to appear, gleaming in the dark.
The young Texan's hands were taken in a cool, solid grip and Chris said quietly, Open your eyes, Vin. Look at your hands. He did, following implicitly the instructions of the first voice, and saw his hands untouched, golden brown, held in Chris' own. See, Chris told him gently, only an illusion.
Vin slumped back and found that he was back in his sweat lodge again. The flames died away completely and the pain ceased. Grateful for the respite he retreated to the farthest corner and curled up, arms wrapped round his head, whimpering and believing himself to be safe. But, ever so faintly, Chris' voice whispered to him across the dark, smoke filled space. The whisper grew wings, turned into a bird and flew high into the sky; wheeling and searching for him as he cowered deeper and deeper into his corner. Tanner closed his eyes against the sight and pressed his hands over his ears even harder and turned his face to the wall, refusing to hear let alone listen.
A rustle of feathers in the lodge forced him to open his eyes and he found himself staring straight into the jade green eyes of the whisperbird; Chris had found him, trembling in the corner, desperate to be left alone. A gentle wing rested on his foot and he lashed out in panic, catching the whisperbird under the chin. The timbre of its eyes changed but he was too panicked to see the sorrow and concern in them; all he could perceive was unadulterated contempt. The whisperbird stubbornly refused to move.
For a period of time Chris talked, trying to persuade him to allow the phantoms in. His tone was kind and full of understanding, echoing hundreds of their past conversations and bar chats. But then slowly, almost imperceptibly, the voice began to metamorphosise. Seemingly frozen by Vin's rejection it became a merciless spear that prodded and poked at the chinks in his armour. The former peripheral nastiness returned with a vengeance and now Vin recognised it for what it was. Chris no longer respected him; in fact he despised him and his weakness. He shut his ears against what seemed to be a continuous stream of invective that now poured forth from that voice, mingled with the distant thunder of the stampeding buffalo, but even they could not swamp all of it and he found odd words impinging on his consciousness as the whisperbird pecked at him.
Fraud. Hypocrite. Coward.
Slowly and painfully Vin started to uncurl, turning towards the vicious beak, protesting. Didn't it; didn't Chris understand? Surely they could imagine what it was like? The faces......the buffalo.......his hands!
Fantasy. Illusion. Hallucination, the voice spat at him.
No. Reality. Death. Destruction, Vin cried, All because of me. I can't tell you!
You must. Chris' merciless voice cut at him, ribbons of blood running down his arms as the cuts struck home.
You must. The whisperbird pecked at his already fragile self-image and tore it to shreds. He turned then and ran with the buffalo towards the edge of the bluff, shedding his clothes as he went. Standing naked on the edge he peered over into the bottomless abyss that promised release from the horror and guilt. He had been right about one thing; it was a good day to die. Then, just as he was about to launch himself out into the dark sky, the voice abruptly stopped.
Vin, I know you're scared and hurting but those people you can see, they need your help; only you can help them. Please, Vin, I'm here; I'll watch your back; I won't let you fall.
After what seemed like an eternity of looking into the gulf, Vin made his decision. He backed away from the edge, licked his cracked lips, turned and hesitantly began to retrace his steps. Rushing buffalo bumped and jostled him as he walked, head bowed, as if they were trying to turn him, but he pressed on resolved to do the right thing whatever the pain and damage to himself. He would silence that whisperbird if it was the last thing he did on this earth.
Abdul, he whispered softly and then whimpered as he felt the first stirrings of heat in the palms of his hands. He felt the grasp of cool hands and heard the iron-willed promise.
You'll be all right, Vin. Trust me.
Ignoring the distant wail of voices, the rumble of the buffalo and the encroaching pain, Vin conjured up the two familiar faces that had wanted to help him before. Now they encouraged him to gather the threads of memory and weave them into a solid image. Slowly he began to piece together the events that had surrounded him, trusting blindly to strong hands and a pair of eyes that glittered like green ice.
Tired beyond belief, Chris disentangled his hands from Vin's and crossed over to the window. He opened the blinds and the late morning sunshine poured in bringing reality back to the room. Chris' face was grey and there were tears on his cheeks as he watched Josiah rewind the tape recorder. Vin sat quietly, propped up in an armchair, all traces of fear erased from his face. He looked small and withdrawn in on himself.
"So, what now?" Larabee asked.
"Bring him out of the trance; get him home for a good night's sleep and give the tape to Travis," Josiah responded. "Poor Vin. What those bastards did to him........" His voiced trailed away.
"Does Travis have to hear this tape?"
Josiah looked up, startled by the question.
"I'm sure he won't hold it against you, Chris. I expect he'll feel as I do - privileged to witness a demonstration of profound friendship; a little embarrassed at eavesdropping on an essentially private moment and maybe even a little envious. That sort of friendship is a rare and very beautiful thing."
"And what about Vin? Will he ever forgive me Josiah? I've plundered his deepest, darkest feelings and played with them."
"I'm sure he will, Chris. Vin has an innate sense of fairness and right and he'll know you did what you had to do to help him and those youngsters."
"I hope you're right."
Josiah busied himself in tidying away the tools of his trade, knowing that he had shamelessly listened to Chris skilfully playing with the fragile emotions of the young Texan. It had been touch and go at one point but Chris knew Vin well enough to bring him back from the brink. Now, though, the objective achieved, he relived the terror that he had witnessed in Vin's face and tears pricked at the back of his eyes. Okay, he had done research, attended lectures and watched films about torture trauma but this was the first time he had ever had to deal with the real thing; actually had to repair the damage wrought by drugs, hypnosis and pain. And for a comrade and friend into the bargain. Without Chris, he knew he would have failed. He did not resent this, he was just grateful that Larabee had been there and was who he was.
"Let's get this finished," Sanchez said, crossing to the chair that Chris had vacated and sat down.
"Vin, can you hear me?"
After what seemed like an age Tanner nodded slowly. Totally drained, he was close to crossing the line from trance into sleep.
"Mmm," Vin answered drowsily.
"Good. Now in a minute I'm going to count to three and you will wake up, calm and refreshed. You will remember everything that has happened but this won't cause you any distress. You've done very well and are on your way to recovering. Do you understand?"
Josiah paused momentarily and turned to look at Chris.
"Just before I do wake him up, I must warn you. You must be prepared for some erratic behaviour over the next few days. All this will need adjusting to. He needs to come to terms with his memories. Be patient and if there are any problems we'll work through them together."
"Thanks, Josiah," Chris' voice was full of concern.
"And one last thing. I'm sure there's something he hasn't told us and if he hasn't faced that, we could still have a problem."
"I think I know what it is, Josiah, and, if I'm right, Vin will take that secret with him to the grave rather than reveal it to anyone."
"I see. Well, in that case, I just hope that he can come to terms with it himself."
"So do I, Josiah. So do I."
Sanchez sighed and leant towards the young Texan.
"Are you ready, Vin? I'm going to count now. One. Two. Three."
Vin opened his heavy eyelids very slowly and he focussed groggily on Josiah. For a moment he just looked at him, while he struggled to regain some semblance of composure, then he managed a wan smile.
"Well, what do you know. I'm still here. Thanks, Josiah." Vin's voice sounded hollow to Chris' ears.
"Don't thank me, Vin. I had very little to do with it. Thank Chris."
Vin's gaze darted round the room until it alighted on Chris. Feathers fluttered briefly and he dropped his eyes to the floor.
"Thanks," he muttered and then turned back to Josiah.
"So, what now?"
"Now you go home, eat and sleep, while Travis and the team get to work on this information."
Chris moved forward slowly and placed a hand gently on Vin's shoulder.
"You did a bloody good job, Vin," he said quietly. "As soon as you feel like it I'll drive you home."
Vin did not physically move out from under the feather light touch of Larabee's hand but Chris could feel him withdrawing from it.
"I'm all right, thanks," the young Texan responded, making no attempt to meet his boss' concerned eyes. "I can drive."
"Like hell you can," Chris contradicted him, more forcefully than he had intended and was saddened to see Vin flinch. He tried to soften what he had said. "You're exhausted, Vin. It's no problem to drive you home."
Vin's mouth formed an obstinate thin line and he scowled at Larabee.
"Look, Chris, it's all right. You don't have to."
Chris moved a step closer, puzzled by Tanner's antagonism.
"Vin, you can't drive at the moment. I'll take you home."
"Screw you, I don't need you to drive me home, all right? I'll get a cab if necessary. Now leave me alone."
"Fine, if that's how you feel." Chris turned on his heel and stalked over to the door, missing the anguished look that flitted across Vin's face.
Larabee flung the door open with a crash startling the people in the hallway. At the door to their general office he paused, took a deep breath and walked in. The rest of the team, who by now had all arrived at their desks, looked up and read the expression on his face, all thoughts of greetings dying away. Chris looked round the room and spotted Wilmington.
"Buck, will you take Vin home, please. He's in Room 603 down the hall."
If Buck was surprised by the request, he managed, for once, not to show it.
"Sure thing, Chris." He grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair and left the room. Everyone else suddenly became very interested in the files on their desks.
As Chris closed his office door behind him he exhaled sharply and closed his eyes. It had been a bitch of a morning and he did not think the rest of the day would be any better the way he was feeling.
Buck collected a morose Vin Tanner and took him home. The drive was silent; all Wilmington's attempts at conversation meeting with silence. At last they arrived at the apartment block and he followed the young Texan up the stairs to make sure that he did actually go home.
"I suppose Chris asked you to mother-hen me," Vin said wearily as they entered his apartment.
"No. He told me to take you home; the mother-henning is my own idea."
"Sorry." Even in his present mood Vin could not take the way he felt about Chris out on Buck.
"No need to be. Can I get you anything, Junior?"
"The buffalo," Vin sighed heavily and then added, as he noticed Buck's quizzical gaze, "My balance.......my innocence?"
Buck was clearly puzzled by the response but decided to make light of it.
"Sorry, Vin, don't think they've got those in the lost and found."
Vin smiled weakly but, Buck noticed, it did not reach his eyes and that scared him. Wilmington quickly checked that there was some food in Tanner's fridge and then walked to the door. He saw the dark shadows round the young Texan's eyes and the white scars from numerous beatings past and present. He looked so young and vulnerable; too young to have suffered all that he had. He gave Vin a warm smile.
"Eat and then get some sleep, sunshine."
The door closed quietly behind Wilmington leaving Vin on his own again.
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