The Tie That Binds
Summary: A routine investigation turns deadly for Chris and Vin.
Author's Note: This is my first attempt to dip my toe into the M7 fanfiction pool. Many thanks to MOG for creating the wonderful ATF universe.
No one was coming.
The gnawing certainty had been growing, fueled by the sharp smell of copper, the warm stickiness coating his hands, and the uneven rasp of labored breathing. Chris tipped his head back, squeezed his eyes shut against the flickering light, and struggled to contain an almost overpowering wave of despair. The single light bulb, their only source of illumination, was dying.
So was Vin.
Despair turned to rage, a more acceptable outlet. "Damn it, Buck! Where the hell are you?"
"No use. Not even... the Larabee bellow... carry... that far."
The words were little more than a breathy whisper, as pale as the man cradled against his chest, yet they stabbed like a knife in Chris's gut. Vin's skin was nearly translucent except for the dusky shadows under his eyes. Carefully schooling his features, he gave his friend what he hoped would pass for an irritated glare.
"Shouldn't you be saving your breath?"
Vin's gaze, hazy with pain, locked onto Chris for a long moment before sliding away. Recognizing but not calling him on his deception. "Nah. More entertainin'...pissin' you off."
"Is that so?" Chris played along, dropping his voice to the low growl that never failed to set rookies quaking in their boots. "You might just want to rethink that strategy."
"Ya don't...scare me...Larabee. You never--"
The words caught in his throat, throwing Vin into a series of jagged coughs. Chris shifted his friend upright, wincing when Vin gripped his arms hard enough to leave bruises. The coughing spell seemed to last for hours before Vin's eyes fluttered shut and he slumped backward, gasping raggedly.
"Easy. Slow it down." Chris used the already crimson-splattered towel to wipe a fresh trickle of blood from the corner of Vin's mouth. He pressed the water bottle to Vin's lips, his heart thudding when there was no response. "Vin?"
Relief left him lightheaded--or was that the lump on his skull? He jiggled the water bottle and was rewarded when Vin took two anemic swallows. "You have to stay with me. Vin?" He sharpened his voice. "Vin!"
"'M tired, Chris."
"I don't give a damn how tired you are; don't even think about quitting on me or I'll kick your ass." Not much of a threat when his voice cracked.
Vin open his eyelids just enough to reveal a sliver of blue. "Not...not yer fault. Don't want you...blamin'...self."
He curled his lips in a weak smile. "I'll make you a deal. I promise not to beat myself up about any of this--as long as you promise to stick around."
"Been hangin'...'round Ezra...too long." Vin's weak chuckle turned into more hacking, then a low groan. "Hurts, Chris," he choked. "Hurts so damn bad."
"I know, Cowboy. Just lean on me. I'm right here."
Chris dampened the last clean towel, gently wiping tears and blood from Vin's flushed face. He tensed when Vin's eyes drifted shut and his body went limp, but didn't attempt to rouse him. Instead he concentrated on the broken rhythm of Vin's respiration and prayed to a God he wasn't sure he believed in anymore.
"They'll get here in time," he said aloud. "They will."
But he wasn't so sure he believed in himself either.
15 hours earlier...
Chris cut the engine and looked over at his friend. Vin was folded into the corner of the seat, arms laced across his chest and lips pressed together as he stared at the two-story farmhouse. Every line of his body language communicated clearly his displeasure--as if he hadn't made it plain enough before they'd left the office and throughout the hour-long drive.
Chris sighed and pulled the keys from the ignition. "Fifteen minutes, tops. It'll be painless, I promise."
Vin huffed. "We're missin' the Friday two for one special and Inez's loaded nachos. Hell, I'm already in pain."
"Yeah, but you're spared watching Buck hit on everything in a skirt."
The corners of Vin's mouth turned up. "An' J.D. runnin' off at the mouth."
"Josiah pontificating on the social and psychological significance of the happy hour ritual."
"Ezra tryin' to sucker someone into a card game."
"And Nathan grumbling that we're all gonna be sick as dogs if we don't slow down."
They grinned at each other for a moment before Vin sighed. "All right, let's get the show on the road. The sooner we're done, the sooner you can get to barbecuing that steak you promised me."
Chris narrowed his eyes. "I said I'd cook you dinner; I don't seem to recall mentioning steaks."
"You think I'd let you drag me to the godforsaken middle of nowhere on a day so damn hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk just to ask a guy why he's swimmin' in shit--all for that Hamburger Helper crap you're so fond of? How cheap do you think I am?"
"I keep telling you, this liquid fertilizer is not sh--"
"If it smells like a duck..."
Chris opened his mouth to retort, then shook his head. "Okay. Steaks."
"An' baked potatoes."
"With lotsa butter an' sour cream."
"You're pushing it, Tanner." Chris got out of the car into what felt like a sauna, sweat immediately beading his forehead and trickling between his shoulder blades. He waited for Vin to join him, glaring sideways as they walked toward the house. "Smart-mouthed, pain-in-the-ass Texan."
"Nice to know I'm appreciated for more than my good looks."
As they neared the front porch, Vin stopped and groaned softly.
"What?" Chris asked.
He gestured to the open windows. "No AC. Gonna be hotter 'n hell in there."
Chris barely hid a grimace. "Ten minutes." He stepped up to the door and pressed the bell.
Vin hesitated a moment longer, then followed. "Damn well better be sour cream."
"Looks like maybe no one's home," Chris said after they'd waited several minutes.
"Or just not answerin'."
Chris saw his teammate staring at one of the windows. "You see something?"
"Curtain moved, and there ain't exactly a breeze."
Pressing the bell again, Chris then rapped briskly on the door. "Raymond Sinclair? Federal agents."
Another long pause before they heard the click of a deadbolt being released. The door opened a crack to reveal a dark-haired boy barely into his teens hovering in the shadows.
"My dad's not home."
Chris stepped closer. "Any idea when he'll be back?"
The boy hesitated. When he spoke, his voice was soft and uncertain. "Should b-be any time. He just went into town for a few things. Said he'd be home before dinner."
Sensing the kid's apprehension, Chris deliberately gentled his tone. "What's your name, son?"
"Well, Jonah, I'm Agent Larabee and this is Agent Tanner. It's really important that we talk to your dad. Would you mind if we came in and waited for him?"
Even in the dim lighting, he could see the boy's eyes widen.
"W-well, I'm n-not supposed to let strangers into the house when he's g-gone."
Chris nodded. "I can understand that. But I'm thinkin' that your dad would probably make an exception in our case. Being federal agents, and all."
Chris snapped his head around at the gruff warning in Vin's voice. His friend was staring at Jonah with wary eyes.
"We drove all the way out here, Vin. I'm not itchin' to drive back Monday or--God forbid--tomorrow."
"I got no problem seein' this thing through, just... let's sit in the car."
Chris screwed up his face. "You were just bellyaching about how hot it is. The car'll be unbearable."
"Then here on the porch. I just don't think--"
"No, it's okay." Jonah nudged the screen door, backing away quickly when Chris pulled it open. "You can wait in the living room."
Chris took a step over the threshold, but Vin clamped a hand onto his arm, restraining him. "You sure 'bout this, kid? Ain't no reason we can't bide our time out here."
"Y-you're like the police, right?" Jonah glanced from Chris to Vin for confirmation. "Always supposed to c-cooperate w-with the police. 'Sides, my mom always said we should make guests feel at home."
"Your mom sounds like a real nice lady," Chris said, blotting an errant drop of sweat from his temple. The house, though far from cool, provided a welcome relief from the blistering sun. He and Vin trailed Jonah into a room with a scuffed hardwood floor and well-worn furniture. "Is she in town with your dad?"
Jonah ducked his head. "No, she, uh... she died three years ago."
Chris felt Vin tense, though the man didn't move a muscle. "I'm sorry," he said to the boy. "So it's just you and your dad?"
"Yeah." Jonah watched as Chris and Vin sat on the threadbare couch. He shuffled his feet, darting an anxious look out the front window.
As the silence stretched, Chris glanced at Vin, who was watching the boy through narrowed eyes. Realizing he was going to get no help from his even more reticent than usual friend, he leaned forward, his clasped hands dangling between his knees. "School starts soon, doesn't it? What grade will you be in?"
Jonah perched on the edge of a chair, picking at a hole in his faded jeans. "Eighth."
More silence. Evidently Vin wasn't the only man of few words in the room. "So... do you have a favorite subject?"
Chris was searching for something to say when Vin's soft question took him by surprise. "How'd ya get that?" His friend pointed at a livid bruise covering the boy's right cheekbone.
Jonah flushed, his gaze snapping to Vin, then sliding away. "I can be a real k-klutz. I t-tripped. Hit it on a ch-chair." He popped to his feet. "You're p-probably thirsty. I'll get you a glass of water." He'd disappeared before either of them could reply.
"Mind telling me what that was all about?" Chris asked.
Vin responded with a level stare. "Just makin' conversation."
"I think you embarrassed him."
What the hell...? "Vin--"
"Awful hot day fer long sleeves, don't ya think?"
Chris frowned, struggling to understand. Something was off, his normally easy rapport with Vin strained. It almost felt as if his friend were speaking another language.
He shrugged. "Kids can be funny. Adam had a pair of shorts he'd insist on wearing even in the dead of winter. Drove Sarah nuts."
Vin clenched his jaw but didn't respond. Chris was still puzzling over the sharpshooter's odd behavior when Jonah reappeared, a glass of ice water in each hand.
"Thanks." Chris accepted one and took a long draught.
From the corner of his eye he saw Jonah hand Vin the other glass and then jerk his arm back, tugging nervously at his shirtsleeve. He sat in the chair and fidgeted, only to spring up a moment later like a soldier snapping to attention.
The slap of the screen door punctuated his announcement. Heavy footfalls thumped down the hallway and a deep voice rumbled. "Jonah! Whose fucking car is that in the driveway? You'd damn well better not have let anyone into this house."
Chris and Vin set down their glasses and stood as a huge man, easily as large as Josiah, loomed in the doorway. His piercing eyes, dark, curly hair and full beard gave the impression of a grizzly bear poised to attack. From Jonah's reaction, that image was not far off the mark.
"I-it's not like that, Dad, I d-didn't--they--they're f-federal agents." Jonah slid quickly out of the way when his father strode into the room.
"Raymond Sinclair?" Chris showed his badge. "Agent Larabee and Agent Tanner from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms."
Sinclair shot Jonah a hard look before scrutinizing first the badge and then Chris and Vin. "Is there a problem?"
"Well, for starters, you can easy off on your boy," Vin said. "He's just bein' polite."
When Sinclair drew his brows together, Chris laid a hand on Jonah's shoulder. "Your son was kind enough to let us wait in here, out of the sun. Even got us a drink of water. You should be proud of him."
"Is that right? Guess I'll have to reward him later."
Though it was said with a smile, Jonah paled. "I was j-just cooperating," he said. "No big deal."
"I'm guessing this means you haven't done your chores." Sinclair mimicked Chris, gripping Jonah's other shoulder with his large hand.
Jonah flinched, then shied away. "Sorry. I'm g-going now." He stole a quick look at Vin and Chris. "Nice m-meeting you." Then he was gone.
"Damn kid is always looking for an excuse to slack off," Sinclair said. "Now, what exactly do you ATF boys need with me?"
"We've had a rash of homemade bombs turning up in the Denver area," Chris explained. "Made of, among other things, nitrogen fertilizer."
Sinclair curled his lip. "You planning on checking every farmer in the state who uses nitrogen fertilizer?"
"Just the ones who purchase way more than their little spread could possibly need," Vin drawled.
"You gotta be kidding. Do I look like a terrorist to you?" Sinclair sneered.
"Can't say for sure. They come in all shapes an' sizes," Vin replied with a shrug.
The farmer made a move toward Vin, curling his hand into a fist, but Chris stepped between them. "We just need to see records of the purchase, receipt, and distribution of the large order you placed on April 10. You do have paperwork, don't you?"
Sinclair glared for a moment, then backed off. "Wait here." He left the room and they heard him stomp down the hall.
Chris turned to Vin. "What is going on with you? Are you deliberately trying to piss him off?" he hissed.
Vin glared back. "Don't seem like it takes much."
Chris heaved a sigh and ran a hand through his hair. "Vin, you gotta help me out here. Every since we walked in the door, you've been acting--" He broke off when Sinclair returned with a packet of papers.
"Here." He thrust them at Chris. "As you can see there, a neighbor and I pooled our orders. We got a discount." He folded his arms as Chris scanned the papers. "Satisfied?"
"Everything looks on the up and up." Chris handed back the packet. "Appreciate your cooperation."
"Not like I had much of a choice. Now, if that's all, I've got plenty of work to do." Sinclair gestured toward the door.
Chris gritted his teeth but held onto his temper. "Then we'll leave you to it."
Vin didn't say a word as they walked to the truck--but then, he didn't have to. He stripped off his tie, unbuttoned the cuffs and rolled up his shirtsleeves with short, jerky movements. Yanking open the passenger door, he lobbed the tie into the back of the truck and slouched into his seat.
Ridding himself of his own tie, Chris started the engine and cranked the AC to full blast. Vin was staring through the windshield at the house. His expression darkened when Sinclair came out the front door and stalked across the yard toward the barn.
Chris dropped his hands from the wheel and turned to face his friend. "What just happened in there?"
Vin scowled at him, but his gaze quickly drifted back to the barn. "I don't know what you're talkin' about."
"You were deliberately provoking that guy, trying to get a rise out of him."
"So? Damn it, Vin, it was completely unprofessional! That's the kind of shit Buck pulls, not you."
"Now you're hittin' below the belt."
"So why'd you do it?"
"He's a jackass."
"Of course he is. But we deal with jackasses every day and you don't make it your job to call 'em out. Vin?" Seeing his teammate paying far more attention to the scenery than to his reprimand turned Chris's irritation to anger. "Will you stop staring at the damn barn and talk to me? What the hell is wrong with you?"
Vin turned on him, blue eyes afire with fury. "Fine, Larabee. You really want to know? Then listen up: Mr. Raymond Sinclair might not be our terrorist, but I can tell you one thing for damn sure. That lousy son of a bitch beats his kid."
Chris stared in shocked disbelief at Vin, his mind struggling to make sense of his friend's words.
"He... Vin, I realize Sinclair is a loudmouthed pain in the ass,
"He's a cowardly bastard who gets his kicks hurtin' kids," Vin snarled. "Probably makes him feel like a real big man."
The force of his teammate's anger, so out of proportion to the circumstances, bewildered Chris. Vin was normally slow to judge, willing to extend the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. What could possibly have turned his open-minded friend into this hothead?
"We spent maybe ten minutes with the man. That's hardly enough time to have him tried and convicted." He kept his tone patient, reasonable, but it only seemed to infuriate Vin.
"You sayin' you don't believe me?"
"I'm saying one brief conversation is thin evidence to accuse someone of child abuse."
Vin slumped back in his seat. "All the evidence in the world was starin' you in the face, Chris," he said quietly. "You just weren't lookin'."
The soft, world-weary tone, so abruptly devoid of anger, pulled Chris up short. He couldn't deny that his focus had been on their investigation. Even while trying to set Jonah at ease, he'd been examining their surroundings, looking for anything that might implicate Sinclair as their bomber. When Sinclair finally walked through the door, well, it wasn't Jonah that Chris had been trying to read.
The growing sense of guilt must have registered on his face. Vin's mouth turned up in a self-deprecating smile. "Don't be too hard on yourself, Cowboy. Like they always say, it takes one to know one."
Still feeling as if he were running to catch a fast-moving train, it took him a moment to understand that Vin was not speaking of Chris and Raymond Sinclair.
The oblique admission hit Chris like a sucker punch to the gut. Both Nathan and Josiah had privately expressed concern that Vin's troubled childhood had included abuse--Nathan on the basis of physical scars, Josiah sensing wounds more spiritual in nature. Since Vin rarely spoke of the years following his mother's death, their suspicions had never been substantiated. Until now.
He stared at Vin, speechless. "I'm not sure what to say."
His friend turned away, a flush rising on his cheeks "Nothin' to be said. I'm the same man I was a minute ago; it don't change a thing."
"It's a piece of who you are, how--"
"It ain't who I am!" Instantly Vin's fury returned, as hot and sharp-edged as before. "It's just somethin' that happened to me." He shook his head, perhaps reading the pain in Chris's eyes, and calmed. "It doesn't matter."
You're wrong, Cowboy Chris thought, his throat tight. It matters a helluva lot more than you know.
The sound of Vin's door opening snapped him from his reverie. "Vin? What are you doing?"
Vin slid out of the car and leaned back in through the open doorway, his face set. "Goin' to talk to Sinclair."
Chris yanked open his own door and got out. He braced his palms on the hood, barely registering the scorching heat. "No, you're not."
Vin returned his protest with a cool stare. "Yeah, I am." He held up a hand before Chris could argue. "I ain't stupid, Larabee. I'm not about to go chargin' in there an' work him over." He snorted. "Though it surely would feel fine to plant my fist somewhere...vital."
The flicker of wry humor eased Chris's concern but he didn't back down. "You're not gonna accomplish anything. As soon as we get to the ranch I'll make some calls, get social services in on this."
Vin walked around to Chris's side of the truck and leaned against the fender. "Chris..." He trailed off, chewing the inside of his cheek and surveying the barn with haunted eyes. "Guys like Sinclair... Worst thing ya can do is get 'em riled. Even when it's not your fault... you still pay the price."
Chris caught his breath, unable to shut out the images Vin's words conjured. Pictures of a skinny little kid with bottomless blue eyes and stubborn determination wielded like a red flag before a bull.
Vin tore his gaze from the barn and looked at Chris. "I'm not gonna let that kid take the fallout for me sassin' his pa. If that means I gotta eat crow..." He shrugged.
"I'll go with you."
"No." Vin thrust out his chin, but there was gratitude in his eyes. "Two'll seem like a threat. Best I go alone."
Chris gritted his teeth. "I don't like it."
"You think I do? Hell, last thing I want to do to that bastard is kiss his ass. But it ain't for me I'll be doin' it." He laid a hand on Chris's arm. "Trust me."
And for that, Chris had no defense. "Five minutes. You're not out of there, I'm coming after you."
Vin tipped his head in acceptance and cut across the field toward the barn. Chris watched him go, an unpleasant twisting sensation in his stomach that he couldn't name.
He heard Sinclair from a distance, the deep voice loud and rough with anger. He paused, one hand on the large sliding door.
"... You've gotta be the most worthless excuse for a human being on this planet. Don't you have a single brain cell in that head? I don't know why in hell I put up with you..."
Vin pressed his forehead to the peeling paint, rocked by a flood of memories.
Listen to me, you little shit! You're nothing but a pain in the ass who's not worth the food it takes to keep you alive.
You've got no kin; nobody gives a damn whether you draw another breath, so you'd best shut your mouth. No one would notice if you just up and disappeared.
You're not a member of this family; you're a worthless little bastard that nobody else wants.
He squeezed his eyes shut, dismayed by how deeply the words could cut even after all these years. For a moment he was that lost little boy again, powerless and utterly alone.
Sucking in a deep breath, he squared his shoulders. He was a grown man, no longer at the mercy of cruel words and brutal fists. He had the strength and the tools to defend himself--better yet, he had six ornery cusses ready to jump in and make his battles their own.
He had family.
Sliding open the heavy door, he stepped inside. Sinclair cut off his tirade and both he and Jonah spun to face Vin. Jonah's eyes widened and his hand shot up to cover his mouth. But not fast enough to prevent Vin from seeing his bloody lip.
Rage rose up so quickly and so fierce that Vin could hear the blood rushing in his veins. It took every ounce of his self-control not to throw himself at Sinclair. Instead, he forced open his hands, which had reflexively curled into fists, and slowed his breathing.
"What the fuck are you doing here? I thought I answered all your stupid questions." Sinclair plowed toward him, his expression more guilty than belligerent.
Vin raised both hands. "No more questions. Just came to apologize." The words stuck in his throat, but he choked them out.
"Apologize." Sinclair's tone dripped skepticism.
Vin stole a peek at Jonah, who looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. "Yeah. My boss just chewed my ass for bein' disrespectful."
Sinclair curled his lip. "Damn straight you were. You had no right speaking to me that way, especially in my own house."
It felt as if he were holding onto his temper by his fingernails. Vin knew Chris was right, that the only thing he'd accomplish at this point was more trouble for Jonah. But it was damn hard not to give Sinclair a split lip to match his son's.
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry for that. And we're both sorry for the way we forced Jonah to let us in the house. It weren't right for us to use our badges like that. Kid didn't think he had a choice."
Jonah's gaze, filled with heartbreakingly intense surprise and gratitude, latched onto Vin.
"You don't need to concern yourself. That's between me and Jonah. Now if you don't mind..."
"Seems like maybe I should be concerned," Vin said, gesturing toward Jonah's lip.
Jonah quickly ducked his head, peering up at Vin through his lashes. "I'm fine, Agent Tanner. You should go now." Please, go his eyes pleaded.
"You heard him," Sinclair said, folding his arms. "Now get off my property."
Vin pressed his lips together to hold back a retort. As he turned to leave, he saw Jonah cast a panicked glance toward a stack of crates about ten feet behind Sinclair. The lid of the top crate was slightly ajar, straw and something shiny and black protruding. The sharpshooter in Vin immediately identified it: the muzzle of an automatic weapon.
He covered his surprise, hesitating only for an instant, but the small catch in his stride was enough. Sinclair came up fast behind him, an arm around his throat and cold steel pressed to his temple.
"On second thought, Agent Tanner, I'd rather you stuck around a while longer."
"That's mighty hospitable of you, but I'd hate to put you out."
"To late for that. You should've minded your own business. Jonah, go get me some rope."
Sinclair dragged him backward, deeper into the barn and away from the tantalizing spill of sunlight at the open door. Half of Vin hoped to see Chris appear in that doorway, the other half prayed he'd stay clear.
Jonah remained frozen in place, pale and rigid. "Dad, I don't
"You're damn right you don't. Now do as I tell you and go get the fucking rope!"
Jonah cringed. "But, I--"
"You'd better listen to me, you little shit, or I'll..." Sinclair swiveled toward his son, the arm around Vin loosening and the gun wavering.
Vin ducked and twisted, wriggling free. He scrabbled for the gun tucked at the small of his back, but had to abort the move and lunge for Sinclair when the man once again tried to bring his own weapon to bear. They hit the dirt floor in a tangle of arms and legs, rolling, kicking, and punching.
What Sinclair lacked in agility, he made up in bulk. He backhanded Vin with the gun barrel, a hit to the temple that had black spots dancing in front of his eyes. Vin's disorientation allowed Sinclair to roll on top of him, forcing him to fight for air as he struggled to deflect the gun.
As the gun dipped relentlessly toward Vin's chest, Sinclair shifted his weight. Reacting on instinct, Vin brought his knee up between Sinclair's legs. The big man howled as Vin shoved him aside and rolled to his feet, pulling his own weapon.
"Freeze," he ordered between gasps.
Sinclair had also regained his feet, hunched over with the gun dangling from his hand. He went motionless, his face purple with pain and rage.
"Drop your weapon." A flicker from the corner of his eye told Vin Jonah was near.
Sinclair slowly straightened. "No."
"Your boy's standin' right over yonder. You do what I say and he'll still have a pa."
"There's no way I'm going to prison."
Vin tightened his finger on the trigger. "Mister, I've killed men who gave me a lot less reason. Now drop it, or I'll drop you."
Sinclair hesitated, then bared his teeth. "Go to hell."
Time slowed. Sinclair's arm came up. As Vin squeezed the trigger, there was a heart-stopping blur of motion, followed by Jonah's desperate cry.
"Don't shoot him!"
Startled, Vin pulled his shot.
One beefy arm knocked the boy aside. A pop, a flash, and Vin was on his back. He blinked at the high ceiling, transfixed by a large spider web that stretched between the rafters and the sound of his heart hammering in his chest.
Bastard shot me he thought muzzily.
Then the pain crashed in like an enormous black wave and carried him away.
Never should've let him go in there.
Chris consulted his watch for the third time in as many minutes, pacing back and forth beside the truck. Sweat dampened the hair that fell across his forehead and plastered the white dress shirt to his back. "Stubborn, pig-headed Texan. There isn't an ounce of self-preservation in your mangy hide."
Except that wasn't fair, and Chris knew it. Vin was cautious, deliberate, considering a problem from every angle before offering a solution. Chris had hired him for his sharpshooting skills, never guessing that Vin would turn out to be a steadying force against Buck and J.D.'s more impulsive natures. The only time he threw caution to the wind was when someone else's life hung in the balance.
Which was why Chris was so damn worried.
Vin might insist that his childhood was irrelevant, but his actions had already proven otherwise. Chris felt off balance, and not only from Vin's flippant confirmation of the abuse they'd all suspected.
Vin had known.
Chris had gone over the last hour in his head, examining every look exchanged, every word spoken, with a fresh eye. He considered Vin's reluctance to step inside the house, the way his teammate had studied Jonah with a wariness usually reserved for dangerous felons, the instant intensity of his dislike for Raymond Sinclair. Chris had dismissed it; chalked it up to Vin dragging his feet over a job he'd never wanted a part of in the first place. But now...
"Like they always say, it takes one to know one."
Almost immediately, Vin had recognized a kindred spirit in Jonah. And Chris feared that emotional connection would cloud Vin's judgement. He wasn't concerned for Vin's personal safety; he had no doubt his friend could take the bastard in a fair fight, despite Sinclair's size. But professionally, his teammate could wind up with a formal reprimand, be brought up on charges, or even lose his job.
If what Vin claimed about Sinclair was true, Chris would be first in line to nail him to the wall. But not at Vin's expense.
His watch said Vin had been gone nearly ten minutes when Chris pocketed his keys and started for the barn. He'd taken only a few steps when the crack of a gunshot sent a flock of crows squawking for the clouds and him reaching instinctively for his weapon.
He ran around the corner of the barn, nearly colliding with Jonah, who was pale and wild-eyed with panic. He grabbed Chris's arm, tugging him toward the door.
"Help! You g-gotta come quick! There's been an accident!"
Chris let Jonah propel him a few steps before digging in his heels.
"C'mon, c'mon!" Jonah pulled harder, focused only on the open door.
"Jonah, stop!" Chris grabbed him by the shoulders, distantly aware his fingers were digging into the boy's thin arms. "Slow down. What happened?"
"Your f-friend and my dad, they...they were yelling at each other. M-my dad h-hit him and they started f-fighting. The gun w-went off!"
"Vin's gun? Are you telling me Vin shot your dad?"
"It...it was an accident." Jonah's gaze skittered away, and he again began tugging Chris forward. "He s-said come quick."
"Shit." Shrugging free of the boy's grasp, Chris yanked his cell phone from his pocket. "Here. Call 911."
He jogged up to the barn door, pausing to listen. When only silence greeted him, he moved cautiously inside, hovering near the opening as his eyes adjusted to the muted light.
Scanning the area for Vin, he walked closer to the body sprawled on the floor. Just as his eyes took in the long hair and slim build, he heard a familiar click and something hard nudged the base of his skull.
"Drop it." Sinclair at his back, his voice a smug purr. "And keep your hands where I can see 'em."
Chris hesitated, watching blood soak the dirt in an ever-widening circle. Vin's eyes were closed, his skin gray. Fury rose up in Chris. If Sinclair had already killed Vin, then what did it matter--
"Now, Agent Larabee. Your friend needs you breathing."
Sinclair's command and the almost undetectable rise and fall of Vin's chest, cooled Chris's anger to a manageable level. He tossed down his gun, glaring at Sinclair as the man circled in front of him.
"He's still alive. Let me call an ambulance and you can still avoid a murder charge."
"It's a little late for that. There's a lot more at stake here than the life of one federal agent."
Chris gritted his teeth. "Really. Feel like sharing?"
"Your friend barged in here uninvited. Unfortunately, he got an eyeful before I could send him on his way." Sinclair tipped his head at a stack of crates.
Chris nearly groaned aloud when he recognized the contents. They'd cleared Sinclair of the bombings, and all the while he had a barn full of illegal firearms. There were enough guns for a small army in those crates.
"Twenty-four hours," Sinclair said, shaking his head. "If you'd just showed up a day later those guns would've been safely in the custody of their new owner and Jonah and I would've been on our way to a new life in another state."
He motioned with the gun. "On the ground, face down, arms and legs spread." When Chris didn't move, Sinclair edged over and swung the gun downward, pointed at Vin's head. "Like you said, he's still alive. Do as you're told and he might stay that way."
Chris complied, cheek pressed to the dirt and gaze glued to Vin while Sinclair patted him down, pulling his handcuffs from his pocket.
"All right, get up--slowly." When Chris regained his feet, Sinclair toed Vin roughly with his boot. "Pick him up."
Ever mindful of the gun leveled at his head, Chris knelt beside his friend. The bullet wound was high on the right side of Vin's chest, still oozing blood at an alarming rate. Hooking his arms under Vin's he gingerly pulled his teammate to a sitting position. Vin made an inarticulate sound of protest and his head thudded onto Chris's shoulder.
"Relax. I've got you, pard." Running a soothing hand down Vin's back, Chris's heart sank. No exit wound.
"I said pick him up, not feel him up," Sinclair sneered.
"The bullet's still in there. He needs a doctor," Chris growled, glaring up at him.
"Yeah, well, you'll just have to do the best you can. Jonah!" Sinclair kept his gaze and the gun trained on Chris as he bellowed for his son. "Stop sniveling and get over here."
Chris had nearly forgotten the boy. Jonah emerged from the shadow of an unoccupied stall, Chris's phone still clutched in his hand. He cringed when his father snatched it and thrust a set of keys at him.
"Unlock the cellar."
Jonah's gaze darted between Vin and Chris and tears spilled down his cheeks. "I'm sorry," he said to Chris. "I c-couldn't--"
"Now!" Sinclair roared.
Jonah nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to obey. Chris turned his attention back to Vin, torn between sympathy for the kid and cold anger for the way he'd been set up.
"Pick him up. I don't have all day," Sinclair said.
He tried to haul Vin upright, but his friend's legs buckled and he nearly slithered out of Chris's grasp. For several minutes he struggled to support 170-odd pounds of unresisting sharpshooter--much to Sinclair's amusement, if his smirk was any indication.
"Sorry, pard," he finally murmured, and tipped Vin across his shoulders in a fireman's carry. Disoriented and in pain, Vin fought against his restraining grip. "Easy, easy. It's me, Vin. It's Chris."
"Chris?" Vin choked on the name, his breathing harsh and uneven. "Don't...don't feel so good."
"I know. Try to stay with me." Chris grimaced at the warm stickiness spreading across his back. If he didn't get the bleeding stopped, Vin wouldn't last much longer.
"That way." Sinclair motioned for Chris to follow Jonah's path.
He spied the boy at the other end of the barn, shuffling his feet. As they drew nearer, Chris saw that Jonah was standing next to an open trap door in the floor. Rickety wooden stairs descended into blackness. He stopped, turning slowly to Sinclair.
"You don't really expect me to take him down there."
Sinclair smiled. "You ATF boys are real sharp, aren't you?"
Chris eased Vin to the ground. "Sharp enough to realize that cellar is a one-way ticket for Vin. Do you have any idea the kind of trouble you'll bring down on you and Jonah if he dies? We're federal agents; you'll be on the bulletin board of every police department in the country."
The smile slid off Sinclair's face as something dangerous and a little bit crazy flickered in his eyes. "And that's the only reason I haven't put a bullet in your heads. Now you two are going to sit tight down there until I conclude my business. And then--if you behave yourselves, and if I'm feeling generous--I just might make an anonymous phone call to the people who give a damn whether you keep breathing."
"You son of a bitch." Chris didn't even realize he'd started for Sinclair until a bullet flew past his right ear.
"Yeah, but I'm the son of a bitch with the gun." Sinclair inclined his head toward Vin. "Pick him up."
Furious with Sinclair and his own impotence, Chris had no choice but to yield. Vin was attempting to push himself upright, his eyes open but unfocused. Chris laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Hang on, Vin. You need to let me--"
Bright agony erupted at the back of Chris's head. Vin slipped from his grasp and he toppled onto his side, his limbs heavy and uncoordinated. Two brown work boots appeared in his field of vision. The last thing he heard before losing the battle to remain conscious was Vin's low moan and the cold amusement in Sinclair's voice.
"Been wanting to do that ever since I met you, Agent Larabee."
Somebody had smashed his head into pieces. There was no other explanation.
Chris cracked open his eyes, wincing when even the dim light pierced his head like an ice pick. Pushing himself upright with shaky arms, he had to close his eyes and breathe slowly through his mouth until the wave of nausea passed.
Cautiously, he assessed his surroundings. A single light bulb burned overhead and a few shelves lined cinderblock walls. As he fingered the lump on the back of his head and stared at the wooden steps leading to a trap door in the ceiling, his muddled brain abruptly cleared. Vin!
He turned too quickly and paid the price, almost blacking out when the throbbing beat in his head became a percussion ensemble. Vin lay sprawled on his stomach about five feet away, utterly, frighteningly still. For a moment Chris couldn't move, dreading what he might find if he did.
He didn't even notice the chain until he began crawling toward Vin. The jingle of metal and a pinch at his ankle broke through his single-minded concern and he sat back, confused. "What the...?"
Hitching up his right pant leg, Chris snarled at the handcuff clamped just above his foot. The other cuff was threaded through a five-foot length of chain securely fastened to one of the support beams. He quickly realized he'd be able to reach Vin, but not the stairs.
"You're dead, Sinclair," he muttered. "It's just a matter of time."
He placed a tentative hand between Vin's shoulder blades and heaved a sigh of relief at the regular, if rapid, heartbeat. As carefully as he rolled Vin onto his back, his friend still moaned and tried to curl into a ball.
"Shhh. Easy, Vin. Let me check you over." Chris mimicked the routine he'd watched Nathan perform time and again when one of them was injured, running his hands down Vin's arms, legs, and ribs. Palpating his belly and lower back.
From what he could tell, Vin hadn't sustained any additional injuries during his trip to the cellar. The wound was still steadily oozing blood, though the flow had slowed. Chris was pretty sure that the bullet had broken a couple of ribs--he'd felt them give a bit under the pressure of his fingertips and Vin nearly took his head off with a reflexive swing of his fist.
Sinclair's reluctance to kill them apparently didn't extend to offering help. The room was stripped, the shelves empty. Chris looked at his watch: 7:21. Realistically, it would be at least 18 hours before they could expect a rescue, and then only if Sinclair followed through on making that phone call. Chris wasn't so sure the odds of that happening were in his and Vin's favor.
With a hard tug, he pulled open Vin's dress shirt, sending buttons flying. He ripped away the sodden tee shirt, exposing torn and bleeding flesh. Eyelids fluttering open, Vin groaned and batted at Chris's hands when he cleared as much of the debris as possible from the wound.
"Tryin'...to kill me?"
Chris mustered a thin smile. "If I'd wanted you dead, Tanner, it would've happened a long time ago."
Vin studied his face, and Chris was relieved to see clarity in his solemn gaze. "Bad?"
"Not good." Chris peeled off his own shirt and began folding it into a pad. "Not much to work with. And I'm no Nathan."
"You'll do...do the best you can." He caught Chris's hand. "Jonah?"
Chris jerked away, unreasonably angered. "Damn it, Vin, you took a bullet in the chest and there's not a thing I can do about it! Why can't you for once worry about yourself instead of everyone else?"
Vin just looked at him. "Jonah."
Chris blew out a gusty breath, shoulders tightening. "The kid's fine. In fact, he did a bang-up job helping his father get the drop on me."
"Didn't have...a choice."
"There's always a choice." Chris didn't try to smooth the edge in his voice.
"Easy to say...when you've always had one."
That expression was back, the same raw vulnerability Chris had seen mirrored on Jonah's face. He looked away, swallowing hard, and resumed folding the shirt.
Vin scanned the room. "Where?"
"Cellar under the barn. Tucked out of the way so Sinclair can finish conducting his business."
"When?" Vin's voice had sunk to a raspy whisper; he was fading fast.
"Tomorrow. He says he'll call the authorities and let 'em know where we are once he's made a getaway. Right now that's looking like our best chance."
It startled a laugh from Chris, genuine if a little weak. He sobered. "Gotta stop that bleeding, Cowboy. Only way I know to do it is pressure."
Vin's gaze drifted to the makeshift bandage. "Best not hold back then."
Chris nodded, his throat too tight for speech. He straddled Vin, using his knees to pin his friend's arms against his torso. "Here goes."
Gritting his teeth, he placed the pad over the bullet wound and pressed down firmly with the heels of both hands. Vin stiffened, dragging in a great, gulping breath and squeezing his eyes shut. Tears trickled down the sides of his face as he shuddered hard, then went limp.
Chris didn't flinch, despite the sticky warmth oozing between his fingers. He held the steady pressure until the bleeding stopped and his arms trembled with fatigue. And he imagined all the ways he'd make Raymond Sinclair sorry he'd ever met Vin Tanner.
Someone was angry.
A voice penetrated the darkness with short, harsh bursts of sound. Vin couldn't seem to understand exactly what was being said, but he could easily read the fury beneath. Yep, someone was seriously pissed.
Chris. Chris was pissed.
Vin frowned, fighting to open leaden eyelids. He squinted at a series of wooden beams that eventually resolved into a ceiling. Movement flickered at the edge of his vision, and with some effort he turned his head. Chris was pacing in front of some shelves, occasionally pausing to run his fingers through his hair. Vin watched him stomp back and forth, trying to decipher words that danced like butterflies just out of his reach. And then, gradually, they began to make sense.
"...gonna string the son of a bitch up by his balls and then we'll fucking see who's feeling generous. Stupid shit's nothing but a cowardly bastard who--"
Vin was startled by the pathetically weak croak masquerading as his voice. Chris whipped his head around and staggered, grimacing and grabbing onto a shelf.
Vin lurched upright. "Chris!"
Pain exploded in his chest, sucking all the air from his lungs. He wrapped his arms around himself and curled over, gasping like a fish. He couldn't see, couldn't hear, his whole world the white-hot agony that pulsed with each frantic beat of his heart. Strong hands gripped his shoulders and tipped him backward, guiding him to the hard floor.
Chris materialized over him, his brows drawn together and his mouth a tight, grim line. "Are you crazy? What the hell are you trying to do--save Sinclair the trouble by killing yourself?"
Somehow Vin managed to knot his fingers in Chris's tee shirt. "What's wrong...with you?"
"What's wrong with me? Hate to break it to ya, pard, but you're the one collecting bullets."
"Y'know what I mean. Nearly fell." Vin ground out the words between clenched teeth.
"Just got a little dizzy. Sinclair cold-cocked me up in the barn." Chris pulled aside the makeshift bandage on Vin's chest, his scowl deepening. "Damn it, Vin, you're bleeding again."
"Sorry." Vin tried for sarcastic, but his wispy reply just sounded pitiful.
"It's not too bad. Hang on." Chris repositioned the sodden material and pressed it firmly in place.
Vin bit back a moan. "Time?"
"Just shy of 8:30." Chris wiped his bloody hands on his pants and sat back on his heels. "Gonna be a long night, Cowboy."
"Locked, I'm sure. But it doesn't much matter either way." Chris showed his shackled ankle. "I can't get anywhere near those stairs. And don't you even think about it."
"Expected us to head straight to the ranch when we were done here. They won't be missing us--not before Monday morning."
Vin narrowed his eyes. "Yer just a...ray of sunshine...aren't you?"
"This is serious, Vin. You've already lost too much blood, not to mention the internal damage that bullet has caused. We've got no bandages, no water, if infection starts to set in... "
Vin panned his gaze around the small room, for the first time clear-headed enough to take in their surroundings. He widened his eyes as his heart picked up its beat. "Windows?"
"We're underground, remember? From what I can tell, Sinclair used this room to hide those weapons--I found a spot over in the corner that looks as if a bunch of crates were stacked there. He must have moved them to the barn in anticipation of the deal going down tomorrow."
Vin felt sweat bead his upper lip. The walls suddenly seemed to be shifting closer, the ceiling pressing relentlessly downward. He panted, trying to breathe around the elephant sitting on his chest.
"Vin. Vin!" Chris's voice pierced the high-pitched ringing in his ears.
Chris bracketed Vin's face between his palms. "There's plenty of air, pard. You just have to slow it down. Look at me! Slow it down."
Vin locked eyes with Chris, a little of the panic receding. He concentrated on filling his lungs with slow, deep breaths and the vise around his chest eased a bit.
"That's good." Chris released him but worry was still written in the lines around his eyes.
"S-sorry. St-st-stupid." Vin shivered, tremors racing down his arms and legs.
"Would you stop apologizing? Hell, this place is enough to make me claustrophobic." Chris frowned. "Shit, your teeth are chattering."
"C-cold in here."
"More like you're going into shock." Chris disappeared from view, returning a moment later with an empty cardboard box. He slipped it under Vin's legs, elevating them.
Vin didn't realize he'd faded out until a tap on his cheek and Chris's gruff voice brought him back. "Don't you check out on me. If I've got to endure this hell hole, the least you can do is stick around and keep me company."
"Not gonna die. Gotta nail...that bastard Sinclair. 'M not about to...to leave Jonah...high 'n dry."
"For God's sake, Vin! Jonah is why we're here in the first place! He led me to Sinclair like a lamb to the slaughter."
"You don't understand."
"Then how about you explain it to me? Because it all looks crystal clear from my end."
Vin turned his face away from Chris's angry gaze, struggling for words that stuck in his throat. When he didn't speak for long moments, Chris heaved a sigh.
"Look, forget it. All that really matters now is--"
"Guys like Sinclair...you never know what's gonna set 'em off. There's no reason...no sense to it. At first...you fight back. You reckon...someone's bound to notice. Do somethin'. Make it stop."
Vin shivered and stared up at the light bulb, wishing he could absorb its heat. "Then after a while...you realize no one wants to see...'n it's never gonna stop. So you learn...to keep your head down. Become invisible. 'N when you can't do that..." He swallowed, dry throat clicking. "You do whatever you have to...to survive."
"You want to talk about it?" Chris's tone held none of the pity Vin had feared should his friend learn the truth about his childhood.
He grimaced, finally looking at his friend. "God, no."
Chris inclined his head. "You ever change your mind..."
"I'd have to be...three sheets to the wind...to have that conversation, Cowboy."
"That could be arranged."
Vin read the steel beneath the humor and chuffed weakly. "That an offer?"
Before Chris could reply, they heard the rattle of keys in a metal lock and the trap door slowly creaked open. Chris stood, placing himself between the door and Vin, but several minutes passed and no one appeared.
"Chris?" Vin propped himself on his elbows, only to fall back with a low moan.
Chris waved him to silence. "Who is it?" he called in the dangerous tone he reserved for drug runners and arms dealers.
A pair of legs clad in ratty blue jeans appeared and a slight figure crept cautiously down the first few stairs. Chris scowled, folding his arms. "What do you want?"
Jonah shrank back against the wall, wide-eyed. "I w-want to help."
"Oh, I think you've done more than enough already."
"Chris. Don't." Gritting his teeth, Vin pushed himself upright.
Chris stalked back to him. "Are you crazy? Lay down before you start bleeding again!" He grabbed Vin's shoulders but Vin batted him away.
"Help me sit up...or leave me the hell alone."
"You are the most ornery, pig-headed, infuriating--" Chris helped him move to where he could lean against one of the support beams.
"Back at ya." Vin tipped his head against the post and closed his eyes. His shoulder was on fire, his stomach was churning, and cold sweat trickled down the sides of his face. When the pain ebbed to a more manageable level, he cracked open his eyes and looked at Jonah, still frozen on the steps. "Where's your pa?"
"He left. S-said he had to gas up the tr-truck and get a few th-things at the store."
"Then how about you give me those keys and let us get out of here," Chris said, walking as close to the boy as the chain would allow.
Jonah bit his lip and shook his head. "I...I can't."
"Can't? Or won't?"
"Chris. Back off."
Chris rounded on him. "I will not back the hell off! If you expect me to sit by and watch you bleed to death, then you don't know me very well. He landed us in this nightmare; the least he can do is get us out."
"I can't!" Jonah yelled, his eyes blazing. "And not just because of what he'd do to me if I did. I don't have the key for those." He stabbed a finger at the cuff around Chris's ankle. "He's got it with him." He blinked, looking a little shocked by his own outburst.
"Then call the police--or better yet, bring me a phone," Chris pressed.
Jonah shook his head, his eyes welling. "I can't," he whispered, all the fight draining from him. "Y-you don't understand. H-he'd k-kill me."
"You said...you wanted to help." Vin's throat felt like sandpaper, his tongue thick and clumsy. Staying focused required tremendous effort. "How?"
Jonah brightened. "I brought you some st-stuff." He inched down another two steps, but after a look at Chris came no closer.
Slipping a large backpack from his shoulders, he pulled out items and tossed them. In quick succession Chris caught several bottles of water, granola bars, towels, a first aid kit, and blanket, setting them at his feet.
Jonah zipped the pack shut and stood. "He'll be b-back soon. I h-have to go."
"Wait!" Chris lunged toward the stairs, stumbling when the chain pulled him up short. "Jonah, Vin--Agent Tanner--has a bullet in his chest. A first aid kit isn't gonna cut it."
Jonah's gaze darted between Vin's pale face and bloody chest. "Once we're gone, my d-dad will t-tell the police where y-you are. He p-p-promised."
"That's too late. He needs a doctor now!"
"Shut up, Vin."
"I'm sorry!" Jonah's voice rose. "It's the b-b-best I can d-do."
"It's not good enough!" Chris snarled.
"Yes, it is." Vin's breathy words cut through the shouting, drawing their attention. "It is." He repeated, looking up at Jonah. "Took a lotta guts...to go against him. I know how hard..." He trailed off, overwhelmed by the image of himself--scared, bitter, and old beyond his years--crouched in Jonah's place. "Yer pa's wrong, kid. You...you deserve better 'n this."
For a long moment Jonah stared at Vin, the backpack clutched to his chest like a shield as tears spilled down his cheeks. He made a soft, choked sound and pounded up the steps. The trap door slammed shut and the lock rattled into place.
Chris swore under his breath, scooping the water, granola bars and first aid kit into the blanket and carrying them to Vin. He squatted, touching the backs of his fingers to Vin's clammy cheek.
"You need to lay down."
Vin grabbed a water bottle, fumbling with uncooperative fingers. Chris plucked it from his hands and twisted off the cap, but hesitated.
"Not sure drinking water is such a good idea."
"Gonna die of thirst...'fore the bullet kills me." When Chris still didn't move, Vin held out a trembling hand. "Please, Chris."
Chris gave it up with a glare. "Damn eyes should be registered as lethal weapons. Sip it slowly."
The first swallow was heaven, quenching the fire in his throat, and the second slid down just as smoothly. The third, however, seemed to stick halfway. Vin spluttered, coughing and wheezing as water trickled from the corners of his mouth. Blinking back tears, he worked to catch his breath. When he looked up, he was startled to see naked fear in Chris's wide green eyes.
"You..." Chris picked up a towel and carefully wiped Vin's chin.
Vin blanched when he saw crimson blotches staining the white material. "Guess maybe...you were right...'bout the water."
Chris wadded the towel into a ball, his knuckles white. "I don't care what baggage that kid's carrying. He sticks his nose down here again, he'd better be willing to bring more than some bandages and a blanket."
Vin grabbed Chris's arm. "Not gonna...get that kid killed."
Chris rotated his arm, returning Vin's clasp. "I'm gonna see that goes both ways, pard. Best you don't forget it."