The Tie That Binds
At first the pain was all-encompassing, blotting out everything else. Gradually, other sensations crept in. A steady beeping and hissing. The sharp odor of antiseptic. Softness beneath his cheek. Voices.
"Would you stop playing with that? Camilla sees and she'll kick your ass out of here."
"Like that's a news flash. Why don't you go bother the nurses?"
"'Cause Attila Camilla rides herd on me every time I stick my nose--or any other body part--near one of them sweet young things."
"You're just bent out of shape because the woman's immune to that so-called animal magnetism."
"So called? That's harsh, pard. We both know--"
"Wait a minute. Did he just move?" Footsteps, then warm fingers brushed his cheek.
"Nah, he's still out."
Except he had moved, hadn't he? His body felt as if it were immersed in cement, and he couldn't see a thing in the darkness.
"Shouldn't he be opening them baby blues by now? What exactly did the doc tell you?"
No wonder it was so damn dark--his eyes were shut. He struggled to lift lids that felt dipped in lead.
"Said he was weaning him off the sedative and that he'd be in to pull the tube soon as Vin--" Chris's voice--yeah, it was Chris--got all soft and he was wearing a rare, full-out Larabee grin. "Welcome back."
Buck's head popped into view. "Well hey there, Junior. 'Bout time you decided to join the party. You've had us ready to worry the warts off a toad."
Vin blinked. Everything seemed to be out of focus and moving too fast. Words slid by before he could catch their meaning, but the smiles eased his panic. Chris vanished, then reappeared, and he wondered idly at his friend's shadowed eyes and disheveled clothing.
He let his gaze drift, taking in white walls, the patch of golden sunlight, a meandering crack in the ceiling. Chris and Buck continued to talk, their voices a soothing drone.
Vin blinked again, only this time his eyes wouldn't open all the way. Sounds and colors ran together, and he was drifting, sinking beneath the surface of an ebony lake.
Fingers squeezed his hand and tapped his cheek. Startled, he popped his eyes open and found Chris's face hovering just inches from his own. "Stay with me, Cowboy. The doctor will be here any minute and you can get rid of that tube."
Tube? Vin opened his mouth to ask Chris what he meant, but the question caught in his throat. He coughed, then gagged, now fully awake. Something hard was in his mouth and down his throat, choking him. Grasping frantically, desperate to pull it out, his fingertips grazed smooth plastic just before Chris and Buck seized his arms.
"Vin! Vin, calm down! That tube is to help you breathe. Easy, pard. Stop fighting me."
Chris might as well have been speaking another language. Vin saw his lips moving, but the words were drowned out by a shrill beeping and the hammering of his own heart. He thrashed and kicked, barely registering the pain in his frenzy to free himself.
"Vin! Ow! Damn it!"
A man in a white coat dodged Vin's fist and pinned his arm to the mattress. Grabbing Vin's chin, he ordered, "Take a deep breath and blow it out."
Vin gasped, choked, and then something was slithering up his throat and out his mouth. He coughed and retched until he saw stars, tears trickling down his face as he instinctively tried to curl into a ball. Voices faded in and out as gentle hands freed his arms, shifting him to a more comfortable position and gliding a cool cloth over his stinging eyes and flushed cheeks.
"...thought you said...out of it...not getting better..."
"...disoriented...fever and drugs...should improve..."
"...hurting...give him something..."
Despite the oxygen flowing from the tube under his nose, Vin continued to pant, his chest tight with agony. He watched through slitted eyes as a nurse injected something into his I.V. Within seconds, warmth seeped into his body, blunting the pain's sharp edges.
Fingers ruffled through his hair and he looked into Chris's eyes. Larabee smiled, then winced, running his tongue over a split lip. Huh Vin thought. How'd he get that?
"Hey. You with us?"
"Throat hurts." He frowned at the harsh rasp of his voice.
"Try this," Chris said, reaching for a styrofoam cup. He scooped something onto a spoon and pressed it to Vin's lips. "The doctor said it would be sore for a day or so, thanks to the tube. He'll be back in a few hours to...."
Ice chips. Vin let the cool wetness trickle down his throat with a sigh. He examined the torn flesh on Chris's lip, observed that Buck had a small hole in the collar of his shirt, and studied the bright square of sunlight spilling onto the floor. He wished he could feel its warmth on his face and smell the crisp fragrance of the pine trees out beyond Chris's ranch. Thinking about how it felt to ride through the sun-dappled woods, he gradually realized Chris had stopped speaking and a little line had formed between his brows.
"You getting any of this?"
For some reason Buck found the question hilarious. "Now we know what's really running through his head during those briefings you're so fond of!"
"Shut up, Buck. Peso's just fine, Vin. Don't worry--Charlie Peterson's been taking care of the horses."
The pain was distant now, muffled by the languid warmth trailing through his body. Watching Chris elbow the still-snickering Buck, Vin frowned. "Ya need a shave, Larabee."
Chris grinned down at him. "You are so stoned. Get some sleep, pard. We got your back."
He meant to say he wasn't tired, didn't need sleep. But somehow the words got lost between his brain and his mouth, and really, it felt good to shut his eyes. Reassured by Buck's boisterous laughter and the pressure of Chris's hand on his shoulder, Vin slipped easily into slumber.
Showered, shaved, and a few more hours of sleep under his belt, Chris bumped into Dr. Callaway coming out of Vin's room.
"Mr. Larabee. Walk with me."
Stealing a glance through the open doorway, Chris saw Buck, J.D., and Ezra lounging around the bed where Vin slept, oblivious.
"He'll be fine. This will only take a moment."
Chris stifled a smile at the doctor's patient tone. "Am I that obvious?"
"Let's just say I've never had a patient come equipped with so many bodyguards." Callaway guided Chris to a seat in the small waiting room.
Chris bristled. "In our line of work--"
"I understand, believe me. In fact, I wish all my patients had such a solid support system. Coffee? Soda?" Callaway motioned to the vending machines.
Shaking his head, Chris propped his elbows on his knees and watched the surgeon through narrowed eyes. He liked Callaway--the man had done a damn fine job of patching up Vin and had been amazingly generous with visiting privileges. Still, the chart tucked under his arm combined with the tight set to his mouth looked ominous. "Thanks, but whatever you've got to say, I'd just as soon you said it."
Callaway raised an eyebrow. "You don't pull any punches, do you?"
"No. And I'd prefer you didn't either."
"Fair enough." Callaway sank into the chair beside him. "Good news first. Your friend is out of the ICU and breathing on his own. His pulse is steady, BP is up, and the latest antibiotic seems to be knocking back the infection."
A little of the tension left Chris's shoulders. "I thought he felt cooler earlier before I left."
"His temp dropped to 101.2--a big improvement. If all goes well, another 24 hours on the antibiotic should see him fever free."
"So what's the bad news?"
"Ever run a marathon, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris stared at the doctor, bemused. "Once, back in college."
"Then you probably understand what it means to hit the wall."
"I'm guessing youve got an analogy in there."
Massaging the back of his neck, Callaway nodded. "I'm trying to tell you that Vin has nothing left to give. The shock of the bullet wound, the trauma of surgery, blood loss, infection, fever... He's poised on the knife's edge, Mr. Larabee. And if he slips, well, I'm not sure we'll get him back a second time."
Chris huffed and ran a hand through his hair. "I'm the one who came in here wearing most of his blood. You don't have to tell me how close it was."
"But I need to be certain you understand how close it is. From talking with Mr. Jackson I get the impression that Vin is a hard guy to keep down."
"You could say that," Chris said dryly.
"Well, you're going to have to. It's imperative that he allows his body to heal completely, and that will take time. He's going to have to follow my instructions to the letter, and the better he starts feeling, the harder that may be. But I'll level with you--he can't afford even to catch a cold right now. His lungs are too weak, and his immune system has been severely compromised by this infection."
"I hear you." Chris tipped his thumb down the hallway toward Vin's room. "You know those bodyguards you mentioned? I can guarantee you that each and every one will dedicate himself to sitting on our sharpshooter, if that's what it takes."
Callaway broke into a rare grin. "Now that's what I was hoping to hear. Though I really doubt it will take all six of you."
Chuckling, Chris stood and offered his hand. "You don't know Vin."
When he got back to Vin's room, Ezra was playing solitaire while Buck and J.D. were squabbled over a crossword puzzle.
"I'm telling you, Buck, that's the wrong answer." J.D. hunched over the folded newspaper, evading Buck's attempts to snatch it.
"And since when are you the expert? You got an English degree I don't know about?"
"It doesn't take a degree to know that a six-letter word for 'a creation arousing awe' isn't 'woman.'"
Buck tapped the paper. "Lookie there, the w and the o are already filled in!"
"Lots of words begin that way."
"J.D., they even used the word 'arouse.' Now I don't know where you come from, but in my neck of the woods that spells woman for sure."
Buck and J.D. swiveled their heads toward Ezra, who never looked up from his cards. "Huh?"
"A creation arousing awe is a wonder. As in the Seven Wonders of the World? I believe you'll find that is the word you're searching for."
"Hey, he's right! That means seven down--'fit to eat'--is edible. Thanks, Ezra."
"Always happy to be of service."
"Still think woman is a better answer," Buck sniffed.
"Keep it down or you're going to wake Vin," Chris warned, heading for an empty chair.
"Too late." Vin squinted up at him, his voice thready but his eyes clearer than they'd been.
"Hey." Leaning on the rail, Chris smiled. "How do you feel?"
Vin screwed up his face. "Like somethin' crawled in my mouth 'n died."
"Nice image, Junior." Buck poured a cup of water while J.D. and Ezra gathered around the bed.
As he sipped from the straw, Vin scanned their faces. "I win the lottery or somethin'?"
"In a manner of speaking." Chris watched him closely. "What do you remember?"
Vin frowned. "We left the office, drove out to question..." He sucked in a breath, bolting upright. "Jonah!"
Monitors went crazy as Vin tensed, then folded over with a moan. Chris and Ezra seized his shoulders, easing him to the mattress. Chalk white, sweat beaded his forehead and upper lip as he coughed and panted.
"Oh, God. Hurts."
"Not a wise move, Mr. Tanner."
"Relax. Just breathe," Chris slid his hand into Vin's, wincing when his friend clamped down with bruising force.
"Easy...fer you...to say."
Buck returned from the bathroom with a damp cloth just as a gray-haired nurse bustled into the room. After she eyed the monitors, she looked pointedly at Vin.
"I'm Camilla, Mr. Tanneryour day nurse. These gentlemen warned me you were going to be trouble. Looks like they were right."
"Sorry, ma'am." Vin's breathing slowed but the heart monitor still beeped rapidly. "Forgot...for a minute."
She nudged Ezra aside and wrapped the blood pressure cuff around Vin's arm. "Got a quick reminder, did you?" The curve of her mouth softened the jibe.
Wincing through another spasm, Vin nodded.
Camilla removed the cuff and took his temperature. Peeling down the hospital gown, she checked the dressing on his chest. "Scale of 1 to 10?"
Ezra rolled his eyes, Buck snorted, and Chris shook his head.
"Elevated heart rate and a cold sweat, not to mention the death grip you've got going on Mr. Larabee's hand? I'm thinking more like an eight or nine." Camilla met Vin's startled eyes with a steady gaze.
Flushing, Vin ducked his head. "Reckon."
She adjusted the gown and tucked the blanket around him with gentle hands. "I don't need you to be tough, Mr. Tanner. Just honest."
"Aw, hell. Might 's well...call me Vin."
Smiling now, she ruffled his hair. "I'll get you something for the pain, Vin. Think you could manage some juice?"
"Sounds like heaven, ma'am."
Chris suppressed a grin. What was it with Vin and old ladies? Looked like he was well on his way to charming "Attila Camilla" as easily as he had Nettie Wells.
"No need to trouble yourself, Miss Camilla. I can get Vin's juice." Buck flashed a blinding smile.
Cocking an eyebrow, Camilla stared him down. "With the aid of one of my nurses, no doubt. Thanks, but no thanks, Mr. Wilmington. I think it's best you stay right where you are."
"Man, Buck, she's got your number!" J.D. hooted once she'd left the room.
"It does indeed appear that your days as hospital Lothario have come to an end," Ezra agreed.
"Somethin's wrong with a woman who won't succumb to my innate charisma, " Buck grumbled. "It ain't natural."
Chris listened with one ear, preoccupied by Vin's continued discomfort. He'd loosened his hold on Chris's hand, but his body still vibrated with tension. "Why don't you boys grab something to eat? Camilla would probably appreciate it if we gave Vin a little more breathing room."
Ezra picked up on the subtext. "That's an excellent idea. I noticed a cafe right around the corner that actually looks palatable."
"Sounds good to me; I'm starving," J.D. said.
"Kid, you're always hungry." Buck cuffed him on the head as they walked to the door. "Need anything, Chris?"
"On its way. You be careful, Junior. Looked to me like Camilla had her eye on your assets."
When their voices had faded down the hallway, Vin looked at Chris, his expression troubled. "Level with me, Chris. What happened to the kid?"
Before he could respond, Camilla breezed in with a stainless steel tray and a carton of apple juice. After passing the juice to Chris, she swiped the I.V. port with alcohol and injected the contents of a syringe.
"Morphine," she told Vin. "If the juice goes down well you can have broth and Jell-O for dinner."
"Somethin' to look forward to," Vin muttered.
She gave him a reproving look, but Chris spied amusement beneath. "Behave yourself and I'll let you pick which flavor. Cross me and you automatically get green."
Collecting the tray, she inclined her head to Chris. When he'd steadied the juice carton in Vin's shaky hands, he followed her to the door.
"What he needs most is rest," she said, her voice pitched for his ears alone. "The morphine will most likely knock him out. Let it."
Chris touched two fingers to his brow. "Yes, ma'am."
When he returned to the bed, Vin handed him the empty carton. His eyes already had the slightly unfocused look indicating heavy drugs, the pupils abnormally large. A little voice in Chris's head observed that if he stalled a few minutes the whole unpleasant conversation could be postponed. Vin wasn't long for this world.
Sighing, he lowered the bed rail and sat on the edge of the mattress. "I'm not sure how much you remember."
"'S pretty hazy. I remember how scared he was. How pissed you were."
"Yeah, well... Let's just say you helped me see through new eyes. The kid's a lot gutsier than I gave him credit for."
"He called the police?"
"Actually, he called Buck."
"Wasn't sure he had it in him."
"Like I said, the kid's tough. He not only led Buck to us, he got his dad and the two guys making the buy to come out in the open where Buck and the boys could take 'em down."
"What about his dad?" When Chris didn't answer immediately, Vin stiffened and clamped a hand onto his arm. "Dead?"
"Easy." Chris pried the fingers loose, clasping them in his. "Not dead. But he's hurt bad. Took slugs to the shoulder and belly. They're not sure if he'll make it."
Vin flung an arm over his eyes. "Damn," he said, his voice choked.
"There's more." Chris waited until Vin lowered his arm before continuing. "When the buyers got wind of what Jonah was doing, they came out shooting. Sinclair threw himself on top of the kid, shielded him with his own body. That's how he got shot."
Eyes huge in his pale face, Vin shook his head. "What? I...I don't understand..."
"I don't either. But the fact of the matter is, he sacrificed himself to save his son's life."
Vin turned his head, blinking hard. "Better he'd stayed a bastard."
Taken aback by the bitterness in his friend's voice, Chris watched him struggle for control. When it became clear Vin was withdrawing from him, he squeezed his hand. "Hey. Talk to me, Cowboy."
"Playing the hero... Don't you see? It's gonna hurt the kid so much worse than anything he ever did with his fists."
He sounded on the verge of tears, and for the life of him, Chris couldn't understand why. "Hurt him? How?"
Vin closed his eyes. "I'm real tired, Chris."
Everything in him wanted to push, to demand an explanation for Vin's deep distress. But he remembered Camilla's words and the grave expression on Callaway's face. So Chris rubbed his thumb soothingly over the back of Vin's hand until his fingers slowly uncurled and his breathing turned slow and deep.
"We're not finished with this, pard," he murmured. "Not by a long shot."
"Hi, Boss. How's Vin?"
"They just brought him back to his room. Camilla promised to come and get me when he's settled." Chris tucked the cell phone against his ear and stood, pacing to the waiting room's large window. "Everything under control?"
"Running like clockwork. Ezra and Nathan finished inventorying the guns, J.D.'s digging up information on Sinclairs supplier, and Buck debriefed Travis."
Tilting his head left, then right, Chris tried to work the kinks out of his neck. "Great. That's great. What about Jonah--any word?"
"Turns out his mother has a sister in California who was only too happy to take him in. She's got little ones so it'll be another couple days before she can fly out here to collect him," Josiah replied. "Any word on his dad?"
"Still holding his own. They're cautiously optimistic--whatever the hell that means."
"What about you?"
"Everything under control?"
"Well, Vin's still in a lot of pain, but getting rid of the chest tube--"
"Not Vin, Chris." Josiah's voice turned gentle. "I'm asking about you." When Chris fumbled for an answer, he added, "You were looking a little rough around the edges when you left here. I've got two ears, if you need 'em."
Running a hand through his disheveled hair, Chris sighed. "I'm fine, Josiah."
"Sometimes it's harder to see a brother hurt than to bear the pain ourselves."
"I said I'm fine."
"Of course you are. I'm just saying it isn't easy watching a friend struggle when all you want to do is dive in and help. Sometimes our stubborn Texan's too independent for his own good."
Chris huffed. "You can say that again." He rubbed at the headache building behind his eyes. "Callaway warned me about the pain and weakness, but there's something more going on."
"I do get the impression Vin's wounds aren't all visible." Josiah paused. "Something happened in that cellar."
Tipping his head against the glass, Chris shut his eyes. "Something happened a long time ago. The cellar just dredged it all up."
"You've tried talking to him?"
"Of course I have. But he's either in agony or stoned on morphine. And he's reinforced those damn walls of his with steel."
"Well, Boss, I can tell you this much: losing sleep isn't going to bring those walls down any quicker."
Chuckling, Chris shook his head. "Now you sound like Nathan."
"I'll consider that a compliment." The amusement left Josiah's voice. "He'll let you in eventually, Chris. I'm sure of it."
Chris caught a flicker of movement and turned to see Camilla approaching. "Gotta go, Josiah. See you at six?"
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away."
He snapped the phone shut and met Vin's nurse halfway. "I can go in now?"
"Go ahead. But Chris..." She stopped him with a hand on his arm. "It'll take a few more hours for the anesthesia to work its way out of his system. So don't be concerned if he doesn't make much sense--he's still pretty loopy."
She smiled. "I'll be in every so often just to keep tabs on him. If you need anything sooner, just give me a buzz."
"I thought your shift was over in..." He checked his watch. "...ten minutes."
"I decided to stay a little longer. There are some supplies I need to inventory."
"Which coincidentally gives you the opportunity to make sure Vin is all right."
Camilla folded her arms and glared down her nose at him. "What exactly are you suggesting, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris couldn't stop the grin that spread across his face. "He gets under your skin, doesn't he?"
A slight twitch of her lips and she headed back to the nurses' station. "Use the call button, Mr. Larabee. Otherwise I'll stop by in about 30 minutes."
He stepped quietly into Vin's room, his eyes on the figure in the bed. Seeing Vin so wan and still, it was difficult to remember that removing the chest tube was a milestone, not a setback. Chris walked slowly around the bed, examining the bag of I.V. antibiotic, adjusting the blanket, and smoothing an errant strand of hair from Vin's face.
He'd been settled in a chair with a book for about 15 minutes when Vin's breathing sped up and he fidgeted restlessly. Standing, Chris moved closer, taking in the light sheen of sweat, rapid eye movement, and muscle twitches.
Laying his hand on his friend's chest, Chris felt the quickened beat. "Vin. Wake up, pard."
Vin made a low, distressed sound in the back of his throat. His eyes flew open and he came up swinging. "Let go!"
"Take it easy. You were dreaming," Chris soothed.
"The chest tube is history. You're back in your room."
"I thought..." Vin scanned his surroundings with wide, glassy eyes.
"Never mind." Gradually relaxing, Vin accepted some ice chips and raised a minimum of protest when Chris deflected his questing fingers from the newly bandaged area on his side.
"You in any pain?" he asked, hoping to distract him.
Vin screwed up his face as if the question required all his concentration. "Must be, but I feel too good to tell fer sure."
Chris suppressed a grin. "Camilla said itd be a while before the anesthesia wore off. She'll be in to check on you in a bit."
Sinking deeper into the pillow, Vin gave him a lopsided grin. "I like Camilla. She reminds me of Nettie. And m' ma." He slurred the words, the drugs deepening his drawl. "Julie, m' new night nurse is real nice too. She don't have Camilla's spunk but she's got somethin' almost as good."
"A great ass."
Chris nearly swallowed his tongue. He'd sat in on enough bull sessions with the boys to know Vin held a healthy appreciation for a pretty lady. But he'd never heard his shy, reticent teammate confess more than basic attraction, and then only in the most respectful terms.
Guess still waters really did run deep. And Camilla wasn't kidding about those drugs.
"I hadn't noticed," he said dryly. "Maybe you should ask her out, once you're back on your feet."
"Nah." Plucking at the blanket, Vin turned his head to gaze out the window. "She'd just say no."
"What makes you think that?"
Vin lifted his uninjured shoulder. "She works with all them smart, rich doctor types. Girl like that--she's outta my league."
Chris was blindsided by a burst of anger. He'd known Vin was a little insecure about his dyslexia and the way it had impacted his education. Still, he'd always thought his friend's skill with a gun more than balanced that hit to his self-esteem. Did Vin really believe himself less worthy because he didn't have a college degree? And how the hell could Chris not have realized that until now?
"You're as good as any doctor. All those degrees are just pieces of paper--what matters is the man inside. Anyone would be lucky to go out with you."
Vin winked--or at least he tried. "Thanks, Cowboy, but yer not my type."
Chris rolled his eyes, but at least his anger backed off a notch. Vin squirmed around a bit, then seemed to drift toward sleep, his eyes fluttering shut. Just when Chris was ready to reclaim his chair, Vin jerked and opened his eyes.
I wish to hell you'd stop fretting over that kid "He's all right," Chris said aloud. "His mother's sister wants him to come and live with her family. Josiah says she seems real nice."
"They all do, at first," Vin muttered.
"How 'bout his pa?"
Chris looked at him through narrowed eyes for a long moment before answering. "Doing better. Doctors think he'll make it."
Evidently the drugs not only loosened Vin's tongue, but also sabotaged his poker face. Chris watched various emotions flicker across his features--relief, anger, guilt, and deep sorrow.
"Vin." He paused, his conscience pricking him for what he was about to do. "What did you mean when you said it would've been better if Jonah's dad had stayed a bastard?"
Vin knit his brows together. "Son of a bitch don't deserve to be looked at like some kinda hero."
"No one's calling him a hero."
"Good. 'Cause he ain't. One good deed don't make up fer years of shittin' on ya."
Studying Vin's face, Chris thought hard before speaking. Something profound was lying just beneath the thin veneer of anger in his friend's words. "I agree. But I don't see how what he did will hurt Jonah."
Pressing his lips together, Vin turned his head and said nothing.
"I mean," Chris said tentatively, "seems to me at least now Jonah has proof his father really does care about him."
Vin snapped his head around, fixing Chris with a glare that might have been scary except for the tears glistening in his eyes. "You think that'll make him feel better?"
Chris gaped at him, bewildered. "Won't it?"
"Let me ask you somethin', Larabee. Which do you think hurts more--knowin' the bastard beatin' the hell outta you does it 'cause he hates you? Or 'cause it's his sick, twisted way of lovin' you?"
Nausea churned in Chris's stomach until he could barely choke a reply. "Vin, I--"
"You can't stop 'em from hurtin' you. The only thing you can do, the one scrap of power you got, is to hate 'em back. An' every time they do somethin' nice--come to your football game, or tell you you done good, or...or throw themselves in front of a damn bullet... They take even that much away from you."
Curling his fingers around Vin's arm, Chris asked, "Is that how it was for you?"
Vin pulled away, blinking hard. "This ain't about me."
You're wrong, Cowboy.
Camilla chose that moment to enter the room. She took one look at Vin's tense posture and sweaty face and scowled.
"What's going on here, Mr. Tanner? Your heart rate is up and your color is bad. Do I need to kick Mr. Larabee out?"
"Hell," Vin said to Chris. "I know 'm in trouble when she starts callin' me mister."
Picking up his wrist, she checked her watch. "Must not be feeling too bad if you can still behave like a stubborn fool." When Chris smirked, she turned her frown his way. "At least he can blame it on the anesthesia. What's your excuse?"
Vin snickered, then pressed a hand to his chest, groaning.
"It's going to be tender for a while." Camilla tucked aside Vin's hair and slipped an aural thermometer into his ear, the tenderness of her touch belying her brusque demeanor. "How's the pain?"
"Weren't none 'til you made me laugh."
She pursed her lips but her eyes twinkled. "Your temperature's a little elevated, but that's to be expected. Dr. Callaway says we can get you set up on a PCA pump now that you're more lucid. It'll let you control your own pain medication by pressing a button."
"Don't like the drugs." Vin suppressed a yawn, his eyelids heavy. "Make me sleep all the time. 'Sides, I don't need 'em."
"Sleep is the best thing for you right now. And I guarantee that in another hour or so you'll see just how badly you do need them." She rearranged the pillows so that Vin was propped more comfortably. "Now do as youre told, and I'll bring you some of that ginger ale you're so fond of."
The corners of Vin's mouth turned up. "Yes, ma'am."
Patting his arm, Camilla gave Chris a warning glare that would've put Travis to shame and left.
Chris shook his head. "I get chewed out and you get ginger ale. Figures."
"Yer just upset 'cause you finally met yer match when it comes to the Larabee death stare. Put the two of you in the same room an' you could peel the paint clean off the walls."
"Didn't I hear Camilla tell you to go to sleep?"
Vin smirked but shut his eyes. Sitting in his chair, Chris watched as his friend's heart rate and breathing slowed. He reached for his book, but Vin's soft, husky voice stayed his hand.
"'M the reason he turned in his pa, Chris. Jus' wanna know he'll be okay."
Leaning forward, Chris placed his hand on top of his friend's. "He's safe, Cowboy. And he's got all the heart and determination of a certain Texan I know. He's going to be just fine."
Whether comforted by his words or simply overcome by exhaustion, Vin slept.
Chris prowled restlessly around the room, from the doorway, to the window, to the chair, and back again.
"What's wrong with you?"
He tore his gaze from the wall clock and looked at Vin. "Nothing. Why?"
Vin shifted a little, wincing. "You're jumpier 'n a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin' chairs."
Hearing the strain in his friend's voice, Chris perched on the edge of the bed. "You hurting?"
To prevent pneumonia from settling into Vin's weakened lungs, the medical staff had begun getting him out of bed for increasing periods of time. He'd been sitting in the chair for over 30 minutes, and discomfort and fatigue were etched in the lines around his eyes and mouth.
"I'm fine. Don't change the subject."
One corner of Chris's mouth turned up. "I'm fine too."
Studying his face, Vin shook his head. "If you're havin' second thoughts about playin' nursemaid, I understand."
"I'm not having second thoughts; Travis has already approved the time off." When Vin still looked doubtful he sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "You staying at the ranch doesn't make me jumpy, pard. Hospitals... Well, they're another story."
Vin hesitated, then nodded. "I hear ya. I've 'bout had my fill of this place, an' then some. Gonna be real good to see the sky an' breathe air that don't smell like it's been disinfected six ways to Sunday."
"Not to mention the uncomfortable furniture." Chris gestured between the chair and the bed.
"An' don't even get me started on the food."
"You two are just breaking my heart." Julie, Vin's raven-haired night nurse leaned in the doorway, one hand pressed to her chest. "Plotting to leave us without a backward glance."
Ducking his head, Vin peered at her through his lashes. "Never said there weren't a thing or two I'll miss about this place."
Julie smiled, revealing matching dimples. "Hopefully more than just those illicit chocolate pudding cups I smuggle you."
Blushing, Vin gave her a lopsided grin. "I reckon."
Standing, Chris ruthlessly squelched the smirk that wanted to take over his face. "Can you stay a minute, Julie? I wouldn't mind stretching my legs."
"Of course." Julie took his place on the side of the bed. "Go grab yourself a cup of coffee from the nurses' lounge, if you'd like. It's much better than what comes out of the machines."
"Thanks. I just might take you up on that."
When Vin gave him a look that said he knew exactly what Chris was up to, he responded with a wink. "Be back in a few."
Vin narrowed his eyes. "Watch your back, Cowboy."
"Why do you call him that?" Julie asked as Chris stepped into the hallway. He heard Vin raise his voice to be sure it would carry. "He likes it. Me and the boys figure he must think he was one of them gunslingers in a previous life."
Chris flipped him the bird behind Julie's back before heading toward the visitor's lounge. Josiah was seated on one of the lumpy couches, his large hands clasped between his knees. Smiling, he stood as Chris approached.
Chris glanced around the otherwise empty room, frowning. "Where is he?"
"Nathan took him to see his father. They should be back any minute." Josiah cocked his head. "Something wrong?"
Chris looked away, clenching his jaw. "I'm not sure this is such a good idea."
"The boy's already here, Chris. He's gonna step out of that elevator any minute, and when he does he expects to see Vin."
"They've had him sitting in the damn chair for nearly an hour. You know how much that takes out of him. I just think the timing's off."
"Jonah's aunt arrives tonight. As soon as the paperwork is taken care of they'll be flying back to California. I'd say the timing's now or never." He moved into Chris's line of vision, forcing him to meet his eyes. "What's really bothering you?"
Chris glared at him for a long moment before answering. "Picking at a wound doesn't help it heal."
"Nor does leaving it to fester."
"You really think talking to Jonah is going to help Vin?"
Josiah sighed, rubbing a palm across his stubbled jaw. "I think Vin and Jonah share a terrible bond the rest of us will never completely understand. I think demons Vin thought he'd locked away have come back to torment him. And I believe Jonah can give him the strength he needs to banish them once and for all."
Chris turned and paced to the window. For perhaps the first time in his life he could empathize with Vin's claustrophobia. He felt hemmed in by sterile corridors and constantly intruding hospital personnel, by Vin's pain and his own inability to stop it. He longed for open spaces and rolling hills. For the peace of Vin's quiet companionship as they worked side by side. Most of all, he longed to erase the past week, and the name Sinclair, from both their lives.
He sensed Josiah's presence at his back a moment before the big man spoke. "You can't pretend it never happened, Chris. Vin made that mistake years ago, and now he's paying the price."
Chris kept his gaze fixed on the city streets. "Nightmares are coming all the time now. He can't sleep without waking up in a cold sweat, shaking." He finally looked at Josiah. "Last thing I want to do is cause him more pain."
"Lancing a wound hurts like hell. But it's the only way to get out the poison and begin healing." Josiah gripped Chris's tense shoulder. "I don't like to see him in pain any more than you do. But I do believe this is best for Vin."
The elevator chimed softly. Squaring his shoulders, Chris turned to face Nathan and Jonah where they stood on the edge of the waiting area. Dressed in new jeans and a Broncos tee shirt, Jonah looked pale but determined. He met Chris's gaze without flinching.
"Hi, Agent Larabee."
"Jonah." Chris followed Josiah over to the pair, nodding to their medic. "Nate."
"Hey, Chris. How's Vin doin' tonight?"
"Pretty good. Tired--they've got him sitting up again."
"That's a good sign. Means they're getting' ready to release him."
"Doc said maybe day after tomorrow." Chris looked at the boy. "Vin's had a real close call. He can't afford to get worked up."
Jonah nodded, his dark eyes huge. "I won't upset him. I j-just want to s-s-say I'm sorry."
Chris hesitated, trapped by the hope in Jonah's eyes and Josiah's silent expectation. "All right. Just...give me a minute. I'll let him know you're coming."
"We'll wait in the hallway," Josiah agreed, and Chris was inexplicably irritated by the approval in his voice.
As he walked down the corridor to Vin's room, he found himself wishing again for open spaces, and hoping he wasn't making a big mistake.
Vin squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on breathing. Pain radiated through his chest and down his arms, throbbing with each beat of his heart. A cool cloth stroked across his sweaty face and warm fingers curled around his wrist.
"You all right?"
"Just...just gimme a minute." He ground the words out through clenched teeth.
"I'm hitting the damn button."
"No." He cracked open his eyelids and glared at Chris, who looked almost as rough as he felt.
"Vin, you're in agony."
"Stuff puts me out. Don't wanna sleep." He hated the fact that he sounded like a whiny child.
To his surprise, Chris grimaced but didn't argue. Vin eased himself against the pillows propped at his back, absurdly grateful to be lying down again. He watched Chris glance at the door for the third time since Julie had left.
"What's goin' on? You act like the bogeyman's waitin' out in the hall."
"Maybe he is."
Vin raised his eyebrows at the barely audible mutter. "What?"
Chris sighed. "Someone's here to see you."
"'Sat all? What're you makin' such a fuss for? I ain't dyin'; I can handle visitors. Who is it--J.D.? Ezra? Why don't they just c'mon in, for Pete's sake?"
Chris shook his head, finally looking Vin in the eye. "It's Jonah."
"Oh." Vin read the subtle disapproval in Chris's tense shoulders and clipped words. "You don't want me to see him."
"I think it's too soon. You're weak as hell and hurting most of the time--despite how hard you try to hide it. I don't want that kid doing anything to set you back."
Vin couldn't bite back a surge of irritation. "I'm not gonna fall apart, Chris. You don't have to treat me like I'm made of glass."
"I was in that cellar, Vin. I saw the effect that kid had on you."
"And I'm tellin' you I've been lookin' after myself long as I can remember. I don't need you tryin' to pad corners for me. Damn!" Vin pressed a hand against the fresh surge of fire in his chest. "I'm sick of this shit."
Chris reached for the button to the PCA pump, but Vin blocked his hand. "Send him in."
Chris tightened his lips to a thin line. "Fine." He stalked toward the door.
His friend paused but didn't turn around. "Yeah."
"Just Jonah. I want to talk to him alone."
Stiffening his spine, Chris nodded curtly and disappeared.
Blowing out a long breath, Vin stared up at the ceiling. While his memory of the ordeal in Sinclair's cellar was hazy, he could clearly recall the strength of Chris's arms, the warmth of his body, and the comfort of his voice. Without Chris, he'd have died in that hellhole--of that Vin was certain. The last thing his friend deserved from him was anger, but these days his emotions were raw and out of control.
He wished he were at the ranch, fixing fences or cleaning tack. Breathing air sweetened with pine and horses and hay. Soaking up the pleasure of Chris's company without having to say a word, without seeing the constant shadow of doubt and worry in his friend's eyes. Most of all, he wished the last week had never happened. Come to think of it, he wished most of his childhood had never happened.
A tentative knock broke through his reverie. Jonah hovered just inside the room, shuffling his feet. "M-Mr. Larabee said y-you'd see me."
"C'mon in. And stop lookin' so scared. I ain't bitten off anyone's head so far an' I don't plan on startin' now."
Jonah came slowly over to the bed, his gaze taking in the hospital equipment and Vin's I.V. He swallowed hard. When he didn't speak, Vin broke the silence.
"How's your pa?"
"The d-doctor says he'll be okay--eventually."
"How 'bout you?"
Jonah shrugged, staring at his toes. "I'm alright."
"Your Aunt Lisa sounds like a real nice lady."
"I d-don't really remember her. Dad d-didn't... I haven't s-seen her since before my mom died."
Vin blinked back a rush of moisture. How many times had he stood in Jonah's shoes, forced to start over, a stranger among strangers? Isolated. Alone. Every time hoping for something better, fearing something worse.
"You're gonna be okay."
Jonah's eyes flashed. "How do you know?"
Vin smiled inwardly at the show of temper. Good. Kid was gonna need it. "'Cause I been where you are, more times than I can count. I know sometimes it feels like the whole world's against you, but you gotta believe you deserve something better."
His lip trembling, Jonah shook his head. "You said that before,
b-but...I'm n-not sure I do."
"I know." Vin's throat was dry and tight. "You get told you're worthless long enough, you can't help but start to believe it. But I'm tellin' you, Jonah--you can be whatever you want to be. You got that power inside you. I seen it."
Jonah studied his face, searching for the truth. "You did?"
"Saved my life, didn't you?"
"You'd never have gotten shot if it weren't for me." Jonah sucked in a deep breath, his shoulders hitching in a sob. "And I'm s-sorry, Agent T-t-tanner. I'm so, so sorry."
"C'mere." Wincing, Vin snagged Jonah's arm and drew him to sit on the side of the bed. "You stood up for what you knew was right. You went against your own pa to get me help. You think that didn't take guts?"
"You knew. I saw the way y-you l-looked at my d-dad, at me." Jonah swiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt. "You st-stood up for me. Nobody else ever even noticed--or if they d-did, they p-p-pretended not to. I couldn't j-just let you d-die."
"I'm still here 'cause you stood up for me." Vin cupped the boy's cheek. "Now it's time to start standin' up for yourself. You got a second chance. Don't waste it."
Jonah nodded, fresh tears wetting Vin's fingertips before he brushed them away. "Josiah says my dad never stopped loving me. He says sometimes all the pain and hurt inside a person gets in the way, comes spilling out instead."
Something deep inside Vin twisted and broke. "Reckon so."
Chris appeared in the doorway, his expression carefully neutral. "Jonah? Your aunt just checked into the hotel. Josiah's going to take you to her."
Jonah looked at Vin for a long moment before nodding his head. "Okay."
Holding up his hand, Vin hooked his thumb with Jonah's, clasping tight. "Have a good trip."
"I will." Jonah stood and ducked his head. "Could... That is... Agent Tanner, w-would it b-be okay if I write to you?"
He smiled. "Only if you call me Vin. Josiah's got my email."
"Thanks...Vin." Jonah's smile trembled. "For everything."
"Watch your back, pard."
When he knew Jonah was gone, Vin closed his eyes, taking slow deep breaths as he worked to regain control over the feelings churning inside him. After a few minutes he heard familiar footsteps approach the bed.
"I'm sorry, Chris." He kept his eyes closed, horrified when his voice cracked. "I had no call to--"
"You going to press that damn button now or do I have to arm wrestle you for it?" Gruff and tender at the same time, Chris's growl was exactly what he needed.
Opening his eyes, he glared and pressed the button. "Only way I'm gonna get you off my back. Bossy son of a bitch." The grumble was forced, but it felt good. So did the warm current that flooded his body, easing the daggers in his chest.
"Are you okay?" Chris took Jonah's place on the mattress, eyeing Vin until he squirmed under the scrutiny.
"I'm fine--why wouldn't I be?"
Chris didn't answer, just plucked the damp cloth off the bedside table and wiped tear tracks from Vin's face.
"Thanks." He was suddenly weary to the bone, his eyelids gaining weight with every passing second.
"Don't know what you said to him, but it was the right thing."
It took his fuzzy brain a moment to decipher Chris's words. "Jonah?"
"Yeah. You two must have had quite the talk."
"Reckon we straightened out a few things."
Chris nodded. "Reckon you did. He walked in here like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, but he came out..."
"Free." The corners of Vin's mouth turned up as his eyes fluttered shut. "Think he's gonna be okay."
"Yeah." Gentle hands pulled the blankets up and smoothed the hair back from his face. "So will you, Cowboy. I promise."
If there was one thing Vin knew he could count on, it was Chris's promises. Wrapped in that warmth and security, he let go and drifted away.
"Aw hell, Buck! I ain't helpless."
"An' I ain't stupid. The doc cut you loose on the condition you take it easy and don't overexert yourself."
"Overexert myself? I was just gettin' out of the damn truck!"
"Not without help, you ain't. Now stay put; I'm comin' around. J.D., grab his duffel from the back."
Buck scooted around the hood and tugged open the passenger door. Despite Vin's muttered curses, his face looked pinched, his jaw tight with discomfort. He caught his breath, swaying a bit when his feet touched the ground.
"Easy, Junior. I got ya."
Since looping Vin's arm over his shoulder would be torture on healing chest muscles, Buck grasped his friend around the waist, supporting him as best he could. They shuffled toward the house, Vin leaning more heavily into Buck with each step. J.D. zipped past them, the duffel clutched in one hand, Vin's prescriptions in the other.
"One day at a time," Buck murmured, seeing Vin's wistful expression. "You'll be givin' him a run for his money 'fore you know it."
"Sick of this." The wispy complaint belied the depth of frustration Buck could read in every line of Vin's body.
"You got a right to be. But you've come a long way, pard. When I think how you looked when we found you..." He broke off, sorry he'd resurrected the image in his own mind, as well as Vin's. Looking up, he saw Chris standing in the open doorway, smiling. "Heads up, Larabee! Got a special delivery for ya."
"It's about time. Expected you boys nearly an hour ago."
"Back up at the pharmacy." Buck squeezed them through the doorway, feeling the faint tremors as Vin fought to stay on his feet. "Where do you want him?"
"Got the guest bed all made up."
"He can speak for himself." Vin somehow managed to straighten up. "No bed. Couch."
Buck looked at Chris, who shrugged and followed them down the hall. Somehow by the time they reached the den they'd picked up Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra. Mild chaos ensued as the five men practically tripped over each other in an effort to be useful.
When Buck lowered Vin to the cushions his friend was panting, damp curls sticking to his sweaty forehead. He seemed to fade out for a bit, passively allowing Josiah to tug off his shoes, Ezra to arrange pillows, and Chris and Buck to ease him into a supine position while Nathan supervised the whole operation. He rallied when J.D. thrust a glass of water and two pain pills in his face, waving them all off with a snarl.
"Got fussed over enough in the hospital. Give me some space, damn it."
Buck took the glass and pills from J.D. as the others, with the exception of Chris, tactfully withdrew. "Now that's the ornery cuss we all know and love. Here--you look ready to chew through tin foil."
Vin shoved aside the outstretched hand, sloshing water onto Buck's wrist. "I'm fine; I don't need that shit."
Snorting, Buck rolled his eyes. "Yeah. White's a real good color on you."
"Shut up, Buck."
Buck watched, fascinated, as Chris locked eyes with their sharpshooter and a silent conversation crackled in the air. Chris gave a slight tilt of his head. Vin compressed his lips to a thin line. Chris quirked an eyebrow. Vin briefly closed his eyes, then ruefully shook his head and held out a hand.
"Gimme the damn pills."
Dropping them into his palm, Buck huffed, "You boys are downright scary sometimes--you know that?"
"You need to eat somethin' with those," Nathan warned from his perch on an armchair.
Vin screwed up his face. "Not hungry."
J.D. stopped playing with the television remote to stare. "Wow. I never thought I'd hear those words from you, Vin."
"It would seem to signal an impending apocalypse," Ezra agreed, pouring himself a glass of wine.
"I know the drugs mess with your stomach," Nate said, "but your body needs fuel. If you don't eat, you ain't gonna heal."
"I said I'm not hungry! Jeez, y'all sound like a buncha old women the way you..." Trailing off, he sniffed. "Is that Josiah's chili?"
Ezra raised his wineglass to Vin in a mock salute. "Your sense of smell is as acute as your eyesight, Mr. Tanner."
Josiah leaned in the kitchen doorway, a dish towel slung over one shoulder. "Change your mind about dinner, Brother Vin?"
"Now wait a minute! The man just got outta the hospital after a major trauma. You feed him that five-alarm chili an' he'll be sick as a dog."
"Damn it, Nate! First you tell me I gotta eat 'n now you won't let me." Vin might have been trying for a scowl, but it looked suspiciously like a pout.
"I'm just sayin' you need to take it easy, stick with foods that ain't so spicy right now."
"I been eatin' that tasteless hospital crap for nearly two weeks! I deserve some real food."
"Which is why I made Vin his own batch, easy on the chili powder." Josiah's tone was decidedly smug.
Vin's wide grin lit up his pale face. "Thanks, 'siah."
He began to struggle upright, but Buck stopped him with a firm hand to the chest. "You just lay back and rest, Junior. We'll bring you a tray."
"Don't 'Aw, Buck' me. Last thing you need is to be sittin' up on one of them torture devices Chris calls a kitchen chair."
"There's always a seat for you outside, Buck," Chris growled.
Buck gave Vin a conspiratorial look. "See? He knows it's true."
Not about to be so easily distracted, Vin persisted. "Chris, I can--"
"He's right, Cowboy. Stay put. I'll be back in a few."
Cursing under his breath, Vin slumped back against the pillows. Something in his face, in the edge to his voice, stopped Buck from following the others to the kitchen. He sat on the coffee table opposite the couch while Vin glared out the window, doing his best to ignore him.
"Better watch yourself. You know Chris don't like people sittin' on that table."
"What's goin' on with you?"
"Not much, thanks to y'all."
"You know what I mean."
Pulling his gaze from the deepening twilight, Vin heaved a sigh. "Go 'n get yourself somethin' to eat, Bucklin. I'm fine."
"Sure you are. Look here, Vin..." Buck studied his clasped hands, carefully choosing his words. "I know we can be a damned irritating bunch of mother hens, but...we thought we'd lost ya, pard."
Vin's jaw dropped and his eyes went wide and defenseless. "I guess I don't know what it was like standin' in your shoes."
"And I hope you never do."
"Sorry for bein' a pain in the ass. I just... I ain't used to havin' anyone who gives a shit. From the time I was a little feller, I learned to depend on myself. I don't know any other way."
Buck's throat tightened painfully. "Well you'd best get used to it. You ain't alone anymore; you got family."
Vin suddenly seemed fascinated by the frayed edge of his tee shirt. "Reckon I need to be reminded of that now 'n then."
Buck patted his knee. "No charge."
"Buck! Get your ass off my coffee table. Does it look like a bench to you?"
Buck could've kissed Larabee for the grin he'd put on Vin's face. "Busted," his friend muttered.
Within minutes Nathan had tucked an extra pillow behind Vin's back, Chris settled a tray across his lap, and J.D. was asking what he wanted to drink.
Braced for another show of temper, Buck was pleased when Vin gave the kid a sly smile and said, "I'll take one of those"--indicating the beer bottle in J.D.'s hand.
"Oh no you won't!" Nathan set down his own bowl with a thump and stabbed a finger at Vin. "You got a death wish or somethin'? First you're tryin' to give yourself an ulcer an' now you want to mix alcohol and pills? You just..." He narrowed his eyes when Vin lost his poker face and began laughing.
"Made you look."
"Smart ass." But Nathan's voice held amusement, not irritation.
"Here." Chris placed a bowl of chili into Buck's hands as the others settled onto couches and the floor, squabbling good-naturedly over the television channel.
"Thanks." Buck frowned. "Ain't this yours?"
"I'll get myself some more." Chris looked pointedly over Buck's shoulder to where Vin was eating chili and chuckling at one of J.D.'s lame jokes. "You earned it."
Chris came awake quickly, all senses on alert. After a moment he heard it again--the subtle creak of one of the boards in the hallway's hardwood floor. He looked at the red LED display on his alarm clock: 2:36.
Vin seemed at peace during dinner. Whatever magic words Buck had used, he'd shed his dark mood, polishing off half a bowl of chili, a chunk of corn bread, and a scoop of cookie dough ice cream. ESPN was on the big screen TV, Buck, J.D., and Ezra were in rare form, and though Vin hadn't said much, he'd soaked up the celebratory atmosphere with a bemused smile.
The Rockies were down by two at the seventh inning stretch, Buck was regaling them with his latest conquest, and Chris had glanced over to find Vin out cold, his ice cream bowl balanced precariously on his lap, the spoon clutched loosely in one hand.
For a split second he saw not the contentedly sleeping Vin on his couch, but the unconscious, bleeding Vin in the cellar. Then a warm hand had touched his shoulder and the apparition vanished. Chris had blinked, a shiver racing up his spine.
If Josiah noticed his reaction, he'd given no indication. "I think that's our cue to leave," he'd said, his fingers tightening briefly. "I'll give you a hand getting sleeping beauty into bed."
Vin was so far under that he'd never really awakened, despite their manhandling. Chris had hoped it was a sign he'd sleep through the night.
Rubbing his eyes, Chris snagged sweatpants and a tee shirt from the end of the bed. Rather than turning on a lamp, he navigated by memory and the bright patches of moonlight that spilled in through the windows. He traveled the circuit from hallway, to kitchen, to den, and was feeling the first tendrils of unease, when a flicker of movement on the deck caught his eye.
Scooping up the quilt from the back of the couch, he slipped out the sliding door. Vin huddled on a chaise lounge, staring at the empty corral. His hair was still damp with sweat, his eyes haunted.
Chris dumped the blanket in Vin's lap. "You wind up with pneumonia on my watch and Nathan'll shoot me."
Drawing the quilt around his shoulders, Vin didn't reply. Chris sat on the edge of a chair, letting the silence grow thick between them before trying again.
After a long pause, Vin sighed. "Never understood why folks ask a question when they already know the answer."
"Think it's called an icebreaker." Chris leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. "I'm worried about you, Cowboy."
"No need. I'm fine."
"You and I got real different ideas about what that word means." Chris stood and walked into the house, feeling Vin's startled gaze on his back.
Heading straight to the bar, he grabbed two shot glasses and the unopened bottle of Glenfiddich he'd been saving for a special occasion. At the door he hesitated, hearing clearly in his head what Nathan would have to say about Vin mixing pain pills and single malt whiskey. Wincing, he yanked the door open and stepped outside.
Vin's head snapped around as he approached, surprise written in his wide eyes. "Thought you went back to bed."
"Thought wrong." Chris poured a shot into each glass, handing one to Vin before sinking back into his chair. Setting the bottle on the deck, he knocked back the contents of his glass, sighing at the welcome warmth that spread through his body. "Good stuff."
Vin's eyebrows climbed up his forehead. "You're ridin' my ass about not dressin' warm enough, but you're pouring me booze?"
"I'm fulfilling my part of our agreement."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"In the cellar I asked if you wanted to talk about what happened when you were a kid. You said you'd have to be three sheets to the wind first. I said I'd arrange it." Chris nodded at Vin's glass. "Drink up."
Vin hesitated only a moment before tossing back his drink. Licking his lips, he gestured at the bottle. "You must've had that hidden or Ezra would've gotten to it before now."
"Bottom cabinet, in the back," Chris said. "Ready to start talking?"
"Way I remember it, that was your agreement, not mine."
Chris poured two more shots. "When's the last time you slept more than a few hours at a time? You need to talk, Vin. If not to me, then to someone else."
Vin took a swallow, closing his eyes. "You don't know what you're asking."
"You sure about that? Case you haven't noticed, I don't make a practice of bearing my soul."
"Now that you mention it." Vin drained the glass and opened his eyes. "Must be in worse shape 'n I thought. Ain't gonna take much," he said, a slight slur to the words.
"You told Jonah you'd been in his shoes."
"Yeah." Vin rolled the empty glass between his palms. "Was younger 'n he is--'bout nine, I guess."
Blowing out a long breath, Vin set down the glass. "I was five when my ma died. She'd been sick for quite a while--cancer, I think. There was only ever me an' her, so once she was gone, I had no one."
"Never in the picture. Like I said, it was just Ma an' me."
"So you were placed in a foster home."
Vin snorted. "Best make that plural."
"Not exactly sure. Four, maybe five by the time I came to live with the Kesslers." He smiled, but bitterness lurked behind it. "Had some problems adjustin'."
"You'd lost everything," Chris said quietly. "How does anyone adjust to something like that?"
Looking intently at him, Vin nodded. "I kinda clammed up at first, wouldn't talk to no one. That, 'n the fact I couldn't read, got the other kids to pickin' on me. Which just gave me more reason to keep to myself." He huffed. "No matter what I did, it was wrong. If I steered clear of the other kids, I was sulkin'. If I stood up for myself, I was a troublemaker.
"Ben 'n Molly Kessler..." Vin trailed off, chewing his lip.
Scooping up his glass, he held it out to Chris, who hesitated, then poured a little more. Vin drained it in a single gulp, his hand shaky as he set it down--though Chris wasn't sure whether to attribute the unsteadiness to whiskey or emotion.
"Ben 'n Molly Kessler had one son, David, 'bout five years older n' me. Not sure why they started takin' in foster kids--but I can guess. Ben was a foreman at a tool 'n die factory. Times was hard 'n money was tight. A monthly foster care allowance can be stretched pretty far if you get clothes from Goodwill and see that no one eats too much."
"Wait a minute. You think they took the money the state meant for your food and clothing and used it for themselves?"
Vin shook his head, clearly amused by Chris's ignorance. "They'd've been in good company if they did. Lots of folks do it, Chris."
Chris scowled but said nothing.
"There were two other state kids 'sides me--Katie and LeAnn. They were both quite a bit younger, an' Molly doted on 'em. Lookin' back, I think she must've always wanted a daughter. Not sure why they never had more kids of their own. Couldn't, I reckon.
"Things was okay at first. Ben was real strict, but as long as I kep' my head down and stayed outta the way, we got along. There was never any question as to who mattered, though. Both Ben n' Molly thought the sun rose 'n set on David. To hear them tell it he was the best lookin', the best athlete, the best student. They thought he could do no wrong." Vin's lip curled. "Probably why he was such a prick."
"He gave you a hard time?"
Vin shrugged. "Some. Ignored us, mostly. Liked to call us 'strays.' Not in front of his folks, though."
"His dad didn't beat on him?"
"Ben didn't beat on any of us--at first. He could be... I saw the way he was, with David, an' I thought maybe if I tried real hard..." Vin looked away, his throat working. "I was a stupid little kid. Took me a while to figure out Ben'd never see no one but David."
Chris wanted to argue, to tell Vin it was never stupid to crave love and approval, but he feared it might cause his friend to shut down just when they were getting somewhere. "What changed?" he asked quietly.
"Turned out David weren't so perfect after all. After I'd been there 'bout a year, he an' some other kids got liquored up and decided to drag race. Car hit a tree at 60 miles an hour. All of 'em died."
"Damn." Chris rubbed a hand along his jaw. "I'm surprised the state didn't pull you out of there."
"They wanted to. Ben 'n Molly begged 'em to let us stay. Said they'd lost part of their family 'n didn't want to lose the rest. Guess they were pretty convincing 'cause the caseworker let us be. If she'd've stuck to her guns..." Vin curled his hands into fists. "I went through hell 'cause the woman fell for a sob story."
"You said 'I.'" Chris felt his way carefully, as if walking on thin ice. "What about the girls?"
"Never laid a finger on 'em. It was me. Always me." He looked at Chris with the eyes of that bewildered child. "He'd always had a short temper when he'd been drinkin', an' he started drinkin' a lot. I tried not to get him riled but... but just the sight of me was enough."
"What did he do?" When Vin didn't answer, Chris leaned closer. "Talk to me, pard."
"Started out as just words. Callin' me a bastard. Sayin' I was stupid, couldn't even read as well as Katy an' LeAnn. That no one wanted me. That nobody'd gave a shit if I lived or died."
"Son of a bitch."
"I tried so hard to please him, 'an sometimes it was like he'd forget and treat me real nice. Come to one of my games or take me with him when he did errands. But the more he drank, the angrier he got. Wasn't long before he started usin' his fists." Vin chuckled, the sound like broken glass. "He was smarter 'n Sinclair, though. Always made sure the bruises didn't show."
"Where the hell was his wife? Didn't she try to stop him?"
Vin blinked, looking surprised by the force of Chris's anger. "A time or two, at first. He didn't much cotton to her interferin'. Gave her a taste of what I was gettin' an' she shut up real quick. An' he said if I told anyone else he'd take it out on the girls."
"After a while, I stopped bein' scared and started gettin' pissed. I tried to hide it from him, but he must've seen it in my eyes. That's when he got the idea..." A shiver worked its way through Vin, and he folded his arms around himself.
He shook his head. "I can't, Chris."
Hell. Chris moved to the lounge chair and snugged his shoulder against Vin's. "You can. It happened a long time ago, Cowboy. It's just a memory."
He heard the dry click as Vin swallowed. "The house had--" He swallowed again. "--it h-had an attic. Ben st-stored old clothes an' junk up there. There was a tr-trap door in the closet with a pull-down ladder. " He licked his lips. "One day told me to bring down a box. The trap d-door slipped shut, an' I panicked. It was so fuckin' dark you c-couldn't see your hand in front of your f-f-face. By the time Ben got me out I was practically bawlin' like a b-baby."
Stunned by the uncharacteristic stutter, Chris watched Vin from the corner of his eye, resisting the urge to turn his head. His friend was rocking back and forth, still wrapped in his own arms.
"Guess that's when he g-got the idea to l-l-lock me in there. He couldn't break me with his fists, but I'd beg him not to leave me in there."
Chris's eyes burned. "God, Vin. I'd like to shoot the son of a bitch. How'd you make him stop?"
"He usually only left me for an hour or so. But one day he just...he just lost it. Started yellin' that God m-made a m-mistake. That he should've taken me an' not David. He...he..." Vin shivered so hard the chair rattled. "He locked me up and then he l-l-left. Molly'd taken the girls shoppin' and I was...I was alone, an' it was so d-dark, an'... It was the middle of summer, Chris. Must've b-been well over a hundred degrees in there. I had no w-water, no... I c-c-couldn't breathe." Vin was panting now, lost in the memory.
Chris slipped his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Easy, Vin. Take deep breaths. Slow it down."
As if Chris's voice were an anchor, Vin's respiration slowed. He stopped rocking, though the occasional tremor still stuttered through him. "I'm okay."
But he didn't look okay. He looked like hell. Chris thought about what Nathan would do to him if he could see Vin now--clammy, shivering, just a step from shock. With a cocktail of leftover pain pills and single malt whiskey in his system. Murder would be too quick--Nathan would want him to suffer.
"Molly finally came home an' found me. I was pretty far gone--I'd p-passed out in my own puke an' she couldn't really get me to wake up. She got scared and took me to the emergency room."
"Heat exhaustion," Chris murmured. "You could've died."
"Ben tried to pass it off as an accident. Said I must've been playin' up there an' got locked in. But the doc had already seen the bruises. My caseworker packed up my clothes an' stuff while I was still in the hospital. I never saw Ben, Molly, or the girls again." No longer trembling, Vin leaned more heavily into Chris's grip.
"It's no wonder you got spooked in that cellar."
"Thought maybe it would fade over time." Vin yawned, his words coming slower and with greater effort. "But closed in places--it's like Im back in the attic all over again."
"You were a brave kid, making it through all that."
"Yeah, well... I was pretty screwed up fer a while. Ran away from the next foster home and ended up on the streets. Did stuff I ain't proud of."
"Most of us have."
Vin yawned again. "All I ever wanted was a place I could feel safe. Took a long time fer me to be able to trust anyone." Vin chuckled softly. "Still workin' on that."
"That's why you insist on living in Purgatorio," Chris said, seeing Vin's ratty apartment in a whole new light. "To give those kids a refuge they can count on, no matter what."
"An' here I thought you was just a pretty face." Vin sighed. "Tired."
"Think you can sleep now?"
"Don't think you could stop me."
Chris stood and held out his hand, but Vin shook his head. "Gonna bunk out here fer now. Fresh air'll do me good."
Understanding, Chris didn't argue. "You gonna be warm enough?" he asked, watching Vin cocoon himself in the quilt and stretch out on the cushions.
"Snug as a bug."
"Need me to hang around?"
"Nah. Reckon I could use a little space."
"You know where to find me."
Chris collected the bottle and glasses and headed for the house.
"Chris." Vin was bathed in shadow, his expression unreadable.
"You're welcome." He pulled open the door, but paused, remembering a beloved ritual from what seemed a lifetime ago. "Vin?"
"Take it easy. We're in no hurry."
Vin rolled his eyes at Chris, but eased back on Peso's reins. "You worry too much."
"You push too hard."
With grins that acknowledged the truth in both accusations, they rode in companionable silence, allowing the horses to pick their way up the steep incline. Chris studied Vin with his peripheral vision, reassured by the easy curve of his friend's body and the healthy color in his cheeks. Six weeks since the shooting and Vin was due back at work on Monday--desk duty, for now, but at the rate he was healing he'd be back to full strength in no time.
"You're doin' it again."
"What?" A little embarrassed to be caught woolgathering, Chris turned toward his friend.
"You keep watchin' me like you expect I'll break to pieces. I'm fine, Chris."
"I know." And he did, in his head. But after all that had happened, his heart was taking a little longer to catch up.
Gray was turning to pale pink at the horizon when they rounded the hill's crest. Chris gazed at the panorama of wooded foothills and snowcapped peaks, drinking in the beauty. Beside him Vin sucked in a deep breath and blew it out, and Chris could almost feel something inside his friend uncoil.
"God, I've missed this."
Chris swung gracefully out of the saddle, tethering Pony to a nearby tree. "Best get moving. It's almost showtime."
Vin slipped from Peso with a slight hitch and a surreptitious rub of his shoulder that Chris chose to ignore. He tied Peso beside Pony, giving a sharp slap to the big black's rump when he nipped at Chris's longsuffering horse.
"Stop that, mule, or Pony'll kick yer ass."
"Think he's suffering from an excess of energy after being cooped up the past few weeks," Chris said, watching Peso nose Vin's pockets until his friend produced pieces of apple for both horses.
"I know the feelin'."
They unpacked a large thermos and a paper sack from the saddlebags, carrying them over to a flat expanse of rock that butted up against the cliff wall. Chris sat, propping his back against the stone and poured the coffee. Vin settled beside him a bit more slowly, and Chris didn't miss the fleeting grimace that flickered across his friend's face.
Vin narrowed his eyes but backed off when he saw no judgement in Chris's face. "A little stiff first thing in the morning. It'll loosen up."
He pulled out a doughnut and passed the sack to Chris. They munched on pastries, trading the coffee cup back and forth as the sky turned from pink to gold and the first pale threads of light cast a halo over the distant peaks. Finally the sun crept into view, a bright orange sphere that chased away the shadows and bathed the mountains in fiery brilliance.
"I wasn't sure I'd see that again."
Chris tore his gaze from the spectacle to look at Vin's peaceful face. "Almost didn't."
"Sure as hell wasn't the first time I thought I might die. But it was the first time I really gave a damn whether I did." Vin looked at him, one corner of his mouth turned up in a lopsided smile. "Not sure what that means."
"Means you've got something worth fighting for. People you care about, and who care about you. Means you've come home."
Vin stared at him for a long moment before nodding. "Reckon so." He paused and his voice turned oddly gentle. "How 'bout you?"
Chris blinked, thrown off balance. "Me?"
"I'm guessin' things was 'bout as bad as they could get after you lost your family. To hear the boys tell it, you were a dead man walkin'."
Chris tensed, fighting the instinctive urge to shut Vin down. "Suppose that's true."
"Can't imagine what it must've been like for you, Cowboy."
The honest pain and empathy in Vin's voice reached deep inside Chris, unlocking a door he'd guarded jealously. "I think you can." When Vin frowned in confusion, he tried to explain. "Josiah said something to me when we still weren't sure if you were going to make it. He said that sometimes the pain in our lives is the strongest tie binding us together. At first it just pissed me off, but...maybe he wasn't wrong."
"What're you sayin'? Misery loves company an' we're both pretty damn miserable?"
Chris chuffed, cuffing his friend in the head. "I'm saying that from the very beginning something in me recognized that you'd get it. I could let down my guard, because you wouldn't be shocked at what you'd see."
"Reckon that means maybe you've come home too."
Chris smiled and looked back at the steadily rising sun. "Reckon so." They were quiet for a while before he asked, "Heard from Jonah?"
"'Bout once a week. The jury's still out on California, but he seems to like his new family well enough."
"Orrin said his dad's healing well. They finally transferred him to the county jail. He's cooperating with the police, hoping for a reduced sentence."
"Don't much matter. By the time he gets out Jonah should be able to fend for himself." He drained the last of the coffee and handed the cup to Chris.
"Looks like you're sleeping better," Chris said, closing the thermos.
"Talkin' helped." He gave Chris a wry grin. "Guess it was worth Nathan chewin' your ass for gettin' me wasted."
"Same goes for you, you know. My whiskey ain't as high priced, but the door's always open."
"Might just take you up on that."
When the sun was well over the distant peaks, Vin stood and extended his hand.
Chris groaned as he was pulled him to his feet. "It's hell getting old."
Eyes twinkling, Vin shrugged. "I dunno. These days it don't look so bad."
Damn straight Chris thought gratefully.
Still clasping forearms, they grinned at each other. Chris tipped his head toward the horses. "What do you say we give that troublemaker of yours a chance to blow off some steam?"
He was rewarded when Vin's face lit up with delight. "I'm with you, partner. All the way."
Chris clapped him on the back. "Let's ride."
Author's Note: Much gratitude goes to LaraMee, Nancy, and Wendy for their willingness to beta a newbie's first M7 story. And to all of you who provided support and encouragement through your feedback--thank you! You've given me such a warm welcome I can't wait to plunge in and do this all over again.