MAIN CHARACTERS: Chris, Vin
SUMMARY: Vin may be the only one who can help find a missing agent. There's just one problem...
WARNINGS: MENTION OF TORTURE
DEDICATION: To A. Happy Birthday, Pard. Hope it's a good one!
DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fan fiction using characters from the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. The story is for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.
SIZE: Approx. 250K
| I have heard the echoes in the dark
Dim and distant voices of the past
And I've seen so far into the night
And lingered in the land of no light
Oh, no. We're too late.
Chris stepped over the body sprawled across the threshold, barely noticing the blood that squished beneath his boot. He kicked a Glock away from the limp hand, unable to tear his eyes from the slumped figure tied to a folding chair in the center of the room. Blood-matted hair hung like a curtain, obscuring the face, but the filthy flannel shirt and well-worn jeans were achingly familiar. Dear God, Vin. What did they do to you?
"Clear." Buck strode out of the bedroom, tucking his weapon into the waistband of his pants as he crouched beside the chair and touched two fingers to Vin's neck. All the breath seemed to rush from his lungs, and he looked up at Chris with glistening eyes. "He's alive!"
When Chris remained frozen, he frowned. "You hear me, Pard?"
It got Chris moving on wobbly legs. He knelt opposite Buck, who had pulled a knife from his boot and was sawing through the plastic ties binding Vin's bare feet. Chris brushed aside tangled curls, wincing at the blackened eye, split lip, and livid bruise across Vin's cheek.
"Vin? Hey, cowboy, it's Chris. Can you open your eyes for me?" He tipped up Vin's face, cradling his chin, but his friend didn't respond.
"Shit!" Buck hissed from where he'd moved to free Vin's hands.
"Damn restraints are embedded in his skin." Buck's voice wavered. "I nicked his left wrist. Get ready, I've almost--there."
Chris caught Vin as he sagged bonelessly against his chest. "Get Nathan and those EMTs in here. Now." He eased his friend to the floor, not liking the shallow, uneven sound of his breathing.
Controlled chaos drifted in from the hallway--hurried footsteps, slamming doors, shouted commands, and over it all, Buck's rich baritone bellowing for Nathan. Chris knelt on the dusty floor, hands clenched into fists, his compulsion to touch warring with his fear of causing Vin's battered body more pain.
"Damn, Cowboy, you're a mess," he murmured, his eyes stinging and his throat tight. "A bullet's too good for these bastards."
Nathan burst into the room, shrugging his backpack off his shoulders as he knelt at Vin's side. "Paramedics are on their way in. How is he?"
"How the hell does he look?" Chris snapped the words, frustration and anger bubbling over before he could rein them in. "Sorry."
But Nathan, preoccupied with Vin, seemed not to notice. "Broken ribs, multiple fractures to his fingers," he muttered, more to himself than to Chris. Frowning at the blood trail down Vin's neck, he pulled out a penlight. Even Chris could see Vin's left pupil was sluggish.
"At the least a damn severe concussion. But it could be a skull fracture."
The EMTs appeared in the doorway, laden down with equipment and a gurney. "Don't bother, that one's dead," Chris growled when one knelt beside the body. He crossed the room in three quick strides, grasped the kidnapper's arms and hauled him out of the way.
Nathan was already spouting information on Vin's condition, and his voice held a sharp urgency that made Chris's stomach do a slow roll. He glared into the glassy eyes of the man who'd tortured his best friend. "Why? Who are you, and what did you want?"
"Chris." Buck stepped into the room, followed closely by Ezra and Jim Spencer, Team 5's leader. "We got everything locked down."
Spencer set his mouth in a harsh line. "No sign of him."
Chris toed the body. "What about his associates?" he asked Buck.
"Two at the back door and another in the stairwell."
Buck shook his head. "Whoever they are, they weren't about to be brought in for questioning."
"What about Tanner?" Spencer gestured over Chris's shoulder to where the paramedics were barking instructions and juggling equipment. Nathan and Ezra stood nearby in grim silence.
"He's in bad shape. Bastards really worked him over."
"How soon do you think we'll be able to talk to him?"
"Jim, he's not even conscious, he--" Chris broke off, stunned, when Spencer turned and headed for Nathan.
Buck cleared his throat. "Cut him some slack, Chris, you know you'd--"
Chris gritted his teeth and followed, shrugging off Buck's restraining hand on his arm.
"...make a guess," he heard Spencer saying.
Nathan was shaking his head. "There's no way to predict that until we know the extent of his injuries."
"Isn't there anything they can do to speed things up? I need to talk to him."
"No one's questioning him until a doctor clears it," Chris said.
Spencer rounded on him. "I've got a man out there somewhere, in God knows what condition! Tanner may be the only one who can help us find him."
The anguish in his voice defused Chris's anger. How hard would he be pushing if Vin were the one still missing?
"We're going to do everything we can to find Donovan; you have my word. But, Jim--look at him." He waited for Spencer to see--really see--Vin. "Right now he can't help anyone," he said quietly.
Spencer's shoulders slumped. "Keep me posted?"
"You know I will."
"I'll oversee the mop up. I'm sure you want to head to the hospital."
Spencer paused in the doorway. "Chris..."
"We'll find him, Jim."
Chris turned to Buck once Spencer had gone. "Round up J.D. and get him back to the office. We've got to figure out who these guys are and, more importantly, who they were working for, because I don't for a moment believe they masterminded this operation. We also need to check if any of our old friends are out on parole. If some bastard is out for revenge--"
"I fear what happened to Mr. Tanner may involve something far more insidious than retaliation," Ezra said, his attention fixed on the frenetic activity surrounding Vin.
"What do you mean?" Chris demanded.
"Perhaps in your concern over his more obvious injuries you failed to notice his feet."
"His feet?" Chris stared blankly at Standish, then Nathan, who tightened his lips and avoided Chris's eyes. "Will one of you please spit it out?"
Ezra finally looked at him. "These cretins evidently decided Vin required their warped version of a pedicure." His voice vibrated with repressed fury. "He seems to be missing several toenails."
The headache that had been throbbing insistently at the back of Chris's skull flared to life and his gut burned. "You think they were after information?"
Nathan sighed. "It's a good possibility, Chris. He's got a fair number of injuries--the broken fingers, some cuts an' cigarette burns--that cause a lot of pain without permanent damage. And I'm pretty damn sure the bruises on the inside of his right arm are from injections."
"Son of a bitch," Buck snarled.
Chris ran a hand through his hair, the rage he'd felt earlier returning with a vengeance. "Buck, tell J.D.--"
"Got it covered, Chris."
"Concentrate on our open cases, especially the last bust, before you start digging through the files. Ezra--"
"I shall lend Mr. Dunne my full support."
"All right, get going. We've got a missing man whose time is running out."
Ezra touched two fingers to his brow and headed out the door, but Buck lingered, his gaze flickering between Vin and Chris. "Our butts might be in the office but our hearts are with Vin. You call us as soon as you hear something--anything."
"Count on it."
The paramedics had Vin on the gurney and were wheeling him toward the door. The older of the two, who appeared to be in charge, waved his partner onward and stopped to talk to Chris and Nathan.
"We're taking him to Mercy," he told them. "The docs in the ER are standing by."
"How's he doing?" Chris asked.
"Stable--for now." Chris opened his mouth to demand more information, but the paramedic was already moving. "We'll take good care of him," he called over his shoulder.
Chris growled his frustration but Nathan laid a calming hand on his shoulder. "Let him go, Chris. We'll be right behind them."
Chris rubbed the ache at the base of his neck. "That's where we've been for the last three days--behind. I've gotta tell you, Nathan--I'm damned tired of it."
"Forget it." He waved off Nathan's comforting words, in no mood to hear them. "Let's ride."
+ + + + + + +
If God really did exist--and the jury was still out on that one--He must enjoy screwing with Chris Larabee's head. Chris sat hunched over, clasped hands dangling between his knees, and wondered how the hell he ended up spending so much time in a place he hated more than just about anywhere else.
He could swear he heard God chuckling.
Three days of too little sleep and too much coffee left his stomach burning and his nerves thrumming. Torn between his obligations as team leader and those as Vin's friend, right now he felt hopelessly inadequate at both. There was work to be done--Sean Donovan was missing, and every tick of the clock lowered his chances of being found alive. He should probably be back at the office, briefing Travis, overseeing the continuing investigation, not to mention pacifying Spencer. There was nothing he could do here but wait.
But he'd be damned if he was going anywhere.
A red and white carton appeared in front of Chris's face. He leaned back slowly, quirking one eyebrow. "That supposed to be for me?"
Nathan pressed the milk into Chris's hand. "You see anyone else around here?"
"I asked for coffee."
"Ain't no way I'm contributing to that ulcer you been workin' on."
"And you're in denial. You think I haven't seen you popping antacids like they're candy? Looks to me like you got enough heartburn to light up Las Vegas."
"It's not that bad," Chris said, but he opened the carton and took a swig.
"Right. Well if you got half the sense God gave you, you'll drink all of that and start cutting back on the coffee and booze." Nathan sank into the chair beside him with a weary grunt.
Chris downed half the carton, grimacing. "What's taking so long anyway?"
"Last I heard they were setting his fingers while the neurologist looked over the CT scan. We should--"
But Chris was on his feet and striding toward the doctor who'd stepped through the swinging doors and was scanning the room.
"I'm Chris Larabee."
The doc shook his hand. "Nick Lorenzo; I've been taking care of Agent Tanner."
"You're the neurologist?" You've got to be kidding. Chris shook the doctor's hand, not even trying to hide his skepticism. Lorenzo looked about the same age as Vin. He sported a garish Hawaiian shirt under his white lab coat, shoulder-length dark hair tied back in a ponytail, and an earring in his left ear.
Lorenzo just grinned. "Hard to believe, isn't it?" He flipped open the chart in his hands, instantly all business. "Despite the extent of the injuries inflicted upon Agent Tanner, the blow to his head is the only one we're really concerned about. Now, the good news is that he didn't sustain a skull fracture and there doesn't seem to be any intercranial bleeding."
"Thank God," Nathan murmured.
"This is Nathan Jackson, another of Vin's teammates," Chris answered Lorenzo's inquiring look. "He's been trained as an EMT."
"From the buzz I've heard about your team, sounds like you need him."
Chris narrowed his eyes, but Lorenzo plowed ahead before he could comment.
"The bad news is that your friend's got a grade 3 concussion which, as I'm sure Mr. Jackson can tell you, is nothing to mess around with. We've got him in the ICU, for now, and we're going to be monitoring him very closely."
"But he'll be all right," Chris pressed.
"Barring complications, yes, he'll make a full recovery. But he's had his bell thoroughly rung, Mr. Larabee. This isn't something he's going to shake off in a few days."
Chris exchanged a long look with Nathan. "Doc, we've got an agent still missing. Vin may have information on his whereabouts."
Lorenzo shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I wouldn't get my hopes up. He's going to be extremely sick and disoriented when he regains consciousness."
Though Nathan had already given him a similar warning, Chris had to bite back a surge of disappointment. "I'm going to want one of my men with him at all times."
"We have rules in the ICU, Mr. Larabee--"
"We have rules in the ATF too, Dr. Lorenzo, and one of them is that we don't abandon a teammate who's been abducted and tortured. Not for any reason." Chris's tone was sharper than he'd intended, but he was too tired and frustrated to care.
"Easy, Chris," Nathan murmured, but Lorenzo held up a hand.
"You didn't let me finish. As I was about to say, we have rules, but hard as it might be to believe, I'm not exactly the poster boy for following them. I can't begin to imagine what your friend has suffered over the past few days. There's no way I'm going to deny him his support system."
Chris inclined his head. "Thank you."
The easy grin slid off Lorenzo's face and Chris abruptly found himself on the other end of one of his own threatening glares. "But if I find you or any of your men are pushing him beyond his capabilities, I'll have your asses on the curb before you can say 'Doogie Howser.' Am I clear?"
He should probably be pissed off by the suggestion that he'd jeopardize Vin's health, but Chris found his lips curving with a hint of amusement as he nodded.
Lorenzo's cocky smile returned. "Good. ICU is up on the fourth floor--but I guess you gentlemen already know that. I'll be by to check on him in a bit."
Chris responded with the shark's grin that sent most men into a cold sweat. "I'll look forward to it."
Lorenzo narrowed his eyes. "All right then. The elevators are that way." He stuck the chart under his arm and gestured, his posture wary.
"Not nice," Nathan said as Chris punched the 'up' button, but there was laughter in his voice. "Poor kid's got no idea you actually like him."
Chris stepped into the empty car with a poorly concealed smirk. "Let's go see Vin."
Okay, so maybe Nathan was right about the ulcer.
Chris shoved aside a half-consumed cup of tepid coffee and fished the roll of antacids from his pocket. Grimacing at the chalky taste, he paced around the cubicle, slinking back to his chair when one of the nurses shot a reproving glare through the glass wall. Though he felt ready to crawl out of his skin, he was wise enough to recognize who wielded the real power in the ICU. Piss off the nurses, and his ass really would be on that curb Lorenzo had promised him.
Vin shifted and made a soft sound of distress. He'd been edging toward consciousness for the last half-hour, increasingly restless though he'd yet to open his eyes. Chris placed his hand over the splinted fingers, keeping the touch light enough to convey warmth without pain.
Vin sucked in a strangled gasp and his eyes flew open. He stared at the ceiling, every muscle rigid.
"Hey. Welcome back." Chris leaned in close, deliberately placing himself in Vin's line of sight.
That wide blue gaze wandered to his face and Vin blinked. "Chris?" His voice was a harsh croak, more breath than substance, but it carried a heartbreaking note of disbelief. "What...I...
where--?" He choked on the raspy words and screwed up his face.
"Hang on." Chris picked up the plastic cup on the bedside table. "No, don't--"
But Vin, who had already tried lifting his head, slammed his eyes shut with a groan. He scrabbled blindly, somehow catching Chris's sleeve with his uninjured left hand.
Chris let go of the cup so fast it nearly hit the floor. "Damn, Vin, I should've warned you not to--"
"Gonna be sick."
"Shit!" Chris hit the call button, easing Vin onto his side just in time.
There wasn't much to come up--God only knew when Vin had eaten last--but the spasms had to be agony on his ribs and head. Each one wrenched a whimper of pain and tears leaked from the corners of his friend's tightly closed eyes. Chris stroked back tangled hair, peripherally aware of the nurse entering the cubicle and checking machine readouts.
"Do something!" he hissed through clenched teeth.
Vin's retching tapered off to panting and he went limp. Chris might have thought he'd drifted off again, but for the fingers knotted in his sleeve.
"Help me get him on his back," the nurse, whose nametag read "Annie," said, folding the sheet to cover the mess Vin had made.
Between the two of them, they managed to settle Vin in a supine position with a minimum of distress. Annie wiped Vin's face with a damp cloth, then recorded his vital signs, including pupil response. Despite the glare Chris had gotten earlier, her manner was calm and soothing.
"Vin," Chris said quietly.
She flashed him a quick smile and a nod. "Vin, can you tell me your full name?"
He blinked heavy eyelids, trying to bring a hand up to his face. "Chris?"
Chris stepped closer. "Right here, Cowboy."
Annie dimmed the lights to a more bearable level. "Better?"
Vin started to nod but caught himself. "Yeah."
"Now, can you tell me your full name?"
She beamed a smile, flashing dimples that would've had Buck falling all over himself. "That's good. How about the year?"
"Do you know where you are?"
Vin looked at him, and for the first time Chris noticed that his eyes were slightly vague and out of focus. It took him longer to answer than it should have, and he slurred the word a little. "Hospital?"
"Very good. Do you know why you're here?"
Another slow blink and Vin's eyes stayed at half-mast.
Annie cupped his chin. "Look at me, Vin. Do you remember why you're here?"
"I--" Vin ran his tongue over his split lip and his gaze drifted back to Chris. "Hurts."
"What hurts, Pard? Your head?"
"Everything." He breathed the word on a sigh and his eyes fluttered shut.
"It's okay," Annie answered Chris's panicked look. She came around the bed, giving his arm a supportive squeeze. "He's going to be in and out for a while--that's completely normal given the degree of concussion. I'll be back in a few minutes with a fresh gown and sheets."
Chris nodded but couldn't seem to pull his gaze from Vin's pale, bruised face.
"Hey." Annie waited for him to look at her before continuing. "I know how bad he looks, Mr. Larabee. But all this equipment tells me he's doing just fine."
"It's Chris," he said, mustering a weak smile.
The dimples reappeared. "We'll take good care of him, Chris. Everything's under control."
Chris sank into his chair, weighed down by exhaustion and inadequacy. As hard as he tried to focus on the steady beeping of the heart monitor and the gentle rise and fall of Vin's chest, other images forced their way into his thoughts. Images of broken fingers and cracked ribs; cuts, burns, and missing toenails. And Vin, fighting so hard the plastic restraints cut into his skin. Screaming until ruined vocal chords turned his honeyed drawl into a wispy rasp.
Was Sean Donovan out there somewhere, still trying to fight, trying to scream?
Chris buried his face in shaking hands. Everything under control? Nothing could be farther from the truth.
+ + + + + + +
The soft scuff of boots, a flickering shadow, and Chris came fully awake. He was on his feet, weapon in hand, before his brain registered that it was Buck standing on the other side of the bed, wearing a shit-eating grin.
"Hey there, ol' dog. Sleep well?"
Chris relaxed, now registering the crick in his neck and the hollow, pinched feeling in his gut. "Damn it, Buck. You should've let me know you were here. I could've taken your head off."
Unperturbed, Buck shrugged. "Well, you looked so darned cute I just didn't have the heart to wake you."
Chris tucked away his gun. "You do realize only one of us is supposed to be in here at a time."
"Relax, stud. You should know by now that the usual rules don't apply to ol' Buck. I happen to have the lovely Nurse Annie's blessing."
"Wanted you out of her hair, did she?" But his heart wasn't really in the banter, and frankly, neither was Buck's.
"How's he doing?" Buck fiddled with the blanket, then the I.V. line.
Chris sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "They tell me as well as can be expected."
"Sounds like there's a 'but' in there somewhere."
How could he tell Buck that Vin had only surfaced twice, too sick and confused to make much sense? "Nah--don't mind me. How's things at the office? Any progress?"
"J.D. and Ezra got their heads closer than Siamese twins. Nothing yet, but they're not about to leave a stone unturned. Nathan's helping Josiah tackle the paperwork and keep Travis briefed."
Chris heard clearly what he wasn't saying. "And Spencer? I expected him to turn up here by now."
A pained expression flickered across Buck's face before he smoothed it away. "Yeah, well, you can thank Travis for that. He's been running interference, keepin' Jim on a pretty short leash."
"Guess I'm going to owe the old bastard when this is done." He narrowed his eyes. "So what brings you here, Buck?"
"Someone needed to check on Junior." He waggled his eyebrows. "My way with the nurses makes me the ideal man for the job."
"Funny. I'd've guessed Nathan sent you to check up on me."
"That's the problem with you, stud. Always thinkin' the world revolves around Chris Larabee." Buck leaned against the end of the bed and folded his arms. "Though you've been here nearly twelve hours and he might've mentioned you could use a break."
"And I'm telling you what I told him--I'm fine." His temper sparked when Buck rolled his eyes. "I am."
"You really expect me to believe that? 'Cause I'm here to tell ya, I seen corpses that look--"
"Chris this ain't your fault. You know that, don't you?"
Did he? Three days spinning their wheels, getting nowhere, while Vin... Finding him had been a fluke--a tip from a witness that led to a trail that ended in an abandoned warehouse.
He was the leader of the ATF's crack team, with a solve rate others only dreamed of. He should've worked harder, put the pieces together faster. Vin had needed him, and he'd...
He'd been too late.
"I don't want to talk about this."
"Well that's too damn bad, 'cause you're gonna listen to what I've got to say. That boy's been through hell and back again. Now he's gonna need a lot of things from us, but your guilt ain't one of 'em."
"Look at him, Buck. Look at his face, his hands. For God's sake, they pulled his fucking toenails! Are you telling me you can see him lying there and not know that we let him down?"
"Have you looked at Ezra lately? Or Nate? Josiah? J.D.? Hell, have you taken a look in a mirror? I don't think any of us have slept more 'n a couple hours the last three nights and I can't remember the last meal I ate sittin' down. J.D.'s runnin' on caffeine and fumes."
Chris rubbed his eyes. His head was throbbing and his stomach felt like he'd been drinking battery acid. "What's your point?"
"My point is that not one of us gave less than 150 percent in tracking Vin down. Do I wish we'd found him sooner? Hell, yeah! But we done the best we could, Chris. Every one of us. We didn't put him in that bed--it was those bastards lyin' on slabs in the morgue. And I'll be damned if I let you--or any one of us--wallow in guilt."
Not for the first time Chris wondered what he'd done to deserve a friend as loyal and tolerant of his bullshit as Buck Wilmington. He sighed. "My head hears what you're saying, but I--" Chris trailed off. Vin's eyes were open and he was blinking blearily at them.
Stepping around Buck, Chris leaned over the bed. "Hey. Glad you decided to join us."
Vin licked his lips and a line appeared between his brows. "Water?"
"Got it right here, Pard." Buck scooped up the cup and positioned the straw.
Two anemic sips and Vin turned his head.
"Easy," Chris said when his friend's breath caught and he squeezed his eyes shut. "Best not to move around much--remember?"
Slowly Vin's breathing evened out and he cracked open his eyes. "Hospital?"
"That's right." It wasn't easy, but Chris kept his tone patient. Each time Vin awakened they'd gotten this far only to have him drift off again. At least this time he wasn't puking.
With narrowed eyes, Vin examined his splinted fingers, then tried to bring his good hand up to his face. He didn't get far before sweat beaded his forehead and he gave up with a pained grunt.
"I warned you, didn't I? Stubborn fool." Despite his gruff words, Chris ran the damp washcloth over Vin's forehead and neck.
Vin's eyelids fluttered, but he forced them open. "What happened?"
When Buck opened his mouth to answer, Chris cut him off. "Why don't you tell us what you remember."
A long silence, and Chris feared Vin would sink back into sleep. Somehow his friend tenaciously hung on to consciousness.
"I...I'm not... We took down Campanelli."
"We sure did," Buck replied. "Nailed his ass to the wall."
Chris held his breath, watching the subtle interplay of emotions crossing Vin's face. When his friend finally spoke, his voice was uncertain.
"Did I... I got hurt during the bust?"
Chris tried to hold on to his poker face, but he could feel the weight of Buck's gaze. "Not exactly. What's the last thing you recall?"
Vin tightened his grip on the sheet as he studied their faces. "Bein' up in the rafters with Sean, takin' out Campanelli's goons." He looked from Chris to Buck and back again. "Somethin' tells me that's the wrong answer."
"You've got a few gaps," Chris said, trying to sound unconcerned. Three days. It might as well be three weeks. "Doc said it was to be expected."
"If I didn't get hurt in the bust, then what happened to me?"
Shit, shit, shit. He should've known Vin wouldn't let him get away with dodging the issue. Chris really didn't want to get into the whole abduction mess until Vin was a little stronger.
"You need to get some more rest, Pard, and then--"
Shrugging off Chris's hand, Vin struggled to sit up. "Screw that! I don't need...you coddlin' me. I want to know...why I'm--" His face abruptly went white and he slumped over with a muffled cry of pain.
Chris curled a supportive arm around his friend's chest as he dry heaved, while Buck shuffled his feet, fisted his hands, and growled. Just when Chris was ready to hit the call button, Vin's stomach settled enough that he could ease him back onto his pillow.
"Need to know," Vin slurred, fighting to grip Chris's hand even as his eyes slid shut. "Chrisss..."
"Soon, Cowboy, I promise." Chris brushed the sweaty curls from Vin's face. "Sleep for now. I've got your back."
When he was certain Vin was out, he slipped his hand from the lax fingers. "What?" he snapped at Buck, who was watching him, his face blank.
"A few gaps?"
"You saw him, Buck. Do you really think he could've handled the truth?"
"Travis can't keep Spencer away for long. He wants answers, Chris, just like we would."
"Answers Vin doesn't have." Chris turned to look at his friend's pale, battered face. "He doesn't even remember how he got here. How the hell is he gonna help us find Donovan?"
A warm hand on his shoulder was Buck's only response. And really, Chris thought, there was nothing more to be said.
The last thing Chris expected as he stepped into his office was to find J.D. asleep on his couch. The kid was out cold, oblivious to the glare of the overhead light, his face pressed to the cushions and one hand trailing onto the floor.
Chris stood frozen for a moment before walking over to drape his jacket on the back of his chair. He shuffled through the papers on the blotter, listened to a lengthy voicemail message from Travis, and then went in search of explanations.
Josiah was just emerging from the break room, a mug of steaming coffee in hand. "Hey, boss. How's Vin?"
"Out more than in." He raised his eyebrows when the mug was placed into his hands.
"You look like you need it more than I do," Josiah said. "To tell you the truth, I'm surprised you're here at all."
"The doc wanted to get a follow-up CT scan before they move him out of the ICU. He won't be settled into his new room for a couple hours. Buck's got things covered." He leaned a hip on Josiah's desk as the big man sank into his chair. "What the hell is J.D. doing asleep in my office?"
"Ezra, Nathan, and I finally got him to crash around three. Took all three of us to pry him off his computer. He's taking this thing with Vin real hard."
"Nathan and Ezra go home?"
Josiah nodded. "Said they'd be back by seven." He narrowed his eyes. "Have you gotten any rest at all?"
Chris took a long drink, grateful that Josiah's coffee was only slightly weaker than Vin's industrial strength brew. "I caught a couple hours at the hospital. Buck let me shower and change clothes at the loft. What have we got so far?"
"More questions than answers, I'm afraid." Rubbing the nape of his neck, Josiah tipped back in his chair. "Forensics is still processing trace evidence from the warehouse. But so far, the only fingerprints found have belonged to the men in the morgue."
"Do we have I.D.?"
Josiah picked up three folders and slid them across the desk. "Rob Huxley, Ricky Hernandez, and Al "Knuckles" Westin. All three have rap sheets as long as my arm--mostly for assault and battery. They're free agents, professional muscle for hire."
"In other words, not traceable to anyone." Chris set aside his coffee and paged through each folder. His stomach knotted as he gazed at the impassive face in each mug shot and tried not to imagine what Vin had suffered at their hands.
"Not so far. Ezra's got a few street contacts putting their ears to the ground."
"J.D. find anything interesting?"
"He's gone over our current case files forward and backward. But let's face it, Chris, the timing makes it highly unlikely that Campanelli or any of his people were behind this. He just didn't have enough time to pull it off."
Sighing, Chris tossed the folders onto the desk. "Yeah."
"J.D.'s already started digging into closed cases. And he's cross-checking with the list of recent parolees. If pure stubborn determination counts for anything, we'll be making progress soon."
"I hope you're right."
Josiah was quiet for a long moment. "Buck says Vin doesn't remember any of it."
"He thought he was injured in the bust. He's been too out of it to ask many questions up till now." Chris pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his burning eyes shut. "What am I supposed to tell him, Josiah? You know how quick he is to take the weight of the world on his shoulders. How can I add this to the pile?"
"I don't see as how you have much choice." Leaning forward, Josiah braced his elbows on his knees. "We both know Vin well enough to realize he won't settle for less than the whole truth about his abduction."
"And once he hears Donovan's still missing, he'll push himself hard to remember."
"What does the doctor say?"
"That it's not uncommon for people who've suffered a severe head injury to experience some memory loss, and that there's no way to tell if it will be permanent."
"Chris..." Josiah dropped his gaze to his clasped hands, studying them for a long moment before meeting his eyes. "I think we need to be aware of the fact that in Vin's case there may be additional factors affecting his memory."
His jaw felt as if it might snap from the tension. "You're saying that subconsciously he might not want to remember."
"I'm saying our wondrously complex minds are capable of shielding us from severe trauma. Now Vin's amnesia may be purely physical. Or, it could be a defense mechanism protecting him from memories he's not ready to confront."
Like being tied to a chair and methodically tortured? How was Vin ever supposed to deal with that?
Something must have shown on his face--Josiah's brow furrowed and his gaze grew more piercing. "Anything you want to share?"
Chris was silent, struggling with his thoughts for a long moment before speaking. "Part of me hopes he won't ever have to."
He wasn't sure if he'd expected reassurance or condemnation. When Josiah offered neither, he gritted, "Vin has an eidetic memory."
Josiah's jaw dropped. "Photographic? Vin? I never--"
"That's how he wants it. The only reason I know is because it's in his file."
"Makes sense when you think about it. Considering the way he was able to get along so well despite the dyslexia."
"Extraordinarily detailed and vivid recall of images," Chris said bitterly. "Do you get where I'm headed with this?"
He could see the moment Josiah made the connection. "Dear Lord."
"I want to find Sean Donovan as much as anyone. I know Vin needs to remember those three days. But I wish he didn't have to."
The elevator doors rumbled open and Ezra and Nathan's gentle bickering drifted down the hallway. A moment later J.D. appeared looking rumpled and only semi-conscious. Chris fielded questions about Vin and steered everyone back to business.
Eventually he escaped to the solitude of his office, freed from the weight of Josiah's gaze. But though his eyes focused on paperwork and his ears listened for Buck's call, his mind remained solidly on Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Two things were obvious the minute Chris walked into the room: Vin was doing much better. And he was seriously pissed off.
Buck popped up from the chair next to the bed, practically tripping over his own feet in his eagerness. "Hey, there. We been waitin' on you, Pard." His back to Vin, he grimaced and rolled his eyes.
"'Bout time you decided to show up." Vin glared at him, his barely there voice and bloodshot eyes belying the strength of his anger. "Buck wouldn't tell me a damn thing until you got your sorry ass in here."
"Good morning to you, too."
Vin flushed at Chris's mild tone but didn't back down. "I know y'all mean well, but I can't stand bein' treated like a kid. I need to know what happened to me."
Chris motioned Buck to the chair. Lowering the side rail, he sat on the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle Vin. The mattress was slightly elevated and they'd propped his injured hand on a pillow. This close he could see fine lines of pain around Vin's eyes and mouth.
"You remember the Campanelli bust." He didn't make it a question; they'd already covered this ground.
"I remember being on the catwalk with Sean, holding off Campanelli's people. Ezra did a helluva job disarming the big guy before he could call for reinforcements."
"And after that?"
Vin didn't respond right away. He looked from Chris to Buck and back again as if hoping to read the answer in their faces. "I... Everything after that's a blank. At first I thought maybe I took a spill but..." He gazed down at his splinted hand and gauze-wrapped wrists, tongued his split lip, and Chris saw a flicker of fear in his eyes. "Seems more like I went ten rounds with Ali."
Buck made a strangled sound, ducking his head and curling his hands into fists.
Vin looked at Chris. "You'd best level with me 'cause Bucklin's got a lousy poker face," he said calmly, but sweat beaded his upper lip.
"I can only tell you what we know, which isn't much."
Vin nodded for him to continue.
"The night of the bust we celebrated with Team 5 at the Saloon. You and Donovan left the party about ten o'clock--you were going to give him a ride. When you didn't show up for work the next morning, we checked your apartment. It was pretty obvious you'd never made it home. We put out an APB and your jeep turned up in a parking lot on the northeast side of town, wiped clean. No prints. No trace evidence. Nothing."
Vin gingerly rubbed his forehead, avoiding the bandage at his temple. "So how did you find me?"
"We got lucky. One of Ezra's informants found someone who saw you being pulled from your jeep and bundled into a blue panel van. He even got a partial plate. We were able to narrow it down to three vehicles, one of which had been stolen a few days earlier. Eventually a uniformed cop spotted it and tailed it to the abandoned warehouse where they were holding you."
Vin frowned. "Eventually?"
Inwardly Chris winced. "The bust was on the fifth, Vin. Today's the tenth. You were missing for three days."
"Three days? I was..." he trailed off, obviously struggling to process everything he'd been told.
Chris waited, knowing that pain and fatigue were affecting Vin more than he cared to admit. So far he'd missed the biggest piece of the puzzle, but he wouldn't be sidetracked for long. Then he went completely still, and Chris saw the realization register on his face.
"Wait a minute... You said Sean and me left the Saloon together. Is he okay?" When Chris hesitated, trying to choose his words with care, Vin sucked in a sharp breath. "Oh god. He's dead, isn't he?"
"No!" Buck blurted, then looked at Chris. "Well...not so far as we know."
"Yer talkin' in circles." Vin pressed the heel of his hand to his eye. "What are you tryin' to say?"
"You were both abducted," Chris said calmly, not liking Vin's pallor. "But we only found you."
"Well, that doesn't make a damn bit of sense. Why wouldn't he be with me? Hell, why did they want us in the first place?"
"We don't know."
"Don't know? That's not good enough, Chris, we've got to find him, what if he's still--"
"Calm down, Vin, you're going to--"
"Fuck that! We've got to...got to find him, got to figure out who..." With a strangled gasp, his faced twisted and he squeezed his eyes shut.
Of course, Dr. Lorenzo chose that precise moment to make an appearance.
"Gentlemen." He tucked the chart under his arm and pressed his fingers to Vin's wrist. "Can you think of any reason why I shouldn't send you two on a guided tour of the parking lot?"
With a toothy smile, Buck slowly stood. "Well hell, son, you could try."
"Buck." Chris shot him a warning glare before turning to the doctor. "Is he all right?"
"Depends on your definition I suppose." Lorenzo pulled out a penlight and checked Vin's pupils. "He's doing remarkably well for a man who's had the shit beat out of him. On the other hand, a few more visits from you might accomplish what those Neanderthals didn't."
"Now wait just a damn minute--"
Chris cut Buck off with a flick of his hand. "Doctor, with all due respect, you don't know what the hell--"
"Would you stop talkin' over me like I'm brain dead or stupid? If I didn't already have a bastard of a headache, listenin' to y'all would surely do the trick."
Buck snorted, Chris smirked, and Lorenzo looked intrigued.
Glaring at the doctor, Vin continued. "Chris is right, you've got no call to be blamin' him and Buck. I'm the one forced 'em into coming clean about what happened to me. And you," he said to Chris and Buck, "cut him some slack. I reckon he's just tryin' to do what's best for me."
Lorenzo bowed his head. "I have a reputation around here for being less than tactful." He cocked an eyebrow at Chris and Buck. "Shocking, I'm sure."
"Not from my end," Buck muttered.
"But I stand by the intent behind my words. As fond as I am of a good drama, I'd rather not see one played out in my patient's hospital room. You're never going to get past wishing for the nearest guillotine, Mr. Tanner, unless you chill out." He looked pointedly at Chris and Buck. "And I'm counting on your friends to see that you do."
"I appreciate your concerns, Doc. But I won't let anything keep me from doin' my job. Right now there's a good man in a world of trouble, and I aim to help find him any way I can. Hell, I don't see how it makes a bit of difference. Seems I'm saddled with this headache no matter what I do."
"Vin ain't exactly the master of tact either," Buck confided with a smug grin.
"From what I've heard, that's a Team 7 prerequisite." Lorenzo looked at Vin through narrowed eyes. "All right, Mr. Tanner, here's what we'll do. Once I get this impulse to drug you senseless under control, I'm going to ask the nurse to give you something to knock back the headache and help you rest. You can resume this discussion after you've had a few hours of uninterrupted--" he looked pointedly at Buck and Chris, "--sleep. Deal?"
"Deal." Chris returned Vin's glower and his friend eventually slumped back into the pillows, muttering about pushy doctors and mother-henning cowboys.
Lorenzo eyed them all with what Chris felt was entirely too much amusement. "I'll be by later this evening. If you're not looking better I may just reconsider that drugging option."
Once Lorenzo had left, a heavy silence filled the room. As Chris watched, pain, guilt, and anger vied for control of Vin's expressive features. "Are you all right?"
"Guess I know now why you didn't want to tell me."
While Chris regarded Vin silently, Buck jumped in with both feet. "Now you listen up, Pard. Every last one of us, including the guys from Team 5, have got our heads together on this. Something's bound to turn..."
Vin's look of weary disbelief silenced him midstream. "You can talk all you like, but it don't change the fact that me rememberin' what happened is the best way to find Sean."
"Maybe so," Chris said, "but Lorenzo's right--pushing yourself isn't going to make it happen. Right now you need to rest. Let us watch your back."
Blinking hard, Vin turned to stare out the window. "What about Sean? Who's watchin' his back?"
"We all are, best way we know how--by pulling out all the stops to find him. You're not in this alone, Cowboy."
"I hear what you're sayin', but don't feel that way. And just in case you hadn't thought of it, I reckon we got more to worry about than finding Sean."
"Such as?" Chris asked, but he knew where Vin was headed.
"What did they want from us? And maybe more important..." Vin raised haunted eyes to Chris's face. "Did we give it to 'em?"
"You don't have to stay here, you know."
Ezra quirked an eyebrow, his hands never faltering as they shuffled the cards. "Why, Mr. Tanner, have you grown tired of my company already?"
After searching in vain for a comfortable position, Vin gave up with a sigh. His eyes felt gritty, and concentrating on anything, especially a card game, required tremendous effort. His ribs, his fingers--God, even his feet, and why the hell was that--ached constantly, and the relentless pounding in his skull left him by turns dizzy and nauseous.
"In case you hadn't noticed, Ez, I'm not exactly the best company right now."
"I assure you, I've noticed." The warmth and genuine affection in Ezra's eyes took the sting from his words. "No matter. I'm not here to be entertained, my friend."
"You're here 'cause you pulled the afternoon shift. Knowin' Chris, I don't expect you had much choice." He hated that his broken, barely there voice made him sound like a cranky toddler.
"Mr. Larabee is indeed a formidable force to be reckoned with." Still manipulating the cards, Ezra gazed at him from beneath his lashes. "On the other hand, I'm hardly a man to follow a directive with which I disagree." When Vin stared at him blankly, he smiled.
"I wanted to be here. I consider it a privilege to support you in your hour of need."
He'd been alone for so long, the reality of this--of family and belonging--still took him by surprise. Vin felt his face heat and ducked his head. "'Preciate it."
"I sense that you've tired of our game. Why don't you get some sleep?"
It sounded so easy when Ezra said it--just close his eyes and drift away. Never mind that however he lay caused some part of his battered body to screech in agony, that just breathing seemed to irritate his sore throat, that his stomach was constantly on the verge of rebelling... That he couldn't stop thinking of Sean--dying, praying for someone--for Vin--to come.
"Yeah." Curling onto his side, he shut his burning eyes against Ezra's kindness, wishing he could shut out the pain as easily. Instead, he concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths, listening for the clicking of plastic-coated cards to resume.
"Is there anything I can do to help, Vin?"
Startled by Ezra's use of his first name, Vin cracked open an eye. "Nah. I'm fine."
"Your appearance would indicate otherwise. You seem to be enduring more than a little discomfort."
Vin rolled onto his back, careful to leave his hand propped on its pillow. "Painkiller wore off a while ago. Reckon the nurse'll be along soon."
Ezra tucked the cards into his jacket as he stood. "Why didn't you say something earlier? I'll track one down post haste."
"Not a good plan, pard. You'll just wind up gettin' the lecture."
"'Bout how they gotta go real easy on the drugs they give me. 'Cause of the concussion and...you know..." He looked away, swallowing against a wave of queasiness. "The shit those bastards shot me up with."
From the corner of his eye he saw Ezra fold into his chair, looking gut punched. "I see."
"It's all right. Stuff just makes me want to puke anyway."
"It's not all right. It's not even remotely all right."
Vin looked up, drawn by the tremor in Ezra's voice. He was amazed to see fire in those green eyes. For him. "There's worse, Ezra."
"I beg to differ. The evidence of the brutality you've suffered is etched into your flesh. What could possibly be worse?"
"Could be dead." His throat made a dry click as he swallowed. "Or still out there."
He really hadn't intended to go there. Vin braced himself for the platitudes he was sure would follow: "We're going to find Sean;" "He'll be all right;" and of course, "None of this is your fault."
Contrary as always, Ezra chose none of the above. One corner of his mouth turned up in a smile that was somehow both compassionate and self-deprecating. "You're a good man. I don't believe I know another who could face adversity with such grace and strength of character." He chuffed softly. "Certainly not me."
Vin choked out a laugh around the lump in his throat. "No strength of character here. Just hangin' on by my fingernails."
"We each see with different eyes," Ezra replied cryptically. "No matter. You must realize that we are moving heaven and earth to locate Mr. Donovan. But in the meantime, my duty lies here with you. So if you have no objections, I believe I shall pay a visit to the nurses' station--and perhaps the lounge for a can of ginger ale?"
Leave it to Ezra to remember the one thing that always settled his stomach. Unwilling to trust his voice, Vin nodded.
Ezra touched two fingers to the brim of an imaginary hat. "I shall return shortly."
Vin closed his eyes, consciously slowing his breathing as he attempted to relax tense, throbbing muscles. Gradually he drifted into the gray area between sleeping and waking, still aware of his hurts but removed from them. With a distant corner of his brain, he registered the whoosh of an opening door and the soft scuffle of footsteps, but acknowledging them seemed far too much trouble, and he sank deeper.
"Tanner. Wake up."
The voice, so unexpected, pulled him out of sleep with the brutal efficiency of a drowning man yanked from the water. He popped open his eyes, reflexively reaching for his nonexistent weapon and sucking in a sharp breath when his ribs protested. Fisting the blanket and panting for air, he stared into Jim Spencer's demanding brown eyes.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you," Spencer said, but the apology sounded mechanical, and his gaze kept shifting from Vin to the paper sack he held in one hand.
"'S okay. Wasn't really sleeping." Vin scrubbed at his eyes, trying to order his sluggish thoughts.
Spencer shuffled his feet and hunched his shoulders. "So...how are you feeling?"
"I'm okay." Picking at the frayed edge of his blanket, Vin avoided the intensity of Spencer's gaze.
"Good. That's...that's real good to hear."
"Look, Jim...about Sean...I--"
Spencer grasped the side rail, leaning in close. "I need you to tell me everything you know, Vin. So far we've gotten nowhere, and time is running out."
He flinched at the sharp tone so different from Spencer's normally mellow bass. "I don't... Jim, I can't remember, it's all just...it's all a blank."
"Then you've got to try harder. His life is in your hands, kid. He's counting on you--we all are."
Spencer's words felt like physical blows, pummeling the wound that had been festering inside Vin since he'd learned of his abduction. He reacted with an instinct bred from years of surviving alone on the streets: when attacked, fight back.
"You've got to be kiddin' me. Try harder? Do you really think if I had it in my power to remember I wouldn't have done it before now?"
"I think Larabee's so hell bent on protecting you he can't see what's needed in this investigation. I think Sean's dying out there and we're sitting around doing nothing." Face reddened, Spencer thrust his hand into the sack and pulled out something encased in an evidence bag. "We found this in a dumpster near the warehouse. Look familiar?"
Vin stared at the bundle of tattered cloth. He wasn't aware that his breathing sped up. He didn't feel the cold sweat or the tremors wracking his body or hear the ringing in his ears. Everything, all his senses, latched onto the large, rust-colored stains obscuring the New York Yankees logo.
Sean's shirt. Sean...Screams echo through the empty hallway. He longs to clamp his hands over his ears, to block them out. Instead, he fights the restraints until warmth trickles down his wrists. "Stop it, you bastard! Sean! Talk to me, Sean!"
"Cooperate and you both go free."
Piercing agony in his ribs. He gasps and retches, struggling for air.
"Answer the question." Cold, dead gray eyes.
"This ain't gonna work, you son of a bitch; I'm not tellin' you jack shit."
A backhanded slap, and fire bursts across his cheekbone. "Give me time. You'll be begging to tell me whatever I want to hear." He nods to the linebacker in the doorway. "Keep going. Mr. Tanner's feeling stubborn."
And Sean starts screaming...
+ + + + + + +
Chris squeezed through the elevator doors before they'd finished opening and headed down the hallway. A flash of color as he passed the visitor's lounge had him retracing his steps.
His teammate straightened from where he was bent over a vending machine. "Mr. Larabee. I wasn't expecting you until five. Has there been a development on the case?"
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "In his room, of course. He's not exactly mobile right now."
"Then why the hell aren't you with him?" Chris started walking, not really interested in the answer.
For all his talk of refusing to exert himself, Ezra could move fast when motivated. He was suddenly at Chris's side, keeping pace. "Perhaps you wouldn't mind sharing the source of your obvious agitation." His genial drawl didn't mask the anger vibrating just beneath.
Chris glared sideways. "You're supposed to be sticking with him, not roaming the halls or lounging in the waiting room."
"For your information, I was not--"
"Save it, Ezra. Travis called to give me a heads up. Jim Spencer
is--" Pushing open Vin's door, he stopped, speechless.
Spencer stood beside Vin's bed, a bloody tee shirt clutched in his hand and a mixture of guilt and dismay on his face. And Vin...
Chris crossed the room in three quick strides, seizing Spencer by the lapels and slamming him against the wall. "You son of a bitch! What did you say to him?"
Spencer struggled weakly. "Nothing! I just...I...I wanted to..."
"I warned you not to go around me."
"I'm sorry, Chris. You know I never meant to... I swear I didn't think he'd..."
With a final shake, Chris shoved him toward Ezra. "Get him the hell out of here."
White-lipped with anger, Ezra nodded. "My pleasure." He set something on the bedside table and hustled Spencer, unresisting, from the room.
"And get a nurse!" Chris turned back to his friend, his chest tight.
Vin's wide blue eyes were unfocused, his face shiny with sweat. When Chris leaned over the side rail to clasp his hand, he realized his friend was shivering. Drawing in a deep breath, Chris put aside his anger. "Vin. Talk to me, Cowboy."
Vin didn't answer, or even look at him, but his fingers clamped tightly around Chris's. Leaning closer, Chris pitched his voice low and soothing. "You're in the hospital, remember? You're safe; it's all over. Come on back to me now, okay?"
As he continued to speak, Vin gradually stopped trembling. He blinked, and Chris saw awareness seep back into his gaze. "Chris?"
"Here." He poured Vin a cup of water.
When his friend screwed up his face, Chris looked around, noticing a can of ginger ale sitting on the table. "Looks like you've got the nurses in your pocket, as usual," he murmured, popping the top and adding a straw.
To his relief, Vin managed not only a few swallows but also a weak grin. "Ezra."
Recalling his teammate's proximity to the vending machine and his own harsh rebuke, Chris inwardly winced. He had a few fences to mend, but that would have to wait. "You with me now?"
Vin licked his lips. "Jim Spencer was here."
"I know. I'm the one booted his ass to the curb."
"He had Sean's shirt."
At that moment Chris could cheerfully have shot Jim Spencer. "I heard."
"Well, when were you plannin' on telling me?" The flash of fire in Vin's eyes calmed the churning in Chris's gut.
"Take it easy; I just found out. Higgins and Crandall were canvassing the area around the warehouse. They found it in a garbage bin a block over. Travis gave me the heads up, but Spencer had already left the building." Chris clenched his jaw. "He was not authorized to do what he just did."
"He's only tryin' to take care of his own."
Before Chris could dispute Vin's generosity, Ezra appeared with Lynn, Vin's nurse, in tow.
Vin took one look and scowled. "Aw, hell."
Unperturbed, Lynn set a stainless steel tray on the bed table and grinned at him. "Nice to see you too. Sounds as if you've had an exciting afternoon."
"I'm fine, ma'am," Vin said. "Really." But he allowed her to check pulse, blood pressure, and temperature with a minimum of fuss.
"He gonna live?" Chris asked. He liked Lynn--she had a way of putting Vin firmly in his place, but with a gentleness that eased his fear of losing control.
"Heart rate's a little fast, pressure's up a bit, but that's to be expected. How's the pain?" she asked Vin.
"Not good either," Ezra murmured, drawing Vin's glare.
"You strong silent types are all alike." Lynn brushed a hand over Vin's shoulder, coaxing a grudging smile. "Here's a tip." She picked a hypodermic off the tray and injected it into his I.V. "Take the good drugs while you can. The more comfortable you are, the faster you'll heal."
Vin sighed as a warm current flooded his body, nudging back the discomfort. "Yes, ma'am."
"I'll be back to check on you in a bit. Get some rest." Lynn looked pointedly at Chris and Ezra, who tipped their heads. Message received.
"I remembered somethin', Chris," Vin said. His eyes were already heavy lidded, his words slightly slurred. "It was like I was there, in the warehouse. It was so real."
"Sounds like a flashback."
Vin swallowed against the bile in his throat, his stomach churning. "They were hurtin' him. Hurtin' Sean to make me talk."
"Who was? Can you describe them?"
"Big guy--big as Josiah. Dark hair and eyes. Snake tattoo down his arm. Other was Hispanic. Young. Wore a Harley Davidson jacket."
"Al Westin and Ricky Hernandez," Chris muttered.
"He was screamin', Chris. But I...I wouldn't talk. I don't even remember what they wanted, but I wouldn't give it to 'em."
"You did the right thing. I'm sure Mr. Donovan understood."
Chris looked at Ezra, surprised by the strength of emotion in his voice.
"I tried to make 'em stop." Vin was on the cusp of sleep, defenses lowered and vulnerable in a way Chris had rarely seen. "Why didn't they hurt me? I wanted 'em to hurt me."
Chris watched his eyes slide shut and his breathing even out. Beside him Ezra blew out a long breath.
"They did, my friend. They did."
"Mr. Larabee. A word?"
Chris frowned, his fingertips still brushing the surface of Vin's door. Lorenzo, he noted with a mixture of disbelief and admiration, was wearing Converse high tops on his feet and a Dead Can Dance tee shirt under his white coat. "Is there a problem?"
The doctor looked pointedly at Vin's half-open door and inclined his head toward the lounge. "Buy you a cup of coffee?"
Setting his duffel bag on the floor just inside the room, Chris shoved his hands in his pockets and trailed him down the hallway.
"Regular or decaf?" Lorenzo asked as he plugged change into the machine.
Chris sat on the edge of a couch. He accepted the paper cup from Lorenzo, eyeing him warily as he sank into a nearby chair. "What about you?" He took a sip, gesturing to Lorenzo's empty hands.
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't drink that crap if you paid me."
"Why exactly did you want to speak with me?"
Once again Lorenzo turned as abruptly serious as if he'd flicked a switch. "Your friend had a rough night last night." He held up a hand as Chris lunged to his feet. "Take it easy. Physically he's still doing well."
"What's that supposed to mean? What happened?" Chris tossed the half-empty cup into the garbage can and pinned Lorenzo with a glare.
"According to his nurse, he had trouble sleeping. Nightmares--some real screamers. She tried to give him a sedative but he refused. Strenuously."
Chris leaned over, propping his hands on the arms of the Lorenzo's chair until he was eye to eye with the doctor. "Why the hell didn't anyone call me?" He pitched his voice low. Deadly.
Narrowing his eyes, Lorenzo thrust his own face forward. "He wouldn't let them."
Son of a bitch, Vin. Is there a more irritating, pigheaded jackass on the planet? Chris sighed and eased back onto the couch.
"I'm telling you now for a couple of reasons," Lorenzo continued. "First, he's going to be dragging his ass today, especially after the car ride home. You need to see that he gets some real, uninterrupted sleep or his recovery's going to take a giant step backward."
"Excuse my skepticism. We are talking about Mr. Tanner--remember?"
Chris flashed him a grin. "I can be very...persuasive."
"Yeah. I've noticed," Lorenzo said with a wince. "Anyway, I'm going to include a 'scrip for a mild sleeping pill with his meds."
"I can tell you right now he won't want to take them."
Lorenzo quirked an eyebrow. "Persuade him."
"Is that all?" Chris stood up, arms folded.
"I just want to be sure we're on the same page about this," Lorenzo replied, following suit. "You're a cop. You've got to realize what those nightmares mean in light of all your friend has been through."
His jaw felt like it could snap. "Yeah."
"Then you also know Post Traumatic Stress is nothing to fool around with. He's going to need therapy, Chris, and not just for his hand."
"I'll do what I can. But that may be beyond even my powers of persuasion."
Huffing, Lorenzo shook his head. "I can imagine. You should've heard his reaction this morning when I suggested he might like to talk to one of our on-staff shrinks before you took him home." When Chris just looked at him, he added, "Well, I phrased it with a lot more finesse."
"Look, Doc, Vin's a big boy. No one can make him do something if he digs in his feet. But I can tell you that he's got six teammates watching his back. We'll do what we can."
"Fair enough. I'm afraid he's going to be coping with the concussion for a while. If the headaches get worse, or you notice any disorientation or slurred speech, get him in here immediately. Otherwise, bring him back in a week."
"Will do. And thanks for everything. You've, ah, given me a whole new view of the medical profession." Chris offered his hand.
Lorenzo shook it and they started walking back to Vin's room. "The pleasure's all mine. After all, thanks to you I'm a regular celebrity around here."
Lorenzo flashed him an impudent grin. "I called out the infamous Chris Larabee--and lived to tell the tale."
"Don't get cocky. The day's not over."
They parted ways at Vin's room, Lorenzo heading off to finish his rounds and Chris stepping quietly inside. His back to the doorway, Vin was muttering a mixture of his favorite curse words in English and Spanish.
"I got to admit, you turn swearing into an art form."
Chris walked around the end of the bed, seeing that Vin was struggling to work his right arm into a flannel shirt--pretty much impossible given his splinted fingers. Perspiration trickled down the sides of his face and his uninjured hand was shaking so badly he kept missing the sleeve.
"Hey. Whoa." He tugged the shirt from Vin's clumsy fingers, getting a glare that could have peeled paint. "They have nurses to help with stuff like this, you know."
"Don't need no damn nurse to dress me." Vin snatched it back, flushing.
That inherent independence might've been funny if he hadn't looked so terrible. The bruises on his face and torso stood out in sharp relief, and exhaustion and pain were written in the lines around his eyes and mouth.
"Yeah. I can see that."
Vin curled his fingers into a white-knuckled grip and his eyes flashed fire. "I was takin' care of myself while you were still beggin' for the keys to Daddy's car. I don't need anyone's help."
Chris had no doubts it was true. Vin's fierce independence was one of the first things to impress him back in the early days when his friend was cautiously finding his place on the team. Only after reviewing his file did Chris understand that independence had come at a high price--orphaned at five, a string of foster homes, and finally, a runaway surviving on the streets.
He sat down beside Vin, their shoulders brushing. "Okay, so you don't need help. Did you ever stop to think that maybe we need to be doing the helping?"
"Three days and nights we searched for you. We barely ate or slept--hell, Buck stopped looking at women!"
Vin snorted softly. "Sounds like the end of the world as we know it."
Chris looked him squarely in the eye. "For us it was. We never gave up hope, but... it started to feel as if you'd disappeared into thin air. And then, when we did find you...well, you looked more dead than alive, Pard.
"So you best be prepared to cut the boys and me some slack, 'cause you're going to get our help whether or not you need it. We're just damn glad you're around to fuss over."
Vin turned his face away, his throat working. "Thing about countin' on yourself... You don't get let down."
"Yeah. Gets damn lonely though."
For a long moment Vin was quiet, and Chris let him be. Finally, he looked at Chris with the hint of a smile. "So how are you gonna help me get this damn shirt on?"
"I'm not." Chris unzipped the duffel he'd brought and pulled out a flannel shirt. "We use this one."
"Uh... I don't know how to break this to you, Cowboy, but... I've never seen that shirt before in my life."
"I know. Rain bought it, and a few others, at the mall yesterday."
"That was real nice of her, but...why?"
"She made a few special modifications." Chris picked up the right sleeve, and peeled it open down the seam. "Velcro."
Blinking, Vin fingered the soft flannel. "She did that for... She's such a busy lady, I can't believe she..."
"Said she's dealt with enough patients in casts to know what a pain in the ass they are--the casts, not the patients. Hold out your arm." Chris fastened the Velcro strip and helped Vin slip his good arm into the other sleeve. He pulled the front flaps together and paused, quirking an eyebrow.
"Might as well go ahead," Vin said, not quite able to meet his eyes. "If I do it we'll be here all day."
As he popped each button through its hole, Chris glanced up at his friend. Vin's gaze was fixed on the window, but Chris could tell he wasn't really seeing the bright sunshine and clear blue sky.
"Heard you had a rough night." He kept his gaze on his hands when he felt Vin stiffen.
"Never had much luck sleepin' in hospitals."
Pressing the matter, when Vin was so obviously on edge, seemed counterproductive. "Well, the guest room's all made up. And I promise not to come in and check your blood pressure in the middle of the night." The genuine grin he got in response told him he'd made the right decision.
"One problem," Vin said when Chris had finished buttoning him up.
Vin held up his gauze-swathed feet. "There's no way in hell I'm gonna be able to wear my boots."
"Yeah, I figured." Chris rummaged through the duffel and pulled out a pair of soft moccasins.
"Yer a regular boy scout today, aren't ya?"
"Just making sure all the bases are covered. Aren't you the one always saying that's why they pay me the big bucks?" Chris gently slipped them onto his feet. "Okay?"
"Then let me find a wheelchair and we'll bust you out of here."
Almost to the door, the emotion in Vin's voice pulled him back. "Yeah?"
Vin picked at the Velcroed sleeve, glancing up at him from beneath his lashes. "Guess maybe there's somethin' to be said for lettin' folks give you a hand."
Chris smiled. "You're welcome."
+ + + + + + +
At the sound of Buck's footsteps, Chris glanced up from his laptop. "How is he?"
"Dead to the world."
He couldn't block the instinctive flinch; the words hit a raw spot he hadn't realized existed.
Buck froze and his face crumpled. "Sorry. Sometimes I got a piss-poor way with words.
"It's okay. Coffee's fresh and there's cream in the fridge."
Buck rummaged through the cupboard for his favorite mug. "When's the last time you ate anything?"
Chris shifted his gaze from the screen just long enough to deliver a glare, his fingers never faltering on the keyboard.
Sitting down at the table, Buck raised both hands. "I know, I know. Mind my own damn business." He took a sip of coffee, muttering into the mug, "Even if you are settin' yourself up for an ulcer."
"Nathan has a big mouth."
"Nathan never said a word. It don't take a medical professional to see you're lettin' all this eat a hole in your gut. Might as well buy stock in antacids."
"I've got responsibilities, Buck. To Travis, to Vin--to the team."
"And you ain't gonna be worth shit to any of us if you don't start takin' care of yourself. What are you workin' on anyway?"
"Paperwork for Travis." Chris kept typing.
Buck leaned in close. "What paperwork?"
Damn it, he'd made six mistakes in the last paragraph. Chris dropped his hands to his lap and sighed. "If you must know, a formal complaint against Jim Spencer."
"Aw, hell, Chris--"
"You weren't there, Buck! Vin was practically catatonic thanks to that pigheaded bastard."
"That pigheaded bastard has pulled our asses out of the fire a time or two." Buck scrubbed his hands over his face and for the first time Chris noticed the circles under his friend's eyes. "Look, Chris...I'm not defendin' what Jim did. It was a boneheaded move, and if I'd been there I'd probably have beat the crap outta him myself."
"I'm sensing a 'but' in there somewhere."
"Supposin' that--God forbid--it was Vin still out there. That you were holdin' Vin's bloody shirt in your hand. Try on Jim's shoes, Chris, and tell me you can still file that complaint."
All these years and Buck was still being his conscience at the most inconvenient times. Blowing out a long breath, Chris closed the file and powered down the computer. "I thought you were here to help take care of Vin," he growled, reaching for his coffee.
Buck's hand clamped onto his wrist, stilling the motion. "Vin's your job, Ol' Dog. Me--I've got bigger fish to fry."
Chris shook his head, but his throat felt tight. "You've been watching my back an awfully long time. Must be damn tired of it by now."
"I'm still here, ain't I? Buck picked up Chris's mug and his own and took them to the sink. "Get some sleep, Pard. I'll hold down the fort."
His intended refusal came out a jaw-cracking yawn. "Only if you wake me by six," he said, shoving back his chair and standing. The muscles in his back creaked in protest as he stretched.
"Or if he needs me."
"Make sure you check on him."
"He might wake up disoriented. The doc says--"
"All right. I'm going."
He was halfway down the hall, anticipating cool sheets and a soft mattress, when Vin's blood-curdling scream drove all thoughts of sleep from his head.