The Reverend stopped, watching as Vin climbed out of a small silver Honda that was parked in the lot of the Jeweled PussyKat. Stepping back into the shadows, he watched the man follow one of the new waitresses inside. He smiled and headed for a phone booth.
Dropping in a quarter, he dialed. "Dickie?" he asked when someone picked up.
"Yeah?" came a sleepy voice.
"It's me, Reverend. I found Tanner for you, so let's discuss my finder's fee, shall we?"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sitting at the same table he had used the night before, Vin tried to sort through the images that had been assaulting him all day: the mountains... football games with a group of rowdy guys... a large black horse, an older woman, a man with a gold tooth that flashed in the sunlight when he smiled... a smiling man with a mustache, guns, firefights, fist fights, car chases, and a big man with grey eyes... a black man who might be a medic, and a run down apartment building with a mural painted on one side. There was a young man, too, sitting in front of a computer.
The images left him feeling weak and troubled. A fine film of sweat coated his skin.
There were other images, too, and in particular a face that haunted the edges of his memories, but refused to surface. He was pretty sure it was a man, maybe a blond, but he couldn't be sure. Something about the man made him feel guilty, and he was afraid he might be someone he'd killed.
The evening passed, Stacy stopping by occasionally to deliver a new beer and a snack, along with more of the over-the-counter painkillers. He thanked her, took the pills, drained the drinks, ate the food, and then closed his eyes again, willing the images to make some kind of sense. But they remained disjointed and scattered.
As the hours passed, the pain in his head slowly swelled in intensity, eventually making it impossible for him to think. He gave up trying to fit the images together into some kind of mental jigsaw puzzle and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes and hoping sleep might free him from the pain for a while.
The agent's eyes opened and he looked up at a white man who was standing in front of his table. The guy was in his early-thirties, well dressed in a business suit. His short brown hair was conservatively cut, and muddy brown eyes peered at him with a disconcerting intensity.
"Who?" he asked, unhappy about needing to concentrate past the thrumming agony raging inside his skull.
"Vin Tanner. That's you."
Vin could sense the man's barely hidden hostility. "An' who the hell are you?"
"Don't play games with me, Tanner. You know who I am."
Vin's eyes widened. Tanner. That sounded familiar... important, somehow... "Tanner, that's m' name?"
The man's eyes narrowed, but he grabbed a chair and sat down at the table. Leaning over, he asked, "What's the matter with you?"
Vin didn't trust the man, but he seemed to know more than he did, things he needed to know. "Was in a car accident, hit my head, can't remember anything."
The man studied Vin's face, noting the bandage, the dark circles under the man's eyes, and the pain lines that puckered the corners of Tanner's eyes and mouth.
"Do you know me?" Vin asked him.
The man nodded once.
"Who am I?"
Vin hesitated, but then he asked, "What do I do? For a livin', I mean."
The man didn't answer, leaning back in his chair instead, muddy brown eyes regarding Tanner like he was sizing him up for a coffin.
His headache flared, and Vin's eyes narrowed. "Listen, I ain't got time for games."
A ruthless smile lifted the corners of the man's mouth. "You really don't know who the hell you are, do you?"
"Told y', I can't," Vin half-growled. His eyes narrowed and he snarled as menacingly as possible, "But you're gonna tell me."
The man nodded, beginning to smile. "Sure, why not." He bent forward, resting his forearms on the small, round table. "You're a killer, Tanner. You kill people," he said softly.
Ah hell, Vin thought, feeling his breath catch. "And- And I... work for ya?" he asked the man.
There was a hesitation, and then a nod. "In a manner of speaking, yes."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Carroll. David Carroll, that ring a bell for you?"
Vin sat up straighter. The name did sound familiar, but he had no idea why. God, did I already agree t' whack somebody for this guy?
"I hired you... To take out some troublesome ATF agents for me."
Fuck, I did. "W-Why?" Vin demanded.
"Does it matter?" Carroll returned, his expression going hard. "Look, you kill people and get paid for it... I... I paid you. And you took my money. Now I want to see the bodies. I want the job I paid for done - immediately."
Vin swallowed thickly. This couldn't be happening. What the hell was he going to do? "What'd they do?" he insisted.
Carroll was silent for a moment, then he said, "They killed my brother. I want revenge, pure and simple."
"Look, I don't-"
"You were paid, Tanner," the man snarled, leaning closer, his eyes flashing. "You are going to finish the job... Or... or your family's going to pay the price." He watched as a shocked expression flashed across Tanner's face, quickly suppressed, but not quickly enough.
The man's eyes narrowed, a predatory smile curling the corners of his mouth. "A wife," he said, "and a... daughter. Sweet little thing too, so young, so innocent. They won't die fast, Tanner. I promise you that. I'll see to it they die slowly. Very, very slowly. There are plenty of other people out there just like you who'd be happy to do it, for the right price."
Images of a mutilated body, a young Asian girl, flashed through Vin's mind and he shuddered, his stomach almost emptying on the table. Then the faces of other children flashed through his mind. They were happy, smiling. Were they friends of his daughter? But what did she look like? What did her mother look like? Why couldn't he remember?
"You want to back out?" Carroll asked, his mind racing with a plan. "Fine, you give me back the twenty-grand and I'll get someone else to do the job. But if you keep the money, you do the job."
Vin frantically sought for the location of the money amongst his shredded memories. If he could give it back, get this guy off his back... But there were no images, no hints where the cash might be. "Where are these agents?" he asked in a raspy voice.
"Denver," Carroll supplied. "I'll take you."
Vin raised his hand, trying to slow the man down. "Look, I don't know if I c'n do this right now. I-"
"You don't and-"
"Listen," Vin hissed, reaching out to grab the man's arm. "M' head's killin' me here, y'hear? I can't see straight. Maybe in a day or two-"
"Tonight, Tanner. You kill them tonight or, so help me, you and your family will die."
The look in the man's eyes told Vin that he meant every word he said. He nodded, not knowing what else to do. What've I got m'self into? Killin' people? I can't, I-
He shut the thoughts off. It was all too painful, too confusing. He'd go along, see what the score was. Then, if he had to do the agents to get Carroll off his back, he would. He knew he'd killed before. Then he'd get the man to tell him where his wife and daughter were. If he could find them, maybe he could finally get the answers he needed.
The team sat around Larabee's living room, all of them too tired to eat the hamburgers and fries they had picked up on the way back to the ranch.
Giving up on his rapidly cooling meal, Chris leaned back against the sofa cushions and sighed heavily. "Where the hell could he be?" he asked tightly, frustration rounding his shoulders and aging him ten years.
"Hiding, more than likely," Josiah said softly. "He's hurting and he's confused. He's going to go to ground somewhere he feels safe, and stay there until he's feeling better, or he gets his memories back."
"We'll never find him if he doesn't want to be found," Buck said, shaking his head. "That boy spent too much time on the streets."
"How's your leg, Chris?" Nathan asked when he saw the man absently rubbing at it.
"Sore," Larabee admitted, too tired to come up with a lie.
"You're pushing yourself too hard," Jackson warned him.
"What choice do I have?" Chris snapped back, his voice too loud and too strained. "We have to find him before-"
"The doctor said he should be fine," Ezra interrupted. "I'm sure his memories will start to return soon, and if he's in hiding, he's not going to get hurt. I was reading-"
"What if they don't come back?" Chris cut in. "What if we can't find him? What if he's gone for-?" He stopped himself, realizing how desperate he sounded. Hell, it hadn't been all that long ago that Vin had been in the hospital after their stay in that work farm. If he didn't know better, he'd swear Tanner was trying to drive him into an early grave.
The others knew they didn't have any answers to satisfy the man, but Nathan said, "You really should eat something, keep your strength up. We all should," he added, glancing around the room at each of his friends.
Chris glared at the black man, his anger shifting to understanding and then to concern when he saw that Jackson hadn't really touched his food either. None of them had. "Nathan's right. We all need to eat, then get some sleep."
The men lapsed into silence, picking at their food, none of them able to make it even halfway through their meals. After another round of coffee, they headed off to get some much-needed sleep. Chris retired to his bedroom. Josiah and Nathan took the guest room, Buck and JD opting for the sofas. And Ezra stretched out in one of the recliners, without a single complaint for once.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Despite the drugs easing the pain in his leg, and being exhausted and emotionally drained, Chris still couldn't get to sleep. He rose and padded into his office, heading straight for his computer. He hoped there might be something helpful waiting for him there.
Logging in, he waited for the information on the stolen Mustangs to come up before skimming the information. He frowned. There didn't appear to be anything to tell him who might have been driving the car that had hit Vin. None of the theft victims were anyone he recognized.
He sighed, printing off the information so they could check it over again later, then turned off the computer and went back to bed without bothering to undress this time.
Wednesday morning 1:00 am
Sitting in Carroll's CRV, Vin stared at the dark ranch house in the distance.
"That's Larabee's home," Carroll said. Reaching into the back seat, he grabbed a case and lifted it into the front and handed it to Vin.
Tanner opened the case and found a Tec-9 inside.
"Six men," Carroll said. "I want them all dead."
Vin picked up the gun, the feel of it familiar, comforting somehow. Then images of the dead Asian child flashed through his mind again. He looked up at Carroll, asking, "I have a daughter?"
The man smiled, but the effect was nothing more than a condescending sneer. "You won't, not if you don't do what I paid you to do."
Vin looked down at the gun, his hands shaking slightly.
"Look, you take care of this, I'll see to it you get out of town and get some medical attention," Carroll promised him. "Then you can go back to your family and lead whatever kind of life you want."
"They know what I do?" Vin asked in a choked whisper.
Carroll scowled. "How the hell should I know? I just hired you to kill six men."
A wave of dizziness washed over Viin, nearly causing his stomach to rebel. He reached for his head, saying, "Look, I can't-"
"You will or, so help me, I'll see to it your wife and daughter end up in pieces." The last came out as a hiss.
Vin swallowed and drew a deep breath, willing the pain and dizziness away. There was no choice; he had to do what the man said; he couldn't put his family in danger. He glanced up, peering at the ranch house, something familiar tugging at his gut.
Maybe I already cased the place. Maybe I already worked out how I was gonna do this, he rationalized.
But that just didn't feel right.
"Go on," Carroll snarled.
Vin opened the door and climbed out. He took one unsteady step toward the house, then another. He stopped, an explosion of agony in his head making him sway on his feet. He reached out, bracing himself against the split-rail fence that ran along the side of the driveway.
Carroll pulled a Browning 9mm out of his jacket pocket and stepped up next to Vin. "All right, damn it, I'll go with you, but you pull the trigger, understand? I paid for that much." Then, grabbing the agent's arm, he hurried Vin along to the house.
By the time Tanner stood inside the kitchen, his head was pounding, bright white and yellow lights erupting in front of his eyes like strobes and 4th of July sparklers. A barrage of images passed through his mind so quickly he couldn't even begin to interpret them. But his breath caught as his stomach almost emptied. How had he known the code to bypass the security system?
"Go on," Carroll hissed. "Find them and kill them."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris lay curled on his side, sleeping, until some internal alarm began to sound.
"Huh?" he grunted, jerking awake. Groping in the dark, he found his 45 and grabbed it. Something was wrong. He could feel it, even if he didn't know exactly what it was.
Rolling out of bed, fully awake, he crept silently toward the door. He opened it a crack and waited, listening. Then he eased into the dark hallway and started down, but as he neared the doorway that would take him down another short hall to the kitchen he heard a man whisper, "Go on. Find them and kill them."
Who the hell's that?
Taking a deep breath, Chris waited to meet the intruders, knowing he was the only thing that stood between the enemy and the rest of his men.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin walked slowly down the short hallway, but stopped when he saw Chris emerging from the shadows, his gun up and ready.
"Vin?" the blond said, but it was no louder than a whisper, and his expression was totally confused.
"Kill him!" Carroll barked, stepping in behind Vin where he could use the sniper as a shield.
Vin brought the Tec-9 up, aiming at Chris' chest. For a moment it was a stand-off, both men covering each other, then the blond whipped both his hands up, making it clear he was no threat, even if he was still holding a gun.
"Vin, it's me," he said at the same time. "What's wrong?"
Images stormed through Tanner's mind, ransacking his resolve, but he still couldn't remember who the blond-haired man was.
"Shoot him," Carroll commanded. "Do it or, so help me, your family's going to suffer."
Chris' gaze slipped from Vin to Carroll and back again, green eyes locking on pale blue in an unbreakable bond. "Vin, I don't know what Carroll told you, but we're your family - me and the rest of the team. We've been looking for you. You were in a car accident, remember?"
"I can't remember," Vin growled, his shoulders pinching in an attempt to ward off the agony that threatened to tear his head apart from the inside out.
"You're hurting, I know that," Chris soothed. "We talked to the doctor who treated you. Latino guy, uh, Ortiz, right? He said you have amnesia."
"Are you going to let him get your family killed?" Carroll snarled, his own gun coming up to cover Chris. "Where are the others?" he demanded.
Chris' eyes narrowed, knowing some of them were probably watching the unfolding scene from the shadows along the hallway. "Sleeping," he lied.
"Get in the kitchen," Carroll demanded, gesturing at Chris with his Browning.
Larabee limped slowly down the hallway.
Vin frowned, more images flashing through his vision: a fight, a gunshot, a murdered Asian child, the blond lying on the ground, clutching his leg while it bled. Guilt and remorse exploded in Tanner's chest, competing with the agony in his head for a brief moment.
"Do it now, Tanner," Carroll panted, his dark eyes wide and wild. "Do it, or when I get back to your daughter, I'm going to shove this gun inside her and pull the trigger..." He giggled at the thought, a high pitched titter that caused both agents' skin to pucker with goosebumps. "I'll- I'll burn her, Tanner. I'll burn her with cigarettes. And cut her. You watch me, I'll do it. I will do it."
As the man ranted Vin could see the images of the same kinds of wounds on the little Asian girl's body. He started to shake and the room began to tilt dangerously. I can't kill this guy. I don't know who he is, but I can't kill him. I can't.
"You're sick, Carroll," Chris hissed, anger folding over his face as he glared at the man.
But Carroll didn't reply, lost in his own world. "She's bad, you know. She's very, very bad. Just like Mommy was bad, but we can fix that. We can make sure she's never bad again. She won't be bad any more..."
"Kill him!" Carroll screamed at Tanner.
Vin's finger tightened on the trigger, but the blond's face faded from sight, lost in the exploding lights that flashed in front of the sniper's eyes, nearly blinding him. He groaned and choked back a longer, louder cry as it felt like someone was drilling straight into his brain.
Vin took a step closer to Chris, then swung around with a pain-filled snarl, the Tec-9 coming up on Carroll in a two-fisted grip that still shook uncontrollably.
"What're you doing?" the man screamed at Vin. "Kill him! Now!"
"No," Vin growled deep in his throat, his vision beginning to narrow as a band of black began working its way in from his peripheral vision.
Rage twisted Carroll's face into an unrecognizable mask that was no longer human. He screamed, his weapon shifting from Chris to Vin.
In Tanner's mind, the following events slowed and he watched as Carroll pulled the trigger. But someone was lunging forward, striking Carroll between the shoulder blades, sending the man stumbling forward as his finger tightened on the trigger.
Vin fired as well, just before he felt Carroll's bullet strike his upper chest. A third report echoed in the kitchen as Chris fired on Carroll, who was on his knees then, bringing his gun up to fire at Vin again. The blond's shot killed the man and Vin watched Carroll fall in a slow-motion ballet of death, then staggered back himself, his legs buckling. As he fell, he saw the fear and concern on the blond man's face, but the image was quickly erased when he struck the back of his head on the edge of the counter.
"Vin!" Chris shouted, lunging to Carroll and kicking the man's gun away as Nathan arrived, bending to check Tanner for a pulse. There was one, but it was rapid and thready.
Buck grabbed for the phone, plucking up the receiver and punching out 911. "Hello? I need the police and an ambulance immediately; a man's been shot." He gave the 911 operator the address, and identified himself and the victim as federal agents. "Please, hurry," he added.
"Josiah, get me a towel or something to stop this bleeding," Nathan snapped.
Sanchez was moving before the man had finished speaking, disappearing down the hallway like he had grown wings.
Chris knelt on the other side of the fallen man. He reached out, gripping his friend's shoulder with a trembling hand. "Vin? Vin, can you hear me? Come on, Cowboy, don't you die on me, damn it. Not now."
There was no response.
"Come on, Josiah! Hurry up!"
"Here," he said, hurrying in with an armload of towels.
Nathan grabbed one from the top of the pile, then carefully lifted Vin to check for an exit wound. He was surprised to find only a slightly larger opening in the man's back. Pressing the cloth against the bleeding wound, he let Vin roll onto the cloth, his own weight putting pressure on the injury. Then, grabbing a second towel, he pressed it against the entry wound while Ezra knelt at Tanner's head and checked Vin's airway.
"He's breathing fine," Standish reported.
"Where are they?" Chris asked, glancing up, willing the sound of sirens to materialize.
"They're on the way," Buck said. "Do you think he remembered?"
Chris shook his head, looking back at his fallen friend. "I don't know, maybe. He seemed to know Carroll was the real problem."
Nathan pressed harder against the cloth as blood began to soak through.
"Hang on, Vin," Larabee said. "Please."
"Hurts," Tanner whimpered, his eyes remaining closed.
Chris' breath caught painfully in his chest when Vin gasped in a short breath and moaned. The sound ended with a sharp grunt of pain. "Vin, listen to me. You have to fight. You have to hang on. Help's on the way. Just hang on."
Dark eyelashes fluttered against bloodless cheeks before pain-glazed blue eyes opened halfway.
"Vin?" Chris asked, his voice catching.
The sniper tried to focus on Larabee's face, but his eyes refused. "Wh-"
"What?" the blond asked. "Vin?"
"Who... am... I?"
"Not now, Vin," Nathan said. "Right now you concentrate on stickin' around so we can tell you everything you want to know, okay?"
Vin stared up at Chris for a moment, trying to remember who he was. "Friend?" he whispered airily just before his eyes began to drop closed again.
"Yeah, Cowboy, we're friends. So don't you give up on me, you hear? Hang on, Vin, just a little longer."
In the distance the sirens could finally be heard.
"I'll go open the front door," JD offered from where he stood by Josiah.
Sitting in the ER waiting room, Chris ran his hands over his hair and sighed heavily. He wanted to get up and go ask the nurse what was going on, but Nathan had done that less than ten minutes ago and there was still no word. He huffed, trying to force his anger and frustration back to manageable levels, but they still pressed against his breastbone, trying to claw their way out.
"Damn it," he breathed, shoving back against the sofa seat.
"Chris?" Buck asked worriedly from where he sat in one of the more comfortable chairs.
"Nothing," the blond sighed, waving a hand to fend off any more questions and feeling his jaw muscles start to twitch. "I just want someone to tell us something. It's been almost four hours, for Christ's sake!"
"I'm sure we'll hear as soon as there's something-"
"I know, JD, I know, all right?" Chris interrupted, then added more kindly, "I just hate waiting."
"Us too, brother," Josiah admitted.
Chris offered the older man a brief, reassuring smile that he didn't feel.
"He'll be fine," Ezra stated. "The paramedics arrived quickly, and they reached the hospital swiftly."
The blond nodded, worried anyway.
"How's your leg?" Buck asked him.
Chris thought about lying, but he wasn't in the mood. "Feels like someone's trying to cut it off, okay?"
"I could ask the nurse-" Nathan started.
"No!" Chris snapped, then forced himself to stop before he said something he'd regret ten minutes later. "Yeah, okay, maybe that would help."
Nathan stood, the sympathetic, understanding expression on his face making Chris feel like a heel. "I'll be right back," the man promised.
Larabee waited until Jackson disappeared around the corner before he shook his head. "Shouldn't take it out on him, but if Vin-"
No! he shouted at himself. You think like that, you're just inviting the worst. He'll be all right. He has to be.
Almost an hour later the agents were still waiting impatiently when a young black woman stepped into the waiting room.
"Mr. Larabee?" she asked.
Chris stood, a twinge of pain racing down to his heel and up to his hip. He winced, but said, "I'm Chris Larabee."
The women smiled, her practiced eye taking in the condition of his leg. "I'm Janique Oba, Mr. Tanner's doctor."
"How is he?" Chris asked, starting to limp over to her.
"Stable," she said, gesturing for him to sit back down.
Larabee hobbled back to the over-long couch and dropped back down with a grunt.
The woman sat down next to him, glancing from Chris to the others as she spoke. "First, I want you to know that the bullet caused minimal damage. It was deflected by a rib, which is fractured, but should heal just fine with time and rest. Mr. Tanner has a small lung bruise under the fracture, and we're monitoring that closely."
"What about his head?" Chris asked her. "The other doctor said if he hit his-"
Dr. Oba shook her head. "Our neurologist has already examined Mr. Tanner. It was just a glancing blow, in an area removed from the original injury. There's no sign of second impact syndrome, but we are keeping a close eye on that, too, just in case."
"When can we see him?" Buck asked her, relief making him slightly lightheaded.
"Not until later today, I'm afraid. He'll be in recovery for another hour or so, and then we'll get him moved to our post-op ward. We're going to be running some tests for a while. If you can give us until one or so, we'll be able to accommodate you."
Chris nodded. "Oh, Dr. Ortiz at Denver Community saw Vin after his car accident."
Oba noted that on the chart she was carrying. "Thank you, I'll have Mr. Tanner's records transferred over here."
"They'll be listed under John Doe," Nathan told her. "Vin lost his memory in the accident."
The young woman's eyes widened slightly. "Okay, I'll pass that along to the neurologist." She stood. "He's in good hands, gentlemen," she promised. "Get some rest. You all look like you could use it. I can have someone take a look at that leg if you'd like?"
"No, thanks," Chris replied. "I just need to rest it some." He stood and shook her hand. "We appreciate all your help, Doctor."
She smiled understandingly, then headed back to call Ortiz.
That afternoon, the team walked into Summit two minutes before one, all still looking tired and haggard. Chris' limp was more pronounced and he leaned heavily on the cane as he proceeded slowly with small, shuffling steps.
After checking with an older man who was volunteering at the information desk to get a room number, the agents crossed the lobby to the elevators and rode up to the fifth floor. Stepping out into the hallway, JD checked the numbers and led them to Vin's room.
Stepping inside, the six men paused. Vin lay in a small bed, the guardrails pulled up. Two IVs hung on a single pole, dripping fluids into the back of his left hand. His head sported a new, smaller bandage in addition to another one that was partly visible on his side. The man's skin was pale and damp, accentuating the dark circles under his eyes. A nasal cannula delivered oxygen to the unconscious man.
"Maybe we should come back later," JD whispered.
Chris shook his head. "I'm waiting right here."
A half-hour later Dr. Oba arrived to check on Vin's progress. She smiled at the six men scattered around the room. "Good afternoon," she greeted. "He had a good morning. No complications."
Nathan smiled, the news cheering him. "Has he woken up?"
"Not yet," the doctor said, checking the chart where the floor nurses had recorded Vin's vital signs. She made a note on the chart she was carrying, then set it on the bedside table and picked up the neurologist's chart, reading the notes there.
Chris had read both documents earlier, but he couldn't make heads or tails out of the information, most of which appeared to be written in some kind of physician's code. Even Nathan hadn't been able to tell him much.
"Well, everything looks as good as we could expect."
"What does that mean?" Chris asked, his temper still a little frayed.
Oba smiled. "That he's doing very well." She turned back to Vin. "Mr. Tanner?" she said. When he didn't respond, she reached out, squeezing his right hand. "Mr. Tanner, can you hear me?"
The dark eyelashes fluttered and Vin's eyes opened. He blinked owlishly as his vision slowly cleared.
"Hello. I'm Janique Oba, your doctor. How're you feeling? Any pain?"
"M' head hurts," Vin said, his voice thick and slightly slurred.
Reaching for a glass of water sitting on the nightstand, she bent the straw over and held it up to his lips. He took three swallows.
"You're welcome. Your head hurts?"
Vin nodded slightly.
"Any other pain?"
"M' side," he replied. "A little."
"All right, are you having any trouble breathing?"
"How many fingers?" she asked, holding up two.
"Two. C'n see just fine, Doc."
Vin hesitated a moment, then said, "Don't think so."
"Well, we'll be keeping you here for a few days, just to make sure everything's fine. If your chest starts to hurt too much, just press this button," she explained. "That will release a painkiller into your IV."
Vin stared at the button, then reached out and pressed it once.
"And if you start having any trouble breathing, I want you to call for a nurse, okay?"
"Okay," he echoed back, already feeling the medication beginning to erase the pain in his side. His head still pounded, but he didn't care as much about that either.
"You feel up for some visitors?" Oba asked him.
Before Vin could reply, Chris and the others moved closer to the bedside.
"Hey, Vin," Larabee said, trying to smile, but his anxiety made it impossible.
Vin stared up at Chris, then looked at each of the other men in turn, but there was no recognition in his eyes. "Don't know these guys," he muttered dismissively, wishing everyone would just go away so he could go back to sleep.
"Yes, you do, son," Josiah corrected him. "You just don't remember."
"Want t' be alone," Tanner told them, closing his eyes. "'M tired."
Chris' expression turned hard. "Fine. We'll come back in to see you later."
"Whatever," was the mumbled reply.
Oba watched the men leave, and then looked back at Vin, her expression concerned. "You want to talk about it?"
"All right," she said, making a mental note to have one of the psychologists drop in on the man later in the day. "But you should know that they were here most of last night, waiting to hear how you were. It took a real effort to get them to go home and get some rest. And they were back first thing this afternoon. You might not remember them, but they know you, and they care about you - a lot."
Vin cracked his eyes, watching as the woman left, and sighed. He felt a connection to the men, but it had no foundation in his memory. He couldn't even recall their names. And, as much as he wanted to know more about himself, he wasn't ready to let anyone inside his defenses. Not yet. Maybe not ever, he thought as sleep finally claimed him again.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin was released on the promise that Chris would take him home and make sure his recuperation proceeded smoothly. Tanner protested, but Dr. Oba and his neurologist, Dr. Carlson, were adamant. He gave in to escape the mind-numbing routine of the hospital, but he still didn't know who the six men were, or where he was, and that made him nervous and irritable.
After a few days at Larabee's ranch, Vin was sullen and withdrawn, only opening up to the psychologist he was required to visit three times a week. Dr. Milton Davidson was an older man who looked like he'd be more comfortable living in a log cabin somewhere in the woods rather than sitting behind a desk all day.
Davidson had a low key approach that put his patients at ease and made talking easier. Vin was no exception. And Tanner did talk, telling the psychologist about the confusion, the fear, and the embarrassment he felt, living with Larabee, but not remembering anything about their shared past together.
Milt told Vin on each visit that amnesia was an uncommon reaction to an accident, beyond the permanent loss of short term memories around the time of the incident. But, almost a month after he had left the hospital, Vin appeared no closer to remembering his past than he had been right after the accident, and that suggested something else - something psychological - that was getting in the way of his recovery.
At first Vin resented the diagnosis, proclaiming in no uncertain terms that he "wasn't crazy."
But, after a while, even the stubborn sniper had to admit that something wasn't right. And he finally gave in and answered all of Davidson's questions.
They talked at great length, trying to uncover what might be keeping Vin's memory from returning, but nothing conclusive rose to the surface.
Hoping that a steady diet of normalcy would eventually begin to erode the problem, Davidson encouraged Vin to resume his ordinary life, to the extent that was possible. Tanner agreed, but he wasn't particularly happy about it. And he was especially unhappy about returning to work.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
After a long day looking for Larry "The Bug" Deever's boss, the drive back to the ranch was made in silence. Chris had given up pointing out familiar landmarks to Vin when the man's only response was a nod or a grunt. He had heard it all before, and it obviously wasn't helping in the slightest.
When they reached the ranch and changed, Larabee encouraged Vin to wander through the rooms - again. He wondered briefly if Davidson had put Chris up to the refresher course, but it didn't really matter who had thought up the tests; the bottom line was it wasn't working.
He only agreed to the demand to get Larabee off his back, but his examination was lackadaisical at best.
Back in the living room he asked the blond, "How much time did I spend out here, anyway?"
"Enough for the rest of the team to call the guest room your room," Chris told him. "You keep your horse out here, too."
"Guess we knew each other pretty good, huh?" Vin commented, curiosity getting the upper hand for once.
"Yeah, you could say that," Chris replied, but the hopeful edge to his voice rubbed Vin's already strained nerves raw.
"Just how long have we known each other?"
"Not as long as you might think," Chris said softly, sitting down on the second sofa so he gave Vin some space. "You were working with the US Marshals when we met. I was in the process of putting Team Seven together and I asked you to come on board. It's been a little over two years now."
Tanner's eyes widened. He didn't remember a single thing about his friendship with Larabee. Two years? That's all? Damn, they act like they've known me all m' life!
Chris didn't look up at Vin as he added, "It might not sound like much, but we're close, Vin, we're all close."
He turned away. "I'm kinda tired. Think I'll go take a nap."
"Okay," Larabee said, defeat ringing in the single word. He stood and walked out of the room, leaving Vin alone.
The man's sagging shoulders told the sniper Chris Larabee was slowly but surely giving up on him. 'Bout time... But why does it scare me? he wondered as he pulled off his shoes and stretched out on the sofa. But sleep refused to come.
He could lie there, staring at the ceiling, or he could do... something. On impulse, he stood and pulled his tennis shoes back on, lacing them up and heading outside to the barn. Peso was supposed to be his horse, so the least he could do was brush the animal.
He stopped just outside the doors to the barn when he heard Larabee's voice inside.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"...I don't know if I can take much more of this," Larabee said quietly, his eyes bright. Sitting on a bale of hay, the blond shook his head as he said into his cell phone, "He's not even trying any more."
"I'm sure he's trying, Chris," Josiah assured him. "But the doctor said it might take some time. There's some reason why Vin doesn't want to remember."
"It's been five weeks," Larabee said and sighed. "Five weeks, Josiah. Why wouldn't he want to remember? It's not like he's had a bad life with us. We're best friends, for Christ's sake. I know Vin better than I know myself most of the time. But this guy's not Vin; I don't know who the hell he is. And, to be honest, I'm getting tired of living with him."
"We just have to give him some time," Josiah argued. "He'll come around; I know he will."
"I don't know how much I have left to give," Chris replied tiredly.
Vin felt like he'd been punched in the gut. I've let him down, he thought. I do that a lot.
He stopped and turned that idea over in his mind. I do that a lot, he silently repeated. Why does he put up with me?
There was no answer to that question.
Well, there's something I c'n do about it, Vin concluded.
Larabee said, "Yeah, thanks, Josiah, I've gotta go," and slipped the cell phone into his pocket when Vin stepped into the barn.
Tanner shuffled uncomfortably from foot to foot, his gaze focused on the ground, then said, "Look, I, uh... I really appreciate what y' been doin' for me, but this just isn't workin', y' know?"
"It's too soon to give up, Vin," Chris said, sitting forward, his expression becoming worried and scared.
Tanner shook his head, the muscles in his jaw working. He hated to see that look on the man's face. "I don't seem t' be much help like this, so, uh, I think it'd be better if I went back t' my apartment."
The sniper cut him off, saying, "Maybe m' memory'll come back if I stop tryin' so hard t' remember."
Larabee nodded thoughtfully, having thought the same thing himself. "You might have a point. Some of the stuff I've read says memory recovery is aided when subjects stopped trying to remember; when they accepted their situation." He sighed. A part of him wanted to shoot the idea down, but another part was too tired to care. "You sure you want to go back to your apartment? Purgatorio's a dangerous place."
"Can't be too bad," Vin grumbled.
"Only you would say that. And the heat's out in your building. The apartment manager called me a couple of days ago. He said it won't be back on for another few days."
Tanner shrugged. "The weather's nice enough." His head came up, a challenging tilt to his chin. "It's m' home, right?"
"I don't like it," Chris admitted, folding his arms over his chest. He was getting mad, but he refused to let Vin see that. "I can't stop you, Vin. You can do whatever you think you have to."
Tanner nodded, his lips pursing briefly when he realized Larabee wasn't going to talk him out of it. He was going to let him go. Guess I wasn't much of a good friend even when I could remember. "Good," he said out loud. "I'll, uh, get m' stuff together."
"You don't even know what your stuff is," Chris said, his tone making Vin feel like he was five years old.
"Yer wrong," Tanner snapped back, his accent suddenly getting thicker. "Y' keep pointin' 'em out all the time."
When Chris didn't say anything, Vin turned and angrily stalked away.
Larabee sat in silence, watching Tanner go back to the house, disappearing inside. He pulled out his cell phone again, called Josiah, and told him what had just happened.
"Was that a good idea?" the profiler asked quietly. "Letting him go home alone?"
"What else could I do?" Larabee demanded, his tone sharp. "I can't lock him in the guest room."
Chris shook his head, the anger he felt slipping free. "It's his choice, Josiah. If he wants to bail out, that's his right."
"He's not himself," Josiah argued. "You can't expect him to act like Vin when he doesn't know who Vin is."
Chris pushed to his feet, his leg aching for the first time in several days. "I know he's not Vin," he snapped.
"I'm not so sure."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Larabee demanded, his free hand coming up to rest defensively on his hip.
"Just that you've been pushing him away, and I think he knows that."
The blond paced inside the barn, then dropped back onto the hay bale. "I don't know what it is," he said, his voice catching.
"Maybe you're just mad at him?"
Chris snorted and then laughed, the sound rough and half-wild. "Oh, yeah, I'm mad all right. He's acting like a- like a-"
Chris thought for a moment, then agreed. "Yeah."
"But he is a stranger. He can't remember."
"I know that, but it's Vin. He's-"
"Listen to yourself, Chris," Josiah interrupted him. "You're mad at Vin because he can't remember us - remember you. You're hurt, I understand that, but you're taking it out on him. It's a natural reaction, but-"
Green eyes widened. "I-" he interrupted, then dipped his head. "God, you're right," he sighed. "I'm being a damned idiot, aren't I."
"No, Josiah. No, it's not. He's my friend, and I want him to get better, but you're right; I can't expect him to act like himself when he doesn't know who that is." He paused, looking out at the mountains. "I guess it just feels like I lost him... And that..."
"Feels a little like it did when you lost your wife and son?" Josiah asked softly.
"More than I would've guessed, to be honest..."
"Maybe we should go talk to Dr. Davidson. He might know something we could do."
"Yeah, maybe so," Chris said, feeling helpless.
"It can't hurt," Josiah encouraged.
After a deep breath, Larabee nodded. "You're right. It can't hurt. We'll go. Call him, okay? Set up something as soon as you can."
A week later
Lying in his own bed, Vin drifted off to sleep. The dreams were waiting for him, just like they had been for the last six nights.
Chris and the others were key players in the nightly sagas, all of them getting hurt, dying, while Vin stood back and let it happen.
Sometimes they were in the city, sometimes in the mountains, but the men were always getting hurt, or killed, and it was always his fault.
Waking with a start, he sat up and rubbed a trembling hand across his face. Tanner sighed heavily and his stomach grumbled, but he was too tired to see what was left in his refrigerator. It wasn't a new story. Even when his stomach demanded attention, his head didn't feel hungry, so he had refused to eat. Over the past week he had lost nearly ten pounds.
He didn't care. He passed the time sitting on the roof of his building until the cold drove him back inside, or trying to sleep, or just sitting in his living room, staring at nothing. Images continued to assail him, but he made no efforts to sort through them any more.
He also refused to see Dr. Davidson again, even after Larabee had come by several times, asking him to do so.
Why don't they just leave me alone? he wondered. 'M worthless t' 'em.
He shook his head. Why did they keep stopping by, trying to talk him into coming back to the ranch?
Okay, so they're friends 'a Vin Tanner's, but who am I? Not that guy, not the man they knew, that's fer sure, he concluded.
He looked up at the ceiling. Am I ever gonna know who I am? he asked the fates, but there were no answers for him.
Sighing heavily again, he forced his eyes to close, hoping the dreams wouldn't find him again tonight.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day the weather turned even worse, going cold and damp. And then it snowed, and snowed, and snowed some more.
Four days into the deep freeze, the heat only working a little, Vin thought about going to the hotel, but he couldn't work up enough energy to gather a few belongings and get himself over to one. Instead, he lay in his bed, listening to the snow pelt the windows while he shivered and coughed.
How long had he been sick?
He couldn't remember. He sighed softly. Can't remember nothin'!
He coughed again, pain ripping through his lungs as it became harder and harder to breathe. And he was hot.
Another chill attacked his body, making him feel like his bones were caught in vices, and he moaned.
What's goin' on?
Some part of his mind registered the fact that he was sick and needed help, but there was no place to turn. Besides, getting help meant he had to move, and he definitely did not want to do that.
He tried closing his eyes, but another cough tore through his chest, curling him into a ball on his side.
Get up! some part of his mind commanded.
He groaned and curled tighter, tugging the blankets tighter around his shoulders. "Go away," he mumbled to the voice inside his head.
"Go away," he moaned louder.
Go t' the ranch - now!
Another cough, and this time he thought he tasted blood, but he didn't bother to check.
Chris'll help ya. Go t' the ranch!
Vin groaned, but sat up, unable to ignore the drill-sergeant style commands. His whole body was shaking, sweat dripping off his chin and onto the blankets.
"Larabee's not gonna help me," he said and sighed. "He hates me now."
He doesn't hate y', y' damn fool. He'll help y'. Move!
With a frustrated moan, Vin inched to the edge of the bed and weakly climbed out. He pulled on an extra layer of clothes, then his black leather jacket, and headed to the parking lot. He had been told his Jeep was totaled, but he still had a motorcycle. He didn't look forward to using it in this weather, but he had no other options.
A few minutes later, with a howling wind whipping snow against him, he climbed onto the bike. He cursed softly as he started the engine.
Get yer ass in gear, damn it!
Vin pulled on his helmet and maneuvered the bike out into the deserted street.
The ranch, get t' the ranch!
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin hit a patch of ice and nearly lost control of his motorcycle as he reached the turn off for Larabee's home. He managed to wrestle it back under control, pulling over and stopping when he reached the end of the driveway leading to the house.
Climbing stiffly off his bike, Vin started down the gravel road on foot, stumbling and wheezing his way toward the house. The lights were off, telling him that Larabee was already in bed.
Slipping where ice had formed under the fresh dusting of snow, Vin fell to his knees, the impact triggering another round of coughing that nearly drove him unconscious.
Get up! Get up, now!
With strength he didn't think he had, Vin managed to struggle to his feet and continued on toward the front door. He checked the knob, but it was locked, just like he knew it would be. But he had a key.
He fished in the pocket of his leather coat, pulling out his keys. But his fingers were numb, fumbling, and he dropped them.
His hands shaking, Tanner bent to pick up the keys, but the move triggered another round of coughing. He dropped to his knees, the force of the coughs making his stomach heave, but there was nothing there except a small amount of bile.
For a few moments it felt as though he were going to choke to death as he coughed and retched at the same time. He could feel the sweat dripping from his face and running into his eyes, making them sting.
"Chris," he gasped softly, his gaze lifting to the door knob, which seemed impossibly far away.
He sagged, leaning heavily against the wall and stared at the keys, lying just beyond his reach. "Can't," he rasped, shaking his head.
Yes, y' c'n! Come on! Move, damn it! Move!
Forcing his arm to rise, he reached for the keys, finally managing to fumble them into his palm. Then, wheezing terribly, he located Larabee's key, no longer caring how he knew it was the right one.
He looked up at the door knob again and knew he had to raise his arm in order to insert the key into the lock, but he was too weak. Still, he had to try.
His mouth open as he gulped for air, he forced his arm to lift. When he reached the knob, he tried to insert the key, but he was shaking so much he couldn't thread it in. Slumping back against the wall, he called, "Chris..." before another round of coughing tore at his lungs with fiery, sharp claws.
Call fer help! Call fer Chris!
Following the internal instructions, Vin called as loudly as he could, but he could hardly hear himself over the sound of the wind whipping through the pines near by. There was no way the blond could hear him.
"Chris," he wheezed again, pounding weakly against the door until darkness stole away his consciousness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Lying in his bed, Larabee stared up at the dark ceiling. With a sigh he turned over and forced his eyes closed, willing himself to sleep.
He rolled onto his back again and stared at the ceiling once more. After a minute he sat up with a frustrated huff. "Damn you, Vin," he whispered, shaking his head. What the hell was he going to do about that man?
Knowing he wouldn't be able to sleep until he at least called Tanner and made sure he was all right, Chris tossed the covers back and stood. Reaching for his clothes, he pulled on a pair of thick sweat pants and an equally thick sweat shirt. Socks and moccasins followed.
Dressed, Chris headed for his office where his cell phone was charging.
He stopped as soon as he stepped into the hallway and peered around, puzzled. Something wasn't right. Taking another step toward his office, he was forced to stop again.
"What the hell?" he muttered softly, frowning. "Vin?" he called. "Vin!" He started down the hallway, checking in the guest room, the bathroom, kitchen and, finally, the living room.
Larabee stood in the hallway, his hands on his hips. He could have sworn that he'd heard Tanner call his name, but there was no one there.
A soft thumping sound reached his ears and he turned, staring at the closed front door. "Vin?" he murmured as he lunged forward, twisting the deadbolts and yanking the door open.
He found the man curled up on his front porch beside the door. What sounded like a soft moan echoed out of the darkness, followed by an ominous-sounding cough that sounded more like the man had choked.
How did he get here? Larabee wondered as he hurried to the man. "Vin?"
The man didn't move or respond.
Squatting down next to his friend, Larabee could hear the wet, labored breathing. "What the hell've you done to yourself?" he asked, shaking the man's shoulder. "Come on, Tanner, wake up!"
"Huh?" was the answering wheeze.
"Come on, we have to get you inside."
"Can't... too tired."
"Yes, you can," Chris insisted, pulling his friend up so he was sitting back against the wall.
"Tried... can't," Vin argued, weakly trying to fend off the hands that were moving him.
"I'll help you," Larabee urged, standing and forcing Tanner to his feet. "Grab my arm."
Vin reached out, his fingers grabbing, but then slipping off the soft material.
"Grab my arms!"
Vin tried again, his numb fingers curling into the thick fabric this time.
"Now, move your feet!" Chris yelled, already starting to shiver from the cold.
Vin shuffled unsteadily forward, Chris pulled him along and, together, they made it into the house and then into the living room.
Larabee's eyes went wide when he finally saw Tanner in the light he turned on. "Shit," he hissed. "Don't move," he snapped, hurrying to the phone in the kitchen and calling 911, requesting an ambulance.
He rushed back to Tanner. "Vin!" he snapped, his hand pressed against the man's icy, almost white cheek. "I called for the paramedics," he said. "They should be here soon. Vin, can you hear me?" he called, as he checked the man for any injuries. "My God..." he breathed. "You're burning up."
Vin sucked in a shallow, rattling breath and tried to force his eyes open, but they steadfastly refused to comply.
"I'm gonna get a blanket," he heard Chris say. "Stay there."
Stay here? Where the hell was he going to go? He couldn't even open his eyes, let alone get up and walk out...
The blond hurried to the hallway closet, grabbing two spare blankets and taking them back to the living room. He gathered Vin up and maneuvered him around so he was propped up at the end of the sofa. "Hang in there, Cowboy," he said. "You're gonna get through this, I promise."
Glad you think so, was Tanner's unspoken reply.
Then, Larabee carefully undressed the sodden man and bundled him up the best he could in the blankets.
"Vin, are you having a hard time breathing?" Chris asked, watching the water dripping off the man's hair.
Vin managed to nod.
"Hang on, Vin, the paramedics will be here anytime. I'm gonna grab a towel."
Chris hurried to the bathroom, grabbing a towel and coming back to dry Tanner's hair as best he could. "Jesus. You've lost a lot of weight."
"Tired..." Tanner wheezed.
"You look like shit," Chris snapped, angry although he didn't know why.
The distant wail of a siren told Larabee help had arrived.
"Vin," he said, leaning close to the man's ear. "You listen to me. You die and so help me- Just don't, okay?"
Vin wished he could laugh, but he knew what would happen if he triggered another round of coughing. Chris... It felt like he was floating. Images drifted past, memories... good memories... memories of Chris and his other friends... And, for the first time since the car accident, he didn't feel alone and lost. He still couldn't string two coherent thoughts together, but he knew he wasn't alone, and for now, that was enough.
A couple of hours later
"Didn't we just do this?" Buck muttered as he sank back against the overstuffed chair in the hospital waiting room, watching Chris absently rub his leg. He leveled a concerned look on his friend. "You okay?" Larabee had called him on his cell phone as he had pulled out behind the ambulance and he, in turn, had called the others, who had now joined them at the hospital.
"It'll be fine," Larabee stated flatly.
Wilmington frowned, but there was nothing he could do. Chris hadn't said more than three words since he had explained to the ladies' man how he'd found Vin earlier that night. Buck had passed the story on to the others as they arrived.
Then they had settled into an uneasy silence while they waited to hear from the doctor. Josiah and Nathan were both reading. JD had managed to doze off. And Ezra was playing a game of solitaire, which left Buck with nothing to do but watch Larabee.
After an hour or so in the silence, Buck sighed and said, "I think this is some kind of a record."
"Oh?" Josiah mumbled, blinking sleepily as he looked up from the book he was holding.
"Yeah," the ladies' man replied. "As I figure it, Vin's been in three different hospitals in less than a month."
Ezra grinned thinly. "We will have to come up with an appropriate reward."
"Reward?" Larabee snapped.
Standish was about to reply when a young man walked in and asked, "Excuse me, are you waiting for Mr. Tanner?"
"Yeah," Chris said, his attention diverted from the undercover man. He stood.
"Dr. Sommers would like to see you in her office. If you'd just come with me?"
The agents rose and followed the man to an office where they were met by a middle-aged woman with grey-streaked, short brown hair and cinnamon-colored eyes.
"I'm Dr. Sommers," she greeted them, shaking hands with each of the men as they stepped into her office. She gestured for them to use the two available chairs while she walked around her desk and sat down.
The young man stepped inside, handing her a chart. "Thanks, Tim," she said with a smile. Opening the file, she said, without looking at it, "First the bad news. Mr. Tanner has one nasty case of pneumonia."
"Pneumonia?" Chris echoed, a sudden chill snaking down his back and pooling in his guts.
She flashed him a reassuring smile. "The good news is, he stabilized quickly, and he's already responding to the antibiotics we've put him on. However, he's running a high fever, which we're monitoring closely. I think he should be through the worst of it in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours."
Buck's cheeks puffed in relief. "Suppose we can't see him until tomorrow," he grumbled, annoyed by the usual hospital rules.
Dr. Sommers shook her head. "Nope. You can see him right now if you'd like. We have twenty-four hour visiting hours here at Summit, unless we just don't have room for you while we're doing procedures. In fact, there's a pull-out bed in his room if someone wants to stay with him tonight."
Buck's eyes widened. "You're kidding, right?"
"Not at all," she assured him.
"Can we all see him?" JD asked her hopefully.
"I don't see why not," Dr. Sommers replied. "The pull-out's only big enough for one, but if you'd all like to stay I'm sure we can come up with something to accommodate you."
Nathan beamed. "That's great. So many hospitals-"
"I don't think we all need to stay the night," Chris interrupted. "But if we could check in on him, that'd be great."
Dr. Sommers looked down, checking the chart. "He's in room 313. Turn right out of the elevators. It's toward the middle of the hall. He'll probably be here for a couple of days, but I wouldn't worry."
The men stood. "Thank you, Doctor," Larabee said, leaning forward to shake her hand again.
"You're quite welcome. I'll be by to check on him around midnight, then again in the morning."
The agents headed straight from the doctor's office to the elevators. On the third floor they turned right, but still managed to take the wrong hall. They backtracked and quickly found Vin's room.
Inside, the sniper was hooked to an IV and an oxygen cannula rested across his upper lip. The tableau was far too familiar, but there was something new, a soft scraping sound that accompanied each breath he took, although it sounded better to Larabee's ear than the earlier rattling, wheezes.
"Vin?" Chris said quietly as they reached the bedside.
Tanner's eyes blinked open, but they remained glazed and unfocused.
"Hey, Cowboy, how're you doing?"
Vin's head rolled to the side as he sought out the source of the voice. The sniper's face was damp with sweat, and when Chris reached out to grip the man's arm, he could feel the heat radiating off Vin's skin before he even touched him.
"Vin, you awake?"
The blue eyes slowly focused on Chris' face, and Tanner smiled weakly, saying, "Chris...?"
The blond felt his heart jump. There was something about the way he had said his name. Or maybe it was the familiar expression in the blue eyes. "Vin?"
"Guess 'm... pretty sick, huh?"
"Vin, do you know who I am?" Chris asked him, squeezing his friend's arm a little harder.
The man's forehead wrinkled. "Feel kinda funny..."
Larabee squeezed the man's arm again. "Don't worry about it," he said. "They're taking good care of you. You just work on getting better, okay?"
Vin closed his eyes. "'Kay... 'm tired..."
The disappointment was strong, but Chris let it go for now. "Get some rest," he told Vin. "Don't worry about anything, Cowboy," he added, his voice gentle with affection. "I'll be right here, okay?"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day Vin's fever peaked and broke. He slept for eighteen hours straight while Chris and the others took shifts, sitting with him and encouraging him to get well and wake up.
Almost twenty-four hours later, he did just that.
Vin groaned softly, his eyebrows arching as he pulled his eyelids open. Peering around the room, he found JD sitting in a chair, GameBoy in his lap.
"What're y' playin'?" he asked, his voice raspy.
JD's head snapped up. "Vin?"
The younger man nodded and tried to swallow. "Water?" he choked out.
"I'll get it," Dunne said, setting the game aside and standing. It took him a moment to locate a glass and fill it at the sink in the room. Carrying it back to the bed, he rummaged in the rolling bedside stand for a straw. He bent it over and held the glass for Vin, who took several sips before saying, "Thanks."
"No problem," was the immediate reply. "How're you feeling? How's your chest? Are you in any pain? What can you remember?"
Vin grinned slightly as he thought for a moment, then replied, "Pretty good... Sore... Not really... Some, I think."
JD beamed. "Really? That's great! Do you know who I am?"
Tanner thought for a second. "JD..."
The smile that split the young man's face was huge. "That's right! That's a great start!"
"Hope so," Vin sighed, then coughed. The grimace on Tanner's face, and the sudden loss of color in his cheeks, was sufficient to prompt JD to ring for the nurse.
A couple of hours later
"Vin, you awake?"
Blue eyes blinked open. "Chris?"
"How do you feel?" the blond asked, grabbing a chair and dragging it over to the bedside.
The sniper frowned. "Why's that the first question anyone 'round here asks me?"
"Hospital rule," Larabee offered with a straight face. "Any more memories come back?"
Vin shrugged. "Lots 'a violent stuff," he admitted, feeling slightly uncomfortable as he glanced away.
"You have to expect that, Vin. You were in the Army, worked as a bounty hunter, then in the US Marshal's Service. And now you're an ATF agent. You've seen a lot of violence."
"Come on, Vin, what's really wrong?" Chris prodded, leaning closer to the man. "Talk to me. You used to."
Vin rolled his head to the side so he could meet the man's troubled gaze.
Talk t' him, said the now-familiar voice inside his skull.
"Keep seein' times when y' get hurt - you 'n' the others."
Larabee frowned. "That's just gotta be dreams, Vin. We haven't been dinged up much."
"But when y' are, it's m' fault," Vin challenged.
The blond cocked his head to the side. "I don't know what you're seeing, Vin, but I can tell you, you've saved my life more times than I can count - the others, too. And we've saved your scrawny ass a few times too. There's never been a time when you were to blame for one of us getting hurt."
Vin's eyes narrowed. "What about-? What about-? Ah hell, I can't remember!"
"Dr. Davidson said that, sometimes, amnesia fades slower when the person has an unresolved issue they're grappling with."
"Must be one hell of 'n issue," Vin scoffed.
Chris stood, looking down at his friend as he said seriously, "Vin, I want you to listen, and listen good. The last case we worked involved a missing child, Alisa Poon, a four-year-old-"
"Asian girl," Vin finished. It felt as if the air had been sucked from his lungs and he blinked rapidly, gulping for air.
Larabee nodded. "Turned out she was one of five kids who had been abducted and-"
"Killed," Vin finished again, the images of the girl's body racing through his mind. He recognized them. "Tortured."
"Yeah," the blond replied softly. "But we didn't know that at the time. We were just looking for a man who was trading stolen guns for kids like Alisa."
"C-Carroll," Vin whispered, his gaze turning inward. "David Carroll."
"No, not David Carroll, Thomas Carroll. Thomas Carroll was the man who actually tortured those kids to death." Chris reached out and squeezed Vin's arm, bringing him back from the morass of memories that were rapidly bubbling to the surface. "Thomas was David's twin."
Vin blinked, tears welling in his eyes as he remembered the child and her family's reaction. "He shot ya."
Larabee nodded. "We found out where Thomas Carroll was supposed to be staying. We went to bring him in."
"I left m' position!" Vin said, remembering.
Another nod. "When we got there, we found Carroll had already swapped a crate of handguns for another child, a little Mexican girl."
Vin nodded, the events playing out like a movie in his mind.
"You did what you had to in order to get Carroll. If you hadn't, God only knows how many more children might have died."
"And y' got shot," Tanner said softly.
"I'm fine," Chris added, meeting the man's guileless gaze. "Like I told you the day of the shooting, you did the right thing."
"But y' got hurt," he argued.
Larabee's tone was threatening, but Vin knew the man didn't mean it. He smiled thinly. "Guess it just comes down t' the fact 'm afraid 'm gonna get y' hurt," he muttered. "You or one of the others. 'M gonna make a mistake out there 'n' one of y' are gonna pay the price."
Chris thought for a moment and then said, "Vin, I can't promise that what you're saying will never happen. Hell, for that matter I can't say I won't make a mistake and get one of you hurt. But I can tell you this. We're a good team - the best. We work well together, and I think we're better together than we are apart. In this line of work, sometimes we have to play it by ear. And sometimes we have to take risks to get the job done. I trust you to take the right risks, Vin, and so do the rest of the boys."
Vin blinked rapidly, trying to control the emotions that battled for release.
"I'd be willing to bet you were worrying about the Carroll case when the accident happened."
"Don't remember, but Dr. Davidson said it was probably somethin' like that. Said m' subconscious thought it could keep y'all safe by keepin' me from rememberin' you."
"Well, it was wrong," Chris said softly. "We need you out there, watching our backs and backing us up."
Vin nodded again and Chris took a risk, leaning over to give his best friend a hug. Tanner returned the gesture, holding on tighter than Larabee expected. "'M really sorry, Chris."
"Just get better so we can get back to work, and life."
Vin nodded. "'M sorry this was hard on ya."
"It was hard on all of us, but it's over," Chris said, stepping back when Vin's grip finally loosened.
Tanner looked up at the blond, his expression thoughtful. "I guess I just got caught behind them walls."
Vin smiled tiredly. "Walls in m' head. Built 'em up when I was a kid. Used t' be I could slip behind 'em and hide from... From whatever I wanted to."
"I guess we all do that," Chris replied softly.
"I guess. Y' ever get trapped there?"
"Not recently," the blond replied softly. "But after Sarah and Adma were killed... Had my own demons to fight to escape from behind those walls, Vin, believe me."
A small smile lifted the corners of the sniper's mouth. "Reckon we all do. Guess the trick's t' work 'em out with those who care 'bout us when we can, huh?"
Chris smiled and nodded, reaching out to rest his hand on Vin's shoulder. He squeezed, saying, "Never been more right. Look, I'm gonna go grab a cup of coffee, and when I get back, we're gonna talk. Really talk. You hear me?"
Vin nodded. "Think 'm ready," he said, then watched as Larabee walked to the door. "Chris?"
The blond paused in the doorway. "Yeah?"
"Thanks," he said softly.
Chris nodded, feeling his throat tighten. He'd come so close to giving up - they both had. Vin wasn't back yet, but he was on the right road now, and that was all that mattered. The rest would work itself out. "I'll be back in a minute," he promised.
Tanner nodded. "'Kay." When Larabee was gone, he closed his eyes. No, he wasn't alone any more.
A couple of days later
Vin stepped into Larabee's home and glanced around. What had seemed so strange, so foreign just a couple of weeks ago now hummed with familiarity. Stopping, he drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long, contented sigh. He was home - finally.
Continuing into the living room, he stopped again to gaze around the room. He remembered which chair he usually used, remembered who had bought what for whom, recognized the minor changes that had been made over the past month and a half. He smiled. He was almost back to normal. There were still occasional holes in his memory that he stumbled across, but they usually filled quickly when he stopped and concentrated.
The day of the car accident still remained a complete mystery, but that was perfectly normal according to Dr. Davidson, so he had stopped trying to recall the events that had led to the amnesia in the first place.
The team was still trying to determine who had been responsible for the hit and run. David Carroll categorically denied any involvement. Vin didn't expect that search to bear fruit. It could've been anyone, including a complete stranger who was drunk, or stoned, or just pissed off at the world.
Walking over to the sofa that faced the fireplace, he sat, enjoying the sensation of being home.
He closed his eyes, remembering how he had met the young woman who had stopped to help him after the car accident. Callie Brin was cute and perky, and she had been very embarrassed when he had spontaneously given her a hug and kiss. He wasn't sure the young State Patrol officer she was now dating had approved, but he didn't really care. He'd wanted to say thank you, so he had.
Tomorrow he planned to go see if he could find Stacy so he could thank her for all her help. Dr. Davidson thought the alcohol she'd given him might have been one reason his memories hadn't returned more quickly, but she couldn't have known the risks. And she'd saved his butt when he needed help most.
Leaning back against the cushions, he listened as Buck and JD came in carrying groceries that they took straight to the kitchen. A few moments later Josiah and Nathan came in with sodas and more food. Ezra was the last to arrive, and he wasn't carrying anything, which, Vin knew, was not unusual.
Vin closed his eyes, letting the waves of ordinariness wash over him. God, it felt good. Tomorrow he knew he had to go get his Jeep. Chris had already warned him about the extent of the damage. He'd probably have to write it off and get a new one. Well, he decided, it was probably time. It was always breaking down, and the heater wasn't really able to chase off the cold any more. And it was a small price to pay for getting his life and his family back.
And then there was the Carroll arraignment.
Thinking about the brothers made Vin's skin crawl. Severely abused as children, the twins had ended up in several mental institutions, until federal funding had run out and they had been put out on the streets. David had plotted the abductions, but Thomas had carried them out, but not any more. Thomas was dead, and David in jail, where he would no doubt remain for the rest of his life.
He heard Chris come in and stop. The blond was looking at him, trying to determine if something was wrong. When he heard Larabee move closer, Vin opened his eyes and smiled at the man. "Good t' be home."
Chris nodded in reply. "I know what you mean," he said. "Good to feel like things are finally back to normal."
"Normal?" Vin questioned. "'Round here?"
"You've got a point," Chris mumbled, frowning slightly. Vin chuckled and he shook his head. "Normal doesn't go with the six of you."
The others joined them in the living room, Buck dropping onto the sofa next to Vin. "We're all stocked up," he said, then glanced at his watch. "Uh, Chris, I think it's about time."
"Time?" Vin asked suspiciously. "Time for what? Don't tell me the doctor sent a bunch 'a pills with y' for me t' take."
"Nope, nothing like that," JD assured him.
"Reservations," Josiah explained.
"Reservations?" Vin echoed.
"At Morton's," Ezra added.
The suspicious look on Vin's face deepened. "Since when do we go t' Morton's? I haven't forgotten everythin', y' know. What're y' guys up to?"
JD grinned. "Hey, that's good, Vin!"
Chris shook his head. "It's a celebration."
"You didn't hear me the first time?" Larabee growled.
"Jeeze, Vin, you're startin' to sound like a parrot," Buck complained as he stood and offered Tanner his hand.
Letting the ladies' man tug him to his feet, Tanner huffed, "Just tell me what the hell's goin' on."
"A party," Nathan supplied.
"Sorry," was the sniper's sheepish reply. "But-"
"Come on," Chris said. "You'll see when we get there."
Vin sighed and shook his head, but he went along.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
At the well-known LoDo steakhouse he wasn't all that surprised to find a bunch of people waiting for them: Raine, Nettie and Casey, Callie Brin and her new boyfriend, Captain Kathy Karon, and Stacy. He walked up to the waitress first, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"How are you?" she asked him, her serious expression not masking the twinkle in her eye.
"Fine," Vin said. "Rememberin' more every day, like all y' did for me."
She blushed. "It wasn't that much."
"Yes, it was," Chris said, stepping up to join the pair. "I wanted you to know how much we appreciate everything you did for Vin."
She nodded, blushing more before Nettie interrupted, giving Stacy an opportunity to escape.
"So, ya got your memory back, huh?" the older woman asked him.
"Most of it," Vin replied a little self-consciously.
"And me?" she asked him.
Chris shook his head, saying, "Nettie, you know Vin could never forget you."
Vin blushed. "Not for long, anyway." He gave her a hug. "Never for long."
Nettie smiled and patted his cheek, saying softly, "Glad to hear that, son - very glad." She moved off to make sure JD wasn't getting too fresh with Casey.
Vin watched her go. "Y' know, there are some things we should never forget," he said softly.
"I know what you mean," Chris said, resting his hand on Vin's shoulder and guiding him over to meet Kathy Karon.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Three hours later, dinner and the well-wishers had left Vin pleasantly tired and very content. Leaning back in his chair, he listened to the buzz of their conversations, but didn't pay any attention to any one in particular. The ring of a knife on a water glass broke through his reverie.
Chris stood, glancing around the table. "I just wanted to thank all of you for coming tonight," he said, then looked down at Vin, who was sitting next to him. "I think Vin would agree, it was a great welcome home."
Tanner nodded. "Absolutely, thank you." The guests applauded and he dipped his head to hide the stain of color on his cheeks.
"Vin, I just wanted to say... It's good to have you back, Cowboy. And I'm sorry I wasn't a better friend to you when you needed me."
Vin felt his eyes begin to burn. "Chris-" he said, but his voice caught. Pushing himself to his feet, he shook his head. "It was me," he said to their assembled friends. "I was tryin' t' make sure I didn't get hurt... by runnin' away from the people I cared about. But y' can't run from your friends. They always know where t' find ya. Can't run from home, 'cause it keeps pullin' y' back. Guess it comes down t' this: y' can't run from love, 'cause you're always carryin' it with ya, in your heart."
Larabee took a step, putting him face to face with his best friend. He could see Vin was embarrassed, and a little anxious, unsure what he was planning to do. But he trusted him.
The team and the others assembled watched the two friends as Chris reached out, grabbing Vin's shoulders and pulling him into a hug. "You mean more to me than I can say, Vin," he said quietly, for just Tanner's ears. "And nothing's ever going to change that."
Vin returned the hug, unshed tears stinging his eyes. "Y' got that right, Cowboy" he managed to push past his tight throat.
The onlookers erupted into spontaneous applause and the two agents stepped apart, laughing, both of their cheeks colored bright red.
"We must've looked pretty damn silly," Vin mumbled, but he refused to move from beside Larabee. He had finally made peace with himself.
"Who cares," was the unexpected reply. "That's what friends are for."
Vin's eyes met Chris' and he nodded, then added innocently, "Someone t' share the humiliation."
Larabee snorted and shook his head. "Damn ungrateful sniper," he muttered, sitting down.
Vin sat as well, blue eyes twinkling. Oh, yeah, he was home...
Author's Second Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #9, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace and Michelle Fortado is the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang - Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 3-12-2007. Art by Shiloh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
1 Served Cold by Erica
2 "Victim of Circumstance," by Erica Michaels.