+ + + + + + +
Josiah couldn't drive fast enough. There was a raw fear in Nathan's voice that he'd never heard before. And if that wasn't enough, he couldn't wait another minute to lay his eyes on Vin. He was still in shock that their friend had ended up at the ranch. How had he made it there? Had O'Connor harbored Vin at a place nearby? Could he have been that stupid?
No. More than likely, if Vin was imprisoned in the general vicinity of the Larabee ranch, it was because O'Connor planned it that way. There was a reason for every move the man made - even if it was a sick, twisted, evil reason.
How had Nathan put it? Something about seeing O'Connor in Vin? Josiah's mind went back to that first day when Vin returned to the office. He'd had a similar experience where it seemed the madman was looking at him through Vin.
It wasn't impossible. Josiah had an open mind to many diverse ideas, including demonic possession. But he didn't want to believe it. Vin had been through enough; they'd all been through enough.
He was surprised to see Nathan outside when he pulled into the driveway. The man was pacing in the darkness in front of the Larabee home, his hands in his pockets. Josiah had expected to him to be glued to Vin's side.
"Nathan?" he asked as he stepped from his vehicle.
"Come on," was the only response he got, and he didn't push for more as he followed his friend inside.
He sucked in a breath when he finally got a look at Vin. Until that moment, he wasn't at all sure that he hadn't dreamed Nathan's initial call that Vin had been found. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he indulged his need to touch his lost friend. "Welcome back, Vin," he said softly, his big hand caressing one bare shoulder.
He held his breath as Vin opened his eyes, uncertain what he would see. But there was no foreign entity there, no evil presence - only confusion and hurt.
Vin opened his mouth to speak, and Josiah thought he was going to say his name, but instead the sick man called for his best friend, "Chris? Chris!"
Like a shot, Chris was out of the chair and sitting on the side of the bed opposite Josiah.
"You promised," Vin whispered harshly, clearly angry, though Josiah couldn't begin to fathom why.
"I know," Chris replied, turning a deadly glare at Nathan.
"I did it, Vin," Nathan spoke up from over Josiah's shoulder. "I called him here and I'm not sorry. We need help. You need help. And if Mohammed won't go to the mountain . . ."
"Go away," Vin moaned. "I can't . . . too many voices . . . please, leave me alone."
"It's alright. I'll send them home," Chris soothed.
Vin's eyes glazed over and his voice sounded far away when he spoke again. "He wants me to do it. He knows, Chris. He knows where you keep them. The knives, too."
All color drained from Chris's face as he turned and ran from the room.
Josiah followed him into the master bedroom, watching as Chris opened his safe and pulled out a gun. The blond turned and handed it to him before heading for the living room. Once there, he took a key from his desk and opened a cabinet, revealing another revolver, which he also handed over.
"Take the knives from the kitchen. Scissors, too - and anything else that anyone could harm themselves with," Chris instructed tersely.
"That anyone could harm themselves with? Or that Vin could harm himself with?"
"You know what I mean. Just do it. Then get out."
"Has he tried already?" Josiah asked gently. When Chris didn't answer, he went on. "He has, hasn't he? For God's sake, Chris, you don't have to fight this alone."
"Yes, we do. It's our battle, mine and Vin's. Has been from the start."
"And maybe that's why you haven't won it yet!" Josiah snapped angrily, frustrated at Larabee's stubbornness.
"It has nothing to do with the rest of you."
"Like hell it doesn't! We're all involved now. Every one of us has had premonitions, feelings, nightmares. Don't you understand? There's a reason for that. We have to fight this one together, Chris."
He saw Chris weaken momentarily, but his resolve quickly returned. "That's not how Vin wants it. And I have to respect that, Josiah. He suffered through hell because of me. We're doing it his way."
"He doesn't know what he's saying, Chris. Hell, we're not even sure it's him saying it."
"What? What is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing," Josiah backed off. Apparently Nathan hadn't shared his ghostly experience with Chris and maybe that was for the best. Chris didn't need any more to worry about at the moment. He tried another angle, "But you said it yourself, he's been through hell. Do you really think he's in the right frame of mind to be calling the shots right now?"
Chris stewed on that a minute before answering. "No. But I gave him my word and I won't go back on that."
"Fine. We'll stay out of the bedroom. As far as Vin is concerned, we're gone. But I'm not leaving this house and neither is Nathan. For your sake, as well as for Vin's, we're not leaving you alone with him."
"What the hell are you implying, Josiah? That Vin is a threat to me?"
Josiah held his gaze, but said nothing.
"That's ridiculous," Chris scoffed. "Vin would never hurt me."
"You're right," Josiah said slowly, "Vin wouldn't."
Chris swallowed and turned away. "Just . . . get rid of the guns," he tossed over his shoulder as he headed back into the bedroom.
Josiah locked the firearms in the trunk of his car, along with the knives, all the while trying to convince himself that it was an unnecessary precaution. In spite of his unspoken warning to Chris, he couldn't believe that Vin would truly attempt to hurt himself - or anyone else. But, he reminded himself, the man lying on the bed in Chris's spare bedroom wasn't the Vin they knew.
By the time he came back into the house, Nathan was sitting on the couch with his head in his hands.
"Nathan? You alright?"
Jackson shook his head. "No." He looked up at Josiah and added, "Never been so spooked in my life, Josiah."
Taking a seat across from him, Josiah prodded, "Tell me what happened."
"I don't know. One minute he was asleep, and the next . . ." Nathan paused and sighed before continuing. "The next he was awake. Only it wasn't him, wasn't Vin I saw in those eyes. Does that sound crazy?"
"No, actually it doesn't. Did he say anything?"
"Yeah. And his voice sounded wrong, too. He said, he said I couldn't save him."
"I don't understand."
"The voice said, 'He's mine. You can't save him.' What do you think it means, Josiah? What's going on?"
Josiah tried to choose his words carefully, in part because he didn't want to further upset Nathan, but mostly because he really didn't know the answer. "I think . . . I think anything is possible. But right now, we can only go with what we know. O'Connor held Vin captive for at least two days, and he was drugging him and putting thoughts in his head well before that. And we can only speculate what Vin went through to get back to us."
"That doesn't explain what I saw - or what Vin is seeing."
"O'Connor is still very much alive in Vin's mind. Maybe what you witnessed was just a projection of what Vin was seeing and hearing at the time."
Nathan frowned. "You really believe that? You think the devil is really gone?"
"No, I don't think he's gone at all. As long as Vin perceives he's real, O'Connor remains a foe that we have to deal with. Does that make sense to you?"
"No. But nothing makes sense to me right now. And I know there's something more that Chris ain't saying. Something happened in that barn."
Josiah nodded. "I agree, but-"
He didn't get any further, because Buck came charging through the door at just that moment.
"What the hell is going on? Where's Vin? Where's Chris? Why didn't he call me? Wait a second; what are you doing here, Josiah? I thought only Nathan was coming. What in the hell is going on?"
That was the question of the day, and Josiah had the uncomfortable feeling that his teammates would be looking to him for the answer. He only wished he had one. In spite of what he'd told Nathan, he wasn't convinced that O'Connor's evil spirit wasn't a true force to be reckoned with. He knew a priest who would perform an exorcism, if it came to that. But Vin was so frail in mind and body, he wasn't certain the man could survive it.
But what exactly was an exorcism anyway, other than calling on God to cast out the demon? They could do that on their own, he thought. Every one of them had the ability to pray, and the seven of them together had proven unbeatable in the past. He just had to convince Chris that this battle couldn't be won by two men behind closed doors.
He'd better start praying now.
+ + + + + + +
"You can't just go barging in there, Buck. It's . . . things are . . . Chris is . . . and Vin . . ."
"What Nathan is trying to say is that Vin is resting and doesn't want company," Josiah explained tactfully.
Buck narrowed his eyes and growled, "And Chris is playing watchdog? That about right?"
"Something like that," Josiah replied.
"Well that's shit and you know it. We've all been searching for Vin for five fucking days and we can't even see for ourselves that he's alright? And how alright is he, anyway? Shouldn't he be in the ER right now?"
"Yes, he should be," Nathan agreed with a vigorous nod. "But it's . . . complicated."
"Yeah, I'm sure it is. And I'm going to uncomplicate it in about three seconds."
He heard Josiah warn him to stop, but he wasn't about to listen. He'd been eating himself up over Vin ever since he'd killed O'Connor, and he was through waiting. It had been agonizing. JD was on the verge of tears, Chris wasn't speaking to him, and he couldn't close his eyes without seeing O'Connor's head exploding or imagining Vin tied to a bed somewhere.
How did Vin get loose? How did he get to the ranch, of all places? And most importantly, what was Chris hiding? What secret was so important that he'd compromise Vin's health to keep it?
He took a breath as he approached the bedroom, reluctantly recognizing that going in like a bull in a china shop might backfire. The door was open just a crack, but it was enough for him to hear the softly spoken conversation going on inside.
"Are they gone? Are you sure? I hear voices . . ." Vin said, fear coloring the hoarse rasp.
"They won't be coming back in here. It's just you and me, Vin," Chris said, and Buck's eyebrows shot up at that.
A sound almost like a sob came next, and it tore at Buck's heart to hear it. But then Vin spoke again, "He won't leave me alone. Even when I'm sleepin'. He's says it should have been you."
"What do you mean? What should have been me?" Chris asked.
"Ian wanted you to kill him. He's mad that it was Buck. He says that wasn't the plan."
Buck felt like he was going to puke right there in the hallway. No wonder Chris was hiding Vin away. Their friend was still conversing with a dead man.
"O'Connor's mad because Buck sent him to hell, Vin."
A whispered response . . . "He won't let me go, Chris."
"Neither will I."
The anger that had fueled Buck since he'd heard Vin had been found dissipated in a heartbeat. Suddenly, he no longer wanted to go in that room and see his lost friend. How could he explain what he'd done and why? It was bad enough that Chris still harbored resentment over the incident, but with Vin's sick mind twisting the facts, Buck figured he didn't have a chance of explaining himself.
But more importantly, he knew it would be wrong to intrude on the imaginary battle taking place in that room for Vin's soul. Buck didn't believe in evil spirits, but what he believed didn't matter. Vin's perception was all that counted. He smiled grimly at the thought of anyone or any thing trying to steal Vin from Larabee's grasp. Wasn't gonna happen.
After carefully pulling the bedroom door all the way closed, Buck quietly made his way back down the hall to the living room. Josiah and Nathan both looked at him apprehensively, so he shrugged and reported, "I didn't go in. I heard them talking and . . . goddammit, what are we gonna do?"
"We're just going to have to wait and see what happens, Buck," Josiah replied.
"Wait and see? That's the best you can come up with? Vin's still sufferin' . . . he still believes that monster is after him. We can't let him live like that."
"It's going to take time and . . . prayer."
Buck looked at Josiah incredulously. "Time and prayer? Time and prayer! I don't know about you boys but I've been praying for five goddamn days and look what it got us!"
"It got us Vin back," Josiah answered softly.
"Did it? Cause what I heard sure didn't sound like the Vin Tanner I know," Buck argued. "I'm sick of prayer and time is up. Now Chris is in there hanging onto Vin for all he's worth, but we've gotta have a plan if that don't turn out to be enough. How bad is he hurt, Nathan? How long do you figure Chris can keep him holed up in that room?"
Nathan sighed and rubbed his temple like his head was about to split wide open, and Buck could surely empathize. "I don't know," Nathan finally replied. "None of his injuries are life-threatening. I got some fluids in him . . . antibiotics for the infection . . . that wrist needs attention soon or else he'll need surgery to set it . . . might need it anyway, having gone so long . . . I don't know when he ate last . . . I might have missed something . . . no labs, no x-rays, no CT scans . . ."
The man might have rambled on another ten minutes, but Buck didn't have the patience for that. "So the bottom line is, Vin probably isn't gonna die right away if we let him stay here for a day or two. That sound right?"
Immediately defensive, Nathan spouted, "Don't put that on me, Buck! I've said it before and I'll say it again . . ."
Buck mouthed the words along with Nathan . . . "I am not a doctor."
"Yeah, we got that the first one hundred times you said it," Buck muttered.
Josiah shot him a glare. "There's no reason to be rude, Buck. We're all tired and worried and doing the best we can in a difficult situation. Besides, it's not Vin's physical injuries that are most concerning - it's what is going on in his head? And what might he do about it?"
If Buck felt queasy before, he was downright nauseous at that comment. "What are you saying?" When Josiah refused to meet his eyes, his stomach rolled. "What happened before I got here? What don't I know?"
"We had to take precautions," Josiah said somberly. "Vin implied that he might . . . hurt himself."
Shit. They were in so far over their heads. They could make sure Vin got food and rest and all the medication Nathan thought he needed - but dealing with mental illness was something else entirely. This was more than Vin being afraid of a dead man - Josiah was talking about suicide. And if Vin killed himself, what would happen to Chris? Well, Buck knew exactly what would happen to Chris.
"Oh God," Buck groaned. "Your dream, Nathan, it hasn't happened yet."
"I know," Nathan said in a small voice.
"Yes it has."
It was Chris. He stood at the entryway to the living room, looking a good ten years older to Buck's eyes.
"What do you mean, Chris?" Josiah asked.
"I mean that it almost happened, in the barn. We got lucky and won that round."
Nathan breathed a deep sigh of relief, but Buck wasn't convinced. He didn't think Josiah was, either, judging by the scowl on his face. But they'd let Chris believe it, for now at least.
"How is he?" Nathan asked.
"He's asleep." Apparently just realizing that Buck was present, Chris turned and asked, "What are you doing here? Do any of you ever listen to a word I say?"
At the sound of a car approaching, Buck moved and peered out the window. "Obviously not, since Ezra just drove up. Probably has JD with him."
"God damn it," Chris growled. "Don't you all get it? This is the last thing Vin wants."
"But maybe it's the first thing Vin needs," Josiah argued.
"Not this time," Chris said, standing eye to eye with Josiah. "The more people around him, the worse it gets."
Buck was about to ask how much worse it could possibly get, when Ezra and JD stepped through the door. JD was wearing the turtleneck sweater his aunt had given him for his last birthday. The kid had stuffed the gift in the back of his closet, only taking it out after he'd been released from the hospital. Since then, Buck hadn't seen him without it - he probably wore it to bed - and in a way, he was glad. It was hard enough thinking about what O'Connor had nearly done without seeing the evidence of it.
JD tossed him a wary glance, not certain they should be there but aching for it, just like the rest of them. Buck wanted to smack Chris upside the head for not realizing just how much they all needed to see Vin for themselves.
But while JD stayed quiet, Ezra didn't. "Would anyone care to enlighten us as to what the hell is going on?" he asked, before anyone could utter a greeting - or a warning.
"That is exactly what I'd like to know," Chris snapped. "I said none of you were to come out here. I know you've all made a habit of barging into my home uninvited and normally I put up with it, but not this time. I want all of you out of here. Now."
A barrage of protests erupted from the men in the room, but it was Ezra who moved nose-to-nose with Chris and stated firmly, "I have come to see Vin and I'm not leaving until I do. Now unless you plan to physically toss us out on our collective rear-ends, I suggest you adjust your attitude and realign your thinking."
In spite of the gravity of the situation, Buck had to turn his head to hide a smile. This was more like it. Let Nathan wring his hands. Let Josiah rely on time and prayer. Ezra was ready for action, and Buck would be right behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Good Lord. He couldn't imagine what had come over him. Obviously lack of sleep and sustenance were taking their toll. Never in a million years would he dream of speaking to Chris Larabee in such a manner.
But Ezra had had enough.
For days, he'd replayed those moments outside of his apartment when O'Connor drove off with Vin. Hour after hour, he'd envisioned the look of confusion and betrayal on his friend's face, and one prayer, one plea had rolled continuously through his weary mind, "Give me the chance to make to it right."
He'd thought he was dreaming when Buck called and said Vin had turned up at the Larabee ranch. He was sure of it when Buck growled that Chris was keeping Vin there, and no one was to join them. That made absolutely no sense at all. Ezra had pinched himself several times since then, which was preferable, he supposed, to biting JD's head off. Buck had left their young partner under his watchful eye, though he sensed it was JD keeping him in line, rather than vice versa.
But after four hours had passed and they'd heard nothing, he'd had it. He loaded his teammate up in his car and sped for the ranch. And even though their leader's reaction to their presence was predictable, it still set Ezra off. As if they didn't have an equal right to see Vin for themselves.
Chris was staring a hole through him at that moment, but he hadn't responded to his statement. Dead silence filled the room until something changed in the blond's eyes. Might have been resignation, but it looked more like defeat, though Ezra took no joy in the victory.
"Fine," Chris gave in with a slow shake of his head. "When he wakes up, I'll tell him you're here. In the meantime, keep your voices down." He headed back towards the bedroom then, but he paused long enough to add, "Don't expect much. He's . . . confused. He doesn't trust anyone right now, including me."
As Chris walked away, Ezra turned to his colleagues. "Why do I get the feeling there is much more going on here than Vin being confused?"
Nathan looked at Josiah, who looked at Buck, who turned to Ezra and said with a heavy sigh, "Why don't we all sit down?"
He didn't know what he expected to hear, but it wasn't what came out over the next fifteen minutes of hushed conversation. Vin was confused, alright - and delusional, paranoid, and suicidal. Or - to hear Nathan's version - perhaps he wasn't Vin at all. JD was already as pale as the tasteless turtleneck he'd worn for going on three days, but he turned whiter than O'Connor's ghost at just the suggestion that the devil had somehow inhabited their friend's body.
It was rubbish, of course. Ezra didn't believe in evil spirits. And yes, the dreams were troubling and unexplainable, but they were a far cry from what Nathan was suggesting. Even so, he didn't argue when Josiah pulled out Chris's dusty Bible and did a bit of research. It couldn't hurt to cover all the bases.
It was well after midnight when the wind picked up and the rain started. Nathan had nodded off to sleep, practically sitting up, on one end of the sofa. JD had curled up on the floor by the fireplace, asleep as well. Josiah was mumbling scripture under his breath, his reading glasses continually sliding to the end of his nose. Ezra had to give the older man credit - he never seemed to run out of energy or fortitude. Buck paced between the living room and the kitchen, drinking an endless stream of coffee. But every once in awhile, he couldn't help himself, and he'd creep down the hall and stand outside the bedroom door to listen.
Ezra watched and waited, rehearsing the lines he'd say to Vin in his head. It wouldn't be enough. It would undoubtedly take a great deal of time and effort to earn back Vin's trust, but it would be well worth it. Despite their disparate lifestyles, he'd grown close to Vin; he liked him and respected him and he'd do anything to maintain their friendship.
He got his chance an hour later. Chris stepped into the room and merely nodded at Ezra, before turning back to the bedroom.
The storm was raging now, lights flickering, though JD and Nathan slept through it. Ezra tried to calm his squeamish stomach and rattled nerves, but a flash of lightening nearly made him jump out of his skin. It was ridiculous, he told himself. He was going to talk to his friend . . . not a demon, not a monster.
Vin didn't look at him when he entered the bedroom. His gaze seemed to be focused on something else in the far corner of the room. Chris was at the window, watching the storm, or pretending to - an attempt to give Ezra some privacy, without actually leaving the room.
Ezra cleared his throat as he took the chair at the bedside. "Hello, Vin," he said softly. It took all of his will power not to reach out and touch. He wasn't the touchy-feely type, but at that moment he wanted desperately to wrap his arms around the injured man and hold on.
Slowly, Vin turned his head, and perhaps unwittingly repeated the exact words he'd said to Ezra on that fateful night, "Ezra? Are you real?"
"Yes," Ezra replied, biting his lip as he felt moisture fill his eyes. "I'm real. And I'm sorry."
It wasn't what he'd rehearsed. It wasn't nearly enough. But he couldn't seem to think what to say. Words were always his strength, except for now, when it counted most.
Vin sighed. "It don't matter."
"It does matter," Ezra stated emphatically. "But I didn't have a choice that night. O'Connor tricked me. I swear to you, Vin, I would have done anything to help you, but . . ."
He'd lost him. Ezra watched as Vin's eyes glazed over, and he knew the voice his friend heard was no longer his.
Chris moved away from the window and sat on the opposite side of the bed. When Vin instinctively turned his head towards him, Chris said gently, "Try to stay with us, Pard. Ezra just wants to explain what happened that night-"
"I know what happened! I was there!" Vin shouted.
"But it's not what you think," Chris stated calmly. "O'Connor-"
"I know," Vin interrupted again. "It's all lies and dreams and fairy tales, right?" He turned back to Ezra then and said, "You're off the hook, Ezra. Go back to your townhouse, have some fancy wine and forget about it." He added under his breath, "It just don't matter."
Ezra stood and started to head out, but he couldn't leave it like that. O'Connor was not going to win this one. Turning back to Vin, he stated firmly, "It does matter. You matter, Vin. Give Mr. O'Connor a message for me: you don't belong to him. You belong to us, and we're not letting you go no matter what he says to you, no matter what he tries to make you do. You belong to us."
For a moment, the old Vin surfaced. The blue eyes filled with tears as he whispered, "Don't, Ezra. He'll kill you."
"Let him try," Ezra spouted, though his bravado waned a bit when a roll of thunder punctuated his statement. What should have been a schmaltzy Hallmark reunion was rapidly turning into a horror flick.
Any return comment Vin might have made was lost in a sudden shout from the living room. Ezra quickly identified the voice as Nathan's. The man was shouting at the top of his lungs, "No! Stop! No!"
And as he and Chris raced out of the room to see about the commotion, the thought entered his mind that perhaps he'd do well to peek over Josiah's shoulder - a few choice words of scripture might come in handy before the night was over.
+ + + + + + +
JD woke up to crashing thunder, flickering lights, and Nathan's screams. By the time he'd gotten his wits about him, all hell had broken loose. Josiah was on the couch, trying to shake Nathan awake while Buck stood behind him bellowing, "What the hell is going on?" Then Ezra and Chris raced into the room, both looking like they'd just battled the devil.
Maybe they had.
JD swallowed and reminded his nervous stomach to behave. All of his friends were talking over each other, just as the lights went completely out. That brought a brief moment of silence, followed by a mumbled curse, and then Buck's voice, "I'll find the flashlights and candles."
Of course, Josiah was well ahead of him. "Here's one to help you get started," he said, turning on the flashlight he apparently had next to him and handing it to Buck.
But instead of taking off for the kitchen, Buck shined the light on Nathan, who was seemingly awake, but still gasping for breath on the couch.
"What the hell happened, Nate?" Buck asked.
Nathan pulled his hands over his face and groaned. "The dream . . . it was so real. It was both of them this time -Vin and Chris - covered in blood. I couldn't stop it. I tried, but . . ."
"It's alright, Nathan," Josiah soothed, his hand firm on the other man's tense shoulder.
But Nathan shook his head. "No, it's not. It's not over," he moaned.
JD's stomach rolled once more. The antibiotics the doctor had given him didn't help; he hadn't really been able to eat since that terrible night. It was nerves, too, he knew that. All the stress of trying to find Vin. And now that they had found him, JD felt bad because he was the only one of them that didn't want to see him.
He knew Buck thought otherwise. Hell, Buck had apologized all over himself for not taking him along when he'd dumped him off at Ezra's place. But in truth, JD was glad that they'd been forbidden to come to the ranch - he'd only come along with Ezra because the thought of being alone was unbearable.
There was just no way to explain to Vin what had happened. JD knew Vin - or at least, the old Vin - wouldn't blame him for it. But it didn't change the fact that he was just fine while Vin had to save himself.
Of course, since they'd come and he'd heard about Vin, he dreaded talking to him even more. And talk about creepy . . . a raging storm, no electricity, Nathan still having nightmares, and a dead man telling Vin what to do. How much worse could it get? He had the terrible feeling he was about to find out.
"JD? You alright?" Josiah asked, stooping to the floor next to him.
"Yeah," he mumbled absently. He wasn't about to confess that he was scared again. O'Connor really was dead this time; he'd worn enough of the man's blood to prove it. But whether or not his spirit was still among them remained to be seen. And Nathan didn't have to have another dream to verify what JD was already sure of: it wasn't over.
He looked up as Buck tossed a flashlight and a few candles to Chris, who mumbled something unintelligible as he went back to the bedroom. Buck looked like he was about to head for the fireplace, probably to check up on him, too, when Chris let out a blood-curdling yell, "Vin!"
JD jumped to his feet and followed the trail of men to the back bedroom. By the time he got there, all he saw through the moving glow of flashlights was an open window and no sign of Chris or Vin anywhere.
"Shit!" Nathan suddenly cursed. "He tore out the IV."
"Well let's go find 'em!" Buck yelled, already half-way out the window.
"Hold on, Buck," Josiah ordered. "Let's think a minute."
"For God's sake, Josiah, ponder all you like, I'm going after Chris."
"I'm just saying, we need to divide up - we can cover more ground that way."
"How far could he go?" JD finally spoke, hating how fear made his voice tremble.
"Not far," Nathan answered. "There's no way he could go far." He said again, like he was trying to convince himself of the fact.
"Alright. Buck, you and I will take the back," Josiah said. "The rest of you take the front. Let's go."
JD's heart was pounding, just like in the dark basement of the theater. He didn't care if he was being a wimp; the last place he wanted to be was outside in a thunderstorm searching for his possibly possessed - or at the very least, mentally ill- teammate. O'Connor might be dead, but he'd messed with all of them in one way or another, and with every flash of lightening, JD was certain he witnessed the man's ghost laughing at their latest bizarre predicament. But the glow of his flashlight revealed something else - Chris running into the barn. "They're in the barn!" he called out to the other men.
By the time he, Ezra, and Nathan made it to the barn, it was already too late. Vin had a gun pointed at Chris's head. The flashlight Chris carried highlighted Vin like a spot light, and JD gasped when he saw how thin and banged up their friend was. Sweat pants hung low on his hips, but he wore nothing else, and he shivered in the chilly air. One splinted arm was limp at his side, the other dripping blood from where he'd pulled out the IV. But his aim was true and Chris was only a few feet from him.
"I thought you said you hid all the weapons," Ezra hissed to Nathan.
"I thought we had. We didn't know Chris kept a gun out here."
"Just go on," Chris calmly tossed in their direction. "I can handle him. Just leave us alone."
"I don't think so, Chris," Ezra responded. JD turned enough to see Ezra pull out his own gun, though he kept it lowered at his side.
"Go away!" Vin shouted. "Just leave me be! I have t' do this."
"I'm not leaving you, Vin. Not ever," Chris replied slowly as he inched closer.
Vin's voice wavered but the weapon did not. "He wants me to kill you, Chris. He wants us both t' die. Get out a here now!"
"Well that is not going to happen my friend," Ezra butted in. "None of us are leaving. I told you, you belong to us - not that freaky, screwed-up, dead bastard."
"Shut up!" Vin screamed, turning towards Ezra and firing off a shot before anyone had a chance to react.
JD yelled, "No!" while Nathan quickly dropped to the ground beside Ezra.
"It's nothing," Ezra gasped between gritted teeth.
"I told you! I told you!" Vin wailed. "He killed 'im! Oh God, I'm so sorry, Ezra."
"It's alright. It's not bad," Nathan spoke reassuringly as he examined the wound in Ezra's arm.
"Get him out of here," Chris snarled. "All of you . . . just go!"
JD swallowed as he tried to gather his thoughts but it was a hopeless task. He'd never make sense of the fact that Vin shot Ezra. Vin shot Ezra!
"JD," Nathan called to him in low voice, "Move Ezra to the corner and stay with him. Keep your light off."
Relieved to have some direction, JD did as he was told. He saw Nathan pick up Ezra's gun in one hand, while shining a light on Vin and Chris with the other.
"Now this has gone far enough, Vin," Nathan said. "I know you. You don't want this. Just give Chris the gun and let's go back inside."
JD cringed as he took in the troubled blue eyes of his distraught teammate. Vin was so scared - he probably had no idea where he was or what was happening. As freaked out as JD felt, he knew it had to be ten times worse for Vin.
Chris took a step closer and said very softly, "Vin-"
"What the hell is going on?" Buck yelled as he barged into the barn. "We heard a shot!"
Vin's eyes grew wild again and he tightened the grip on the weapon he aimed at Chris. "Go away! I'll kill him, I swear I will!"
"Oh shit," Buck breathed.
"Where did he get the gun?" Josiah whispered.
"Does it matter?" Buck snapped. "You're gonna have t' take him down, Nathan," he said in a low voice. "He doesn't know what he's doing."
No! JD thought. Not Vin, not after all he'd been through. There had to be another way. But he said nothing as he hovered quietly in the corner with Ezra.
"Don't any of you do anything stupid," Chris warned. "I can handle this. He won't hurt me."
JD saw tears stream from Vin's eyes when he groaned, "I don't know what's real . . ."
"I'm real. You know me, Pard."
But Vin shook his head. "I can't stop him."
"You can stop him, Vin. He can't overcome the seven of us joined with the power of the Lord," Josiah spoke calmly.
"Chris," Vin moaned. But though he kept his gaze on Chris, his eyes suddenly grew cold and he growled, "Stay away from me, Ian."
"For God's sake, Nathan - he thinks Chris is O'Connor. He's going to kill him!" Buck cried.
"No! No, he won't. Just let me talk to him!" Chris argued.
"Please, Vin, just put the gun down," Nathan begged.
"I can't! I can't take it anymore! I've gotta . . . I've gotta stop him."
"O'Connor has no power here, Vin. Let him go. Send him back to hell where he belongs. You can do it. Pray with me, Vin."
"Vin . . . it's alright, Pard. Don't listen to O'Connor. Don't listen to any of them. Just listen to me. We can work this out - you and me together."
"I don't know what's happening . . . I can't . . . think . . ."
"You've got t' take him down now, Nathan - before it's too late."
"No . . . no . . . I can't . . . God, Vin . . . please don't make me do this . . ."
"Give me the gun! I'll do it!"
"Shut up, Buck!" Chris yelled. "Don't hurt him . . . just leave him be. He won't hurt me."
JD remained rooted, helpless and horrified as his friends' voices swirled around him . . . "Damn it! Give me the gun, Nathan!" . . . "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" . . . "Don't hurt him! Listen to me, Vin, please" . . . "I'm sorry, Vin, I'm so sorry."
But one small voice, whisper soft in the raging storm, cut through them all, "Forgive me . . ."
Two shots rang out nearly simultaneously. JD gasped as Chris collapsed, bleeding from a wound to his head. Vin lay next to him, the wet, white bandages on his chest quickly staining red. Nathan fell to his knees and sobbed, while Buck and Josiah rushed to the fallen men.
"Call an ambulance," Ezra spoke softly beside him. "Call an ambulance, JD."
+ + + + + + +
There was a white, blinding light. But no angels and no Sarah or Adam to lead him home. What was he expecting? Hell was more likely his ultimate destination, although there was no fire, no heat, and no devil, either.
Or was there?
"We meet again, Chris."
O'Connor. So he was in hell after all.
"You should have made it easy on yourself and died the first time," O'Connor said with a wicked grin. "Made it easier on him, too."
Him? Vin, of course. Was Vin with him? He peered into the bright light, but only saw a tall thin shadow.
"Tell me, Chris, what would you do for him?"
Anything, Chris thought, though he refused to acknowledge O'Connor's existence by saying it. Vin had suffered because of him, and he could only pray that his friend was the one being greeted by Sarah and Adam at that moment.
"Anything? Would you sell your soul for him?"
Sure. Why not? His soul was worth nearly as much as his word . . . absolutely nothing.
"I'll leave him . . . for you," O'Connor promised. "He'll never see me, or hear me, again. But you will. Would you do it? Would you make that bargain? Would you truly do anything?"
"Anything . . ." Chris mumbled.
"What? What's that? You awake, Chris?"
Either he wasn't dead, or things had gone even more wrong in that barn then he thought possible, and Buck was in hell with him.
He groaned and opened his eyes. His head throbbed and his vision was bleary, but there was no mistaking the worried blue eyes peering down at him.
"Betcha feel like shit, huh?" Buck asked.
Worse, Chris thought. But who cared? How could Buck look at him like it mattered at all? Vin was dead. Nothing else mattered. Nothing except absolving Vin of the blame . . .
"He didn't mean t' do it," Chris rasped, the words catching in his parched throat.
Buck put a straw to his lips as he nodded. "We think you're right. Josiah swears he tried to pull back, but when Nathan took the shot . . ."
Chris swallowed the water and turned his head so Buck wouldn't see the tears that filled his eyes. He knew Vin would never hurt him. If only they'd let him handle it.
"You'd be dead, otherwise," Buck continued. "It was a glancing blow. Doc said you were real lucky. You're gonna have one hell of a headache for awhile, but you'll be out of here in a day or two."
"How long have I been out? Have you . . . have you made the arrangements?" He'd promised Vin he'd be buried next to Sarah and Adam.
"Huh? What arrangements?"
Chris bit his lip, but it didn't stop the tears from streaking down his cheeks. "For Vin," he choked.
"Aw, Chris," Buck said very softly as he hovered even closer. "Vin ain't dead. I should have told you that right off."
"He's not dead, Chris," Buck repeated emphatically. "He ain't good, but he's been holding on for thirty-six hours now. I'm thinking if you get yourself in there t' see him, he'll perk up real quick. You know how that thing is between you."
Yeah, that thing . . . that thing that apparently Buck still couldn't accept, considering how willing he seemed to be to put Vin down. Suddenly angry, Chris glared at his old friend. "You're awful damn quick t' throw Vin's life away, aren't you, Buck?"
"What?" Buck pulled on his mustache and sighed. "This ain't the time for this conversation, but I'll say it anyway. I did what I had to t' save JD's life and I'd do it again."
"I'm not talking about that. In the barn - you were going to kill him. You kept asking Nathan for the damn gun. What the hell is wrong with you?"
Buck shook his head. "I wasn't gonna kill him. I'm a better shot than Nathan. I could have taken him down without . . . well, it doesn't matter now. What's done is done and Nathan feels bad enough as it is."
Chris met his eyes and recognized the truth in his statement. It was time to let any hard feelings between him and Buck go; they had enough to deal with. And he really should have known better anyway. Buck had a heart of gold and he'd never intentionally hurt anyone - least of all Vin. If his friend was a little over-protective where JD was concerned, who was he to argue? The same could be said, and frequently was said, about him and Vin. He'd do anything . . .
Changing the subject, Chris asked, "Has he woken up yet? Has he . . . said anything?"
"No. We don't know anything yet," Buck replied, answering the unspoken question.
What would Vin be like if and when he came around? Delusional? Paranoid? Consumed with guilt? No matter what the reason, he'd shot both him and Ezra. How would Vin cope with that?
"He's alright. Pretty down, like the rest of us. We can't figure out what the dreams were for. Damn nightmare came true anyway. What was the point?"
Chris thought a moment before answering. "No, it didn't. Vin's not dead and neither am I."
"Well, there is that," Buck agreed with a small grin.
"Maybe it has nothing to do with predicting the future - or stopping it. Maybe the dreams were just meant to point out what Josiah said."
"Josiah said a lot of things. Which one are you referring to?"
"That we're freakishly linked. That we're more than teammates, even more than friends. All of us."
"Whoa. That's pretty deep - and pretty sentimental for you, Chris." Buck was grinning full out now.
Chris nodded slightly, but he couldn't find it in him to return the smile. Not until he knew where Vin stood, physically, emotionally . . . mentally.
"Take me to him," he demanded.
Linked or not, Buck knew him well enough not to argue. Apparently the medical staff did, too, since not one of them even attempted to stop him from leaving his room and entering Vin's.
He'd expected worse. In fact, in a lot of ways, Vin looked far better than he had that night at the ranch. His left arm was in a cast, and his chest and side were swathed in thick, white gauze. The various tubes were in place for oxygen and fluids and medications. But even though his skin was pale, the dark circles under his eyes were gone and he appeared to be resting comfortably . . . resting peacefully.
Yes, that was it. Vin finally appeared to be at peace.
"Good to see you up, Chris," Josiah spoke from where he sat near the window in Vin's room.
Chris hadn't even realized the other man was there, though he should have known his men wouldn't leave Vin alone. He nodded his response, and wished he hadn't. Felt like a damn knife was sticking in his skull.
"How'd you get Nathan out of here?" Buck asked Josiah.
"Didn't. Rain did," was Josiah's short reply.
"He's takin' it real hard, Nathan is," Buck said softly, and already Chris forgot the pain and nodded again.
"Damn," he moaned as that knife twisted once more.
"Let's do this later," Buck tried.
"Let's not," Chris replied, maneuvering the wheel chair as close to the bed as he could manage.
Apparently giving in, Buck lowered the side rail so Chris could lean in and touch his friend. That was all it took. He didn't have to open his mouth for Vin to open his eyes and turn his head towards him.
Chris could hear the grin in Buck's voice when he said, "Told ya! Perked right up!"
"Hey, Vin," Chris whispered, and it seemed so surreal that it suddenly occurred to him that he could be dreaming. Maybe Vin was really dead . . . or maybe he was still lost . . . maybe they'd never found him.
Sensing his unease, Buck gripped his shoulder as he stooped down and assured him. "It's alright, Chris. He's really here and he's going to be fine, you'll see."
"Chris?" Vin asked weakly, his gaze never leaving the blond's face. "What happened?"
Josiah appeared on the other side of the bed, his brows furrowed as he leaned in to Vin and asked gently, "What do you remember, Vin?"
His eyes still on Chris, Vin rasped, "Nothin'. What happened to your head, Chris?"
Taking a deep breath, Chris replied, "It was . . . an accident. It doesn't matter. Just rest now and we'll talk later."
Vin frowned as he attempted to raise up his broken arm. "Did I fall?"
Leaning forward over Chris, Buck asked, "What's the last thing you remember, Vin?"
Closing his eyes, Vin swallowed and replied, "The airport. The bust . . . we were going in together. What went wrong?"
"My God," Josiah breathed, literally taking the words from Chris's mouth.
"I . . . it wasn't," Chris stumbled, looking to Josiah for help.
Josiah subtly shook his head and mouthed, "Not now."
"We'll talk about it later," Chris repeated. "Rest now."
Still frowning, Vin sighed and closed his eyes. "Alright."
Was it possible? Could Vin really have blocked out the entire last week? Two weeks? Chris couldn't even begin to wrap his mind around what that meant.
Before he could say anything further, Buck was pushing his chair into the hall, with Josiah close behind.
"Well, damn. What do you think, Josiah?" Buck asked.
"I . . . I don't know. I mean, he's still pretty groggy. They didn't find any traces of residual drugs in his blood, so they've kept him doped up on morphine. Nathan made sure of that. Every time Vin so much as moans, Nathan's on it."
"Yeah but . . . to forget that far back? How is that possible?"
"I don't know, Buck. I just don't know," Josiah replied.
"It doesn't matter how or why," Chris said, finally finding his tongue. "The question is, what do we tell him? How much? And when?"
"Hell, Chris, Vin's face was plastered all over the news for the last week while we searched for him. There's no way we can keep this from him."
A new worry surfaced . . . "The shooting in the barn? Does the press know about that, too?" Chris asked, his heart in his throat. He could only imagine how that fiasco would translate in the headlines . . . Crazy ATF agent shoots own team . . .
Josiah laid a hand on his shoulder. "They know that Vin was stabbed, starved, and drugged. He's the victim here, and everyone knows it."
A nurse approached them then and broke up the conversation. "Mr. Larabee, the doctor needs to examine you in your room. And I need to change Mr. Tanner's dressings. You can come back in a bit," she said.
"Meet back in my room later on today," Chris instructed his men. They had to figure this out before Vin woke up and expected answers.
As Chris was pushed back to his room, the vision he had when he'd first awakened came back to him. O'Connor had offered to take his soul in exchange for Vin's. Maybe that was why Vin didn't remember anything - maybe O'Connor had kept his word and finally released Vin from his clutches.
The thought brought a tight grin to his lips. Chris had been waiting for his chance to battle the devil one-on-one.
Let him come.
+ + + + + + +
"What's the dosage on that morphine? I don't think it's strong enough."
"Really, Mr. Jackson, he's doing quite well. Try not to worry."
"Well? Look at the man! He's been moaning in his sleep for the past hour. And what about his temperature? Has it come down? Maybe the antibiotic needs to be changed."
The petite blonde nurse smiled, but Nathan wasn't fooled. She thought he was a pain in the ass, and she'd tell everyone at the desk that the minute she left the room.
He didn't care. Vin was in pain. He had to be. Nathan had seen his mangled wrist . . . he'd cleaned up the infected wound on his side . . . he'd put the damn bullet in his chest.
"I promise you, Mr. Jackson, your friend is in good hands. Please try to get some rest," the nurse said kindly as she turned and left the room.
Tears blurred Nathan's vision as he took the chair next to the bed and mumbled to himself, "You don't understand. He can't die."
No, Vin couldn't die. Because Nathan knew he could never, ever live with a friend's death on his hands. He should have given the gun to Buck. Why hadn't he?
Because he didn't trust Buck. Just like Buck didn't trust Chris with JD's life, he didn't trust Buck with Vin's. He knew now that that was unfair - that Buck would've taken Vin down with a much less severe injury than he himself had inflicted.
He should have given the damn gun to Buck.
But he didn't, and now Vin was . . . Vin was watching him.
"What's wrong, Nathan?"
Nathan had heard that Vin had awakened a few hours earlier, and that he'd spoken to the other men, but he didn't quite believe it. Maybe he was dreaming . . .
"Nathan? Is it Chris? Is he alright?"
Wiping away the stubborn tears, Nathan pulled himself together and moved closer to his friend in the bed. But the only words he could squeak out were, "He's fine."
Vin looked away like he was mulling that over, but he quickly turned back and asked with wide eyes, "Ezra? JD? They haven't been here, have they? Are they . . .? Did somethin' happen?"
"No. They're fine, too." He should put the man's mind at ease; he should just spit it out, even though Josiah had said not to volunteer anything just yet. Vin didn't need to deal with all of that right now. But Nathan couldn't bear the look of fear and worry in his injured friend's eyes, so he added, "I promise, Vin, everyone is okay."
Vin remained doubtful. "Am I dyin' then?"
Nathan shook his head. "No. You can't. I mean . . . you're doing okay . . . considering . . . and they say that . . . well, they think you're doin' real well . . . even though . . . well, it don't matter, I guess . . . I mean . . ." Oh hell, he might as well forget it. He wasn't going to get through this.
He wanted to look away, but it was impossible with Vin pinning that intense blue gaze on him. "Well then if everyone is alright, it can't be that bad - whatever it is that's got you so tore up inside."
The tears welled up again, and completely against his will, Nathan's eyes went to the bandage on Vin's chest.
He saw Vin track his line of sight, and knew immediately when the realization hit. Not a single word was exchanged, but he knew that Vin knew.
"You're a good man, Nate," Vin said softly. "And you'd never hurt another living soul less there was a damn good reason for it." He closed his eyes then and mumbled, "Reckon I'll sleep now."
It was as simple as that - for Vin. In fact, Nathan knew that as far as Vin was concerned, nothing more need be said.
But was it a damn good reason? Nathan didn't think so, but something Josiah said settled in his brain . . . "Vin wouldn't have wanted to live if he'd killed Chris." Truer words were never spoken.
Maybe he could have made a better shot . . . maybe if he'd had the right words, he wouldn't have had to shoot Vin at all. But it didn't happen that way, and maybe the best thing he could do for Vin was accept it and move on.
Forgiving himself would take longer, but for the first time in months, Nathan thought he might be able to sleep soundly again.
+ + + + + + +
"I don't wanna go in, Buck."
"What? Why not, JD?"
"I just don't want to, alright? You go in."
"JD, aside from the fact that you are an officer of the law, Vin just happens to be your teammate."
"I know that. But we got him back - sort of. And I don't see any point in going in that cabin. Let forensics handle it."
"The point is that Vin is our friend. And since he can't tell us what happened, we're going to tie up the loose ends for him . . . for all of us."
"You didn't seem so concerned about Vin being our friend the other night, Buck."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"You begged Nathan for the gun. Were you gonna blow Vin's head off like you did O'Connor's?"
That hurt. Buck knew JD was struggling with the events of the last week, but he didn't expect the kid to lash out at him.
"No, JD. I'll tell you what I told Chris . . . and Ezra . . . and Josiah and Nathan . . . all I was going to do was keep him from killing Chris. But this isn't about me. It's about you, ain't it? What are you feelin' guilty about?"
JD rolled his eyes. "Forget it. Let's go."
Fine, Buck thought. JD could figure it out on his own - he had bigger things to worry about. He crawled out of the car with a groan, ignoring the lingering aches and pains of too many days with too little sleep. Right now, all he wanted to do was put together one small piece of the puzzle regarding Vin's mysterious appearance at the ranch that fateful night.
A sheriff, having heard about Vin's ordeal, had called them after a hiker spotted the open door to a deserted cabin and what appeared to be a thin trail of blood. From what the sheriff found inside, he was certain that this was the place where Vin had been held captive. The cabin was a good eight miles from the ranch - a fact Buck had trouble reconciling with the condition he'd seen Vin in that night. It wasn't an easy hike, either, but somehow Vin had made it.
Made it back to Chris. Even if Vin's head wasn't tracking quite right, his heart knew where to go.
Buck noted that JD sighed in relief when they stepped through the door. Either the young man was expecting more gore - or more ghouls. But the cabin was mostly bare and non-descript. It was only when they spotted the objects lying on the table that JD paled a bit. A bloody piece of rope, still knotted around a broken bed post, sat near a sharp knife.
"Must be how he got free," Buck mumbled, thinking of Vin pulling so hard on the ropes that he snapped the wooden pole in half.
"And how he broke his wrist," JD said in a harsh whisper.
"You guys might want to see this," the sheriff said from the doorway to the bedroom.
Buck heard JD gasp softly as they entered the small room. The ropes were still there, lying on the blood and urine stained sheets. Melted candles were scattered about the room, but other than a small window, there was no other source of light or heat. Buck shuddered at the image of Vin tied to the bed in the chilly, dark room for days.
"We should have found him sooner," JD said bitterly. "Hell, what am I saying? We didn't find him at all. Vin found us. And you know why, Buck?"
"No, JD, tell me."
"Because you and I were too damn stupid to stay out of trouble. We knew it was gonna happen. We knew O'Connor was gonna grab me and we let it happen!"
"Yep. You're right. We knew O'Connor didn't go down with his ship. We knew he was gonna come back and take Vin out his bedroom window. We knew he was gonna whack me over the head in that basement. We knew he was gonna-"
"Stop it, Buck. You know what I'm talking about."
Buck softened his tone. "Yeah, I do. And you're right that we all had gut feelings and dreams that something bad was going to happen. But how could we have prevented it? What could we have done differently?"
"I don't know. Something."
Shaking his head, Buck replied, "Face it, Kid, what happened was gonna happen no matter how hard we tried t' stop it. Now instead of pointing fingers and hanging our heads about what's done and over with, how about if we deal with what's happening now? Vin's gonna need us - whether he ever remembers what happened or he don't. Chris, too."
"But what if . . . what if Vin still isn't . . . right?"
Oh. Suddenly Buck understood why JD didn't want to come to the cabin - and why he'd yet to visit Vin in the hospital. His young friend wasn't only feeling guilty about what had happened - he was scared of Vin.
"Then we'll stick by him till he is right. Ezra had the right idea - Vin belongs t' us. Hell, he's got Chris holding onto one arm and Ezra the other . . . Nathan fussin' over him and Josiah prayin' over him. O'Connor don't stand a chance."
"What about me and you?"
"Well, I reckon I'll have to keep on doing what I been doing - keeping the rest of you straight. And you just do what you do best, JD."
"Believe in us."
He saw something change in the kid's eyes and he knew he'd gotten his message across. JD might be unsure about a lot of things, but his faith in his friends never wavered.
Buck's didn't, either, but he knew Vin and Chris couldn't take much more. The dead man had best be through messing with his friends, or he'd be forced to resort to desperate measures. He had no idea what those measures would be, but he'd think of something.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was getting tired of coming up with suitable responses. Why did mere acquaintances and perfect strangers have the perverse need to share in another's misfortune? He had lost count of the number of nosy questions and comments that were aimed his way as a result of his minor injury.
His favorite response actually originated from Buck's mouth - that he'd "pissed off a ghost". But since that explanation only served to precipitate further inquiries, he'd adopted the more standard response, "injured in the line of duty" instead.
There was no way on God's good earth he was going to say that he was shot by his friend. That wasn't true anyway. Vin hadn't shot him. It was a lowdown, sneaky, conniving, evil, good for nothing, self-important, arrogant . . . oh dear Lord, he was starting to sound like Buck, even in his thoughts.
The only problem was that in acknowledging that O'Connor shot him, he'd had to subscribe to the theory that dead people could inhabit the bodies of live ones. And he really didn't believe that any more than he believed that Vin shot him. This was undoubtedly a mystery he'd spend the remainder of his life contemplating.
"Ezra? You coming?" Josiah asked, interrupting his musings.
"Yes, of course," he returned absently. He'd been standing in the hall outside Chris's room for several minutes apparently.
He hadn't spoken with Chris since he'd awakened, nor Vin. But he'd heard the news about Vin's convenient loss of memory, and he was anxious to hear how they were going to play this.
As he followed Josiah into the room, his eyes were immediately drawn to their team leader. Chris was pale and in obvious discomfort, but it was the overwhelming relief and gratitude in his eyes that made Ezra shift uncomfortably. They were likely to get that smarmy Hallmark moment yet, and he wasn't completely certain he could maintain his usual casual demeanor.
Chris's cool green gaze swept the room, taking in the five men, before he cleared his throat and began. "You all know that we got Vin back," he said, his voice quivering. But he quickly regained his composure and went on. "The doc says he's gonna recover, physically anyway. They don't know about his memory."
"Well let's just hope he never gets that back," Buck remarked. "He don't need to know the details."
"I don't agree with you, Buck. And neither does Dr. Mackenzie," Josiah said.
"Mackenzie is a goddamn quack!" Buck yelled.
Chris cringed, his aching head no doubt feeling the effects of Buck's booming voice, so Ezra cut in, "Gentlemen, might I suggest we keep our voices down in consideration of Mr. Larabee's recent injury?"
"Yeah, alright," Buck agreed guiltily. But he was quick to point out, "Vin did that to Chris. How do you think he's gonna feel when he finds out? And what about you, Ezra? Hell, we can argue that he accidentally shot Chris, but what are we gonna say about you?"
"We're going to tell him the truth - eventually. He was manipulated with mind-altering drugs and twisted lies, and he had no idea what he was doing," Chris stated.
"You really believe that?" JD asked quietly.
"What are you asking, JD?"
"Do you really believe that Vin was . . . that he wasn't . . . possessed by O'Connor?"
Ezra watched Chris carefully, curious as to what his reply would be. He saw something pass through the other man's eyes, though he wasn't certain what it was. Apparently their newly discovered "freakish links" only went so far.
"I don't know, JD," Chris finally spoke. "The last few months have taught me that there are a lot of things out there that defy explanation. What happened to Vin and I - what happened to all of you - can't be broken down into hard facts or clear logic. But as long as we have Vin back, it doesn't much matter to me."
"Alright. So what do we say to Vin when he asks?" Buck barged on ahead.
"We're going to wait a few days until he's stronger," Josiah answered. "Then Chris and I will talk to him. In the meantime, he thinks he was hurt at the airport bust. We're not asking you to lie, just be vague with your answers."
Nathan shook his head as he finally joined in the conversation. "Won't work. He already figured out that I . . . that I shot him," he said, choking on the words. "Vin's too intuitive for us to keep this from him for a few more days."
"We'll just have to do the best we can," Chris said wearily.
Ezra took the cue and hinted to his teammates, "Well, I'm on my way to see him now. Let's give Chris a chance to recuperate, as well."
"Take JD with you," Nathan instructed. "Vin's worried about the two of you - think he'd rest better if he saw with his own eyes that you're alright."
A 'deer in the headlights' best described JD's expression, but the young man swallowed and nodded. Ezra had to physically push him in the door, though, once they reached Vin's room.
Pausing at the foot of the bed, Ezra was pleasantly surprised at how much better Vin looked. With the exception of an IV, most of the medical paraphernalia had been removed. He was pale and thin, but all in all, their friend appeared to be in much better condition than he had that terrible night.
"See? There is nothing to worry about, JD," he whispered in the young man's ear.
Vin might have heard him, or merely sensed their presence, because he opened his eyes and focused on the two men standing awkwardly in his room. "Hey," he rasped with a thin smile.
"Hey back," JD answered softly.
"Glad t' see you two-"
The smile quickly turned to a frown, and Ezra knew that Vin had spotted their assorted injuries. He was a con man at heart, but he doubted even he had the skills to fool Vin. He'd do his best however . . .
"And we are delighted to see you, my friend," Ezra cut in.
"What the hell happened to you?" Vin asked, wincing as he shifted himself up in the bed a bit.
"Nothin'," JD responded at the same moment that Ezra replied, "Nothing of consequence, I assure you."
Narrowing his eyes, Vin replied, "Somebody cut your throat, JD. And you're wearin' a sling, Ezra. Don't look like nothin' t' me."
"It was an . . . accident," JD blurted.
Ezra barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
"An accident? Sort of like Chris's head?" Vin prompted, notably sarcastic.
JD nodded uncertainly, but Ezra didn't even attempt to salvage the situation when he saw the fire in the injured man's blue eyes.
"If you're just gonna stand there and lie t' me, you can go," Vin spouted.
Ezra sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was upset Vin further by continuing on with this deception, but it wasn't his place to tell him the facts. "Vin-"
"What day is it?" Vin interrupted.
"What day?" Ezra repeated.
"Uh, Tuesday," JD offered helpfully.
With a huff, Vin clarified, "What date?"
"The fifteenth," Ezra answered. The game was over - no use denying it.
"The fifteenth? Two weeks since the bust? I been lyin' in this bed for two weeks?"
This time, JD kept his mouth shut and looked at Ezra. But he had no response for that, either. He was not about to flat out lie to Vin, no matter what the others had agreed to.
When he didn't get an answer, Vin shook his head. "I didn't think so. I been hurt enough t' know what a fresh wound feels like. So are you gonna tell me what's goin' on or not?"
"Well . . . not," Ezra replied. "Chris would like that privilege and I am inclined to honor his wishes."
"Fine," Vin said, closing his eyes and leaning back against the pillows. "Then I'm inclined t' not have visitors right now."
"Alright," JD answered quietly, backing out of the room in obvious relief.
But Ezra couldn't leave it like that. He approached the bedside and offered softly, "We are not intentionally deceiving you, Vin. Matters are simply far too complicated for us to go into at the moment."
Yet even as he said that, he realized it wasn't true. When it all came down to it, it was really quite simple because there was only one thing that counted. "All that really matters is that we are going to recover and be a team once again."
Vin swallowed, and Ezra thought he spotted a tear forming in the corner of his eye, but his friend kept his eyes closed and he didn't respond.
After Ezra left the room, he nearly turned around and went back in. It seemed wrong to leave Vin lying there in obvious distress. But he had to admit that he certainly didn't want to be the one to tell his injured friend the bizarre tale of his latest misfortune. Hopefully Chris would fill up on pain medication and get himself in that room pronto.
In the meantime, Vin would undoubtedly imagine all kinds of horrid possibilities. Unfortunately, his imagination probably paled with reality. On second thought, perhaps he should suggest that Chris and Josiah wait a day . . . or two.
+ + + + + + +
Vin tried to squeeze the tears back in, but it wasn't working. He was just so damn frustrated. It was hard enough being hurt again - knowing he faced several more weeks of recovery again - but not knowing why was driving him crazy. Even worse, it appeared that at least half of his team was hurt as well, and no one would fill him in as to how or why or even when it all happened.
He wiped away the tears with his good hand, praying that Nathan wouldn't show up at just that moment. He couldn't bear up another minute under that load of guilt Nathan was carrying. He'd meant what he said - if Nathan shot him, he had a good reason for it, although he couldn't imagine what it was. An accident, maybe, but that wouldn't explain the knife wound on his side or the strange marks on his chest. It was purely a fluke that he found out about those. Two nurses were talking when they changed his dressing one day, apparently assuming he was asleep. One said something about the bullet hitting dead center where the knife wounds were. But then she added something crazy like, "But you can still see the 'N' if you look close."
What the hell did that mean? He thought about asking Nathan, but the man had yet to get out a coherent sentence in his presence, so he decided it would keep. There were bigger mysteries to solve. And the longer it went on - the longer his friends pulled long faces and avoided his eyes - the surer he was that whatever happened was too awful to contemplate.
So by the time Chris and Josiah came to his room the day after Ezra and JD's visit, Vin wasn't certain anymore that he wanted to know. Maybe there were worse things than not remembering. His gut really began to churn when he took a good look at his best friend. A bandage covered a good portion of the right side of the blond head, and it was obvious Chris was in pain. But it was the look of regret and foreboding in his eyes that nearly did Vin in.
What the hell had happened?
"Vin? You feel up to talking?" Josiah asked - looking and sounding like a man who was about to tell a kid he'd run over his puppy.
Goddamn . . .
For a moment, Vin considered saying, "No", but all the scenarios his brain had conjured up over the last few days had to be worse than the truth . . . had to be. So he nodded and pressed the button to raise the head of his bed up a little more.
Josiah maneuvered Chris's wheelchair closer to Vin, then pulled up the chair next to him. "This is going to be a lot to take in, Vin," he said, "so you just stop us whenever you need to ask questions."
Vin nodded again, and tried to focus on the calm voice of the older man rather than the colorless features of his best friend.
"It all started the week of the airport bust - or at least we think it did," Josiah began. "Actually, we're not entirely sure when it started."
Vin quirked a brow and Chris sighed, but both men kept silent as Josiah stumbled on. "The bust went well, but you began acting strangely. It wasn't until later that we found out why . . . but we'll get to that later."
"We'll get to that now," Vin interjected. "What do you mean I was actin' strange?"
"Paranoid, delusional . . . hearing things . . . seeing things . . ."
"Okay, I get it," Vin mumbled. "I was crazy. Go on."
Josiah did go on, hesitantly at first, but the natural story teller in him soon took over.
Vin found himself listening to it all like it was a story - something out of a novel or a movie everyone had seen but him. Every once in awhile, he'd look at Chris, but Larabee never looked back. Instead, his best friend sat hunched over in his chair, like it was too much effort or maybe too painful to hold his head up.
O'Connor. The name alone made Vin's head throb, his heart race, and his stomach turn. The moment the dreaded name left Josiah's lips, he knew he had a good reason to be apprehensive about all that had gone on while he'd mentally checked out. No wonder all of his friends were acting downright morose. Shit. O'Connor wasn't dead after all. Screwed . . . they were all screwed; he knew that before Josiah had gotten halfway through the details.
Although apparently the devil was dead now, thanks to Buck. That part of the story explained a whole hell of a lot as far as JD and Ezra were concerned. They probably had some ridiculous notion that part of his current condition was their fault. At least he could count on Buck to be reasonable about it all - and thank goodness Buck had enough sense to kill the bastard when he had the chance. Vin would have to thank him for that later.
"So, near as we can tell, you somehow got free at that cabin, and managed to work your way back to the ranch," Josiah continued.
And that was when Chris finally looked at him. The sadness in his eyes stole Vin's breath - and made him want to plead with Josiah to end it there.
But instead, Chris cleared his throat and finally spoke. "I'll never understand how you made it. I couldn't believe it when I saw you there, sitting in the corner of the barn. You had a gun - my gun. The one I keep in the barn?"
Yeah, he knew it well; had used it a time or two to scare off wolves. He nodded, though Chris had turned away.
"You were so . . . confused," Chris went on, his voice cracking like dry tinder. "You thought that O'Connor . . . he was still there, in your head. And he wanted you to . . . kill yourself."
Vin knew he should react to that - seemed like a man should remember that kind of desperation after all. But he didn't. And when Chris finally met his eyes again, Vin realized that that moment in the barn would haunt and hurt his friend far more than it ever would him.
He wished he could change it - wished he could bear some of that pain - but he couldn't. So he offered the only thing he could think of, "I'm sorry, Chris, for putting you through that."
Chris only shook his head while Josiah picked up the story from there. And by the time the older man got to the point where they were in the barn for the second time, Vin was numb. It just couldn't be real. It couldn't be. How could he not remember?
". . . and that's when you . . . you shot Ezra."
What? It took Vin a second to realize Josiah had stopped talking . . . and a few seconds after that to catch a hold of what he'd said.
"I shot Ezra?"
"Well, yes," Josiah hedged. "But you just winged him. And you couldn't help it. I mean, you didn't really know-"
"It wasn't your fault, Vin," Chris cut in, his eyes locked on Vin's. "You didn't know what you were doing. You have to believe that."
Vin did believe that, because he had no reason to think otherwise. Whatever cocktail O'Connor had pumped in his system this time had completely wasted his brain apparently. And the truth was, it was hard to feel guilty about something he didn't remember doing.
Unless . . . "Oh God," he groaned. "I did that to you, didn't I, Chris? I shot you in the head! I could have killed you! Hell, I tried t' kill you!"
"No, you didn't," Chris argued as he rose up from the chair and moved closer to the bed. "You tried to pull back, but Nathan shot you and the gun went off."
Pulling his brows together, Vin turned his gaze to Josiah. "That true, Josiah? Did I even have sense enough t' do that?"
"We think so, Vin. It all happened so fast."
Vin didn't miss the glare Larabee threw at Josiah. "You pulled back, Vin. That's the way it happened," Chris stated emphatically. "Even with O'Connor twisting your brain, you'd never hurt me."
No, he wouldn't. He could never hurt Chris, no matter what state of mind he was in. But then, he never would have believed he'd shoot Ezra, either, even if the man did tempt him something awful sometimes.
"Josiah? You mind if I talk to Vin alone?" Chris asked softly.
"Of course not," Josiah replied. "Just remember, Vin, we're here for you."
"Thanks, Josiah," Vin answered. "And Josiah? Tell the boys . . . tell 'em thanks for . . . for not giving up on me."
"Oh we could never do that, Vin. Like Ezra said, you belong to us."
Vin nodded. "But this time, it sounds like y'all walked through hell alongside me and Chris. And even if I never remember it, I'll always be grateful."
Emotion clouded the sky blue eyes as Josiah replied, "I'll tell them."
Turning back to Chris, Vin continued, "Don't tell me there's more."
For the first time, Chris almost smiled. "No . . . well, sort of. I just wanted you to know that some people . . . that the idea was tossed around . . . that it could be possible in theory . . ."
"Aw hell, Larabee, how much worse could it possibly be? Just say it."
Clearing his throat, Chris replied, "You might have been possessed. So to speak."
"It's possible. I mean, that would explain a lot of things . . . like your loss of memory."
"I don't believe in ghosts," Vin said with a frown.
Chris shrugged. "Neither did I - until O'Connor came back into our lives."
"But from what y' just said, I started acting weird long before O'Connor was dead."
"Yes, that's true. But you know as well as I do that he seemed to have some kind of unnatural power. He just wasn't a . . . normal man."
Vin snorted. Yeah, that was putting it mildly. "So you believe it? I mean, you really think he was . . . inside me?"
"I don't know, Vin. But I do know you don't have to worry about him coming back. You'll never be bothered by him again. You can count on it."
"We thought that before, Chris. What makes you so sure this time? How do you know he won't come back?"
"I just know."
"You just know?"
"I just know. Let it go, Vin."
"Uh-uh. I don't think so. How do you know? Why are you so sure?"
Chris looked at him, but remained silent.
"Goddamn it, Larabee - what did you do?"
"He offered me a deal that I couldn't refuse."
"O'Connor? Was that before or after he was dead?"
"Thought you didn't believe in ghosts, Vin?"
"Answer the question, Chris."
With a sly grin, Chris replied, "Oh, it was definitely after."
"I'm glad you find this amusing. So what was the deal? You sell your soul or somethin'?"
"Alright. He said he'd let you go in exchange for haunting me. Seemed like a pretty good deal to me."
"A good deal! Shit, Chris - why would you do that?"
"Why? Come on, Vin."
Vin shook his head. He already knew the answer anyway. Goddamn freaky link. Of course Chris would make that deal. He probably didn't give it two seconds of thought. Vin knew that because he would have done exactly the same thing for Chris.
"You were probably just dreaming anyway," Vin muttered, thinking out loud.
"Probably," Chris agreed.
"Ain't no such thing as ghosts . . . or demons . . ."
"I was not possessed - I was just drugged up."
"I'm sure that's it," Chris replied.
"I'll tell you something else, too, Chris - I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to be sorry for. Wipe that from your head right now."
"Yes, I do. I'm sorry that you all have to deal with this while I get off easy."
"I hardly call taking a bullet in the chest getting off easy, Vin."
"Hell, you know better than anybody that handling a few aches and pains is a hell of a lot easier than living with . . . memories."
"You're right. And that's exactly why your loss of memory is the only blessing to come out of this mess."
"I don't know. Seems t' me there's an even bigger blessing."
"And that would be what?"
Tears filled Vin's eyes as he thought on Ezra's words, "You belong to us." It seemed to Vin there was an even finer point to the story he'd just heard. Dreams, visions, nightmares . . . throughout it all, his friends had remained strong. O'Connor never stood a chance for one big reason. "We belong t' each other," he said, knowing Chris would follow his train of thought without explanation. "We're connected . . . like family."
Chris smiled and cracked, "Freakishly linked . . . God help us all."
"Think he already has," Vin responded, and he meant it.
Vin knew he'd have to ponder a long time on everything he'd been told that day, and some things he'd likely never reason out. But as long as he and Chris and the boys were solid, the rest of the world didn't have to make sense.
+ + + + + + +
Life was good.
Chris grinned at the sound of buzz saws and hammers, even if it did kick up his headache another notch. At the rate the men he'd hired were going, Vin's new apartment would be finished by the end of the month.
Pound, pound, pound . . . every hit was another nail in O'Connor's coffin.
O'Connor had visited him nightly when he was first released from the hospital. But once the demon gave up Vin, Chris had nothing to lose - and nothing to fear. With a satisfied smile, he recalled how the evil spirit had howled in frustration when he realized he had no hold over him any longer. O'Connor was powerless to do little more than annoy him in his dreams.
And when Vin was around, he couldn't even do that.
Shortly after Vin came to the ranch to recuperate, Chris caught on that his ghostly visitor was nowhere in sight - or mind - whenever his best friend was near by. It didn't take much longer for him to figure out a way to use this discovery to his advantage. After years of threatening and cajoling, he'd finally convinced Vin to move out of his wretched neighborhood to the ranch with him. He'd told Vin that apparently he was his 'protection' from the evil spirit. And for all of Tanner's reservations regarding the existence of ghosts, he'd readily agreed to the move.
It was Chris's idea to build on a separate living area for him, attached to the ranch style home by a covered walkway. Vin would pay him back over the next twenty or thirty years - or longer, if Chris could put it off.
Hell, if he'd known being haunted was the ticket to getting Tanner out of Purgatorio, he'd have done it years ago.
"That grin makes me nervous, Cowboy," Vin said with a wide smile as he entered the kitchen where Chris sat nursing a cup of coffee.
Chris laughed. "Can't help it. I like it when things go my way."
Vin poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table across from Chris. He occasionally winced when he moved too quickly and his wrist was still in a cast, but all in all, it was the smoothest recovery the younger man had had yet. Nathan had arranged for a plastic surgeon to remove the residual scars from Ian's knife, but Chris doubted Vin would go through with it. In fact, Vin seemed to think he should keep the visual reminder, since he wasn't saddled with the painful memories that the rest of them still dealt with.
"You didn't make this whole thing up about O'Connor haunting you just t' get me to move, did you?" Vin asked suspiciously.
"I'm not that creative, Vin."
With an irritating smirk, Vin agreed. "Can't argue with that." Turning his head at the sound of the construction, he asked, "You got them workin' on a Saturday?"
"Sooner the better."
Vin cocked his head, like he still couldn't figure out why Chris would want him as a neighbor. "I like my music loud," he reminded his friend.
"Get up early on weekends."
"Folks will talk."
"You're really sure about this?"
Chris shook his head and sighed. They'd had this discussion at least a dozen times in the past week. Fortunately, the arrival of their remaining teammates brought the matter to a temporary halt.
"Amazing, isn't it, how they come from four different places in four different vehicles, but they all manage to get here at the same time?"
"That's because we're all freak-"
"Don't even say it," Chris warned.
"Say what?" Buck asked as he burst into the kitchen with an armload of groceries.
"Hey Vin, let's go see your new place," JD interrupted.
"Okay," Vin said, grimacing a bit as he got to his feet.
"Are you crazy?" Nathan snapped as he joined the crowd. "The last place you two need to be is in a construction area! Especially you, Vin, you know that you're still recovering and with your luck, not to mention JD's luck, something is bound to happen. And don't either one of you even think about getting close to a ladder or . . ." His voice trailed off as he followed the two younger men outside.
Buck grinned. "Looks like things are back to normal."
"Feels like it, too," Josiah said with a relieved sigh.
"Do you agree, Chris?" Ezra said, suddenly appearing from behind Josiah's shoulder.
It seemed to Chris that Ezra was actually holding his breath, waiting for his reply. "It feels fine. In fact, it feels damn good."
"And how is brother Vin feeling?" Josiah wondered.
"Good. Really good," Chris replied.
"He remember anything yet?" Buck asked with a frown.
"Is he frustrated by that?" Josiah pressed.
"Are you not . . . concerned?" Ezra prodded.
"Nope." At the skeptical looks on his friends' face, Chris explained, "Vin's at peace for the first time in months. If he remembers, he remembers. We'll deal with it. If not, that's fine, too - with both of us. In the meantime, he's just Vin. He's . . . normal."
Ezra grinned as he headed for the coffee pot. Holding up a cup in a mock toast, he stated, "Well, then, here's to . . . normalcy."
"Normalcy? Hell, Ezra, can't you come up with somethin' better than that?" Buck teased.
"Actually, at the moment, I can think of nothing better than all seven of us just being normal once again."
"I'll drink to that," Chris said with a warm smile.
"We drinkin' already?" Vin asked as he re-entered the kitchen.
"You're not drinking at all," Nathan warned.
"Anybody else notice how Nathan just sucks the joy out of livin'?" Vin quipped.
"Well you're gonna be livin' in style soon, Vin. Your new place is gonna be awesome," JD gushed.
"That's nice, Kid. Too bad he won't be spending any time in it," Buck said slyly.
"What's that supposed t' mean?" Vin asked.
"We all know you'll be here with Chris all the time anyway."
Chris just shrugged when Vin threw him a puzzled glance. Buck was probably right, even if Vin had yet to figure it out.
"That certainly appears to be the general opinion," Ezra said. "In fact, I understand several wagers have been placed as to the exact moment when you two profess to be . . . linked in other ways."
"Other ways?" JD squeaked.
"And I suppose you had nothing to do with this little game of chance, Ezra?" Josiah chided.
"I am completely innocent in this endeavor, I assure you."
"Well, I'm not!" Buck admitted. "I could win me a whole bunch of money if you'd just see fit to give Vin a big smack on the lips on his next birthday, Chris."
Chris groaned while the others laughed.
But Vin quirked a brow and very seriously asked, "How 'bout if I kiss Chris and we split it, Buck? Give me a head start on all this money I owe Larabee for my new place."
His teammates roared, while Chris just shook his head. It was a lost cause - they'd never grow up.
And he was helplessly, hopelessly, enduringly, freakishly linked to these men for as long as he lived.
Life was good.