Main Character(s): Chris, Vin, Buck
Warning: Much violence is visited upon a certain Mr. Larabee, consider yourself warned. This is a long delayed story for Winnie, and we know how she likes her favorite character… shaken and stirred… and batter fried! There’s also a lot of cussin’, because the boys are angry!
Acknowledgements: My thanks to the folks who helped make this the fic it is today. Very special thanks to Renegade who, dispite the density of my skull, continues to work with me on the typos, grammar, and other things that don't work. And, to Kimber, who slapped me on the hand when I maimed and killed Mr. Larabee without meaning too! She reined me in and helped me make all the medical stuff at least believable, while sometimes I claim some poetic license!
Notes: This is a sequel to a story I wrote several years ago, called Simon Says. You’ll understand this story better if you read that one first. It’s only like 16 pages, so not a long read!
He reached out and touched a button, the sounds from the truck’s stereo shifting from talk radio to classic rock and letting himself be immersed into the sounds of hard rock pounding through the cab. Chris Larabee slipped his sunglasses down, covering hazel-green eyes and allowing him to drive in the early morning sun without squinting. He was dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, a far cry from his typical work attire.
For Chris Larabee was going on vacation. Alone. Five days without anyone around. No demands on his time and no expectations from anyone, not even himself.
ATF Team Seven had just gone through the most rigorous six months of back to back cases they had experienced since the team had been formed more than seven years ago. Josiah and Nathan had both been injured and were, even now, on medical leave. Until three days ago, they hadn’t even been certain that Josiah would ever be able to return to active duty at all. While Nathan had fared somewhat better, he was still weeks away from being cleared for duty.
None of them had escaped the last half year unscathed; if not physical injuries, then there were emotional ones. Holding it together long enough to wrap up the paperwork, Chris had argued for, and won, a week off for the other members of Team Seven, himself included.
Ezra had caught a plane to Paris the next morning and JD had taken off for LA with Casey. Only Buck and Vin had opted to stay in Denver; Buck because his flight attendant lady friend, Kerry, was due in from London for a long lay over. Wilmington had booked a suite downtown, and declared to anyone who listened, that he fully intended to spend the entire week either in bed, or in the suite’s Jacuzzi with the pretty young woman.
Vin, on the other hand, had been given free rein of Larabee’s ranch. While the others thought Tanner’s plans to do nothing other than go riding every day sounded rather boring, the Texan had been as excited as a kid in a candy store. He had arrived at Larabee’s that morning, the Jeep filled with DVDs and woodcraft projects that he hadn’t been able to complete. As he left, Chris had seen him in the rear view mirror, already heading out atop Peso.
He, himself was heading toward a week in a cabin, where he intended to do three things. Relax. Relax. Relax. As Bohemian Rhapsody took the airwaves, he tsettled back, smiling as the Ram drove along the highway.
Just over seven hours later, he was nearing his destination. He had stopped to gas up the Ram and had a nice, leisurely lunch, leaving him just groggy enough that he had pulled off at a rest stop for a power nap. It didn’t matter, time was irrelevant this week.
Checking the GPS and seeing that he was only twenty minutes away from the cabin, Chris grabbed one of his cigarillos and pressed the dashboard lighter in. When it popped out a short time later, he looked away just long enough to grasp it. Turning his attention back to the road, he cursed. As he came around a shallow curve, he found the way blocked. Not by an animal or another vehicle.
The road was blocked by no less than six people.
Turning the wheel sharply, and without thinking of his own safety, Larabee grunted as the Ram hit the railing. Then, to his surprise, it gave way, and he found himself careening over the edge and down the steep embankment.
“He will be pleased?”
“If the man survives, yes. Yes, he will be pleased. Now, let us go and check on him.”
The world was consumed by it. He was moving, but didn’t know how or why. Every movement, no matter how slight, sent another bolt of pain shooting through him. He tried to scream, to make it all stop. But he couldn’t manage so much as a whisper or a whimper.
The pain continued.
Then the whispers began; waxing and waning around him like waves breaching the shore. Words began to form within those whispers, familiar to him, but making no sense now.
“Don’t… he will… we…”
He stopped listening to the words, letting them sink back into the whispers as exhaustion took over.
Pain returned, dragging him relentlessly back toward consciousness as it did. He tried to open his eyes, but found that it only caused new pain to shoot through his body. From somewhere deep within came a low moan that erupted as nothing more than a breath.
“He is waking. Go and tell the Master. He will be pleased.”
Among all of the other pain, he felt a small stab in his arm. Suddenly he felt as if his insides were being enveloped by flames. As the fire reached his brain he cried out, the sound reverberating through his tortured skull and raging out across the air. Despite being swollen and unfocused, his eyes sprang open.
He saw nothing but shape and shadow, the world around him seeming to have been created from smudges of charcoal. “Wh… where…?” He managed to form that single word, his voice raspy, the fatigue that followed more in line with an hour’s speech than a syllable.
“He is alive? Conscious?”
Chris heard something in that voice. There was a vague familiarity that brought with it a twinge of… fear. Anger. Hatred. He tried to focus on his thoughts; to follow them until he could identify the speaker, but he couldn’t manage it.
“He is alive, Master… we have only now been able to bring him close to consciousness.”
“It has been more than a day. I am not pleased with this delay.”
“My apologies, lord. We felt it… prudent… to tread carefully, due to his injuries. We wished to do our best to bring him back to consciousness well enough that your… plans… could be brought to fruition.”
“Very good. He is ready?”
“I believe so, my lord.”
They were speaking about him, he realized. He was laying there, pain screaming from every muscle of his being, but they were planning… something. He tried to wrap his mind around what was going on, but found it impossible. Instead, he sank back toward the darkness. He found that he couldn’t reach his destination, though. Instead, whatever they had given him, kept him jarringly awake and aware of everything going on around him.
He felt himself being lifted into several pairs of arms, each one seeming to unerringly grip a point of white hot pain. Again and again he cried out, the sounds nothing more than the weakest moans, as he was carried toward some unknown destination. Silently he begged for even the briefest release, but it did no good. All he could do was to hang there limply, enduring the onslaught of pain.
“More wine, darlin’?” Buck Wilmington drawled softly, holding the chilled bottle away from the heat of the Jacuzzi’s rolling water.
Kerry, the pretty blonde that he saw every chance he got; whenever her flight schedule brought her into town long enough for even a quick lunch, smiled back at the brunet. “I’d love some.”
Just as he finished topping off their glasses, the ringtone of his cell phone alerted him that Vin Tanner was trying to get in touch with him. He was tempted to ignore it, but knew that Vin wouldn’t be calling him if it wasn’t important. With a belly deep sigh he sat the glass down, placing the bottle back in the ice bucket. “Sorry, sweetheart, this must be important.”
Ignoring the fact that he was nude, the tall man climbed out of the tub and padded across the room to where his phone was cheerfully twittering the first several notes of Wayward Wind. He had programmed it specifically for the Texan’s calls. Flipping open the phone, he greeted his friend with “What’s up?”
“Chris is missin’.” The statement chilled Buck to the bone, especially as it was delivered without preamble.
“Chris is missin’. I just got contacted by the sheriff’s department up in Routt County. Someone spotted his truck, fifty feet down a ravine.”
“He’s not there?”
“No, but they said it looks like a lot of his blood is.”
“Shit. He didn’t walk away from that. Where’d it happen?”
“Just about twenty minutes from that cabin he rented. I’m headin’ out that way.” Tanner announced.
“Can you swing by and pick me up?”
“Already in route. I should be there in about ten.”
“Alright, I’ll meet you out front.” Disconnecting the call, Wilmington faced his companion, a hang dog expression on his face. “I’m sorry, darlin’, but I’ve gotta go.”
“Everything all right?” Kerry asked as she pulled herself out of the water, reaching for one of the thick towels placed nearby.
“Don’t think so. That was Vin. He said Chris’ truck’s been found north of here, down a ravine. He’s nowhere to be found, and there’s blood at the scene.” Buck felt a chill move through his body as he spoke the words. It made it all far too real.
“Oh my goodness! Is there anything I can do?” She padded across the floor toward him, the towel wrapped around her.
Shaking his head, Buck said, “No, but thank you, Kerry. Look, the suite’s booked until the day after you’re slated to leave, so stay here and enjoy yourself. Hopefully, this will all be resolved soon and I can get back into that Jacuzzi with you.” That said he leaned down and kissed her gently, then pulled away and went to the closet. Grabbing some clothes, he hurriedly dressed. Pocketing his wallet and cell, he once again kissed the young woman. In a soft voice, he said, “I’ve missed you so much, girl. It is so very good to see you.”
Smiling, Kerry replied, “I’ve missed you, too, stud. Be careful, and let me know when you find him, all right?”
Grateful that she had chosen “when”, rather than “if”, Buck smiled. Placing one more kiss on her soft, full lips, he groaned softly. Pulling himself away, he murmured, “I am gonna do my best to get back for some more of that.”
“You’d better. But, for now,” Kerry pushed him gently toward the door, “go and find that trouble magnet friend of yours.”
“Hello, Mr. Larabee.”
Chris frowned, trying his best to identify the speaker. Once again there was that faint tingle of a memory tugging at his pain seared mind, but he couldn’t pin it down. After a few, long, fevered minutes, he gave up and simply lay there.
“Surely you remember me. We spent such a… wonderful time together. Well, it was very memorable for me at least.”
“I… wh-who…” Chris managed to grate out, his voice rough and scratchy.
“Yes, well, I believe I’ll allow you to remember me on your own, in your own time. However, while we await the return of that memory, I will be giving you some… small hints, shall we say?”
Larabee suddenly found himself spitting and sputtering as he was force fed a hot, bitter liquid that scalded his throat on the way down. He fought to get away from whoever was forcing the drink on him, but found that he was unable to move. After an eternal moment he was left limp and gagging, the liquid trailing along his jaw and into his ears as well as clogging his nose. It took everything he had to simply move his head so that the liquid dripped onto the hard surface beneath him.
“Hm… and I was led to believe that you could… hold your liquor, shall we say? I’m quite disappointed, Chris. May I call you Chris?”
“Go… go t-to hell…” Larabee grated out, still coughing as the liquid burned nasal and throat tissue.
“Oh, I’ve been there… for a very, very long time. It no longer holds any meaning for me, I’m afraid. Now, shall we get on with it?”
Chris frowned, trying to figure out just what the madman who was holding him hostage was talking about. He didn’t have time to contemplate it for long, however, as he suddenly found himself being roughly pulled from where he lay and dragged forward. He couldn’t help but cry out as his battered body ignited with a far greater pain than he would ever have thought possible.
The trip seemed never ending, as did the pain. Tears rolled down ashen cheeks and he vomited twice during the trip. Then... it was over. He was bound to something hard and cold, the binding cold as well; hard. Metal. He realized that he was being bound to something metal, with metal. He was being kept upright in bindings that pinched and rubbed at the flesh of his wrists, throat, thighs and ankles. His legs erupted with a pain that shot through him as they were forced to take some of his weight.
His mind screamed, “What’s going on? Who are you? Why are you doing this?” but he found that he couldn’t form the words. The only sounds that passed his lips were unintelligible and incoherent.
A face seemed to drift into his very limited line of vision. He frowned as he tried to bring it into focus, finally recognizing long hair, a beard and mustache, all dark. Memories, like nightmares, began to tug at the corners of his mind.
“Does this seem familiar to you yet, Chris? Is something about this arrangement bringing back a memory or two?”
He suddenly felt as if his mind was on the verge of exploding as fragmented memories attacked him in a kaleidoscope of images. He struggled to catch his breath, but there didn’t seem to be any oxygen. If he hadn’t been bound, he would have fallen to the ground. “Oh… s-son of… a bi… bitch!”
They traveled in silence throughout most of the trip. Twice Vin’s cell rang with calls from the Routt County Sheriff’s office as they delivered more information about their missing friend. None of it was good news.
“Anything?” Buck asked, his throat tight.
“Still no sign of him.” With an uncharacteristic show of anger, Tanner cursed and slapped his hand against the steering wheel. “Fuck! What the hell is goin’ on here?”
“I wish I knew, Junior. All we can do is get all the intel we can and go from there.” Buck responded with a calm he didn’t feel. “Can you think of anyone that might want to hurt Chris?”
“Hell, it’d be easier to come up with a list of folks who don’t,” Vin replied with a snort.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Wilmington sighed. “That man would try the patience of God Almighty.”
“My notebook’s in the back, why don’t you check for any bulletins on the intranet. Maybe someone’s been released recently that we need to check on.”
With a nod, the bigger man reached into the backseat and retrieved the computer. Soon he was connected to the Federal government’s intranet and was checking the updates. Nearly two hours later they were nearly to their destination and he had checked every possible entry. “Nothing.”
Heaving a sigh, Vin growled, “Damn. Thought maybe, just once, we’d catch a break.”
Buck chuckled. “You forget what bunch you’re with?”
Grinning, despite the gravity of the situation, Tanner replied, “hell, even we’re due a break once in a while.”
“Dream on,” was the response. “There’s the marker. Looks like we’ve got a welcoming committee, too.”
Along the shoulder ahead, Vin saw the familiar yellow tape marking the accident scene. Nearby was a nondescript car, parked just beyond the tape. Vin pulled in on the opposite side of the crash site so he didn’t disturb anything. Parking, the two men exited the vehicle and greeted the two women who climbed out of the car. They were both dressed in jeans and tan colored tee shirts that had emblems embroidered on the left breast of the tee.
“Ladies, Agents Wilmington and Tanner. Are you the officers who found the truck?”
“Yes, sir. Deputies White and Rose,” the young blonde introduced herself and her partner, offering the men a cursory glance at their IDs.
“Anything new in the last hour or so?” Vin asked.
“No, nothing. Would you like to come with us? We’ll take you down to the truck.”
“It’s been cleared?” Buck asked, frowning.
“Yes, sir. We have the captain’s okay to take you down there. He felt that, with your backgrounds, you might see something we haven’t.”
The two men exchanged glances, nodded, and followed the women down the steep incline. They moved along the edge of the trail that Chris’ truck had carved into the landscape, holding onto a guide rope as they found themselves pushed down the ravine’s side by gravity.
Fifty feet below, they felt gravity release its hold as the earth leveled out slightly. The two men got their first good look at Larabee’s Ram; both of them felt their gut tighten at the sight of the mangled vehicle. Moving carefully, Vin stepped toward the driver’s side, the door hanging open. Looking inside, he saw the puddles of dried blood dotting the interior. “Son of a bitch.”
“What?” Buck approached the truck, nudging past the other man as he surveyed the interior. All he could manage was a strangled, “Damn.”
Moving away, Vin turned toward the two young women. “So, where are they looking?”
Nodding farther down the ravine, the woman who had identified herself as White said, “Down there.”
Rose smiled; an expression strange given the situation. The words she followed with were even stranger. “They won’t find anything.”
Frowning, Buck asked, “What makes you say that?”
“Because we know where he is.” Rose explained. Her demeanor changed, her smile broadened and she giggled, even dancing a step or two as she moved away from the two men.
“What the hell?” Buck moved toward Vin, both men advancing on the young women. Just a few steps away, they both stopped as the women leveled their sidearms on them.
“Whoa! Look, whatever game this is—“
“Shut up! Jonas!” The blonde called out.
The two men found themselves quickly surrounded by several other people, all of them dressed very similarly in tee shirts and jeans. Belatedly the two agents realized that the woman had been in uniform, but certainly not the uniform they had taken it to be.
Quickly both men were disarmed, man-handled and roughly bound with disposable cuffs, the type that were becoming more and more popular with the military and law enforcement agencies. Neither of them went easily, but the sheer number of opponents made the struggle short lived and futile. Several minutes later, they were being herded along the ridge that cut along the ravine, forming a rough path. They barked out threats, issued commands and asked questions, but none of it brought a response from their captors. Vin grew quiet and, sometime later, so did Buck. The two agents endured the forced march in silence that was only occasionally interrupted by a brief exchange between the two of them. The people around them moved in near total silence.
Chris stared across at the man who had masterminded his abduction. Despite the pain it caused him, he gritted out, “I kn-knew… you weren’t… d-dead.”
The madman snorted derisively. “I doubt that. I was very careful to cover my tracks and to make it seem that I had, indeed, left this plane of existence for the next. And, seriously, should I believe that, if you knew I was alive, that you wouldn’t have come after me, and long before now? No, Chris, we both know that you were without a clue until I came after you.”
“What I know is… you weren’t… t-top of… top of the list. I’ve known… where you were… just hadn’t had time… to p-pick you… you up.” The last was a lie, but he hoped that he had made it sound true. He had known that Simon, a.k.a. John Simon hadn’t died five years ago. He was never able to track the madman down, however.
In the last five years, though, he had searched for any information that he could find on the madman. He hoped to be able to use some of it now.
If he lived that long.
Tanner and Wilmington felt a fleeting relief as they were stopped by their captors. It seemed that they had been walking for hours, and both men were worn down by the events of the last several hours. The sun had gone down, and they knew that escape would be impossible soon; neither of them was familiar with the surrounding area. They were reliant on the people before and behind them to keep them going in the right direction.
“Father!” The one called Jonas called out as they entered the roughly cleared area in the woods.
Vin perused the area as best he could given the dim light. There was a fire pit and a metal structure, in the form of a St. Andrew’s Cross, near the center of the clearing. On the side opposite them was a path lit by candles set in the ground. As he watched, a party of several people entered from that path.
“Buck,” Tanner hissed, nodding toward the approaching crowd. “Looks like we’ve got company.”
Wilmington nodded but said nothing as he joined the other man in watching the approach. It was at nearly the same time that the two of them recognized the person in the middle of the crowd, who was being half carried and half dragged. With a curse, he called out, “Chris!”
“Damn it, Buck, don’t give away our hand,” Vin growled under his breath.
“The hell with that, we gotta get him. Look at him!” Wilmington cursed again, struggling to pull out of his restraints.
Having no alternative, Tanner shoved against him with a shoulder, muttering, “Damn it, Bucklin, we’ve gotta play this smart! Now, knock it off!”
In the center of the clearing, where he was being bound to the sadistic structure near the fire pit, the sounds of his two friends arguing finally registered with a semi-conscious Chris Larabee. He forced his head up, trying in vain to find the men he could hear. His vision, however, failed him and soon his strength did, too. As his head dropped to his chest, he managed to force a single word through battered lips, “no.”
From where he stood, Vin heard the single syllable, as if it had been carried to him on the wind. “Shit.”
Having managed to rein in his anger, the bigger man standing beside him, asked, “what?”
Shaking his head, Vin said, “He’s bad, Buck. I’m not sure what they did to him, but he’s bad off. We’ve gotta do whatever we can to get him away from these bastards.”
“I find your loyalty, while misdirected, quite heartening. It will make what comes next quite… fulfilling.”
Both men glared at the speaker, but it was Vin who recognized the eccentric looking man. “Aw, son of a bitch… Simon.”
“Who?” Buck asked, but his question was ignored as Vin and the leader of the bunch who had managed to capture all three of them, engaged in a verbal sparring match.
“Yes… you recognize me then, do you? I remember you… very, very well. I have spent the last five years planning for this day.”
“Yeah? You plan your death… your real death… too?”
“Ah, but it will not be me who dies, just as it was not me who died five years ago.”
“Yeah. Which poor sap was it that you got to take your place back then? Which idiot was it that you talked into dying for you? These other fools know you got someone to die for you?”
“It’s not important. He received his reward for his sacrifice… just as any of my servants would be rewarded for such a sacrifice.” The last was spoken slightly louder than the rest of the exchange; loud enough for those around him to hear the madman’s boast.
“Yeah? What I heard all it got him was a pauper’s funeral because he couldn’t even be identified. Did he remove his fingerprints or did you?”
“Enough!” Simon barked, sensing that he would soon lose the battle if he didn’t regain control of the situation. “We have brought you here for a very specific reason.”
“And what would that be?” Buck reentered the heated conversation.
“To witness the breaking of Chris Larabee.”
The two men exchanged looks. Vin saw something in Buck’s darkened blue eyes. He knew what was behind that look; Buck had already seen Chris broken once before. Turning his attention back to Simon, he said, “you won’t live long enough to break Chris, you slimy son of a bitch.”
That earned the smaller of the two agents a hard slap across the face and a shove from behind that sent him sprawling on the ground. Slowly managing to push himself to his knees, he spit out a mouthful of blood. “Make y’all feel tough, knocking around someone tied up?”
Ignoring the jibe, Simon said, “Make our… company… comfortable, so we can begin the show.”
Vin allowed himself to be pulled back to his feet and shoved toward a nearby tree. Buck, on the other hand, fought his captors every inch of the way, growling as they forced him against another tree, binding him to it. Both men were the worse for wear now, scraped and bruised from their trip; Buck even more so as his anger caused them to manhandle him more roughly as they fought to keep him in line.
“Buck,” Vin spit out harshly, doing his best to get the other man’s attention. “Knock it off!”
After struggling for a few more minutes, Wilmington finally settled down. He continued to glare at the people hovering around him. “What are you mother fuckers lookin’ at? Huh!?”
“Buck, damn it, you’re only makin’ things worse! Now, knock it off!”
“Worse? How the hell’s it gonna get worse?” Wilmington growled in response.
Hanging from the metal cuffs that bound him, wrists and ankles, to the cross, Chris managed to lift his head once more. He recognized the enraged voices coming from somewhere nearby. His friends were close. They would help him. “Bu… Buck? V… iiiin…” he called in a ragged voice that barely reached his own ears. Once more his head dropped to rest on his chest.
“Children. We have work to do.” Simon announced in a smooth but commanding voice. The others around him responded by coming nearer to the bloodied and battered man. One by one they stepped up; poking, jabbing, slapping or kicking Chris; anything that would register pain in the injured man’s brain.
Larabee barely responded, the pain simply mixing in with all of the other pain he had been feeling since the accident. From time to time a cry or a whimper would escape his swollen and bloodied lips but, otherwise, he simply hung from his bonds.
On their part, Vin and Buck stood, straining against the ropes that bound them, the bigger man unable to hold back from the occasional curse word as he watched the lost and misguided group of fools torturing his friend. Close by, Vin watched in angry silence, his jaw clenched so tightly that the muscles twitched.
Only after Chris Larabee stopped responding completely, hanging, unconscious, on the torture apparatus they had bound him to, did Simon call a halt. Turning to one of the men he relied most on, he instructed, “Jonas, have him released and taken to the cell.”
With nothing but a nod, the big man withdrew a set of keys from the belt at his waist and moved to do as he was bidden. When Larabee was freed from his bonds, four of the others lifted him up, and disappeared into the darkness.
“Where’s he goin’?” Buck demanded.
“Not to worry, gentlemen. You’ll be joining him soon.”
The two agents turned to face one another, confusion on their faces. What was Simon planning?
A few minutes later they would find out, when they were released from the trees, their hands still bound, and herded into the darkness. Stumbling along, pushed and prodded by their captors, the two men found themselves herded toward a low, concrete block building. When the door was open, they were nearly blinded by the light that spilled out of the opening. They were unceremoniously shoved inside, the door slammed closed behind them.
Stumbling and barely keeping himself on his feet, Vin blinked to clear his vision. When he did, he cursed. Beside him, Buck had nearly the same reaction.
Chris lay sprawled out on the floor, in the middle of the concrete floor of the bare room. There was, literally, nothing in the room but the three men. As they stood there, gathering their thoughts, Larabee moaned. That spurred them into action.
Dropping to their knees, on either side of their injured friend, they watched as the blond rallied to some level of consciousness.
“Chris? Can you hear me?” Buck asked, his voice soft but firm at the same time.
“Cowboy?” Vin called out at the same time.
“Wha… where… where am I?”
“Not for certain, Stud,” Buck admitted.
“Chris… it’s Simon.”
Running the tip of his tongue over battered lips, the blond nodded. “Re…member seeing… him. God!” His back arched as the pain throughout his body hit a crescendo. The only thing his two friends could do was sit there, watching.
“God, I’ve never felt so hopeless,” Vin grumbled.
As the pain subsided, Chris collapsed back to the hard floor and lay there, panting. It was a few minutes before he could gather the strength to speak again. His voice quivering, he asked, “You… you guys okay?”
“We’re fine. Just trussed up like a pair of turkeys.” Buck’s voice conveyed his anger.
“They got us ‘cuffed, Chris.” Vin explained. Turning to the big brunet, he suggested, “We need to figure out a way to get these damn things off.”
“Well, since Ezra ain’t here, I’m not sure how we do that… unless you’ve got something that will cut these damn things off us.”
Heaving a sigh as he looked around the empty room, Vin shook his head. “Hell, ain’t even a rough piece of concrete to rub ‘em on.”
Nearby, Chris slipped back into unconsciousness as his friends tried to find something to free themselves from their bonds.
After a few minutes the two men settled in on either side of their friend and supervisor. They got their first truly good look at him, and what they saw was enough to make them both ill.
“Damn. I’m not sure how he’s even still breathin’.” Tanner grumbled. “He’s bruised from head to toe. His legs and this arm don’t look good at all. And who the hell knows how bad he’s busted up inside.”
“Yeah, he’s cut to hell and gone, too.”
“Yeah, some of it’s from the wreck, but the way they were pokin’ at him earlier...”
“Son of a bitch! We’ve got to get him out of here… get him to help.”
Looking across the battered body, Vin stared at Wilmington. “Just how the hell’re we gonna do that? We can’t even get these fuckin’ cuffs off.”
“I know that! But we’ve got to figure out a way!” Buck protested loudly.
“Wha… what’s the problem?” Hazel-green eyes fluttered open, closed, and settled at half mast as he responded to the angry words on either side of him.
Heaving a sigh, Buck said in a calmer voice, “Never mind, Stud, we’re just discussin’ how to get you out of here.”
“Can’t. Leave me… you guys go… get out… get out of… here.”
“Yeah, well, that ain’t happenin’. We go, we all three go.” Tanner declared. On the other side of the injured man, Wilmington nodded his agreement.
“That’s… order…” Larabee murmured, before he once more lost consciousness.
“Yeah, well, Stud, we aren’t takin’ your orders this time.”
With a soft chuckle, Vin added, “Ain’t like we never ignored him before.”
They were alone with their thoughts throughout the night. The lights remained on, allowing them to see every bruise, cut and gash on their friend’s body. They did their best to get the thick, nylon bindings off, sitting back to back most of the night, fingers digging and pulling at the loops around one another’s wrists. They couldn’t find a weak spot in the cuffs, though. When the door was open, letting in fresh air and sunlight, they were still bound and still trying to get loose when Simon’s men entered the room, dragging Chris out the door. As much as they protested his continued ill-treatment, they weren’t able to do much more than that, considering their restraints. After he had been removed, they were pushed and shoved toward the door as well. Leaving their prison, they were hurried back down the trail, toward the place where they had first seen their friend the night before.
Chris had already been placed back on the St. Andrew’s Cross. His arms were bound to the two top corners, his legs bound to the bottom two corners in such a way that he couldn’t completely keep his own weight off the battered limbs, even though most of his weight was on his wrists. Oddly, Simon had allowed the cuffs cushioned, but he did seem bent on stretching the torture out as long as he could. He was in the middle of the clearing, where there was little to no shade. To make it even more uncomfortable, a fire was going in the fire pit just in front of him. As the sun rose, so did the heat, and so did his discomfort.
Alternatively, Vin and Buck were bound in the deep shade and forced to drink cold water. Despite their body's needs, they fought the water and, later, the food that was forced upon them. Even their wrists, rubbed raw by the restraints, were noticed and treated by pouring alcohol over them. They understood only too well what was going on. Simon was going to torture and perhaps even kill their friend, and they would not only witness it, but they would have to live for the rest of their lives with the memory of their needs being cared for while he suffered.
By noon the sun was shining very brightly down on the horrific scene. From time to time one of the women, under Simon’s orders they had no doubt, would enter the sun-filled clearing, feeding Chris a few mouthfuls of water. As with everything else, they surmised that this was only to prolong the torture. It was only after the sun had disappeared that the three men were returned to their little prison.
Both Buck and Vin sat, dejectedly, unable to do more than watch their friend. Their own arms were numb and nearly useless now, bound in place as they were. Buck turned so that he was back to back with Vin once more. They tried, but could barely feel their fingers, let alone use them to pull at the bindings. After a while, they gave up, both of them simply sitting there, lost in thought.
Trying to keep some sense of hope, Vin muttered, “There’s always tomorrow.”
Looking down at the nude blond, flesh now red with sunburn, Wilmington said, “You sure he’s got another day in him?”
It rained most of the next day, giving Chris a respite from the sun, but giving him a different set of problems. Standing in the shelter of the trees, Buck and Vin could only watch once more, as their friend was forced to endure the elements. A few times he managed to raise his head, open his mouth, and drink in the life-sustaining water that fell from the skies. For the most part, though, he seemed oblivious to what was happening around him.
As night fell they were returned to their prison, they watched as Chris lay there, trembling and moaning, his body deeply chilled from all the hours in the rain. After a few minutes discussion, the men devised a plan to share some of their own body heat with their friend. After some consideration, Vin lay down on his left side, grunting as the strained and immobile shoulder responded with pain. He could tolerate it, though, so he lined his own body up with the shivering man. On Larabee’s other side, Buck sat, cross legged, watching over the other two men. He was uncertain as to whether Chris’ incessant trembling came from the pain of them positioned against him, or the cold.
At some point during the night, Larabee’s own body began to throw off quite a bit of heat itself. His breathing became labored, sounds emanating from deep within his chest.
When the door was opened early the next morning, two of the three men pushed themselves up, turning to face whoever entered. Neither of them expected to see the charismatic madman who had brainwashed those who became his followers. Simon entered the room, accompanied by four of his larger subordinates. He stopped just a few steps from the teammates. Looking down at the blond, he said, “Hmmm… I believe that he may be dying.”
“Go to hell.” Vin growled.
“You don’t know Chris Larabee. He’ll walk away from this, just like he’s walked away from worse.” Buck informed the man. He didn’t completely believe the words even as he spoke them, but he wouldn’t allow Simon to know that.
Simon offered only a derisive snort then he said, “Yes, well, I’ve decided that dying isn’t enough. After meditating on it through the night, I have decided that knowing that Chris Larabee is dying a little each day is more to my liking. Knowing that you will be watching him living… dying… in torment is more to my liking. The two of you destroyed my world, once upon a time. I’m only too happy to return the favor.”
“Go to hell.” Vin repeated.
With a ‘tsk’ sound the madman continued, “If he dies today, or tomorrow, Chris Larabee will no longer be in pain, and my revenge is over. However, if I send the three of you back to Denver, then he dies a little every day, knowing not only that it was my decision not to kill him, but that the two of you have seen him at his most vulnerable. For someone like him, that will be intolerable. So, it is my decision that the three of you will be released today.”
“This some sort of trick?” Buck asked, but he received no answer; Simon and the others had left the building. Turning to his friend, he growled, “What the hell is that sick bastard up to, now?”
“Sure as hell it ain’t good,” Vin drawled angrily.
They didn’t have long to wait for an answer, however. Half a dozen men came back into the room. Two went to each men; Chris roughly hauled up and carried out, the others ushering Buck and Vin from their prison just as harshly. Outside was a panel truck; Larabee was already inside. Just as the other two men approached the opening, their captors stopped them.
“What the hell, now!?” Buck barked.
“If you wish him to live… a while longer, at least…” Simon nearly cooed, his voice sickeningly sweet. “You’ll stand very, very still, and offer my men your arms.”
“What?” Buck repeated. Then he saw the man just to the right of the open side door of the truck pointing a gun at Larabee’s head. His eyes flashed with anger as he turned to face Simon, but he dutifully stood still. Beside him, Vin did the same.
Two more of Simon’s men produced needles, which they plunged into the offered arms.
“Son of a BITCH!” Vin cursed, even as his knees began to buckle.
“What was… that?” Wilmington asked. He was unconscious before he got his answer.
Shapes. Sounds. Colors. Shadows. Pain. Each took its place in the minds and bodies of the slowly waking men.
“Buck?” Vin managed to croak out, reaching up to grab his head as the pain spiked. It took over a minute for him to realize that his hands were free.
“Junior?” Buck was having a similar epiphany.
“Chris?” Both men said at the same time. That single syllable brought them both up, fighting vertigo and nausea as they looked for their friend. They found him just a few feet away, dangling limply from rope tied around his chest and under his arms.
“Fuck!” Wilmington stumbled over to where Larabee hung, still completely nude, and struggled to make nearly useless arms work so that he could take the man’s weight onto himself. He cursed as pain shot through both arms and across his back, but he managed to bark out, “Get him down!”
“With what?” Vin mused as he made his way to where the blond hung. While his hands were free they still felt numb, his fingers feeling the size of sausages. There was no way he was going to be able to loosen the bonds that held Chris. He said as much to Buck.
“Then find something to cut him down!”
“Yeah, let me run down the road to the fuckin' hardware store! Damn it, Buck, look around us, we’re out in the middle of nowhere!”
Huffing out a deep breath, the brunet managed to say more calmly, “Sorry… look, we both need to chill out and focus. We’ve got to get him down from here, and we’ve got to do it as quick as we can. I’ll support his weight, you go scout around and get a better idea of where we are. That sound do-able?”
Grinning, the smaller man said, “Yeah. You sure you’re okay? He may look skinny, but he’s solid muscle.”
“And you know this how?” Wilmington grinned back. Then he sobered and said, “I’m fine. He’s been in enough pain, if I can keep him from a little, then I’ll do what I’ve got to do. You do the same.”
Nodding, Tanner said, “Be back quick as I can.”
Watching the other man leave the little clearing where they had woken, Buck heaved a sigh. It had only been a moment, and already he was feeling the strain on muscles that had been forced into the same position for three days now. He had meant every word he’d said, but he wondered if his body was going to be able to keep that promise.
He heard the rough whisper in his ear, Chris’ head resting on his shoulder. “Hey, Stud.”
“Wh… why’re… you ho-holding… me?”
Chuckling, Wilmington said, “Never mind, just rest.”
“’Kay.” With that the senior agent dropped back into unconsciousness.
It was only a few minutes, but it seemed like forever. Buck heard the sounds of someone approaching them. He prayed it was Vin, and thankful when it was. “You figure out where we are?”
He held up a small hatchet. “Not exactly, but I did get us a way out of here, startin’ with Chris.” Tanner moved to the tree trunk and hefted the hatchet, the pain of the simple movement causing him to grit his teeth as he edged the tool high enough to cut the rope. It felt as if he was trying to cut iron with a butter knife rather than braided nylon with a hatchet.
A few minutes later they were moving through the trees, Vin guiding them while he and Buck carried Chris between them. As they came out of the woods, Buck was shocked to find Tanner’s jeep sitting at the side of the road.
“Where was it?”
Shaking his head, Vin said, “It was just sittin’ there, about half a mile down the road, showin’ half a tank of gas, unlocked, with the key in the ignition.”
“No one around?”
Rolling his eyes, the smaller of the men said in a sarcastic tone, “Yeah, Buck, there were six of ‘em and I got the drop on ‘em without a weapon and arms that barely move. No there wasn’t anyone around.”
“Sitting in the middle of nowhere, with the key in the ignition, and a convenient hatchet there for us? Hell, you know what this means, don’t you?”
“Yeah, it means they left it for us to find. They… Simon, anyway… want to make damn good and sure we get away.”
“Bastard likes playing games, doesn't he?”
“He’s damn good at it, too. Man’s a regular Manson or Jones.”
“Let’s get him settled and get out of here,” the bigger man said, nodding toward the unconscious blond.
They did just that, laying Chris out on the backseat. There were no clothes to be found – evidently Simon still wanted to keep him vulnerable – but Vin did have one of those thin, emergency blankets in his glove compartment. The compartment, which doubled as his gun safe, had been broken into, but they hadn’t bothered with the tiny, pocket sized packet. Opening it and unfolding it with loud cracks announcing its age, Tanner handed one end of it to Wilmington. Draping it carefully over the battered and sunburned frame, they were at least able to afford him a little dignity. His breathing continued to be labored, so Buck opted to sit in the backseat with him, elevating his head and shoulders by lifting them onto his lap.
Climbing behind the wheel, Vin aimed the car south, knowing that they would eventually find help in that direction. Both men wished, not for the first time that they had their cells, but those had been removed from their possession before they had even begun their trek, and Tanner’s back up phone had been in the safe.
They drove for nearly an hour, barely speaking; both men keeping their attention on the scenery around them. They were looking for signs of civilization or pursuit, but neither seemed to be nearby. The car was below a quarter tank of gas before they spotted signs of other people. Vin pulled off the side of the road, across from a truck stop, both men watching the busy place for a while.
“Haven’t seen anyone that looks familiar, have you?”
“Yeah, who knows.”
“We’ve gotta chance it though.”
Nodding, Vin pulled across the highway and entered the broad lot. Parking the car and leaving the engine running, he stepped out of the vehicle and pulled off his left boot. To Buck’s amused surprise, he pulled a credit card out of it and held it up. “Don’t leave home without it.”
Wilmington sat there, keeping an eye out for any of Simon’s drones, watching the door for signs that Vin could be in trouble, and monitoring Larabee’s breathing. He sighed with relief when the other agent exited the store and climbed back into the car, handing a bottle of water across the seat to him. Taking it, he popped the lid and slipped a hand beneath the blond’s head, lifting it slightly. Pressing the mouth of the bottle to battered lips, he said gently, “take a sip, Chris.” He exchanged a concerned look with Tanner when there was no response from their friend, and the water simply dribbled down the side of his face.
Trying not to think just how badly the other man could be hurt, Vin announced, “Got hold of Travis. He’s sendin’ a ‘copter for Chris, they ought to be here soon. I talked to the clerk inside, she’s gonna get the lot out back cleared for them to land. All we’ve gotta do is wait.”
“And hope Simon doesn’t send anyone for us.”
With a sigh, Vin agreed. “And hope Simon doesn’t send anyone for us.”
They moved the car around to the lot behind the truck stop, relieved to see a dozen truckers moving their rigs away and effectively forming a blockade to keep newcomers from entering the broad, open lot. A short time later, they heard the deep thump of large blades cutting through the air, and a medivac helicopter landed in the middle of the lot. As it did, the air kicked up hard and rocked the jeep, eliciting a soft moan from Chris. Unconsciously, Buck stroked a hand down his friend’s arm and muttered words of encouragement. Vin exited the car once more and, as soon as the blades permitted, he jogged the yards to where the copter waited, to greet the EMTs.
Buck watched his oldest friend, the years of their friendship dancing through his overtaxed mind. He gently grasped Larabee’s hand, a bittersweet smile crossing his face as he looked at the simple, gold band that the other man still wore. To his relief and amazement, the blond’s fingers twitched and returned the grip. Fighting back the emotions that threatened to spill forth, the bigger man said, “You hold on, Pard. I’m right here.”
Organized chaos broke out then, as the medical team came to the car, bringing their gurney and equipment with them. One of the EMTs ducked his head into the jeep and spoke to Buck. “Hi, my name’s David. Sir, I need you to move so that I can check your buddy’s vitals.”
Shaking his head firmly, eyes blazing, the brunet said, “I’m not leaving him.”
Noting the clasped hands without comment, the tech responded with, “Sir, I understand that you’re worried, but I need the room to work, and your friend needs us to get him to the hospital. So, please, let me do my job.”
Getting his emotions back under control, Wilmington nodded. With a soft promise to be near, he gave the other man’s hand a squeeze, eased himself from the seat and stepped out of the jeep.
A short time later the emergency team slid Larabee onto a backboard and then transferred him to the gurney. The two agents watched as the injured man was prepared for the flight, fending off the EMTs offers to dress their own injuries by promising to have them looked at as soon as they reached Denver. Relief spread across their faces, as they watched Chris loaded into the helicopter; the craft edging itself back into the air.
Buck and Vin drove to the front of the building, parked at one of the pumps, and stepped out of the vehicle. While Wilmington filled the car’s tank, Vin reentered the truck stop. When he reemerged, he had his arms loaded down with water, snacks, and a disposable cell phone. The latter he handed over to the other man, advising, “it’s activated.”
Both men opened a bottle of water, Vin shook out a handful of M&Ms into his mouth, while Buck opted for a bag of pretzels. Pulling back out onto the highway a few minutes later, Vin said, “It’s gonna take us about another five hours to get home.”
“Gonna be a long drive,” Buck sighed, even as he began punching in Orin Travis’ phone number.
Vin glanced over at his companion as Wilmington let loose with a string of four letter words. “Drop the call again?”
“Yes. These throw aways are about as reliable as carrier pigeons in a windstorm. I talked to Orin; he agrees, the others could be in danger, so he’s sending agents over to Nate and Josiah’s to cover them.”
“What about Ezra and JD?”
“JD and Casey are on the road back from Vegas, so he’s got a couple men heading to meet up with them. Ezra’s in the air, so he’s gonna have an agent pick him up when he lands at DIA.”
“He’ll throw a fit,” Vin chuckled, “especially if they pick him up in a bureau special.”
Buck had to laugh at the visual of the fastidious agent being forced to ride in one of the bureau’s nondescript sedans. He went back to trying for a signal so that he could make another call, frowning when all he saw on the cell's screen was “no signal”.
“Who’re you tryin’ to call now?” Vin asked, curiously.
“Kerry. She’s due to leave tonight, I don’t want her to be worried about me.”
Nodding, Tanner said, “Sorry you didn’t get your week in the hot tub with her.”
With an ironic grin, Wilmington said, “Don’t think any of us exactly got the week we’d hoped for. Well, except for Ezra and JD.”
“Guess next time we get a week off, we’d better all head outta state.”
“Think you’re right. Maybe next time I’ll go to London to meet up with Kerry.”
Changing the subject, Vin said, “Wonder how Nate and Josiah are doin’?”
“Orin said Nathan’s coming back in on light duty week from Monday; he’s home in Raine’s tender lovin’ hands.”
“Somehow I don’t envy him if he gets on her bad side.”
With a grin of agreement, Buck continued, “He also said that Josiah’s gonna be in the wheelchair for a while.”
“Figured as much, bustin’ a leg and twistin’ the other knee doesn’t leave you with a lot of mobility.”
“Yeah… hope his home health aides are pretty.”
Shaking his head, Vin said, “Bucklin, have you ever had a thought that wasn’t connected to a woman in some way?”
Pretending to ponder the thought long and hard, Buck eventually snapped his fingers and said, “Yes! I was two, and having issues with my Teddy Bear. Oh, wait, no… Teddy was spelled with an “i” and she was partial to long walks in the park.”
Having just taken a drink of water, Vin snorted so hard that water sprayed the dashboard. “SHIT! Thanks for that visual… ya horn dog!”
Chuckling, the bigger man slapped his friend on the shoulder; then cringed when both of them felt the pain in their still stiff muscles. With an apologetic grin, he said, “Anytime, Junior… anytime.”
They drove for a while, just listening to the road sounds. Every once in a while Buck would hold the cell up, twisting and turning it as he attempted to catch a signal. After a while he grinned and punched in a number.
Vin could tell that the other man was talking to a woman, from his tone and some of the comments that he couldn’t help but hear the other man make, despite a concerted effort to ignore the one-sided conversation. After almost twenty minutes, Wilmington wrapped up his call.
“You, too, Sugar, I’ll look forward to seein’ you over the holidays. Safe flight.” Buck disconnected the call and relaxed back in his seat with a soft smile.
“Yeah, just got hold of her before she walked out the door; she sounded awful relaxed, but I think I heard some regret in her voice. Think she missed me like I missed her.”
“So you were pinin’ away for her back there, with everything we were going through?” Vin was incredulous.
“Well, it’s not like there was much else to think about, other than gettin’ out of there and bringin’ Chris with us.” Buck responded in a defensive tone.
Vin couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “Yeah… reckon you’re right.”
They had ignored their own injuries, seeing them as minor in comparison to what had been done to Chris over the last several days. Now, with nothing to do but sit in the car and watch the white lines along the middle of the road, those aches and pains began to make themselves known. Their arms and shoulders, so long held in place by the restraints, ached and threatened to fail them when they used them too much. Their wrists, the flesh scraped and cut, began to ache even more than they had been. The adrenaline that had kept them going was now spent. The two men began to switch off every half hour or so, allowing the other to rest while they maneuvered the car along the mountain roads. The day had been spent in drug induced unconsciousness and driving, both of them mind numbing in their own way. As the sun left the sky, they were finding it harder and harder to remain conscious, but neither man wanted to stop.
The visitors’ lot was nearly empty when they reached the hospital. Parking as close to the main doors as possible, the two scuffed tiredly to the door, entering it to find a half filled waiting room. Ignoring the looks they got, they headed directly for the admissions desk.
“Hey, darlin’,” Buck said as way of introduction as he leaned against the counter. He grinned broadly at the young woman there, continuing with, “Jenny, can you tell us –“
“I’ve got strict orders that the two of you don’t go anywhere until you’re seen in the ER,” the nurse interrupted, holding up a hand. “Don’t try anything, Buck, it’s not my mind you have to change. So, you and the other smooth talker head right over there and someone will be with you in just a few.”
“Jenny,” Vin spoke up, quietly, “Can you at least let us know how he is?”
Grinning and shaking her head, the young woman said, “Yes, Texas, I can. He’s stable. Now, go. Sit. I’ll let the doctor know you’re here.”
The two men looked up as someone approached them. Tiredly, the two men pushed themselves to their feet to greet him. “What in the hell happened to him?” The ER doctor, Frank Gerry, was angry, although not at the men before him.
“Well, it’s a long story, Doc. Short version is, there’s one sick bastard out there with a long-time grudge against Chris, and he’s spent the last few days torturing that man,” Buck explained.
“That’s an understatement,” Gerry commented. “He’s in critical condition right now; developing pneumonia. There are some internal injuries… thankfully not severe, but problematic. He has a possible head trauma. Due to his other injuries we’re having some trouble assessing it, so I went ahead and ordered a CT scan. He’s got a fracture in the right leg and the left is broken. His left arm is fractured as well. The friction burns on his wrists and ankles are going to need attention, and the fact that he was restrained has aggravated the breaks. Many of the wounds are infected, but they should respond to antibiotics. Most of them are shallow, although a few are going to require stitches once we get him cleaned up. The sunburn is second degree in some places.”
“What’s the prognosis, Doc?” Vin asked.
With a shake of his head, the doctor replied, “I’m not certain at this point in time. I’ll know more after I get the results back for the scan, and I promise I’ll get back to you as soon as I know more. Now, the two of you look like hell, and I understand from David that you promised to get looked at when you get here so, you’re here, get checked out.”
The two men, knowing that the doctor had only their best interests at heart; smiled and saluted him. Before they left, Buck made a simple request. “You know where we’ll be if… anything… happens.”
With a nod, Gerry said, “You got it.”
The two men were seen a short time later by the ER personnel. Both of them were treated and cleared to be released, although there was no way either of them would leave until they had more information on their friend. Instead, they left word at the desk as to where they would be and left for the hospital’s lower level. A few minutes later, they sat in the cafeteria, pushing the food on their plates around as they both pretended to be the least bit interested in eating. Neither of them was, of course. The memory of being force fed while their friend had been denied the most basic of comforts turned their stomachs and had them both tasting bile.
“This is ridiculous,” Vin grumbled as he pushed his plate away.
“We need to –“
“You say ‘keep our strength up’ I’m gonna lob my carrots at you.”
With a snort, Wilmington said, “Just remember, I’ve got rice pudding over here.”
The brief respite was interrupted when an orderly came up to the table. “Are you the ATF agents?”
“Yeah, what’s wrong?” Vin asked as both he and Buck went on instant alert.
“I can’t give you any details, Dr. Gerry asked me to come get you.”
Without another word the two men pushed away from the table and followed the young man out of the cafeteria. A few minutes later they met the doctor in a small family conference room just off the ER.
“What’s the word, Doc?” Buck asked.
“Not good, I’m afraid,” Frank Gerry replied as he looked from one man to the other. “He has a skull fracture and a subdural hematoma. Combined with the respiratory issues and his general health at the moment, we’re going to intubate him to give him the help he needs to breathe, without fighting so hard.”
“Oh, man, he’s gonna fight that,” Vin protested softly.
“Most people do, so we’re going to keep him sedated. It will also allow the hematoma a chance to resolve itself so we don’t have to do surgery to take care of it.”
“Isn’t that dangerous, doc?” Buck asked with concern.
“Anytime we can keep from an invasive procedure it’s better for the patient. If, however, it doesn’t resolve on its own, we’ll have to perform a craniotomy.”
“They’re gonna drill a hole in his head,” Vin said in a tight voice.
Buck paled but simply nodded.
“Look, I’m sorry; it’s still touch and go. Chris is strong, and his health is generally excellent. Those things are in his favor. But… well, you need to be ready. He may not recover from this at all and, even if he does survive, he may never be the Chris you know.”
The two men nodded, acknowledging that they had heard him. They both looked as if they were in danger of losing their closest friend and, in a very real way, they were.
Buck followed Vin into the dimly lit room, where Chris Larabee lay tethered to any number of machines by tubes and wires that were doing almost everything for him. Both men cringed at the sight of the two large, flexible tubes that disappeared down his throat; held in place with white tape.
As they made their way around the machinery to the bed, Chris’s eyes opened just enough to show the thinnest sliver of color imaginable. He tried to speak, but found himself unable to. Despite the sedation, he began to try to move. Thankfully his arms and legs were held virtually immobile, each limb resting on a thick pillow, three in splints, waiting for the swelling to go down so they could be casted, and the forth restrained by IV equipment.
Leaning forward, Buck gently laid his hand on the injured man’s forehead and spoke softly. “Chris, lay still, hear? You’re fine, you’ve just got to relax and let the staff take care of you.”
Vin was watching the machine on his side of the bed, studying the readout that told them that Chris’ temperature was high, as was his pulse rate. His respiration was normal, thanks to the tube that was breathing for him. He was lying on an air mattress, designed to reduce the pressure on his resting body. Due to the intensity of the sunburn he was covered in a cooling gel and wore nothing; a sheet, kept from laying directly on his body, allowed for some modesty. Tanner leaned forward, one hand pressing against the mattress as he sought to get as close to the other man as he could. “You’re all right, Cowboy. You’re in the hospital and hospital security’s keeping an eye on things. Orin’s also covering security; Team nine is on it. And me and Buck aren’t goin’ anywhere. Simon and those sick fucks he’s got brainwashed aren’t gonna get anywhere near you, hear? Now, go to sleep, so you can heal.”
The words may have meant nothing to the injured man but, at the very least, he seemed to sense that he was safe now, and drifted away once more.
Six men sat in a small waiting area near Larabee’s ICU room. Josiah sat in a wheelchair and, nearby, Nathan had a cane leaning against his thigh, signs of their own diminished health. Only JD and Ezra seemed rested after their vacations, but that look was diminishing quickly as Vin and Buck filled them in on what had happened during their absence.
“… so, the ‘copter brought him back, and me and Buck drove home.” Vin finished. “Right now, it’s just a waiting game.”
“Meaning what?” JD asked hesitantly, already certain he didn’t really want to know.
His words coming out hesitantly, Buck answered, “Chris might not make it back from this. Not all the way, anyhow and… well, maybe not at all.”
“He’s strong,” Ezra said as way of argument.
“Yeah, he is,” Vin agreed. “Believe me when I tell y’all… that strength is the only thing that’s kept him goin’ this far. A lesser man never would have made it this far.”
Those words had the effect of silencing the group. For several minutes they simply sat there, staring anywhere but into the faces of the others around them. It was only when a soft bell rang out in the room, signaling visitation, that any of them moved. One by one, they filed out of the room and, with Vin and Buck in the lead, headed toward Larabee’s room.
Twenty minutes later, those same six men were back in the waiting area, still finding it difficult to speak, or even look, at their friends.
Never one to remain quiet for long, JD spoke in a soft, strained, voice. “Jesus… it’s hard to even recognize him.”
“It’s still Chris,” Josiah began, his voice a rumble like distant thunder.
“I know that, it’s just… what they did to him…” Dunne trailed off, unable to finish his thought. He didn’t need to; the rest of them were thinking the same thing. Swollen, bruised, cut and burned, limbs encased and lying awkwardly on the mattress. His face nearly hidden by the tubing that was allowing him to breathe more easily, this was not the Chris that had been their friend and supervisor for so many years.
Where had that man gone?
The next three days did nothing to answer that question. Larabee was kept sedated while his critically injured body was given the chance to begin the long healing process. The ICU department was never without at least one of the other members of his team present, along with hospital security and the official guard from Team Nine. While DPD would normally draw the guard duty, Orin Travis had made it very clear to all those under his guidance; nobody outside the ATF could be trusted. Therefore nobody outside the ATF, with the exception of the hospital staff, would gain entrance to Chris Larabee’s room.
Even that wasn’t enough for the six members of Team Seven. Buck and Vin, as the only two who had seen Simon and his followers, took turns so that one of them was nearby. Ezra and JD split their time between being at the hospital and taking care of things at the office. With three members of the team down, Team Seven was inactive at the moment, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have duties to perform. Nathan and Josiah, still on medical leave and dealing with their own injuries, helped out any way they could as well.
“Hey, J’siah,” Vin greeted his friend from over the top of the newspaper.
“Afternoon,” Josiah wheeled from the doorway to where the younger man sat. He shook his head at the food containers, empty soda cans, pillows and blankets, and other indicators that the members of Team Seven had claimed one corner of the waiting room. “You and Buck decided to build an annex to the CDC in here?”
With a lopsided grin, Tanner drawled, “Well, ya know, sometimes a man has a hankerin’ for the comforts ‘a home.”
“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that,” Sanchez retorted, stopping just outside the cluttered area. “Things quiet here?”
Nodding, Vin added, “Almost too quiet. It’s like one of those old Westerns, just before the Indians attack.”
“Well, maybe it’s just that Simon and his people have disappeared back into the woodwork.”
“I don’t think so,” Tanner disagreed, shaking his head. “He made it clear that he was letting us go because he wanted Chris to suffer humiliation and degradation; remembering being broken in front of me and Buck. Seems to me he’d want to stay around and enjoy it, at least for a while.”
“Maybe you’re right, but no one has found anything.”
“They find the campsite?”
“Yes, abandoned. They’re looking for clues… fingerprints… anything… but so far they said it looks as if no one’s been there in years.”
With a compassionate smile, Sanchez replied, “my sentiments, exactly.”
Heaving a sigh, Vin frowned as he asked, “I forgot, how did your doctor’s appointment go?”
“He said I’ll be attached to this contraption for another two or three weeks, then I’ll graduate to walker, then either crutches or a cane, depending on how things go. I can come back to work on desk duty, then.”
Nodding, the younger man gave a sly smile as he asked, “You tell him you’re already back to work?”
“Nope, and I’ll deny it if you tell him.”
“Josiah – “
Leaning forward and placing his elbows on the chair’s armrests, the older man interrupted, saying, “Vin, I’m not pushing it, but you can’t ask me to sit on the sidelines on this. Nathan and I both remember Chris haunting our hospital rooms when we were here. And, if the bastards who came after us hadn’t been arrested… thanks to you, Chris and Buck… he’d have been out there looking for them instead of heading off for a break. You know that, just as well as we do. So, trust me to know my limits and let’s get this fucking bastard and his animals off the streets, okay?”
Chuckling at the other man’s uncharacteristic use of profanity, Vin replied, “Well, all right then, Josiah, since you put it that way.”
Grinning now, himself, Sanchez nodded. “All right then.”
Buck grinned as two figures entered the waiting area. He had relieved Vin a few hours before, surprised to find that corner of the room had been picked up. Tanner had muttered something about not wanting to take away from the CDC’s fame as he’d scuffed out the door, heading for home. “Well, if it isn’t the Jacksons.”
“Hi, handsome,” Raine Jackson responded, smiling down at the brunet as she and her husband joined Buck in the waiting room. Then she shook her head and added, “Maybe that ‘handsome’ was a little premature. Have you had any sleep at all?”
“Now, don’t get all medical on me, darlin’. I caught a couple hours before I came here.”
Folding her arms and giving him a glare that would put Larabee’s to shame, Raine asked, “where?”
Wilmington looked over at his teammate, but quickly saw that he’d get no help there. Turning back, he said softly, “Chris’ office… his couch.”
“Buck Wilmington, I’ve got a mind to have security escort you out of here. You can’t help Chris if you fall on your face.”
“Damn it, Raine!” The big man barked. Then, receiving chastising looks from the other two, he continued more quietly, “Look, I’m tired. I won’t deny that. When this is over and done with, I intend to sleep for a week. But, for right now, we’ve got to be here. Vin and me, we’re the only two people who can identify Simon and his drones, so one of us needs to be here.”
The young woman reached out and cupped his chin. Deep, brown eyes regarded him sorrowfully as she said in a near whisper, “I know, Buck, but… I feel like we’re in danger of losing three friends here, not just one. I don’t like to see what this is doing to you and Vin.”
With a grin that made his mustache twitch, Wilmington said, “I know, sweetheart, and I’m sorry. You’ve had enough stress lately, I don’t like that we’re giving you more. But, I swear to you, as soon as it’s over, I will let you personally tuck me into bed.”
“Hey, now, I might have something to say about that!” Nathan protested.
With a chuckle and a playful swat at both men, Raine said, “Both of you, hush. And, husband, if I do tuck him in, you can stand in the doorway with a gun, all right?”
The tension broken for the moment, the trio settled in on the surprisingly comfortable furniture.
“What’s the latest news?” Nathan asked.
“Nothing new on either front. Still nothing on that freak, Simon and his morons; nothing new on Chris. They’re still keeping him sedated so he doesn’t fight the equipment. Every once in a while he opens his eyes, but he doesn’t seem to really be awake.”
Hearing the hopeless tone in his friend’s voice, Nathan said, “That’s good, though. If he’s resting, he’ll heal up better.”
“Do you think he’s going to?”
“Heal. Is he going to heal up, or is he…” Wilmington couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. He dropped his head to his hands, his elbows to his knees, as he stared at the floor. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he turned to see the other man staring at him.
“Buck,” Nathan said, gently, “every day; every hour; every minute that he lives is another victory. You have to believe that. Don’t give up.”
Shaking his head, the weary man said, “I’m not givin’ up on him. I didn’t give up on him back when Sarah and Adam… well, I’ve seen him in bad places before, Nate. It’s just… it’s damn tiring, worrying about him so damn often.”
With a grin, the dark-skinned man replied, “Now you know how I feel.”
Chuckling, Wilmington said, “No wonder you’re looking so old… haggard, really…”
“Hey, now! That’s my husband you’re talking about!” Raine protested.
Just then, the signal was given that visitors could enter the ICU rooms, and the three people stood, heading for the door.
He hovered near the edges of consciousness as they began to decrease the sedating medications. The pneumonia was improving and his battered and abused body was beginning to heal, especially the damage to his skull. The blood was slowly being reabsorbed, making it possible for them to avoid surgery. The sunburn was fading, although he was still covered in scaling, scabby flesh that the nursing staff took great care to keep moisturized and exfoliated to allow new skin to replace it. More than one joke had passed amongst his friends that Chris Larabee would emerge a new man.
Four days after their escape, Buck and Vin stood nearby as the tube was removed, allowing the blond the chance to breathe without its assistance. Both men grimaced at the sounds their friend made as the medical staff pulled the tube slowly, painfully, from his throat. Finally it was removed, and the staff rolled him to one side as he choked and wheezed through the transition. Finally, one of the nurses bathed his face, slipped a canula over his ears and beneath his nose, and laid him back on the mattress. Then, their job done, the medical staff drifted out of the room, reminding the two men to call if Larabee seemed to be in the least bit of distress. One man came up on each side of the bed.
Unconsciously, Buck reached out and brushed the pale man’s hair off his forehead. He was rewarded by a pair of watery, unfocused eyes regarding him from beneath lowered lids. “Hey, Stud, it’s just us.”
“Buck?” Chris rasped painfully, unable to orient himself enough to be certain who was speaking to him.
“Yeah, it’s me, and Junior’s here, too. Just wanted to let you know we’re here; we’re gonna be here with you, too. You’re okay.”
Larabee frowned, trying to understand the other man’s comment. He wasn’t certain where he was; barely knew who he was. But, before he could explore things any further, the darkness reclaimed him.
Watching the blond slip back into unconsciousness, Wilmington said softly, “At least he’s made it this far.”
“He’s gonna make it, Buck. Maybe not all the way, but he’s gonna stick around.”
“You a fortune teller now?” Wilmington asked, a grin twitching up one side of his mouth.
“No, just know what I know. Man’s gone through too much to just lay down and die, now.”
“I hope so, Vin. I truly hope so.”
After a week the security was decreased. Chris, now in a regular room, was awake and coherent and would recognize anything out of the ordinary. He had no memory of his time as Simon’s captive, and the only thing he was told was that he had been in an accident. Despite the relaxing guard, Buck and Vin refused to decrease their own vigilance. One of them stayed in the room every night, coming over as soon as work was over. Larabee was, if it was possible, more sullen than usual. There were hours that passed, when he spoke only in response to a direct question and, whenever possible, everything else was handled with a nod or shake of his head.
Vin handled his quietness by being just as quiet. During his nights at the hospital, they often did nothing more than eat dinner and watch ESPN. Alternately, Buck handled his quietness by talking more than usual. On his nights he regaled his friend with stories of conquests past, present and even future. It didn’t matter; most of the time Chris didn’t even seem to be listening, although he did seem to take comfort in the sound of his oldest friend’s voice.
And it was to that friend that he finally began to open up to.
Staring out into the darkness beyond his hospital room window, Chris softly interjected during one of Wilmington’s ramblings, “What happened out there, Buck?”
“What happened? I almost died, and I don’t remember why.”
With a sigh, Buck said, “I figured you were wondering; expected you to ask before now. What do you remember?” He didn’t want to be the one to trigger memories of what his friend had been through. Not now.
“I… there are flashes. I can barely even process them before they’re gone.”
“What’s the last clear memory you have?”
“Buck, come on…”
Putting a hand up to stop the complaint, he explained, “I just need to know what we need to discuss.”
“The last thing I remember…” he frowned, blond brows pulled tight together as he worked through the scattered memories in search of one that seemed whole. Finally, “Freddy Mercury.”
This elicited a quick bark of laugh, before Buck said, “Okay… I take it you mean Queen was on the radio. You gave up NPR?” He adopted a shocked tone.
Making a face, the convalescing man retorted with, “I was on vacation. Should I bother to ask what you were listening to?”
With a broad grin, the mustached man said simply, “No, unless you don’t remember what it’s like to be with a woman –“
Groaning, Chris said, quickly, “No. I don’t need that reenactment. I still remember the night you had that little number over when you were staying with me the last time.”
“Oh yeah… Marti? Pam? No, it was Winnie.”
Rolling his eyes, Chris brought them both back to his earlier question. “Buck, come on.”
Rather than saying anything, Wilmington busied himself pulling the chair closer to the bed, and then settling himself in it much slower than necessary.
“BUCK WILMINGTON,” Larabee barked in something very close to his most official sounding pitch.
Wincing at the tone, Buck said, “Fine. Look, we’re not certain exactly what happened. Vin got a call; they found your truck off the road up in Routt County.”
“Yeah. Near the cabins where you were planning to stay. It took us a while to get up there and, when we did, we found a couple of what we took to be deputies.”
“Took to be?”
With a nod, Buck didn’t directly explain as he said, “The next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a lot more people and taken on what I guess you’d call a forced march.”
When the narrative again stalled, the blond became impatient once more. And?”
“We found you… Chris… Simon had you.”
Suddenly Larabee felt as if he had been slammed in the chest with a sledge hammer. He gasped and dropped heavily back against the pillow. His breathing became shallow and ragged. He clenched the blanket at his chest with his undamaged hand and his eyes squeezed shut. Behind his lids a kaleidoscope of images battered at his aching brain and he gasped. “Oh… God!”
Buck was quickly at his friend’s side; one hand wrapping around Chris’ white knuckled one, the other cupping the man’s blanched face. “Chris? Chris! Come on, don’t do this to me!”
“God! I remember! I remember!” Larabee muttered, breathlessly, over and over, tears dropping from beneath his closed lids. Then the world seemed to erupt in a myriad of screaming sounds that his besieged mind wasn’t able to identify as the monitors beside his bed.
“Chris? Chris, listen to me! Listen Chris, you’re safe, Buddy. You’re safe!” Buck repeated loudly, trying to get through to his traumatized friend, even as the medical staff responded to the alarms and directed him away from the bed.
Moving only as far as the corner, Wilmington watched the drama unfold, his gut tightening at the thought that he could be responsible for his best friend’s death, after all that he had already survived.
JD frowned as he entered the room, wondering why Buck was standing in the corner, staring. The big man had his arms wrapped around himself as if he was chilled, even though the room was comfortable. Turning, he saw that Chris was laying very still, the sheets covering him to the chin and only a dim light above him. The cannula had been replaced by a full face oxygen mask. With concern in his voice, he called out, “Buck?”
Blinking back from the thoughts that had captured him, Wilmington turned and greeted the younger man, “Hey, Kid.”
Heaving a sigh, his long legs carrying him the few feet across the room, where he dropped heavily to the chair near the bed, Buck replied, “He’s startin’ to remember.”
“Remember? What, the… oh shit.” Dunne exclaimed as the other man’s words registered with him.
“Yeah, pretty much. Can you do me a favor?”
“Think you could stay with Chris for a while? They gave him something to knock him out, but… well, I’d rather not leave him alone.”
“Sure.” Dunne replied, uncomfortable with the idea, but keeping that discomfort to himself. “What should I be looking for if someone comes in?”
“If they’re not medical staff, they don’t come in.” Nodding toward the flat screen computer monitor that was posted on the wall just inside the door, he continued. “Medical staff that enters has to punch in a certain code. Without them punching in the code, which is changed every eight hours, if they do anything... mess with the machines, adjust anything, add somethin' to an IV, whatever... an alarm will sound and security will be alerted. They'll be in here in a hot second.”
“What if Chris comes around?”
“I doubt it’ll happen, they put him under pretty deep. But, if he does, I’ve got my cell. I’m just gonna take a walk… stretch my legs. I’ll be back in twenty minutes or so.”
Nodding, Dunne added, “Just be careful, okay?”
With a grin, Wilmington replied, “Yes, dad.”
“Shut up,” JD muttered as he dropped into the chair Buck had just vacated. He said it to the air, though; the other man had already left the room. Dunne tried to relax, but found it impossible. He felt as if he needed to be doing something, anything other than sitting there, watching Chris sleep.
His concerns ended a short time later, however, when the blond became restless; muttering words that were muted beneath the oxygen mask. JD moved forward, placing a hand on the older man’s shoulder. “Chris? It’s okay, you’re all right.”
Watery, pupil-filled eyes opened to half mast, flitting from side to side as Larabee tried to discover where he was. He continued to mutter, the unintelligible words interspersed with soft moans.
“Chris, listen to me.” Dunne was standing now, hovering at the side of the other man’s bed. “Listen. It’s me, JD, I’m right here, and you’re safe. Buck’s gonna be back in a while—“
Larabee began to thrash around, pulling the mask free from his face. “No… no… not Buck. Not Vin. No… please don’t let them see…”
Torn between replacing the mask and hearing what his friend and supervisor was saying, JD leaned closer. “Chris, the guys that hurt you, they’re gone. Buck and Vin got you home. Try to remember.”
“No… they’ll see… don’t let them… God, please… it hurts too bad… can’t hide…” He drifted back into unconsciousness.
Confused by the garbled speech, Dunne gently replaced the face mask and straightened out the bedding around the blond. He couldn’t decide if the words had simply been part of a nightmare, or if there was something more to them. He would ask Buck when the big man returned.
It was nearly another half hour before Buck returned to the room. During that time Chris had slept soundly, the silence in the room undisturbed, except for the mechanical sounds of the around him.
“Hey, Kid, things been quiet?” Wilmington asked as he entered the room. He seemed, if anything, more tired than he had been when he left. JD was reticent to add to the other man’s worries, but knew that Larabee’s mutterings needed to be reported and discussed.
“Ah, damn it,” Buck slumped in the chair that Dunne had vacated for him, scrubbing a hand over his face as he absorbed the younger man’s account of what had happened during his absence.
“What? It means something to you? I thought it was probably just part of his nightmare.”
“Nah… well, it’s a nightmare, that’s for sure. But… JD, they made certain he knew that me and Vin were there, watching. He’s remembering that… remembering what it was to be tortured in front of us.”
“You sure? I mean, we’ve all seen one another in some pretty bad situations. And you’ve seen Chris at his worst – “
“This was different, Kid. He was completely helpless and vulnerable out there. Even when we were in that damned block at night, Vin and I couldn’t do much to help him, and he couldn’t even move. Imagine lying there, your friends right there and you can’t even move. You’re laying, naked, on a concrete floor, bleeding and in pain – “
“Stop!” The word came from the bed, and the two men turned to see that the third had woken while they were talking. Chris had managed to pull the face mask loose again, and there were tears rolling down his face.
“JD,” Buck canted his head toward the door, silently asking his friend to leave.
With a somber nod, JD silently crept from the room.
Coming to lean over the railing, Buck tried to catch Larabee’s eye, but the blond seemed unable to look at him. “Hey, you listen to me, Chris Larabee. What that fuckin’ son of a bitch did… you have nothing to feel bad about. That sick fuck is gonna pay for what he did, and he’s gonna pay dear.”
Staring hard at a spot on the ceiling, Chris said, softly, “Buck, what happened out there… God! I tried so hard not to give in, but…”
Reaching out, Wilmington gently turned the blond’s face toward him. “Damn it, Chris, you didn’t give in. You took what those monsters dished out and you kept going.”
“Didn’t keep… going… couldn’t…”
Heaving a sigh, the bigger man said, “Chris, you’re still alive and to me, that’s proof positive that you kept going. You need to be proud of that, not… not focusing on what that mother fucker did to you.”
“But you… Vin… you saw…”
“What we saw, Cowboy, was how strong you are.”
The two men turned to see that Vin had entered the room while they were talking. Buck shook his head, wondering if the man’s presence was thanks to that ‘something’ the two men shared, that allowed them to know when the other was in need, or a simple coincidence. Beside him, Chris tensed for a few seconds, but then slowly calmed. Vin almost always had that effect on him, permitting him to relax when everything else in his life had him on edge.
Tanner came up to the other side of the bed, leaning against the rail as he caught his friend’s gaze. “What we saw was that bastard and all his lackeys, doin’ their best to destroy you, but they couldn’t. Yeah, they might’ve dented ya some, but they didn’t tear you down. They busted ya up, but they didn’t bust you apart. You’re still here, Chris Larabee, and we’re right beside you, just where we’ve always been.”
Chris looked from one man to the other, reading the truth in two sets of concerned, blue eyes. He relaxed a little more, the tension slowly draining from his battered body. All he could manage to put into words, was, “Yeah?”
With a crooked grin, Tanner said, “Yeah. Now, you need to go on back to sleep and let your body work on healin’. Me and Buck, we’ll be right here, okay?”
The two men wiped his perspiration and tear-streaked face, replaced his oxygen mask, and settled him more comfortably on the bed. Reluctantly Larabee accepted their ministrations, still feeling weak and helpless, but finding only compassion and friendship in the gestures. As the two men moved back, he gave into his body’s need for rest, and slipped into a healing sleep.
As they moved back away from the bed, Buck recounted the evening’s activities to the smaller man, then he teased, “But you probably already know that.”
“What?” Tanner frowned at the strange words. Then when he saw the humor glittering behind the sadness in the other man’s eyes, he said, “Oh, hell, Bucklin. I just couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d come over and see if you wanted to go home.”
Punching the other man in the shoulder, Tanner growled, “Shut up, ya pain in the ass. Me and Chris don’t have some sort of psychic connection. That only happens on those infomercials you see at 3:00 am.”
Wilmington’s smile faded, and he said in a quiet voice, “I shouldn’t have told him.”
“Chris? About what happened?” Vin asked, receiving an affirmative nod to both questions. “He was startin’ to remember, you said so yourself. Better he was in here, where he could be taken care of, then him rememberin’ later on, when he’s by himself or something.”
“I guess… “
“Buck, you can’t protect him from this. Even if he never remembered, he’d know somethin’ bad happened, and it would make him crazy.” Vin stared up at the taller man with concern written across his handsome features.
“But, damn it, why him? What is it about Chris that makes Simon want to tear him apart?”
Leaning back against the wall, arms folded across his chest, Vin shook his head. “All I can tell you is what I’ve been thinkin’ about since this all happened. Five years ago, Chris got away. Me and him, we spoiled all the psychotic fantasies the son of a bitch was tryin’ to play out. We cost him most of his ‘followers’. And, however that bastard’s mind works, he’s made Chris the symbol for every fucked up thing that’s happened in his sick, twisted life.”
Buck studied the other man for a minute, a look of concentration on his face. Finally, he said, “You’ve been hangin’ around Josiah too much.”
“You sayin’ it doesn’t make sense?”
“No, actually it makes a lot of sense. But you sound enough like ‘Siah that it’s scary!”
After almost three weeks of healing, it was no longer necessary for Chris to be in the hospital, but he wasn’t able to go home alone with all of his healing injuries. The medical staff recommended a long term rehab facility. His six friends were in complete agreement that something like that could only end badly. They only had to convince Chris and the doctor that they could offer a better alternative.
“I don’t need a fucking babysitter, let alone six of them.” Larabee growled, shifting a glare from one to another as his team members offered their alternative.
“Chris, you’ve got three… count ‘em, THREE… casts and it’s going to be at least another two to six weeks before they come off. And, even then, you’re not going to be up to full strength.” Buck argued.
“And I’m supposed to simply say yes, and expect you guys… the members of my team, and my subordinates at work as well as subversives as friends… to give me a bath and… fuck… all the other stuff that I can’t do for myself yet?”
“Nope, we’ve got that covered.” Vin said reassuringly.
“Chris, we’ve got a home health care service in mind. They can come in and do, well, all of that stuff, for you, as well as working with you when you’re out of the casts and able to move around more on your own.” Josiah put in.
“All we’re saying is that one of us will stay out at the ranch with you. We’ve already got a tentative schedule made out, based on when you’re likely to be discharged,” Nathan added.
“Yeah, you know how much JD enjoys makin’ charts and stuff –“ Buck chided.
“Shut up, Buck!” The youngest member of the team protested. Then he admitted to Chris, “I do have a tentative schedule worked out so that one of us is always out there.”
“And you’re all happy with the thought of spending time there, rather than doing your job, or sleeping in your own bed,” was the only thing the blond could come up with in way of argument. His gaze landed on Vin.
“Not like it’s the first time we’ve crashed in your guest room.”
“Most certainly, and if you were being honest with yourself, Chris, I know that you would be able to admit that you’d do the same for any of us.” Ezra spoke for the first time since they had entered the room.
Larabee heaved a deep sigh, leaned back against the pillow, and allowed his glare to relax. The logical part of his mind recognized that this was the best case scenario, otherwise he would be spending another three or four weeks in a rehab facility, building up his strength so that he could – literally – get back on his feet. At the same time, it went against everything in him to be reliant on the others for so much. Even though the thought, no matter how far back it was in his mind, of being alone any time soon, chilled him.
“Okay… and... thanks, guys.”
Slapping his old friend on his one, uninjured limb, Buck smiled broadly as he said, “Well, all right then.”
By the time Chris was ready to be released from the hospital they had removed the cast on his right leg, but he was still going to be in a wheelchair for another few weeks. The doctor felt that the cast on his arm could be removed in another week however; Gerry was concerned about his left leg.
“Chris, I don’t want to worry you unduly, but I know you well enough to know you want the truth. You’re going to need a lot of therapy before this is over. The injury to your left leg is significant, and I can’t say with complete certainly that you’ll regain complete use of it.”
“Meaning, there is a possibility that you’ll have a permanent and significant limp, requiring you to use a cane and, possibly, even a brace.”
He felt as if the blood in his veins had turned to ice water, and the lights seemed to dim for a few seconds. The thought of being permanently disabled; unable to remain in the field and relegated to desk duty… or even worse, to have to leave the agency all together… his mind refused to accept the man’s diagnosis. He would recover; would be one hundred percent. All he said was, “All right.”
“Chris?” Gerry frowned; he hadn’t expected it to be nearly this easy.
Focusing his gaze on the other man, Larabee said, “I got it, Doc. It’s going to be a long, bumpy road, and I may not like how it turns out.”
“That’s it in a nutshell, I just… I guess I wasn’t expecting you to be so accepting of the prognosis.”
Shaking his head, Chris said, “I’m not accepting anything, Frank. But… well, what’s the use of arguing with you about something that’s out of both our hands?”
“Okay,” the medico still wasn’t convinced, but didn’t see anything that he could, realistically, argue with the other man about. He just wasn’t comfortable with a calm, logical Chris Larabee especially when it came to his ability to heal; quickly and completely. Putting that aside, he said, “Well, then, I’ll be signing the discharge papers tomorrow, barring anything unforeseen. I would suppose that you know that your house has been checked out and the others have made the accommodations you’re going to need.”
“Yeah; ramp, hospital bed, commode…etc. JD’s been keeping me filled in, including pictures of just about every inch of my home.”
“It’s all necessary – “
Putting up a hand, Chris said, “I know. It’s just… difficult.”
“I can only imagine. But, you need to remember that, at least most of it, is going to be temporary.”
The doctor stared hard at the man sitting in the bed, looking for some clue of what he was thinking. As he had been for most of the last two weeks, Chris Larabee was as difficult to read as a statue, and sometimes the statue would be easier to comprehend. But, like the proverbial still waters, there was something going on beneath that too calm exterior. Taking a chance at losing his head, he asked, “Chris, have you considered therapy?”
“Uh, Doc, I’ve got therapists scheduled like twenty hours a week.” The injured man replied with a sarcastic tone.
“Not for your physical injuries, Chris.”
Shooting a glare at the other man, Larabee growled, “I’m not a fucking head case.”
“Did I say you were?” Despite his own frustration, the doctor kept his tone level. Then, when his patient didn’t respond, he continued, “Chris, what you went through in that madman’s hands? Nobody, and I mean nobody, could get through that without experiencing some psychic damage.”
“Oh? I guess that’s what the nurses are hearing when you start yelling at the top of your lungs in the middle of the night?”
“So, I’ve had a few nightmares,” Chris spat out defensively. “That doesn’t mean I’m crazy.”
Frank Gerry shed his professional persona and glared back at his patient. “Have I said you’re ‘crazy’? No, I haven’t, because I don’t believe you are. What I’m saying, Mister Larabee, is that you were through something extremely traumatic and that, not to work through it could leave you as damaged psychologically as what those people did to you physically. Now, you can play the uber-macho tough guy all you want, Chris, but I ain’t buyin’ it.” With that the doctor rose from the chair he had been sitting in, and started toward the door. As he reached it he turned back and said, “I’ll have the paperwork ready for you by noon tomorrow, you may want to let your friends know it.”
Chris sat back, staring at the closed door for several minutes after the doctor left. They had dealt with the doctor far more often than he wanted to think about, but never had he witnessed the man leave behind his calm, cool and collected professional demeanor.
He burrowed his head into the pillow, staring up at the ceiling. Deep down, he knew that Gerry was right. Since they’d weaned him off most of his medication he had been wakened from sleep by visions that, once he was awake, he couldn’t remember. But the feelings – the fear – he felt stayed with him for several hours afterward. As much as he didn’t want to think about it, the man was right. He needed to talk to someone.
Reaching out he retrieved the handset from his room phone. It took a minute for him to remember the number he wanted; like most people, he had all the important phone numbers programed into his cell phone. Remembering it, he punched the numbers into the phone. It took three rings before the phone was picked up at the other end.
“Josiah? It’s Chris. I need to talk to you… I need your opinion on something.”
“Sure thing, Boss, what can I do for you?”
Larabee sighed. “Think you could come over? I hate to ask you, but… I just don’t want to talk about it over the phone.”
“Sure. I can be there in about half an hour.”
Now there was a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Preacher.”
Chris looked up from the newspaper he was reading at the sound of a thump at the door. Josiah made his way into the room, leaning on a heavy duty walker that was cheerfully decorated with a variety of things that swung from thread or yarn. He shook his head as he recognized a crow, dangling feet up, a brightly beaded Mandela, and at least three God's Eyes made of Popsicle sticks and yarn. “Good lord, how do you move that thing with all the decorations?”
With a deep chuckle, Sanchez nudged a chair closer to the bed and dropped heavily into it. “Some of the kids at the Mission thought it needed… something. And, well, I figure I can build up my muscles this way.”
“Yeah, right!” Chris just shook his head. If there was one thing the older man didn’t need to worry about, it was increasing his upper body strength. He wasn’t certain that the rumors that Josiah had broken the back of more than one enemy soldier in Vietnam weren’t true.
They made small talk for a few minutes, before Sanchez finally brought them to the reason for his visit. “What’s going on, Chris?”
Suddenly wishing that he hadn’t called the team profiler, Larabee stammered, “I’m just wondering… how... well, if the effects of being out there…”
Barely hiding his shock at how difficult it was for Chris to address his situation, Josiah, offered, “I heard a couple of the nurses’ mention that you’ve been having nightmares. I’d imagine they have something to do with your abduction and the things that happened to you while you were in Simon’s hands. Or am I wrong?”
Shaking his head, Chris said quietly, “No you’re not wrong. I can’t remember the dreams… the nightmares. But I wake up and my heart’s pounding, I’m out of breath like I’ve run fifty miles, I’m covered in sweat and the anxiety is through the roof.”
“Not unusual, given the circumstances.”
“So… how long is it going to last?”
With a sympathetic grin, Sanchez said, “There’s no way of knowing that, Chris. Look, I know you don’t want to hear this…”
“I already did, from Gerry. I need to go talk to a shrink.”
“As soon as you’re feeling better physically, definitely. For now, I’d say we talk to the department psychiatrist about putting you on something to help with the anxiety. Why don’t I see if Tom can come up here to talk to you?”
“They’re cutting me loose tomorrow. The earlier the better as far as I’m concerned.”
“All right then, I’ll talk to him about coming out to the ranch to see you.”
“I… yeah, okay. Thanks.”
The two men settled back then, returning to discussing Josiah’s recovery and other things that were happening in their world. After an hour, the older man saw how tired his friend was becoming, so he excused himself and left for home. Behind him, Chris tried to get comfortable, but decided it wasn’t happening. Picking up the TV remote, he turned the set on and began flipping through the channels. The news channel suddenly seemed repellant. The last thing he wanted to do was listen to reports that detailed the ugliness of the human race right now. ESPN seemed little better, with reports of sports figures being arrested for anything from drugs to abusive behavior. He finally found an old, black and white western that he vaguely remembered seeing before. Setting the remote on the bedside tray, he settled in to watch it...
… and woke up to the sound of a scream. His scream. He was soaked with sweat and was sitting up in bed. Someone was standing near, saying something that he couldn't understand. Fear was still fueling his actions, and he struck out with a cast encased arm. Before he made contact, though, his arm was restrained.
“Whoa there, Cowboy!”
Suddenly spent, he fell back against the bed, his breathing labored; body drenched in sweat. Blinking to clear his vision, he croaked out, “Vin?”
Concern evident on his face, Tanner replied, “It's me. You have another one of those dreams?”
“Yeah,” he wiped a trembling hand over his face, “I guess.”
Shaking his head, Larabee replied, “Never do.”
Vin settled in the chair nearby and asked, “You never remember anything?”
Again shaking his head, Chris clarified, “No. I've tried to recall some part of it, but there's nothing. Not even a single image; just blackness.” Then he shook his head. “No, that's not completely right. There's this feeling.”
When his friend hesitated, Tanner prompted, “Feelin'?”
Drawing a deep breath and letting it out slowly, the battered blond said softly, “Fear... anger... shame.”
“You've got nothin' to be ashamed of, Chris!” Vin's response was fueled by anger.
With a weary smile, Chris replied, “Vin I do remember enough to... to suss out what happened out there. I know what you... and Buck... witnessed --”
“We've been through this before, Larabee,” Tanner drawled. What I saw... well, if it changed my perception of you, it only made me see you as stronger.”
Leaning forward, blue eyes alight with emotion, Tanner replied, “Yeah... right! Damn it Chris, don't let that son of a bitch win!”
“I'm not, but --”
“No, Chris, no buts. That sick fuck did what he did to break you, and he knew the best way to do it was in front of your friends.”
“I was helpless... I couldn't do a damn thing.”
“You were physically restrained, but you didn't give up. Anyone else would have given up and died. But you didn't. You stood up to everything Simon threw at you and you're still standin'.” With a lopsided grin, he rapped a knuckle on the case on his left leg. “So to speak.”
Larabee couldn't help but chuckle as he replied, “Smart ass.”
“Hey, thought ya kept me around for my sparklin' wit.” Vin chided with a grin.
“Oh, sure. Just like I keep Buck around because of his fear of women and Ezra for his generous nature.”
Vin felt something lift from his chest as the blond smiled. This time it was a brilliant, genuine smile. He saw a glimpse of the “old Chris”; the strong, competent man who had been the mastermind behind the creation of the greatest ATF Team in the country. Perhaps things were going to return to normal, after all. At least as normal as the team had ever been.
By late afternoon the members of “The Magnificent Seven” had gathered at Larabee's ranch. Kathy, one of the home health care team that would be working with Chris, had been out to check on her patient, and to make certain that everything was in place. On his part, Larabee had been receptive and cooperative, which secretly shocked his six friends.
He had been settled into a hospital bed, which had been placed in his bedroom, near his regular bed. Exhausted, he was quickly asleep and, now that he was home, he seemed at peace for the first time in far too long.
The others settled in the den, relaxed now as well. Raine had brought both her husband and Josiah, while Casey had come out with JD. The two women had volunteered to fix dinner, allowing the men to relax and feel more like the friends they were. Josiah and Nathan were settled in the recliners with their feet up, while Buck and Ezra took the couch. JD was stretched out in front of the television, his attention split between the game they were watching, and his latest tech magazine. Vin had gone out to check on the horses.
The men, their nerves frayed and their bodies exhausted, watched the game passively, only the most exciting of plays eliciting more than a few words. Josiah had to be roused twice, after his snoring drowned out the television. More than anything this gathering came out of a need to heal emotionally, both as individuals and as a team.
The women understood this as well, and the dinner they prepared was made up of the comfort foods they had come to know well; those that gave their men and their friends a sense of home and peace. Raine crept into Chris' room and found him just waking.
“Hey sleepyhead, I wanted to see if you felt like getting out of bed for dinner, or if you wanted us to bring you a tray?”
“I'm not really hungry,” Chris lied, even though his stomach grumbled as he spoke.
“Chris, come on now, it's me.” The young woman perched on the edge of his borrowed bed. “You are hungry, what's up?”
Turning away, he muttered. “I can't even cut up my own damn meat, Raine. Can't fill my own plate... it's just...”
“Embarrassing,” Raine filled in for him, when he didn't seem to be willing to himself. “Chris, None of us are going to think any less of you for needing help. If it helps, I'll fill everyone's plate and you don't have to worry about cutting the meat, because we made a beef roast that falls apart as soon as you touch it.”
“Your roast?” There was a sparkle in the hazel-green eyes.
“Yes. Along with new potatoes, carrots, green bean casserole, yeast rolls, sweet tea, oh, and apple crumble and red velvet cake for dessert.”
Larabee groaned, “Woman, I just put on ten pounds listening to that menu! Okay, if the boys can get me in there, I'll come to dinner.”
Leaning down, Raine kissed the blond on the forehead. “Good, because you know those boys... I'm not sure how we'd seat everyone in here!”
Chris smiled, shaking his head as the young woman left the room. He knew Nathan's wife well enough to know that, if he'd wanted to stay in bed, she'd have managed to get all of them into the bedroom. Then he settled back with a sigh. His delight at being home was tempered by his continued frustration at being unable to even move on his own.
“Time”, he kept reminding himself. “It's just going to take time.” He was not going to settle for anything other than a full recovery.
Dinner was a rather raucous affair, thanks to JD, Vin and Buck. The trio seemed to be attempting to outdo every Three Stooges bit they had ever seen. Nobody seemed to be inclined to try and get them to calm down, either. Chris, even when his features became pale and lined with pain, couldn't keep from laughing.
Raine had made certain that everything on his plate was prepared so that he could manage it one-handed. Although his appetite wasn't as robust as it normally was, he managed to almost clear his plate. He even had room for small helpings of both deserts.
By the time Buck wheeled him back into his bedroom, he was comfortably drowsy. He didn't even seem overly concerned about how much his friend had to do to get him prepared for bed. Vin wandered in, whether by coincidence or design he didn't know, just in time to help get him settled into bed for the night. By the time they were finished, he was nearly asleep. A small smile conveyed his thanks as he drifted off.
Unbeknownst to the blond, JD had hooked up a monitor in the bedroom. Whoever was “on duty” at the ranch could keep tabs on him, both by an auditory link they could keep with them, or by activating the picture in picture feature on the television in the den. That way they could at least give Chris the illusion of privacy, so he didn't feel too overwhelmed by having someone around all the time.
“Hey, sleepyhead, are you planning on going home tonight, or should I just throw a blanket over you?”
Nathan blinked, bringing his wife's beautiful face into focus. He smiled sleepily. “Sorry, Baby, your dinner was so good it put me down for the count.”
“Mm hm. Well, just remember, husband, when you're cleared for active duty, that means all duty. That includes cleaning up after dinner.”
“Yes, dear,” Nathan said contritely, before giving his wife one of his most charming smiles. Looking around he saw that he wasn't the only one who had dozed off. Casey was trying to wake JD, Josiah was snoring in the other recliner, and Ezra had stretched out on the couch. “Where's Buck and Vin?”
“Vin's already gone to bed, in with Chris. Buck's taking a shower... at least that's what I'm assuming from the singing going on in the guest bath.”
“Didn't think we'd get either of them to leave right off.”
“Don't think anybody did,” Josiah agreed with a frown. “They still feel responsible for Chris' well-being.”
“Lotta good my chart did,” JD grumbled as he pushed himself to his feet.
“We'll use it,” Ezra responded from where he lay, eyes still closed. “Just not today.”
“In the meantime, let's get you guys home,” Raine reached out a hand to help her husband to his feet.
“Ezra, are you okay to drive? We could drop you off,” Casey asked as she and JD prepared to leave.
“I'm fine, my dear, thank you.”
Ten minutes later, the last set of tail lights disappeared down the lane. Buck, dressed in sleep pants and a tee shirt, watched them disappear, then turned off the porch light. He set the alarm, checked the rest of the house, and shuffled off to bed.
Vin woke with a yawn, blinking open sleep-filled eyes. He frowned when he couldn't quite identify where he was. Then, realizing he was in Chris' bedroom, he was shocked to realize that he had slept through the night. He cursed softly and sat up.
Nearby, Chris lay, sleeping soundly. Climbing out of bed, Vin padded across the room. Larabee seemed to be resting comfortable; no pain registering on his face. Reaching out, he gently shook the man. “Hey, Cowboy, time to wake up.”
Startled, even by the soft touch, Larabee's eyes sprang open. Fear was there, but it quickly dissipated when he realized where he was and who had touched him. “Vin,” he managed to breathe out.
“Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. Reckon it's time to get this day on the road. They'll be out later today to start therapy and... stuff.” There was no reason to name it all, none of them were comfortable thinking about why one of the visitors was coming for, especially Chris himself.
The awkward silence was broken by a tap on the door. Buck poked his head in and smiled at the sight of the two, sleep rumpled, men. He winked as he said to Chris, “Got a young woman here who wants your body.”
There was a distinctly feminine chuckle then, “That is not what I said at all, Mister Wilmington!”
Chris rolled his eyes. “Leave it to you to hit on my... visitors.” He stumbled over the last word, not wanting to give title to the people who would be coming out several times a day to care for him. “Let her in already.”
The big man backed away from the door and waved n a young woman. Inside the room, Vin nodded and headed to the door to give them both some privacy. The young woman who entered the room was a slightly overweight redhead who had a brilliant smile and sparkling blue eyes. She wore scrubs with pictures of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh on the shirt, and a pair of crisply white shoes. “Mister Larabee, my name is Kim, from Home Helpers.” She held up and ID badge that hung from a bright red lanyard that she, in turn, wore around her neck. The ID card was simple, but seemed legitimate.
“Kim, considering how up close and personal we'll be getting, please, call me Chris.”
“Okay, Chris it is. So how is it, being home?”
With a grin, the blond said, “It has its good points... and its not so good points...”
“And I'm sure that being taken care of isn't one of the good points.”
“Well...” he paused, then sighed, “yeah.”
“Don't blame you at all. I'll try to make it as painless as possible, okay?” They continued to make small talk for a few minutes, allowing them both to feel more comfortable when thinking about what came next.
By the time Larabee's morning routine was taken care of and he was wheeled to the kitchen table, Buck and Vin had breakfast prepared and on the table. They offered the young woman some as well, but she declined. Making certain that Chris was comfortable and able to manage his breakfast, she excused herself and went back into the bedroom. Later they would find that she had made up his bed and put the bathroom back in order. Even the towels and other things were laundered.
After breakfast they took Chris out to the barn. Besides the ramp, they had put in a new sidewalk that was wide enough to accommodate the wheelchair.
Out in the barn, Vin went to check on Peso, while Buck took Chris to Pony's stall. The gelding nickered a greeting to the man who had been gone for so long. Chris reached up and scratched the big head, brushing his fingers through the animal's mane. Buck watched the exchange of care and devotion, smiling when he saw his old friend relax a bit more. It seemed as if, with each touch of the familiar, Larabee shed a little more of the pain and torment that had welded itself around him like a suit of armor.
They remained in the barn and corral area of the ranch until Chris suddenly seemed to wilt. A quick trip back to the house was in order. There they made certain their friend took his medication and then Vin and Buck helped him into bed.
There was a new face when he woke next; a new name to learn. This one introduced herself as Shannon, and she would be his physical therapist. She worked with him for a while, evaluating his abilities. She praised him for his impressive abilities when he showed motivation to be independent once more. She reassured him when he couldn't do something, pointing out that his overall health and mindset would stand him well in improving quickly. She avoided saying things like “one-hundred percent” and “complete recovery”. He noticed the omission but didn't comment on it. She didn't know him; she didn't know what he could do if he put his mind to it.
Late in the afternoon, Tom Blackman, the department's psychiatrist, came out and evaluated Chris' mental status. After a call to Frank Gerry's office, he prescribed medications that wouldn't interfere with those already prescribed, that would help Chris with the anxiety and depression he was dealing with. They made a tentative plan for him to add “talk” to his other therapies in a few weeks; as soon as they all agreed that he was physically strong enough to face those demons.
The next few weeks took on a routine. Kim came every morning to get him dressed and ready for the day. Shannon came three times a week for physical therapy. Then there was April who came twice a week for occupational therapy. Dava was a nurse who came out once a week to check his vital signs and make certain he was taking his medications. It was Dava who earned his wrath most often; he seemed to vent his frustrations most when she was there to catch them. It wasn't uncommon for her to end the visit with a door shut with just a bit more force than necessary.
After the second day home, he threatened to shoot Vin and Buck if they didn't go home and get some true rest. They then made use of JD's slightly revised schedule, with the others coming out to stay with him in turns. Even Casey and Raine came out; Casey with JD and Raine with Nathan.
It wasn't long before the others were well acquainted with his nightmares. Despite the medications that Blackman had prescribed and the needs of his healing body, he found it difficult to face sleep each night. When sleep did claim him, it was less restful than it should have been.
Josiah and Ezra happened to be on duty on one of Larabee's worst nights. He woke everyone up, screaming incoherently around 3 am. Josiah, sleeping in the same room, limped over to the hospital bed. Ezra was at the bedside almost as quickly, blinking owlishly and carrying his handgun.
“Chris! Chris, wake up, you're safe. Chris!” Josiah called out softly, trying to get through to the sleeping man. It took almost five minutes for him to get through Larabee, however.
Finally, wide, panic filled eyes opened and the blond stared around himself fearfully. It was another few minutes before he was truly awake and alert. By that time his friends were changing sweat soaked bedding and helping him into fresh pajamas. He leaned against Josiah, his body trembling and weakened from the fear invoking nightmare. He said nothing until they managed to get him back into bed, and then he could only dredge up the energy to say, “Thanks.”
Moving away enough that Chris would go back to sleep, the other two men waited silently until he was snoring softly. With a quick cant of the head, Josiah motioned Ezra out into the hall. They made their way to the den, where the bigger man eased himself down into one of the recliners while Ezra uncharacteristically slouched on the couch.
“I fear for our esteemed leader's mental health,” Standish said in a solemn tone.
“I agree. He's not going to be able to recover fully as long as his mental state is in such chaos. I think I'll call Tom first thing and talk to him about all this.”
I think that would be most prudent. In the meantime, I believe I'll retire once more in hopes that the rest of the night is without incident.”
Josiah nodded. “I think I'll do the same.”
Josiah hung up the phone, but sat there for a long moment, simply staring at the silent instrument. Ezra watched him, waiting for the other man to say something. When he didn't Standish asked, “What did he say?”
With a shake of the head, Josiah said softly, “He doesn't feel that there's much that could be accomplished right now. Chris needs to be stronger, physically.”
“But the toll his mental state is taking on him physically...”
“You don't have to sell me on it, Ezra, but Tom won't budge on his decision. He'll start seeing Chris when Chris is released from Gerry's care.”
“Which could be weeks yet. In the meantime --”
“In the meantime I'll cope.” Both men turned to see Chris wheeling himself into the den, Kim close behind him. “I'm sorry I woke you two up last night. If you want to... to stay away, I'll understand.”
“That's not what I meant at all, Chris,” Ezra exclaimed, “and I have no intention of walking away from you right now. I'm simply... well, I'm concerned about your mental health.”
“We both are, Chris.” Josiah added.
“And a few nightmares mean I'm a fucking headcase, right?”
“No. Please don't twist my words, that's not what I meant at all,” Ezra argued, a tinge of anger in his words.
“Well, exactly what did you mean, if not that I'm a headcase?”
Josiah intervened. “What he meant was that we're concerned about you; how your mental health is affecting your physical health. I thought that, perhaps, it was time to begin working through the mental wounds.”
“But what? Blackman thinks I'm too fucked up to manage it right now?”
“Essentially, yes,” Sanchez smiled and tried attempt to diffuse the situation with humor. It didn't work.
Anger burning in his chest, Chris said, too softly, “Look, why don't you two go on in to work. Kim's here with me, and you know how it's going to be; a parade of people trying to keep me from becoming a complete vegetable.”
“Chris, you're feeling sorry for yourself,” Kim pointed out. “Your friends are simply concerned about you.”
“Yeah, so concerned that neither of them saw that I wheeled myself in here. So much for being concerned.” With that, Larabee managed to turn the wheelchair around and wheeled himself out of the den.
Behind him, Kim managed a brief smile. “He was really excited about the fact that he's developed the strength to ambulate on his own. Look, why don't you two go into town and have breakfast? I've got some time, I can stick around for... let's say, an hour? Give everyone some time to cool down.”
“Yes, perhaps a breather would be a good idea,” Standish agreed.
Pushing himself to his feet and limping toward the door, Josiah said, “You drive, but we'll take my vehicle, I can't fold myself up quite enough to get into that little rocket ship of yours.”
With a sigh, Ezra followed the other man from the room, grumbling, “Oh joy, I can hardly wait to see how much damage that antique of yours will do to my spine this time.”
Chris sat on the deck, staring out across the broad expanse of his backyard. It seemed like years since he had been on Pony's back, riding out across the pastures beyond and up into the hills. He had taken it all for granted, and now he was fearful that he would never know that freedom again. He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. He regretted the fact that he had been so angry with Josiah and Ezra. They didn't deserve that anger and, deep down, he felt that he couldn't afford to lose any of the friendships he had managed to develop over the last few years.
“Hey, boss,” Josiah's deep rumble of a voice drew Larabee out of his thoughts.
“Hey. Didn't expect you boys back so soon.”
The team's profiler came into view, limped across the deck, and settled into one of the heavy, wooden Adirondack chairs. “It's been over an hour. I wanted to apologize –“
“No, you guys don't have a thing to apologize for. What happened? It's all on me, okay? I shouldn't have jumped on you two when you were only trying to help me out. It's just...”
Leaning forward when the pause lengthened, Josiah prompted, “Just what?”
Shaking his head, Larabee admitted, “I'm just afraid that... that this is it. That I'm not going to come back from this one. Not enough to continue as a field agent, anyway.”
Nodding, Josiah said, “I've been worried about the same thing myself. I'm not coming back from this one, not like I did when I was younger.”
Managing a wry grin, Chris said, “It sucks, doesn't it? Getting old?”
“It's not for sissies, as they say,” the older man responded with a deep throated chuckle.
Letting out a heavy sigh, Chris asked, “So what happens to us? What sort of pasture do old, broken down field agents find themselves sent out to?”
“Teaching, kicked upstairs with Travis... there are always alternatives.”
“No. Not for me. Can you see me teaching a classroom filled with wet-behind-the-ears, snot nosed know-it-alls? Or leading a meeting regarding the newest regs?”
Grinning, Josiah replied, “For about ten minutes, then they'd be calling people in to take you down before you killed the rest of the people in the room.”
“Ten, huh? You give me too much credit, Preacher.”
“Chris, don't count yourself out, okay? You're a decade younger than me, I don't foresee you changing jobs any time soon.”
“I envy you your faith, Josiah.” Chris stared back out across the yard. “I just don't know...”
Standing and crossing to where the other man sat, Josiah laid a large hand on one, bowed shoulder. “Faith isn't about knowing, Chris. It's about believing.” With that, he went back into the house, leaving Larabee to his thoughts.
Behind him, Chris could do nothing but shake his head. Leave it to Josiah to set things into perspective with nothing more than a few words.
The members of ATF Team Seven began to slowly recover; as a team, as friends, and as individuals. Chris graduated from wheelchair to walker to crutches over time. He was cleared by the doctor to enter into psychotherapy and began seeing Tom Blackburn. After his first session, Vin and Buck took him back home, both of them concerned for their friend. While Chris was quiet the rest of the evening, he seemed to have recovered by the next morning. He was back in his own bed; in fact almost all of the accommodations that had been brought into his home had been removed. The ramp was one of the few things left to remind him of his continued disability.
Team Three had been searching for Simon and his followers since the accident, but there was nothing to be found that would lead them to the madman who had nearly destroyed Chris Larabee. Mike Casey, Three's SAC, was ready to close the case, but Travis refused. Until John Simon was either confirmed dead or incarcerated, he would be a dangerous threat to Chris Larabee as an individual and the Bureau as a whole. He would continue to be searched for. Chris would have liked to ask for the assignment, but knew that it would never be granted. Instead, he put all of his energies into getting better; both physically and psychologically.
When he graduated to a cane three months later, Chris was cleared for desk duty. While he wouldn't be able to accompany his men, other than in the surveillance van at the most, he could still direct their activities.
Chris couldn't help but smile as he entered the door to Team Seven's suite. The room was filled with not only his men, but Orin Travis, and several other upper level agents. The bullpen was decorated in Blue, yellow and black streamers and balloons, and there was a banner hanging in front of his office that said, “Welcome Home!” They ushered the party back into the conference room, which was filled with cake, doughnuts, bagels, fruit, and plenty of coffee. Orin insisted that Chris sat down, and even brought him a plate of food and a cup of coffee himself.
By the end of the day, Chris had caught up on what was going on both in the office and in the field. He felt as if he had run a marathon and, by three, he was pushing himself to stay upright. He wanted a cup of coffee, but the thought of getting up and walking down the hall to the conference room, filling the cup, and walking all the way back to his office kept him in his chair. He rubbed at grit filled eyes, closing them for a few minutes to relieve the strain of long hours on the computer.
Suddenly he felt a presence nearby. Jerking his head up and letting out a startled gasp, he slumped back in his chair when he saw Vin standing nearby, looking almost as alarmed as he felt.
“Chris? Ya alright?”
“Yeah... yeah, you just caught me off-guard.”
Walking the rest of the way across the room and setting the cup of coffee he held on the desk, the team's sniper said, “Sorry, just figured you could use some caffeine about now.”
Smiling and reaching out a slightly trembling hand to retrieve the drink, Larabee said, “You know, maybe there's something to what the boys say about me and you having this psychic connection, 'cause you read my mind.”
With a chuckle, Vin said in an exaggerated drawl, “Nah, just know ya's all.” With a tip of an imaginary hat, he slipped back out of the office.
Behind him, Chris let go of the shudder that he'd kept under control until that second. He would never admit to just how much fear he had felt at being taken by surprise. His first thought had been that it was Simon or some of his men.
How long was he going to have that fear?
At the end of his first week back at work, Larabee invited everyone who had helped him recover to come out to the ranch for a barbeque. That included not only his teammates and their significant others, but the health care team who had seen to him in the weeks after his rescue. Even Orin and Evie Travis were there, joined by Mary and Billy; the young boy chattering endlessly to the point that Vin took him out for a ride when he caught the strained expression Chris expressed when the boy wasn't looking.
Josiah and Nathan manned the barbeque, while Raine and Casey took care of the side dishes and desserts. Buck, as usual, was chatting up the young ladies from Larabee's health care team, while Ezra was busy entertaining anyone and everyone with card tricks. Mary stayed close to Chris most of the time, telling him about the trip she had just returned from, which had seen her touring all of Europe in preparation for a book she was planning to write. Chris seemed interested in her descriptive narrative, but much of the time his attention seemed to be elsewhere.
After nearly an listening to the young blonde, Chris excused himself and made his way toward the house. Nobody saw that, after a quick side trip to the kitchen for a long neck, he went out the side door and across the lawn, past the garage and barn. He leaned heavily on his cane by the time he made his destination; the lower pasture of the ranch. There, he settled on what Sarah had named “the thinking stone” because of his penchant for coming to sit on the large stone when he needed a chance to think about something that was particularly bothering him.
It was his first time out there since before the events that had nearly claimed his life. He stretched his aching leg out in front of him, rubbing absently at his thigh. He stared out across the green, peaceful land, toward the hills and mountains beyond his lands. He had counted himself incredibly lucky to have this place to call home. No matter how ugly the rest of his life became, he always had the ranch to escape to. But even now, he felt uneasy. Even here. There was that part of him that was looking for Simon and his followers to appear out of the shadows.
The snap of a twig caused him to start; turning, he found his oldest friend approaching, tossing away two, slender pieces of wood. He nodded, and turned back toward the green vista.
“Figured I'd find you here. When you didn't come back, some of the others started getting worried, so I thought I'd keep them from sendin' out a search party.”
Coming to stand near his old friend, Buck produced a pair of long necks from the pockets of his jeans and handed one toward the other man. “Figured you might be in need of a refill.”
Smiling, Chris replied, “Even though you know I'm not supposed to be drinking.”
“Ah, hell, Chris, I know you well enough to know a couple beers won't put you down.” He looked his friend over, and asked, “You are okay?”
Larabee took a deep breath and let it out long and slow. He rubbed a hand over his face, took a long draw on the fresh beer, and thought about the question. He thought about the fact that John Simon was still out there... somewhere... more than likely recruiting more poor, lost souls into his “family”. That thought hadn't left his mind in five years, and it certainly wasn't going to go away any time soon. It would never leave him completely until Simon was either behind bars or buried. And even then he wasn't certain that he'd stop thinking about the bastard. But, no matter what, whether he was able to overcome the physical and psychological trauma of being held captive, he had six friends who had his back.
Smiling, he looked up at the other man. “Yeah, I'm okay.”
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October 23, 2011