Main Characters: Vin, OFC
Warnings: Angst, violence and language. Did I mention angst?
Notes: Written for Michelle, in celebration of her birthday.
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Lynda for medical advice that let me go forward with this story when I got a bit bogged down in the plot!
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in May 2012.
Vin Tanner stepped out of the little hospital room, shoulders slumped and head down. He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, hoping to rid himself of the ache long hours of stress and worry had put there. Sighing when he realized it wasn’t doing a thing, he dropped his hand and shuffled tiredly down the corridor toward the elevator. Just as he reached the door, it slid open to reveal a single occupant, which made sense, as it was two am. Tanner hesitated, standing to the side to allow the other person room to exit. When they didn’t, he looked up, a tired smile spreading across his weary face.
“You takin’ to followin’ me, Larabee?”
With a compassionate smile in reply, the leader of Denver’s ATF team seven said, “When I heard the news, I figured you’d be here. Thought I’d better come see if you had the nursing staff ready to string you up yet.”
Slumping against the elevator wall and closing his eyes, Vin said, “Not yet, but reckon they weren’t sorry to see me leave.”
Pushing the button for the ground floor, Larabee said, “How is she?”
“Not good. Doc says if she does live, she’ll be in a wheelchair. She’s only got a twenty percent chance of livin’, though.”
With a heavy sigh, the younger agent said, “so am I. Damn it, Chris, Dusty’s only twenty-two years old. She ain’t got a soul to take care of her if she does live. Aged outta the system four years ago as a ward of the state and went into the academy. She had all the potential to be a damn good cop, but now… ah hell!”
Only barely keeping himself from jumping when the angry man slammed his fist into the wall, Larabee said, “Sounds like a tough lady. You met her working with the G.R.E.A.T. program, right?”
“Yeah. We seemed to hit it right off when we met at the center. Reckon because we’d had a lot a the same experiences… losin’ all our family, livin’ in the foster care system, goin’ into law enforcement.” Tanner stopped as the elevator opened its doors into the hospital lobby. He pushed himself away from the wall, only to sway as he did.
Chris caught him, steering him from the car with a hand on the other man’s elbow. “Let me guess, you’ve been up there since she was shot, what, thirty-six hours ago?”
“Told you, she ain’t got no one. I’m just goin’ home to get a shower and change my clothes.” He slanted a look sideways at his boss. “Think the team can get along without me for a couple more days?”
“We’ll manage. But you need to get something to eat and a few hours sleep. And you’re not driving. I’ll take you to your place… is there anything there to eat, or should we make a stop at the store?”
“Ain’t hungry, and I can sleep fine up here. Wouldn’t leave at all, but figure the nurses will be less likely to kick me out if I don’t stink.”
With a chuckle, the older man said, “good thinking. But, you’re not going to do Dusty any good if you make yourself sick. I promise I’ll bring you back in here at seven, but you need – “
“No. I’m just goin’ home long enough to shower.”
“Vin – “
“Ain’t on the clock Larabee, you can’t tell me what to do.”
“Fine,” the blond said stiffly.
Realizing he was directing his anger at the wrong person, Tanner said, “I appreciate the concern, cowboy, but I ain’t about to leave Dusty layin’ there alone.”
Seeing the determination flashing in the blue eyes, Chris nodded. “All right, but I’m still driving.”
Vin lay back against the headrest, sprawled in the Ram’s passenger seat. His eyes were closed, but he wasn’t sleeping. His mind kept replaying the incident, seeing the gang members, one of whom had shot the young woman, destroying her future if not ending her life.
He had met Destiny, “Dusty”, Rhodes six months ago when they had both become facilitators for the G.R.E.A.T. program. The program was focused on helping children avoid the lure of joining a gang, and appealed to both officers. Fate had paired them at the community center, where they had sensed a kindred soul in one another. Over dinner and drinks at the Saloon after their first meeting, they had compared life stories, amazed at the similarities. Both had nearly been pulled into street gangs as teenagers, but had chosen other paths. They could only too well understand the lure of protection and acceptance that gangs offered, and wanted to pass that knowledge, and how to use it to keep out of trouble, on to the children at the center.
The program only required them to spend one hour a week at the center, but they were there almost every night. The children, members of the impoverished Purgatorio community, were quick to see something in the two of them that earned their trust. Both Vin and Dusty found themselves pounced upon by the younger children, and sought out for advice by teenagers almost as soon as they entered the building. They earned the trust and respect of the center’s population by being honest and caring in their dealings with each and every child.
And then, Saturday morning, it had all gone to hell.
Members of one of the local gangs had taken offense at Vin and Dusty undermining their influence on Purgatorio’s youth. They had managed to get into the center, storming into the activities room where Dusty was counseling a group of young girls. Vin had been in the room across the hall, talking to a group of boys when he heard loud voices. Making the boys promise to stay where they were, he slipped from the room, his training leading him to be on the alert for danger. Just as he stepped into the hall, he heard a gunshot, followed by the screams of several young women, and all the training went out the window. He dashed into the room, only to be knocked to the floor. Dazed, he struggled to focus his vision, and saw five angry gang members heading out the door.
As he reached the threshold the last man, looking all of thirty, barked out, “keep your fucking noses out of our fucking business.”
Pushing himself to his hands and knees, Vin crawled across the floor to where he saw a crumpled body. He was only vaguely aware of the fact that the girls the young woman had been talking to were huddled under or behind any sort of cover they could find. He saw their eyes glued on his friend, and heard at least two of them call her name as they cried softly. Slumping down beside the young woman, he groaned when he found Dusty covered with blood. Reaching out a trembling hand, he touched her throat, checking for a pulse. Finding only a faint tremor, he bit back a groan. Looking up, he found her dark brown eyes staring up at him. Marshaling his emotions, he managed a smile. “Hey, Rhodes, you buckin’ for officer of the year?”
“Nah… n-needed some… time o-off.”
Pressing his hand against her too-cool cheek, he said, “well, don’t think you're gonna duck the group, woman. I’m gonna check to make sure there’s an ambulance comin’. You're gonna be fine.”
Her colorless features lit with a faint smile and she whispered, “liar,” just before her eyes rolled back in her head, and she lapsed into unconsciousness.
Vin shook himself from his thoughts and looked to see that they were outside his apartment building. He yawned, stretched, and pulled himself out of the big black vehicle. By the time he stumbled onto the broken sidewalk, Larabee was once more at his side, steering him into the building and up the four flights of stairs to his apartment. He fumbled to pull his keys out of his jeans pocket, and frowned when they were taken out of his hand.
Chris shifted the bag of groceries he had picked up on the way home under one arm, while he unlocked the multiple locks on the young agent’s door. Pushing the door open, he guided Tanner into the apartment. “You go shower and I’ll fix you something to eat.”
“Bullshit. You eat, and I’ll take you back to the hospital. You don’t, I kick your scrawny ass and tie you to the bed.”
“You ain’t nearly as scary as you think you are,” Tanner managed through a yawn as he disappeared into the bedroom.
“You ain’t seen scary,” Larabee quipped as he entered the little kitchenette just off the living room. Emptying the grocery bag, he lined the contents up on the counter. Pulling pots and pans from the cabinets, he began preparing the food he had bought on the way to the apartment. By the time he finished, Vin was padding back out into the living room, toweling his long hair.
“Smells good. Ain’t nothin’ I had here, though.”
“Stopped at the store on the way. You were sleeping. Now, sit down before you fall down, and eat.”
“You always been this bossy, or this somethin’ that comes with runnin’ a team?”
“Always been this bossy,” Larabee replied lightly as he set a plate and a can of beer on the coffee table before the younger man.
Vin eyed the plate, filled with an omelet and a sliced tomato, and smiled his thanks. Despite his earlier claim of not being hungry, he descended on the meal and soon polished it off. Laying back against the couch, he tilted the beer back, emptying the can in a few draws. “You ain’t a bad cook, boss, thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Chris rose from his chair and picked up the plate, taking the empty can from the weary man’s hand. He took them to the kitchen, rinsing off the plate and dropping the can into the trash. By the time he returned to the living room, Tanner had stretched out on the couch, head tilted back on the padded arm.
“Ready any time… you are,” the Texan mumbled through a yawn.
“Okay,” Larabee said softly. As the exhausted man began to snore, he brought the quilt in from Vin’s bed, spreading it over the lean frame. Turning off all the lights save one, he settled under its glow with a magazine he found on the other man’s coffee table.
“You can glare all you want to. You were exhausted. I told you I’d bring you back here at seven, and it’s just seven now.”
Vin didn’t answer the quietly clipped statements, too busy glaring his frustration through the Ram’s windshield. As they pulled into a parking place, he was out the door before the blond even had the engine turned off.
Chris watched as the young agent dashed across the parking lot and disappeared into the hospital’s main entrance. Frowning with concern for the younger man, he pocketed his keys and followed him into the building. Taking the elevator up to where the ICU was located, he stepped from the car and looked down the hall. His heart leapt when he saw Tanner crumpled against the wall, and he jogged the length of the corridor, coming to a halt in front of the Texan. He knew immediately what had happened, but still said softly, “Vin?”
Tear-filled blue eyes looked up at the other man, grief plain on the handsome features. Furiously scrubbing a hand across his face, the man said in a pain-filled voice, “half an hour ago… she died just half an hour ago.”
Shoulders slumping, the blond said, “I’m so sorry, Vin. I – “
“Save it!” Tanner pushed himself from the floor and stormed away from the other man.
Watching him go, Larabee contemplated going after him, but decided against it. Heaving a sigh, he stepped over to the nurses station and asked about the arrangements that would need to be made concerning the young woman.
He wasn’t certain how long he had been walking, or even where he was. It didn’t matter, though, nothing mattered at the moment. He was angry. Angry at the bastard who had killed Dusty. Angry at himself for falling asleep. Angry at Chris for letting him sleep. And angry at Dusty for dying. His hands shoved into his pockets, his head down, Vin walked block after block, barely aware that there was anything or anyone around him. Tanner barely registered the fact when he turned down an ally in a sparsely populated area of town. It was a mistake.
A very big mistake.
The lanky man was suddenly set upon by several large, armed, violent men. He held his own for several minutes, but finally fell beneath the shear weight of the attack. In the end, all he could do was curl in around himself, trying very hard not to allow the worst blows to make contact with his more vital organs.
At signal from the leader of the gang, the attackers backed away, staring down at their victim with various expressions of satisfaction on their faces. Under his orders, they picked him up, carrying him deeper into the ally and into an abandoned building. Dropping him to the floor inside, they swaggered off, confident that their actions would bring an end to any threat to recruiting new members into their gang.
Larabee stepped from the hospital’s main entrance, frowning as the morning sun greeted him. He quickly pulled on sunglasses as the bright light did little to help the headache he’d been nursing since Vin stormed away. He had made what arrangements he could for Destiny Rhodes, but there was still a lot to do. With a sigh, he started for his truck, pulling his keys out of the pocket of his tight black jeans as he did. He was going to go to the station where the young policewoman worked, to see if he could do anything else that would ease Tanner’s load.
Chris had discovered that Vin was listed as her emergency contact, and knew that he would be making most of her arrangements. She had only been on the job for a few months prior to her meeting his friend, but he knew that the other officers would take a hand in arranging her funeral.
Funeral. The blond took a deep breath, moaning softly as he exhaled. Twenty-two was far to young to die, and being shot to death was a horrible way to go.
He started the black vehicle and eased it from the parking space almost automatically. He drove through the streets of Denver, half hoping to see Vin along the way. He pulled into the station’s parking lot without seeing the other man, though, and hurried inside.
The agent announced his business to the desk sergeant, who looked back at him with genuine sadness in his beefy face. He directed Larabee to another police officer, who knew the most about the Dusty. The blond settled in next to her desk, a slight smile escaping his lips when he realized he felt as if he had done something wrong all of a sudden.
The officer, who smiled and introduced herself only as Michelle, cried openly when he delivered his news. It took a few moments for her to compose herself, during which time the man handed her several tissues, one at a time. Finally she calmed down, and they began to discuss the dead woman, and what needed to be done for her. Larabee left over an hour later, feeling as if he were suddenly carrying the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. He and the young agent had a lot to discuss.
Vin moaned, slowly rolling to his back. He hurt. With dogged determination, he surveyed his injuries, his ribs hurt probably the worst of all, although his head pounded and his right arm throbbed. Painfully pushing himself to his left elbow, he tried to place just where he was, but the abandoned building offered him little in the way of clues.
Rising to his knees, then pushing himself to his feet took a monumental effort, but the sharpshooter struggled to stand. Once there, he refused to go back down, fighting instead to put one foot in front of the other. Slowly… very slowly… he shuffled to the door of the building, and past the threshold. Hanging onto the doorjamb, he stared around him, working to place where he was.
A shallow smile stretched battered lips as he realized that he was in an ally only a couple of blocks from his little Purgatorio apartment. The knowledge renewed his strength, and he pushed away from the wall.
The streets were almost deserted in the early afternoon, residents either working or seeking shelter from the sun. He stumbled along, leaning against the walls of each building he passed. The few people he encountered looked at him in disgust, mistaking his disheveled and battered appearance for that of a homeless crazy. They turned away quickly, even crossing the street in a couple of occasions.
He wasn’t certain how long it took him to reach his apartment building. Stumbling into the dingy lobby, he found that – for once – the elevator was working. He breathed a sigh of relief, he didn’t think he could manage the stairs at the moment.
Exiting the rickety car, he managed to get to his doorway, pulling his keys from his pocket. With numbed fingers he fought to unlock the door, finally managing the multiple locks. Pushing the door open, he staggered inside, closing it behind him.
He fell to his knees, a grunt of surprise as he registered his change of position. Blinking the sweat and blood out of his eyes, he tried to regain his feet, only to slump to his knees again. After three tries, he gave up, crawling to the couch. Pulling himself up, he sprawled across the cushions with a deep sigh. He was unconscious even before his eyes closed.
Driving along the streets of Denver, Chris watched for any sign of his friend. He called Tanner’s apartment, but got no answer. Leaving a message the first time, he simply ended the call after that. Vin was as upset and angry as he could remember ever seeing the young man. It was entirely possible that he would be walking most of the day. Larabee tried his cell phone, but got no answer there, either. He did not want to be found, it was as simple as that.
He gave up finding the younger man, deciding that, when Vin was ready to be found, they’d find him. The agent drove into the parking lot of the government building where he worked, parked and slowly made his way upstairs. He felt as if he were walking under water, his mind pulling him there with worry and concern for his friend. Tanner was in pain, and he was afraid it would only get worse before it got better. He had no idea just how prophetic his thoughts were.
Exiting the elevator, he trudged to the suite where Team Seven worked, taking a deep breath as he entered the open room. Five pairs of eyes turned in his direction, expectation filling the space between them. They all knew about Destiny, had an idea as to how Vin felt about the young woman, and they were all concerned for their friend.
“Howdy, boss,” Buck said, feigning a light heart.
The others nodded, and he returned the gesture. Taking another deep breath, he said simply, “she died a few hours ago.”
Heads bowed, eyes filled with sorrow. Josiah kissed the medallion hanging from his neck and closed his eyes to pray. JD’s shoulders slumped and he suddenly looked his age. Buck dropped his head in his hands, broad shoulders heaving with a groan. Nathan looked up at the team leader, pain bright in dark brown eyes.
“Taking it pretty bad. He left the hospital on foot, I figure he’s walking some of it off. I’ll check in on him after work. He’s listed as her next of kin, so he’s gonna have a lot to deal with over the next week or so. I figure he’ll need some time off – “
“And he’ll need his friends,” Josiah said in a soft rumble.
Nodding, Chris said, “and he’ll need his friends.”
He would need them more than any of them knew.
“Hey, sleepy head.”
Vin blinked open weary eyes, focusing on the figure above him. “Hey yourself.”
“I’ve got to go, I’m already late for work.”
“Well, if you're already late, what’s a few more minutes?” He reached out and grabbed her hand, drawing her to the bed.
She laughed and tried to pull away… but not too hard. “I’ve gotten written up once already for being late, because of you, Tanner, that’s not gonna look good when I put in for a promotion.”
He pretended to pout, bottom lip stuck out. “You think more about your job then you do me.”
Leaning forward, her long blonde hair tickling the side of his face and his shoulders, she nipped at the pouting mouth before kissing him. Drawing back with a long sigh, her face became deadly serious. “There’s not a thing in this world more important to me than you, Vin, you should know that by now. But, I’ve worked too hard for this to – “
He cut her off with a long finger pressed against her lips. “You think I don’t know that, girl? I know what this means to you… and I know what I mean to you, too.”
She smiled, kissing him again before she stood back up. He ran his eyes along her body, admiring how she filled out her uniform so well in so many places. He watched as she pulled her long, thick hair back and bound it with a ponytail holder. With a grin, she blew a kiss toward him and bounced lithely from the bedroom.
Behind the young woman, Vin Tanner groaned softly as his body responded to the sight of his friend and lover breezing from the room…
The Texan moaned as he pried open swollen eyelids and looked around him. He was in his apartment, but sprawled on the couch in the living room. Alone. Vin frowned as he tried to remember hearing Dusty leaving the apartment or his moving from the bedroom to the living room. Then it all his upon him with devastating clarity.
He had been dreaming.
Dusty was dead.
A single, agonizing cry escaped battered and swollen lips as the young man remembered. Remembered losing the woman who had come to mean more to him than even she knew. Dusty had wanted to keep things simple, said she wasn’t ready for a committed relationship with anyone. Not even him. So he just never told her how he felt. How he loved her more than anyone or anything in the world. Never told her of his dreams of asking her to marry him, of making a home with her. Maybe buying a place outside Denver, raising horses like he’d always dreamed… raising a family with her.
Hot tears trailed down his face, burning the cuts left from the beating. He sobbed silently as he remembered even more. Remembered walking into the hospital room to see them pulling her lifeless body from the bed onto a gurney. Remembered one of the nurses turning to see him standing there and compassionately touching his arm as she told him she was dead. Told him she hadn’t felt any pain. But he knew what she had felt. Alone. She had died alone, just as she had lived.
“Oh God… Dusty, I‘m so s-sorry,” he whispered. Then his own pain and exhaustion overwhelmed him, and he slipped back into unconsciousness. The last thing his fading mind registered was the sound of a phone ringing.
Chris dropped the phone back into its cradle, staring at it as if waiting for it to give him the answer he needed. Where was Vin?
He looked up to see Josiah standing in the doorway to his office, gray hair and brilliant blue eyes catching the late afternoon light. Shaking his head, he said, “I’ve tried the apartment and his cell both a dozen times at least.”
“Perhaps he just needs time, room to think.”
Nodding, Larabee couldn’t help be remember his own reaction to devastating loss. “I suppose so. I… I just don’t want him to think he’s alone in this.”
“He knows, Chris.”
The blond looked up to see that Buck had joined Sanchez in the doorway. He traded a smile with his oldest friend, one that acknowledged just how well they both knew how much Tanner would need them all. Just as Chris had needed – and received – the strength of the man standing before him.
Pushing away from the desk, he said, “still, there’s no harm in him knowing for certain. I’m going to go to his apartment, surely he’s there by now. Then I’ll – “
“Excuse me, Chris?” The doorway was becoming more and more crowded, as Ezra Standish appeared. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but we’ve just been called to back up Team Three. They’ve had to move up their operation… it’s going down in less than an hour.”
With a frustrated sigh, Larabee acknowledged the orders. They had been working with Team Three for almost a month, ordered to work as back up for the team in bringing down a gun running operation. “Let’s go.”
Vin, and their talk, would have to wait.
He turned from where he was just getting into his jeep to find the young policewoman he’d been paired with for the G.R.E.A.T. program sprinting across the busy street toward him. “Hey Rhodes!”
She smiled at his teasing tone. “You goin’ anywhere special?”
Shrugging, he said, “not really. Thought I’d grab somethin’ to eat and go home.”
Wrinkling her nose, she said, “hell, that’s what old folks do. Wanna grab a bite at the bar of your choice, and play some pool?”
Grinning, he said simply, “sure.”
That had been their first ‘date’, although it hadn’t seemed like one to either of them. He was never quite sure as to when they stopped being fun outings with a friend to romantic dates for him. He didn’t think they had changed for Dusty. She told him that first night that she wasn’t ready for anything serious. She’d had a few flings in the past, but wasn’t interested in being tied down to any one person in particular. The fact that she hadn’t dated anyone else since he’d met her hadn’t escaped his attention, though.
Tanner sighed, shifting his aching body on the couch. He knew in some part of his mind that he should at the very least call Nathan to come patch up the worst of the wounds. He struggled to hold his arm as still as possible, but it throbbed steadily. So did his head and his ribs. But, as much as he told himself that he needed to get medical attention, that part of his mind was quickly overridden by the more devastated part. That part insisted that he didn’t care what happened to him, and that he could just lay there and rot. It just didn’t matter… nothing mattered. Destiny was gone and, with her death, his own destiny seemed painfully dark.
He chuckled grimly at his unintentional play on words. But it was true… he had no interest in going forward without the young woman. Once again hot tears washed away the blood on his handsome face. “Destiny. I'm sorry, girl… should never have left you. Didn’t mean to leave you to… to go alone. Shouldn’t have ever left…” he groaned as his battered body once more collapsed into unconsciousness.
Chris yawned as he finally pulled his weary body into his black truck. It was nearly midnight, and he was due back at work for a meeting at eight. He had considered just sleeping on the couch in his office but the thought of spending the night on it was less appealing than missing a couple of hours sleep to drive to and from his ranch.
He had called Tanner’s apartment several more times, getting no answer. It was the same with the man’s cell phone. The blond sighed, wondering if he should forgo even more sleep and drive to Purgatorio. Deciding quickly that, if anyone was, Vin Tanner was worth arriving at the meeting with bloodshot eyes. Shoving the truck into drive, he pointed the big black vehicle toward the hellhole Vin called home.
He wasn’t certain if he had actually noticed the Texan’s relationship with the young woman before, or if he was only now seeing it in retrospect. Dusty had come to his ranch with the younger man a few times, usually for some celebration or other.
The only time he had spent much time with her one on one had been when she’d come out to help him decorate for Vin’s birthday in May. He could still hear her giggling like a little girl as she helped hang streamers and balloons in the den. They had instrumented a birthday celebration that mirrored the kind of party a kid might have after Vin had confided in Rhodes one night that he’d always wondered what it would have been like to have one.
So, Peso had been curried, his tack bedecked with bright streamers and ribbons laced into his mane and tail. Chris could only stand in awe at the sight of Dusty Rhodes boldly decorating the cantankerous animal as she cooed and clucked at him. On his part, the big animal had actually seemed to enjoy her attentions. He had pranced around the corral, shaking his head and setting off the little bells she had laced through the ribbons.
Buck had arrived, already dressed for his role in the festivities. He wore white-face and a big red, rubber nose, a multicolored wig, and an outfit that any clown deserving of the name would be envious of. JD had accompanied him, carrying the big box of seltzer bottles, silly string and balloons specially designed to make animals from.
Josiah and Nathan set up the stage where they would put on a puppet show… Nettie and Ezra lay out a spread that still made his mouth water… Casey, Rain and Billy Travis set up games of ring-toss, pin the tail on the donkey, and Twister, insisting that Chris would be participating in each. Billy hadn’t been able to keep from giggling as he slipped up behind his friend and attached one of the donkey’s tails to Chris’ black jeans… right between the hip pockets.
“Hey!” Larabee had called in mock surprise, chasing after the little boy as he ran full out across the big yard, squealing with laughter.
Mary and Inez arrived right on time, Vin sitting, blindfolded, between them. Drawing him out of the car, they led the ‘birthday boy’ stumbling up the drive to where his friends all gathered.
Chris smiled as he recalled the look of amazement on the young man’s face when the blindfold was finally removed. None of them missed the tears shining in the wide blue eyes as he took in the wonderland his friends had constructed for him. The world seemed to stop as they all stood silent, watching Vin look around him, mouth open in awe.
And then the solemnity of the moment was shattered as a guided missile exploded directly in the middle of the sharpshooter’s chest. All eyes turned to see Destiny standing to one side, casually tossing a second water-filled balloon from one hand to the other. She grinned broadly as she watched Tanner carefully pick the shattered bits of red rubber from his favorite shirt and wipe water from his face. Then her grin wavered as he looked at her, a predator’s gleam in his eyes.
They had all watched as he chased her around the yard, the chase ending only when he tackled her. Dusty yelped as the balloon she still held exploded as it was trapped between her and the ground…
Chris shook himself from the memory of that happy time to find himself in front of Tanner’s building. He looked up to see that no lights shone in the younger man’s apartment. He wondered if he should just go, checking in with his friend tomorrow. If Vin was asleep, he didn’t want to disturb him. Larabee remembered only too well how infrequent sleep could be when your entire world was devastated.
Still, he could be sitting up there in the dark, staring into the shadows and accompanied only by pain and grief. If that were the case, the younger man could very well use a little company. With a deep sigh, he pulled the key from the ignition, locked the door behind him, and walked with a heavy step into the ancient building that Vin insisted on calling home. He looked at the elevator, finding no ‘out of order’ sign hanging from it, then to the stairway. With only a moments hesitation he chose the stairs, bent on actually arriving at his destination.
Reaching his friend’s door a few minutes later, Chris knocked. Listening for a minute, he heard no indication that the other man was moving around on the other side. He knocked a second time, with no results. Finally he called out, “Vin? It’s just me. I just wanted to see if you need anything.”
Deciding that the younger man was either actually sleeping, or in no mood for visitors, he sighed. “All right, I’ll check in tomorrow.”
Inside, Tanner frowned as a familiar voice came to him from somewhere in the distance. Chris. The tip of his tongue appeared to run slowly across bloodied and swollen lips, then he tried to call out to the other man. Nothing but a breathless moan came forth. He tried to force his swollen eyes open, but managed only slits as he fought to figure out where he was. Home. He was home… and he was hurt. Hurt. Everything hurt. And he was hot. Heat poured off his trembling frame. He didn’t understand.
“Ch… Chr… Chris,” he croaked, but he could barely hear the call himself.
On the other side of the door, Larabee scrubbed a hand across his tired eyes as he turned to leave. Once more he was faced with the decision of stairs or elevator. Deciding that he was just too damned tired to care, he shuffled to the elevator.
The blond frowned as he started to call the car. Something caught his eye, and he studied the stained carpet. Blood. There was dried blood on the carpet. He decided that the appearance of blood anywhere in this neighborhood wasn’t that out of place, and pushed the ‘down’ button. Then his frown returned as he noticed where the blood trail went.
Back across the hall in two strides, he pounded hard on the door. “VIN!”
Grabbing the door handle, his heart skipped a beat when it turned and the door opened. Tanner never left his apartment unlocked. He pushed the door open, reaching inside to switch on the overhead light. “Oh my God, Vin!”
Larabee moved across the living room and dropped down beside his friend. He reached out a tentative hand, touching the blood-streaked throat. Finally taking a deep breath when he felt the flutter of pulse beneath his fingers, he looked up to see two slits of blue looking in his direction. “Vin?”
“Ch… ris,” the reply was a low moan.
“Damn, pard, what happened?”
“Well, we’ll sort it out later.” As he spoke, Larabee pulled his cell phone from his pocket, preparing to call for an ambulance. He hesitated as the beaten man shook his head. “What? Vin, you’ve got to go to the hospital.”
“W-won’t come… won’t come here.”
Chris cursed softly. Damn Vin Tanner’s loyalty to the most violent community in Denver anyway. He stood and carefully slipped an arm beneath the Texan, gently lifting him to his feet. Holding him as he swayed and cried out in pain, Larabee helped him from the apartment and into the elevator. Tanner leaned heavily against him as they traveled to the ground floor, panting from the exertion. The blond held him against his chest, one hand lightly stroking one long arm.
They made their way to the truck, Chris helping Vin into the passenger seat. The smaller man lay listlessly against the seat, barely aware of his friend fastening his seat-belt. Larabee hurried around and slid behind the wheel, looking over at the other man. “Hang on, pard,” he said softly.
Tanner smiled in reply, then collapsed into unconsciousness.
Chris stood outside the closed door, wondering just how he was going to get both he and the injured sharpshooter through the next few minutes. It had been a long two days, focused as he was on Tanner. If he wasn’t checking on the injured man in the hospital, he was taking care of the arrangements for Destiny’s funeral. Michelle, the young policewoman he had spoken to the day Dusty died, had stepped up to help. Together they handled what needed to be handled, bringing papers for Vin to sign when necessary. They had kept him informed on everything they were doing, making certain that his wishes were fulfilled as best they could.
But they hadn’t told him everything.
Now was the time, though, there would be no other. Larabee was surprised by a soft touch on his shoulder. Turning, he found Michelle standing beside him.
“Thought maybe I could help fill him in,” she said quietly.
Nodding, a grateful smile on his face, the agent knocked and then pushed the door open. Vin lay in the narrow hospital bed, his battered body a dark contrast to the crisp hospital white. His eyes were closed, his right arm, freshly casted in dark blue, lay across his chest. Chris could tell he wasn’t sleeping, though, the trim body tense beneath the sheets.
“Hey, pard,” he greeted his friend as he came farther into the room. “Brought some company, so I hope you’re not naked under there.”
A slight smile turned a corner of the bruised lips upward and tired blue eyes opened as far as they could. “Hi ‘Chelle… no, I ain’t nekkid under here, y’ smart ass.”
Grinning at the retort, Chris dropped to one corner of the bed’s foot, leaving the chair for the policewoman. “See they put the cast on this morning. Thought they were gonna use the fluorescent pink.”
“’S what they said… talked ‘em out of it,” Tanner informed him. “Jenny said you'd just have t’ practice your seduction a bit more… said y’ might wanna take lessons from Bucklin, 'cause she’d a done it for him.”
“Damn,” Larabee said, shaking his head with a wry grin, “I thought I’d picked up enough pointers from him.”
Tanner chuckled, then his face went serious. “Y’ didn’t just come up here t’ check the color a my cast… spill it.”
Chris took a deep breath, finding it impossible to look at the swollen face for several minutes while he collected himself. Then, when the silence became too much to bear, he said, “yeah… yeah, you’re right. We’ve got to talk, pard. There’s something you need to know before the funeral tomorrow.”
His brows knitting, Tanner prompted, “all right.”
With another deep breath, Larabee forged on. “Destiny… well, she was… she was keeping something from you.”
The square jaw tightened, and Vin fairly growled, “she never kept a damn thing from me, Chris. Don’t you be sayin’ nothin’ – “
Holding up a hand, the blond said, “Vin, I’m not going to say anything negative about the woman, I wouldn’t dare. She just hadn’t… well, she hadn’t found the right time to tell you this, I guess.”
“Chris, just spill it,” he said again.
“Vin, Dusty was pregnant.”
The slender man lay still in the bed, the color draining from his face until what wasn’t bruised became as pale as the sheets he lay on. His eyes were the only things to move, flitting from Chris to Michelle and back again. In a trembling voice he stammered, “I… I… no, she… no, I… what… you… you’re… NO!”
Waiting for his friend to calm enough to hear him, Larabee finally continued. “She was four months along, Vin. She hadn’t said anything to anyone but – “
“Me,” Michelle chimed in softly. “Outside of the doctor, I was the only one that knew Vin. She… she didn’t want anyone else to know… not yet.”
“But… I… she… No, she would have told me. Y’all are lyin’!”
“Why would we lie to you about this, Vin?” Larabee’s eyes bored into the injured man’s soul.
Tanner didn’t have an answer for that. He lay in the bed, his lean frame trembling with the emotions that flowed through it. There had to be a mistake… she wasn’t pregnant. He’d have known. If anyone would have known, he would. Destiny Rhodes didn’t keep anything from him, she just didn’t. She had told him once that he was the only person in the world that she truly trusted. How could he believe now that she had kept something so important from him. Unless –
“It was mine. My baby.”
Michelle’s head dropped beneath his gaze, but Chris returned it evenly. “Yeah, it was.”
He took a deep, shuddering breath, letting it out with an anguished moan. “Ah, hell.”
“Vin,” the policewoman took up the explanation, “she was scared and confused about the whole thing. She wanted the baby… your baby… but she wasn’t sure she could handle it all. She told me she knew you well enough to know that you’d want to get married, that you’d insist on doing right by your son.”
“Son? It was a boy?”
Nodding, she said, “the doctor was pretty certain, even though it was awfully early in the pregnancy. Dusty was certain though… said she was carrying your son. She was gonna tell you, Vin… that day.”
“The day… the day she got shot?”
“Ah, hell,” he groaned again.
Chris read the set of the square jaw and the glistening in the narrowed eyes. He looked at Michelle, who read his unspoken request. With the shadow of a grim smile, she pushed herself out of the chair. As she started from the room, she said softly, “I’m sorry, Vin.”
Tanner nodded shortly, staring at the ceiling. He didn’t move for several minutes after she left, the only movement the trembling of each breath.
Larabee watched his friend, waiting until he knew the younger man needed him. He slid upward until he sat beside Vin, reaching out to touch the narrow shoulder. “I won’t insult you saying I know how you feel, but you know I’ve traveled this road, pard. It’s gonna hurt like hell for a long time to come, but you’re not alone. Just don’t forget that, Vin, you’re not alone.”
“Appreciate that,” his words were strained, hollow with grief. He took another shuddering breath, exhaling it in a sob. The tears began to flow, his chest heaving with the force of his sorrow. Soon the sounds of grief echoed from the walls of the little room, the battered body quaking with the immensity of his emotions. He pushed himself upward, launching himself into his friend’s waiting arms.
Larabee wrapped his arms carefully around the beaten frame, cradling Tanner against him. One hand stole upward, gently massaging the bunched muscles of his neck and shoulders. He didn’t say anything, just held his grief-stricken friend as that pain poured forth.
After nearly an hour, Vin relaxed against his friend and boss, slowly allowing exhaustion to claim him. His head nestled against Chris’ shoulder, his left hand still clutching the fabric of the blond’s shirt.
The older man felt his friend give in to the needs of his body, continuing to hold him carefully in his arms. He was rocking gently, an unconscious gesture of comfort that brought an ironic smile to his face. When Tanner finally gave in completely, he carefully lowered the spent man to the bed. Using a tissue he daubed at the drying tears, then straightened the blankets over the spare frame. Rising carefully, so as not to disturb his friend, he moved to the chair. He wasn’t about to let the traumatized man wake alone.
“You sure I look okay?”
“You look fine.” Chris gently pulled Vin’s hand away from his shirt collar. “Leave the tie alone, it took me half an hour to tie it thanks to your squirming.”
Managing a small smile, Tanner said, “I'm sorry… It's just – “
“Stop apologizing. Believe me, Vin, I understand.”
The Texan nodded, blue eyes, once again filled with tears, dropping onto his lap. He sat in the wheelchair the doctor had insisted he use if he was going to leave the hospital early, waiting in the over-air-conditioned parlor of the funeral home. He looked around him at the carefully contrived ‘homey’ look of the room, grimacing at the dried flowers, candles and even doilies. Dusty would have hated this. She hated any sort of fuss, which was why they had made the entire ritual as brief as possible.
The others arrived, and they moved together into the chapel. Tanner took a deep breath as he looked at the far end… at the coffin. He felt a hand on his shoulder and reached up to cover it with his own. He felt Chris squeeze briefly, just enough to let him know that he wasn’t alone.
Vin wasn’t certain how he managed to get through the droning service that the police chaplain performed. He barely heard the words, trusting that the man would do justice by the young woman. He mouthed the words when the Lord’s Prayer was said, and suffered through the chaplain coming to offer him a few words of comfort. He nodded, not even certain what he was nodding to. Finally he heard his friend say a few words, and the man in the blue uniform moved away.
They all filed out, until only he and Chris remained. Larabee stood behind him, pushing the wheelchair forward. He wanted to beg his friend to stop, to turn him around and leave this place as fast as they could go. He wanted to wake up from the nightmare, to find Dusty safe in his arms. He wanted it to be a year from now, with Dusty in his arms, and their son nestled between them. He wanted –
He looked up, seeing that they were right before the coffin. Slowly he pulled himself to his feet, grateful to feel his friend’s hand beneath his elbow. As he steadied himself, he reached into his pocket, pulling out a bandana wrapped package. Leaning against his friend, he cradled the package between his broken arm and his chest, opening it with slow reverence. With trembling fingers, he lifted first a tiny teddy bear and then a tiny, yellow rose from the cloth and placed them carefully. The rose rested in the young woman’s hands, the teddy bear on the pillow beside her head.
Chris felt Vin’s legs give out, and held his friend close. He felt the lean frame quake as silent tears broke through, coursing in hot streams down the pale face. He held Vin in a comforting embrace, letting his friend vent his grief for long minutes. Twice the funeral director stepped to the door, wanting to move the funeral forward to the graveside services. Twice he moved away quickly under the glare leveled on him by the blond man.
Finally Vin was spent, slumping against his friend. He was vaguely aware of Chris lowering him back to the wheelchair, brushing the tears from his face with the bandana he had held the gifts in. He would find out only later that Larabee reverently folded the damp cloth and lay it in the coffin with the woman.
Once more squeezing the slumped shoulder, Chris said, softly, “come on, pard.”
Larabee jogged up the four flights of stairs, cursing softly at the fact that the elevator was once again out of order. Stopping long enough to shift the bags in his arms, he resumed his journey to the Texan’s apartment. Knocking loudly, he called out, “hey Tanner, I come bearing gifts. Get your ass over here and unlock the door!”
After a minute or two, the blond was rewarded with the sound as the multiple locks were opened. He pasted a grin on his handsome face as the disheveled figure on the other side was revealed to him. “About time.”
“Fuck you,” Vin muttered as he shuffled back across the room and dropped to the couch.
“Jesus, Tanner!” Chris groused as he waded through the living room, filled with take out boxes and sacks, beer cans and newspapers. “What happen, the maid quit?”
“You don’t like it, you can go back the way y’ came.”
Shaking his head, the blond pushed aside some of the mess and settled his bundles on one corner of the coffee table. He opened the bags and began pulling out containers of food. Real food. Prepared by Nettie and Casey Wells just for the sharpshooter. It looked as If it was the first real food he would taste since leaving the hospital three weeks ago. After allowing Chris to bring him home and settle him into his apartment, Vin had disappeared from sight. Larabee had called the younger man a few times to check on him, but none of them had seen him. They were all there for their hurting friend but it seemed that, for the time being at least, Vin needed to be alone.
But now it was time to drag the mourning Texan back into the real world.
Going to the kitchen, he returned with plates and utensils, serving up a plate filled with all his friend’s favorite foods without saying anything more. He handed the plate to the other man, only to be the recipient of a hollow stare. “Nettie made this, especially for you. Unless you want her to come over here and personally feed you, I suggest you eat it.”
“You’d call her, too, wouldn’t y’?”
“Damn straight, I don’t want her pissed off at me!”
“You're a chicken, and y’ don’t play fair,” Tanner growled.
“When it comes to my friends, I’ll do whatever it takes,” Larabee said softly.
Looking up, Vin locked eyes with the other man, then looked away, suddenly embarrassed. “Reckon I ain’t been much of a friend lately.”
“Reckon,” Chris agreed. Then, he added quickly, “but none of us would expect you to be. However, Vin Tanner, it’s time you emerged from this… this hole… and returned to the land of the living.”
“Jesus, y’ sound like Ezra.”
Grinning, the blond replied, “well, you haven’t been around so I guess I’ve been hanging out with him too much.”
With a snort, the sharpshooter said, “just what I need in my life… another pampas jackass.”
Chris watched as the younger man began to eat, balancing the plate on a rather battered looking cast. Then he opened another bag, pulling out a bottle of champagne. Smiling at the other man’s frown of confusion, he said, “we’ve got something to celebrate here, pard.”
“Ain’t in the mood t’ celebrate,” Vin argued. He didn’t want to do anything but get the other man to leave so he could crawl back into the pit of misery he’d wallowed in for weeks.
“Oh, I think you might be for this,” Larabee said softly. “We caught them.”
“The bastards that did that to you,” he nodded toward the still fading damage done to his friend, “and killed Dusty.”
“And my son.”
Nodding, his hopes fading slightly when Vin didn’t seem excited that they had caught the men responsible for the violence visited on him. “And your son. Buck and Ezra are sitting on them right now, trying to get a confession as to what they did. When I left it looked pretty good that at least a couple of them would be singing pretty soon.”
“’Preciate that, Chris.”
With a sigh, Larabee said, “Vin, would she want this?”
“Would Dusty want this… want you to keep her memory like this? Want you to waste away in here, moping around like there was nothing more to live for?”
“Ain’t… ain’t nothin’ to live for.”
“Bull shit.” Blue eyes glared up at him, and he held them firm. “You look me in the eye and tell me that Destiny Rhodes would have wanted you to kill yourself in grief over her death… over the death of your son. Look me in the eye and tell me that, and I’ll walk out the door and never look back. Can you tell me that, Vin?”
He wanted to; desperately wanted to tell Larabee just that. Wanted him to leave and never come back… to leave him to his mourning and self-pity. But he couldn’t. because, like it or not, Larabee was right. He could suddenly hear the young woman yelling at him, calling him the fool that he was.
“God, Chris… I miss her so much. And even if I never even saw him, I miss my son. Part of me just wants t’ lay down and die, so I can be with them again. Sounds stupid to say it, but it’s true.”
“Doesn’t sound stupid at all, Vin,” Larabee said softly. “I felt like that for a very long time. I’d wake up in the morning and move through my day like some sort of zombie. The only thing I could think of was that I wanted to die so I could be with Sarah and Adam again.”
“How long before y’ stopped feeling like that?”
“I’ll let you know when I get there.”
Glaring sharply, the younger man said, “sure a good one for givin’ a feller hope.”
“False hope? I never was one to do that, figured you’d know that by now.”
With a small smile, the sharpshooter said, “reckon I do. But how do you stand it, Chris? How do you make it through the day without losin your mind?”
Coming to kneel before his friend, Chris held out a hand, taking the Texan’s in a firm grip. “Like this, Vin. I hang onto my friends for dear life, and I know that they’ll get me through it. They don’t even have to know what they’re doing, that doesn’t matter. Your friends are there for you, pard. Just reach out and grab hold.”
Tears swimming in pools of pain-filled blue, Tanner nodded. Without another word, he held onto his friend’s hand, gripping it as he felt the other man’s strength flow through him.
And, slowly, he felt his own strength returning.
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