He knew it was the middle of the night; didn't need a clock to tell him. Vin made sure that Chris was in a deep sleep. While his friend was usually a light sleeper, at certain times, even he was dead to the world. The time seemed right; he didn't want the older man waking up and stopping him.
Ever since Chris had dropped him back at the ranch after the disastrous session with the man Vin had figured out was a doctor, Vin had been planning his escape. It took every ounce of his concentration to force his mind to lay this out. He knew he wanted to leave, but it was so difficult putting a plan together and getting it to stay in place. His mind was still playing tricks on him, confusing him, particularly with any ideas that covered more than the immediate period. But he had worked this out; he was sure he could do it if he could just keep Chris from finding out too soon.
Vin silently left the house in the small hours of the morning. It was dark and the stars were bright. He looked up, knowing what he needed was time away in the wilderness. Time to himself in a place where he didn't have to communicate with people and he didn't have to look at cards that he couldn't hope to understand. Where he was in control of his life and time itself didn't matter. He was going to his camper in the woods. Of course, Chris would know to look for him there, but he wouldn't be there when he came. Vin knew plenty of places to hide the Jeep and to disappear into the woods for a few days until the searches had finished. He wouldn't be there. He'd come back in a few days when things were safe. He felt a moment of remorse when he thought about his friend looking for him. But he'd left a 'note'. Chris would know he was okay; he'd understand.
Vin cringed as the Jeep roared to life, and he moved it out the drive as quickly as he could, anxious to put as much distance between himself and civilization as he could. There wasn't much traffic at 2:00 AM, and he felt comfortable. He didn't need to read signs to get to his destination. He had one stop to make, his apartment, to pick up the gear he needed. He grabbed his camping gear and after a slight hesitation, a gun. He succeeded in accomplishing his task without running into anyone. In a couple of hours, Vin pulled the Jeep onto a dark dirt road, past where the main entrance to his property was, parked it out of sight, gathered his gear and vanished into the forest. The Vinnebago for the moment remained undisturbed, triplines in place, and no sign that anyone had been there.
Chris rolled out of bed when the alarm went off and headed to the kitchen for coffee. He was surprised to find the room dark and the pot empty. Vin usually got up before he did and had things going in the kitchen before Chris stumbled in for his first cup of coffee. It had been rough, but he was learning to drink the dark brew that Vin made, and this morning he actually missed it. He made his own coffee, walked down the hall, noting Vin's closed door and gave a resigned shrug. Probably had a bad night after that rough session with the shrink and was sleeping in. Guilt washed over him as he thought about the evening before. Talk about the 'silent treatment.' Although Vin had been completely silent for more than a week, they communicated in many ways besides speech. But last night, his friend had rejected all interaction. He'd truly withdrawn into himself, and Chris had not been able to break through. He sighed and hoped today would be better.
He was worried. The doctor had indeed mandated that Vin undergo therapy, and Chris just didn't know how he was going to explain this to the sharpshooter. At least he didn't have to start 'til next week. Maybe by then Vin would be back to normal. It would be about two weeks; that's how long it took last time. A moment of worry settled over him as he thought of his conversation with Nathan about the duration of the effect. He shook it off. No, that wouldn't happen. Vin would be back to normal in a week, and he hoped before then that they could repair their rift.
Chris got out of the shower, dressed and headed for the front of the house. Still no signs of life from Vin. He didn't want to leave for work without at least saying 'good morning' so he slowly opened the door to Vin's room, only to find it empty. "Shit!" He raced outside, starting to head for the barn when something caught his eye in the parking area. Or rather, something didn't catch his eye -- Vin's Jeep. "Goddamn it Vin! Shit! Oh Vin, what have you done?"
He ran back in the house and got on the phone. Buck, only half-awake, answered, "What?!"
"Buck, Vin's gone!"
"What do you mean he's gone? Gone for a walk? A ride? Gone where?" Buck was trying to get some coffee into himself and process this information. JD looked up at him quizzically from where he sat at the kitchen table reading the sports section of the paper.
"Buck, you know I told you he had a really bad session with that shrink yesterday. Well, he was mad as hell last night and wouldn't even look at me. Went to bed early. This morning he's gone! The Jeep's gone!" Suddenly Chris's eye was caught by a piece of paper on the table. He looked at Vin's 'note.' "Damn! He left a note. He's gone camping."
"Camping? What note? How the hell could he leave a note?" asked Buck still not processing information very fast.
"Well, he left a picture of a tent. I know he's gone to be out in the wilderness somewhere. Makes sense. He would want to get away from it all. Look, Buck, could you let the others know? See if you can think of places he could go. I'll check the Vinnebago." He paused and sighed. "He may think he can manage okay, but Buck, he can't. He's gonna run into people who can't figure out what's wrong with him, and he can't ask anyone for help. I'm not even sure he's safe driving. Buck, we've got to find him."
"You want me to alert the police, get them to stop him if they see the Jeep?" asked Buck.
"No! It might spook him into doing something really stupid and get hurt. Let's try to find him first and call the cops in later if we have to."
As Chris drove up the dirt trail to the Vinnebago, his heart sank. There was no sign of the Jeep and no evidence that the path had been disturbed for quite some time. But he proceeded anyway. Getting out of his truck, he carefully made his was to the camper, watching out for Vin's traps, having little desire for deer shit raining down unexpectedly on his head. He pulled the key from Vin's hiding spot and let himself in. The undisturbed dust on the counters argued that no one had been in recently. Nevertheless, Chris decided to wait. Maybe he had just beaten Vin there. He settled himself on the front stoop, watching, thinking. 'Why are you doing this, Cowboy?' But he knew the answer. Whenever Vin was confused and needed time to think, he'd go off by himself... and God knows, this was a confusing time for the young Texan. Chris sighed and after hanging around for about an hour, decided he's guessed wrong. He pulled out his cell phone to check in with the others as he headed his truck back out toward the road.
Vin watched Chris's truck pull out. He'd hung around in the woods, out of sight, the whole time his friend was there. Several times as he'd seen the distress on Chris's face, he'd considered approaching him. He didn't blame his boss for what had happened yesterday; but the incident had convinced him that his own life was hopelessly out of his control and even out of Chris's control. He was sure his friend blamed himself for what happened, and he needed to let him know it was okay, that he understood. Yet, he couldn't completely shake the doubts and the fear that Chris would think it best to take him back. He didn't want to be treated like a kid anymore or even more humiliating like a 'challenged' adult. Whether he understood what was being said made no difference, he could read faces and they viewed him as disabled. Others treated him as if he were deaf, speaking slowly and loudly to him, as if that made a difference. Even at moments, he felt his own well-intentioned friends look at him that way. No, he wasn't ready to go back. So he watched and felt an emptiness settle on him as he let his best friend drive away.
Vin decided to stay away from the Vinnebago for another day just in case someone else came to check. He had his tent and gear and sleeping out in the wild was a pleasure for him, not a hardship. Over the course of the next two days while Chris and the others continued to search for the missing sharpshooter, Vin spent his time fishing and most of all thinking. He savored the smells and sounds of the woods, the gray jays squabbling, an occasional hoarse croak of a raven or the shrill cry of a red-tail hawk overhead, the wind moving through the pine branches and filling the air with the smells of the early fall. Out here, Vin could provide for himself and didn't need words to know what animals were moving near him or when the weather was changing. He knew how to blend into the forest and had never felt more a part of it.
The end of a day of futile searching every place they knew he frequented found the team gathered in the conference room.
"Anyone got anything?" asked Chris, unable to hide the discouragement in his voice. He knew they wouldn't.
"I am afraid that when Mr. Tanner wishes to make himself undetectable, he displays an unparalleled mastering of the art of stealth," commented Ezra sounding as discouraged as Chris.
JD couldn't contain himself and before Buck could shush him, he blurted out, "Why? Why would he run away?" The senior agent glared at the young man for a moment and then sighed. No point in trying to make this into something different. He was pretty sure that JD was right. Vin had run away from them - from him.
Before Chris had a chance to answer, Josiah spoke in his rumbling baritone. "I think Vin appreciated all our help, but you know how independent he is. This situation must have been very, very hard for him to adjust to. He was dependent on us, on Chris in particular, for even the most basic things."
Buck nodded in agreement and added, "I guess he just needed to get away to clear his head, to be in control of his life again."
"Yeah," Chris finally spoke up. "The episode with the shrink set him off. He realized he was being pushed around and that we...the I... couldn't stop it... maybe even was a part of it..."
"Chris, this isn't your fault. He just needs time by himself, probably to prove he can manage on his own. He'll come back when he's ready," said Nathan.
At that, Chris's countenance took on a more somber look. "I wish it were that simple... that we could just sit back and wait for him to come home. Remember someone might be after him. I want to know what's going on. Did any of you hear anything more about a contract out on him?"
Ezra spoke up, "Well, not a contract in the traditional sense. There is no indication that Chassen has given any order. He's too careful for such a blatant move. However, in my circle of less than illustrious contacts there is an undercurrent indicating that something is afoot in his organization. I believe he has a nephew who wishes to advance himself. There was some mention of him proving himself, making his mark by taking out an ATF agent who had run afoul of his uncle. I was not able to ascertain if this was with or without his uncle's approval."
Buck concurred. "I heard something similar today about Chassen's nephew having it in for a Fed. He did something thinking he'd make points with his uncle, but the old man was pissed off that he'd put him at risk and only did half the job."
Josiah added, "I know a bit about this nephew, Breen, Rick Breen, Chassen's sister's boy. Been in and out of trouble since he was a teenager. He has a reputation for being unstable and unpredictable. Another thing, he's vicious. Unfortunately, he's also known to be an excellent marksman."
"If his first attempt to please Uncle failed, he might try to do something really dumb to prove himself," said Buck voicing a concern that they were all developing.
"We can't be sure, but if there's a chance that Vin's still a target, we've got to find him and get him some protection," said Chris. He sighed, "I'm going to call in a missing persons and all points, for all the good it'll do. I hate to bring the cops in on this, but we've got to cover every base we can."
He sat on a rock, studying the ripples and eddies in the stream as it moved over and around the smooth rocks. After almost two weeks since he'd been shot with the dart and three days since he'd fled Chris's ranch, his ability to manage his thought processes was much improved. He understood what had happened to him and hoped it would be short-lived, but he'd seen uncertainty in Chris's eyes and was also preparing himself to deal with it if it wasn't. He wouldn't be able to work at the ATF, and that was tough to come to terms with. Life could be a bitch sometimes, but he'd given up thinking it was fair a long, long time ago. You dealt with what you were given, and he was still able to take care of himself. While he was pretty sure this wouldn't last forever, he wanted to be prepared. He had some money put away and he was sure Chris would help him handle the business stuff that had to be done. He could live here and work out at the ranch from time to time; maybe even do some work for some of the neighboring ranchers. He didn't need much money. Nettie was always hiring someone for jobs here and there; others probably did, too. They knew him and knew he was capable. Didn't need major communication skills to understand a lot of the basic jobs needed at a ranch. Wouldn't be easy, but it wouldn't be impossible either.
One question he couldn't quite come to terms with... could he bounty hunt again? Probably not and that was hard. He couldn't read posters, but more importantly, he couldn't talk to people to pursue leads. No, no matter how he tried to find a way, he came up against that important fact. Could he do something else with his sharpshooting skill?... He chuckled to himself... there was always learning to be an assassin. He shook his head as he laughed internally... hoped it wouldn't come to that! Didn't think his friends would approve!
Despite the fact that he couldn't figure out how to do the jobs he loved the most, he was finding a way to survive independently. That was the most important thing to him. The more time he spent out in the woods, gradually winning the struggle to force his jumbled thought processes to behave as he planned a future, the better he felt. This was going to be okay. He'd have to rely on Chris for some help, but not too much.
After days of turning up nothing, Chris's emotions were in a turmoil. One moment, he was consumed by frustration and anger, the next, by worry edging on panic. He couldn't shake the feeling that his original instincts had been correct.
"Buck, I'm going back out to the Vinnebago," he announced abruptly.
"Why, Chris? You already checked it out," answered Buck gently, hoping to spare his long-time friend another disappointment. They'd tried enough bad leads in the past two days, to put even the most optimistic person in the depths of despair.
"Just a feeling. It's where he'd go. I know it. But it's also the first place he'd figure I'd look, and if he didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be."
"Yeah, I guess you're right about that. That boy can fade into the woods like Sasquatch himself. OK, call if you find anything," said his friend as he turned back to JD to discuss any other possibilities.
This time, Chris was more careful. He parked the truck up at the head of the drive and walked in trying to remember everything Vin had ever showed him about moving silently through the woods, and of course, watching out for the ubiquitous triplines!
Vin was outside cleaning some fish, when he became aware of someone approaching. Without giving away that he'd heard, he assessed the nature of the intruder. There was no tingling sensation of danger and soon his intuition was validated as he saw Chris cautiously approaching. Vin just waited smiling as he watched his friend's efforts at a stealthy approach. He felt better now and could deal with 'talking' to his friend so he stood his ground and let him come. As Chris stepped out of the woods, he saw Vin standing and waiting for him, grinning. So much for the stealth approach! His relief at finding Vin apparently in good health gave way to a huge smile and a shrug at his ineptness.
Vin reached down and produced two beers, headed over to a couple of rocks near the stream and waited. Chris accepted the beer, sat down and the two studied the water in silence. Didn't need to say anything. A lot of apologies and forgiveness could pass back and forth between them without words. Chris only broke their silent communication long enough to call Buck.
"Buck, he's here. He's fine."
At those words, Buck collapsed into his chair in relief letting out a low, "Oh, man, thank God!" JD's attention was immediately focused on Buck and his actions told him what he most wanted to hear.
"I'm gonna hang out with him for awhile, probably do some fishing. We need some time to 'talk'. Let the others know, will you? And call off the cops!"
Buck was busy giving a thumbs up sign to JD, who was grinning from ear to ear. "No problem, Chris. I'll let Josiah know he gets to be boss man for a time again. He'll love that!" said Buck as he hung up and prepared to call the others with the news that would allow them all to get the first good night's sleep in three days.
As dusk approached, Vin hitched his head toward the Vinnebago and gathered up the fish, making it clear what tonight's dinner would be. Chris followed and for the first time since the whole awful episode had started, he began to think that maybe things would be all right.
Next morning, Vin was up early fixing coffee and the sounds and aroma woke Chris who was stretched out on the couch. He slipped quietly into the kitchen and watched his friend working efficiently making biscuits. He smiled, seeing that this time had been good for Vin, and had given him a chance to feel in control and good about himself. Chris understood that the reason he'd left wasn't just the bad session with the shrink, it was the feeling of dependency. Here, Vin ran the place. Vin looked up, smiled, and poured his friend a cup of coffee.
Chris took it, made a face, but twitched the corners of his mouth up and shrugged after he drank it. He really was growing to like Vin's strong coffee.
Vin angled his head at a couple of fishing poles leaning against the wall and raised a quizzical eyebrow. A day of fishing didn't sound at all bad. Chris nodded and sat down to the biscuits and jam.
After breakfast, they headed out and were just clearing the Vinnebago as they aimed at the path to the stream when something caught Vin's eye, a glint on a gun barrel. He shoved Chris behind a pile of firewood and fell over him as he felt a blow slam his shoulder.
Chris had his gun out and was firing as he pulled Vin down beside him. He could see that the younger agent had been hit, but Vin was up and reaching for his own gun. They both started firing. Suddenly, Chris was flung back as a while hot poker reamed through his side. He tried to rise but couldn't get his breath, couldn't get away from the fire in his side, until blackness overtook him.
Vin saw his friend fall but couldn't get to him. He turned back to his assailant with a vengeance. Watching carefully he saw a slight movement in the shrubbery to the left of where they'd been firing. He fired, heard the wail of pain and saw the man fall forward through the brush. Vin waited. There was no other movement. He raced over to be sure the attacker was dead and then back to Chris to see how badly he was injured. His friend had a bullet hole in his side that had apparently gone right through, but he was bleeding profusely. Vin pulled off his sweatshirt to put pressure on the wounds. Help, he needed to get help! He picked up Chris's cell phone and glared at it in frustration. Tossing the useless device aside, he determined that he'd have to get Chris to help by himself.
As soon as he'd gotten the bleeding slowed, he ran into the camper, got some materials to bandage the wounds and a blanket. Chris didn't come to at all as Vin worked feverishly to get pressure bandages rigged on both sides of the wound. By the time he was done, his shirt and pants were soaked with blood - Chris's and his own. Vin wrapped Chris in the blanket and carried him to the passenger side of the Jeep. He struggled to get him seated and strapped in. By this time, Chris was coming around a little and moaned as Vin shifted him. Vin ran back into the house, shrugged into his jacket and grabbed the keys to the Jeep.
He fired up the Jeep and headed for the hospital, pulling in there about 45 minutes later. By this time, Chris was unconscious again. The emergency personnel saw Chris and immediately sized up the situation. They stepped to check Vin, but he waved them away from him and shooed them in with Chris. He parked the Jeep and came back in as quickly as he could. He was immediately accosted by the admissions staff, but after some frustration, managed to convey to them that he couldn't speak and he couldn't understand them. He brought out Chris's wallet and badge, pointing alternately to it and then to the phone. One of the nurses seemed to grasp the implications and took the badge searching for contact information. She showed Vin she was making a call and had another nurse steer him to the waiting room while she made the call to the ATF.
Vin sat in a large upholstered chair, huddling into its depths, waiting. He hoped they'd understood him and would call for the others. He had no idea what was going on with Chris and had to wait in misery imagining the worst. Chris had been so pale and had lost so much blood. Vin put his face down into his hands.
When he could stand it no longer, he got up and started to head down the hall toward the examination rooms. A nurse ran up to stop him but he gently set her aside. He had just reached the room and through the window could see them working on Chris, when a couple of orderlies and a security guard caught him. He struggled in vain, but was too weak to get loose. They were kindly but firm and took him back to the waiting room, the security guard through pantomime making it very clear where they wanted Vin to stay. Vin nodded his head and slumped over to wait.
"Sanchez," spoke the ex-preacher. "OK, put her on," he said to the ATF operator.
"Mr. Sanchez, this is Brenda Stevens at Denver General. I'm a nurse in the Emergency Medicine department. I understand that you work with a Mr. Larabee?"
"Yes, Ma'm, I do. Is he all right?" At those familiar, worrisome words, the others sat up and waited.
"Well, actually, no. Mr. Larabee was just brought in here with a bullet wound in his side. I have no further information on what happened, and it's too soon to report on his condition. He's being examined by a doctor now. Does Mr. Larabee have any relatives? We'll need to notify them."
"Chris doesn't have any relatives."
"Oh... well... ah, Mr. Sanchez, he was brought in by a young man who seems to be a deaf mute, and we're having trouble communicating with him. Um... he's quite distraught, and, well, he's being a bit difficult. I wonder, would it be possible that someone from your office might know him and maybe be able to come down here to help out?"
"Yes, Ma'm, we know him. He's one of our agents. His name is Vin Tanner, and he's not deaf. However, he won't be able to understand you, and he can't talk. It's complicated, but simply speaking, he's recovering from an injury." Josiah knew the nurse would assume it was a head injury and didn't want to try to explain further. "Is he okay?"
"He seems to be, other than the fact that he's very upset about Mr. Larabee. He waved Mr. Larabee's badge in front of us and pointed to the phone until we figured out that he wanted us to call your office. Then he seemed to get quite upset that we wouldn't let him in while they examined Mr. Larabee. We had to call Security. He's calmed down now and is sitting in the waiting area. But I'm afraid he might get going again. Can someone come down here?"
"We'll be right down, Denver General, Emergency, right? Listen, please don't let Vin wander off. Can you keep an eye out for him? He might try to go looking for Chris."
"I can see him from my desk, so I can watch out for him," she reassured him.
Josiah hung up the phone and turned to the others. "Chris has been shot and Vin brought him in. They don't know what happened because Vin can't tell them. The nurse said Chris is being examined now and Vin seems to be okay other than the fact that he's very upset and has caused some minor disturbances. Let's go."
Nurse Stevens went back out to where Vin was sitting. She gently put a hand on his shoulder. When he looked up, she tried to tell him she'd called his friends and someone was coming, but she could see that he didn't understand. She looked at his clothes; he was covered with his friend's blood. She went away and returned in a few minutes with a set of scrubs, holding them up in front of him so that he would understand that he could change into them. Vin looked at them and shook his head, then settled deeper into his chair, his head leaning forward. He kept reliving the fight, seeing his friend shot, all the blood, his inability to rouse him. The images swirled in his mind and he felt an amorphous fear invading him, twisting his stomach, telling him that this blond man would be gone, this man who was so close to him that he was like a part of him. Every once in a while he looked around the room. The hospital staff moved about paying little heed to him and he had no way of finding out what had happened to his friend. He'd never felt so alone or helpless in his life.
His head shot up when the doors of the emergency entrance burst open and five men poured in, overwhelming the room with their presence. Three headed for the desk, asking after "Chris Larabee," and two went over to the dejected young man sitting sunken in a chair in the waiting room. Ezra and Nathan knelt in front of Vin. His face was suffused with relief as he realized his message had gotten through and he knew he wasn't alone in this. These men understood him and would be able to find out what was going on with Chris. They spoke to him, soothing words that he didn't understand. He nodded, then suddenly put his head down in his hands. They could see he was trying to control his emotions as a shudder went through him, and they just stayed near him, Nathan's hand resting lightly on his shoulder and Ezra's on his knee. The contact seemed to give him some comfort. Soon the whole group settled into the familiar pattern of waiting for news on an injured comrade.
They'd been waiting a half an hour when a nurse came out to fill them in on Chris's condition. She stepped back as five of them advanced on her at once, but relaxed when the tall one said in a kind baritone, "It's okay, Ma'm, we're harmless. Can you tell us something about Chris?"
"Mr. Larabee is being taken to surgery. He has a bullet wound in the side. The bullet passed through, but he has bled quite a lot; the doctor feels confident that it hasn't done serious damage. They'll need to do a little repair work. I'll let you know when he's out of surgery."
Nathan and JD went over to Vin to try to let him know what was going on. He couldn't understand the specifics, but he could read their faces and posture and he understood tentative good news. He sat back suddenly feeling relieved and a little dizzy.
While the rest of the group moved around, some more than others, pacing, standing sitting, wandering down the hall, Vin didn't move. He kept his head low and hardly looked at the others he was so consumed with anguish and worry over Chris. He couldn't escape the image of Chris flung backwards, blood blossoming on his side, replaying over and over in his mind. Maybe he'd misunderstood the others; maybe Chris wasn't okay and they had just tried to make him feel better. The image of Chris covered in blood swirled in front of him again. He wished he could gain some reassurance from others. He knew they would try to explain to him what was happening, but he also knew he wouldn't understand them. Every once in awhile, one of them would go up to Vin, place a hand on his arm or knee and try to give a reassuring look; Vin would look up, smile wanly, and then reenter his world of worry and isolation. About two hours later, a doctor approached the group and was quickly surrounded by five men; only Vin remained seated watching the group with keen interest. He could tell this was important news about Chris.
"Gentlemen, your friend will be fine. No organs were damaged seriously; we were able to effect repairs quite well. He lost a good bit of blood and we had to give him a transfusion. He's going to be very sore and weak for a few days. We'll keep him in the hospital until we're sure there are no signs of infection, probably 2 or 3 days." Vin watched the group around the doctor. He watched their postures shift, lifting a little, saw grins appear on their faces, and he knew they were listening to good news. Relief overwhelmed him and he leaned back, staring at the ceiling and blinking furiously, trying to keep the tears from sliding down his face.
"May we see him doctor?" asked Josiah.
"We'll have him moved to a room shortly and you can all visit him there, but just for a short time. He'll be very groggy."
With the news about Chris, the tension and worry that had been consuming Vin began to recede, and as they did, the sharpshooter gradually became aware of the throbbing pain in his shoulder and a feeling of weakness that hadn't been there before. He gingerly felt his shoulder and winced; he'd forgotten about that. The room started tilting, colorful spots danced in front of his eyes, and when he looked down at his hands, they were trembling. He leaned his head forward onto his hands, his eyes shut tight, trying to will the surroundings to stay in place. Why was he suddenly feeling so sick? He hadn't been sick before. He felt a hand on his arm and opened his eyes to look into Nathan's kind face.
Nathan and JD had moved over to the sharpshooter to try to let him know what was going on. They were smiling and when Vin smiled back at them, they were sure he understood. Despite the clear relaxation and happiness on the younger man's face, Nathan noticed a gray cast and fine sheen of sweat coating Vin's forehead. He leaned forward to check more closely, when JD spoke up, "Nathan, look at this."
JD had reached over to pat Vin's arm, when he noticed that not only was Vin covered with a lot of blood, which they had all assumed was Chris's, but there was a dark puddle of it on the chair beside him. How could Chris's blood have pooled in the chair? "Nathan, look at this," said JD as he pointed and stepped back.
Nathan took one look at the blood and then back at Vin searching his face for an explanation. He grabbed Vin's wrist and checked his pulse, it was weak and too fast. Vin's head had fallen against the back of the chair and he'd closed his eyes, not reacting at all when Nathan took his wrist. "What the hell?" said the ex-medic as he realized something was wrong; he began to pull the jacket back. "Damn! He's bleeding! Ezra, get a doctor! I think Vin's been shot, too!" The others closed in a tight circle around the pair as Nathan peeled back Vin's shirt to reveal a bullet wound in his left shoulder that was slowly seeping blood. Nathan applied pressure immediately, "Josiah, Buck, help me get him onto the floor; I need to get his head low." Buck and Josiah moved Vin while Nathan kept pressure on the wound, swearing under his breath as he did. How the hell could he have missed this for more than two hours?! He was berating himself and struggling to control the bleeding as the emergency staff rushed around the corner.
"We can take over now, Sir. What's his name? What happened?"
Nathan spoke up, "Vin Tanner. I think he's been shot. There's no sign of an exit wound."
The doctor called for a gurney. "We need to get him into one of the examination rooms, get an IV going and give him some oxygen," he snapped out to his staff and he focused his attention on the injured young man.
Nathan moved next to the doctor to explain. "Doctor, he can't speak or understand anything you say to him. Can I please come in with you while you examine him? He's not going to understand what's going on and he's going to need someone familiar close by to keep him calm."
The doctor leaning over Vin said, "Mr. Tanner. Can you hear me?" Vin's eyes fluttered open, but he immediately started to draw away from the strange face leaning over him. When the doctor started to explain calmly that they were going to take him in to be examined, he showed no signs of understanding and continued to struggle to pull away. Nathan put a hand out on his shoulder, got Vin to look at him and gave him a reassuring nod, then pointed to the bullet wound. Next he nodded at the doctor. Vin stopped his struggling, gazed briefly at the doctor, then turned back to Nathan. The ex-medic motioned that he should stay still and let them put him on the waiting gurney. The sharpshooter quieted and let them take him into the examination room, all the time holding on fiercely to Nathan's hand.
A half hour later, the group was gathered in Chris's room. Vin had been taken to surgery to remove the bullet and they were waiting for Chris to come to. Nathan couldn't hold his head up to face the others. He still had the image of them wresting Vin's hand out of his when they took him to surgery; the blue eyes pleading for him to stay. And he couldn't forgive himself for not seeing that Vin was hurt earlier.
"Nathan, it's not your fault," said Josiah, knowing that Nathan was beating himself up.
"Yes, Mr. Jackson. We all know that Mr. Tanner is a master at disguising any injury to himself. He did not want us to know until he was sure Chris was all right. There is nothing we could have done differently."
Chris's eyelids flutter and they'll all moved closer as they heard a hoarse croak, "Nathan?... Nathan, where's Vin?... Vin's hurt... You gotta help him."
Nathan gave Chris some water and let him get his bearings a little better. Then he answered gently, "Chris, we know. Vin's being take care of. He's in surgery right now. How're you feeling?"
Chris closed his eyes. 'Oh, God.' He remembered seeing Vin with blood on his shoulder, he remembered firing and a sledgehammer blow to his side, and then nothing more. He tried to concentrate to find out more about Vin but he couldn't keep his eyes open. He drifted off into a drugged sleep again.
It was an hour of groggy semi-awakenings before Chris was able to stay lucid for more than a few minutes. "Buck, where's Vin? How is he?"
"Chris, he's still in surgery. Took a bullet to the shoulder. We should know something soon," said his oldest friend.
"Mr. Larabee, might you be able to elucidate for us how you and Mr. Tanner ended up in this deplorable condition?" asked Ezra.
Chris's eyes closed as he brought up the image of the shootout. "We were at the Vinnebago. Someone came gunning for us... or probably just for Vin.... I don't know. Vin spotted him and shoved me out of the way. He was hit but got up right away and started firing with me; then I got hit. I don't know what happened after that. How is he? How'd we get here?"
Buck stepped forward. "Well, now, that's an interesting story," he drawled. "Junior seems to have saved your sorry hide again. Took care of the bad guy and rescued you."
Josiah smiled at Chris's puzzled expression and stepped forward to give a more clear explanation of the story as they'd pieced it together. "Vin couldn't tell us what happened with your attacker, but we sent word to the local sheriff and he's reported back that there are signs of a shootout and one body out by the Vinnebago. As nearly as we can tell, Vin packed you into blankets in the Jeep and brought you to the hospital. He seems to have caused a minor disturbance and forced the nurses to call us at the ATF. They report that he calmed down some after they picked up the phone, but they needed two orderlies and a security guard to persuade him that he could not follow you into the examination room. By the time we got here, he was sitting under 'house arrest' in the waiting room."
"How'd he force them to call?" asked Chris, a hint of a grin curling his lips.
JD smiled. "Well, he apparently waved your badge in their faces, pointed at the phone, and made himself a pain in the ass until they got the idea."
"I don't understand. I saw him hit. How did he do all this?"
"Chris, we don't know. But there's more." Nathan spoke up hesitantly, looking somewhat shame-faced. "He didn't let on to anyone that he'd been shot. Hid it under his jacket and we thought the blood all over him was yours. We were so busy worrying about you... Chris, I'm sorry, I didn't even notice that he was hurt, too. He sat in the waiting room for almost three hours waiting to find out about you before we discovered he was bleeding. He collapsed right after he knew you were going to be okay. Had a bullet in the shoulder, oozing blood for a long time, started running up a fever. He's in surgery now and we haven't heard anything yet."
"Damn stubborn son of a bitch," mumbled Chris as he lost the fight to stay awake again.
An hour later, a doctor came into the room. He looked around at the six expectant faces but focused first on the patient. "Mr. Larabee, how are you feeling?"
"Sore. How's Vin?"
"Mr. Tanner has come through surgery just fine. We removed the bullet and repaired some muscle damage. It cracked his collarbone as it passed into the tissues beneath, and because the bullet remained in place for a few hours, he's got the start of an infection. We've started antibiotics so everything should be fine. He lost enough blood that we had to give him a transfusion. He may react to that some - fever, nausea, that sort of thing. We'll keep him in the hospital for at least a couple of days to be sure the infection is under control."
"Where is he? Can we see him?" asked Nathan.
"Well, he's still in recovery and not awake yet. I can let two of you go up there to be with him if you want, but I'm afraid all of you would be just too much for our staff to work around," he chuckled. "But don't worry, in about a half an hour, they'll move him in here. It says in his record, which by the way is quite long, that he's a better patient if a Mr. Larabee is around to keep him in line," the doctor added with a smile. "Would you be that Mr. Larabee?"
Chris gave the doctor a crooked grin and a small shrug, then grimaced as he felt the pull in his side. "Take it easy now," said the doctor. "You're going to be very sore for a few days and you'll want to move slowly. I'll get the nurse to bring you some pain medication."
A nurse came in and dosed Chris, who quickly succumbed to sleep again.
After a hasty conference about who was to stay and who to go, Nathan and Ezra followed the doctor out to check on Vin and stayed with him as he began to show signs of shaking off the anesthetic. Vin groggily came to and saw Nathan first. He took a hold of his hand and wouldn't let go. Fanning his eyes around, he saw Ezra, and managed a smile at the two men. They arranged themselves on either side of his bed while the younger agent struggled on and off to shake off the effects of the anesthetic regimen. At one point, Ezra said sharply, "Nathan! The basin!" Nathan grabbed it just in time and helped Vin lean over it while he vomited. Ezra was ready with a damp cloth to clean him up, and they both watched him drift off to sleep again.
When a nurse stopped by, Nathan explained to her that Vin had a history of emetic problems postsurgery or with sedatives and antibiotics. The nurse checked his records, agreed, and said she'd speak to the doctor to see if something could be done.
Shortly, a doctor came in and spoke to them. "I see Mr. Tanner has problems with postsurgical nausea; we can try some anti-nausea medication. We can also put an NG tube in if the problem gets too bad, but I hate to put him through that if it's not absolutely necessary. He won't get dehydrated, because we're pushing the iv fluids. It's really more a matter of comfort. Mr. Jackson, I know you understand his condition well. Watch him for a little while and if you think he'd be better off going through the process of placing the NG tube, let me know."
Nathan thought about what a miserable experience that would be and how difficult it would be to prepare Vin for it. "Thank you, doctor, I guess the tube isn't really going to make him feel any better; he'll just be making less of a mess. For now, we'll just try to help him through it without the tube." He looked to Ezra for confirmation that the undercover agent was game and received a quick nod back from Ezra.
As promised, Vin was wheeled into Chris's room and set up in the other bed. Josiah and Buck made sure that the beds were angled slightly so the two men could see each other without having to stretch around too much. Both were still asleep and the others settled into various chairs that they'd absconded from other areas to wait for their friends to wake up.
Chris awoke first and smiled when Buck directed his line of sight to Vin in the other bed. "He OK?" asked Chris after Nathan gave him some water.
"Yeah, he's fine. He's been awake a little and recognized us, but he's not really been with it yet, and he's been queasy." Nathan filled the ATF leader in.
Chris nodded ruefully. He was unfortunately quite experienced with Vin and post-op nausea.
There were voices rumbling around him, familiar ones. He could put a face to each one even if he couldn't attach a name. He lay quietly, eyes closed, trying to understand where he was before he announced himself by opening his eyes. His body was speaking to him in terms he understood very clearly. His shoulder was the epicenter of pain radiating out in every direction and his stomach... unfortunately he was all too familiar with the roiling sensations in his stomach. He swallowed, trying to push the bile back and will his stomach not to take over again. Focus on the voices. He recognized those voices and every once in awhile actually recognized a name... usually a fleeting experience that he couldn't hold on to, but nevertheless a comforting sensation.
There was no threat in these voices. They were his friends and no one was going to ask him a bunch of questions as soon as they saw he was awake. Vin began to shift around and slowly his eyes opened. Nathan was quickly at his side and gave him some water and raising an eyebrow to Ezra to be sure he was ready with the basin should it be needed. Vin's eyes came into focus and he scanned the room, comforted seeing his five friends, but one. Josiah, noticing the look of anxiety momentarily clouding the sharpshooter's features, caught Vin's eye and waved his arm in the direction of the other bed. The younger agent's face broke into a huge grin when he saw Chris, looking haggard, but cheerfully waving at him from across the room. 'He was okay!' Until this moment, seeing his friend in the flesh, he couldn't really be certain he'd understood the others, and now a warm feeling of relief spread through him. Vin tried to wave back, but lifted the wrong arm and his face knit in pain. Then, no sooner had the fire in his shoulder subsided but his stomach began to win the internal tug of war and nausea and dizziness claimed him. He desperately tried to hold it back until he thankfully felt helping hands rolling him over and holding his head over a basin. When he was finished he gave a grateful look to Ezra and Nathan and tried to relax as they gently rolled him back and washed his face. He let out a long breath exhausted by the effort, tried to keep the heavy eyelids open, and gave in again to sleep.
"You two did that pretty smoothly," remarked Chris. "He been sick a lot?"
Nathan checked Vin to be sure he was settled comfortably and walked over by Chris's bed. "Unfortunately, yes. He's probably reacting to just about everything, the anesthetic, sedatives, antibiotics, they're giving him to fight off the infection, and not to mention the transfusion; the way he is with medication, he's probably even reacting to the anti-nausea medication they're giving him... But, it's actually easing up a bit. Doc didn't want to have to put him through inserting a NG tube and said we could wait to see if the nausea subsides. Seemed best. Another hour or so, he ought to be done with this. If not, Doc'll have to put the tube down."
"Let's hope he's better. God! He hates those tubes!" said Buck. "Just putting 'em down makes him sick!"
"Me, too," muttered JD turning a shade of green remembering the last time he'd seen them start the procedure on Vin, putting it in his nose, making him swallow; he'd had to flee the room to avoid being sick.
For once, fortune seemed inclined to smile upon the Texan; his bouts of nausea steadily lessened over the course of the next hour and talk of an NG tube vanished.
For the next 24 hours, the five mobile members of Team Seven took turns staying with Chris and Vin. Both appeared to be on the road to rapid recovery.
"Hey, Junior's starting to make some noises!" commented Buck a huge grin spreading under his moustache. Vin was sleeping but occasionally he sighed or groaned as he shifted position.
"Yeah, he started that this morning. You should have heard the moans when the nurse came in to bath him!" They all laughed, picturing the shy sharpshooter trying to fend off the advances of the nurse.
By the afternoon of the day after the shooting, both Vin and Chris were awake almost as much as they were asleep, signs of infection had receded, and they were in good spirits. Vin was still suffering from the effects of the drug that had robbed him of his speech, but he found he could enjoy the company of the others and make his needs known through Chris without much difficulty. Josiah marveled at their ability to communicate - it appeared almost telepathic.
"It's not telepathy, Josiah. I can just see from his expression what he wants."
Josiah let out a deep rumbling laugh at that. "Well, now, I can see how you can tell the difference between, 'I need some water' and 'I'm gonna puke', but it is beyond me how you can see 'I want rice for dinner, not potatoes'."
Chris laughed, too. "Takes practice."
On the second day, Chris awoke from a nap to a sound that had gently insinuated itself into his dreams. He didn't know what it was, but recognized it as important. He waited, but it didn't return. Slowly, he opened his eyes to see Vin was standing by his bed; Chris scanned the room. None of the others was there. He looked back at Vin. The sharpshooter had one hand dragged back by the iv pole and he'd unhooked his ECG so he could move the few steps to Chris's bed. 'Oh, shit,' thought the older man. 'He's probably set off alarms and we'll have nurses running in here any minute.' He studied Vin's trusting blue eyes, 'How'm I gonna yell at him?' He became concerned when he saw the furrowed brow. 'What's he doing? What does he need?'
Chris raised a quizzical eyebrow - 'Are you OK?'
Vin continued to look at Chris intently, his eyebrows drawn so closely together they carved a single line over his eyes, his lip bitten in concentration. He had had the word, for a fleeting moment, he had had it, used it. Why couldn't he find it again? He struggled in his mind to bring it back, concentrated as hard as he could to put together the name with this face, this person who was like a brother to him. Then, it floated by, as natural as if it had always been there, and in a low, raspy voice, he tried it out, "Chris."
'Oh, my God! He's talking again!' The feeling of relief that flooded Chris was so overwhelming it ached deep in his chest. It had been so long and he'd been so afraid it would be much longer. "Vin," was all he said as he reached up his hand to grasp that of the younger man, to let him know that he understood, that he was there for him. It would take a little time for it all to come back, but it would. He looked deeply into the solemn blues eyes. "Vin, welcome back."
When Vin smiled and tightened his grip, Chris knew he'd understood.