Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part Three: Pride (in the name of love)

Chris knew that Vin thought he'd lost his mind. And maybe he had. Between the dreams and the very real misery he'd watched Vin suffer through, it was entirely possible that he was a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

But he wasn't a coward. He was determined to keep Vin safe, that was all. That was first and foremost, and yes, Vin, he'd swallow his pride to do it. Get on his knees, beg, plead, run, hide . . . whatever he needed to do until Vin was out of danger. Then and only then, would he give Ian O'Connor exactly what he deserved.

And what he deserved was a slow, agonizing death, which Chris played out several different ways in his mind. All of those horrible dreams within the dream that he'd had about Vin being hung and stoned and drowned . . . he just substituted Ian's face for that of his friend. It was immediate gratification, and maybe that was crazy, too, but so what? At least he had some control over his fantasies, unlike his dreams.

The dreams had been sparse of late though, probably because he rarely got a full night of sleep. After a few hours of restless tossing and turning, he was now wide awake. He took solace in the easy, even breathing of his friend in the bed next to his. Tanner slept more than he was awake it seemed, but he still had deep circles under his eyes. Vin needed a few more weeks, at minimum, but Chris would be hard pressed to keep him down that long. Hell, who was he kidding? There was no way O'Connor would leave them alone that long.

That thought brought him straight up in bed, and he ran his hand through his hair with an exasperated sigh. It was ridiculous how this man from his past unnerved him--especially when he considered that he had yet to have a real interaction with him. Vin had; he'd been on the receiving end of Ian's ploys at least three times now. But Chris had only seen him in his dreams. Nothing fair or right about that, and Chris couldn't wait for the opportunity to, as Vin said, meet the man head on and take him down.

But he would wait; a soft moan from the bed next to him reminding him why.

Chris settled back against the pillows and tried to come up with a plan. Maybe they could force Ian's hand, once the boys were back and Vin was stronger. Should be easy to do; they were ATF, for God's sake, and they were seven against one. Of course the one they were against was sneaky and crazy and smart . . . a nightmare from the dark and maybe he did have some sort of mystical powers. Or maybe Chris was just overtired and overstressed and weirded out, as JD would say.

Another sigh, another moan, and then there was something else--a sound in the hall--and Chris was on his feet in seconds. He slipped on his t-shirt, no longer feeling quite so silly that he'd worn his jeans to bed. Vin had found it practically hilarious, until Chris insisted he wear his clothes to bed, too. Better to be prepared and Tanner, of all people, should know that by now.

He took a quick glance at Vin, sure that his friend's oversensitive hearing would pick up on the sounds, but Tanner remained asleep. It was probably nothing--a night janitor or security guard--but what had he told Vin about people being bought off?

Fumbling for his gun, Chris cursed the darkness as well as his paranoia. All was quiet for several long moments, and he dropped the gun to his side and let out a breath. But then he heard the soft click as the door was unlocked.

This couldn't be real. There was no way they could open the bolt, but somehow they had.

Chris threw on the light and hollered for Vin just as three men pushed through the door. Three guns drawn to Chris's one, but Vin opened groggy eyes and took only seconds to find his own weapon. Even at half strength, Tanner had twice the instincts and agility of most men, but would it be enough?

Vin stumbled from the bed, his gun drawn, but within seconds he was tackled to the floor. Stunned momentarily by the quick movement, Chris flicked his eyes to the action and prepared to fire. He was distracted just long enough for the other two goons to tackle him as well. Not a word spoken or a single shot fired, but Chris liked it better that way. Using fists and legs, he figured he had a better than even chance of taking both of his attackers, but what about Vin? Even in the midst of fighting for his very life, he realized there were no sounds of similar scuffling from the opposite side of the room.

"Tanner's out," a voice said, so Chris fought harder. On his back now, he kicked one of his opponents in the stomach; too bad he hadn't kept his boots on, too. The man flew backwards with a grunt but the third man, the one who'd attacked Vin, joined the fray, landing a solid punch to his middle and sitting on his legs while Chris struggled to catch his breath.

"Do it. Give it to him," the man said, and before Chris could react, the sting of a needle pierced his thigh.

It wasn't real. Images and voices drifted around him; something about stuffing him and Vin in laundry carts . . . and wouldn't Vin get a kick out that? He couldn't move and couldn't speak, so he settled for praying that he was just dreaming and please God, don't let him wake up on a boat.

+ + + + + + +

He woke up on a boat.

The soft, gentle rocking matched the rolling of his stomach, but he refused to give in to it. He'd experienced enough vomiting--both first and second hand--to last him a lifetime and there would be no more of that. Besides, this was a temporary situation; if he lay still long enough, he'd wake up. Come on, Buck, wake me up, he pleaded silently.

"Oh shit."

It was more of a moan than actual words, but it reminded Chris that he wasn't in this nightmare alone. He pulled himself up and turned his gaze to where his friend lay pretty much motionless on the floor next to him. "Vin? You with me?"

Vin opened his eyes, peered around him without actually moving anything at all, and repeated, "Oh shit."

Chris scooted closer and took a good look at his friend. Vin was ghostly white, except for a new purple bruise on his jaw, but he appeared to be real. "You awake?" Chris asked. Maybe Vin could pull him out of this dream.

"I have no idea. How 'bout you?"

"I hope not."

Vin sat up with a low groan and said one more time, "Oh shit."

"You gonna be sick?" Chris asked, noting the green tint to Vin's skin. Tanner's sick stomach was the one and only consistency in their world of late.

Vin shook his head as he closed his eyes and lay his head against the wall. "Just give me a minute." It was more like five minutes, but finally Vin opened his eyes again and spoke. "We really on a boat this time?"

"I honestly have no idea." It sounded absurd, totally preposterous, but Chris couldn't commit to anything other than his name at that moment.

Frustration at his interminable confusion motivated him to get up and investigate the possibilities. A few short steps were all it took to round the small room. The space was considerably smaller than their last room had been; the room that they weren't really in on the boat that they weren't really on, and hell, it was no wonder he didn't know what was real and what wasn't. A brief look out one of the small windows confirmed that they were once again--or maybe for the first time--surrounded by blue, and Chris decided he was never buying, wearing, or painting anything blue ever again. Although Vin's eyes were a nice shade . . . and good God, he'd better be dreaming if he was actually spending time contemplating his partner's eye color.

"So . . . are we dreamin' again?"

The question of the day, and why did he feel like he'd done this before? Probably because he had, several times in fact; which left only one possible response, "I don't know. I don't feel like I am, but I could have sworn the last one was real, too. What about you?"

"Same. But I don't feel like I'm dyin' this time, and at least the boys will know where t' look . . . if it is real."

"I appreciate the positive spin, Vin, but the ocean is mighty big and it could be days until anyone figures out we're gone."

"If we're gone at all," Vin countered.

Well, yeah, there was that small consideration.

"Okay, let's reason this out," Chris said, sitting back against the same wall as Vin. He figured they must have made a peculiar sight; both of them leaning against the wall with their knees up and their arms draped loosely in their laps--lacking a distinct sense of urgency, under the circumstances. But then, what exactly were the circumstances?

"You remember what happened in the hotel?" Chris asked.

"Sort of. I heard you call my name and next thing I know, some gorilla has me pinned t' the floor and he's shootin' somethin' in my arm. Oh God, Chris, you don't think . . .?"

"No," Chris quickly interjected. "I think they just knocked us out so they could get us here."

Vin hadn't been poisoned again because he hadn't been poisoned the first time . . . exactly . . . at least, not intentionally. Okay, maybe the experimental drug was intentional in a way, but it wasn't administered by a madman, so no, this wasn't the same thing at all. It couldn't be because Chris simply wouldn't allow it to be, so he repeated, "It was just a sedative."

Vin sighed in relief. "Yeah. Okay." But the reprieve was short-lived when he added, "But if O'Connor is behind this, it's just a matter of time before he tries somethin' else. I kinda doubt he's gonna let us sit down here and enjoy the ride."

"Probably not."

No, if this was real than they were in deep trouble again and what was the point? Chris rose to his feet and paced their prison as he thought out loud. "What was the point of the dream? What good did it do for us to know our enemy if this was all going to happen anyway? We couldn't stop it from happening so what the hell was it good for?"

"Well, I reckon we're a little more prepared," Vin responded thoughtfully. "And like I said, the boys know where t' start at least."

Leave it to Vin to find the silver lining, measly though it was. "Prepared exactly how?"

"Aw hell, Chris, I don't know. Maybe it don't have nothin' t' do with that at all. Maybe God gave us that dream t' teach us . . . somethin'."

"Like . . .?"

"I'll be damned if I know."

"Obviously cleaning up your language wasn't part of the lesson."

Groaning, Vin closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. "Give me a break, Larabee. I ain't got a lot of insight on God and his doin's on a good day . . . and in case you've forgotten, I ain't had a lot of those lately."

Chris winced at the reminder. "Sorry, Vin. Let's forget about what our dreams mean and concentrate on getting out of this." He squatted down in front of his friend and continued, "I'm afraid you're gonna get your wish . . . looks like we're gonna get our chance to tackle O'Connor head on."

"Bring 'im on," Vin rasped, but he kept his eyes closed.

Worn out, done in, exhausted . . . after five minutes of conversation. Vin's spirit may be willing, but his flesh was weak, and this was exactly why Chris had done everything he could to avoid this situation.

But not enough; he hadn't done enough.

+ + + + + + +

Hours passed and the light outside the windows faded to inky blackness. Chris had spent the time searching for a way out; testing the door and the floor and even the walls for a weakness. He'd only stopped short of smashing a window and swimming his way out.

There was nowhere to go, but he wasn't going to stand down and let O'Connor call the shots this time. This time . . . as if there really was a first time.

Vin had sat back and watched him pace, but he didn't get up. He hardly even moved, which was the truest testament to his condition. He wasn't dying, though, and that considerable improvement in the situation was enough to give Chris hope.

"Sit down, Chris. We ain't goin' anywhere," Vin finally grumbled.

It was too dark to see the expression on Tanner's face, but he didn't have to. He could picture the tiny smirk of part amusement, part irritation that Vin wore. The guys always said the two of them could communicate with only a glance, but apparently they didn't even need that anymore. Pitch black with no words at all, he'd still know that Vin knew exactly what he was thinking and feeling at that moment.

"He's not gonna win this time, Vin."

"He didn't win last time. I'm still here," Vin clarified.

Okay. Technically that was true. Technically, all O'Connor had done so far was attack Vin in the warehouse and rough him up a few times since. All he had done?

"Damn it, Vin," Chris said, the simple expletive saying it all. He sat down beside his friend then, pulling his knees up and resting his head against the wall; mirroring Vin's posture once more.

"There's things y' can't control, Chris," Vin spoke quietly into the darkness. "Reckon that could be the lesson."

Chris huffed. "You don't really believe that, do you? The dreams . . . the goddamn agony we've endured . . . it can't be about learning a lesson we've both had thrown in our faces over and over again. Hell, look at our pasts - what two men know better than us that we have absolutely no control over anything at all?"

"Uh-huh . . . right," Vin stammered doubtfully.

Okay, so maybe he wasn't all that great at handing over control; maybe he did occasionally beat his head against brick walls, thinking he could change the unchangeable. Maybe he still believed if he fought hard enough and believed strongly enough, he could bend life the way he wanted, and what was so wrong with that?

"Nothing wrong with a little determination, Vin."

Vin snorted. "A little determination? Try thick-headed, stubborn as a mule, never give an inch and never give up even when it's damn near impossible . . ."

"Kinda like someone else I know," Chris interrupted. He wasn't the only one. After all, Vin had no trouble bucking the odds, swimming against the tide when the situation called for it . . . and generally at a significant risk to himself.

With a soft chuckle, Vin answered, "Reckon you're right, Larabee. Reckon we both could learn a few things about pride and stubbornness . . . and control."

"I reckon," Chris agreed. But he didn't add that he had no intention of learning it here and now. He was getting Vin out of this mess come hell or . . . high water.

Minutes of silence passed before Vin spoke up again. The weariness in his voice was more evident, though Chris tried hard not to think about it.



"Just want you t' know, no matter how this goes down, knowin' you and workin' with you--bein' your friend--it's the best thing that ever happened t' me."

A disembodied voice rose from the darkness. "How very touching."

It was impossible. Not a sound, not even a shift in the shadows to indicate the door had opened, yet there in the darkness stood Ian O'Connor. Maybe he was a demon--Chris's own private hell wrapped up in the shell of a mere man.

A flick of a switch banished that thought as light flooded the room, temporarily blinding the men. But in seconds Chris's eyes adjusted, and he focused his gaze on his nemesis. O'Connor was taller, thinner, and darker than he remembered, but that crazy glint in those glacial eyes was still present. And when those insane eyes turned towards Vin, Chris felt his blood run cold.

It was going to happen. Trapped at sea with no possible rescue in sight and no way to stop it . . . Vin would die. Dreams, premonitions, gut feelings . . . they all led to this moment. The realization paralyzed him, rendered him completely immobile as he remained seated on the floor next to his doomed best friend.

The cool blue eyes and the silky voice were strangely mesmerizing as O'Connor continued, "Where did you find him, Larabee? And how did you do it? How did a man like you inspire such loyalty and devotion from a man like him?"

Good question. Ian would undoubtedly be amused that Chris had pondered that very thing numerous times over the past few years. But deserved or not, he had found Vin. And he'd found in Vin a true brother and a reason to get up in the morning, and he wasn't going to give him up without one hell of a fight.

Control . . . there were things he could change and things he couldn't, but this wasn't over yet. Not by a long shot, and suddenly the spell was broken. Chris rose to his feet, prepared to fight to the death, no matter if O'Connor was man or devil or apparition. But the door opened again, with far more commotion this time as two men entered the room and pointed their weapons directly at Vin.

Chris cursed himself for his transparency. It was pitifully obvious that threatening his partner accomplished so much more than threatening him. It made him sad and sick and so very sorry, and he knew as he turned to face Vin that his friend got the message without a spoken apology or a single word said.

But Vin's eyes said something else entirely. Tanner was mad as hell and damn tired of this game and he was going down with his head up. Typical . . . and maybe it wasn't such a puzzle why he and Vin were so close. They were two of a kind in all the ways that counted.

Or at least they were alike--until Chris got so twisted up in his thinking that he couldn't remember what was what. It took him two seconds to finally figure out what he'd spent weeks brooding over, and that was that it didn't really matter what was real or what wasn't; he could only deal with what was in front of him at the moment. Head on and head up and Ian O'Connor didn't scare him anymore.

Of course, Vin caught on to his change of attitude, probably before Chris had even processed it. Tanner gave him half a grin and said, "Hell Cowboy, with a little luck, in a few hours we'll wake up in our own beds."

Chris responded with a tight smile, but before he could say or do more, Ian pulled the rug out from under him again.

"I dreamed about this," O' Connor said slowly, deliberately, though Chris doubted he realized the impact his words had on his captives.

"I dreamed that I brought you to a boat. It was so incredibly easy to get to you, Larabee. Make your friend suffer and you suffer exponentially. Suddenly, Tanner not dying in that warehouse became a gift." He paused and pierced Vin with his gaze as he added, "Even more so now that he and I have gotten to know each other better."

It couldn't get any weirder, and Chris suddenly wished he'd paid more attention to JD's and Buck's stupid sci-fi discussions. He and Vin sharing a dream he could almost believe. After all, they had shared something inexplicable from the moment they met. But sharing that dream with a madman was another story entirely.

"I'm taken," Vin responded bluntly, and Chris couldn't stop the corner of his mouth from lifting. Tanner and his dry wit . . .

But O'Connor didn't get the joke. He just replied, "Obviously. That's what makes this so much fun. Gentlemen, take Mr. Tanner to my room."

That got a reaction out of Vin; he was on his feet like a shot, and it suddenly occurred to Chris how absurdly crowded the small room had become. O'Connor's goons flanked him on each side with Chris adjacent to them, and when Vin stood up, he was practically nose to nose with their enemy . . . make that nose to knife.

It was quick, like a magician's slight of hand producing some rare and unexpected treasure. The blade gleamed in the glare of the fluorescent lights as Ian forced the tip under Vin's chin, drawing a thin steam of blood when he sliced the surface of thin, white skin.

And it was too much. Vin would not shed one more drop of blood at this man's hands. Chris rushed forward with no other thought in mind than to end this nightmare once and for all, but Ian suddenly gripped Vin and spun him around. Wrapping an arm around Tanner's throat, the madman positioned the sharp blade over the pulsing artery as he demanded, "Do not do anything stupid, Larabee. I'm not ready for this to be over."

Chris was pretty sure O'Connor would get his wish--this would never be over. Especially since the lunatic still held all the cards; he was still in control. He'd already proven what he could do with a knife; a slight flick of his wrist, and Vin would bleed out in seconds.

Control . . . Vin had pondered if giving it up was the lesson they were supposed to learn. But the old saying, "You can't lose something you never had" burned in Chris's brain. From the second they'd entered that warehouse weeks before, they'd been puppets on a string; part of some macabre performance with an unknown, cliffhanger ending.

Chris watched futilely as Vin struggled in vain to break free of his captors. O'Connor kept the knife at Tanner's bloody throat while his henchman tied Vin's wrists behind his back. They did the same to Chris; roughly shoving him to the floor and anchoring his wrists to a pole behind him.

And then they left, closing the door and turning off the light; leaving Chris alone to do nothing but pray that--be it illusion or reality--Vin survived another round with Ian O'Connor.

+ + + + + + +

The blackness faded to gray before abruptly erupting to an almost blinding white; the small row of windows providing the only indication that time had passed. Chris had tried to close his eyes and rest; to gather his strength for the next 'act' of the drama, but it was pointless. His mind only conjured up more disturbing images of the torture Vin was undoubtedly enduring.

Buck would be surprised at how ingenious his fantasies had become--his old friend had often accused him of lacking imagination. If only that were the case now; if only he could make believe for one minute that Vin wasn't suffering while he sat impotently nearby.

O'Connor had formed an unnatural attraction to Vin, and Chris could picture him putting his hands and--oh God--his mouth in places they didn't belong. Shit. Buck would be surprised about that, too--that Chris's mind could even wander in that direction. But it had; over and over again during the long night he'd pictured what the insane criminal could be doing to entertain himself at Vin's expense. The knife, the lecherous, longing looks, and that sick, sick mind could only add up to a disastrous, deadly outcome for his victim.

His victim . . . Vin . . . a man who had no business being involved; an innocent man who had done nothing other than befriend a scarred, screwed up, macho cop . . . a cop who was too cocky, too confident, too proud, and maybe that was the lesson. Get on your knees, Larabee, and beg forgiveness because pride really did come before the fall, even pride in the name of love.

God, he was talking himself into a corner. Love had nothing to do with anything.

Or did it? Maybe it did. Maybe Vin was taken, in every way but sexual, and maybe that wasn't good. Maybe it was wrong. Maybe they were too dependent on each other, and so freakishly linked that they shared the same thoughts, the same emotions, and the same dreams.

Yeah, alright. If that was the lesson, he could learn it. He could separate himself from Vin . . . cut the tie . . . encourage his friend to go out and find a life outside of their friendship. He'd start by getting Vin to say "yes" to that pretty blonde, Sheila, that Buck was set on fixing Tanner up with. She didn't have a brain in her head and she wasn't even close to being good enough for him, but . . . wait a minute. That was just wrong. Even though Chris had spent the entire night worrying himself sick about Vin and he couldn't realistically say that he was thinking rationally, he did recognize that that kind of thinking was just wrong. He had no business deciding who was good enough for Tanner and who wasn't, which was just another example of how overly attached he'd become.

So okay, if that was the lesson, he got it. Give up control, give up his pride, give up his relationship with Vin . . . so hell, what was the point of living then?

Well, apparently there wasn't one, which meant he still had no answers about anything at all. But when it came down to it, he'd settle for just one mystery solved: what happened to Vin?

He got a partial answer moments later when the door opened and O'Connor's two assistants roughly threw Vin to the floor. Stone faced and totally devoid of emotion, the hulky brutes hardly seemed human, and maybe they weren't. Maybe they were angels from the dark side, banished from heaven and floating through purgatory with the devil and two misguided men. And maybe Chris should've paid more attention to Josiah's far out theories.

Vin groaned when he hit the floor, but he appeared to be in one piece. Chris cursed his bound wrists as he tried to get Tanner's attention, "Vin? Are you alright? Can you untie me, Pard?"

No answer, and from the angle he was sitting at, he couldn't get a good look at Tanner's face to see if the man was conscious or not.

"Vin?" he tried again. "Come on, Tanner. I need your help here."

Chris had tried all night to work through the knots that held his hands and arms in an awkward, uncomfortable position behind his back, but he'd only managed to scrape his wrists raw. But a painful hitch in Vin's breathing spurred him to try again as he cursed under his breath. What the hell had O'Connor done to him?

Maybe it was Chris's now frantic jerking on the ropes, or the crescendo of obscenities that escaped his lips, but something finally brought Vin around. Tanner groaned again as he pushed himself up to a sitting position, only inches from where Chris still struggled.

"Stay with me, Pard. I need you to untie these ropes," Chris instructed, as he finally got a good look at the face of his friend. Unfocused, dazed blue eyes met his . . . and why was that? Was it a head injury? Exhaustion? Oh dear God, drugs?

But Vin was apparently more with it than he seemed as he gathered the strength and the wits to attempt to release his friend. It was slow going, a process that should have taken two minutes stretching out to almost ten, but finally the knots came loose and Chris was free to move his arms. In fact, he was free just in time to catch Vin as he took a nose dive towards the floor.

"Whoa. Hold on, Vin. Let's get you comfortable and then I'll look you over."

Gently easing Vin to the floor, Chris reached for the bottle of water and tipped it to his friend's lips. Vin drank it greedily, and it revived him enough for him to mumble, "Tired."

"Yeah, I know, but I need to check you out," Chris responded. He didn't see any obvious bleeding, other than the crusty remnants of the neck wound, but Vin was wearing a black t-shirt and dark jeans--and if anyone could hide a gaping hole in his hide, it was Tanner.

Vin curled up on the floor, protecting his middle, and there was something not quite right with his breathing, but he wasn't going to give Chris the chance to find out what. Tanner shook his head and his eyes clouded over as he whispered, "Don't . . . just leave me be."

Vin wasn't going to tell him. Just the brief moment when Vin's eyes met his told him that Chris wasn't going to know what had gone on for the last eight hours; not today and maybe never. It was Vin's way of protecting him, and he could almost understand it, but not knowing only fueled his overactive imagination and ignited his anger.

He pounded on the door, screamed in fury words that probably made no sense, but he didn't care because he was sick and tired of it all. Credit adrenalin--or maybe his luck had finally turned--but when one of Ian's sidekicks abruptly opened the door, yelling at Larabee to shut up, Chris swung his fist and knocked him flat before the guy knew what hit him. Vin hadn't even had a chance to lift his face off the floor when the big, burly guard went down right beside him.

Back in the game at last, with a glimmer of hope that control was yet within his reach, Chris bound the unconscious man and confiscated his weapon before reaching for Vin.

"Come on, Vin. We're getting out of here," he said, as he hooked an arm under Tanner's shoulder.

Vin stumbled to his feet; breathless and pale as the white light that streamed through the windows. But like always, he knew exactly what Chris needed him to do and he did it. So what if they were too close, too tied to each other? Right now, they needed to be totally in sync if they were to have a chance in hell of surviving this.

And how many times had this happened before? Too many times to count, their unspoken communication had saved their lives or the life of one of their friends. No way could that be wrong, and Chris filed that thought away for the next time he got morbid and confused about life and it's lessons.

Forget the stupid lesson. The only thing that counted right then was getting them out of this nightmare and back home.

He maneuvered Vin through the tight passageway to a narrow, steep set of stairs. "Where's this lead, Vin?" he asked, knowing his friend had likely been taken up that way hours earlier.

Vin licked his lips and took a breath as he eyed the stairway. "The . . . the back . . . deck . . .there's a room . . . I think."

Tanner could hardly keep his eyes open, let alone come up with coherent sentences, but no matter. They'd take this one step at a time, though Chris couldn't deny that he wouldn't mind skipping several steps ahead in order to get to the good part, i.e. wrapping his hands around one long, skinny throat.

First he had to see what was up ahead, so he leaned Vin against the wall and communicated with a nod of his head that Tanner needed to stay there. Vin nodded back, wheezing a bit has he did so. It was probably a few cracked ribs, if they were lucky; something far worse if they weren't, but Chris couldn't put his energy into that worry just yet.

He climbed the stairs and peeked above. Sure enough, they were near the rear of the boat, the stairway exiting onto a broad, gleaming deck that led to some sort of sitting area beyond. And lounging there, like a gift tied up with a bow, sat the other dark angel. He was kicking back with his goddamn feet up and his face tilted up towards the sun, and it infuriated Chris even more. Vin was barely standing, thanks to this bastard and his crazy boss, and this guy was sunbathing. Sunbathing with sunglasses on and his headphones blaring, and Chris could blow his dispassionate, emotionless head clean off his shoulders before the idiot even registered his presence. Too messy and far too noisy, though, so he settled for swinging the barrel of the automatic in a perfect arch and knocking the guy senseless instead. And God, it felt so good.

It also felt too easy and for one brief second, he worried that either it was set-up, or he was dreaming again. But forget that, too; he would waste no more time or energy on doubt and fear as he raced back down the stairs to where he'd left Vin.

Tanner was still standing, sort of. Vin was slumped against the wall, only a white-knuckled grip on the stair railing keeping him on his feet. Chris gripped his shoulder and looked him square in the eye. "Do you have any idea how many men are on this boat, Vin? How many did you see?"

The look of despair and . . . fear? . . . in Vin's eyes made Chris's blood run cold. But his heart stopped beating altogether when Vin turned his head away and answered softly, "One."

One. One sick, diabolical, twisted, evil demon that had made their lives a living hell for weeks now; one insane nightmare from the past who had managed to put something in Vin's eyes that Chris had never seen before. Well, it was going to end today.

"Can you make it up the steps, Pard?" He wasn't sure if Vin lagging along behind was a good plan or not, but the one lesson he was absolutely certain he'd passed with flying colors was not to let Tanner out of his sight.

Vin nodded and pulled himself up straighter; gathering his strength, focusing on the matter at hand. Sick or half-dead, he'd do his very best for Chris just as Chris would for him. That was just the way they worked, and that couldn't be wrong, either.

But it wasn't going to be easy. Chris started up the stairs first, until he glanced behind him and noted that Vin was having trouble moving his feet from one step to the next. In fact, he was having trouble moving at all, and it was only a matter of time before Tanner missed a step completely and ended up back where he'd started, probably with new injuries to add to his collection. So Chris moved behind him and prodded him up each and every step, keeping a firm grip on his friend's hip and arm to keep him upright.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally got Vin onto the deck and no further threat greeted them. So far, so good. There were three attackers at the hotel, so that left at least one man still unaccounted for. Chris figured he was probably manning the boat. He knew very little about vessels like this, but he was pretty sure they didn't run on automatic pilot. He'd have to commandeer the craft, then put out an SOS call. He wasn't much of a seaman--give him green grass beneath his feet any day--so he wasn't exactly sure how to do that, but he was smart, determined, and admittedly desperate; surely he could figure it out.

He was sorely tempted to take care of O'Connor first, but Vin stumbled and moaned softly beside him, reminding him why summoning help needed to take first priority. O'Connor would have to wait a bit longer. But for one delicious moment, Chris allowed himself the luxury of imagining just what he'd do to the man. A quick bullet wouldn't cut it. Hand-to-hand was always a good option, but O'Connor probably fought like a wuss and it would be over way too quick. The knife . . . yeah, that was the best option. And after the way the bastard had carved up Vin, he deserved to be slowly and excruciatingly sliced and diced and . . . oh God, maybe that was a little too much and maybe he had lost his mind after all.

"Chris?" Vin groaned as he hung onto Chris's arm for dear life. "I'm not sure . . . how much . . . help . . . I can . . . be."

He looked terrible, Tanner did; like he might puke or pass out or just check out altogether. So okay . . . not too much. On the contrary, Ian O'Connor in teeny, tiny little pieces was not enough by half.

"It's alright, Vin. I'll take care of everything. You just stay with me."

Vin nodded in agreement, but Chris could see the doubt in his eyes. He'd make it, though, because Chris wasn't going to let this turn out any other way.

"Chris . . . we need t' . . ."

The edge of panic in Vin's words should have clued him in, but he was still completely stunned when shots suddenly rang out and bullets peppered the deck below their feet. He should have known it was too good to be true. As Chris tackled Vin to the deck, he realized that control had once more been wrenched from his hands, and the dream that they might actually have a chance to beat this thing quickly morphed into another living nightmare.

The boat consisted of three levels, from what Chris could make out. The lower level where he and Vin had been kept, the main level with the living quarters, and the upper level where the controls appeared to be. It was from the highest deck that the gunman opened fire. But he and Vin had landed on the small walkway that rimmed the sides of the boat, and the angle was apparently awkward enough that the shooter couldn't quite get to them.

The only problem was, Chris couldn't get to him, either. He kept the guy busy, returning sporadic fire, but sooner rather than later, he'd run out of ammunition and he'd have to go up.

He paused long enough to look at Vin, and for the first time that morning, his friend's eyes were clear and focused. But Tanner's skin was a translucent gray; the same horrible shade it had been when he'd almost bled out. Chris thought about the frail, barely healed incisions, both inside and out of Vin's body, and he gasped as it hit him – Vin was slowly bleeding to death internally. Whatever O'Connor had done, he'd been sure the damage would be slow and painful . . . and help would arrive too late.

Vin knew it, too, though he'd never say it. He'd never put that added burden on his friend. Instead he said, "Go on."

Like it was that easy. Just leave him there, lying on the deck, sick and unarmed. Just go on.

No way in hell.



"We gonna sit here like . . . like . . . sittin' ducks and . . . let him come?"

"We're gonna get out of this, like I promised the first time," Chris said, crouching lower to the deck when a bullet hit too close.

"Thought . . . there was no first time."

"Might be no second time for all we know, but I'm beginning to think reality is overrated anyway."

Wait a second, in the first dream he and Vin had escaped, more or less--well, less than more--in a raft. Chris peered over the side of the boat and sure enough, there it was. A small, rubber dingy for emergency use and this certainly qualified as an emergency. A man could hide there, too, hanging on the side of the bigger boat without being noticed at all.

"Can you make it in the raft, Vin? If I help you?"

Vin grunted as he pulled himself up enough to peer over the edge of the boat. "What for?"

"Please, Vin. Just do it. Get in the boat, and if anything happens to me, set it loose."

"What? So I can . . . die slow and alone at sea? No thanks, Cowboy. Rather . . . take a bullet."

"You think he'd give you that choice? Get in the damn boat, Vin." Chris was frustrated now as the gunfire increased. Maybe he'd underestimated the number of men on the boat. Or maybe it was O'Connor who'd joined the fray.

Where the hell was he anyway? If only he'd show his face, Chris would rethink the torturous death idea. One bullet between the eyes would do it, and then it would all be over. Kill the devil, and his dark angels would probably wither and die--simply melt away like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.

He was obviously delusional.

Though apparently not as delusional as Vin.

"We both go," Vin said with conviction, his voice stronger than it had been in hours, or maybe days.

Chris didn't even bother to respond to Tanner's ridiculous statement. He wasn't leaving that boat without summoning help and that was all there was to it. He could afford to drift at sea for a few days until the boys found them, but Vin couldn't. So he fired off another round and started off towards the upper deck, until a new volley of gunfire from the deck below quickly cut him off.

Shit. Gunfire above and gunfire below . . . and O'Connor somewhere in between. They really were sitting ducks.

"Get in the boat and cut it loose, Vin!" he shouted over the now deafening roar of automatic weapons.

"I already told you, Larabee . . ."

"I'll hold them off and then I'll join you. Now go!"

He couldn't see Vin's face--there wasn't time to look--but he didn't have to. He could feel Vin's uncertainty and regret as clearly as he felt his own. Freakishly linked . . . sometimes painfully so.

Chris didn't see exactly what happened after that. He only heard the small craft hit the water and prayed that Vin was safely in it. He fired until he ran out of ammunition and took a deep breath as he leapt over the side of the boat.

The water was warm, though it stung when he hit. Or maybe it was something else that burned across his upper arm and shoulder. Surfacing immediately, he quickly scanned the waves for the lifeboat. He saw it maybe fifty feet beyond him . . . but Vin wasn't in it.

Vin wasn't in it.

The waves buffeted Chris, tossing him up and down, obscuring his vision, disorienting him . . . and this was why he kept his feet on solid ground. He ignored the sound of gunfire, concentrating on the raft ahead and every square inch of water in between. But it was impossible. Just like in his dreams, Vin was lost to him and he was powerless to change it.

He'd sent Vin to his death. He knew Tanner couldn't focus, couldn't put two words together, couldn't even coordinate his sick, injured body to move two feet on its own--yet he expected the man to get himself into a flimsy raft hanging off the side of a boat and maneuver it loose. In all of the dreams and nightmares and visions, he hadn't imagined that he would make such a critical mistake.

The raft was drifting further away, but he couldn't find the will to care. He heard voices yelling and oddly enough, it seemed the shooting had stopped. That didn't matter, either. It occurred to him that he could simply slide under the water and the nightmare would be over at last. But he'd never done anything like that. In every dream and every so-called reality, he'd fought back; he'd never given up on himself and he'd never given up on Vin. Hell, if he was that kind of man, he'd have thrown in the towel years ago when he lost Sarah and Adam.

But he wasn't that kind of man, and neither was Vin. They were survivors. Scarred and stubborn and most definitely imperfect, but they didn't let scum like Ian O'Connor take them down. And they never gave up on each other.

Connected, linked, attached . . . he could feel Vin, if only he'd let himself. Chris took a breath and cleared his head. And as if the great sea had parted, he suddenly saw Vin's head, rising up amidst the waves only yards ahead of him. He was struggling, trying to stay afloat and not even attempting to swim towards the raft, but Chris would get him there.

There was a problem, though. Chris couldn't seem to get his right arm to cooperate. It wasn't painful as much as numb, and it just didn't work the way it was supposed to. But as long as he could still kick and still swim, he'd get to Vin.

"Vin!" he called out; letting the other man know he was on his way.

Vin turned just enough in the water for Chris to catch his eyes, but he didn't like what he saw there. Apparently Vin needed a reminder that they were survivors and they didn't give up.

"Hang on!" Chris shouted, and by the time the words skipped through the sea breeze and over the salty waves, he was at Vin's side.

Tanner would be no help; keeping his head above water was the most he could manage, and he was looking at Chris like even that was a short term deal. So Chris hooked his one good arm under his friend's shoulders and used his legs to propel them forward towards the raft.

It was the hardest thing he'd ever done. He felt his grasp on Vin slipping, and it appeared as though they were getting no closer to their goal. He needed both arms, and as he pulled his right arm forward through the waves, the numbness gave way to an agonizing throb and burn. He cried out in pain as dark spots danced before his eyes, and only the sound of Vin gagging and choking as he slipped beneath a wave brought him back to the formidable task at hand.

"You're . . . hurt," Vin gasped.

And it only just occurred to Chris that he was indeed hurt. No time for that, either, except for the nagging feeling that he might be bleeding and that wasn't a good thing. He'd never forgive Buck for forcing him to see "Jaws".

Vin tried to kick, tried to help, but he only succeeded in nearly pulling them both under. His usual rasp was even coarser, the salty air and water already corroding his throat, when he offered softly, "Let me go."

Delusional; Tanner was completely out of touch with reality. That was the only explanation Chris could think of for Vin to say something like that. He tightened his grip and pushed forward another inch.

"Chris . . . I'll make it," Vin lied.

He was so bad at it. Sometimes he could get one over on JD, but did he really think he could get that past Chris? Didn't Vin know that they were attached? Of course he did, which was why Chris didn't waste his precious energy responding.



Hard, it was too hard. Chris couldn't think clearly or concentrate. He had to focus; forget the pain in his arm and the salt in his eyes and the fact that he was already so tired and the raft kept drifting further away. Forget that Vin was badly hurt and help was a long way off, even if they did make it onto the raft. Forget that Vin wouldn't seem to mind all that much if Chris just let him go . . .

"Chris . . . I don't want . . . you t' die . . . cause of me."

Chris could hardly catch his breath, let alone speak, but he answered anyway, "I feel . . . exactly the same. Now shut up . . . so I can get us . . . to the goddamn raft."

"If I die . . . it'll be cause of O'Connor . . . not you."

Tanner wasn't going to let this drop. He had the strangest habit of picking the worst times to become talkative.

"You're not gonna die," Chris said, but he wasn't really sure. He wouldn't take bets on either of them at that moment.

Vin didn't say anything else, but he did try to gather his strength and hold himself up a bit more. It didn't make much difference. Chris was failing quickly and he knew he couldn't hold on much longer.

He wondered how long it had been since they'd hit the water. Probably minutes only, but it felt like an eternity. He was cold now and he kept losing track of the raft. It appeared to be yards ahead, but it could have been miles. His arm ached, his head ached, and for a few terrible moments, he forgot where he was and what he was doing.

And he almost let go.

He'd dreamed this, hadn't he? Back when it all started, he remembered dreaming that he was pulling something in the water and he let go. And Vin drowned. He couldn't let that happen again--for real this time--but he knew he couldn't make it on his own.

So he prayed. The words, "God help me," fell feather-light from his lips without any conscious effort on his part.

Chris had never been that kind of person; the kind who called on God only when they needed help. They were the worst kind of hypocrites, in his book. If he wasn't going to talk with God on good days, he wasn't going to ask for favors on bad ones, either.

But Buck had said he'd gone down on his knees in the chapel for Vin. Chris still didn't remember that--only the false image of going down in front of Ian O'Connor during that first dream coming to mind--but he believed he'd done it. He'd do it now, if he could, because it really wasn't about pride at all. It was about digging down to the deepest, darkest part of your very soul, swallowing your pride and turning over control to a higher power in order to save someone you cared about.

So maybe he had learned something. And suddenly he knew there were lessons still to be learned; he'd only scratched the surface. Apparently God was a glutton for punishment because he wasn't through with Chris Larabee just yet, and that surprise revelation spurred him to make it the few remaining feet to the raft. Propping Vin up against the side, he encouraged his friend to hang on while he figured out what to do and how to do it. Vin did the best he could, but it was quickly apparent that there was no possible way he could pull himself into the boat. Chris would have to go in first and trust that Vin had the strength to hold on until Chris could help him.

With his injured arm practically useless, and his other arm shaking with fatigue from holding up Vin, Chris could barely climb aboard himself. He grit his teeth against the pain in his shoulder as he pulled himself over the edge and turned back to the water where Vin maintained his precarious grip on the raft. He tried grabbing Vin by the back of his soaked t-shirt, but he couldn't get enough of a grip on the wet fabric. The shirt merely slid up Vin's back, exposing raw welts and fresh bruises, and Chris wished all over again that he'd had just five minutes alone with Ian O'Connor.

He ended up gripping the waist band of Vin's jeans and heaving with all of his might. Vin tumbled aboard, his long limbs twisting with Chris's until it was hard to know whose was whose. Both men groaned with the impact and neither made an effort for long, long minutes to untangle themselves. Breathing took all of their concentration.

But shouting in the distance snapped Chris's mind back to attention. As gently as possible, he pulled himself out from under Vin and looked back at the boat they'd just escaped from. Flames leapt high in the air as several men tried desperately to put out the growing fire. A stray bullet hit the gas tank, more than likely, and Chris took a glimmer of satisfaction in the hope that it was his.

That was why the shooting had stopped. The men realized they were in trouble and turned their attention elsewhere. But where was O'Connor? The raft had floated a good distance from the boat by then, but the tall, thin man would be easy to spot.

He wasn't there . . . at least, not on the deck.

Before Chris could rationalize that thought further, there was the sound of an explosion as the fuel tank completely erupted. The entire boat went up in flames and minutes later, the remnants disappeared into the sea. There would be nothing left . . . no evidence, no proof that it even existed.

And no proof that Ian O'Connor went down with the ship.

+ + + + + + +

The raft was well stocked. Water and energy bars and even sun screen. It seemed odd and strange and totally unexpected to Chris. O'Connor, being the demon that he was, would have little use for the necessities of mortal men.

Chris took a deep draw from the water and leaned his head back against the rubber surface. He should probably be more frugal with the liquid, but he didn't figure it would matter much. He was bleeding from his shoulder, slowly but surely, and it was only a matter of time before he passed out. Vin was as good as passed out, or he hoped he was. Tanner lay still as death on the floor of the raft, curled up with his arms clenched tight around his tender middle. Practically gasping for air now, and only getting worse as the blood inside pooled and put pressure on his lungs. Chris wasn't a doctor, but he'd paid enough attention to Nathan to know that was what was happening.

When they'd first climbed aboard, Chris had slathered Vin with sunscreen and that earned him a slight smile and a wise crack from his wounded friend . . . something about being grateful to Chris that he wouldn't have to worry about skin cancer in the future. He couldn't explain to Vin how badly he needed to do something. Anything.

But it wasn't long before he was too dizzy to see and too tired to think, so he just moved across from Vin and did nothing at all.

He wondered if they were dreaming again. He wondered if he'd wake up in a bed or chair somewhere with Buck sitting close by, pulling on his mustache and grinning nervously. That would be okay; he could deal with that.

He wondered if he'd ever know again what was real or what wasn't.

Or maybe very soon, he'd know nothing at all. And that would be okay, too. Maybe there were no more lessons to be learned after all. And besides, if Vin wasn't there to learn with him . . . well, it just wasn't worth knowing.

He wondered if Vin would feel that way if their situations were reversed – if he died first and Vin was the one left behind. Did Vin really feel as tied to him as he did to Vin?

Suddenly he had to know, while he was still able to know anything at all. With a strangled groan, he moved closer to Vin and reached out to gently squeeze his shoulder.

"Vin? You with me, Pard?"

Vin moved a fraction and moaned softly, but he tipped his head up and opened his eyes enough to peer at Chris. "Sort . . . of."

Probably not the best time for this conversation, and Chris suddenly felt selfish for disturbing Vin. But there might never be another chance, so he asked, "You ever think we're too . . . close?"

With a frown, Vin responded, "To what?"

"To . . . each other."

Vin attempted to sit up with a low groan, and Chris used his good arm to try and keep him down. "Stay put, Vin. You don't need to sit up."

"Want to," Vin muttered petulantly.

Between the two of them they got Vin into an awkward, slumped, half-up, half-down position, but he did seem to breathe a little easier.

"You don't have to talk, either," Chris added for good measure. But for once he hoped that Vin would ignore him.

"Took my whole life t' learn . . . how t' be . . . close t' someone," Vin started out. He had to stop every few words just to take a breath, and Chris wanted to kick himself for coercing Vin to talk, just to ease his mind.

"You sayin' . . . I'm doin' it wrong?" Vin continued on, pinning Chris with a gaze that was surprisingly focused.

"What? No. Hell . . . no, Vin. I just . . ."

"Never meant t' . . . crowd y', Chris."

"What?" This was not going the way Chris expected at all. Crowd him? Was Vin thinking that he was complaining about their relationship?

"Reckon it's a little . . . late t' change now, though."

"I don't want you to change! And I never said you crowded me," Chris argued.

He caught the smirk then. Even half dead, Tanner knew how exactly how to play him.

Vin smiled as he said softly, "Thought you didn't care . . . what others thought of us?"

"I didn't. I don't. I care what . . . I care what you think."

"I think . . . I'd die for you . . . and you just proved you'd do the same for me . . . can't be nothin' wrong with that, Chris. Can't we just . . . be grateful?"

Yeah, they could. Vin was just so much better at that than Chris was. Vin took the little blessings life gave him without question. Of course, Chris would hardly call their friendship a "little" blessing. No, Vin was a huge blessing . . . a wondrous gift that was multiplied five times by the other men they called family.

And Chris knew right then that he believed. He clearly recalled when this all began, sitting at his table with Vin and saying he wasn't sure what he believed in anymore. Or was that a dream? Either way, the fact was that he'd been having doubts about his purpose, his relationships, his inability to cope with whatever life threw at him next . . . that lack of control over fate and circumstance.

But no longer. He was meant to be where he was, doing what he was doing, being with the men he was with; being Vin's best friend. It was all good. He got it. He could wake up now.

Except he didn't. The waves kept rolling and the cloudless sky remained infinitely blue, and the only thing that changed was that, without any warning at all, Vin slumped lower in the raft and closed his eyes, and Chris knew he'd not open them again.

Chris laid his head back and closed his eyes to the sun, mindless of the loan tear that escaped and tracked along his cheek. He felt light-headed, hot and cold all at once, and it was with a sense of relief that he realized he'd soon join Vin.

Part 4