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Part Four: Just a Dream

Buck threw up when he heard. As much puking as he'd witnessed Vin and Chris do, he figured it was just natural that he'd have to find a bush to hide behind while he threw up his supper.

Why hadn't he listened?

The call came in at exactly 7:03pm. He'd never forget it as long as he lived. They were God-knows-where up a damn mountain training cocky recruits when Josiah's receiver went off. They all knew it was Travis, the greeting, "Sir" being the tip-off, but they didn't catch on to how serious it was until Josiah's face turned a pasty shade of white.

It took them fours hours to get down the mountain. One of the recruits sprained his ankle and another skinned a knee as the group made their way down the rocky hillside by flashlight, but sympathy was in short supply. The five remaining members of team seven had only one thing on their minds and that was getting to Florida as soon as possible . . . like yesterday.

It took them two hours to catch a flight to Miami; three more to actually get there. It was morning then, with the time change and all. And by then, Buck was half crazy and driving everyone else completely crazy.

All he could think--and say--was thank God for Gladys. Had the nurse not been so concerned about Vin, they still wouldn't know that their friends went missing. Had she not decided to follow up on Vin's condition and go back to the hotel where Chris had taken Vin, (and what was up with that? If Buck didn't know better, he'd think those rumors about his two friends were true), they'd still be up a mountain and no one would be the wiser that the men were gone. Just gone . . . vanished without a trace, and thank God, too, for Chris's dream. If Chris hadn't been so vocal about that dream and so damn insistent about O'Connor, they'd have had no clue where to start looking.

But they did have a clue, and they wasted no time following it up. In fact, by the time they reached Miami, the coast guard already had a lead on the boat and the direction it was headed. There was something about tracking equipment and sonar that had JD all hot and hyped up, but Buck couldn't have cared less. He only asked--well, demanded--that he be allowed to fly up in the chopper that was searching for the men.

They hadn't even gotten off the ground when the ship apparently sent out a distress signal, which helped pinpoint their area a bit more. Buck tried not to think about what the call for help could mean as he climbed aboard the helicopter. Could mean the craft was in trouble, which meant his friends were in trouble right along with it. Or it could be Chris, getting the word out where they were, and oh yeah, he much preferred that scenario.

Patience wasn't exactly one of Buck's strong suits--unless of course, the situation involved soft music, good wine, and a beautiful woman--so after several hours of blue sky and blue sea, he was ready to crawl out of his skin. It all looked the same and he couldn't help but wonder if they weren't circling the same three miles radius over and over again. But he still wasn't ready to call a halt when the pilot noted that it would soon be dark. They'd have to set out again at first light, and somehow Buck knew that would be too late.

"Wait," he insisted. "Just a few more minutes."

And that was all it took. He saw the raft first, which was crazy in and of itself. His eyes weren't what they used to be, though he was too vain to admit it and look into getting glasses. If anyone should have missed it, it should have been him. But it was almost mystical, the way his eyes were drawn to the small, yellow dot floating below them. He hollered and whistled and made a general fool of himself when his brain and his eyes finally connected to what he was seeing. Two men in a raft, and he knew, he just knew they were his friends.

He sat back quietly then and let the men do their jobs. Or he tried to, at any rate. He might have been a bit pushy . . . "Can't you guys move any faster?"

He might have been rather rude, too . . . "What the hell is the problem? Is he taking a damn nap down there? Bring 'em up!"

But he didn't say another word when he got his first look at Chris. They brought him up first, and he did manage to bite his tongue about that. Chris would have a fit if he knew that they'd picked him up before Vin. A fit would be preferable, though, to seeing his friend still and lifeless as they loaded him on the chopper.

"He's been shot," the rescuer said as he quickly looked Chris over. "Shoulder wound . . . bullet's still in there."

Damn. Buck thought he might throw up again, but his attention was drawn to the second man they loaded on board. Vin was gray; the same terrible shade he was when he was so sick in the hospital. Oh God. The paramedic checked him out and shook his head and Buck thought his heart would stop.

"What? Is he . . . ?"

"No. But he's in bad shape. We need to hurry." The young medic added, "Good thing you have good eyes."

Buck nodded. "Yeah right," he mumbled. Something led him to his friends, but it sure wasn't his eagle eyes.

It was a reasonably quick trip back to the coast, though it felt like the helicopter moved on two speeds – slow and slower. Buck watched as the men did their best to stabilize his friends and this time he really did keep quiet. The men applied oxygen masks and started IVs and did all the things Buck had watched Nathan do a hundred times, but he didn't feel any calmer. He still felt like somehow this was his fault.

He should have listened. Better yet, he should have believed.

The rescue team had to be curious about the circumstances, but they were professionals and they kept their comments on that level. The one mystery they discussed aloud was why Chris and Vin were so wet. The sea was reasonably calm and there had been no rain for several days.

"They swam to the raft," Buck offered; seemed simple enough to him.

"No. No way. One of your team has internal injuries and the other has a bullet in his shoulder. No way they swam."

He let them believe what they wanted. He knew the truth. Something had happened on that boat--on Ian O'Connor's boat--and Chris and Vin had managed to escape. The only question was . . . where had the bigger boat gone? And more importantly, where was O'Connor?

+ + + + + + +

"You saw them?" JD asked incredulously.


"Why is that so hard to believe?" Josiah asked.

"Well, because Buck can't . . ." At Buck's piercing glare, JD stammered, "Buck can't . . . focus when he's . . . upset."

Buck stood up from the hard plastic chair in the waiting room and began to pace, while Ezra replied, "Yes, well, in any regards--and by any standards--it was purely miraculous that our friends were found in time."

"Purely miraculous," Josiah agreed with a nod of his head.

"Should've never happened in the first place!" Buck shouted. "Ain't nothin' miraculous about this at all except that we've been given another chance to get it right!"

"Maybe," Nathan spoke solemnly as he pushed away from the wall he'd been leaning against for most of the past hour. "Maybe they were found in time. Maybe we'll get another chance."

"Hell, they're not gonna check out on us now, Nathan. Not after all of this. They just wouldn't. Not Chris and Vin. Right, Buck? Josiah? Ez?" JD asked nervously as he anxiously cast his eyes from one man to the next.

Buck wanted to tell JD to shut up and grow up. How many times had he told the kid that Chris and Vin were just men, after all? Flesh, blood, and far from perfect . . . and even farther from indestructible.

But who was he kidding? If JD was guilty of hero worship, well perhaps he'd learned it from Buck--who had spent a good portion of his life believing his oldest friend, Chris Larabee, was a good notch or two above any other man he knew. Even when Chris was at his lowest--hitting the bottle every night in his grief--he was still better, stronger, and smarter than Buck could ever hope to be. Not better looking, of course, but still a man to be looked up to; a man he was proud to call friend.

He was also a man who didn't know fear, at least until these odd dreams started to take over his life, and that should have been Buck's first clue. It should have been enough for him to take the threat seriously because it was so out of character for Chris. But then, Vin had been so sick, and he just chalked up Chris's weird behavior to worry. After all, no one understood it, and no one even tried to explain it, but everyone knew the two men were freakishly linked. They'd never say that to their faces, of course, but it was common knowledge.

So common that one day a secretary at the office asked Buck if he was jealous of the relationship between the two men. He got a good laugh out of that. What was there to be jealous of? He was still good friends with Chris, still got to work with him, but get inside that deep, dark head of his? No thanks. Life was too short. He'd leave that big barrel of fun to Vin.

Vin . . . he'd been tortured on that boat. Buck wondered if Chris knew that. But of course he did. That wouldn't have been easy to hide, and there was that connection thing. Probably about killed Chris as much as Vin; knowing it was his enemy that was responsible for it all. Vin almost died the first time around; if he didn't make it this time . . .

"Gentlemen? Are you here for Mr. Larabee?"

It was a young doctor who looked more like a damn kid, and Buck had the depressing thought that lately, everyone looked like a kid compared to him. Well, he'd do his best to take the youth seriously but if he started quoting privacy laws, Buck might have to teach him a lesson about respecting his elders. Apparently, the boy doctor got the message with just one look at Buck's face because he quickly said, "Mr. Larabee is out of surgery. He did well. He's in recovery."

"Told ya!" JD said with an annoying laugh. Buck loved the kid, but sometimes he wanted to put a sock in his mouth.

"And Mr. Tanner?"

That was annoying, too; Ezra referring to Vin as Mr. Tanner like he was just an acquaintance instead of family. Mr. Standish needed to get real.

"He couldn't possibly be out of surgery yet," Nathan said with a shake of his head, and how annoying was that? Pessimism had no place where there was still room for hope.

And of course Josiah would offer up some annoying bit of prayer or scripture or philosophy . . . "At least one of our prayers has been answered."

Annoying, annoying, annoying. Buck wanted to scream at how absurdly annoying they'd all become. Didn't they get it? This shouldn't have happened. They were warned and they ignored that warning; went on obliviously as if it was all just a dream. And then this happened and it never, ever should have, and oh God, what the bastard did . . .

"He bit him!" Buck yelled, and all eyes turned to him in shock.

Well of course they were shocked; they didn't know. How could they? They weren't there, on the helicopter, and they didn't see the strange welts and wounds and bruises on Vin's body . . . the teeth marks.

All were silent for several moments before the impossibly young doctor cleared his throat and said, "I'll let you know when we have word on Mr. Tanner."

He left without looking back, but all other eyes remained on Buck.

Predictably, Ezra was the first to find words. "Would you care to elaborate, Buck?"

No, he wouldn't, thank you very much. Instead, he muttered, "We should have done something. We should have listened to him. We should have paid better attention."

"Who bit who?" JD asked, and he was looking at Buck like he was the annoying one.

"Paid better attention to what, Buck?" Josiah asked, and that was a surprise. Sanchez wasn't normally so clueless.

"Human bites? Chris was a bit by a man? That can be serious."

Yes, Nathan, it can be. Painful and degrading, too, and . . . Chris? Was Chris bit, too? No. Not from what Buck could see, but maybe he should check.

"I believe Buck is trying to suggest that perhaps we did not take enough precautions to protect our teammates, in light of their most unsettling visions."

Damn straight, Ez.

"Who got bit?" JD asked again.

Buck didn't answer as he walked off by himself down the long hall. He was going to find Ian O'Connor and snap him in two . . . right after he begged forgiveness from Chris and Vin.

It should never have happened.

+ + + + + + +

Chris woke up with that look. It was common after anesthesia, and Buck knew the drill . . . "You're in the hospital. You were shot but you're gonna be fine."

Still, Chris wore that peculiar expression Buck had seen so often lately--like maybe he was awake and maybe he wasn't; maybe it was real and maybe it wasn't; maybe he was sane . . . and maybe he wasn't.

Buck was at a loss for how to ease his mind. He really couldn't imagine all Chris had been through, both real and not, and he sure couldn't imagine a way to set it right.

A look of acceptance--or more like resignation--settled in Chris's eyes before he got to what really mattered. "Vin?"

"Still in surgery," Buck replied, and he hoped his expression didn't give too much away.

It wasn't enough that the bastard had beaten and bit--God, bit--Vin; he injected him with all kinds of crap, too. A mind altering drug that the Dr. Doogie Howser look-a-like and his associates had yet to identify, and just to be sure Vin bled slowly and painfully to death, O'Connor added a blood thinner to the mix. But Chris didn't need to know any of that yet.

"How? Who . . . found us?" Chris asked, still trying real hard--and failing miserably--not to look totally lost.

"Me. Sort of. Well, it was a team effort. We were up in a helicopter and I spotted you and . . ."

"You spotted us?"


"Can't be real," Chris muttered.


"You can't see, Buck."

Did everybody know? Oh well, it didn't matter. The point was that they were found and Chris was safe.

"It don't matter now, Chris. You just rest up and we'll talk later."


"I told y', he's in surgery." That wasn't gonna hold him. Chris was obviously in pain and fighting like hell just to stay awake, but he wasn't going to accept any half-assed reassurances.

"He was . . . hurt pretty bad," Chris stammered. "O'Connor . . ."

A real funny look came over Chris then, like maybe he shouldn't have mentioned the man's name; like Buck probably wouldn't believe him anyway.

"Yeah, I know what he did. And I'm so sorry I didn't believe you the first time. But he's gonna pay. I swear, Chris, he won't get away this time."

"It really did happen, then?"

God. It was pathetic. Chris was practically begging him to back him up. Or was it just the opposite? Maybe that look of despair on his friend's face meant something else entirely--maybe Chris was praying that Buck would tell him it was all a dream after all.

Buck wished he could. He wished he could give his friend that comfort. More than anything in the world, he wished he could say, "It never happened, Chris."

But he couldn't. "Yeah, it really happened."

"The boat . . . blew up. Did you see? Did you find . . . anything?"

Despair blossomed into full blown desperation then as Chris opened his eyes wider and waited for Buck's answer.

"No. We got a distress call, but we didn't see any sign of it."

"I said, it blew up," Chris repeated with more than a hint of agitation.

So what was he wanting Buck to say? What exactly was he looking for?

"Well if it blew up, then we wouldn't find anything, would we?" It hit him right at that moment--the proverbial light bulb going off in his head--and he added, "And he'd be dead, Chris. There was no one in the ocean but you and Vin for miles and miles."

He wasn't convinced; Chris closed his eyes and sighed deeply, but Buck wasn't fooled. Only a body filled with holes . . . and a silver dagger through the heart . . . and the head severed from the neck, would convince Larabee that the demon was dead. That might be a little gruesome, but it was probably close to what Chris would need to see to believe.

In truth, it took a few minutes for it to sink in and for Buck to believe it himself. It was almost too good to be true, but O'Connor was definitely on the boat; Vin was the battered proof of that. And as disoriented as Chris might appear, he was totally convinced that the boat blew up. So the bastard had to be dead.

Thank God something good came from this mess. The nightmare was finally over and Buck breathed a sigh of relief . . . until he glanced back at Chris. Shit. It wasn't over yet. What was he thinking?

"Vin?" Chris asked again.

Okay now he was worried. The doctors hadn't said anything about Chris having a head injury, but maybe the sun did something to him? Larabee had asked him three times now about Vin. How many different ways could he say that Vin was in surgery? "Chris . . . he's. . . . he's in surgery. They're working on him right now. They'll get him patched up and he'll be fine."

"What did he do to him?"

So Chris didn't know? Buck lowered his gaze to the floor. How was he going to get out of this? Chris sure didn't need any details right now, and the only person who could lie worse than Vin was Buck. Of course, he really didn't know what all had happened. Only two men knew that, and one was dead and the other was fighting for his life.

"I'm not sure yet, Chris. We'll just have to wait and see what the doctors have to say." Not a total lie, not really.

"Buck, please. I've spent the last three weeks tying to sort out dreams from reality and I'm too damn tired to play along anymore. Just tell me the truth."

It was impossible to say 'no' to Chris Larabee. Ask anyone, anywhere. For some, it was a matter of intimidation – okay, fear. But for those who really knew the man, it was a matter of respect.

"He beat him up pretty good, but you already know that."

"What are you leaving out? Did he . . . did he . . . you know?"

"What?" He didn't know. Buck had absolutely no idea what Chris was asking.

Chris sighed again and moaned a little as he shifted in the bed. Buck started to call for the nurse, but Chris put his hand to Buck's arm and said very softly, "O'Connor had an unnatural . . . attraction . . . to Vin. I don't know if he . . . did things to him."

Oh. Oh. That could explain the odd marks and dear God, what was he going to tell Chris?

"Chris . . . I think he . . . I think he bit Vin," Buck said as quietly and calmly as possible, but he couldn't help wincing when he said the words. Just the thought of that bastard putting his mouth on Vin was enough to make Buck's stomach turn. And if he'd done that--if he'd tortured him in such an intimate, personal way--they really didn't know what other things he might have done.

Apparently Chris's stomach rebelled at the idea, too, because he muttered a strangled, "I'm gonna be sick," and he was.

When the spell passed, Buck handed Chris a wet washcloth and gave his friend a few minutes to compose himself before he went on. Chris may as well know it all. "He gave him something, too, Chris; some kind of mood elevator and . . . and something to thin his blood."

Chris gasped, but true to form, he pulled himself together in seconds and took charge. "Did you tell the doctors about the last time? About the problems with his blood and that drug they gave him?"

"It's covered, Stud." That was one thing he'd done right. Buck had Vin's medical history laid out for Dr. Doogie before even Nathan could get a word in.

"Alright," Chris answered weakly as he closed his eyes and finally gave in to his body's demand for sleep. It wouldn't be for long. Buck figured two or three hours tops and Chris would be awake again, asking him three more times about Vin. But maybe he'd know something by then. Maybe he'd have some good news for a change.

He yawned as he leaned back in the straight chair near Chris's bed, and it was only then that his own exhaustion hit him. He was going on his second night without sleep, and in spite of his concern for his two friends, he quickly drifted off into a light slumber.

+ + + + + + +

A gentle hand on his shoulder stirred Buck to awareness. Momentarily confused, he shook his head as he tried to clear the cobwebs. But the young doctor's voice quickly brought him back to reality.

"Mr. Wilmington? You can see Mr. Tanner now. Come with me."

He glanced at the bed as he left Chris's room and was satisfied that his friend was deeply asleep for the moment. Good. He could use the time to find out how bad off Vin was and to figure out how he was going to break it to Chris.

Damn. Nathan's pessimism must be contagious. Vin would be fine, just fine. And now he sounded like JD; like wishing made it so. Maybe he should just quit thinking altogether.

The walk to the intensive care cubicle where Vin lay was long and maddening, leaving Buck's legs the consistency of jello. They nearly gave out altogether when he got a good look at his friend. Tubes and wires, and Vin so translucent that Buck had the disturbing illusion that he could see straight through the man. Double damn.

The doc put his hand on Buck's shoulder again and this time he said, "We've done all we can," as he walked away.

What the hell did that mean?

There was a male nurse there, putting something in the tubing that ran into Vin's arm. Buck wanted to asked him to leave, to give him a few minutes alone with his friend, but he couldn't seem to get his mouth to work. He moved closer to the bed, unable to tear his eyes away from Vin's pale, pale face, until he caught a movement from the nurse on the opposite side of the bed. Nothing really, just a touch of his hand on Vin's arm . . . a caress, if Buck didn't know better.

It didn't sit well with him; something not quite right about the gesture, so Buck looked closer. The man was tall and thin, and when he turned his face into the light, Buck felt a shiver course through his entire body. Black hair and deep blue eyes, and even though he'd never seen the man, he knew it was O'Connor.

It took him seconds to process it--seconds too long--as he frantically reached across the bed to shove the man away from Vin. But it was too late. Whatever the killer had been shooting in Vin's veins was already coursing through the sick man's body. Monitors roared and people came running, pushing Buck out of the way.

"Stop him!" he yelled as O'Connor took off through the open door. But there was too much commotion and excitement, and he couldn't get through the crowd. He lost sight of the criminal as he exited the glass enclosed space, and he couldn't think which way to go. So he stood uncertainly in the doorway and watched as the medical personnel frantically pumped on Vin's chest while the young physician barked out orders.

No. No. This couldn't be happening. What would he tell Chris?


It had to be his imagination; Chris's voice so near to him. He'd left Larabee sound asleep only moments before. Yet Chris was there, wobbling precariously just behind him.

"Buck? What's happening? What are they doing to Vin?"

"He . . . Chris . . . I came in here and . . . he was here and I tried to stop him, but . . ."

Oh God.

"I told you, Buck," Chris said sadly with tears in his eyes. "I told you he'd kill Vin before this was over. You didn't listen."

He didn't listen. It was true. How many times had he made the mistake of thinking it was over when it wasn't? How many times did he believe his friends were safe when they were anything but?

"I'm sorry, Chris," he whispered.

But it was empty and meaningless as the activity in the room stopped abruptly and the doctor turned towards Buck with a sad shake of his head.

"No!" Buck screamed. No! This wasn't happening . . .

"Buck? Buck?" The voice was insistent in his ear, though he could hardly make out the sound of his own name over the hammering of his heart.

"Buck, wake up!"


It was impossible to breathe; a tight band wrapped around his chest and he couldn't draw in air to save his life. What the hell was going on?

"Come on, Buck," the deep, rich voice pleaded – Josiah's voice? He latched onto that thought and suddenly he was back in Chris's room. Josiah was there, shaking his shoulder as he tried to rouse him, his clear blue eyes warm and concerned.

It was just a dream . . . but it felt so real. O'Connor was right there . . . and Vin was dead . . . and dear God, is this what the last few weeks had been like for Chris? No wonder Larabee was acting sort of, almost, well pretty much, crazy.

Buck gasped as he tried to still the pounding of his heart. What if the dream was a premonition or a sign? From everything they had gathered, Chris's dream had mostly come true. He couldn't let it happen – not again.

"Where's Vin?" Buck asked anxiously as he quickly rose to his feet and faced Sanchez.

"He's out of surgery. They're taking him to ICU," Josiah answered. "But we really need to talk . . ."

Buck didn't hear the end of the sentence. He was down the hall and rounding the corner for the elevator. He hated being in a strange hospital; if they were in Denver he'd know all the shortcuts. He vowed at that moment to get Chris and Vin back home as quickly as possible. It was hard enough protecting them in familiar territory. Of course, it would have helped if he'd believed they needed protecting in the first place.

"Buck, slow down," Josiah called after him, but he ignored him. He wasn't going to stop until he saw with his own eyes that no diabolical demon threatened Vin.

He barely registered Josiah squeezing through the elevator doors as they closed shut, but he did hear Sanchez ask, "For heaven's sake, Buck, what is going on?"

Buck wanted to ask him where the hell he'd been and what kind of a dumb question was that? But instead he said, "Heaven ain't got a thing t' do with this."

The door slid open and he forged ahead, past the desk at the entrance of the unit designed to keep people like him from doing what he'd just done. A small whiney voice said, "Sir! You can't . . ," but he flashed his badge and barged on in. Josiah followed behind him, periodically calling his name, but Buck didn't bother to respond. He glanced through the glass partitions as he passed by, as always feeling both depressed for the poor souls inside and grateful that he wasn't one of them, until he came to a room where a multitude of people were crowded around a bed. They were hooking up monitors and tubes and bags of blood, and it had to be Vin.

He caught a glimpse of Vin's face then, stark and pale amidst the white sheets and fluorescent lights, and dear God, why didn't he listen? He was Chris's oldest and best friend--yes, best friend because Vin was something else entirely that he wouldn't even try to put into words--and that just made it all the more terrible that he hadn't done a better job watching his friends' backs.

The sounds of beepers and monitors swirled around him, the room spun, and for one awful moment, he thought he was going to be sick. He gripped the door frame for support and took a deep breath. Maybe he was still dreaming. That would explain his sudden inability to find a clear thought or to stay on his feet.

"Am I awake?" he suddenly blurted out.

"It appears so," Josiah answered hesitantly with a deeply puzzled frown.

Buck shared his confusion. "How would I know? I mean, really, how does anyone know?"

"Buck," Josiah said. And that was all he said, just "Buck."

But Buck got the message: calm down, catch your breath, get a grip.

It was quite possibly too late for him to do any of those things, but nevertheless he went with Josiah when the older man gripped his arm and propelled him to the waiting room.

"Tell me what's going on in that head of yours, Buck," Sanchez demanded when they were both seated.

An impossible task, but Buck would give it a shot. "Well hell, Josiah. You know how Chris had that dream and then Vin did, too, and we all knew it didn't make much sense. And I didn't put much store in it because JD, he's always watching this weird shit and getting his head all turned around, and I mostly rib him about it because everybody knows it's not real. But there could be more to it than I thought. I mean, there was more to it than I thought because it all happened, sort of, and now Chris is hurt and he's worried sick about Vin. And it never should have happened and if we lose Vin . . . are we gonna lose Vin?"

Josiah took a moment to absorb Buck's words before replying, "This isn't your fault, Buck. And no, we're not gonna lose Vin."

"How do you know?"

"Because we were all there. We all heard the story, which makes us equally guilty, if there is guilt to be had, which there isn't. We took precautions, we did our best to take care of our own, and in the end, you brought them back. So lay it to rest, Buck. Chris and Vin don't need to deal with that on top of everything else."

"No, I mean, how do you know about Vin?"

"Because while you were with Chris, the surgeon spoke with us. He said they were able to repair the damage and counteract the drugs in his system. He's stable for now."

Buck sensed a 'but' in there. "And? So? But?"

Josiah sighed and Buck could see that he was having trouble saying what came next. "But the . . . goddamn bastard . . . they have to put Vin on strong antibiotics for the . . . bites on his chest and stomach. You know how much trouble he has with things like that. And then, there's the idea that . . . just the thought of what he went through . . ."

"Yeah. And Chris, too. Being there and knowing . . . and not being able to do a damn thing to help him."

Josiah nodded as tears clouded his eyes. "Damn," he whispered.

"Damn," Buck repeated. But there was still one question that had yet to be answered--the one thing Buck didn't want to ask and didn't want to know the answer to--but Chris would insist on it.

"Josiah? Did the doc say if Vin had been . . . assaulted?"

"Buck . . . what? Oh. Oh. You mean sexually. Well, no. Not that they could tell, anyway. Although I suppose there are ways to . . . I mean . . . God, Buck, I don't even want to think about that."

It was strange to hear Josiah ramble. He wasn't the rambling type. Normally Sanchez could make a grocery list sound poetic. But the world had turned upside down for all of them, and Buck's dream suddenly leapt to the forefront of his mind.

"I don't want him to be alone, Josiah. Neither of them."

"I highly doubt Vin will be alone for some time, Buck. You saw all the nurses and . . ."

"No," Buck cut him off. "I mean one of us has to be with him, and Chris, too. Until we get this sorted out and get them home, we don't leave them alone."

Josiah adopted that expression he had; that 'I know what you're thinking but you're overreacting' look that he seemed to reserve specifically for Buck. "He's dead, Buck," Sanchez said softly.

"Whatever. We're not leaving them alone."

Come hell or damn high salt water, it wasn't gonna happen again.

+ + + + + + +

It was the next day when Vin finally came around. Buck had pretty much stayed at Tanner's side, although the men had worked out a decent schedule between the five of them and he wouldn't have had to. He couldn't quite shake the uneasy feeling that gnawed at him, so he checked out every person who entered the room to care for Vin.

Vin was sick, of course. Buck would have been convinced that he was still dreaming had Vin not been violently ill from the anesthesia and the antibiotics and God knew what else they were filling him with. The only blessing was that Tanner was still so out of it that he didn't seem to actually realize how miserable he was. It turned out that his memory was a problem, too. Or maybe that was the biggest blessing of all.

It wasn't until Chris came to see him that they caught on how mixed up Vin was. Chris had charmed--and Buck used that word loosely--an orderly into bringing him to see Vin when he heard that his friend had finally, kind of, woken up. Buck was there, mopping Tanner up after a particularly messy and miserable bout of sickness, when Chris came wheeling in. Larabee had a pained expression on his face, though whether it was from actual physical discomfort or the emotional toll of seeing Vin looking like--well, looking like shit was probably the best way to put it--Buck wasn't sure.

"How you feeling, Chris?" Buck asked, hoping to avoid the more difficult subject of how badly Vin was obviously feeling.


Pretty much the answer Buck anticipated. Chris moved closer to the bed then and it was, as per usual with Chris and Vin, weird and strange--in the good way, as opposed to the creepy, horrible way that O'Connor was weird and strange--how Vin opened his eyes and for the first time since he'd come to, he was actually there.

Vin didn't say anything, though, and neither did Chris for a long time. They just kind of looked at each other, and Buck had the uncomfortable feeling that he was in the way.

Finally, Chris said real gently, "We made it, Pard."

Vin's eyes were round with something like surprise, or maybe it was just the sharp angles and shadows in his face that made his eyes seem huge and almost childlike. Between the tubes and the vomiting, his usual rasp was even more coarse and dry, almost unintelligible, when he asked, "How?"

Chris smiled when he answered, "Buck."

Buck often wondered if Larabee had any notion how his smile could light up a room. Probably not, or he just might do it more often.

"Oh," Vin replied nonchalantly; like Buck finding them in the vast blue ocean really wasn't much of a stretch. He shifted a little in the bed then and moaned softly as he mumbled, "Still . . . sick."

"I know. It's the drugs," Chris reminded him.

Raising a brow, Vin questioned, "Poison?"

And okay, now Buck had the feeling that things were turning weird again in the not-so-good way.

Chris cocked his head and kept his eyes on Vin when he probed the sick man, "What do you remember, Vin?"

"We were . . . we were on a boat and . . . I was sick . . . poisoned . . . he wanted you to beg."

Uh-oh. That was the dream . . . the first dream, if Buck recalled correctly. The dream that occurred before the real kidnapping aboard the real boat that led to Chris and Vin swimming--yes, swimming--to the real raft.

"Do you remember anything after that? Coming home with me or going to a hotel together?"

It really was comical, the expression on Vin's face when he said, "We went to . . . a hotel together?"

Buck had sense enough not to laugh, of course, but he kind of wanted to. He kind of wanted to press Chris about that issue, too, but now was definitely not the time. Maybe after a few weeks and five or six beers . . .

"The boat, Vin," Chris pressed on. He had to know, even though Buck had already figured out he'd be much better off if he never did. "Do you remember what happened on the boat? With O'Connor?"

Vin frowned and sighed. "I dreamed . . . I dreamed I was in his room and he was sayin' crazy stuff . . . and . . ." His eyes darkened for a brief moment, but he sighed again and closed his eyes as he murmured, "It don't matter. It wasn't real."

Would he push it? Should he push it? Buck waited to see what Chris would do next, but he never expected Larabee to look to him for advice. It was plain though when Chris turned his face towards Buck that that was exactly what he was doing.

Did it matter, really, if Vin knew the truth? Was it really necessary for him to face this nightmare right now? And besides, who was to say what was real and what wasn't? Wasn't life all about perception anyway?

Buck reached down and patted Vin's arm as he replied, "Yeah, it was just a dream."


It was slow; torturously slow. And long; agonizingly long. He wouldn't even mention embarrassing; excruciatingly embarrassing . . . a guy his age being pushed through a crowded airport in a wheelchair like an old woman.

Vin kept his head down and his eyes closed. He felt like crap anyway, and he wondered if that shot the nurse had given him for nausea was going to be enough. He couldn't really remember the last time he hadn't felt like his stomach was a foreign prisoner in his body, gnawing and kicking its way out. It was probably the day of the warehouse bust, which was the only real clear memory he had of anything, when it came down to it. Although even that could be called to question because apparently Vin's version of reality differed from everyone else's.

God, even with his eyes closed, the noise and the feel of the crowds overwhelmed him, suffocated him, and he had to take deep breaths just to keep from throwing up or screaming or, God forbid, crying. Would they never get to their gate? He felt a hand on his shoulder then, just in the nick of time; a gentle squeeze was all, but it was enough to remind him that he could do this. Chris was there, and Vin knew Buck was just behind him.

And hell, he'd surely been through worse in the past month than being escorted through a crowded airport like a cripple. He just wasn't sure exactly what "worse" consisted of. Vague memories and nightmares plagued him, and he couldn't sort out real from not. The doctors said it was the trauma his body had endured--two surgeries and the beatings--as well as the drugs he'd been given, some with consent and some not. They said it would probably pass in time and his memory would clear up. But judging by the look in Chris's eyes, he wasn't all that sure he wanted it to. Maybe he was better off not knowing exactly what happened and what didn't.

It wasn't there all the time, that strange expression on Larabee's face. In fact, sometimes it seemed as though Chris had finally made a kind of peace with the whole sordid mess. Vin couldn't figure out how that happened, but he was glad it did. He may be confused, but he remembered clearly that Chris was coming apart at the seams. Whatever set him right, Vin wouldn't question it.

It was just that every once in awhile, Vin would find Chris staring at him with a dark, haunted expression, and it sent a shiver up his spine. He supposed it had to do with the bites on his body, something none of the guys had brought up. He only knew he'd been bitten because a nurse had casually mentioned that the wounds were healing and how "lucky" he was because human bites could be very serious. He hadn't known how to respond to that. Lucky didn't seem to be the word for it.

Visions came to him after that; O'Connor touching him and putting his mouth on him. He didn't think they were real, though . . . the power of suggestion and all. They came on him mostly at night, when he'd see the man's face in the darkness; hear his soft, hypnotic voice; feel him hitting and hurting him one minute, caressing him the next. It was too crazy and weird to be real . . . although the bites had to come from somewhere. So maybe it was better that he didn't quite have a handle on reality.

Finally they were there, at the gate. He wanted to at least walk down the walkway to the plane, but that wasn't gonna happen with Chris and Buck hovering nearby. It was probably a good thing anyway, because he had enough trouble just moving from the wheel chair to the plane seat. Shit. Embarrassing. He leaned his head back and swallowed the bile that rose up in his throat and kept his eyes closed. He hated planes when he was feeling decent; this trip promised to be pure torture.

Although, it beat traveling by boat. He almost snickered at that – poor joke in very poor taste.

"Vin? You are alright?" Chris asked, his voice all mushy and concerned.

Vin looked at him like maybe he was the delusional one. How did Larabee think he felt after being paraded through an airport like a damn invalid, prior to being trapped for several hours in a small, airtight space when he already felt like shit? But hell, Chris looked like shit, too, pale and washed out, and Vin guiltily remembered that his friend had been hurt as well.

He was shot, right? Before or after getting in the raft, Vin wasn't sure. He heard, or thought he heard . . . maybe he heard or maybe he dreamed it . . . that Chris had pulled him to the raft through the waves with a bullet in his shoulder. Damn impossible, but it didn't surprise him in the least that Chris pulled it off. He supposed he'd remember that, too, eventually, although it wouldn't bother him if he didn't. He hated swimming in the ocean ever since Buck had forced him to watch 'Jaws'.

"Vin? You hear what Chris asked?" Buck this time, sitting on the other side of him. They had him cushioned between them like he was plate of fragile glass being shipped to Timbuktu.

"Yeah. I'm . . . fine." God, he was so far from fine he couldn't even envision it; couldn't remember what it felt like and couldn't imagine he'd ever get there again. His stomach hurt and his chest ached and he couldn't breathe . . . and suddenly it felt like a hundred degrees in the plane.

Slow, deep breaths as he opened his eyes and watched the other passengers board to take his mind off it. Little kids, all bright eyed and bushy tailed – and where the hell did that expression come from anyway? Who ever heard of bushy tailed kids? There were little old ladies, too, and oh, some not so old that would have Buck practicing pick-up lines before they even took off.

There were men, too, of course, short and tall and fat and . . . thin . . . real thin and real tall and dark and . . . oh God. Vin sat up with a gasp. It couldn't be. They told him he was dead. Blown up in the ship or drowned in the ocean, though Vin couldn't remember that. So maybe it didn't happen that way after all. Maybe he was the only one who had reality right because O'Connor was climbing aboard their plane right at that very second.

"Chris!" he shouted, but his throat was so sore that it sounded more like a yelp.

"What? What is it, Vin?"

Was the man blind? "Look!"

Chris peered around him before turning back to Vin. "At what?"

And just that quickly, it all changed. The man morphed into a tall, thin, regular guy in a business suit; not a demented killer after all – at least, not as far as anyone could tell.

So maybe the demented one was really and truly . . . Vin.

A hand on his arm brought him back. "It's alright, Vin. We'll be home soon," Chris said with an encouraging smile, and the world went right again. He wondered if Larabee knew he had that effect on people. Or maybe it was just him.

Vin leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes once more. He'd sleep, and it would be alright this time. How could it not be? He was sandwiched between his brother and his new guardian angel. Maybe he didn't know which end was up--what was real and what wasn't--but when it came right down to it, it didn't matter so much. He had a family who cared when he was sick and hurt and scared; who didn't turn their backs even when he acted crazy. He had enough to get by. Hell, he had it all.

+ + + + + + +

He'd never get tired of it, the view from his deck. Chris thought he could sit there and take in the gentle rise of the mountains, the clear, blue Colorado sky, and the smell of pine for as long as he lived, and it still wouldn't be enough. He took a long swallow of rich coffee and sat back with a sigh. It was all good.

Vin was on the mend; slowly and painfully, but hell, as long as Tanner was breathing, he wouldn't complain. The flight from Miami was rough and by the time they hit Denver, he and Buck had decided to make a stop at the hospital. They ended up admitting Vin for a few more days, and when Tanner didn't complain, Chris knew they'd done the right thing.

But that was a week ago, and now Vin was recuperating at his ranch. Buck was there, too – pretty much day and night. He was beginning to get on his nerves, and Chris was thinking he needed to have a talk with his old friend; reaffirm that he didn't blame him for what happened.

Chris knew the guys were watching him closely for other reasons, too. He suspected they thought he might resign over this latest incident. He wouldn't. If nothing else, the experience reminded him that, all in all, he was pretty content with his life. He believed in what he was doing and he believed in the men he was doing it with. Losing one of them would be unbearable, but as Gladys had said so long ago, they could shed blood just crossing the street. Life just didn't come with guarantees, no matter what you did for a living.

So he'd come to an acceptance, of sorts; the only dark shadow being the mystery of what O'Connor had done to Vin over those eight hours. He tried not to think about it, but late at night, when the dreams and illusions threatened to take over, it ate at him.

He thought it ate at Vin, too, though his friend never said. How could Vin take a shower and not think about the bizarre marks on his body? Tanner still proclaimed that he had no memory of it and maybe that was true. Or maybe not. He wouldn't put it past Vin to say exactly what he thought Chris wanted--or needed--to hear.

The dreams had stopped, so he began to think that O'Connor really had gone down with the ship. That didn't seem to be the case for Vin, though. When they'd first boarded the plane, and a couple of times since, Vin had experienced what could only be described as panic attacks. He never said what brought them on, or what he was seeing and hearing when it happened, but Chris didn't need to be linked to Vin to figure it out. O'Connor's nightmarish image would haunt them both for a long time.

He got the impression that Vin didn't want to say too much for fear that everyone would think he was crazy. That's pretty much how they all looked at him when he was in the hospital, switching out dreams for reality like it was plain as day to him. It really was no wonder that Tanner kept quiet about it all now. Chris wished he'd open up to him, surely Vin knew he'd understand. Maybe in time. . .

The dreams about Vin dying were gone, too, and Chris was grateful. He figured it was because he'd fought the devil and won. Every time in every dream, he'd tried to save Vin and he'd lost him. But when it came down to the real fight, the real battle, he'd gotten Vin to the raft, conquered the evil foe.

Of course, he was wise enough to admit it was a joint effort. He would never in a million years profess to understanding God and his ways, but Chris knew enough to give credit where credit was due. He'd prayed and God had answered. He'd also given up his pride, given up control--got down on his knees--and only then did it become clear to him that he had it all, if only he was wise enough to see it. Quit worrying about tomorrow and the things he couldn't control, and hang on to the moments he had. Moments like now, with the sun just peeking up over his barn and what a sight that was.

It wasn't long before he heard the door behind him slide open, and he knew he was no longer alone. "Mornin' Vin," he said, taking a sip of coffee and keeping his eyes peeled on the wondrous dawn.

"Mornin'," Vin drawled back.

Chris loved the sound of Vin's voice, though he'd never say it to anyone. Lord, what Buck would make of that. He already knew that Wilmington was waiting for the right opportunity to bring up the fact that he'd taken Vin to a hotel.

Vin took the seat next to him, wincing as he lowered himself to the chair. He was still so pale and thin that a good wind would blow him back to Miami, but all things considered, he was a sight for sore eyes.

Especially when he smiled, like he was doing now as he took in the soft colors of the morning. It made the whole world right, seeing Vin smile like that, and he wondered if Tanner had any idea that he that effect on people. Or maybe it was just him.

"Right peaceful out here, ain't it?" Vin said, slipping into that Texan drawl. Before Chris could respond, he continued, "Kinda like you've been lately, Cowboy. Is that right? Or am I dreamin'?"

Chris grinned as he answered, "You ain't dreamin'."

"Care t' share?"

"Just figured out that . . . I don't have to control everything. Just need to live one moment at a time. That's the only reality there is."

Vin nodded. "I reckon that's the best any of us can do."

"I reckon." Chris paused as he turned to meet Vin's eyes. "How about you, Vin? You up to sharing?"

With a shrug, Vin replied, "Can't say I'm there yet, Chris. Still feel . . . unsettled, I guess. Still can't always say what's what, but as long as y'all put up with me, I guess that's all that matters."

Chris nodded, "It is, but you can still talk about it, Vin. It's not good to keep it bottled up inside, take it from someone who knows. And what you went through . . ."

He couldn't finish it; he still couldn't think about O'Connor and what he'd done . . . or maybe done . . . or probably done, without feeling like he was going to throw up. No wonder Vin hadn't talked to him about it.

"Kinda ruined the moment there, Cowboy," Vin said gently.

"I'm sorry," Chris offered. And he was, for all of it. It was still his enemy who had tortured Vin, although he couldn't be blamed for Vin's "beautiful" face that O'Connor was so taken with.

Vin sighed. "If I say I accept your apology, will y' quit sayin' it?"


"Okay. I accept."

Vin grinned at him, but he grew serious when he added, "And Chris, when I figure it out . . . you'll be the first to know."

Of course he would. He should have realized that Vin wouldn't leave him to suffer with the horrors of his imagination; he'd save him that uncertainty if he could. Besides, Vin couldn't hide anything of substance from him. After all, they were freakishly linked.

Chris sat back with a contented sigh. For now, for this moment in this reality, he had it all.

+ + + + + + +

Buck stood inside Chris's kitchen and sipped his coffee as he watched his two friends from the window. There was absolutely nothing better than seeing the two men talking and smiling for a change. Made the whole world right, he thought with a wide grin.

Oh, they had a ways to go, especially Vin. Tanner had these odd spells when Buck was sure he was seeing things--or people--or person--who weren't there, but no one called him on it. After all he'd been through, it was just natural that his mind would take some time to work things out.

Travis would have both of his friends counseled before they could return to work, anyway. It wouldn't hold them back; they both knew how to play that particular head game. But when it came down to it, the best medicine for both men was quite simply each other. Weird and strange in a good way, and it occurred to Buck that he wouldn't mind all that much if the rumors were true.

Buck didn't mention his dream and he never would. But he thought about it all the time, and he decided it would be a long, long time before he left either of his friends alone again. Probably sounded stupid and silly, but he wasn't taking any chances.

Nothing would happen. Life would go on and pretty soon they'd all forget about the tall, thin man with icy eyes. Buck would stick close by for awhile, but he wasn't going to freak out about it.

After all, it was just a dream.