Chris narrowly avoided colliding with Buck as they both raced for the den where Vin had been napping on the sofa. Now he was curled over, his injured hand cradled in his lap, his forehead pressed to his knees. As Chris drew closer he saw that Vin's white t-shirt clung to his back, damp with sweat, and he was breathing in short, harsh pants.
Despite his headlong rush, Chris hesitated, and he saw his indecision mirrored on Buck's face. The shudder that vibrated through Vin's body got him moving, circling the couch so that he wasn't approaching his friend from the back.
"Hey. Are you all right?"
Though he deliberately lowered his voice, Vin jumped as if he'd screamed in his ear. He lifted his ashen face and looked blankly at them. "What?"
"Sorry." Chris eased onto the end of the couch, feeling as if he were dealing with a skittish colt. "Didn't mean to startle you. Are you all right? Can I get you anything?"
Vin gave him another thousand-yard stare before answering. "No. I mean...uh, yeah. Water'd be good."
"I've got it," Buck said, gesturing for Chris to stay put.
Chris eyed Vin surreptitiously as they both listened to the sounds of Buck moving about the kitchen. The silence between them felt heavy and awkward, but Chris found himself at a loss for words.
"Don't look at me like that," Vin finally rasped, dropping his head onto his knees so that his face was once again hidden from view.
"I don't know what you mean." Except he did. He just couldn't seem to stop.
"Ever since I woke up in the hospital, folks've been lookin' at me like I might bust into little pieces any minute. I'm damn tired of it."
"Can't hardly blame us for that," Buck said from the doorway. "Hate to say it, but you look like ten miles of bad road." He placed a glass of water into Vin's good hand, keeping his fingers curled around Vin's until the ice cubes stopped clinking.
Vin downed half the glass, then uncurled enough to set it on the coffee table, each movement tight and stiff. "If that's all it was I wouldn't give a rat's ass."
"What do you think it is?" Chris asked.
With a soft grunt, Vin leaned back against the cushions. "Y'all think I'm damaged, and you don't know how to fix me."
Since he couldn't deny Vin's assessment, Chris didn't try. "What is it you want from us?"
"To stop treatin' me like a victim." When Buck snorted, Vin pinned him with a glare. "What?"
"Those boys tied you to a chair, beat the shit outta you, and tortured you. Like it or not, you are a victim, Junior."
Here we go, thought Chris, expecting Vin to bite Buck's head off. Though he was normally long on patience, his friend tended to react sharply to anything that threatened his autonomy. But to Chris's surprise, Vin closed his eyes, his face crumpling.
"At least it's over. For me." He pulled his injured hand closer to his chest.
Recognizing the protective gesture, Chris narrowed his eyes. "That was more than a nightmare. You remembered something."
Vin's throat made a dry click as he swallowed. "Just...flashes."
"Such as?" When he didn't answer right away, Chris pressed. "Give me something, Vin. Anything."
"Spencer's breathing fire, Buck. Travis can only hold him off so long."
"I'm just sayin' you should ease off, give him a little space."
"You think I like pressing him? I wish to hell he didn't have to remember, but we both know--"
"I'll tell you, all right? Just shut the fuck up." Vin ground the heel of one hand into his eye, and Chris felt a surge of guilt, remembering Lorenzo's admonition to see that he rest.
This time he didn't break the silence, keeping a tight rein on his impatience. When Vin did speak his expression was flat and devoid of emotion.
"The first finger..." His voice cracked and he took a deep breath. "They--he didn't even ask any questions. Just bent it back 'til..." Sweat broke out on his upper lip, and he swallowed hard.
"You going to be sick?" Chris asked quietly.
Despite the fact that he looked distinctly green, Vin shook his head. "The muscle-bound guy that had me in the chair--"
"Al Westin. He's a free agent."
One corner of Vin's mouth turned up. "Bastard's good." That shred of animation quickly faded. "Enjoys his work, too. Told me the first finger was just to be sure I knew what the next few were gonna feel like."
"Son of a bitch," Buck said in a strangled growl.
"Don't know which is worse," Vin said. "The pain or the snappin' sound the bone makes right before it hits."
Chris frowned at the emotionless, almost dreamy tone. Vin was distancing himself, he realized grimly. Going to a safe place in his head where he could remain detached from the trauma unearthed by the memory. It wouldn't be the first time.
His friend hadn't talked much about his difficult childhood. But once, after a particularly difficult case, a few too many beers had lowered Vin's guard and loosened his tongue.
Chris had hauled his stumbling friend up four flights of stairs to his apartment and poured him onto his couch. When Vin nearly toppled to the floor trying to remove his boots, he'd sat on the coffee table, pulling first one foot and then the other into his lap while his friend squirmed and snickered that he was ticklish. By the time Chris had made coffee, however, he'd slipped back into the black mood that had prompted his uncharacteristic drinking.
"What's gonna happen to her?" he'd asked Chris, referring to the gunrunner's obviously battered 8-year-old daughter.
"Social services was trying to track down the grandmother," Chris had said, handing his friend a mug of coffee. "Otherwise..."
"Foster care." Vin had pronounced it like a dirty word.
"She's a tough little thing," Chris had observed, shaking his head, "holding up under those conditions."
Vin had huffed with a humorless smile. "There's ways to get through just about anythin'. Don't mean you're okay."
Knowing he was walking a tightrope, Chris had kept his gaze fixed on his own cup. "That what you did? Found a way?"
After a moment's stiffness, Vin had sighed. "Guess you could say I went someplace safe, even if it was only in my mind. He could knock my body around, lock me in the closet. But he couldn't touch me."
He'd said it so calmly, but Chris's stomach had twisted queasily. Dissociation, his training had whispered. Bet that never came up during the psych eval. "Where'd you go?" he'd asked, working hard to keep his voice steady.
And Vin had smiled that beautiful, heart-melting smile he'd come to see more often since his friend had joined Team 7. "My ma's kitchen. Even though I was just a little feller, she used to let me help her make cookies, bake bread and pies. If I close my eyes, I can still smell cinnamon and apples."
He'd yawned, sliding sideways to curl up on the cushions. "'M pretty beat, Cowboy. Think you can let yourself out?"
He had, rocked by Vin's unexpected revelation. The next day Vin had been his normal, if slightly hungover, self.
Chris suspected he didn't remember the conversation. If he did, he'd never mentioned it.
"Vin," he said, risking a hand to his friend's shoulder. "Where was Sean?"
Vin startled, his eyes narrowing as he focused on Chris's face. "I don't know."
"Don't answer right away. Think about it."
"I told you--I don't know! Everything's in...in pieces and...and full of holes."
From the corner of his eye, Chris saw Buck lean forward. He pinned his old friend with a warning glare and a sharp shake of his head. Though clearly unhappy, Buck subsided.
"Don't worry about the gaps," Chris coaxed, turning his full attention back on Vin. "Just concentrate on the fragment you remembered."
"You think I haven't been tryin'?" His face twisted with distress, Vin looked away. "You sound like Spencer."
Chris flinched. Ignoring the weight of Buck's gaze was difficult, but facing the pain in Vin's accusation was agony. Congratulations, Larabee. You've managed to shake him out of that protective cocoon, all right. Hope it's worth it.
"I think you've probably been trying too hard." He squeezed Vin's shoulder; the muscles felt like iron under his grip. "You see things differently than most of us--hell, you pick up on crime scene details I miss."
"What do you want, Chris?"
Chris ached at the bone-weary sound of Vin's voice. I want to rewind the past five days, he thought. I want none of this to have happened.
"Close your eyes and try to relax," he said. "See if you can visualize the chair, the room... Westin."
Vin stared at him for a long moment before doing as Chris asked. His breathing was ragged and small tremors shivered through his body. Chris slid his hand to cup the back of Vin's neck in silent reassurance.
"He... I think..." Vin licked his lips. "It was just me and Westin. We...we were alone in that room."
"Good. That's good, Cowboy. Westin had two partners. They weren't there?"
"Not when... Not when he was..."
"It's okay, Junior. We get it," Buck said, his voice tight.
"Easy," Chris soothed. "Can you see anything of Sean? Any sign he was there earlier?"
Vin frowned. "No. But I..." His eyes flew open and he twisted toward Chris, oblivious to his injured ribs. "God, Chris, he was there, somewhere, in another room."
"You saw him?"
"I heard him." Vin pressed his uninjured hand to his stomach, looking as if he was fighting the urge to vomit. "He was screamin'."
"Okay, that's about enough." Buck scooped up the water glass, pressing it into Vin's hand as he sat opposite Chris. "Breathe slowly, in through your nose and out through your mouth. And see if you can drink some more of this water." He scowled at Chris, daring him to object.
"'M okay." But the glass shook in Vin's hand and his voice didn't hold much conviction.
"You did real good," Chris said, rubbing at the knots in Vin's neck before dropping his hand.
A faint snort told him Vin was regaining a bit of his fire. "How do you figure? Hearin' him scream doesn't tell us jack."
"It tells us he was brought to the warehouse along with you," Chris replied.
"And that he was still alive," Buck added. "It means something, kiddo."
Vin didn't reply, just sipped at the water, his eyes little more than slits.
"What time is it?" Chris asked Buck, annoyed that he'd somehow neglected to wear his watch.
"Just after four." Buck, as usual, knew right where he was headed. "Pills are in the bag with the pharmacy stuff. I'll get 'em."
The fact that Vin didn't protest the idea of more drugs--didn't even seem to notice--spoke volumes about how much pain he was in. When the glass wobbled precariously in his hand, Chris rescued it and set it aside. His friend barely noticed. He pressed his fingers into the flesh above his right eye, rocking in an unconscious effort to ease the discomfort.
Vin squinted at him. "You're not the one did this."
"That's not what I mean. I'm sorry for just now, for pushing."
Vin huffed, then winced as if the movement intensified the headache. "Hell, Chris, you been pushin' me since the day we met. Why should a little thing like a concussion make a difference?"
The weary words blindsided him in a way only Vin could. He pulled back, sucker-punched, struggling for a response in the same way a physical blow would have made him fight for air.
Then Buck returned and the moment was swallowed up by the more imminent concerns of helping Vin down the pills and some crackers, supporting him as he hobbled to the bathroom, and convincing him to stretch out on the bed in the darkened guest room.
Once Vin was covered with a light quilt to ward off the chill, his hand cradled on a pillow, Buck headed out to feed the horses. Chris hovered in the doorway, uncertain whether to remain or go.
"Chris. Stay a minute." The strong painkillers had kicked in--Vin was sprawled bonelessly on the mattress, his pupils so dilated only a ring of blue remained.
Chris pulled up a chair and sat. "You need to sleep, Pard. Doctor's orders." He felt a fresh stab of guilt. Which I've pretty much shot to hell by interrogating you like a suspect.
"I didn't mean it like that."
The remorse in Vin's voice caught his attention before the words. "What?"
"What I said, about pushin'--it didn't come out right."
Chris shrugged, clasping his hands loosely between his knees though his body felt coiled with tension. "No big deal."
"It ain't that you push, exactly, it's--"
"Sure I do." Chris twitched his lips at Vin's startled expression. "Come on. They don't call me 'Badass Larabee' for nothing." He shook his head. "I demand a lot from people. Maybe too much. It hasn't always made me the most popular guy in the room."
"Chris..." Vin trailed off, biting his lip. "Growin' up... Folks either tried to crush me under the heel of their boot, or just plain forgot I existed. What you call pushin'..." One corner of his mouth turned up. "It don't bother me."
Chris cleared his throat but the lump wouldn't go away. "You going to tell me if it does?"
"Hell, I'll knock you on your ass." Vin's grin dissolved into a yawn.
"Big talk for someone who can barely lift a glass." Chris stood. "Get some sleep."
"You goin'?" The question would have been innocuous but for the flicker of unease in Vin's eyes.
"Don't have to," he replied, lowering himself to the edge of the chair. "Could stay for a bit."
Color rose in Vin's pale cheeks. "Don't want to put you out. It's just... Guess I'm used to the hospital. Feels too quiet."
"No problem. But if you expect me to take your temperature and blood pressure every few hours, you're out of luck."
Vin snickered as his eyes drifted shut. "You ain't nearly cute enough for that job, Cowboy."
Chris stretched out his legs and tipped his head back, soothed by the rhythm of Vin's breathing as it deepened and slowed with sleep. He slid into a doze, a distant corner of his brain registering when Buck returned from the barn and began puttering around in the kitchen.
Sometime later the phone trilled, bringing Chris fully awake, and he was grateful when Buck picked it up on the second ring. Vin slept on, held under by drugs and exhaustion. Chris scrubbed gritty eyes and stood, rolling his shoulders to loosen the kinks. When he turned, Buck was in the doorway, his face pale and grim.
Chris's stomach clenched. Motioning Buck out of the room, he quietly shut the door and led the way to the den. In the final pale threads of daylight, Buck's expression was even more stricken, his blue eyes red-rimmed and his mouth tense.
"The phone call?"
"It was Travis." Buck ran a hand down his face.
"They found him, Chris. At a construction site about three miles from the warehouse." Buck sucked in a shaky breath. "He'd been shot once in the head, execution style. He's dead."
"Who found him?" Chris poked at a piece of chicken, set down his chopsticks, and picked up the tumbler of whiskey instead. Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and J.D. had showed up with takeout shortly after the phone call about Sean. Vin was still in the guest bedroom, down for the count.
"One of the construction workers noticed something sticking out of the ground." Josiah grimaced. "Turned out to be Sean's hand. Guess whoever disposed of the body was in a rush, didn't bury it deep enough. That wind storm last night must've stirred up the dirt."
"We're damn lucky it did." Nathan removed the glass from Chris's fingers and looked pointedly at his barely touched food. "Otherwise he'd be covered with two tons of concrete by now and we'd never have found him."
"How's Jim taking it?" Buck asked.
"Ted said he was in Travis's office for nearly an hour, yelling about what a mess this investigation's been," J.D. said, piling kung pao chicken onto his plate and adding an egg roll. "Then he holed up in his office to make the call to Sean's wife."
"Damn. Not a call I'd want to make." Buck exchanged a long look with Chris. "Just another reason why I won't be gunnin' for your job, stud."
"That's a load off my mind."
"Save some of that rice for Vin," Nathan said as J.D. reached for the carton. "His stomach's not ready for the spicy stuff." He looked at Chris through narrowed eyes. "And while we're on the subject, neither is yours."
"Speaking of Mr. Tanner, should I retrieve him before the food gets cold--" Ezra raised an eyebrow at J.D. "--or vanishes?"
"Let him sleep," Chris replied. "I'll nuke it when he wakes up."
"When are you going to tell him?" Buck's voice sounded unnaturally subdued.
It was the question that had been foremost in his mind ever since he'd learned of Sean's death. Unfortunately, Chris felt no closer to an answer. "I'm not sure."
Josiah tipped back in his chair, lacing his hands across his stomach. "Best to do it right away. He's all tied up in knots thinking he needs to save the boy."
"Surely you're not foolish enough to believe that learning he's dead will be an improvement?" Ezra drawled. "Our friend is determined to bear responsibility in this matter. I fear the news of Mr. Donovan's demise will only provide further justification for castigating himself."
"But he'd want to know the truth!" J.D. was wide-eyed with outrage. "You all know how Vin feels about being coddled. He'd hit the roof if he found out we were holding back on him."
Nathan shook his head. "I believe in honesty as much as the next man. But we've got to consider what's best for Vin. He was knockin' on death's door a few days ago, and he's still awful weak. That head injury is nothin' to mess with. Truth be told, I ain't so sure he's up to the shock."
"Not that I don't appreciate all this input," Chris said through gritted teeth, "but I'll decide when and how he's told." He stood and carried his plate to the sink, ignoring Nathan's glare as he dumped the food down the disposal. "Ezra, keep working the streets. Someone's got to have information on who was picking up Westin's tab. Josiah, I want to see the autopsy results as soon as they're available. Lean on forensics if you have to."
"Will do, boss." The big man hesitated, obviously choosing his words with care. "Jim Spencer's not going to let this rest, Chris. He's been making a lot of noise over the fact Vin hasn't given a formal statement yet."
"Jim Spencer needs to take his head out of his ass. Vin wouldn't last five minutes under that kind of pressure. Not to mention the fact that he can't remember a whole helluva lot right now."
"He's pushing Travis to bring in a psychiatrist."
Chris whipped around, dropping his voice to a low growl. "He what?"
"Just graspin' at straws, Chris," Buck said. "He's desperate."
"You knew about this?"
Buck hitched his shoulders. "He mentioned it. I figured it was just blowin' off steam."
Nathan made a soft sound of disgust. "Yeah, well I sure hope no one else is takin' him seriously. There's likely a damn good reason why Vin's missin' those days. Forcin' him to remember--short-circuiting that kind of natural defense mechanism--is just askin' for trouble."
"Don't worry. Vin will be seeing a psychiatrist over my dead body." Chris yanked open the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. He flipped the top into the trash can and took two swallows, then pressed the cold glass against his throbbing temple. In the uneasy silence he could feel the others trading glances.
Surprisingly, it was Buck, not Nathan, who spoke up. "Runnin' yourself to the ground ain't gonna help anyone, Pard, least of all Vin."
"I'm fine." The skeptical looks on their faces were really pissing him off. "I'm going to check on him."
Outside the kitchen he leaned against the wall, his head thumping gently against the plaster. Three deep breaths and four swallows later, when he'd reined in the urge to punch something--someone--he continued to the guestroom.
The empty guestroom.
For a split second, Chris flashed on an image of Vin being abducted at gunpoint while the rest of them blithely chatted around the kitchen table. His heart pounded and his hand jerked reflexively to the nonexistent gun at the small of his back. Then investigator mode kicked in and he catalogued the twisted, sweat-dampened sheets, Vin's untouched duffel at the foot of the bed, and the fact that the blanket and his moccasins were missing.
"Son of a bitch." Chris bypassed the spill of light and laughter from the kitchen, grabbing his jacket as he quietly slipped out the French doors to the deck.
The lounge chairs were empty, and Vin wasn't standing in his usual spot near the steps. Swearing under his breath, Chris headed across the yard toward the barn. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he spied a lone figure leaning heavily against the corral.
Pony greeted him with a soft nicker, while Peso snorted and tossed up his heels. Vin didn't even turn his head.
"Are you trying to end up back in the hospital?" The fact that he sounded like Nathan fed Chris's temper. "You heard Lorenzo's instructions--no unnecessary activity and stay the hell out of the cold. The last thing you need right now is--"
Chris caught his breath, his anger choked off as abruptly as his voice when the wan light of the crescent moon illuminated glistening trails on his friend's cheeks.
So damn capable and self-sufficient, it was easy to forget how young Vin was. The lost, little-boy tone of his raspy voice hit Chris low, in the belly. He turned, pressing his back against the rails to better see his friend's face. "Yeah."
Vin nodded, his gaze locked on the horses as he scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand.
"Heard us talking?" Chris asked after several minutes passed with only Vin's ragged breathing to break the silence.
"Had a nightmare--memory. Nothin' concrete, just... somethin' real bad." A shudder crashed through Vin's body like a wave. "Got up for a glass of water an' heard Josiah."
"I'm sorry. I didn't want you to find out that way."
"So you were gonna tell me?" The edge to the words couldn't mask the grief.
"Yeah. I was." He waited a beat, then pitched his voice low and gentle. "This was not your fault, Vin."
His friend squeezed his eyes shut, but moisture leaked from the corners. "You can't know that."
Chris slid his hand under the tangled mane at the base of his friend's neck and squeezed. "Yes, I can. Because I know you. And there's no way in hell you'd have allowed anything to happen to Sean if it was in your power to stop it."
"God, Chris." Vin's voice cracked and his breathing turned to choked gasps as he fought back the tears. "I don't... Why him an' not me? He had folks who cared about him--his wife, his parents. It shoulda--"
"Shut up." Chris tugged until Vin sagged against his chest and he felt the warmth of tears on his neck. "You've got people who care about you too, you stupid jackass. Don't ever think otherwise."
When his friend swayed, his knees wobbling, Chris slipped an arm around his waist. "All right, that's it. Let's get you inside where you can lie down."
He wasn't prepared for Vin to pull away. His friend's feet tangled in the blanket and he nearly wound up on the ground. "Damn it, Vin, what the hell...?"
"Can't go back in there. Not yet. I just... The walls are closin' in on me, Chris."
One of the great mysteries of the universe had to be the way Vin Tanner could reduce Chris Larabee to a spineless wonder. He sighed. "You're a pain in the ass, you know that? Come on--at least the barn is out of the wind."
Vin didn't reply, but Chris would have to be blind not to see the gratitude in his eyes. He parked his friend on some bales of hay and rounded up the horses. By the time they were tucked away in their stalls, Vin had regained his composure and some color to his cheeks.
Chris pulled up an adjoining seat, hoping the others had the good sense to leave them alone.
"It was me they wanted."
Chris looked sharply at Vin, but his friend's head was bowed. "How do you know?"
"Remembered some stuff the big guy--Westin?--said."
The silence stretched out, but Chris waited while Vin plucked a sprig of hay and fiddled with it.
"Kept tellin' me... " He sucked in a shaky breath. "Tellin' me Sean's life was in my hands. It was up to me whether... whether he lived or..." He pressed his lips together and tossed the shredded hay to the floor.
"Which is complete bullshit." Chris chased Vin's gaze until his friend was forced to look him in the eye. "You had no weapon, no back-up. They ambushed you, tied you to a chair, and beat the hell out of you. They had all the power, Cowboy. The only thing you could do was hang on until we found you. And you did."
Vin swallowed hard and looked away. "Don't change the fact that if he hadn't been with me--"
"Sean was a federal agent. He put his life on the line every day. It could just as easily have been him they were after."
"But it wasn't."
And what the hell was he supposed to say to that? Chris ran a hand over his burning stomach, regretting the whiskey. He didn't for a moment blame Vin for Sean's death. But he also understood impotence made a lousy excuse for failing to save someone who needed you.
"Chris." Vin hesitated. "There's somethin' I gotta do."
"No shit. You've got to go back inside, eat something, and take your pills."
He rubbed a hand along his jaw, grimacing at the burn of stubble. "All right, all right. What do you need to do?"
"You ain't gonna like it."
"Now there's a news flash."
"I need to go back to the warehouse. To the room where they... where he... I gotta see it."
It was the last thing he'd expected to hear. Chris glared at his friend. "No."
Clenching his jaw, Vin shook his head. "I ain't askin' you, I'm tellin' you. I'm goin' back."
"Are you out of your mind? Have you looked in a mirror lately?" Vin looked like death warmed over, all shadows, sharp angles, and too-pale skin.
But there was defiance written in the tilt of his chin, the set of his mouth, and the fire in his eyes.
Chris pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why?"
"When Spencer showed me Sean's shirt--"
"Asshole," Chris muttered before he could stop himself.
Vin's lips curved in the closest thing to a smile he'd seen all day before it quickly vanished. "Seein' the shirt, the...the blood... It triggered a real clear memory."
"I know. I was there. You were practically catatonic--or have you forgotten that part?"
"Will you shut up and listen? The point is that I remembered. And if a little thing like Sean's shirt could do it, I reckon bein' in the place where..." The words caught in his throat and he pulled the blanket tighter. "It could work, Chris."
"It could also push you over the edge!" Chris stood and paced, hoping it would assuage the urge to shake his friend. "Sean's dead, Vin."
"And we don't know why!" Vin snapped. He sagged back against the hay, shaking with weariness and emotion. "I gotta know why."
Cut to the bone, Chris dropped down beside him. "I want to find out who was behind this as badly as you do. But not at your expense. We're not racing to save a man's life anymore. Give yourself a chance to heal."
Vin chuckled, but it was laughter born from tears. "You don't get it, do you? I can't heal, not as long as there's a fuckin' black hole in my head. Not as long as Sean's lyin' on a slab while his killer walks free."
"I still don't like it." When Vin didn't relent, he sighed. "You know, I could just tie you to a chair."
His friend surprised him again by latching onto his jacket in a white-knuckled grip. "Chris. Please."
It was a damn fool idea, all risk and no guarantees. He'd be crazy to even consider it.
And there was no way in hell he could say no.
"We go back to the house, you eat, take the damn pills, and go to bed," he growled. "You don't get at least eight hours and all bets are off."
"Deal." The relief on Vin's face was heartbreaking. "You won't regret it, cowboy."
Ah, Vin, he thought, his throat tight. I already do.
"Good morning." Chris extended an arm behind him, an invitation to enter.
Nathan stepped over the threshold, the sudden warmth a balm to his wind-nipped cheeks and ears. He stripped off his gloves and unzipped his coat, covertly studying his friend in the process. Chris was showered, shaved, and neatly dressed in a turtleneck and black jeans. Yet fine lines of weariness bracketed his eyes and mouth, and the gruff economy of his movements screamed tension.
"Is it?" Nathan asked, keeping his tone deceptively mild.
With a quick frown over his shoulder, Chris led the way to the kitchen. "Is it what?"
"A good morning."
"Coffee?" Though he phrased it as a question, Chris retrieved two mugs from the cupboard. He filled them both and joined Nathan at the table.
"Thanks." Nathan took a sip, feeling a bit more of the morning chill leave his bones. "You didn't answer my question."
Chris twisted his mouth either in wry amusement or annoyance, Nathan wasn't sure which. "It's morning. Good might be an overstatement."
A shrug, and Chris took a long drink from his mug. "Had better."
The last week hadn't been kind to any of them, and Nathan had never had much tolerance for bullshit. He set down his mug and braced his folded arms on the table. "Cut the crap, Chris. You gonna make me drag every last word outta you?"
It was a calculated gamble--Chris would either be amused or rip him a new one. Fortunately, he chose the former. "You're like a dog with a bone, you know that?"
"Yeah, yeah. And gettin' information from you is like squeezin' blood from a stone. Did either of you sleep?"
"Vin took one of the pills Lorenzo prescribed, so--"
"Wait a minute, wait a minute. He took a sleeping pill?" Nathan narrowed his eyes. "Voluntarily?"
Chris flashed his teeth. "Let's just say we negotiated."
Relaxing against the back of his chair, Nathan shook his head. "Huh. So it worked?"
"He was out about seven hours."
Something in Chris's voice told him there was more. "But?"
"The pill kept him under, but I'm not so sure I'd call it sleeping. He still had nightmares, he just couldn't wake up."
"And you know this because...?"
"Because I watched him twitch and moan all night." Chris locked eyes with him. "I don't care if I have to scrape him off the ceiling--I'm not forcing him to take any more of those pills."
Dropping his gaze, Nathan nodded. "I said it before, Chris, and I'm gonna say it again--I think takin' him to that warehouse today is a bad idea."
"Reckon just once you could say it to his face?" Vin stood in the doorway, his hair damp and his feet bare.
Nathan coolly returned his glare. "All right. Condition you're in, I don't think you got any business goin' within five miles of the place."
"My business is findin' out what happened to Sean and me. And why."
"No, it's to heal, not undo all your doctor's hard work"
Vin went white-lipped with anger. "An agent--a friend--is dead, maybe because of me. Nothin's more important than nailin' whoever's responsible." He swayed a little, leaning into the doorframe.
Chris nudged out a chair with his foot. "Sit down before you fall down."
Nathan watched, mentally shaking his head when Vin wobbled over to the chair and sat without argument. Chris was probably the only person on God's green earth who could take that tone with him and get results. The damnedest thing was, it went both ways.
It was no secret around the federal building that Team 7 was an exceptionally tight-knit group. They lived in each other's pockets, working together all day, socializing most weekends--and thank God Rain was so understanding about that. Any one of them would lay down his life for the others--and they'd all come damn close at some point.
But what lay between Vin and Chris went beyond all that. More than a bond, a knowing deeper than words or actions. Cut one, Buck liked to say, and both would bleed. Nathan rubbed a hand along his jaw. You had only to look at Chris right now to know the truth in that observation.
"Toast or bagel?" Chris stood and went to the cupboard for a plate. When Vin didn't answer, he turned, propping his hands on his hips.
With a little wince, Vin licked his lips. "Chris, I ain't sure I--"
"Toast. Or bagel."
As Nathan looked on, a silent conversation crackled between the two. Vin furrowed his brow, stiffening. Chris clenched his jaw and raised an eyebrow. They glared at each other for a long moment until Vin's shoulders curled and he slumped back in his chair.
Chris had the good grace not to gloat, simply nodded and went about shoving a slice of bread in the toaster. A second, shorter battle of wills ensued when Vin asked for coffee, Chris eventually setting half a cup beside the toast.
And didn't that sum up their friendship, Nathan mused as Vin picked through his breakfast and Chris did the dishes and pretended not to watch. Two immovable objects who somehow managed to move each other. Amazing that someone who was your greatest weakness could also be your greatest strength.
When the toast had been reduced to mangled crust and crumbs, Vin shoved aside the plate. He grabbed two of the three pills Chris had set out, washing them down with the rest of his coffee. "I'm ready."
Chris picked up the plate, nudging the lone tablet. "Missed one."
The mulish expression returned. "Not takin' it." When Chris opened his mouth to protest, Vin cut him off. "Those damn pills make me fuzzy, and I need a clear head. I can deal with the pain."
The crack of the plate hitting the counter made Nathan jump. Chris's back was rigid with anger. "Yeah, I saw how you dealt with it yesterday. You're not exactly the poster boy for self-preservation, you know that?"
It took strength of will to keep silent, but Nathan was wise enough to understand this argument was about far more than whether or not Vin took his meds.
As Chris scrubbed the plate and slapped it into the drainer, Vin eyed him with weary resignation. "Chris, I just..." The words seemed to catch in his throat and his chest hitched. "I need this to be over. So please, just... just let me do what I gotta do."
Chris didn't move for a long moment. When he turned to lean against the counter, his face was carefully neutral, but a muscle twitched high in his cheek. "Go get the gauze and I'll bandage your feet."
Nathan--and from the looks of it, Vin--was surprised by the gentleness in his voice.
Vin nodded, leaving the kitchen without a word.
Nathan cleared his throat. Though he was reluctant to press the issue, seeing Vin had only increased his apprehension about this little field trip. "Chris, I don't think--"
"Don't say it, Nate. I--" A phone trilled and he huffed his frustration, pulling his cell from his pocket. "Larabee."
Nathan took his cup to the sink, listening more closely when he saw Chris was intensely focused on the call.
"Is he sure?" He relaxed rigid shoulders. "When can we expect the full report?" A pause. "Stay on top of him, Josiah. I want those results in my hands before the end of the day." He exchanged a few more words, then shut the phone with a click.
"Autopsy?" Nathan asked.
Vin chose that moment to return with tape and gauze. Chris gave Nathan a nod, then turned his attention to their friend. "Vin. Sit down."
"What did he say?" Vin asked sharply, but he sank into one of the chairs.
"Paxton's not done, but he called Josiah with his preliminary findings."
"Sean was shot nearly a week ago. Near as he can tell, the time of death occurred late on the sixth or early on the seventh."
Thank you, Lord, Nathan thought. He must have sighed audibly, because Chris looked at him, then back at Vin.
"You understand what this means, Cowboy?"
Vin turned his head, blinking furiously. "He died before you found me."
"That's right. Even if you'd remembered everything, it was already too late." Chris pulled out the chair beside Vin and sat, giving his friend's arm a firm squeeze. "There was nothing you could have done to save him. Nothing."
Vin sucked in a shaky breath and squared his shoulders. When he looked back at them, his eyes were dry, his gaze hard. "There's sure as hell somethin' I can do now." He handed Chris the gauze.
One corner of Chris's mouth turned up, though sorrow etched lines around his eyes. "Fair enough. I got your back, Pard."
Nathan huffed in weary resignation. "We both do."
+ + + + + + +
Chris pulled to the curb and shut off the engine. As Vin stared at the crumbling brick and boarded-up windows, his stomach gave a queasy lurch. From the corner of his eye he saw Chris exchange a long glance with Nathan via the rearview mirror.
"We can still turn around and head home," Chris said, shifting in his seat until he faced Vin. "You don't have to do this."
Vin looked at him, feeling more fatigue than impatience. "Yeah, I do."
With his right hand he unlatched the seatbelt and reached over to shove open his door, grimacing when the motion put pressure on his ribs. By the time he'd eased his feet onto the pavement, Chris was at his elbow, steadying him, and Nathan was at his back. Logically, he could appreciate their support and concern, but he was tired, he hurt, and the thought of laying himself bare while they looked on left him short-tempered and edgy.
"Can still walk, last time I checked." He shrugged off Chris's hold and headed for the large metal door bisected with yellow crime-scene tape.
The fact that he was too weak to pull the damn thing open only ratcheted his irritation to a higher level. He hated feeling helpless, and the bastard who'd done the number on his fingers had sentenced him to an agony that went far beyond the simple pain of broken bones. He'd learned long ago that dependency was a weakness that would come back to bite him in the ass. It was one of the few things he truly feared.
Vin stepped inside and a moment later the door clanged shut behind him. Though fingers of light crept through the cracks of the boarded windows, the interior was still heavily shadowed. Something twisted low in Vin's belly and he broke out in gooseflesh.
Chris looked at him intently. "We found you in one of the offices on the second floor. Stairs are over there."
With a curt nod, he followed. The stairwell was littered with used needles and smelled like piss. Halfway up Vin's legs turned wobbly and he had to pause, one hand propped against the wall as he breathed through his mouth. By the time he reached the top and started down the long hallway his throat was bone dry and cold sweat trickled between his shoulder blades.
Something dark--blood and screams and fury and helplessness--flickered like a shadow in the corner of his mind's eye. He didn't realize he'd stopped walking until Chris pressed a hand to the middle of his back. "You getting something?"
"Nothin' concrete. Just...somethin' bad." Vin swallowed hard. "Real bad."
"Take your time," Nathan said, coming up on his other side. "No reason to rush."
He got his feet moving anyway, drawn forward by a tangled mixture of need, curiosity, and dread.
Halfway down the corridor Chris gestured to an open doorway. "In there."
Nathan stepped in front of him before he could cross the threshold. In the dim lighting the healer's eyes looked nearly black. "Vin--"
"'Preciate your concern, Nate, but I ain't turnin' back. Now step aside."
Nathan turned his glare on Chris, who shook his head. "Man knows his own mind."
Just a room, Vin mused once he was inside. Peeling linoleum on the floor. A rusted-out file cabinet with most of its drawers missing tipped drunkenly against one wall. A metal folding chair looking lonely and out of place in the very center. Vin stared at the chair, mesmerized. His stomach did a flip-flop and his heart began to pound.
Blood in his eyes, in his mouth, thick, coppery.
"Look. At. Him." Fingers in his hair, pulling his head up. He doesn't want to see, can't look away.
"You've got to the count of three."
"Easy, cowboy," Chris murmured. That voice meant safety, and it nudged Vin back from the edge.
He knew what he had to do, but he couldn't stop shivering. "Gotta sit down."
"Come back into the hallway," Nathan said. "I've got a bottle of water in my pack."
He saw Chris get it the moment he shook his head. His friend's green eyes hardened and his voice took on that low warning growl usually reserved for the bad guys. "No. Damn it, Vin, I'm not watching while you--"
"Reckon that chair's as good as any." He returned Chris's glare without flinching. "It's why I'm here, Cowboy. If it bothers you so much you can wait in the hall."
"I'm not going anywhere."
It was funny how he could draw so much comfort from an ornery, bad-tempered cuss like Chris Larabee. Vin nodded. Sucking in a deep breath, he walked to the chair and sat.
Not a flicker of memory. It'd be funny if it weren't so damn frustrating. He looked around the room, ignoring the weight of Chris and Nathan's stares, but the only thing that sprang to mind was how the stupid chair hurt his back and put pressure on his ribs.
"Anything?" Chris asked.
"Not a damn--" And then his gaze landed on something--reddish-brown strips of plastic scattered on the floor beside him. He leaned over for a closer look.
Restraints. Stained with blood.
And it all crashed in on him with the force of a freight train...Tweedle-dumb and Tweedle-dumber saunter into the room. Dumber's got something tucked under his arm--a plastic tarp--and they proceed to spread it on the floor.
He looks up at the butt-ugly gorilla who's got cigarette burns and breaking fingers down to an art. "We havin' a picnic?" His voice cracks and fades but he can still do sarcasm.
The sonuvabitch backhands him before he sees it coming and blood fills his mouth. "I've listened to enough of your bullshit, Tex. Time's up."
He bites down hard on his tongue to keep in the retort--his lip's split and his cheekbone feels broken. A moment later Dumb and Dumber return, dragging Sean between them.
He straightens up, breathing hard. Sean's left eye is swollen almost shut and his nose has bled all over his tee shirt. When they force him to kneel on the tarp, he looks up with dead eyes.
"Sean. You okay?" When his friend just looks away, he glares at his captors. "Let him go. He's no use to you. He doesn't know anythin'."
Gorilla leans in close. His breath smells like onion and garlic from the sub sandwich he ate while Vin's stomach rumbled and his mouth flooded with saliva. "Are you kidding? Ol' Sean here's my ace in the hole." He nods at Tweedle-dumb, who pulls a silenced Sig from his waistband and presses the muzzle to Sean's temple.
His heart pounds so hard he can hear it. "Don't."
Gorilla bares his teeth like a shark going in for the kill. "I see I've got your attention. That's good."
Sean looks at him with wide, terrified eyes and he thinks he might throw up. "Don't hurt him."
"It's real simple, Tex. You tell me what I want to know, now, or your friend gets a bullet to the brain."
Oh god, oh god. Someone's gonna die and he can't...he can't... He drops his head, squeezing his eyes shut, but Gorilla grabs him by the hair. "Look. At. Him."
Tears of pain sting his scraped cheek.
"You've got to the count of three. One..."
"Please, don't do this. I don't know anythin', You've gotta--"
"I told you I don't know anythin' you fuckin' piece of--"
A muffled pop. A scream. A splatter of liquid heat.
Everything goes blessedly dark.
Chris wasn't sure which scared him more--when Vin went blank and glassy-eyed and unresponsive, or when he slumped in the chair like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Thank God for reflexes honed by years spent doing the damn job. He lunged forward, catching his friend before he could hit the floor and possibly inflict further harm on his already concussed skull. Vin was a limp tangle of limbs as he eased him onto his back, his face washed of color.
But the medic was already shrugging off his backpack and kneeling down. His lips a thin line of disapproval, he checked Vin's pulse and pupils. "Shock," he muttered, pulling a bottle of water from the pack before sliding the bag under Vin's legs. "Hey, Vin, you with us?"
Though his eyelids fluttered open, Vin's gaze was distant, the way he sometimes looked while enjoying a particularly spectacular mountain sunset.
Or baking in his mother's kitchen, Chris thought grimly, recalling his friend's history of dissociating when under extreme duress. "Vin. Vin!" He tapped Vin's cheek gently, then with more force.
"Easy, Chris," Nathan warned. "That ain't gonna do him any good. Talk to him. He needs to know he's safe here with us and not..."
Forcing aside the tension and worry, Chris pitched his voice low and soothing. "Listen to me, Cowboy. Whatever happened, whatever you remembered, it's over and done and we'll deal with it."
Vin's gaze slid into focus. "Chris?"
He squeezed his eyes shut and his breathing sped up. "God."
"Slow it down, Vin, you're gonna hyperventilate," Nathan said.
"Gonna be sick."
They rolled him just in time. There wasn't much to come up, but the dry heaves lasted long enough to make Chris's ribs ache in sympathy. When the spasms finally eased, he propped Vin against his chest while Nathan got the ailing man to rinse his mouth and drink some water. Neither he nor the healer were prepared for Vin to bolt upright, struggling against Chris's supportive hold.
"Vin--what the hell...?" Chris let his hands drop, seeing that his attempts to restrain his friend were only tipping Vin into a full-blown panic.
Vin crabwalked backward, staring at the floor where he'd been laying. He scrubbed a hand over his face. "I can't... I-I gotta get outta here."
"Now just hold on." Nathan stretched out a hand. "I've seen better color on corpses. Stay put a minute and let me--"
"No." Vin twisted out of reach. He somehow got his feet under him and backed away, his gaze still fixed on the floor. "Not here."
"Vin, will you--" Chris stood, cursing under his breath as his friend staggered and nearly fell, gripping the wall for balance as he stumbled out the door.
He caught up to Vin halfway down the hallway. Evidently the adrenaline rush had worn off. His friend had his back pressed against the wall in an effort to stay upright, eyes squeezed shut as he gasped for air.
"You about done?" Chris reached out, only to jerk his hand back. The last thing he wanted was to exacerbate Vin's already jittery nerves.
Vin opened his eyes and licked dry lips. "Reckon so." His legs folded and he slid slowly down the wall.
Chris shook his head and crouched beside his friend. "Damn, Tanner, you could drive a saint to drink."
One corner of Vin's mouth turned up. "How would you know?"
Nathan joined them then, thrusting the bottle of water into Vin's hand. "Here. Don't even think about movin' your ass off that spot 'til I say it's okay."
"Not goin' anywhere." After several swallows, Vin pressed the cool bottle to his forehead. His hand shook and his face was pinched and still three shades too pale.
"You want one of those painkillers now?" Chris asked, trying hard to tamp down his worry.
"Best wait a bit. 'Fraid it'd be joinin' that toast you were so set on."
With weary patience Vin submitted to Nathan's examination, offering up his arm for pulse and blood pressure without complaint but hissing when the penlight hit his eyes. He'd calmed considerably, no longer on the knife's edge of panic, but something dark and despondent lurked in his slumped shoulders and carefully averted gaze.
"That's better," Nathan said, sitting back on his heels. "Pulse is a little fast and BP's a bit too high for my liking, but I guess it's to be expected, all things considered." And he glared at Chris as if the whole crappy situation were his fault.
"He still looks like hell." Chris ran his fingers through his hair, wishing he knew what to do next. That Vin had remembered something was obvious. But there was no way he was going to push for answers when his friend was barely holding it together.
"Go ahead." Vin's voice was very soft but there was something jagged and broken in it.
"You need some serious work on your poker face, Larabee. You're sittin' there just dyin' to ask me what I remembered."
This was what he got for letting the sonuvabitch past all his barriers. He couldn't fool Vin for shit--the man knew him almost as well as he knew himself. His only comfort was in the knowledge that Vin was just as screwed.
"Actually, I don't plan on asking you a damn thing. I'm guessing you'll tell me when you're ready."
Vin ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Don't think that time's gonna come."
Chris shifted so he was sitting beside his friend, shoulders brushing. "When I said we'd get through this, I wasn't just blowing smoke."
Vin's laugh sounded more like a sob. "Don't think even Bad-ass Larabee can navigate his way through this one."
Vin looked at him with so much anguish Chris's chest ached. "They--Westin and his buddies...they wanted somethin' from me. Information."
It was nothing they hadn't already known, but Chris could see Vin needed to work up to the memory. "Okay. Do you remember what that information was?"
"No. I've tried everything, even that headshrinker stuff Josiah suggested--visualization or whatever the hell it's called--but no matter what I do, I don't...I can't..."
"Easy. It's all right."
"No, it's not fuckin' all right! I should be able to remember. I should know why--" He dropped his forehead onto his knees and knotted his hand in his hair. "God, there has to be a reason, don't you see that? Why would...how could I...?"
Fingers gripped Chris's elbow and Nathan murmured in his ear. "Chris. He's not up to this."
Hearing the underlying fear in the medic's voice, he laid a hand on Vin's bowed head. "Hey. This isn't doing you any good, Pard. You need to calm down."
Vin snapped up his head, blue eyes haunted. "No. Listen to me--"
"I am. I will. But first you have to--" Chris reached out, but his friend knocked away his hand.
"Chris, I didn't tell them."
Mystified, Chris looked to Nathan, but the healer twitched a shoulder, his expression just as confused. "I never thought you would."
"Damn it, you don't understand! I didn't tell them, so they shot him."
Chris's throat closed up and his eyes burned. "Oh, Vin."
But his friend was beyond hearing. "They did it right in front of me, and I...his blood..." His voice cracked and he turned his face away, breathing hard.
Thank God for Nathan. While Chris sat frozen with rage and horror, his teammate coaxed Vin to swallow a couple pills and drink some water. As they sat in silence, Vin's breathing gradually evened out and he leaned more heavily into Chris. Nathan rechecked pulse and pressure, nodding in satisfaction, and stood up.
"C'mon," he said, gently grasping Vin's arm and helping him to his feet. "Seems to me we've all had 'bout enough of this place."
Vin didn't speak, just let them steer him down the corridor, one on each side, close but not touching. When they stepped out of the warehouse Chris filled his lungs with cold, fresh air, and something inside him thawed a little despite the bite. He unlocked the truck and leaned in to help Vin with the seatbelt, waiting until his friend met his gaze.
"I don't know what it was they were after, but I do know this. You would never have let Sean take a bullet unless another life was at stake."
Vin's eyes held the despair of a drowning man. "There should've been some other way."
"But there wasn't. Believe it, Vin. I do."
Vin didn't argue, just tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Chris shut the door and walked around to the driver's side, allowing some of the earlier rage to seep back into his bones. Maybe if he were pissed enough, he wouldn't worry about breaking the news to Travis, Jim Spencer's reaction, and whether his friend would ever come to terms with the price paid for his silence.
+ + + + + + +
Travis remained mute when Chris finished speaking, clenching his jaw as he stared out the large window at the Denver skyline.
"Dear God," he said finally, rubbing a hand along his chin and turning his gaze to Chris. "No wonder he couldn't remember."
"Concussion didn't help. As it is, his memories are still pretty patchy. Everything after Sean... It's all a blank."
"What I don't understand is why they kept Vin alive." Travis shook his head. "If executing a fellow agent and friend didn't get the desired results..."
"We're not sure, but..." Chris curled his fingers around the arms of his chair, fighting back a surge of anger. "Nathan thinks that may have been when they got the idea to try drugs."
"Dear God." Travis repeated, his voice as weary as Chris felt. "And he still doesn't remember what they wanted from him?"
"No, and it's got him tied in knots."
"Isn't that a bit odd? That he would remember the torture but not the reason for it?"
Chris shook his head. "Not according to Josiah. His theory is that Vin knew he couldn't afford to give up the information, so he buried it deep. So deep that he can't recall it even now, when he's safe."
"Where is Vin?"
"Took him back to the ranch. Nathan's with him."
"Is he... How's he holding up?"
"He was sleeping when I left," Chris replied. No need to tell Travis it was thanks to the Valium that Nathan had gotten Vin to swallow at the warehouse. Or that between the trauma, his lingering injuries, and the drugs he'd been little more than a walking zombie by the time they'd arrived at the ranch.
"He's going to have to talk to someone about this, Chris. His physical injuries aside, there's no way I can release him for active duty without a rubber stamp from psych."
"I realize that." Chris knew Travis was just laying his cards on the table, knew his own tone was unreasonably sharp. But getting Vin to open up to one of the departmental shrinks was going to require every bit of leverage he had--as his boss, and as his friend. He couldn't help worrying whether he was up to the challenge.
"You know, in a case like Vin's well, he may need more than our people are able to give."
"Forget it. It's going to be hard enough getting him through psych services. He'll never go for a private shrink."
Travis backed off. "Have you made any progress on tracking down who hired Westin and his crew?"
"Haven't checked in with Buck yet. I was on my way down there now." Chris started to rise, but Travis waved him back to his seat.
"Chris... I'd like you to do me a favor."
Every muscle in Chris's body tensed but he kept his voice even. "I'm listening."
"Let me tell Jim Spencer."
"Sounds more like you're the one doing the f
vor," Chris said dryly. "What's the matter, Orrin? You afraid I'll lack tact?"
Travis didn't take the bait. "I understand that you're still angry about the scene in the hospital--"
"Angry doesn't begin to cover it! He--"
Travis held up a hand. "My turn. You'll get yours in a minute."
Chris crossed his arms. "Fine."
"He was way out of line confronting Vin the way he did. But he's had a helluva week, Chris. Team 5 has lost a good agent and a good friend, and there hasn't been a damn thing Jim could do about it. I'm not so sure you would have fared any better under the same circumstances. So maybe you could climb down off that high horse and cut him a little slack."
Chris stood. "Is that all?"
Travis looked as if he were about to reprimand his insubordination, but leaned back with a sigh. "Yeah. Get out of here."
Chris strode to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob. "I'll cut Spencer all the slack you want as long as he stays the hell away from Vin. But he pulls another stunt like he did in the hospital and this time I really will kick his ass. You might want to mention that when you talk to him." He stepped out of the office and shut the door without giving Travis a chance to reply.
Somewhere between the fifteenth and eleventh floors, Chris realized all the other occupants had migrated to the opposite side of the elevator. When he caught a glimpse of his face reflected in the stainless steel doors, he understood why. He'd seen hardened criminals that looked a lot less threatening.
Sucking in a deep breath, he rolled his head until his neck gave a satisfying pop, then thumbed an antacid from the dwindling roll in his pocket. By the time he reached the bullpen, he had a better handle on his temper and the burn in his gut had backed off from flames to embers.
"Conference room, two minutes," he barked, waving off any questions and heading straight for his office.
He stripped off his suit jacket and tossed it on the couch, picked up a small stack of reports, and sank into his chair. From the corner of his eye he could see the blinking light indicating he had voicemails, but he pointedly ignored it as he flipped through the paperwork.
"And a good afternoon to you, too." Buck leaned in the doorway, his gaze sharp despite the breezy tone of voice.
"What part of 'conference room, two minutes' didn't you get?" Chris crumpled the piece of paper he was scanning into a ball. "Son of a bitch! I've told Ezra a million times--he can't write off his Armani suits as a business expense."
Buck raised an eyebrow. "Who put the bug up your ass?"
"Was there something specific you wanted, Buck?"
"Just to piss you off--is it working?" Before Chris could retort Buck set a cellophane-wrapped sandwich and a can of soda in front of him. "Figured you probably didn't take time to eat lunch."
The anger drained out of Chris, leaving behind weariness and a little bit of shame. He motioned for Buck to take a seat. "Sorry. It's been a helluva day."
"I'll fill you in with the others at the briefing. I'd rather not have to go through it more than once."
"Fair enough." Buck watched him pull open the wrapper and bite into half the sandwich. "Though from the look of things, I'm not gonna like what I hear."
Chris chewed doggedly, the turkey and whole wheat like cardboard on his tongue. "Whatever happens with the case... This isn't going to go away anytime soon, Buck. Not for Vin."
"We'll get him through it."
"Yeah." Chris wished he believed that as strongly as Buck seemed to.
Some of the doubt must have bled onto his face. Buck narrowed his eyes. "Chris--"
"Let's go." He dropped the half-eaten sandwich onto his desk and scooped up the soda and the stack of file folders. "The others are probably waiting."
When he stepped into the conference room, Chris couldn't help wondering if he was in the right place. Normally, corralling his six teammates in one room led to controlled chaos: Josiah waxing poetic about his latest love interest, Nathan debating Vin over what exactly constitutes a good cup of coffee, Buck and J.D. roughhousing, and Ezra offering odds on who was going to wind up hurt.
Today he was greeted with silence, the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. J.D. hunched over a notepad, chomping on the eraser of his pencil. Josiah's eyes were closed, his fingers steepled in a gesture of either meditation or prayer. And Ezra
"Damn it--where's Ezra?" Chris took a seat at the head of the table.
Josiah opened his eyes and gazed calmly at him for a long moment before responding. "Running down a few leads. Said he should have something for us when he gets in."
"I hope to hell he's right. Let's get started. One of you can fill him in later." Chris scrubbed a hand over his face and took another swig of the soda, wishing for something stronger.
"It would appear Vin remembered something," Josiah said, studying him with sharp eyes.
"Yeah. And it's not going to be easy for you to hear."
Chris proceeded to give them an abbreviated account of the scene at the warehouse, sticking to the facts and skimming over their impact on Vin.
"I want the bastard behind this," he concluded, looking into each of their shell-shocked faces. "We lost a good man on a fucking whim. Sean Donovan was only taken to use as leverage against Vin. He was never part of the equation."
Hunched down in his chair, J.D. mumbled something too soft to hear. "What did you say?" Chris asked, his tone sharper than he'd intended.
J.D. flushed under the other men's combined gazes. "I, uh I said not necessarily."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
After an encouraging nod from Buck, J.D. squared his shoulders. "Well, it's just After I heard what Josiah said about the autopsy, I started poking around in Sean's records."
Chris raised an eyebrow at the profiler. "What exactly did Josiah say about the autopsy? And why the hell haven't I heard it before now?"
"Easy, boss. I was gonna tell you. You've just been a bit preoccupied with other matters."
"I'm here now."
Josiah nodded, stroking one big hand along his jaw. "Forensics sent me the report last night and I forwarded a copy to your email. Nothing they found was unexpected. Sean died of a single gunshot wound to the head. Powder burns indicate it was close range."
"Which can't be what's got J.D. looking like he's just found out Santa Claus isn't real."
"He's not?" Buck's feigned outrage broke a little of the tension.
"It's not what they found that was unexpected," Josiah continued, all traces of humor fading from his face. "It's what they didn't find."
"We all know the shape Vin was in when we got to him. Those boys came within a breath of beating him to death. But Sean " Josiah shook his head. "They found some bruising and contusions on his face. Ligature marks on his wrists."
"That's it?" Chris frowned, his mind working furiously. "No broken bones, no burns? Drugs?"
"That doesn't make any sense. Vin remembers He said he could hear Sean screaming." Chris chewed the inside of his cheek. "What about all the blood on his shirt?"
"Near as they could tell, it came from his nose. And the gunshot." The big man shifted in his chair and his voice dropped. "They found his blood on Vin's shirt, too."
Chris shut his eyes, assaulted by the memory of Vin's raspy voice. "They did it right in front of me, and I his blood " He swallowed hard, his stomach churning. "Tell me what you found, J.D."
"At first, nothing," J.D. said. His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "Then I, uh, dug a little deeper, and I He's in hock up to his eyeballs, Chris. Credit cards maxed out and he's borrowed on all his investments. There's even a second mortgage on the townhouse."
"Damn." Chris gazed around the table. "We need to know why a guy with dual incomes and no kids is in that kind of debt. Now."
"Ezra's workin' on it," Buck replied. "That's why he's not here."
Chris blew out a long breath, abruptly furious with a dead man. "Son of a bitch."
"We can't jump to conclusions," Josiah cautioned. "Could be a perfectly reasonable explanation why--"
Chris's cell trilled and he held up a hand, cutting his friend off midstream. "Larabee."
"Chris, it's Nathan."
Something in the tone of the medic's voice had Chris sitting up straight, all senses on alert. "How's Vin?"
"Gone? Are you-- How the hell could he be gone?"
"'Cause he's Vin Tanner, that's how. Little shit must've slipped out right under my nose. When I checked on him an hour ago he was still out cold."
"You sure he left on his own power?" Chris waved off the others, who had gathered around his chair.
"Hell yeah, I'm sure. Peso's missing."
Sometimes an extensive knowledge of profanity came in handy. Chris swore a blue streak, calling Vin every name he could think of and a few he made up on the spot. "Stay put in case he comes back. I'm on my way." He snapped the phone shut. "I'm going to kill him."
"Vin took off?" Josiah asked.
"Evidently," Chris snapped, collecting his papers.
"Calm down, old dog," Buck said, amusement in the corners of his mouth. "The kid could hardly walk--I doubt he'll get very far."
Chris glared. "He's on Peso."
"Wow." J.D. sounded both awed and troubled. "I can't believe he managed that with all those broken fingers."
"Yeah? Well I can't believe he's being such a jackass." Chris lobbed the empty can of Coke into the trash and headed for the door. "I want to hear from Ezra as soon as he gets in," he called over his shoulder.
He didn't wait for a reply.
+ + + + + + +
"I ought to kick your ass, broken ribs or no." Though still furious, Chris felt a surge of relief. He'd been reasonably sure Vin would head here, but this particular spot was halfway up the mountain and in his current condition he could easily have ended up at the bottom of a cliff.
Vin didn't turn, his only response a stiffening of his shoulders. Chris stepped onto the ledge and eased down beside him. Even bathed in the muted glow of the setting sun Vin looked washed out, his skin waxy and drawn.
"What in God's name possessed you to pull such a stupid stunt?" Chris continued, needing to fill the pained silence. "You can't control that mule of yours one handed and without a saddle."
"Got here, didn't I?" Vin's voice was rough with suppressed emotion and he kept his gaze fixed firmly on the distant peaks.
"Thanks to sheer cussedness and a hefty dose of luck."
Vin looked sharply at him, then quickly away. His throat worked for a moment before he managed to speak. "Can't say I feel too lucky right now."
Chris pulled in a deep breath. Vin was beating himself up over Sean, yet the agent might not have been all that he seemed. Though common sense told him to wait until all the facts were in, the urge hit hard to say something, anything, to relieve a little of Vin's pain.
"Look, Vin, I know--"
"I can't do this anymore, Chris. I'm turnin' in my resignation just as soon as I can get it typed up."
It was probably the last thing he ever expected to come out of Vin Tanner's mouth. Chris gaped at him for a long moment, finally blurting the first thing that popped into his reeling brain. "You can't mean that." When Vin just gave him a measuring stare, his temper flared. "Well, I won't accept it."
"Then I'll give it to Travis," Vin replied without heat. "This ain't your decision to make."
"The past couple weeks have been a nightmare--hell, you're probably suffering from PTSD. Now's not the time--"
Vin scowled. "I'm not crazy."
"I didn't say you were. I just meant--"
"What if it had been you?"
Chris shut up, silenced by the raw edge of fear in Vin's question.
Tears shimmered in Vin's eyes and he scrubbed impatiently at them with the back of his hand. "Don't you get it? I can't hardly stand my part in what happened to Sean. If it'd been you, or Buck, or..." He choked on the words and shook his head.
He should have seen this coming. Chris's stomach burned and a headache thumped dully over his left eye. Pain, grief, and guilt had Vin on the knife's edge, emotionally speaking. He knew he had to choose his next words carefully.
"You keep focusing on the life lost--and I understand that, I do. But what about the life you saved?"
Vin curled his lip. "Which one would that be--my own?"
Chris refused to be baited. "Whatever they wanted from you was big--big enough to warrant the kidnapping and torture of a federal agent. You were protecting someone the only way you could. With your silence."
"Yer guessin', Cowboy." But a shadow of uncertainty crept into Vin's voice.
"Maybe so, but it's a guess based in fact. We know those goons were hired by someone, someone with enough power and money to keep from getting his own hands dirty. We know they were willing to go to any lengths necessary to get the information." Chris paused, tipping his head to see Vin's face. "And we know you were willing to go to any lengths to prevent them from getting it."
"Don't change the fact that it could as easily been you drivin' home with me that night."
"And if it had, I'd've expected no less from you. There's not a man on this team wouldn't willingly give up his life, Vin. To protect and serve. It's what we do. You honored that vow in every sense of the word. I'm damn proud of you."
Vin's face was wide open with shock for an instant before crumpling. He ducked his head, shielding his eyes with his hand.
Chris let him have a moment before speaking. "Do me a favor. Don't make any life-changing decisions until you're feeling better and we've had a chance to close this case. Deal?"
Vin lowered his hand and looked at Chris through damp lashes. "Okay. But if I decide to leave, yer gonna have to let me go."
Over my dead body. Chris thought grimly, but he gave a short nod. "Now can we please get you back to the ranch? My ass is going numb."
No snappy comeback. Vin just pushed slowly to his feet. When he swayed, Chris grabbed onto his arm.
"'M okay," Vin muttered, but his feet tangled up when he tried to move.
"Yeah. I can see that." Chris maintained his firm grip all the way back to where the horses were tethered. It was a measure of how bad Vin must be feeling that he never protested or tried to shrug free.
When he was sure Vin was okay on his own, Chris mounted Pony and held out his hand. "Let's go."
Vin stared at it, frowning. "Huh?"
"You're about three minutes from keeling over. There's no way I'm trusting that black devil to get you home."
"That's m'horse yer talkin' 'bout, Larabee." Vin's thickening drawl warned Chris his friend was past exhausted.
"I know. Now give me your hand."
Vin hesitated a moment longer before giving in with a sigh. Chris steadied his friend while he got a foot in the stirrup and swung up behind him. He grimaced at Vin's sharp intake of breath, imagining the agony such a movement would provoke from broken ribs.
"Ready?" Chris asked, looping Peso's reins over the saddlehorn.
Within five minutes Vin's head was pressed heavily between Chris's shoulder blades and his chest rose and fell with the slow, even breaths of sleep. Chris rested a hand over the arm clasped around his waist. His back was going to be pure misery by the time they reached the ranch, but he found he really didn't care.
Vin was hurting, far deeper even than Chris had guessed, but he'd managed to talk his friend into a reprieve. Now Vin just needed to be reminded how indispensable he was to the team.
And Chris knew just the men for the job.
Nathan was standing on the deck when they rode up, his dark eyes flinty and his lips compressed to a thin line of disapproval.
"Don't s'pose I could hang out in the barn 'til he goes home," muttered Vin, who'd roused when Pony's gait slowed.
Chris might've found it funny but for the bone-deep weariness underlying his friend's words. "It's okay, Cowboy. I got your back. Besides--you know Nathan's bark is worse than his bite."
With a snort, Chris guided Pony to the deck, steadying Vin as he slid to stand on wobbly legs. Nathan was immediately at the injured man's side despite the acid in his tone.
"What the hell did ya think you were doin', ridin' off alone in your condition? Do you realize a fall could send one a those busted ribs into a lung? You got no common sense when it comes to preservin' your own skin! Of all the stubborn, pigheaded jackasses--"
"Nathan." Chris saw what the healer didn't. Normally, Vin let his tirades roll off like water on a duck's back, knowing--as they all did--that his sharp tongue sprang from a mixture of frustration and deep empathy.
Today, however, Vin was feeling far from normal.
Chris saw the healer's harsh words burrow under Vin's skin, pummeling an already battered spirit. "Nathan, enough."
"It obviously ain't enough, Chris, considering the damn fool stunt he--"
"Could ya hold off an' maybe light into me tomorrow?"
Nathan broke off, silenced by the soft question.
Vin's eyes were too bright and a tremor ran through his raspy voice. "Reckon I deserve everythin' you got to say and more, but I just... This has been a real shitty day, and I don't think I can..." His voice cracked and he swallowed hard. "Tomorrow, okay?"
He limped slowly up the steps and into the house, leaving Nathan slack-jawed and bewildered. "What the... Vin?"
Chris leaned down, catching the healer's sleeve before he could follow. "Leave him be, Nathan."
"Chris, you know I didn't mean nothin'."
"Yeah, and so does he. Just...give him a little space."
Nathan sighed and rubbed a hand over his jaw. "How 'bout I help you get the horses bedded down? Maybe by then he'll be ready to eat some dinner."
Tossing him Peso's reins, Chris grinned. "Well hell, I'm sure I will."
They unsaddled the horses, then rubbed down and fed them in companionable silence. By the time they returned to the house, the moon was high in the darkened sky. While Nathan went to see about their dinner, Chris moved quietly down the hallway. The door to the guest bedroom was shut, and no light shone from beneath. After a moment's hesitation, he headed to the kitchen.
"Leave Vin's in the pot," he said, accepting a bowl of stew and a frown from Nathan.
"He was out in that cold a long time. Did you check on him?"
"The man's got hair-trigger reflexes. I'm not going to risk disturbing what little rest he may be getting."
Nathan joined him at the table. "Buck called while you were out tracking Vin down. He filled me in on what we've got so far." When Chris didn't respond, he pressed. "Do you really think Donovan was a part of this?"
Chris reflexively glanced over his shoulder before lowering his voice. "It would explain a few things that haven't added up 'til now."
Nathan narrowed his eyes but modulated his own tone. "You haven't told Vin?"
"No. And I don't intend to until we've got something more concrete."
"He's hurtin' bad, Chris. If Donovan was dirty it could go a long way toward easin' his guilt."
"And open old wounds."
"What does that mean?"
Chris rubbed the back of his neck, kneading tight muscles. "You know what things were like for Vin growing up. His life was nothing but a string of betrayals before he joined the team--it's why he took so long to let his guard down around us."
With a grimace, Nathan nodded. "If you ask me, he still gets his doubts now and then."
"You don't shrug off a lifetime of conditioning in a few months--or even years. But slowly and surely I think it's been sinking in: trusting someone doesn't have to end up with him screwing you over."
He could see the moment Nathan understood. The healer's eyes widened and he sucked in a sharp breath. "Oh, God. Sean."
"They taught those seminars on weapon maintenance together," Chris said savagely. "Played basketball some nights after work. Donovan even helped out with the kids at the community center a few times."
"They were friends."
"Yeah, well...Vin thought so. If that little bastard winds up destroying what we've taken over a year to build..." Chris shoved aside his bowl, no longer hungry.
The chirp of his cell phone cut off any reply Nathan might have made. Chris fished it from his pocket, scowling when he saw Ezra's number on the display.
"It's about time you checked in. Nice to know you haven't forgotten me."
A brief silence in which Chris could practically see Ezra's raised eyebrow was followed by his honeyed drawl. "It's a pleasure to hear your voice as well, Mr. Larabee."
"You missed the afternoon briefing."
"Yes. I was regrettably detained."
"I hope you plan on making an appearance soon."
"I'm currently seated in my car in your driveway. Will that suffice?"
The man could get under his skin like no one he'd ever met. Chris rolled his eyes and stood. "Well, get your ass in here."
"Is Mr. Tanner with you?"
Chris peered out the front window. Sure enough, Ezra's Jag was in the driveway and he could just make out the shadowy form of its occupant in the glow from the porch light. "He's down the hall, sleeping. Why?"
Another hesitation, and when Ezra spoke his voice was terse. "I think perhaps this conversation might best be limited to the two of us, for now."
"I'll be right out." Chris snapped the phone shut and pulled his jacket off the peg by the door. "Ezra's got news," he said to Nathan's questioning look.
"Can't be good if he's passin' up dinner and a shot of that scotch of yours he favors."
Chris turned up his collar against the cold as he stepped onto the porch. The temperature had dropped and a chill breeze ruffled his hair. As he approached, Ezra got out of the car, his expression uncharacteristically grim.
"Ezra." Chris shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against the car beside his agent. "Give it to me straight. All of it."
"It seems our Agent Donovan had a rather nasty monkey on his back."
Ezra shook his head. "Gambling."
"Evidently the man enjoyed a variety of sports--so long as wagering was included. Horses, football, basketball. Then there were the trips he made to the local establishment run by our Native American brothers. Quite the poker player was our Mr. Donovan."
"Which explains how he came to be up to his neck in debt."
"More like over his head. The figure I heard was in the neighborhood of five hundred thousand."
Chris gave a low whistle. "Who held his markers?"
"Big Daddy Malone? The guy who's got half of Denver in his pocket?"
"That would be the one."
"Shit. Frank Malone doesn't dick around. That kind of debt is as good as a death sentence."
"Indeed. You may recall Mr. Donovan's...mishap...while driving to work about a month ago?"
"You mean when he skidded on the ice and..." Chris trailed off, his jaw clenched. "It wasn't an accident. It was a warning."
"Or more accurately, a form of persuasion. Rumor has it that Malone had proposed a means for Mr. Donovan to settle all his debt once and for all."
Chris closed his eyes. "Sell out Vin."
"'Cept it don't make no sense."
Chris and Ezra snapped upright at the quiet voice. A moment later Vin stepped from the shadow of a large fir tree, a hand pressed to his ribs. Wearing only a flannel shirt, he shivered, his face pale and blank.
"Damn it, Vin! Can't you ever stay put?" Chris strode quickly to his friend.
"I'm sick of you coddlin' me, Larabee." Vin shoved away Chris's hand. "I got the right to hear this."
"I never said you didn't. I'm just trying to..." Chris drew a hand over his face. "Hell."
The front door opened and Nathan's worried face appeared. "Chris, I can't find-- Damn it, Tanner, that's twice in one day!"
"And I don't need no babysitter," Vin snapped. "I been takin' care of myself for years without any of you."
"He raises a valid point," Ezra said.
"Enough! Everybody inside the house." Chris stabbed a finger at Vin. "That means you, too, before you fall over."
"Ain't gonna fall over."
But by the time they reached the den, Vin was leaning heavily into Chris's supportive shoulder, his body rigid with discomfort.
"Headache?" Chris asked quietly as he settled his friend on the couch.
Vin winced in confirmation. "But I'm not takin' any of that shit yet. I want to hear what Ezra's got to say."
"Yeah, I got that." Chris backed off to sit by his feet. "How the hell did you know he was here anyway?"
"Saw the headlights; heard the engine. When I realized he wasn't comin' in, figured I best go out."
"Speakin' of which, how'd you get past me anyhow?" Nathan asked, drawing his brows together and folding his arms.
"You climbed out the window? Of all the harebrained, reckless, foolhardy--"
"Nathan." Chris pinned the healer with a glare until he sat down, then looked at Vin. "How much did you hear?"
"Everythin'--the gamblin', the debts, Malone. But it don't make no sense, Chris. What would Big Daddy Malone want from me? I've never even met the man."
"That, I was unable to ascertain," Ezra said, his tone gentle. "But I checked the source of this information very carefully. He's a low level employee of Mr. Malone, and the hard evidence backs his story."
"But I heard Sean screamin'." Vin pressed the heel of his good hand to his temple, eyes slipping shut as he tightened his fingers in his hair. "He sounded..." He fixed reddened eyes on Chris's face. "I heard him."
Dear God he didn't want to be saying this. Chris rested a hand on Vin's ankle. "We got the autopsy report, pard. Other than the gunshot and a few bruises, Sean had barely a mark on him. Considering what they did to you..."
He watched the words hit Vin, stealing something bright and vital. His friend's throat worked for a moment before he looked away, pushing himself carefully upright.
"Head feels fit to burst. Reckon I should lay down for a bit."
"Eatin' something might help." Nathan kept it a suggestion, his tone mild.
Vin flashed him a weak smile that never reached his eyes. "Maybe later."
Ezra leaned forward. "Vin, I deeply regret--"
"Ain't your doin', Ez. I know better than to shoot the messenger." He waved a hand. "Y'all can stop lookin' at me that way. I'm fine."
They watched in silence as he shuffled out of the room. When the bedroom door clicked shut, Ezra released a long breath.
"If Mr. Donovan were here right now I believe I could cheerfully kill him myself."
"You'd have to get in line." Chris walked to the bar. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I could use a drink."
Nathan stood and joined him. "This time, I'm inclined to agree with you."
To Chris's surprise, the conman hesitated. "It's been a long day, Mr. Larabee, and frankly I'm not feeling very social."
"Nothing social about it." Chris propped his palms on the bar and looked at each of them. "We're going to figure out how to bring down Frank Malone."
Ezra smiled. "Then I guess I am feeling rather thirsty after all."