Main Characters: Vin, Chris, Buck
Author's Note: Since 9/11, the law enforcement agencies of the U.S. Government have been gathered under the aegis of the Director of National Security. This story is based on the possible scenario that Vin, as a sniper and undercover agent, has been recruited by another agency, and has been actively involved in a counter-terrorist operation. I have done research on Landstuhl and the military hospital, but never having been there, I hope any errors I have made are small ones and due to artistic license. Thanks are due to Sue N., my comma wrangler and dear friend, and to Jean, who gave me the name of Nettie's latest "orphan" kitty.
This story is dedicated to our soldiers, their families, and their friends, to the doctors and nurses who care for them, and to those who, like Vin, serve their country even if they don't wear uniforms. May they all find their "Lines of Drift" to lead them home.
Natural Lines of Drift usually dictate where man-made features, including
their Lines of Drift, will be placed. Natural examples are rivers, valleys,
ridgelines, game trails, mountains, cliffs, etc. An obstacle (something that
impedes movement) is a feature, which promotes the use of a Line of Drift,
be it natural or man-made. The relationship between Lines of Drift and obstacles
influences everything from how we organize to where Special Operations Forces
looks for bad guys.
Chris Larabee sat at his desk, fingers playing over the edges of a file in front of him, his green eyes fixed at some indeterminate point on the horizon. The day was fading, the skyscrapers of Denver were gilded behind a veiling haze of smog - a pretty sight made ugly by the scientific fact that a temperature inversion had trapped pollution like a glass bowl over the city. It didn't matter to Chris. He wasn't seeing much beyond his own thoughts and they were, quite literally, thousands of miles away.
God damn Vin Tanner. God damn this mess of natural security that had put incompatible agencies into the same fucking bed and then expected them to cooperate, at times beyond reason. To share information, to share responsibilities, to "share" resources . . . if a man's life could be considered a resource, as Vin's was. One agency's wish had priority and one man's skills had been the fulcrum of that bitter struggle.
Chris's eyes went reluctantly from the skyline and turned to the glass-paneled door that led to the outer office where his team worked. They had been dubbed "The Magnificent Seven," with some jealousy, and Chris and Orrin Travis had put it together; hammering seven men of disparate skills and temperaments into an enviable unit. Vin had been a late arrival, but had been quickly assimilated into the team culture which Chris carried into his professional life after a stint with Buck Wilmington in the SEALs. Tanner had been an Army Ranger - a natural for the team despite being labeled a loner and a loose cannon. Orrin Travis had recognized the unique talents Tanner possessed and had sent him to Chris, hoping he and Team Seven would find a place for the exceptional young man.
There was a soft knock on his door and Buck came in, closing the door behind him. "Old son, whether or not you know it, those laser eyes a' yours are boring holes through the glass." He flopped down on Chris's couch. "You got something on your mind?"
"There's always something on my mind," Chris avoided. Buck cocked a skeptical eyebrow at his oldest friend and Chris gave up. "It's been three months, Buck."
The apparent non sequitur might have put most men off the trail, but Wilmington knew too well what Chris was thinking: the same thing they'd all been thinking every day of the last three months as they flipped their desk calendars. "Yeah. You think you're the only one counting the days 'til Vin gets back?"
"All those years in the SEALs, Buck . . . I never thought about what my folks or friends were going through. Days, months without contact. Must've been hell for them."
"They knew, Chris. They understood."
"Then why the hell is it so hard for us?" Chris rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Damn alphabet agencies."
Buck laughed at that. "ATF, FBI, CIA, NSA, DoD . . . XYZ. We all gotta play nice in the same sandbox." He sobered as he saw Chris's mouth curl into a snarl bordering on the feral. "Even when they co-opt a friend. Even if that friend is Vin."
"He could have refused." Chris said.
"He could'a." Buck agreed. And then he saw the truth in Chris's eyes. "That's what's got you, isn't it? You think Vin wanted to go? Hell, I never thought I'd know more about that boy than you."
"Vin's hardly a 'boy,'" Chris said.
"I know he ain't been a boy since his grandpa died," Buck said, referring to the sharpshooter's painful and checkered past - a past that included abuse and neglect, rescue from a life on the streets by a sympathetic Denver cop, the Army, and ultimately the Rangers SF teams, which had led him to this . . . a place he might have called home if his reputation and his skills hadn't caught up with him. Chris didn't need any reminding of that, however. He leaned forward, his eyes fixed earnestly on Larabee's. "He didn't want to go, Chris. He felt he had to go."
"Like they needed another sniper."
"It ain't just the shootin', Chris. It's everything else he can do."
Chris rubbed his eyes. "That and his damned sense of obligation." He drew a breath. "We had a hell of an argument, Buck. I . . . shit. No wonder he took off like he did."
Buck sighed. "Old Son, you got a way a' driving people off with that temper of yours. Good thing we all come back one way or another."
Chris opened his mouth to reply, but the phone suddenly lit up and he only gave Buck a weary, sardonic look before answered it. Buck would have left, but something held him there; a sharpness in Chris's voice and eyes that told him this was no ordinary call. The blood drained from Larabee's drawn cheeks. He made a few terse replies, scribbled on a pad of paper, then with a soft "Thank you," to whoever was on the other end of the line, hung up. Buck's eyes narrowed at the scrawled message.
Landstuhl. Followed by an international phone number. The big military hospital. That could only mean one thing - Vin, either wounded or ill. Neither was a good thing. Buck felt slightly sick to his stomach. "Chris?"
"What time is it in Germany?"
"Middle of the night."
"You mind telling me what's going on with Junior?" Buck prompted.
Chris blinked, came back. "Vin's at Landstuhl." He ran a hand through his blonde hair, setting it in unruly spikes. "He's . . . God, Buck. I don't know. All they said was that he was safe."
"Safe?" That was about as useful as them saying he was alive. "What the hell does that mean?"
Chris rose. "I don't know, but I'm going up to see Orrin. Maybe he can pull a few strings in DC and find out what's going on." He brushed past Buck and out of the office, leaving Wilmington to deal with the questions the other team members were bound to raise.
Landstuhl Military Hospital
The nurse looked in on the sleeping man in the private room. He hadn't moved, and if it weren't for the steady beep of the monitoring equipment she would have been alarmed by his complete and utter stillness. The bag of IV fluid and antibiotics continued to drip and the bandage around his abdomen showed no signs of fresh bleeding or seepage from the infection that had been coursing through his body. He had arrived two days ago in dire condition, but was now out of immediate danger as long as the antibiotics continued to fight the infection. His fever had broken overnight and now what he needed was sleep, though judging from the thinness of his frame, more than a few good meals were in order once he woke. He was "John Smith" followed by his patient ID number, which meant he had lost dog tags, or more rarely, and more likely in his case, was one of those shadowy figures, non-military and clandestine, who occasionally showed up on her ward.
She sighed, and that slight sound caused the man to tense, his heart rate spiking briefly before exhaustion and medication sent him back into the abyss of sleep. As silently as she could, she came to the bedside, jotted a few notes to add to his chart and carefully pulled the covers over his shoulders. She had done her best to clean him up, but his hair was still long and tangled, his cheeks heavily bearded. He had come in apologizing for his unkempt appearance. So polite, she thought, despite being half out of his mind with fever and exhaustion. The scant information on his chart said that he was nearly thirty, but he looked like an exhausted child to her.
She'd been at this job for a long time; had nursed her share of young men and women back to health and had eased more than a few of them from one life to the next. She had shed her tears over those and then had gone back to work. She was due to retire in less than a month; had a nice part-time job lined up at a family health clinic in the town where she had been born. Meanwhile, this one . . . this young man . . . was going to have to live because she'd seen enough of death.
Orrin Travis was a man with a lot more to deal with than a riled-up Chris Larabee. The ATF agent had barged into his office over the objections of Gloria Potter, his secretary, and in the middle of a phone call. One look from Travis and Chris's tirade died on his lips. He sat down and waited, one leg jittering nervously and his hands clasping and unclasping. He looked at his watch. What time was it in Germany? Eleven? Midnight?
He looked up as Travis hung up the phone. It had seemed to be a pretty one-sided conversation with Travis supplying a lot of one syllable responses to the person on the other end. The AD took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. His eyes narrowed as he studied Chris. "You heard?"
"About Vin? Yeah." He cleared his throat. "I'd like to fly over there tonight."
Travis shook his head. "Sorry, Chris. It's not going to happen." He raised his hand, forestalling Chris's angry reply to that statement. "You and I will be on a plane all right, but not to Germany. We have a meeting . . . at Langley. No excuses."
"Is that what Vin is? An excuse?" Chris's voice was low and dangerous, all the suppressed anger of the last few hours rising in an overwhelming wave. "I think you owe him more than that."
"Those weren't my words," Travis said tersely. "They were my orders and like it or not, they were yours, too. If you take issue with that, then you aren't the man I hired for this job."
Chris looked at him, his green eyes nearly black with emotion. He wasn't in the mood to match Travis angry word for angry word. He would have walked out on that, but then he thought of what he owed Travis, what he owed his team, and Vin. "I'm the same man, Orrin. But the job's not the same."
Travis went to the window and looked out at the skyscrapers, seeing his mind's eye two other skyscrapers, smoke billowing. "Neither is the world. Vin knew that." He turned back to Chris. "Whether or not you believe me, I tried to talk him out of taking that assignment. I told him I'd work it out, but he wasn't having any part of it. He said he had a few debts to pay, whatever that meant."
"I don't know. He wouldn't talk to me," Chris said. His anger was fading; hard to sustain in the face of what Travis had said. "That doesn't change the fact that he's in Landstuhl and all we know is that he's "safe," whatever the hell that means."
Travis could seen the frustration bunching the muscles in Larabee's shoulder and back. He could sympathize. Langley was the last place he wanted to be, but he had no choice, either. He could, however, do something for the team of men he'd come to think of being his sons.
"Tell Buck that I'll have his plane ticket to Germany in an hour. Tell him to bring that boy home."
They might not be the words Chris wanted to hear, but they were better than he had any right to expect. He wanted to thank Orrin, but his throat was suddenly paralyzed. He stood, held out his hand to Travis. He managed to rasp out a thank you, then went to give the team the news.
Buck Wilmington stretched out his legs and adjusted his seat, grateful that the Travis had pitched in from his own pocket to buy an upgrade to business class from coach. The flight from Denver to New York was bad enough. To have crammed his tall frame into coach during the flight to Frankfurt would have been nothing short of torture. Maybe Travis had been feeling guilty about whisking Chris away to DC instead of putting him on the flight to Frankfurt; whatever the reason, Buck was happy to be the recipient of Travis's generosity.
He took out the folder Travis had given him before he left. Procedures. Buck had been a Navy SEAL, he knew the military. There were procedures on how to follow procedure; a process that had become painfully complicated since 9/11. Buck had credentials and clearances up the wazoo, thanks to Orrin; all rushed through secret channels that he didn't want to know about, like this business with Vin . . . so dark that the dreaded words "black ops" had been floating at the edge of every transaction.
Jesus, Vin. How the hell had you ever gotten roped into this? Buck wondered. Maybe he'd find out, maybe not. What was important was bringing Vin home to the people who cared about him not about what he could do with a sniper rifle in his hands.
"Can I get you something to drink?" The flight attendant hovered at his shoulder.
"How long before we land?" Buck asked.
"Five hours." She smiled. "A long way."
"Jack Daniels on the rocks." Buck smiled back and the attendant blushed as she poured him his drink. "Going to Frankfurt on business or pleasure?"
"Business. All business."
"Too bad. I've got a few days layover," she said hopefully.
Buck eyed her regretfully. She was a full-figured blonde with wide blue eyes and a mouth made for kissing. Just his type. He shook his head. "Sorry, sweetheart. Any other time but this."
She shrugged. "Your loss." And moved on to the businessman in the seat in front of his where she went into her spiel.
Buck decided she really wasn't his type after all. He slid the folder back into his briefcase and locked it. He kept it on his lap as he reclined his seat and closed his eyes.
Landstuhl Military Hospital was a large medical complex, white and modern as any hospital stateside. Buck looked at the envelope in his hand. It contained a reservation confirmation in one of the Fisher House residences set aside as temporary housing for families and recovering military personnel. Seeing as those were usually booked, particularly in time of war, Buck wondered who had pulled those strings; that went beyond Travis's influence and into the realm of real power. Mighty high flying for somebody like Vin.
Buck checked into the residence. The rooms were comfortable, not fancy. The residence was a bit like a clean family motel. The halls were active - soldiers on crutches or bandaged, in various stages of recovery, walked with family members and friends. Buck had been in Landstuhl before; once as a patient, once accompanying Chris after he'd been wounded. Thankfully, they'd both recovered completely with only a few interesting scars which Buck, at least, had used to great effect with the fairer sex. That brought a smile to his face until he saw a soldier on crutches, his eyes bandaged, being helped down the hall by a young woman, obviously his wife. Tears fell silently down her cheeks, and Buck wished there were something he could say to comfort her. Instead, he stood and saluted the soldier as they passed. Rank didn't matter. Honor did. The young woman gave him a tremulous smile and a nod as they passed. "Thank you," she mouthed to him, moved by his compassion and his respect.
He made his way to the hospital proper and after showing his credentials to the security guards was directed to an elevator which took him to the floor where Vin was a patient. There was another security check at the Nurses' station, then the senior nurse on duty introduced herself.
"I'm Major Noreen Smith. That patient is one of my boys." Her green eyes took his measure. "You aren't here to pester him, are you?"
Pester. A polite way to say debrief. "No, ma'am. I'm a friend, that's all."
"A friend. Good. I think he could use one right now."
"How is he?" Buck asked. He didn't try to hide his concern from the nurse.
She studied him briefly and he thought she could be Larabee's older sister, so alike were their green gazes. "I can't tell you details, Mr. Wilmington," she scolded. "You know that. But I can show you."
"May I see his doctor? I have this . . ." He handed her a letter with a temporary power of attorney assigning him NoK status. As soon as he returned stateside, that would revert back to Chris, but for now it would enable the doctor to give him an update on Vin's condition.
Noreen read the letter. "I'll give this to the doctor, but before I do, I'll take you to him."
"Can he have coffee?" Buck asked.
She raised her eyebrows. "Decaf."
"Shit. Bet Junior loves that," Buck murmured.
"Junior?" Noreen stopped in her tracks. Junior was not a name she would have associated with the silent man in her care, but who knew?
"Oh. They don't give us their names," she said. "Not until they're cleared."
She paused in front of a door and quietly opened it. The room was dim. The patient in the bed was nearly invisible beneath a heap of blankets. Buck grinned, that much hadn't changed. He waited in the door until Noreen checked Vin's vitals and made a few notes on his chart.
"Do you want me to wake him?" she asked.
Buck went into the room. Even in the dim light he could see how thin and worn Tanner looked. His fingers were clutched tightly around the blankets, tense even in sleep. Buck sighed. "No, let him be. I'll just sit here 'til he wakes up. You got any real coffee around?"
"I think I can manage that." She started to leave, then stopped. "I'm glad, you know, that he has somebody . . . a friend . . . not just a . . ." She couldn't find the word, so Buck supplied it.
An aide came in a few minutes later with a large mug of coffee. Buck sat and drank it slowly, hoping the caffeine would kick in before he fell asleep in the surprisingly comfortable chair. Fifteen minutes later, he was out.
Noreen came back in, looked at the two men and covered Buck with an extra blanket. She closed the blinds against the invading western sun. Let them sleep, they'd earned it.
Despite the closed blinds, one errant beam of light sneaked through the slats and fell across Vin's eyelids. He turned his head away; wanted to slip back into oblivion but a soft, familiar rasp of a snore kept eating at his subconscious until he unwillingly opened his eyes. Even then, he wasn't quite sure that he wasn't still dreaming.
"Buck?" he whispered, not quite believing his eyes. They had him on so many damn drugs he wouldn't discount hallucinations.
Buck startled slightly, blinked then turned to Vin, smiling. "Hey, Junior. It's jet lag, not the company."
"Hell, watchin' me sleep ain't 'xactly thrillin' work."
"Son, bein' alive is a thrill," Buck grinned.
"Hell, I reckon I must be most thrilled fella around." Vin pushed himself upright with a grimace of pain. "Why're ya here, Buck?"
"According to Travis, I'm here to bring you home." Buck expected a smile, a grin, even a sigh, not the dead silence that greeted that message. He didn't expect Vin to shake his head.
"I ain't goin' home, Bucklin. I ain't done what I's tasked to do."
"Son, you look like ten miles of bad road. Ya damn near died of some Godawful infection, you're so skinny ya ain't hardly a bump on that bed. You ain't goin' back out there."
The wheedling tone in Buck's voice irritated Vin like sand blown into a hundred cuts. "Git out, Buck. I'm tired." He turned his back, obdurate and stubborn as only a Texan could be . . . as only Vin could be.
Buck rubbed his eyes. Jet lag was a bitch. He stood up, set a hand on Vin's unyielding shoulder. "I reckon we're both tired, son." Anything else would have been pointless.
Noreen was standing in the hallway, a tray of meds in her hand. She tilted her head to look up at Wilmington. "You look like you've run into a brick wall," she observed.
"Hell, he just looks like a feather," Buck smiled. "I'll be back in the morning. Maybe I'll be tougher and he'll be in a mood to listen to some sense." He gave her a nod, brief, courteous and familiar.
"Mr. Wilmington, were you in the military?" she asked.
"SEALs. A long time ago."
Noreen appraised him head to foot. "Not all that long ago," she teased. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Buck, to his utter astonishment, blushed. "Yes, ma'am. Before I go, is that doc around?"
"Ask for Dr. James Wilson. The nurse at the desk will page him for you."
The next morning, Buck called Chris. Mid-afternoon in Denver, barely sunrise in Germany, but he had been up since 3am. Damn jet lag was bound to catch him sooner or later. And as soon as his body adjusted, he'd be likely on his way home. Maybe.
Buck winced. That gravel in Chris's voice wasn't a good thing to hear. "Chris," Buck took a breath, but before he could speak, Chris broke in.
"Talk to me."
"First, Vin's all right. He has an infected knife wound in his side - guess he got into a tussle - then the damn truck he was riding in got a flat and overturned, knocked him around pretty good, bruised him up. That's the worst of it. The unit that found him took him to a CSH*, first; they figured he needed time outta the zone, so they shipped him off here. At least that's the official story. He's exhausted, run down. When you get right down to it, I've seen him in worse shape."
"What aren't you telling me?"
Buck sighed. "He doesn't want to come home."
Uncharacteristic silence. "Tell him he's got orders."
"Chris, that dog won't hunt. He knows he won't have orders until he's debriefed and off meds." More silence and Buck had a mental image of Larabee running his fingers through his blonde hair. "Give me a few more days. Junior's got a powerful sense of duty and I reckon he's working things through."
"I'll talk to Travis. We're leaving for DC in three hours. Keep me posted."
"He'll be all right, Chris."
"I know. Just bring him home, Buck."
They hung up. Buck lay back on the bed, suddenly feeling all the jet lag and responsibility weighing like bricks on his chest. He fell asleep and didn't wake up until noon.
He'd drifted a long time. Vin wasn't sure of much, but he was sure of that. Time had flowed past like a river leaving him behind. He had a vague memory of being in a village, of walking through a narrow alley between two houses and of a man coming from the shadows, a knife in his hand. He'd been in trouble before then, run down and feverish, not sure now why he had gone into a place that all his warning bells should have been sounding like claxons. He'd remember in time . . . hopefully, there had been a reason other than blind stupidity. Then there was that damn truck . . . Right now the drugs they had given him had taken reality away. He looked up at the IV and tubing. First to go would be the sedatives. He rang for the nurse.
She had green eyes like Chris Larabee and the same "up your ass" attitude. She wore bars on her uniform shoulders and her nametag read "Major Noreen Smith."
Vin looked up at her hopefully. "Think ya could get me off some of these meds?" he asked. "I'm fine."
"Really? How fine?"
"Hell, I slept most a' the time since I got here, and I'm tired of sleepin'."
"And . . ."
"There ain't nothin' wrong with my legs far as I c'n see. And I'll eat and drink whatever ya give me."
"You're on IV antibiotics for another two days."
Vin sighed. "No more drugs than that. Don't need 'em."
"I don't bargain with my patients."
"Will ya talk to the doc?"
She smiled at the hopeful look in his eyes. He seemed lucid, rested. Aside from that edge she'd seen in him, he looked harmless. Looks were deceiving. She knew better than to let her patients self-diagnose. "I'll talk to the doctor. If he gives the okay, I'll have a tray of food sent up to you."
"Bacon and eggs?" he asked.
"You got it."
She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Don't push your luck."
He fell back against the pillows, supposing he should be grateful for small favors. It seemed he'd been grateful for small favors since he'd been born. For the small favor of having a mother for five years and his grandfather for six more. For escaping from the clutches of people who believed he didn't have a future beyond mopping halls in a school. For being picked up off the streets by two good cops, and for a life in the army that was better than any home he'd had in the past. On second thought, maybe that was a big favor. Then there was the ATF . . . a major favor beyond mere gratitude.
So, he had reasons to live. Fine. He wasn't anywhere near death. He'd been there before. The door opened. He hoped it was breakfast. It wasn't. Three men, one in uniform, one not. One in a white coat. Not the doctor he remembered. He should have known once he'd come to his senses that debriefing would follow. Maybe they'd treat him more like a human being and less like a pariah once they'd emptied his brain.
Two hours later, Buck arrived to find three strangers in Vin's room and the pale, wide-eyed sharpshooter looking like he'd jump out of the window rather than answer one more question. Buck would have burst into the room, but the bird colonel shot him a glare and ordered him out. Buck wasn't fool enough to cross that line alone. He backed out into the corridor.
There was a tray of food next to the door; three cold strips of bacon and two eggs in a pool of congealed grease. Damn. They'd been in there long enough. He went to the nurses station. "Is Major Noreen Smith around?" he asked the ward secretary.
"I can page her," The girl said helpfully. She would have done a lot more to keep him happy. A man that good-looking didn't come around every day. Buck rewarded her with a smile, even though inside he was about to boil over with anger. To release some of that anger, he paced, his long legs taking three strides to cover the floor from the nurses station to the window and back.
"Whoa!" Noreen Smith caught his arm. "Mr. Wilmington, ease up!"
Buck stopped abruptly, bringing Noreen to a halt with him. "Who let those guys in?" demanded.
Noreen threw up her hands. "Not my call! Listen you know how it works. Debriefing is mandatory -- "
"The only thing that should be mandatory is getting that boy well. He deserves better than the third degree before he even has a chance to eat a decent meal."
Her eyes narrowed. "I sent breakfast."
"That breakfast is now a puddle of cold grease outside his door! That damn bird colonel didn't even give him a chance to eat it before they started firing questions and right now, your patient looks like he's about ready to fly apart. So, if you've got any pull at all around here, get them outta there, or I'll do it for ya."
"Nice to see you exercised restraint," Noreen joked briefly, then told the secretary to page a different doctor to meet them at Vin's room. "Come on, we'll see if I can't get those guys out of there. And if we can't, Major Nelson will."
Major Nelson met them at the door. He was a tall, serious man with a set to his jaw that would brook no interference with himself or his patients. He knocked peremptorily at the door then shoved it open without waiting for a response. Five minutes later, three men marched out of the room, none of them looking happy. Dr. Nelson was fiddling with an IV line and Vin was laying back on the pillows, pale as the linens. There was a fine, visible tremor in his hands, nothing Buck had ever seen there before. He cursed the debriefing team. They were supposed to decrease the stress of re-entry, not exacerbate it.
Dr. Nelson came over to Buck. "Mr. Wilmington, I'm sorry about this. Somehow the approval for the debrief didn't cross my desk."
"It happens. Not often. Their needs become more important than the welfare of the subject."
"That boy in there ain't a 'subject.' He's one of the best men I've ever known. He's my friend and team member. And the only reason I'm here is to bring him home, outta this hell to the people who don't think of him as a fucking number or a 'subject,' like he's some sorta specimen under a microscope!"
"Leave it, Buck!" Vin whispered from the bedside. "I'm all right."
Buck pushed past the doctor. "That's just it. You ain't all right." He looked down at Tanner's fine-boned face, cheekbones like carved ivory beneath his skin. The fading tan from months in the high-altitude sunlight left him looking sallow and ill. "You ain't," Buck's voice dropped. "Give it up, son."
Vin shook his head and turned away from Buck. "I'm tired."
Buck looked to the doctor who set a hand on his shoulder. "I've given him a sedative. Let him sleep for a few hours. Get something to eat and catch a nap. Jet lag's a bitch." He smiled slightly. "He won't go anywhere."
"Yeah, that's my problem. He won't go anywhere. Not even home." He gave Vin one last look before he decided that Dr. Nelson's suggestion made sense. No use coming at Tanner tired and angry. He could outwit you faster than Ezra could deal cards.
Vin woke feeling muzzy and dry-mouthed. Damn drugs. He sat up, pushing his tangled hair from his face. He wanted a glass of cold water and a hot shower more than he'd ever wanted a drink in his life. He was tethered to the damn IV pole, but he felt pretty steady on his pins and figured he wouldn't topple over in a naked heap on the bathroom floor. He just wanted to feel human again. Like Vin Tanner, not like any of the other personas he'd created over the last three months. If he could just have five minutes of that, maybe he'd be able to put the fractured pieces of himself back together.
First things first. He rang for a nurse. When the woman he remembered entered the room, she was smiling. "You look better," she said. "The sleep was good for you."
"A shower would be better," he suggested. "Think that's a possibility?"
"Let's get you on your feet, first."
He swung his legs off the bed and stood. "Nothin' wrong with m'legs." He took a few paces, turned and paced back. "See?"
"You heal fast."
"Always have. How about that shower?"
Noreen picked up the phone and dialed a number, all the while wondering how somebody so young knew he healed fast. She'd seen her share of soldiers, but this man's scars were older and hard won despite his youthful appearance.
After a brief conversation, she hung up. "You win." She went into the bathroom and turned on the water, then came out and unhooked his IV, carefully taping it to keep water out. "You're free for fifteen minutes before I have to hook up the antibiotics again. Everything you need is in the bathroom; soap and shampoo; though you'll have to use an electric razor later, or have the barber shave you. There's a call button in there if you need anything else or assistance."
"Nah, I'll be fine."
"Don't let pride get in the way," she added severely.
"No, ma'am," he said and gave her a salute. When she had left the room, he stripped and stood under the steaming water, scrubbing down and washing his hair. When he had finished, he let the water stream down his body, as if it could wash away the past three months as it washed him clean. He considered ignoring the knock on the door when his fifteen minutes were up, but he obeyed reluctantly. No sense in abusing privileges. He could always beg another shower later. After months of quick, cold-water washes and a brief lukewarm shower grabbed when he'd been picked up by a field unit, nothing felt better than the luxury of unlimited shower time with real soap and shampoo. He scoffed a bit at himself for having gotten so soft. He flexed his arm; the muscles were still iron-hard, the rest of him pared down to sinew, muscle and bone. He could run miles over rough terrain, climb mountains, lie still for hours - days - if that was required of him. Damnit, he could still do the job! Weren't no reason to send Buck Wilmington to bring him home like he was some sort of sorry refugee.
A second, more insistent knock, and he turned off the water with a savage jerk. "I'm done. Hold yer horses," he grumbled. He wrapped himself in a towel and opened the door.
Buck Wilmington was standing there, holding clean pajamas and a robe. "You lookin' for these?"
Vin snatched them away. "Be out in a minute." He retreated back inside, wiped the steam from the mirror and stared at the reflection, startled by the changes. He looked as wild as any tribesman he'd seen the last three months; long-haired, sharp-featured, eyes narrowed and mouth drawn hard. Dark shadows bruised his eye sockets, deep lines bracketed his mouth, and his cheeks were hollow beneath a heavy stubble of beard. Jesus, no wonder he had everybody spooked. He'd given himself a good start right then. Was this what Buck had seen? The stranger who wasn't the same man he'd left at the airport in Denver? The man who was Vin Tanner? Times were he scarcely remembered being that man, much less looking like him. He turned away from the reflection, dressed quickly and left the ghost in the mirror.
Buck was sitting by the window looking out. "Nice day," he said.
Vin sat down on the bed. "Cain't say I noticed." He didn't know what else to say. "Sorry about yesterday . . . still didn't feel real good, I guess." He sat Indian-style on the bed; he'd spent too much time hunkered down on his haunches. That's how the tribesmen settled around the fires at night: telling tales of the Great Game; names from the past - the mighty Alexander, Sher Ali Khan, Tamerlaine and the chieftains who had led them into battle. They spoke of them as if they still lived. And Vin, sitting in the moonlight in the high mountains of the Hindu Kush, had heard the whispers of the great armies passing in the night.
"Vin? You okay?"
He came back to reality. "Yeah. Just drifted there for a moment."
"Drifting like that could get you killed, son."
"Leave it, Buck," Vin said wearily. "I'm all right. Jist need a few more nights of sleep is all."
"We are gonna talk, Vin."
"How's Chris?" Vin evaded.
The stubborn set to his mouth made Buck give a grunt of exasperation, but he folded. "Harried. Worried. Angry most of the time."
"Hell, yeah. He spent a lotta time and effort putting his team . . . putting us together. Now Ezra's gone half the time, and you're off chasing terrorists. JD's bein' romanced by Homeland Security . . . We're all bein' ripped to hell. You bet he's angry."
"Sounds like even if I came back things wouldn't be the same," Vin said softly. "Some things are jist too good to last, I reckon."
Buck turned sharply and stood over him. "I'll tell you what lasts. Friendship. Strength. Somebody to watch your back when you need it."
Vin was silent. Buck's words caused an ache to rise in his chest and he placed his hand there as if it were an actual hurt, not a longing in his heart causing him pain. "Then it don't matter if I come back now or later."
"That isn't what I said!" Buck shot back. "Damn it, Tanner. What part of this doesn't make sense to you?"
"What about the part that says I swore an oath? An oath, Bucklin, to do my duty, to do my job."
"Who said it was your job to make it a personal crusade? You aren't the only sniper in the service, Vin."
Vin's eyes met his, hot and blue. "After 9/11, I thought it was a personal crusade fer all of us. I see it, Buck, see it in my mind every day - those towers fallin' like trees. And what if Orrin had been in DC, or Chris? Hell, ya been there, too, Buck. It was a crapshoot that on any given day we could'a been there. Ezra wouldn't give ya odds on it. Shit, I was in Boston . . . I could'a been on a plane with those Goddamned bastards!" He paused, choked with his own emotions as he rarely was. Buck handed him a glass of water and he drank, then finished with a sigh. "Yeah, maybe it is a personal crusade."
Buck laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Sometimes we forget that, I guess. Gets lost in the shuffle. It ain't like you can't do the job at home, though. Don't lose sight of that, Junior." He tightened his grip briefly. "Think on it."
Vin sank down against the pillows. Any color the heat from the shower had put in his face had faded and his eyes were weary. "Seems like I ain't got a choice, being stuck here with nothin' to do but twiddle my thumbs."
"I'll be back later. Maybe you can talk the nurse into letting you take a stroll outside."
Vin sighed. "Sounds good ta me. Thanks, Buck."
Noreen came in and hung a bag of IV fluid and antibiotics. "This has about 4 hours to drip. Dr. Nelson said that you can go on oral meds after that."
"Think I c'n take a walk outside with Buck once I'm freed up?"
"I think so." She smiled. "If you get some rest now." He closed his eyes obediently, and she sternly repressed an impulse to kiss the top of his head.
That look wasn't lost on Buck. He walked with her into the corridor. "He gets to you."
"Some of them do," she admitted. "It makes the job harder sometimes. That's one thing I won't miss when I leave. Did you have a hard time leaving the SEALs?"
"No. I followed the man who was my captain and my best friend. When he left, I just followed his lines of drift."
"Lines of drift?" she asked, a bit puzzled.
"A Special Forces term for what determines the paths we take."
Her pager went off and she sighed. "I have to get this. My own lines of drift," she said with a wry smile.
Buck held out his hand. "Just in case I don't see you again, thank you for taking care of my friend." She clasped his hand briefly, hard, then hurried off down the hall.
After Buck left, Vin called the PX and ordered jeans, three plain t- shirts, socks and athletic shoes. He called Buck and asked if he could pick the purchases up on his way to the hospital. Then he requested a barber to come and shave off his beard. He figured there was time to grow it back before he . . .
Before he what? He didn't know. Sometimes the future was like a great landscape spread before him, as if he were on the peak of a mountain looking down on the rivers, valleys, rifts in the earth, rocks and thickets. He could see the way the shadows lay, how the sun tracked across the earth, where the moon would shed its light. He saw the paths to take clearer than any map.
That's how it had been the first time he'd met Chris Larabee. He hadn't hesitated one second before finding his path and his place with the team of remarkable men Chris had assembled. For the life of him, he couldn't tell why he had chosen to leave that place he called home.
Or maybe he could: For duty, for honor, for country. To ransom with his own blood, if necessary, some of the lives that had been lost in the smoke and fires of 9/11. He hadn't had much to love in his life, but he loved his country. He loved freedom passionately; even if it was the simple freedom to work hard and have a beer with his friends. And that was worth dying for, he reckoned.
Buck found him shaved and waiting. He handed over the purchases. "Junior, you've got to wear the same size as the average population of this base. I had to beg to get these right off the truck."
"That's me, Joe Average," He took the clothes from Buck and went into the bathroom. When he came out, he was dressed. The jeans were loose; that figured with what he hadn't been eating for three months. The t-shirts were better. He didn't bother looking in the mirror before he turned off the light.
Vin slipped on the shoes. Bending over to tie them was another matter. He sat on the edge of the bed, trying to look casual. "Thanks, Buck. They feel real good."
"Question is, do you feel good enough to take that walk we talked about?"
"Hell, if I don't, ya c'n carry me back in."
It was the first glimpse of the old Vin Buck had seen since he arrived. It did his heart good. Without saying anything, he bent and tied the laces. "C'mon. Let's see how far you can get before I have to put you over my shoulder."
They went outside. Vin shielded his eyes briefly until they adjusted to the daylight. It was warm and they walked to a garden on the hospital grounds that Vin had seen from his window. It had looked like an oasis in a desert of concrete parking lots and the hospital buildings. There were a few benches there, nearly all deserted at this time of day. He and Buck took one far from the other occupied seats.
Vin slouched down, his arms folded across his thin middle as if protecting a wound. He tipped his head against the back of the bench and let the sun warm his face. The air had a very different quality than that where he had been; a gentleness despite the warmth, a rich taste of moisture in the back of his throat when he breathed.
Buck looked at the man next to him. How much had he changed? Not so much on the outside; hard to tell if it was deprivation, illness or a growing maturity that had carved his features into a less vulnerable appearance. His square jaw was a bit more chiseled and lines that hadn't been there before starred the corners of his eyes. There was a new scar like a half-moon over his left eyebrow and evidence of other injuries that would heal in time. He still looked too young to do what he had been doing; but then he always had.
It was the changes inside; the ones he couldn't see, that Buck feared. He took a deep breath. "Suppose you tell me why you can't go home with me," he said finally.
Chris Larabee threw his overnight bag on the bed, tore off his tie, and sank down on the bed. His head was throbbing with an incipient migraine despite the meds he'd taken before the plane landed. The trip to Washington had been a waste of time. No reason for him to have been there when there was a stack of files nearly a foot high on his desk at the office. And always, the thought of Vin at the back of his mind. He hoped Buck could solve the mystery of why Tanner felt he had to stay out there instead of coming home where he belonged.
He squinted at his watch. It was the middle of the night in Germany. No point in calling now. He felt gritty and hot, so he took a shower, hoping the cool water would put out the fires the seemed to be sparking along his nerves and aggravating the migraine. After, he dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and went out to his deck. Whiskey was out of the question, but he had a glass of ice water, and sipped it slowly as he watched the sun set. Eventually, the calm of the evening and the meds finally defeated the headache and the world came back into some sort of focus.
As twilight fell, he strolled down to the barn and looked in on Pony and Peso. They hadn't even known he was gone, but they still whickered at him as he entered. He went to Pony first; checked to see if the neighbor boy he hired had given him enough fodder and water. Peso, usually temperamental, actually seemed to welcome his presence. Chris stroked his nose. "You miss him, don't ya?" he whispered. "We all do. He'll be home soon. I promise."
He could only hope it wasn't an empty promise. Right now, he had no idea what would happen. Seems like it wasn't so very hard to see what lay before him: what had to be done, what was right and what was wrong. It was as clear as the way a river sliced through the land, heedless of obstacles, only knowing its way to the sea.
After a soup and sandwich supper, Chris settled on the couch with his laptop to do some work and ended up dozing off. When he woke, it was after midnight. He put the laptop aside and refilled his water glass. Then, restless and knowing that if he went to bed he'd only lie awake with worries chasing through his mind, he picked up the phone. It was early in Germany, but not too early to call. With some trepidation he dialed Buck's room at the guesthouse.
The operator broke into the call. "I'm sorry. There is no answer. How can I help you?"
"I was trying to reach Mr. Buck Wilmington."
"Yes, sir. Mr. Wilmington checked out an hour ago."
Shit. Chris rubbed his eyes. "Thank you." He hung up and dialed Buck's cell phone. Got his voice mail. "Buck, where the hell are you? Call me. I'll be awake." Just to insure that he wouldn't drift off again, he made a pot of strong coffee and went to work on the reports he should have finished earlier. All the while, his stomach was tying itself in knots.
He could have called the hospital, he knew, but it wasn't likely they'd give him any information about a classified patient at the facility. It seemed he had run into an obstacle in his lines of drift, and right now, he couldn't see a way around it.
Vin closed his eyes, then leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. He rubbed at a rough scab on the back of his hand for a moment as he tried to marshal his thoughts and gather his strength to control his feelings. How could he explain to Buck what he couldn't explain to himself as other than an inborn sense of honor? And even that was more than he would allow himself to say.
He sighed. "Told ya, Buck. I ain't finished. There's still work I need ta do."
"Don't you think somebody else c'n take it up? Y'ain't Superman, Vin."
"Well, shoot. Here I thought I could leap tall buildings in a single bound." He tried to joke, but his voice failed him. He struggled for a moment before he continued. "You and Chris were in the SEALs, Buck. If you were asked to do what I was, you'd do it without lookin' fer excuses."
"I don't think nearly dying counts as an excuse, son."
Vin gave a small, derisive snort. "Aw, hell. I been closer to dyin' than this, and you know it. This . . . this was jist a bit a' bad luck and a hit a' bacteria. Few more days and I'll be good as new."
"Yeah. Good as new on the outside. But what about in here?" Buck touched his own chest over his heart. "What does livin' like that do to a man? I won't ask what you've been doin', Vin. I figure I can guess as well as anybody. But I know you can lose yourself in it; in the hunt, the chase, the kill. Hell, I saw it happen to . . . to Chris." His eyes darkened at the memory. "He nearly didn't find his way back. What if you can't find your way back? I tell ya, it would kill Chris, and pretty much rip the heart out of the rest of us."
Vin squinted into the setting sun, trying to find the words to ease Buck's fears. He was touched by them, but he wouldn't allow himself the luxury of letting them influence his decision. "I been doin' this a while, Buck. First the Rangers, then bounty huntin' and the Marshals. You know I done my share with the team. Wasn't always the easiest but I'm here. I reckon I know how to find my way back." He straightened and met Buck's eyes. "I got work to do. When it's done. I'll be back. You tell Chris that."
"Tell me something, Vin. If Chris were here instead of me, would your answer be the same?"
Vin gave him a one-sided, wry smile. "Might be a bit harder with them laser-eyes starin' me down, but yeah, my answer would be the same."
Buck sighed and stood up. "Guess I'll be headin' home in the morning. C'mon, I'll walk you to your room just to make sure ya don't fall over on the way back."
Vin held out his hand and let Buck pull him to his feet. "Thanks, Bucklin."
"Hell, it's just about dinner time and I tell you, Junior, you can't afford to miss a meal."
They walked back to the hospital wing. Vin knew there were words to say, but he'd never been a man to talk much. He owed Chris an explanation that was more than a verbal message delivered by Buck. He'd work something out.
They ate together in the food court, Vin having been cleared for a regular diet. Buck kept him entertained with a steady stream of stories; Ezra's run of luck at the tables in Vegas, JD's romance with Casey Wells, Nettie's latest charity case - a cat with palsy that she called her "weeble." Nathan and Rain's decision to buy some land outside the city for the family they were looking to start. All the homey details of the lives they had tried to carve out for themselves despite the job.
"What's Chris been doin'?" Vin finally asked. "Y'ain't said much about him."
Buck wiped his mouth and sat back in his chair. "Hell, he's the man with all the folders piled up on his desk like some sort of fort. He stays late, sometimes on that damn spine-bending couch of his, sometimes with me and JD. Weekends, when he has them, he goes home."
"Don't sound like much of a life," Vin sighed. "He ought to . . ."
"Yeah, he ought to, but he won't. It ain't like it used to be, Vin."
Vin looked up, past Buck's shoulder. "My comin' back ain't gonna change much."
Buck smiled. "Might make it more tolerable."
"Mizry loves company, right?" Vin shredded his napkin. "I'll be back. Won't be long. That's a promise you can take to Chris. It's the best I c'n do."
Buck would have said, "You could get on the plane with me," but he didn't. There was a set to Tanner's jaw and a sad, but determined expression in those blue eyes that gave him pause. Instead he said, "Then do your best." He stood up and held out his hand. "And come back home."
Vin gave him a brief nod. "You bet."
"Naw, that's Ezra." Buck grinned as Vin shook his hand. There was strength there that surprised him. Just yesterday Tanner had looked like death warmed over. Now it seemed that death was the one left out in the cold.
After he said his farewells to Buck, Vin sat on his bed, staring into the growing darkness. He didn't believe in looking into the future; not a day, not an hour, maybe a minute if he had to mark out a shot in his head. But that wasn't really the future - that was his job.
But if he could allow himself the luxury of imagining his future, it wasn't going to end in the rocks and dust of the hell he'd been yanked from. He saw himself back on Chris's ranch, riding Peso, having a beer on the deck with the team, working with the others to bring down those who threatened the peace of his home and his country, and then sharing the satisfaction of knowing that they'd done that as a team. Hell, when he thought about it, even his sorry apartment in Purgatorio seemed to be welcoming.
He'd never had a place he belonged as completely as he did with Chris and the others. Everything else had been temporary: his childhood a dim memory, his youth a nightmare best forgotten. Even his military service had come to an end unexpectedly, with commendations and medals he had lost count of, including his last Purple Heart which represented an injury serious enough to qualify him for a medical discharge. He wasn't selfish enough to risk the lives of others to prove that he could fight his way back to peak condition and he was too damn stubborn to take a step back, so he took the honorable discharge and moved on.
He had been lost for a while, then. Hunting bounties had left him feeling like he was swimming in dirty water, but had led to service with the Marshals, which he figured to be only temporary until something better came along. He had never expected that opportunity would have brought him to the place and the people he now called "home."
All his life he'd been following lines of drift; sometimes he wondered if it hadn't been the path of least resistance. His image in the mirror across from the bed was as dim and shadowy as a ghost's. How much of himself had he lost, he wondered. Did he fade a bit every day he was out there, bleached like the bones he had seen in the high mountain passes? Maybe Buck was right and this was something he had to let go . . .
But deep in his heart, he knew he couldn't. Not yet. There were debts to pay, and an oath of fulfill. He'd never been a man to put himself before his duty. It was the only way he believed he could expiate his sins and alleviate the weight of the lives he was responsible for ending. He couldn't leave that behind for his own desire. Vin reached over and turned on the light. When he looked in the mirror, his reflection was back in focus and the shadows had been banished.
He reached for the phone. It was 7am in Denver. Chris would be awake.
Chris stood on his deck, a mug of coffee in his hand and half-listening to the early news on the TV in the den. The sun was just coming over the mountainous terrain to the southeast, the high peaks to the west were still shrouded in shadow and the last stars glimmered on the horizon, fading as the sky lightened. He should have been on a plane to DC, but Travis had called in the middle of the night to tell him the trip had been cancelled. He didn't know if he should be relieved or furious.
Relieved, maybe. Until the phone rang. He snatched it up. "Larabee."
The connection wavered a bit. "C-Chris?"
He sat down hard on the top step of the deck, as if his legs had given way. "Vin?"
"Y-yeah. You okay, Chris? Ya sound funny."
"Haven't had coffee yet." Lame excuse if he ever had made one, but he heard Vin's low chuckle over the static on the line. "This is one hell of a lousy connection. Where are you? Where's Buck? If he's there, remind him that there is such a thing as voice mail." He didn't bother to hide the irritation in his voice from Vin.
"Buck's on his way back t'Denver, I reckon." He hesitated. "I'm still at Landstuhl."
Chris closed his eyes and leaned his head against the hard wood spindles of the stair rail. "Why?"
"IV antibiotics," he said.
"You'll have to do better than that."
"I got a few loose ends to wrap up," Vin answered. "I jist need t'do my job."
"Haven't you done it?" Chris asked, trying to control his rising anger. "It seems to me you've done it twice over."
"All that means is I didn't get it right the first two times." There was more silence before Vin spoke again; softly but clearly over the static. "I gotta go back. It's callin' me, Chris. I still got a part to play, I can feel it." There were a few seconds of silence before Vin spoke again. "Chris . . . what I said b'fore I left, those were jist words."
"Even the part about me being a 'controlling bastard?'"
Vin's wince was nearly visible. "I was all het up. Ya know I got a temper in me when I let it go. 'Sides, I met yer folks. I know y'ain't a bastard."
Chris laughed. "But I am controlling?"
"Hell, yeah. Reckon that's what makes ya good at yer job. It's why yer the boss. Yer also the best friend I ever had, and I know that ain't about control, Chris."
There was a longer silence while Chris drank coffee and tried to find an answer to that. He wished he had the control and the power to order Vin home. When he failed on both counts, he closed his eyes. "Do what you've got to do, Vin."
"Might take a while."
"My mortgage has about twenty years to run," Chris said. "I'm not going anywhere."
There was a ghost of a laugh across the wires. "Then I guess I c'n find my way home. See ya, cowboy."
"See ya, partner."
And that was it. Silence on both ends of the line. Chris turned off the phone, drank his now cool coffee and went inside to get ready for work.
Three Months Later
Vin was just another passenger on a crowded flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver. Nobody pointed at him, nobody asked questions other than what he wanted to drink, nobody thought his tan had come from anywhere but a golf course in Carolina. The freedom to be anonymous was a wonderful thing, something the people sitting around him probably didn't give a thought to until they handed their IDs to airport security, or heard some news anchor going on about the erosion of their right to privacy. They still had more freedom than most. Once that ID was back in their wallets, nobody cared.
Vin tipped his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. With all the globetrotting he'd done the last few years, he ought to be used to flying; but that moment when the earth dropped away and he was isolated in that metal tube with a hundred other people still made his stomach cramp. Once he heard the seat belt bell chime off, he reclined his seat slightly and prepared to wait out the long flight to Denver.
"Are you feeling all right?"
Vin sat upright. The voice was familiar. He turned to his fellow traveler. Once he had realized that the woman to his left was no threat to him or anybody else, he'd let her be, though he wondered if she remembered him. She must've seen hundreds of soldiers in and out of Landstuhl. Dressed in jeans and a sweater he was just another passenger; no reason for her to connect that man to the sorry sight he'd been when she'd first seen him. "Sorry, ma'am. I'm fine. Don't much like flyin', is all."
"Do you remember me?"
He smiled. "I sure do, Major Smith."
She laughed. "Just Noreen. I've been civ for a good two months. I'm heading to California to see my sister."
"I'm goin' home, myself."
"Good." She appraised him. "I don't suppose you got that tan in Arizona."
Vin blushed. "No, ma'am. Though I reckon I was in the desert right 'nough." It was all he said.
She touched his arm. "Thank you."
"For doing what you do."
He shook his head. "There's a sayin', ma'am. 'We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.' I'm jist one of those rough men."
She recalled how he had looked in the hospital; nearly broken, shaking with a fever and chills. Just a fragile human being. "Not so rough," she said.
"Ya seen me on my best behavior, ma'am," he quipped. He kept his voice light. He didn't want her, or anybody else, to see what he could be, what he had been for the last three months. Death was on his hands. He'd breathed it, felt its cold power coursing through him like wolf scenting blood. He'd been yanked out before he wanted, but in time to save some part of himself. He had tried to fight the brass, but they said "enough was enough" and if he was too blind to see it, they weren't. It had taken two weeks of intense debriefing before they'd even let him out of their sight. And another ten days until they'd deemed him safe to go out into the world. Meaning, the world was safe from him. He'd given them enough blood and enough intel to keep them busy for a while, so they finally cut him free to go home.
He shook himself out of that thought and turned back to Noreen. "Ya got nieces and nephews out there in California?" His smile was so charming that she scarcely noticed the transition from what he had done, to what she was doing.
So, she talked about her nieces and nephews. About how odd it was to be a civilian, and a few funny stories that made him smile again. She would be starting her new job when she got back from California, and these were the first holidays she'd spend with her family in about 5 years, ever since 9/11.
Vin nodded. "I reckon I know how that is, ma'am."
"Do you have family?" she asked.
"Not blood," he admitted. "But I got friends. I'm real lucky like that."
"If they're anything like Mr. Wilmington, then you are lucky."
Vin laughed softly. "Buck? Oh, ma'am, Buck is a story all to himself. But, yeah, I guess they're all like him one way or another."
"You're going home, then?"
"Yes, ma'am. I am. Almost fergot I had one. But unless the building burned down, I figure it'll still be there. Ain't much. Sure ain't fancy." There were things he wouldn't say: that he could lock the door at night and sleep. That he could wake up in the morning and stand under that shower until the water ran cold if he wanted. That he could go out with his friends and have a beer and never once wonder which one would turn on him.
The noise of the wing flaps jolted him out of his thoughts. He could see the glow that was the Denver suburbs through the corner of the window. "Looks like this is my stop."
"I don't often get the chance to see former patients," she said. "This was nice."
"Ya took good care of me, ma'am." His blue eyes crinkled a bit. "Not that I don't think ya do the same for everybody." He held out his hand. "My name's Vin. Vin Tanner. Since yer civ now, no harm in knowin' that."
Noreen smiled and shook his hand. "Vin, let's just say that I wouldn't want to spend two hours in close quarters with everybody." She touched his hand. "You take care and find your way home to those friends of yours."
"Yes, ma'am. You give those nieces and nephews of yours big hugs." He cocked his head. "Little ones like that."
The plane taxied to a full stop as he spoke. He pulled his small carry-on from the overhead compartment. "Have a safe trip."
"I will." She watched him exit to the jetway and pondered the twists of fate that had set him next to her. Once in a while you met somebody who left you breathless and amazed that such people existed in the same world you did.
It was what made their lives worth saving. It was what made your life worth living.
Buck's cell phone rang as he was riding the elevator down to the garage. He didn't even glance at the number, just flipped it open. "Wilmington." There was a lot of static on the line, so he stepped out in the first floor lobby. "Sorry. Lost you for a bit."
"Like 'bout five months?" The familiar voice rasped in his ear.
"Yeah. Listen, Buck. You alone?"
"Just me and about 50 people in the lobby. If you mean if I'm alone, yeah." Buck looked around as if Chris or the others would suddenly materialize.
"I'm at Stapleton. You mind givin' me a ride?"
"What's the big secret?" Buck asked.
"I jist . . . Hell, I don't want no welcome home party. JD with balloons an' all. Ya know?"
Buck laughed. "He's a little past that, but, yeah, I know."
"I mean, I'm okay. I ain't got scars that're gonna scare anybody, and the docs in DC gave me the green light to come home."
"Junior, you don't hafta explain. But you sure you don't want me to tell Chris?"
"Nah. Jist take me out to the ranch. My jeep's there, anyway." A soft sigh came over the air. "I jist want to be home. Take a few deep breaths."
"I'm on my way." Buck closed the phone. He didn't know why Vin was so diffident about letting the others know he was on his way home, but he respected the quiet sharpshooter, and if Vin wanted low-key, then Buck would make damn sure that's how it would be.
He pulled up at the arrivals terminal. There were people milling around, but standing there like the calm center, was Vin. Buck wondered how he did that. The people just eddied around him like water, as if there were an unseen perimeter drawn around Tanner where he stood. Buck sounded the horn, and Vin nodded at him, shouldered his carry on and picked up a larger duffel. Buck released the back hatch of his Bronco and Vin piled his luggage inside, shut the gate and slid into to passenger seat.
Vin sighed and tipped his head back against the seat. "Been a long day."
"Hell, Junior. It's been a long time."
"You tell anybody?"
"Good." Vin closed his eyes and was silent.
"You do know Chris will be out there, right?" But there was no response. Either Vin really was out like a light, or he just didn't want to talk. Buck gave him a sideways glance as he drove, trying to see what needed to be seen. Tanner never was much for talking about how he felt, physically or emotionally. If you got too close, he'd just shut down like some shutter was drawn over those blue eyes.
Buck shook his head. There wasn't anything overtly wrong with Tanner; nothing the doctors, shrinks of otherwise, felt needed special handling. But Vin had probably stone-walled them as well. Buck had seen him wound up, bled dry, pared near down to the marrow of his bones; pretty much nothing but scrap and mule-headed determination. Not too different than he was now. Buck gave up. No point in arguing or forcing the issue. Vin would let them know when he was ready in his own good time.
He turned the Bronco on to the highway and headed out to Chris's ranch as the sun sank lower in the sky, and Vin's breathing really did take on the rhythm of true sleep.
The sound of the Bronco's tires on gravel made Vin startle upright, his hand reaching for the gun that wasn't at his side. He sat blinking for a moment, heard Buck's soft, "Easy, son. You're safe," and sat back. He scrubbed sleep from his eyes and gave Wilmington a sheepish look.
"Sorry." He looked out of the windshield. It was twilight and he couldn't see much beyond a few hundred feet. The mountains were mist-shrouded and Vin lowered the window and sucked in a deep breath of air - so different than the air he'd been breathing for the last few weeks. The heat and humidity of Washington, the filtered air in the debriefing rooms. Oddly, though, it wasn't so different from where he had been before. The same dry, crisp, high country air. That was okay. He hadn't minded it much - only the reason he was there, and that was just his job. He shrugged off Buck's concern. "Guess I was out."
Buck drew to a stop. The front lights of the ranch were on and a curl of smoke from the chimney told him that Chris had lit a fire and was probably having a long whiskey and a solitary dinner. "You want me to stay?" he asked Vin.
He did. But part of him said that was a coward's way. "You mind if I said no?"
"You go ghosting in on Chris like you do and he's likely to have a heart attack or shoot you on sight."
Vin grinned crookedly. "Guess I'll take that chance." He opened the door and slid out, his boots barely making a sound even on the gravel. He stretched out the kinks in his back and waited while Buck popped the tailgate and took out his luggage.
"Sure about this?" he asked.
"Yeah. Thanks, Bucklin. I owe ya a big one."
Buck just looked at him. "You don't owe me anything, Vin. That's not how it works with friends." He hefted Vin's duffel and followed him to the doorstep where he set it down. "It's good to have you back safely," he said.
Vin shook Buck's hand and waited until Wilmington was in the truck with the motor running before he fitted his key in the lock and went inside. The house was silent, and Vin sensed the emptiness. He'd been acclimatized to being back in the world, but instinct, so long a part of him from his childhood, told him he was alone. He set his bags in the hall and went into the big den. The doors to the deck were open, the evening breeze chilly on his skin. There were lights on in the barn, and he figured that's where Chris was, with the horses. He hesitated going there. Instead, he sat down on one of the deck chairs, despite the chill. He didn't know what Chris would say. He didn't know what he would say to Chris. He could only wait and wonder where his lines of drift would carry him.
Chris came up the path from the barn, brushing the bits of hay from his jeans and denim jacket. He was tired, but no longer in the grip of that tight-wound exhaustion that dragged him down when he left the office. There was something about spending time in the barn with the horses that worked off that edge, leaving only a pleasant ache. He slept better, ate better, and faced the next day with strength instead of a hangover. A few years ago, he would have looked for strength in the bottom of a Jack Daniel's bottle; now he found it in his job, his team, his friends. Even without Vin . . . He stopped and hitched a hip on an old tree stump that he'd never ground out, and sat gazing to the far mountains. He wondered if Tanner were looking at different mountains in a different place. He wondered when he would be back.
Funny how that emptiness nagged at him. Every member of his team was important. God, if something happened to Buck, that alone would tear a hole in his heart. JD was like a younger brother to him, an annoying younger brother, but still like blood kin. Nathan and Josiah were the bedrock - solid and steady when the earthquakes of fate shook his world. Ezra . . . Ezra was the black sheep who made life a hell of a lot more interesting. But Tanner? Vin was the linchpin. The pivot point. He didn't know it, but he was the beating heart of them all. And that heart had been missing for too long.
His cell phone rang and he dug it out of his pocket. "Larabee."
He couldn't believe his ears. "Vin?"
"C'n you hear me all right?"
"Where are you? The reception's great."
A soft chuckle. "It ain't the wonders of modern technology. Turn around."
Chris turned slowly. A small rectangle of light shone from the deck through the twilight. Chris felt the ground beneath his feet solidly for the first time in months. He took a deep breath. "You're still a pain in the ass," he rasped.
"Well, did ya think I'd change?" The light disappeared as Vin closed the phone. Chris snapped his shut, pocketed it, and strolled up the path as if he'd just seen Tanner the day before.
Vin was sitting on the top step. When Chris stood at the bottom, he held out his hand and they clasped, palm to forearm, re-affirming the bond they had formed the first time they met. "Welcome back, partner," Chris said.
"Good to be back."
Chris studied him. The forearm beneath his fingers was rock-hard and striated with muscle, but there wasn't much flesh there. Tanner's features were chiseled and sharp; eyes a bit too shadowed, cheeks too hollow. "You look thin," he said, frowning.
"The docs in DC wouldn't have let me come home if I weren't fit," he insisted. "And hell, you'd be thin too if all ya had t'eat was rice 'n rotten goat fer too damn long."
Chris winced. "Been there a time or two myself," he nodded, but the frown of concern remained.
Vin arched a brow. "You ain't lookin' too fat these days either."
"I've been busy." Chris stuck his hands in his pockets. "You want big food?"
As much as Vin wanted to say he did, he shook his head. "Nah, cain't say my appetite's come back from where it's been. Could stand a beer, though."
"You cleared for that?"
"Yer worse than Nathan, Larabee. Yeah, I'm cleared. Finished my meds yesterday." The catalog of them left him a bit queasy. Antibiotics, anti-parasitics. Vitamins. Iron pills. Drugs to calm down his hyper-vigilant nerves, to help him sleep . . . he sighed. "I'm good, Chris. I ain't lyin'."
They went inside, Vin heading for the refrigerator behind the bar for a beer while Chris went to the kitchen to hunt up a meal. He heated up a rotisserie chicken, some canned biscuits and opened a jar of applesauce. He preferred salad, but he knew Vin wasn't keen on green vegetables and would just poke at the lettuce until it wilted into a limp green mass in the bottom of the salad bowl.
Even without the salad, Vin didn't eat much. Didn't say much, either. So Chris talked into the silences, filling them in with news of the others. As he recounted the stories, he realized how little they had changed over the months Tanner had been gone; he wondered how different Vin was. He had expected some of the physical changes. He'd been a SEAL long enough to understand the physical stresses of Special Forces assignments, and undercover enough to know the mental stress was every bit as daunting. But he'd never done what Vin did . . . hunt and stalk. One shot, one kill. It had to take a toll . . .
"I grow a third head'r somethin', Larabee?" Vin finally asked.
Chris realized he'd been staring; not at Vin, but almost as if he could see through him and found him impenetrable. "Sorry." He stood up, gathered the dishes. "You want coffee?"
"Hell, I ain't sleepin' worth the damn, anyway."
Chris shook his head and went into the kitchen. Vin settled back into the cushions on the couch. He was tired. He thought he could sleep on a rock now that he had a friend watching his back. Coffee wouldn't change that one way or another. He sighed. He knew Chris was holding back on the questions, but there was one that had to be answered, one that he wasn't sure he could answer with any certainty.
Chris came back with two mugs of coffee, cream and sugar. He set a mug in front of Vin and shoved the cream and sugar over. When Vin went straight for the black coffee, Chris narrowed his gaze. "You have changed," he said, almost like a challenge.
" 'Cause I ain't spoonin' in sugar?" Vin snorted. "Jist got used to not havin' it, I reckon. Didn't exactly have a bowl of it on the table where I been."
"I guess not." Chris sat back and stretched out his long legs. "Think you'll get used to it again?"
Vin shook his head. "Don't know. Seems kinda useless to git spoiled when I never know when they'll yank me again."
"Think they will?"
"Yeah," Vin whispered. "Wish t'God they wouldn't, but there it is."
"Travis could try to stop them."
Vin shrugged. "I don't wanta talk about that, Chris. I jist got home and they owe me some downtime." He shivered and held the mug cradled in his hands, absorbing the heat. It wasn't cold in the room, but a chill had settled in his bones. Too much time spent in the thin mountain air. Sometimes, he thought the cold would never leave him. It was in his heart like a splinter of ice.
"Why didn't you come home with Buck?" Chris finally asked. It was the question that had haunted him for months. He knew all the logical reasons: a job to do, an oath to fulfill, a task to be completed. Vin would have done anything for those reasons; but he wouldn't lie to Chris, and Chris knew it.
"Ya remember that phrase, 'lines of drift?'"
"Pretty hard to forget. I had it drummed into my skull training for the SEALs. 'The relationship between lines of drift and obstacles influences everything.'"
Vin nodded. "All my life I've been tryin' to follow lines of drift, and I kept runnin' into obstacles. But I could see those lines clear as day. Seems they was leadin' me to a time and place. I found it, Chris. Those lines led straight to this place. And damn, wouldn't ya know an obstacle was flung up with a vengeance on 9/11. I knew - I knew that I'd never find those lines of drift again 'less I chipped away at that obstacle 'til my fingers bled for tryin'." He took a breath. "I don't know how much sense this makes - I ain't exactly clear thinking' - but when Buck showed up offering' a free pass home, he was as much an obstacle as those towers fallin'. It was a shadow hiding' my lines of drift. I couldn't come home until I found 'em on my own."
"Did you find them?"
"I'm here, ain't I?" He sighed. "I did my best, Chris. And the lines led me home. Maybe they'll shift away again. But it ain't my wishing', Chris. Not my choice." He sat forward, his elbows braced on his knees, his head down.
Chris knew about that. His own lines of drift had led him down the road to heartbreak and grief. He'd asked himself a thousand times if he had a choice - to back off, to let somebody else handle that damned case, but he couldn't. He'd invested too much of his time, his career, his passion in the pursuit of justice. Sarah and Adam had paid the ultimate price for following that path. But honestly, he couldn't see, even now, that he'd had a choice. You could talk about free will all you wanted, but when your free will led you to take an oath, that oath became your path, your calling, your destiny.
Chris took a breath. "Yeah."
Vin turned his head, a smile twisting his lips, but understanding in his eyes. "How about somethin' stronger than a beer? Might as well drink to the job."
Chris got his bottle of sipping whiskey and two glasses. He splashed two fingers of whiskey into each glass and handed one to Vin. "To the job."
"Home." Vin's voice was a soft rasp in his throat.
Chris tilted his glass so that the rims chimed against each other. "Which ever way you get there."
It was fitting, Vin thought. Because the paths weren't always clear, or the roads clearly marked. More often than not there were obstacles thrown in the way, and the roads were drawn in blood and pain; but if you let yourself see the lines of drift, you just might find your way home.
Sequel: Shadow in the Moonlight
*Combat Support Hospital