Author's Note: This story takes place about three weeks after the ending of Lines of Drift. Like that story, it is dedicated to the men and women who are fighting for our freedom from terror. It is for the heroes we know, and the heroes, who like Vin, are usung and unknown - our Shadows in the Moonlight.
Main Characters: Vin, Chris, Josiah
Chris stood outside Josiah's door, his fist poised to knock. He let it drop to his side, his hand clenching and unclenching in nervous hesitation. He'd never hesitated to ask for Josiah's help before, but this was different, this was Vin, and he was at a loss as to who to turn to; nobody in official channels, that was for damn sure. That left Josiah . . . With that acknowledgment of his limited options, Chris steeled himself and knocked. The door was opened by a young man in a goth band t-shirt and black hair tipped with crimson. He didn't look like he trusted Chris.
"Yeah?" he said hesitantly, with a glance back into the hall, then another furtive look cast beyond Chris into the late afternoon light. "What d'ya want?"
Some manners would be nice, Chris thought, but that wasn't his concern. He just lifted a brow and met the boy's slightly hostile regard. "Is Josiah here?" he asked.
"You a cop?"
Chris shook his head. "No. I'm not selling anything, either."
The boy's mouth twisted in a grin as he took in Chris's charcoal grey suit and silk tie. "Didn't think so." He opened the door and stepped back, inviting Chris in.
"You sure you should let me in?" Some of the residents at the halfway house had less than savory acquaintances still out on the streets. Chris entered the hall, knowing that he could project an aura of power meant to intimidate an opponent, whether it be around a table of bureaucrats or an interrogation of a suspect. It reduced the kid to stammers.
"B-but . . ."
Chris showed his ATF badge. "I'm safe, but remember that the next person who knocks might not be legal, okay?" He hung his jacket up on the hall tree and knocked on the office door.
"C'mon in." Josiah looked up in surprise. "Thought I just left you at the office."
"I needed to talk to you away from the others," Chris said.
"Sounds serious." Josiah appraised him. He went to the table where he kept his coffeemaker and poured a mug. "Sorry, no whiskey on the premises."
"Do I look like I need it?"
"You sure you want me to answer that?" Josiah's expression was sad, not judgmental. Chris felt something in him unwind a bit.
"No. I guess I don't." He took the coffee, but didn't drink. He sat on the chair opposite Josiah's. "What I really need is some advice."
"I got that in unlimited quantities. I don't always have takers, though." He gave Chris a sympathetic look. "So . . .?"
Chris took a deep breath. "Vin's having nightmares."
"And you don't?"
Chris's hot green glare met Josiah's calm blue one. "Damn you."
"Brother, it comes with the territory. There isn't one of us who doesn't see things we'd rather not in our sleep."
"They sent him home. They said he was 'safe.'"
"Safe?" Josiah rubbed a hand over his forehead. "Safe to be out in public. Safe to walk the street without divin' into a doorway when he hears a truck backfire. Safe to keep himself from wrapping his fingers around the throat of next man in line at the bank who happens to speak Pashto or Dari into a cell phone . . . But not safe from his memories. You know that, Chris. He's only been back for three weeks. What he's been through . . . it's gonna take time to fade."
"I-I can't keep him out at the ranch, Josiah. He wants to go home and I can't think of one reason why he shouldn't. But when he wakes up hollering in God knows what language, what am I supposed to do?" Chris loosened his tie and opened the collar of his shirt to reveal angry red welts on his skin. "Last night. And I wasn't speaking Pashto - or any other of those damn languages he knows. All I did was go into his room when I heard him." He fell silent, seeing Vin's wild eyes, his heaving chest, the nearly lethal strike which Tanner had aborted only when Chris had slammed his slighter frame against the wall of the bedroom. Then he had collapsed with a moan to the floor, whispering, "Sorry, sorry . . ." until Chris had finally soothed him into silence much as he had soothed his son, Adam, following a night terror.
Josiah looked grave. "Chris, this isn't something I should be handling. He could have seriously injured you. Or worse."
"He didn't even come close! And even if he had, I wouldn't give him to those bastards in DC," Chris said. "They've done enough damage as it is without them poking around in his head, muttering psycho-babble about repressed memories and psychotic breaks. They'd nail him to the wall, Josiah, and then they'd lock him up in some damn facility until they were satisfied that he wasn't giving up national secrets. Don't ask me to do that."
Josiah closed his eyes. "You don't know that he'll talk to me."
"Josiah, we all talk to you one way or another," Chris said, "Come out to the ranch tomorrow, please." When Josiah gave him a pained look, Chris added, "For Vin. We owe him this. You owe him this."
Josiah couldn't argue with that. "I'll be there," he agreed. "You try to get some sleep tonight. I'll bet Vin has some sleep meds he's not taking. Make sure he does."
"How? Slip him a Mickey?" Chris grumbled.
"Whatever it takes, brother. Whatever it takes." He walked Chris out into the hall and retrieved his coat. "Seriously, you need to sleep as much as Vin does."
"I'm fi --" He broke off the standard answer when he saw Josiah shaking his head. "Yeah. Sleep. I'll just pencil that in on my calendar." Then with less acid in his voice, "Thanks, Josiah. Oh, you might tell these boys here that they need to be more careful about who they let in the door. Next time, it might not be me."
Josiah laughed. "Next time it's you, I won't let them answer the door! Seriously, I will talk to them. I seem to have instilled a powerful sense of security in them."
"Not always a bad thing," Chris smiled. "But a little fear of God wouldn't hurt, either."
Vin ran. Five miles to the turn off to the main highway. Five miles back. He could do more easily; twenty, maybe thirty, but he had things to do before Chris got home and one of them wasn't running the equivalent of the Boston marathon. After his run, he went to the barn and did chin-ups on a beam and sit-ups on the loft floor where the hay left itchy bits on his sweat-soaked back. Peso and Pony were watching him curiously. When he had finished his workout he gave them each a few treats; patted them, talked to them. Aside from Chris's presence, the calm and peace of being with the two horses was what had held him at the ranch for as long as he had been. Too long. Last night had been proof of that. He'd damn near killed his best friend. It was time to move on. That was what he did when the walls started closing in on him. His own place wasn't much, but he could lock the door and cause no harm to anybody but himself when the demons ate at his soul.
When he had finished up in the barn, he jogged to the house. He stripped and dropped his clothes right into the washer in the laundry room, grabbed and drank a bottle of water from the refrigerator, then headed for the bathroom and a steaming shower.
He didn't have much to pack beyond a duffle. JD had driven his jeep down to the ranch two weeks ago, so he had wheels while Chris was in town. It still rankled that he hadn't been given the all clear to go back to his job with the ATF team. Wasn't anything Chris could do about that. Not even AD Travis had the pull needed to detach him from this temporary re-assignment. Temporary. That's the word they'd used. Sure, the job maybe, but not what he'd done and seen. Easy for some damn suit to move him around like a chess piece when they'd never been out there. Not like Chris. Chris knew. Vin had seen that in him the day they'd first met.
It made leaving hard, but not harder than staying. Vin did a final check of the house; made sure he'd turned off any appliances, retrieved all his things from the guest room and bathroom, and stood for a moment in the hall. This was one place he always thought of as more than home than his own apartment; the place where he had always found shelter and comfort, the place he always had been safe.
He shook his head, dug his keys out of his back pocket. He armed the security system, closed and locked the door. He threw his duffel into the Jeep, then with a prayer that the damn engine wouldn't fail him, started it up. Before he pulled out of the drive, he dialed Chris's home number and waited for the voice mail.
"Chris, I-I jist want ta thank you. I'm headin' back to my place. I need some time, that's all. I-I cain't . . . after last night. I cain't take chances. Jist don't come there, okay? I'm sorry, real sorry." He turned off his phone and pulled away from the ranch, heading back to Purgatorio.
Chris parked the Ram in the garage and stared at the empty space in his drive where Vin's Jeep had been when he left for work that morning. Tanner had every right to his freedom. Chris wasn't Vin's handler, he wasn't a jailer. Then why did he have this feeling that he'd let his friend down?
The house was perfectly silent. Vin had taken his clothes down from the rack in the laundry room. His toiletries were gone from the bathroom, the drawers in the guest had been emptied. The bed was as carefully made as if nobody had ever slept there. He was gone. Chris went into the den and sat on the couch, his elbows on his knees, his head bent down in defeat. Then he saw the light blinking on his phone.
He punched in the code and heard Tanner's quiet voice and the message he'd left. His first instinct was to ignore what Vin said and head back to Denver. He beat it back, realizing that barging in on Vin wasn't going to help either of them. That didn't mean he had to ignore the request entirely.
He called Josiah.
Sanchez didn't say anything for a minute after Chris told him about Vin's message. "Well?" Chris finally prodded into the silence.
"Well, what do you expect me to say? Vin's an adult. He knows what he wants. And right now, he wants some time."
"You're not helping, Josiah." The profiler's rumble of laughter surprised him. "There's nothing funny about this."
"Chris, the world doesn't turn on your wishes, and neither does Vin. He's his own man, maybe more so now than ever. He survived a long time out there on his own, went back in when he could have begged off the job. He did what he had to do then, and he's doing it now."
"He doesn't have to be alone!" Chris rose and paced in frustration. "He'll bolt, leave - and I'm not just talking about Denver or a trip to the mountains. He'll vanish and we'll never find him." He stopped pacing and looked out at the quiet fields of his ranch. "We can't let that happen. Talk to him, please. I'm not asking this for myself. You know what he means to all of us."
Josiah sighed. "I can't make him talk. But I suppose I can take some groceries over to him. Let him know that I'm watchin' over him - as a friend, not as a therapist."
Chris sank back down on the sofa, relieved that the burden wasn't all his. "That's all I'm asking. Thanks, Josiah."
"You didn't have to ask," Josiah said.
Chris groaned. "I thought you said humility was good for my soul."
"Is that what that was? You going down on your knees? I thought it was a tremor."
Chris cussed and disconnected. For a man of God, Josiah could aggravate the hell out of a saint, and Chris was no saint.
Vin set his duffel down in the living area of his apartment. The first thing he did was lock the door behind him. Then he did a walk through, telling himself that it was pointless but doing it nonetheless. Nervous habit. One of those things he hadn't told the docs about. But, hell, if a man couldn't be himself in his own home, then most of the people in the US were in trouble.
He stood in the middle of the room, feeling like a stranger to himself. Were those his books? His music? The art on the walls . . . had he picked those photographs of the Grand Canyon and the Texas hill country? He ran his fingers over a few of the CD cases. He selected one that seemed more worn than the others. Garth Brooks - was it JD who'd downloaded his favorite songs? Must have been. He didn't know an iPod from a peapod.
He took the disk out and pushed the buttons on the stereo to bring it to life. He closed the disk tray and turned the volume down, listening to the whispers of music. He sat down on the couch. So, this was home. He felt disoriented. Funny, he hadn't been like that at the ranch with Chris. Maybe because Chris knew who he was better than he did himself. Maybe it was right that he'd left; he couldn't lean on Larabee until he came back to himself -- like therapy on a wounded leg that wouldn't strengthen if you kept on using a crutch.
He sighed and rose. Life had to go on. He didn't know what his next step would be, but he'd find out. He'd have to sort it out one day at a time. He shouldered his duffel and went to the bedroom to unpack.
He put his things away, then realized he was hungry. Food. Shit. He'd been gone six months. Had he cleaned out his refrigerator? If not, he'd have to call the EPA to haul away the toxic waste. He opened the door, bracing himself, almost wincing. When he wasn't hit with a wave of toxic fumes he risked a look. Clean. And empty but for a box of baking soda. Somebody had done him a big favor.
Still didn't solve the problem of food. He was reluctant to put himself out on the streets of Purgatorio until he could acclimatize to the sounds of urban living. He could call for take-out, and then remembered that he'd neglected to stop at an ATM on the way home.
Well, he'd be hungry, then. Wouldn't be the first time. A few weeks with Chris and he was too damn spoiled to put up with an empty stomach. He'd stuck an energy bar in his coat pocket before he'd left the ranch. There had been days when that was a feast. He lay down on the couch and munched on the bar. He didn't turn on the TV. It had taken only one evening of CNN at Chris's to send him into a tailspin. He let the Garth Brooks CD play on a spool, endless and familiar.
He slipped into a doze; about as deep a sleep as he allowed himself, and had just about lulled himself into a semi-oblivious state of relaxation when a knock on the door set him upright and gasping as he reached for a gun. No gun. He sat on the cushions, breathing fast, trying to get his bearings.
He knew the voice. "J'siah?" His voice rasped in his throat.
"Yes, son. It's me."
"Be right there." He took a few deep breaths as his heartbeat slowed. Then he unlocked the deadbolt and two chains. "C'mon in."
The big profiler entered, making the small apartment seem even smaller. He carried two large brown paper bags. "I brought food."
Vin laughed. "Ya heard my stomach growlin'?"
"I cleaned out your refrigerator, so when Chris said you'd come back to the apartment, I thought of those empty shelves and had a pang of guilt."
"Thanks. C'mon into the kitchen." He started unpacking the bags. "Soup, rice, tortillas, eggs, milk, ground meat, chicken, onions, orange juice . . ." He looked up with a glint of humor in his eyes. "Cookies, ice cream and beer. How much to I owe ya?"
"Not a red cent."
"Josiah . . ."
Sanchez laid a warm hand on his shoulder. "How about crackin' open two of those beers and we'll call it even?"
"Works for me." He twisted the cap off one of the bottles and handed it over. "Git yourself comfortable while I put these things away."
Josiah took the opportunity to study Tanner. He'd seen him at Chris's, but he'd been so silent that it had been hard to gauge his physical and mental state. Now, in these familiar surroundings, Vin seemed smaller, less sure of himself. Still thin, despite everything Chris had tried to get him to eat, still looking as if a good night's sleep were as elusive as rain in the desert. Josiah had seen a lot of stress disorders and he knew from Chris that despite the clean bill of health the doctors in DC had given him, the boy still had nightmares, was still haunted by sights and sounds. And still hadn't talked about his time away. Josiah was fully aware that much of what Vin had been doing was classified as "Need to know" only and beyond ATF security clearances at a level so high that thinking about it could nearly give Josiah a nosebleed.
The object of all that secrecy and security merely sat down in his rocking chair and took a pull of his beer. "So, Larabee called ya?"
"He was a mite pissed that you left without telling him."
"I ain't a kid. I got a right to come n' go as I see fit."
Josiah laughed softly. "That's what I told him." When he saw the surprise on Vin's face, he continued, "But I agreed that leaving a voicemail was a coward's way out."
"I ain't a coward," Vin objected. "I jist didn't want ta put up a fight with Chris over what's right or not. It was right fer me t'leave. It was time." He stood up and paced to the window. "Maybe past time." He sighed. "J'siah, I-I . . . I've been gone a long time. Been away from this life fer a long time. Hell, I've been away from Vin Tanner fer a long time. A man cain't git to know himself with ever'body lookin' at him like he's a bomb on a short fuse." Then realizing how that sounded, he turned back to the profiler with a shrug. "I ain't talking 'bout Chris."
"Not jist Chris. Everybody." Vin sighed. "I ain't gonna go off the deep end, Josiah. I got that much sense."
"You been sleeping all right?" Josiah asked, seeing an opportunity to connect with the reticent sharpshooter.
"'bout as good as usual," he evaded.
"I'll take that as a 'no.'" Josiah fixed him with a study.
Vin shrugged uncomfortably. "Never needed much sleep, Josiah."
Josiah knew that Tanner had been diagnosed as hyper-vigilant, and that the diagnosis had come to Larabee in the personnel report before he'd hired him on, so that alone wouldn't have set the short hairs on Chris's neck on end. The problem was, how did you ask a man about his nightmares when you had plenty of your own that you guarded?
It was growing dark and they still hadn't eaten. Josiah decided to back off a bit. "You hungry?" he asked.
Vin had been brooding at the window, looking out at the city streets as the sun set. The power bar had long since worn off and his stomach was muttering. Alone, he would have thrown some soup in a pot and called it supper. Part of him wanted Josiah to leave, part wanted him to stay and help him hold back the darkness. "You offerin' ta cook?" he asked, a bit of a hitch in his voice.
Josiah didn't miss it, but he didn't blink, either. "Give me fifteen minutes and a hot stove."
Josiah made Mexican omelets filled with seasoned ground meat, onions and cheese and topped them with pico de gallo. Vin sat at the breakfast bar and watched him, silent as usual, but there was something else about him that Josiah didn't like; a movement of his eyes at the slightest sound - to the window, to the door leading to the corridor, to the rooftop. Coding a room, they called it, and while it was ingrained to anybody on the job, to hang on to that habit in civilian life was considered a red-flag for PTSD. He wondered if Vin had hidden that from the docs in DC.
He put a plate down in front of Vin and joined him on the other side. Tanner tucked into the omelet with better appetite than Josiah had expected.
"'S'good," he said. "Thanks, J'siah. I owe ya."
"Next time we go to Inez's, you can pick up the tab." Josiah grinned. "Spend some of that back pay you've got accumulating."
Vin gave him a brief, wry smile. "Yeah." Damned blood money.
"You say something?"
Vin startled slightly. "Don't think so. Must be those angels talkin' to ya, again." He slid off the barstool and cleared the plates. "They say anything worth listenin' to?"
"Said I got mint chocolate chip ice cream in the freezer for dessert."
"I kinda like yer angels." When Josiah started to go back to the kitchen, Vin held up his hand. "I ain't feeble, Josiah. I ain't even sick. So, set down." He started cleaning up, rinsing dishes. If you didn't keep up with it, you'd get critters - he remembered that much. He picked up the big chef's knife Josiah had used to chop the onions and garlic. Didn't look much less lethal than his K-BAR.
He'd killed so easily. One quick slice up and through the diaphragm and into the heart, stilling it mid-beat. Easier that way than cutting a throat, though he'd done that, too. Easiest of all was with his rifle, though. No matter how close the scope brought him to his target, it was still distance, after all.
Josiah's voice startled him into movement and the knife cut a shallow slice across his palm. "Shit!" He grabbed a towel and pressed it against the cut. "Ya oughtta know better'n to sneak up on a man with a knife in his hand, Josiah."
"A man my size don't sneak up on anybody. Let me see . . ." He reached for Vin's hand, but Tanner backed away.
"It's nothin'. I got some gauze and tape in the bathroom. Almost stopped bleedin' anyways." He brushed past Josiah, head down, not wanting to let Sanchez see him shaking. He was ashamed to have been caught drifting. Maybe he ought to go back to the ranch. Maybe he ought to go back to DC and let the docs have at him. He wasn't doing anybody any favors by pretending he'd put it all behind him . . . least of all himself.
He pulled the towel away from his hand. His knives were sharp, so the edges of the cut were as clean as if a doctor's scalpel had scored across his palm. He pulled out the roll of gauze and wrapped it around his hand, tore off a piece of tape with his teeth and secured it. The cut was hardly bleeding, but it wouldn't hurt to show Josiah that he was together enough to take care of himself physically even if he was screwed mentally.
He splashed cool water on his face one-handed. He didn't look in the mirror; afraid that every doubt and insecurity would reveal itself. Funny, put a rifle in his hand and he chilled like ice, no doubts, no second guesses. That's what had kept him alive and his targets dead.
"Vin? You all right?" Josiah's soft knock brought him back to the present.
"Yeah . . . yeah. I'll be right out." He dried his face and hand, and came out of the bathroom. Josiah was leaning against the opposite wall, looking grave. "See. No blood." He held up his gauze-wrapped hand. "Ya dish out that ice cream?"
Josiah stayed for another hour, but the opportunity had been lost and Vin had reverted to guarded and monosyllabic comments for the duration. He seemed relieved when Josiah put on his jacket. He stood for a moment outside the door, hearing Tanner slide the chain and turn the deadbolt. Then, with a heavy sigh, he left and drove to his apartment across town.
There was a light blinking on his phone. He knew who had called before he even checked, and he was right. Larabee. A terse message: "Call me." Josiah made himself a scotch on the rocks and called Chris back. No point in delaying.
"Larabee," Chris snapped crisply. "Josiah?"
"Yeah, I'm home. I took Vin some groceries, stayed to fix dinner, then sorta got the bum's rush out."
"Shit." Chris suddenly sounded like all starch had gone out of him. "How'd he seem to you?"
"Like a man who was willin' to talk about anything but what matters. At least he ate."
"That's supposed to make me feel better?"
"I was hopin'."
"How did he seem to you?"
Josiah took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "He's got demons, Chris, and they aren't gonna go away overnight. He ought to have some sort of therapy - but if I know Vin, that won't happen easily."
"I could order it."
"And you could lose him as a friend. Are you willing to risk that?"
"No. Not that."
"Time, brother. That's all we have on our side. Time and the Lord."
"Then I hope the Lord's more patient than I am."
The phone line went dead. Josiah hung up and sent a prayer heavenward that if the Lord had surplus patience he should send some down to them all, and include enough compassion for the troubled young man who needed to be handled with both.
For a long time after Josiah left, Vin sat in the dark. He liked the dark. Before they put a rifle in his hand he'd feared it. But once he'd learned that the darkness was his friend, he feared it no more. Besides, this wasn't true dark. Too much ambient light - from buildings, from signs, from traffic. How'd he ever sleep?
He closed his eyes. The light seemed to throb behind his lids, nearly a physical pressure on them. The docs had given him pills to help him sleep, but he hated taking them. Seemed counter-productive. What if he took the drugs and two days from now they decided to yank him? How'd they expect him to be sharp and ready if he was drugged up and sluggish?
But he knew that wasn't the real reason. They said the drugs would let him dream. He honestly couldn't remember, not even once, having a dream that didn't end up with him half on the floor, yelling. Who the hell wanted to dream?
He went into the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. Maybe he should have stayed out at the ranch, but he had to get used to being home again, to being in his own place with his own things and his own door locked behind him. And more than anything, he wanted to be back with Team 7. He wanted to hear Buck talk about his ladies, and JD boast about his computer prowess. He wanted to listen to Nate talk about Rain and their new place, and Josiah's words of wisdom. He even wanted to play cards with Ezra and engage in verbal duels that he might not win with vocabulary, but with wit. And more than anything, he wanted to be Chris's right hand; his scalpel, his "force multiplier" as Orrin Travis had called him on meeting him after his first successful op.
Then he'd know he was home. Until then, he was just . . . lost.
The coffeemaker gurgled its final gasp and Vin poured a mug. He sat on his sofa, stretched out sideways and listened to the silence.
Until the silence was interrupted by a knock on the door.
It wasn't late. No reason for his heart to nearly jump out of his ribcage, or for him to pretend he wasn't there. He moved silently, more out of habit than necessity, and looked out the peephole.
Chris. Damn. But he sighed and unlocked the door.
Chris stood on the threshold but didn't come in right away. Vin tried to stare him down, but yielded with a wry smile. "Ya gonna come in or jist stand there lettin' in the cold?"
"It's not cold," Chris said, but he came in and stood watching as Vin secured the locks. "Are you cold?"
"Hell, you know me an' my thin Texan blood," Vin replied and then added with some asperity when Chris remained frowning at him, "Ain't no cause for you to git on the horn to Nate."
"That coffee smells good."
"Set yourself down and I'll get ya some." It wasn't much of an invitation, but he didn't exactly feel like company. However, he owed Chris big time and he hadn't been raised to be an ingrate or to shut out a friend for no good reason. He poured a mug, black and strong like Larabee liked it.
Chris was sitting on the couch, long legs stretched out and arms crossed. Thinking posture. If he had any objections about the dark, he was keeping them to himself. Vin set the mug down with a sigh. "Ya got somethin' ya want to git off your chest?" Vin asked.
"You mind sitting down?"
Vin folded into his rocking chair. "I'm sittin'."
"You're still a pain in the neck," Chris said. He leaned forward, hands clasped. "Josiah said you gave him the bum's rush earlier."
"I didn't!" Vin protested. "Jist didn't feel much like talkin' and that's all Josiah wanted t'do. There ain't nothin' to talk about. I talked enough to the docs in DC."
Chris raised a brow. "Did you talk, or just feed them what they wanted to hear? I know you, Vin. And so does Josiah. You can't fake us out."
Vin sighed and his head fell back against the rocking chair. "Talkin' won't change anything. Josiah . . . sure, he's a friend and he ain't like them docs in DC lookin' to put labels on me, but he ain't ever been a shadow in the moonlight, ain't never looked through a scope with an eye to kill. I cain't . . . I cain't talk to him about that. He'd think I was askin' fer some sort of forgiveness, and I cain't say I'm sorry fer doin' it."
Chris would have argued that he was wrong, but he wasn't. Josiah carried a gun and had used it when called for, but he wasn't, and never had been, a killer. Not with intent. Chris had a feeling that part of the sorrow the big man carried in him was due to his past, but Josiah believed in the mercy and goodness of God to understand and forgive.
Chris knew what Vin had been through. He'd been there more than once; had looked through the crosshairs of a scope and knew that he was about to be the messenger of death. He couldn't say he had any regrets over a single kill. He'd been a SEAL and figured that the lives he saved were worth the ones he'd taken. But that was before Sarah and Adam. He'd done things he'd never told Sarah about. There were things he had hoped he'd never have to tell Adam. How did you look an innocent child in the eyes and tell him that you were capable of killing another human being? He lived with violence - it was part of his job - but he could honestly say that the only lives he'd rejoice over ending were those of the monsters who had killed his family.
However, his emotions weren't on the agenda, Vin's were. He asked the question that was left between them. "If it's not regret that eating you alive, Vin, what is?"
That was the question he'd been asking himself ever since he got back to the States. He'd come to a few conclusions, but wasn't sure he could put them into words. Hell, when had words ever been his friend? But Chris was looking at him with those eyes that seemed to see a lot more than he let on, and Vin was tired.
"How much time ya got?" he asked, his mouth a wry twist, but without humor in his voice, just weariness and vulnerability.
"As much time as you need. I'm not going anywhere."
"Ya might want a drink." Vin pushed himself upright and went to the cupboard under the sink where he kept the single bottle of bourbon. He stuck mostly to beer, but he knew what Chris liked and always had it on hand. He put a shot in a glass, added a splash of water, and shoved it across the counter. He got a bottle of water out of the refrigerator for himself and returned to the living room and his rocking chair. It was growing dark, but he wasn't sure he wanted to turn on a light. It was easier to talk in the dark where Chris wouldn't see every expression on his face.
Chris took the drink and sat looking at Vin, his friend, the man he'd built his team around even before he knew he existed. Being without Vin for six months had been a blow professionally; to see him without that flinty armor of confidence and self-preservation was a stab to his heart. He wouldn't show that to Vin. He just took a swallow of the bourbon.
Vin waited for Chris to take a few sips of his drink. His throat felt thick and no drink of water could soothe it. "Ya ever been out there when you were a SEAL, Chris?" It seemed as good a place as any to start.
"No. Mostly the Pacific. Buck and I were based in San Diego. I was in Africa, Asia, the Philippines. A few places I'd rather forget - and a few places I was ordered to forget."
Vin nodded. "Think I'd rather have the desert an' the rocks. It'd remind me, sometimes, of the ranch; all the stars and the way th'air smelled. I tried not to think about it, but sometimes it'd come to me all unbidden and I'd jist want more than anything t'be back here." He sighed. "I'd have to push that away, Chris. No matter how hard it was, I had to."
"Yeah," Chris agreed, understanding better than any psychologist could about needing to hide a part of yourself away so you could do the job.
"I'm wonderin' if I pushed too hard," Vin admitted. "Sometimes, I want to tear those damn walls down so much that I'll bleed from it. But then I get to thinkin' that if I do that, I'll git that call out and those walls won't be there when I need 'em, and all of me will jist leak out 'til I'm no more than a shadow in the moonlight 'n a bullet."
"Vin . . . you don't have to go back. You've done all they've asked and more. You've left your blood in the sand, for God's sake, and nearly your life. You don't have to give them your heart and soul as well! There's evil and enemies enough here at home. And, frankly, I need you. Working these last six months has been like fighting with my right arm tied behind my back - and there wasn't a single op we went on that I didn't sweat blood worrying about what might happen because you weren't there watching out for us. We're fractured, Vin, and we won't be whole until you're back with us."
"It ain't that simple, Chris."
"I'll make it that simple. Travis and I have favors we can call in, strings can be pulled."
Vin laughed softly. "Larabee, this might come as a shock to ya, but y'ain't God."
"Well, that's a damn disappointment. I could've gone for the rest of my life thinkin' I was, but for you and Josiah," Chris said wryly. "But seeing as you've destroyed that particular illusion, pard, I do have friends in high places. Many who owe us in a big way, Vin. Remember D'Amico? It seems it cost us both a lot of blood and pain that's never been paid back."
"You'd do that for me?" Vin asked, almost sounding as if he couldn't believe he was worth that much effort.
"I'd do it for Buck, JD, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah. I'd do it for myself. Let me do this for you. We need you."
Vin sat in the silent shadows. It was full night now that the twilight was past, but not completely dark. Lights from the surrounding buildings and street lamps came through the window. He looked at his hands where they rested on his knees. They were scarred. Bones had been broken and mended, but they were strong, and when they held a rifle, they held the power of life and death. He had been born with a bitter gift. To have that strength, to have sharp eyes, to be able to read every nuance of a shift in a grain of sand or the rustle of dry grasses, to be able with deliberation and intent to pull the trigger . . . not many could do it and even fewer could do it as well as he could.
He'd stopped worrying over the right or wrong of it in the Christian sense a long time ago: he'd save that for the theologians to debate. It wasn't their absolution he sought.
He spoke haltingly, painfully. "I - I jist want to know that those souls who cried out when the towers fell didn't die fer nothin', Chris. I want ta know that when I take a life, I save one. That's all. That's all I was tryin' to do."
Chris looked at him; strong and achingly fragile as they all were. He prayed that somehow he could find a way to put his emotions into words. He wasn't a man to do that easily; yet it was that very trait that made him eloquent when he needed to be. He drew a breath, ordering his thoughts.
"I'm not Josiah, Vin. I can't tell you if there is some sort of bargain made between the Devil and God to balance what we have to do. But you know what kept me on the job after Sarah and Adam died? The same thing. Their deaths had to matter, because if they didn't -- if I couldn't make them matter -- I might as well have died right along with them. What you did these last months . . . you made those deaths matter. But there comes a time to step back and look hard at what's good in the life you have. To fight to protect that life so nobody can take it away. Vin, let yourself come home. It's time."
Let yourself come home. It's time . . . Chris's words cut to his heart, cut right through the walls he'd built. Just as easily as that, they were breached. He felt a release so painful and poignant that it made tears start to his eyes and if not for his pride, he would have laid his head down and cried like a child. Chris had given him his life back when he couldn't take it back for himself.
He couldn't speak. He just sat there in his rocking chair and stared down at his hands. He was surprised at the heat of the tears that slid down his cheeks and landed on his wrists. Chris didn't say a word. He rose and stood next the Vin, setting a warm, strong hand on his shoulder and keeping it there just long enough to be a comfort before he picked up his jacket from the sofa and quietly left the apartment.
It took three weeks. Three weeks of aggravating bureaucracy, three weeks of making sure Vin was eating and taking his sleep meds, three weeks of pretending that it was normal to be on tenterhooks, but finally, finally, Chris held a piece of paper in his hands and stood outside of Vin's door. He folded it, stuck it in his jacket pocket and tried to suppress the burgeoning grin on his face. When he was sure he had it all under control, he knocked.
Vin opened the door. "Hey, Chris. Didn't think I'd see ya today."
"That mean you won't let me in?"
Vin grinned at him. "Naw. It's Friday. Guess you got a right to cut out early, bein' the boss and all."
"Damn straight." Chris stepped inside. Vin was wearing a paint-speckled t-shirt and old, ripped jeans. The apartment smelled like fresh paint. The walls were a pale grey-blue instead of the yellowed off-white Chris had grown used to and the woodwork was pristine and glossy.
"You've been busy. The place looks good."
Vin shrugged. "Well, it ain't like I had any pressing appointments the last three weeks. Couldn't jist sit here twiddlin' my thumbs. So I painted. J'siah said it was kinda like art therapy."
"Yeah. He came and helped out a few evenings. He helped a lot, Chris. Thanks."
He had a feeling Vin wasn't talking about woodwork. He studied his friend. Tanner had gained weight and lost the tight, drawn look around his eyes and mouth. If he wasn't sleeping through the night, at least he was sleeping well enough to appear rested. Chris made a mental note to do something special for his profiler. Josiah had earned more than his gratitude.
"The thanks go to Josiah, not to me. Not for that. But . . ." He put his hand in his pocket. "It's good to have friends in high places. And while my friends might not be in the same league as Josiah's, every now and then they come through." He pulled the paper out and handed it to Vin.
It took him a few minutes to read. When he looked up at Chris, his eyes were shining. "Permanent duty. That mean what I think it does?"
"It means you're untouchable. You can't be 'yanked' out by anybody for any reason short of a national emergency. Or unless you ask to go."
"This . . . This must'a cost you a lot, Chris."
Chris shook his head. "It didn't cost me a damn thing. You've earned this, Vin. I just made sure it went through all the right channels to make it secure. And I didn't do it alone. Travis had a lot to do with it. He's the one with the entrée to the higher corridors of power. Hell, I'm just an errand boy compared to him."
"Why he'd do it, Chris?"
Chris laughed at Vin's puzzlement. "He's a smart man, Vin. One look at those boxes and boxes of closed files and he was glad to do it. Face it, pard. You're the best there is, and together with the team, we're the gold standard. But I have to tell you that he did it for one more reason - the most important one."
"For you. For the respect he has for you as a friend. A man has to watch out for his friends in this world, because when it comes right down to it, when everything else is stripped away and you're staring down the maw of Hell, nobody else is gonna march in there with you and fight by your side."
Vin wasn't sure he had the words to respond to that. He had been alone for so long; had a brief taste of that camaraderie in the Rangers; but as a sniper he spent a lot of time solo or with his spotter. Sure, his company boasted about his skills, but right after a kill there was always that taint of death that clung to him like a shadow and held the others away like it was something that'd mark them.
Not Chris, though. Not Buck or Josiah. Not Ezra or even Nathan, who'd been trained to save, not to take lives. Maybe JD when he'd first seen him shoot, but there was awe there, too, which Vin tried to discourage. But when he was with them, he felt whole. Not like a shadow in the moonlight, insubstantial and alone.
He looked up at Chris. "I reckon I know that, Chris. I jist lose sight of it sometimes." He gave a soft laugh, "And me a sniper. Go figure."
"You'll get used to it one of these days," Chris said. "Welcome home."
Vin smiled as he seldom did, with his mouth and eyes that held a glint of pure happiness. "Sounds good. Real good." He looked around at his apartment. "You wanna get out of here? If I smell these damn paint fumes much longer I'm gonna pass out."
"Sounds good. The others are at Inez's."
Vin gave him a narrow look. "Josiah set you up for this?"
"Does it matter?"
It didn't. He looked at his paint-stained hands. "I gotta clean up. Ya got fifteen minutes?"
"I've got all the time you need."
He might need a lifetime. But that was all right. He had a place in this world, a home, and friends to walk with him through the shadows. A man couldn't ask for more than that.