Disclaimers: I have gained nothing (except an excuse not to clean my house) by stealing these men for a brief time.
Comments: This is a sequel to On My Knees. Expect weird stuff going on. The title comes from a favorite Jason Mraz song that my daughter challenged me to use. I guess I need to add that I am not an MD or a psychologist or a priest, and I don't do as much research as I should. This is pure fiction, but hopefully you'll enjoy it anyway.
PS: My New Year's resolution is to write a short story . . . this isn't it.
P.S.S: Special thanks to Laramee for the picture. It's amazing, isn't it?
Warnings: Very slight suggestion of adult matters (nothing graphic) and suicide - please heed the warning if this disturbs you. Violence and cursing.
He preferred a late evening flight, but that wasn't what he got. No. Instead he was standing in an endless line, waiting to board a plane at the ungodly hour of five am. There ought to be a law against such madness.
Ezra rubbed his eyes and scratched his chin, finding - to his utter horror - that he'd forgotten to shave. Buck swore that women found the scruffy look sexy, but he didn't care. He found it uncomely and distasteful, and the last thing on his mind was impressing a woman anyway. He simply wanted to leave the god-forsaken state of Florida and return to the reasonable environment of Denver. There was far too much humidity accompanying the glaring, white-hot, never-ending, highly overrated sunshine for his taste.
Thank goodness his business there had ended once and for all. It was an enormous relief, but unfortunately the only person he could share it with was Buck. The others believed he was vacationing with his mother. It was a necessary rouse, for a number of reasons.
Only Buck knew the truth, and only because he'd asked him to do exactly what he had planned to do all along. Apparently he and Buck were sharing similar brain waves - a disconcerting thought, if ever there was one. Buck had approached him at the airport just prior to his flight to Florida, in fact. "Check out O'Connor's father while you're there," he'd said in a conspiratorial whisper.
"That was my intention," Ezra returned, deciding it was unnecessary to reveal that that was the entire purpose of his trip.
Obviously Buck was as uncomfortable as he was with the circumstances surrounding the death of Ian O'Connor - the man who had single-handedly thrown Chris Larabee into a tailspin of doubt and despair, while marring his best friend, Vin Tanner, for life. After attacking both men and leaving them for dead on a boat adrift in the ocean, O'Connor had supposedly blown up with his own ship. But nothing was ever found.
They were undoubtedly overreacting. After two months, there was no sign that O'Connor was still alive. But he was a slippery bastard - vanishing and reappearing like a shadow or a ghost - and it couldn't hurt to make sure. The man had gone to his father in Miami after he'd gotten out of prison, when the madness with Chris and Vin had first begun. It made sense that he would return there again, if he was still on this earth.
He wasn't. Ezra was ninety-nine percent sure of it. All reports indicated that the elder O'Connor was in a deep state of mourning over the loss of his only remaining son. After sixty-plus days of expensive surveillance (which Ezra paid for), there was no sighting of the man and no indication of any contact whatsoever. Ian O'Connor was well and truly gone, just as they had reassured both Chris and Vin repeatedly. This was why his mission had to be top secret - if either man had any idea that he and Buck had doubts, it could set back their recovery immeasurably.
And their recovery had been slow at best. Ezra sighed at the very thought of his teammates' ordeal, but fortunately he couldn't dwell on it too long. The line finally came to an end as he plopped with far less than his usual grace in his seat. Not even first class, and that was what he got for traveling on impulse. But it had seemed absurdly important at the time that he see the evidence - or lack thereof - for himself. He had to know that the demon from Chris's past could never return again.
Now that he knew, perhaps he could even get a decent night's sleep. It had been a long time since his slumber had not been interrupted by disturbing dreams. He shook off the memories of the unsettling nightmares as he buckled his seat belt. It was all over now.
He'd only just leaned his head back and closed his eyes when he was roughly shaken by a firm hand on his shoulder. His eyes flew open as he turned his head to find out who had so rudely disturbed him. It was a man, a very tall man judging by the way Ezra had to crane his neck to see into his face.
Glacial blue eyes returned his gaze. The man's skin was pasty white, in startling contrast to his coal black hair. And Ezra felt his stomach lurch. Dear God, it couldn't be . . .
Before he could move, let alone come up with a suitable comment, the man leaned down and said in a low voice, "Tell Chris and his beautiful mate that we've only just begun."
The blood drained from Ezra's face as he gasped. He had to grip the arm rest to keep his head from spinning as he abruptly stood to peer down the aisle towards the front of the plane. He could have sworn the man had headed for first class, but there was no sign of him, not even a tall thin shadow to mark his presence.
He had to be there. Even O'Connor couldn't disappear from a plane. But just as Ezra got his bearings and moved forward, the stewardess stepped in front of him and said, "Sir, you have to sit down and buckle your seat belt now. We're preparing for take-off."
"No! I mean, I realize that, but that man . . . I have to talk to him! He can't get off the plane!"
"Yes, Sir. Just sit down now and please be calm."
Oh dear Lord, he sounded like a maniac. Add to that his disheveled appearance, and he was probably scaring the other passengers. He'd just have to wait until they were up in the air to check out the first class section of the plane.
The second the glow of the 'buckle seatbelt' sign went out, Ezra was out of his seat and searching. And of course he found absolutely nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nadda. Unless O'Connor had managed to exit the plane before it took off, the man had literally vanished into thin air . . . just like he had all those weeks when he'd tormented Chris and Vin.
But then, Chris and Vin had dreamed a lot of it. It was still difficult, in fact, to ascertain exactly how much had really happened and how much of it was conjured up in his partners' minds.
And perhaps that explained what had happened to him.
Yes, of course it did. It was nothing more than a dream. He'd somehow managed to drift off to sleep in those few minutes before the plane took off. That explained it. With trembling hands, Ezra re-buckled his seat belt and leaned back for the trip.
But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't forget the look in the tall man's icy eyes as he promised more pain and heartache for Chris and Vin. Dream or no dream, Ezra would be sticking close to his friends for the foreseeable future.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was whistling in the elevator. He could hardly contain himself. After two long months, Vin was finally cleared to return to work full time with no restrictions.
Life was good.
As he stepped through the office door, he wasn't surprised to see that Vin had beaten him in. Vin looked up with an amused smile, and it was only then that he realized he was still whistling.
"Good t' have you back, Pard," Chris said with a broad grin.
"Been back awhile now," Vin argued, still smiling - both of them looking like crazy loons, no doubt.
He had been back for a few weeks, that was true. But part-time desk duty just didn't cut it for either one of them. Chris needed his right-hand man and Vin needed to feel normal again. They both needed to feel normal again. No more pain, no more crazy dreams, no more wondering what was real and what wasn't. He could take the average, every day stress of his job and so could Vin. They both understood bad men with big guns. But Ian O'Connor defied explanation on so many levels, they couldn't begin to reason him out.
Vin still didn't remember it all, and though it drove Chris crazy at first, he'd decided it was for the best. In fact, he was more worried now that Vin would remember. Hell, his best friend undoubtedly had enough bad memories for one lifetime as it was, there ought to be a limit after all.
Yes, it was best if the past remained in the past. And with his team together again, vital and productive, that is exactly where it would remain. It was time to get back to work and it just so happened they had a case heating up. They'd managed to get a lead on a new supplier of weapons and the timing couldn't be better. Back on solid ground; this was what he knew, what he understood. Life made sense again.
Chris resumed his whistling as he gripped Vin's shoulder, squeezed once, and walked into his office.
Life was good.
+ + + + + + +
Life was good.
Nathan couldn't help but feel like the sun shone just a little brighter that morning. In fact, he caught himself humming as he hopped on the elevator that would deposit him on the floor of the ATF office where he and his six partners spent most of their time.
It was Vin's first day back. Well, technically he'd been back for weeks now, but today was the first day that he was whole. Nathan hadn't told anyone, but he honestly didn't believe this day would come. He didn't think Vin would ever fully recover, physically or mentally. But he was wrong, and he should have known better. Vin had certainly overcome serious injury in the past. And as for mental anguish - well, Vin Tanner could probably write the book on that.
But it was different this time. Ian O'Connor was a like some sort of devil that wouldn't die, and Nathan had the distinct feeling that Vin still carried around a part of the evil man deep in his soul. He banished that thought as he stepped off the elevator and headed for their office. This was a day of celebration, and no dark thoughts would mar it in any way.
The mood was light as he hit the door. Vin and Chris were sharing a laugh, standing at the entrance to Chris's inner office.
"Mornin', Nate," Vin greeted him, a broad smile lighting up his entire face.
But he had nothing on Chris; the expression on the blond's face lit up the entire room. "Vin's back," he explained, as if Nathan didn't know.
"I see that," Nathan responded with a wide grin of his own.
Yeah, life was good.
He was still facing the men, his back to the door when it happened. One quick shot and Vin was thrown backwards into the glass partition that separated Chris's office from the rest of his team.
He heard Chris scream, "No!" as he ran to Vin's side. Blood poured from the gaping hole in Vin's chest, covering his entire body within seconds. Nathan tried to stop it, but it was useless. There was too much, too fast. The bullet must have hit an artery, he reasoned, and it both amazed and shamed him that his brain still functioned when his friend was obviously dying right in front of him.
No, not dying . . . dead. Vin's eyes were already dull and lifeless, his face a ghastly gray color. The blood slowed - the heart no longer trying, no longer beating. And as with every death he'd ever witnessed, it was all so normal. No brass bands, no choirs of angels, no black cloud or great white light - absolutely nothing to note that a life had passed from one realm to the next.
He heard a low keening sound, and he moved in slow motion to lift his head and seek the source of it. Chris . . .
Oh God . . . Chris was in his office, standing at his desk with his gun in his hands, and . . .
"No! No, Chris! Please!"
Bright, white light assaulted his eyes, disorienting him, and he instinctively cringed and turned his head away.
"Nathan! Wake up! You'll be late for work." He could hardly hear Rain's voice over the pounding of his heart.
"Nathan? Baby, are you alright?"
He rubbed his eyes, grunting his only answer, as he pulled himself up to the edge of the bed.
"I thought you were going in early today," Rain reminded him.
Still unable to speak anything remotely coherent, he steadied his breath and took in his surroundings. He was in his bedroom, in his home. No elevator, no office, no Vin or Chris . . . no blood.
"What day is it?" he asked, suddenly unsure. Vin was due to return on Monday.
"It's Monday," Rain answered, her brows furrowed. She sat down next to him on the bed and put an arm around his shoulder. "What's going on, Nathan? Did you have another nightmare?"
"Yeah," he mumbled, not capable of further explanation. It seemed so real. Vin was dead and Chris was going to . . .
"You wanna talk about it?"
No. Talking about it would make it possible.
But Rain wasn't likely to leave it at that, so he added, "It's just, after all that happened with Vin and Chris . . . sometimes . . ."
"I know, Baby. I understand."
She didn't. And she never would. Rain might be the most loving woman God ever created, but she couldn't understand what it was like to be part of a team, part of their team. They were connected, for lack of a better word. When one hurt, they all hurt. Buck had once described Vin and Chris as being freakishly linked, but Nathan was beginning to believe that phrase applied to all seven of them.
That was especially true after the havoc wreaked by Ian O'Connor. But that was over . . . in the past. So why were the nightmares plaguing him now? They differed only slightly in the setting or the time of day. But always Vin was bathed in blood and Chris was so despondent that it appeared he was going to turn a weapon on himself. Fortunately, Nathan always woke up before it came to that. It was hard enough seeing Vin lifeless night after night, he couldn't bear to watch Chris die, as well.
But it was just a dream, a delayed reaction to what had happened in the past . . . because they all felt so much for each other, because they were linked.
It didn't mean anything.
+ + + + + + +
If Vin had any qualms about returning to work full-duty, they were banished the moment he heard Chris whistling. Damn fool was likely to burst into song, too, judging by the goofy grin on his face.
Vin couldn't help but match it. He and Chris had rode through hell together and come out on the other side; definitely dented and damaged, but stronger than ever in a lot of ways. It was a good feeling. And as long as he didn't think too hard, he could hold onto it.
He'd gotten good at that - not thinking too hard. His memories were sketchy at best, and apparently what he did remember wasn't entirely accurate. His friends had helped him out, of course; practically drawn him a timeline. So he'd gone with that, or acted like he had. Not that they had any reason to lie to him, but still, some things that they said never happened were so clear.
And sometimes, he knew there was more there, sitting deep in his subconscious like a festering sore.
But he'd gotten good at ignoring that, too. Hell, he'd spent most of his life burying the bad shit that had happened to him - and hiding it from shrinks - and now wasn't the time to get soft. Otherwise that quack, Dr. Mackenzie, would never let him return to work, and more than anything, he needed to work. He needed to feel useful again. And even though he'd deny it, he longed to hear Buck and JD's constant bickering, Ezra's endless complaining, Josiah's long dissertations on the sorry state of society, and even Nathan's fussing about everyone's health except his own.
He needed to be with Chris.
That sounded not only needy, but silly. He'd recuperated at Chris's ranch, after all. It wasn't like he hadn't spent most of his waking hours with the man. But it wasn't the same, it wasn't normal. It was all about eating right and sleeping more and taking one damn pill after another . . . about remembering the right things and forgetting the wrong ones.
But now he was back - he was whole - and life would finally go on.
Chris stuck his head out the door of his office just then and said, "Don't make any plans for lunch, Vin."
Glowing . . . Chris Larabee was practically glowing. Vin shook his head and smiled. "You mean I have to cancel my hot date?"
"Yeah . . . like you have a life."
"As a matter of fact, I do," Vin replied, his eyes shining as he met Chris's warm gaze.
And a pretty damn good life, at that . . . just as long as he didn't think too hard.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah didn't want to think about it, but it wasn't in his nature to let things go. He'd seen the marks on Vin's body himself, the obvious shape of human bites standing out among the other scars and injuries. His friend had been tortured, although Vin didn't remember any of it.
Or so he said.
Dr. Mackenzie, the staff psychiatrist, said that the drugs O'Connor pumped into Vin likely affected his memory. It was possible - even likely - that he would never remember. But Vin was adjusting well, having no residual problems, and he was as ready as he would ever be to return to work.
Josiah didn't buy it. If there was one thing he knew, it was people. How they behaved and how they reacted; why they did the things they did and thought the way they thought. And in spite of Vin's best defenses (which he used exceedingly well to his advantage), Josiah wasn't convinced.
But as he made his way into the office that Monday morning, he pushed his doubts aside. Vin was grinning, Chris was whistling (whistling?), and this just wasn't the time for negative thoughts of any kind.
After all, it was over, and had been for two months now. Ian O'Connor was dead.
"Welcome back, Vin," Josiah called out as he entered the office.
"Thanks," Vin replied as he stood to greet him.
Wrapping the smaller man in a bear hug, Josiah said softly, "It's so good to have you back with us."
Vin smiled shyly as he pulled back and met his gaze.
It should have felt good, felt right. But it didn't.
A shudder raced through Josiah and he instinctively took a step back. The blue eyes before him suddenly turned icy cold; something foreign and frightening looking back at him. Not Vin's eyes . . . never Vin's . . .
As quickly as it appeared, it was gone. Vin stood before him, brows furrowed as he asked, "You alright, Josiah?"
"Yeah," he covered, "just glad you're here."
Vin nodded and walked back to his desk, and Josiah escaped to the lounge. His hands shook as he poured a cup of coffee. He told himself it was crazy, but he could have sworn he'd glimpsed Ian O'Connor looking at him through Vin.
Was it because he didn't believe it was truly over for Vin? Yes, of course it was. That had to be it. He was certain that some small part of O'Connor still lingered deep in his friend's soul, and it would eat at them both until Josiah found a way to rid Vin of the evil presence once and for all.
+ + + + + + +
"Come on, JD! We're already late!" Buck shouted.
"Yeah, yeah I know. Just give me another minute," JD returned.
"You said that ten minutes ago!"
"Shut up, Buck," JD grumbled, but there was little strength behind the words. He had no energy to spare. He hadn't slept well for weeks.
He hadn't mentioned it to Buck, though. His friend would either tease him mercilessly or swear he was crazy. Of course, JD was beginning to think that was a distinct possibility.
It all started with that creepy Ian O'Connor guy and the weird dreams that Chris and Vin shared. JD loved watching horror films and he was a card-carrying member of the sci-fi geek club, but this was real life and real people - his people - and he couldn't make sense of it no matter how hard he tried. He figured that was what had triggered the dreams; his brain was on overload trying to reason it all out, leaving him exhausted and on edge.
Well, he'd have to pull himself together and quick. Vin was finally back on full duty and the last thing his teammate needed was to see that he was 'off'. But he couldn't help it - the recurring dream seemed so real that he couldn't shake it no matter how hard he tried.
A thin arm snakes up from behind him and a sharp blade slices his throat. He hears Buck scream, "No!" as Chris fires, and Ian O'Connor's dark head explodes above him. He's falling then, sinking slowly to the ground. Buck's arms are around him, assuring him that he's alright, that he'll live. But Chris only looks at him and says nothing as he walks away with tears streaming down his face. O'Connor was the only one who knew where Vin was, and now they'll never find him. In taking that shot, Chris made a choice . . .
It was just a dream. Vin wasn't missing and O'Connor was dead. And if there was some hidden meaning to the dream, JD couldn't figure out what it was. Besides, it was totally ridiculous. First of all, he wasn't stupid enough to get caught by O'Connor, even if the man was still alive - which he wasn't. And secondly, none of them would let Vin out of their sight for like the next twenty years or so. And if that wasn't enough, Chris would never choose him over Vin. Never. Hell, it would be like putting a bullet in his own brain.
JD swallowed and took a breath to calm his nerves. It was only a dream, for crying out loud. It didn't really happen - couldn't really happen.
But if it did . . . if Vin died because Chris chose to save him over Vin, JD had no doubt that sooner rather than later, Chris would die as well.
+ + + + + + +
They were late. Vin's first day back, and they couldn't get it together and get there in time to give him the welcome back that he deserved. If he wasn't so worried about JD, Buck would kick his ass clear through next week.
But JD hadn't acted right for weeks now, and the shadows under his young friend's eyes told him that there was something going on that he wasn't privy to. That in itself was a major concern - JD never kept anything from him.
So as they made their way through Denver traffic towards the office, Buck decided to take the direct approach. "What the hell is going on inside your head, JD?"
"Nothin'," JD mumbled, not even looking at him.
"Leave it alone, Buck."
"No way. This is Vin's first real day back at work. Everything is right again and you're not gonna mope around and screw it up."
"It feel right to you?" JD asked, finally turning his head to peer at Buck intently.
His question was sincere; Buck could tell by the look of hope - and trepidation - on the younger man's face.
Buck bit his lip and turned his eyes back to the road as he thought out his answer. The truth was that no, it didn't feel right. Nothing had felt right since he'd had the dream in the hospital that Ian O'Connor had come back to finish what he'd started with Vin.
But it was just a dream. O'Connor was dead. The past was over and done with.
"Yeah," he answered, because he wanted to believe it. "Feels fine."
JD merely grunted and turned back to stare out the window.
Softening his approach, Buck asked gently, "You got somethin' you want to tell me, JD?"
Squirming in the bucket seat, JD sighed twice before finally admitting, "It's all that dream stuff . . . you know, with Vin and Chris. I mean, you don't think there was anything to it, do you? It was just a coincidence that they dreamed about O'Connor taking them on a boat before it actually happened. It doesn't mean anything, right?"
"I don't know," Buck answered honestly. "But why is that bothering you now?"
"Because . . . what if . . . what if I was having dreams?"
Oh. It was starting to make sense. Obviously JD wasn't sleeping well because he was having nightmares.
"What kind of dreams exactly?"
"O'Connor . . . he has a knife at my throat and-"
"He's dead, JD," Buck interrupted.
"I know that, Buck," JD replied testily. "It's my dream, remember?"
"Yeah. Sorry. Go on."
"See, the thing is, O'Connor has Vin hidden somewhere and we can't find him. And then Chris, well he has to choose between me and Vin. If he doesn't shoot, O'Connor will kill me. But if he does shoot, we'll never know where he put Vin."
Yep, that would be a nightmare alright - for Chris, especially.
"So what does Chris do? In your dream?"
"He . . . he picks me," JD answered softly.
Buck was no expert on matters of the mind, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that JD was struggling with where he stood in Chris's eyes. It would probably surprise his young friend to discover that Chris thought of him with almost as much fondness and affection as he did Vin. In fact, Larabee's protective instincts went into high gear where JD was concerned . . . which was why the situation the kid had dreamed up would be so devastating for the older man.
"Well?" JD prompted. "What do you think it means?"
"I think it means you've been eating too much ice cream before you go to bed."
JD shook his head, clearly not convinced.
"It's just a dream," Buck said reassuringly, but he was anxious to see what Ezra found out in Florida.
Just in case.
+ + + + + + +
The last thing Ezra expected was for Chris to pick him up at the airport. He'd already called a cab, in fact, when the black truck pulled up to the curb. Before he could even begin to contemplate what that might mean, Chris was out of the vehicle, slapping his back and grinning like the devil when he said, "Welcome back, Pard! Get in, we're going to lunch."
Ezra raised his brow as he climbed in the back, but he didn't argue. Vin was in the passenger seat up front, of course, and he turned to give Ezra a quick flash of a grin.
"Hey, Ezra. Have a good trip?" Vin asked, like it was perfectly normal for him and Chris to leave the office in the middle of the day to greet him at the airport.
"Uh . . . well . . . yes," he stammered, before blurting, "Why are you here?"
"Told you. We're going to lunch," Chris reminded him.
"And the occasion would be?"
Vin twisted in his seat to meet his gaze again. "Crazy fool thinks it's a big deal that I'm back on full duty. Thinks we need to celebrate or somethin', even though we got real work t' do."
"That's right," Chris chimed in, and even from behind him, Ezra could tell that he was still grinning.
It was almost surreal, so Ezra pinched himself to be certain he was fully awake. He hadn't seen Chris in this good of a mood since . . . since never. He supposed it was to be expected, however. After all, it had been months since their team was whole. But it still seemed wrong - it still felt 'off'.
Or maybe he was the one who was 'off'. Yes, yes, of course that was it. He'd not been himself since the dreams had started weeks ago. Everything was fine. He just needed to get a grip on himself.
But after arriving at the restaurant and greeting his other teammates, Ezra got a different impression entirely. They were all 'off' - with the notable exceptions of Chris and Vin.
Nathan was tired and out of sorts, Josiah was silently burning a hole through Vin, JD was uncharacteristically morose, and Buck was putting on a mediocre performance that everything was fine and good when he obviously knew that it wasn't.
Conversely, Vin appeared more relaxed than he'd been in months, and Chris was positively giddy.
Ezra pinched himself again.
He was so wrapped up in the mystery of his friends' behaviors, that it took him several minutes to note that Buck was trying to catch his eye. Tipping his head towards the Men's Room, Buck excused himself and left the table.
When Ezra joined him a few moments later, Buck was literally pacing the small confines of the restroom. "Well?" Buck questioned. "Anything?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
"I said nothing, Buck."
Except for the dream . . . should he share that? No. Buck would think he'd lost his mind.
Buck studied him a few more moments before finally nodding and saying, "Yeah. Okay. Guess it's over then."
"It is," Ezra replied confidently.
Now all he had to do was believe it.
+ + + + + + +
Chris could hardly believe it. It went so smoothly, everything coming together without a hitch as each man on his team did their part. They were a well-oiled machine, and by the end of the day, another group of criminals and their supply of illegal weapons would be off the streets.
The bust was set up in an airport hanger, the shipment of guns being delivered by air. Chris couldn't deny his relief that it was some place other than an abandoned warehouse for a change. Bad stuff happened in warehouses, the image of a very bloody Vin dangling in the air from a rope flashing through his mind.
There would be no ropes this time; Vin would be on solid ground. The only problem was that the wide open space of the hanger left little cover for an inside man. Most of their surveillance would take place on the outside - Josiah and Nathan covering the back, with JD, Buck, and Chris covering the entrance. Ezra, undercover as the manager of the hanger, would observe from the small office inside the large steel structure, while Vin would be safely hidden in a storage area to the rear of the building.
He hated that, Vin did; he'd argued with Chris about the poor visibility and threatened to perch himself on one of the steel girders that held the building together. Chris figured it was the enclosed space that gave his friend the problem. The storage room was dark and cramped, with only a small, dirty window on the outside wall for light.
It was the first time since - well, in a long, long time - that they'd so much as disagreed. Chris supposed it was healthy in a way, another sign that things were returning to normal. That didn't make him feel much better though, when Vin pulled him aside and got in his face.
"What the hell is goin' on, Larabee? You're stickin' me in a damn closet! How am I supposed to do my job?"
"Same way you always do, Tanner. Keep your eye and your aim on the action and watch our backs," Chris had answered with a shrug.
"And how do I do that? Through a goddamn crack in the door?"
Nodding, Chris replied, "That'll work."
Vin had tilted his head then, in that way that said he had an idea he wasn't particularly fond of. "You don't want me up close, do you? You don't want me anywhere near the action. You're trying to protect me."
He said that like it was a bad thing. But it wasn't - not after all he'd had been through. So Chris answered honestly, "Yep."
To his surprise, Vin let it drop. Maybe he was giving Chris a break, but more likely it was because he knew there was no cover high up and not much need for a sniper in that position anyway. Once the transaction was completed, the team would move in, make the arrests, and it would be done.
And if Chris was really lucky, the whole thing would be over before Vin even had a chance to make his way from the back of the building.
It went off exactly as they'd planned. The small plane came in, followed by a large truck with two men inside. On Ezra's cue, the agents stormed in with guns drawn . . . and came face to face with four befuddled elderly gentlemen, none of which had a weapon in sight.
And that was when Chris's gut began to cramp up in that familiar, awful way. Something was wrong.
They knew it with absolute certainty when Chris and Josiah threw open the cargo door of the plane and found two rare breed horses inside.
They'd been set up. But why?
"Vin, take a look . . ."
Chris stopped mid sentence and peered around him. "Where's Vin?"
Josiah frowned and said, "I don't know. I don't remember seeing him when we first came in."
Well, he couldn't have gone anywhere, but still Chris had to bite back the irrational panic that gripped him.
"Anybody else see him?"
Shrugs and puzzled frowns met his.
"I assumed he was right behind me," Ezra offered. "But now that you mention it, I don't recall seeing him leave the storage room."
It was crazy. In all of the commotion no one noticed if Vin was there or not?
The room where Vin had hidden was a hundred feet away, but Chris made it there in three seconds flat. And the door was ridiculously, absurdly, impossibly locked.
"Josiah! Help me!" Chris called as he prepared to butt through the door with his shoulder. Between the two of them, the flimsy door practically came off the hinges.
But Vin wasn't there.
Chris knew it without looking behind a single crate, and he felt his knees go weak as the air was sucked from his lungs. How could he be so stupid? How could he let himself be lulled into a false sense of security?
Through the roaring in his head, he heard his men push threw the door after him, scattering crates as they crammed in the small room in search of their friend. As if Vin was playing some sort of childish game of hide-and-seek.
Somebody said then, "There's blood on the windowsill! Dear God, someone took him out the window!"
Chris couldn't breathe and there was a crushing weight in his chest. The sound of harsh alarms and sirens registered in his brain, pulsing in time with his frantic heart. Back-up, he assumed, someone had called it in, but it wouldn't matter. The entire Denver PD could show up and they wouldn't find Vin. He sank to his knees, covering his ears with his hands so he wouldn't hear, wouldn't know, and closed his eyes to shut out the vision of the empty room.
And when he opened them, he was in his bed, the alarm blaring as the digital numbers rolled over to 6:07am.
He gasped as he sat up and fumbled to turn off the annoying beep of the clock. But instead of getting out of bed, he folded his hands behind his head and laid back down, waiting for his heart to return to its normal rhythm.
It was over. Ian O'Connor was dead. There was no evidence to suggest otherwise. So why had the nightmares returned?
Nerves, he reasoned, plain and simple. Their first bust since Vin had returned was going down that day and he was simply nervous. Apprehensive. Understandably anxious.
Scared out of his fucking mind . . .
Still, maybe he should rethink some things . . . make a few alterations to the plan. Whether Vin liked it or not, he was going to be glued to his side.
+ + + + + + +
No one said a word when Chris changed the plan at the last minute. Even Vin just shook his head and went with it. Nathan bit his tongue like everyone else.
Harder to ignore was the fact that both men looked exhausted. Nathan wondered if either Chris or Vin had slept at all the previous night. In fact, the entire team looked worn out and beaten down, which was odd considering how easily the case had come together.
He chalked it up to nerves. Their first assignment as a complete unit and they were understandably anxious. After all, their last bust together had left Vin dangling from a rope, bleeding profusely from a knife wound in his chest and a blow to his head. It was no wonder he couldn't sleep without dreaming of Vin covered in blood.
Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes to wipe out the horrible image. When he opened them, he noticed that Vin was imitating almost the same gesture. Vin's elbows were propped on the conference table, his eyes closed as he rubbed a hand across his forehead.
"Vin? You alright?" Chris asked quietly.
Dead silence, and Vin looked up as a quick blush colored his cheeks at the sudden attention. "Yeah," he mumbled, "I just . . . just a headache is all."
"You take something for it?" Chris asked, unable to mask the concern in his voice.
Vin shifted uncomfortably. "I will . . . after."
Too good to be true . . . the sentiment settled on Nathan swift and hard. For the past week, Chris had been damn near jovial and Vin relaxed. But with the bust looming ahead of them, both men were tense and wary, and Nathan had to choke back the irrational fear that his nightmares were more like premonitions than a replay of the past.
Chris excused the team then, and as Vin brushed by him, Nathan reached out and gripped his arm.
"You really okay, Vin?" he asked.
Vin flinched as he pulled away. "Said I was fine," he snapped. Anger and something like confusion filled his eyes, before he abruptly looked away and murmured, "Sorry."
"It's alright," Nathan replied, but Vin was already out the door.
Nathan decided to ignore the churning in his gut. The other guys always accused him of being a worry wart, and it was probably true.
In fact, the bust went off without a hitch. Nathan, Josiah, and Buck covered the back of the airport hanger, while their remaining teammates covered the front. When the cargo arrived, they stormed the area, made the arrests, and went back to the office to finish the paperwork. Not so much as a single shot fired or a minor scratch acquired. Smooth, simple, and flawless . . . a cause for celebration.
Except that no one was in the mood.
Buck suggested they end the day with a drink at Inez's place, though clearly it was more because he felt it was expected than out of any real desire to go out. When Chris brusquely reminded them all that it was still the beginning of the week, Nathan advised they wait until Friday to celebrate. A chorus of agreements echoed in the office and the subject was dropped.
Only Vin didn't reply one way or the other, merely shrugging on his coat and heading out the door with a muffled "See y'all in the mornin'."
Josiah tossed a glance at Nathan, quirking a brow. He shrugged in return - wasn't like he could read Vin's mind, after all. Only Chris could do that, and judging by the scowl on his face as Vin made his exit, he was in the dark, as well.
Nathan could read body language, though, and he had a sixth sense where these men and their health were concerned. Vin didn't feel well; hadn't all day, though he did his best to hide it. He told himself it was nothing to worry about. With all that Vin had been through, he was bound to have a bad day creep up on him now and then.
And the doctors never were able to dissect all the drugs that maniac O'Connor had pumped into Vin's body, so residual effects couldn't be ruled out - a disconcerting thought that Nathan could have done without. Sometimes he wished he wasn't so good at thinking up worse case scenarios; life would be a whole lot easier if he had Buck's optimism, JD's innocence, and Josiah's faith.
But since he had none of those things, he'd just keep a closer eye on Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Vin felt like crap. He'd gone to bed feeling perfectly fine, and awakened with a raging headache and his stomach in knots. If he didn't know better, he'd have sworn he'd drunk a bottle of tequila the night before.
It hadn't eased up as the day wore on, either. And to make matters worse, his eyes were acting up, which was why he didn't argue when Chris changed the plans and attached him to his hip. His vision was blurry, and he wasn't sure he could see clearly enough to do what he needed to. That thought scared the shit out of him, though he convinced himself it was the headache.
His brain just wasn't firing on all cylinders - that fact was apparent when Nathan had latched onto him earlier in the day. The pressure on his arm hurt, like his skin was oversensitive and bruised, and for one brief moment, he couldn't connect the dark hand with a name or face. It confused and angered and frightened him all at once, and he'd practically bit Nathan's head off in response.
Fortunately the bust went off without a hitch and he wasn't required to do much more than tag along behind Chris. He hadn't even pulled his weapon, or he didn't think he had. The truth was that he couldn't really remember it all; the entire event clouded in a fog and more like a dream than any of his so-called dreams had been.
He hardly remembered the drive home to his apartment, either, the familiar sound of the rusty hinge on his door startling him to awareness. "Get a grip, Tanner," he muttered to himself as he threw his keys on the coffee table and slipped off his coat and shoes. Sinking to the couch, he put his head in his hands and tried to will away the tension from his aching head. No use; he'd have to give in and take something for it. A dozen Tylenol might cut it, but he'd probably be better off if he broke down and took the good stuff.
Narcotics were something he avoided at all costs, no matter how many times he'd been hurt or how badly; too easy to get hooked on them, not to mention the fact that they addled his brain in a way that made him uneasy. Still, he had a complete pharmacy in his medicine cabinet from all the times he'd managed to hurt himself, and he didn't figure he could be much more muddled than he already was. A decent night's sleep would set it all right - he hoped so anyway - so he fumbled for a few Vicodin and swallowed them down with a swig of orange juice.
The taste was bitter in his mouth, but nothing had tasted right all day. Minutes later, the room tilted to one side, and it was nothing short of miraculous that he managed to hit the bed rather than the floor. He fell into a deep, dreamless sleep until something vague and nameless disturbed his slumber. Bolting upright, he groaned as the throbbing in his head resumed. "So much for the good stuff," he mumbled as he pulled his legs over the edge of the bed.
A hot shower might help, but the sound of someone calling his name outside of his apartment quickly pushed that thought to the side. On rubbery legs, Vin stumbled to the bedroom window and looked out into the dark streets. One street lamp a half block away did little more than cast shadows, but the shifting light quickly revealed a figure standing below his window, peering up at him.
"Vin," the figure said, and again, "Vin."
He rubbed his eyes and pushed his forehead against the glass to get a better look.
"Come here, Vin," the shadow demanded.
Something wasn't right; the voice was soft and low, like it was coming from over his shoulder rather than the street far below. Panic rose up in his throat and he quickly turned around to look behind him. A yellow glow bled out from the crack beneath his bathroom door - he must have left the light on. But it revealed nothing and no one in his room.
The voice spoke again, "Listen to me, Vin."
Licking his lips, he turned to the window once more. The figure stepped forward into a small arch of light cast by a ground floor window, and Vin gasped.
It wasn't possible. He was dead. The boys had told him over and over again. They'd promised.
Vin stumbled backwards and hit the edge of his bed, dropping like a stone as he tried to gather his thoughts. It was the headache . . . the pills. He was dreaming.
"I'm not leaving, Vin. Not until I see you again," the voice went on.
Vin shivered as he moaned, "No, no. Not real . . . not happening."
"Come to me, Vin."
Curling up on his side, Vin placed his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Shall I go to Chris instead?" the voice offered, threatened.
"No!" Vin shouted with a start.
"Such a beautiful home he has. It would be a shame if anything happened to it . . . happened to him."
"No!" Vin screamed again, his voice sounding distorted and odd through the roaring in his ears. Flesh or apparition, O'Connor wasn't getting anywhere near Chris. Never again.
He leapt from the bed and raced to his dresser drawer. His hands shook as he pulled out his gun and fumbled to load it. If Ian O'Connor wasn't dead, he soon would be. And if he was merely a vision, maybe pumping a few bullets in his ghost would lay him to rest once and for all.
The jackhammer in his head made it hard to think and hear, but desperation and fear for his best friend spurred him on. A small voice in the back of his mind whispered that this was not only absurd and impossible - it was also a very bad idea. But another voice drowned it out - Ian's voice, calling him out, taunting him.
He barreled out of his apartment and bounded down the stairs to the main door. Once outside, he paused a moment to search for the white face among the black shadows. He thought he glimpsed movement near a van parked across the street. The pavement was slick with rain and newly fallen leaves, and Vin slipped before getting his footing and taking off in a dead run.
"Show your face, you sick bastard!" he screamed as he came to an abrupt halt ten feet in front of the van.
"You look beautiful as always, Vin. I've missed you."
The voice came from behind him, and Vin whirled about in confusion. He saw him then, standing at the entrance to the ally that ran alongside the old brick apartment building. O'Connor's face was pure white, even in the darkness of the night, and his teeth glowed in a feral smile.
Beads of sweat broke out on Vin's face and his hands grew clammy. The rush of blood to his head and the pounding of his heart blocked out any other sound. His limbs felt like lead as he forced himself to move forward, to confront this man and his darkest fears head on.
But as Vin turned towards the ally, his nemesis stepped back further into the shadows and continued his litany of lies . . . "I think of you day and night, Vin, just like you think of me. We're bonded, you and I. What we shared can never be taken from us."
"You're dead," Vin whispered, raising a shaky arm and taking aim at the dark space where the voice originated.
"Even death will not separate us. But the reality is that your friends lied to you. They've been lying to you all along. They don't want you to know the truth about me . . . about us."
"Shut up!" Vin's finger was taut on the trigger, and he ached to empty his revolver into the thin shadow. But he couldn't focus as streams of sweat dripped from his forehead, blurring his vision.
"They told you they were dreams, didn't they? They tried to make you believe you were insane. How many doctors did they send you to? How many psychiatrists?"
"Shut the hell up!" Vin screamed again as he pulled the trigger.
The explosion of sound sent daggers of pain through his head as the bullet imbedded itself in the brick wall that lined the ally.
Ian laughed and moved further down the narrow space to the rear of the buildings. "You can't kill me. Surely you know that by now. I'll be with you always."
Vin fired again, aiming at shadows and voices, his entire body shaking.
"No, Vin! Stop!" a voice, a different voice called to him.
Vin couldn't catch his breath and moisture clouded his eyes. He pulled his hand across his face and squinted in the black night. Where was the bastard? Where had he gone?
"Don't shoot! It's me, Robert! Please, Vin!"
"Wha . . . what?"
A figure emerged from the shadows - not tall and thin, but short and stocky. A boy . . . Robert, one of the local kids . . .
"Oh my God," Vin gasped as he fell back against the wall, the gun dropping aimlessly to his side.
Now that the gun was no longer pointed at him, Robert moved closer. "Are you alright, Vin? What were you shooting at?"
Unable to catch his breath, Vin only shook his head and raced to the back stairwell of his building. He lost his footing on the third step, lurching to the side and banging his elbow and cheek hard against the cement block wall as he stumbled. But even though his legs were like jello, he made it up the four flights of stairs and back into his apartment. Once inside, he turned on every light, as well as the tv and the stereo.
As he dropped his gun on the coffee table, the enormity of what nearly happened hit him full force. Dear God, he'd almost killed an innocent kid!
Or had he? Maybe he was dreaming . . .
Of course he was. There were no voices, no cold, white faces, no thinly veiled threats or promises of more misery to come. He'd never got out his bed, never left his apartment, never fired his weapon at shadows or ghosts or unsuspecting teenage boys. Massaging his throbbing temples with his hands, Vin collapsed to the sofa and willed himself to wake up.
It had to be a dream, brought on by the stress of returning to work, his first bust in months.
Either that - or he'd finally gone crazy.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah's breakfast meeting had run over, so it was half past nine before he stepped into the elevator that led to Team Seven's office. And the last person he expected to come face to face with was Vin. The younger man never rode the elevator if he could possibly avoid it, and he was normally in his seat and working by a little after seven.
"Vin?" he questioned, looking for some sort of explanation for Vin's presence.
But he clearly wasn't going to get one. Vin just kept his eyes glued to the elevator door and nodded absently.
"You're running late, too, huh?" Josiah prodded.
When he still didn't get a response, he reached out and gently squeezed the younger man's shoulder. "Vin? You alright?"
Vin jerked away, the abrupt movement exaggerated by the small space, and turned wild eyes towards Josiah.
"What is it, Vin?" Josiah tried to keep his voice low and calm, though his stomach turned at the obvious fear and confusion in his friend's eyes.
Making a quick recovery, Vin mumbled, "Nothin'," and turned back towards the door.
Vin had only faced him for a few moments, but it was long enough for Josiah to spot a nasty bruise darkening his friend's cheek. And since the sensitive approach was getting him nowhere, he tried the direct route. "What happened to your face?"
His brows furrowed, Vin raised a shaky hand towards his face and muttered again, "Nothin'."
The elevator doors opened just then and as they stepped out into the hall, Josiah firmly gripped Vin's arm and led him to the nearby reception room. Vin resisted briefly, but apparently was too shocked - or too tired - to make a real attempt at a get-away.
Thankfully, the room was empty, so Josiah was able to openly demand, "Tell me what happened. That bruise is not nothin'. Did someone hit you?"
"Ran into a wall," Vin stated, his eyes downcast, his entire body rigid.
"You ran into a wall?" Josiah repeated incredulously.
"Tripped. On the . . . on the . . . stairs," Vin stuttered.
Josiah sighed. Vin was known to make light of his injuries, but never to flat out lie. "Talk to me, Vin," he pleaded earnestly.
"Nothin' t' talk about."
The man added a whole new dimension to the term 'stubborn', Josiah thought with another sigh.
"Yeah? Well for a man with a whole lot of 'nothin' going on, you look like shit." He took a chance then and dug deeper. "You havin' flashbacks? Dreams?"
Vin shook his head vehemently, but kept his eyes glued to the floor.
"You can tell me . . . or Dr. Mackenzie," Josiah promised. He had no intention of going through with the threat, but if it got Vin to open up, it was worth the deception.
Panicked, Vin spouted, "No! Please, Josiah. He'll put me down again and I can't . . . I can't take that."
Interesting choice of words . . . 'put me down again', but Josiah didn't get a chance to comment before Vin added, "It's not a problem, I swear. Nobody hit me. I got dizzy is all. Just a headache."
"A headache? A headache made you run into a wall? Then we're gonna see Nathan."
"Where the hell have you been?" Chris interrupted as he stormed into the waiting area, coat and keys in hand. "I was going out to look for you!"
Josiah was pretty certain their leader's anger wasn't directed at him, considering the penetrating gaze Chris leveled at his best friend.
"What?" Vin snapped, his head swiveling from Josiah to Chris.
"You're two hours late and you haven't been answering your damn phone! And what the hell happened to your face?"
"What? I . . . two hours? But it didn't . . . I didn't hear it. What time is it?"
Josiah watched Chris's anger melt to concern in record time. "It's 9:30. For God's sake, Vin, what happened?"
Josiah heard the response in his head before Vin actually got the word out . . . "Nothin'."
"Says he had a headache. Got dizzy and hit a wall," Josiah supplied, earning a scowl from Vin.
"You said that yesterday. Come on, you're getting checked out," Chris stated as he latched onto Vin's arm.
Vin winced - it was a barely there reaction but Josiah caught it. It appeared as though it hurt the man to be touched.
He was sure of it ten minutes later when Vin was seated in Chris's office with Nathan hovering over him. It took most of that time to cajole Vin into submitting to the examination, but in the end, the young man knew he never had a choice to begin with and gave in.
Nathan had carefully taken Vin's chin in his hands to turn his head and more closely study the bruise, when Vin nearly bucked off the chair.
"Hold still!" Nathan reacted, more out of surprise than anger.
But Chris quickly intervened, kneeling in front of Vin to catch his eye. "Hey, Pard. No one's gonna hurt you here, you know that."
Vin met his gaze and immediately settled. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Nathan took out a pen light to peer at Vin's pupils, frowning when he asked, "What did you take for the headache?"
"Umm . . . I think . . . um . . . Vicodin."
Not hedging - Vin truly couldn't remember for sure, and Josiah wasn't sure whether he was more concerned about that, or the fact that Vin had taken the narcotic in the first place. Chris rose to his full height and met his eyes over the top of Vin's head, and he knew the blond was thinking the same thing.
"How many?" Nathan questioned as he stepped back, hands on his hips.
"Two," Vin answered quickly.
"Hell yes, I'm sure."
Nathan didn't look convinced, but he didn't get a chance to argue. Vin peered at the three men surrounding him and abruptly rose to his feet. "Now if y'all are done making me feel like I'm crazy, I'm gonna get t' work."
"Crazy? How do you figure that?" Chris asked, worry rapidly turning into frustration.
"So I was a little late and didn't hear my damn phone. Ain't the end of the world. Buck does it all the time. And I took a few pills that were prescribed for me. So what? Leave me the hell alone."
He stormed out, leaving three puzzled men in his wake.
"Well?" And now it was Chris with his hands on his hips, staring down both of the remaining men in the room.
"Well what?" Josiah clarified.
"What the hell is going on with him? You're the head expert, Josiah, and you're the body expert, Nathan, so which one of you can explain this?"
Nathan shook his head. "I'm not sure. But his pupils are a little dilated . . . and two Vicodin don't explain his behavior this morning."
"Should I take him to the hospital?" Chris asked with a note of desperation, switching moods almost as quickly as Vin.
"No, not yet," Nathan advised. "I don't think it's anything serious. Besides, that would just stress him out more. I'll keep an eye on him."
Josiah agreed as he turned to leave the office. "I will, too, Chris. But remember this, Nathan and I might know about behavior and physiology, but you know Vin."
Chris nodded and replied under his breath, "That's why I'm so worried."
As Josiah returned to his desk, he glanced at Vin from the corner of his eye. Tanner had his head down, long hair obscuring most of his face as he studied a form on his desk. But he couldn't hide the fine tremor in his hands.
It could be they were wrong in giving Vin time. But, he argued with himself, Vin had been good, really good only days before. And it felt so right having him back with the team. Surely this was just a delayed reaction to the stress of returning to work, their first bust together in months . . .
But another thought inched its way into his mind: maybe Ian O'Connor tormented Vin and Chris still. Maybe the wicked soul had found a way to reach out from the grave and finish what he'd started. A shiver shot up Josiah's spine and he sent another covert glance in Vin's direction.
A close eye . . . a very close eye . . .
+ + + + + + +
JD thought the week would never end. Everybody was crabby and on edge.
And Vin was just plain weird.
Tanner's desk was next to his, and three times in the last two days Vin had asked him what he wanted when he hadn't said a word. Each time, Vin had narrowed his eyes at him and asked, "You didn't say my name?"
And then yesterday, he'd gone to the break room for a coke, and found Vin there, talking to himself. All JD heard him say was, "Leave me alone," but it was enough to freak him out. Vin was standing there all alone, but he acted like he was talking to someone.
JD had backed out without making a sound, so hopefully Vin didn't know he was there.
The others noticed it, too. He heard Josiah and Nathan talking in the hall just that morning. He knew it was probably wrong to eavesdrop, but he stayed around the corner and listened in anyway.
"I don't think he's slept all week," Nathan had said. "And have you seen him take a single bite of anything t' eat?"
"No," Josiah answered. "But I think whatever is going on with him is more mental than physical. I think he's still got some powerful demons to lay to rest."
"We've got t' do something, Josiah." Nathan sounded almost desperate.
"I know. But if we force him to see a doctor, any doctor, they'll likely take him off active duty again, and I'm afraid that will only make matters worse. The job is his lifeline right now."
JD didn't know what was said after that, because Buck had come up behind him and told him to quit daydreaming and get to work.
Glancing up at the clock, JD noticed it was almost five. Normally, quitting time on a Friday could only be described as boisterous. Buck would be bragging about his weekend plans, and Ezra would come back with some smart retort. Vin would probably join in with a dry comment, and Josiah would add to it. Before they knew it, they'd all be talking over each other. Then Chris would come out of his office and complain about how the hell had he gotten stuck with a team full of kids, and if they weren't going to get any work done, they might just as well pack it in for the weekend.
That's when they'd head for Inez's place . . . which obviously wasn't going to happen that day. Or at least, he didn't think so until Buck broke the tense silence and all but insisted, "Come on, boys. We're goin' out."
Chris had stepped out of his office at that moment, and he turned his gaze from Buck to Vin. "You up to it, Vin?" he asked quietly.
Vin didn't look up from his desk, but he nodded and said, "Yeah."
That simple agreement shook something loose, and suddenly everybody was talking again as they gathered up their things. JD stood to put on his coat, noting from the corner of his eye that Chris still hovered close to Vin.
"We don't have to go, Vin," Chris said very softly, his eyes riveted on his best friend. "You could come out to the ranch for the weekend. We could take a long ride, maybe even camp out if you'd like."
JD knew he shouldn't be listening or watching, but he couldn't help himself. He saw Vin look at Chris with watery eyes, before he lowered his head and licked his lips. "I'd like that, Chris, but . . . I got somethin' I need t' do."
Disappointment dulled Chris's eyes, but he didn't argue. He just nodded and said, "Alright."
Later, they were all at the bar, trying to act like it was a normal Friday night. But it wasn't. The banter was forced, the tension palpable. JD watched Vin nurse a single beer for over an hour before the other man finally got up and headed for the restroom.
After Chris got up to follow him, Ezra sighed deeply and stated, "Well, Gentlemen, how much longer are we going to continue with this charade?"
Buck cleared his throat and offered, "Maybe he's just tired. Maybe he'll be fine come Monday."
"Maybe not," Nathan responded pessimistically.
JD wondered if he should throw in that he thought Vin was hearing things and seeing things that weren't there, but it didn't seem right to be talking about his friend like that. He'd tell Buck later.
"I don't think this is going to clear up on its own, Buck," Josiah stated. "Vin's got some deeply rooted problems that aren't going to go away with a few days off."
"Well then what are we gonna do about it?" Buck asked.
"We need to tread very carefully, Josiah," Ezra chimed in. "I fear that forcing Vin to seek council will result in another leave of absence from our team, and that in turn, may prove to be his greatest undoing."
"He needs us," JD agreed.
"He needs professional help. Otherwise he's gonna run himself straight t' the ground," Nathan argued. "It's only been two months since the man was on his deathbed. Y'all remember that? We'll lose him yet if we don't act soon."
Lose him yet . . . a chill gripped JD as his dreams came back to him with startling clarity . . . Vin lost and Chris pulling the trigger.
"What about Chris? He knows Vin better than anyone," he reminded his friends. "What does he think we should do?"
The bar had gotten crowded, the noise level rising proportionately, so all of the men blinked in surprise when Chris suddenly appeared at the head of the table and asked, "What we should do about what?"
JD's beer suddenly became a lot more interesting as he lowered his eyes and kept his mouth shut.
It was Josiah who bravely answered the question. "About Vin. Chris, you know he's-"
"Sad day when a man can't take a piss without his friends talkin' about him," Vin snarled as he suddenly appeared just behind Chris's shoulder.
"Now Vin-" Josiah started.
"Stop it!" Vin exploded. "I know what you're all sayin' behind my back. I know what you're thinkin'. I ain't crazy!"
"No one thinks that, Vin," Josiah stated calmly as he slowly stood and put a steady hand to Vin's arm. "Just calm down now and everything will be fine."
But either Vin didn't hear him or it didn't register, because his eyes continued to dart around the table from man to man. He growled, "I'm sick of your lies. Y'all told me . . . told me it was dreams . . . told me he was dead. Lies! All of it!"
JD watched the color drain from Chris's face when he turned to face Vin and asked, "He?"
"You know who!" Vin yelled. He faced Chris squarely then, his voice shaking as he added, "Never would've thought it from you, Chris. Thought you knew . . . thought you understood . . ."
"Vin," Chris pleaded, "listen to me. I don't know what you're talking-"
But Vin interrupted him once again, tears filling his eyes when he mumbled softly, "I trusted you." He turned on his heels then and headed for the door, with Chris following close behind.
"Well, that went well," Ezra quipped, but no one else said a word.
JD pushed his beer away; he was suddenly feeling nauseous. Everybody knew the 'he' Vin referred to was Ian O'Connor.
Vin obviously believed the villain was still alive and what if he was right?
What if his nightmare came true? What if O'Connor put a knife to his throat and Chris had to choose between him and Vin?
+ + + + + + +
"He ain't right, Chris. We all know it. And as much as I hate t' admit it, he needs more help than we can give him," Buck said gently.
Chris was standing across from him on the deck that circled the back of his ranch house. The mid-morning sun was shining just over his shoulder, casting a shadow on the finely chiseled features of his friend. But Buck didn't have to see him clearly to know what the other man was thinking.
Chris stiffened and snapped, "He's tired. The doctors told us to expect him to have rough spells for months - hell, maybe even years - to come."
Buck moved closer and put his hand on the tense shoulder. "Let's go inside and talk about this, alright?"
Walking on damn egg shells, he thought. No one could say a word about Vin without Chris going off half-cocked. Larabee had locked himself in his office most of the week, avoiding everyone and everything that might force him to face up to the truth. Well, enough was enough. After what had happened the night before, surely Chris realized it was time to take their heads out of the sand and deal with the problem.
Buck cringed as that last thought rolled through his mind. "The problem" was Vin - the man Chris had latched onto like a long lost brother. Buck knew the two men shared everything - every thought, every emotion, every dream. Hell, they damn near breathed for each other. About the only thing they weren't sharing was a bed - and there were a whole lot people who weren't convinced about that.
No way could he make this easier on Chris, but it had to be done. Chris must have finally reached that conclusion, too, because he docilely followed him inside and collapsed on the couch, elbows on his knees as he looked at Buck expectantly.
Clearing his throat, Buck started out, "Last night . . . well, I don't have to tell you what happened last night. In fact, why don't you tell me? I assume you followed Vin home?"
With a slow shake of his head, Chris replied, "I did. But I didn't get anywhere."
"Did you talk to him?"
"No. He flew home like a bat out of hell. He was locked up tight before I even reached the second floor."
There was something else in Larabee's eyes - something he wasn't sure he should share. Loyalty to Vin was still first and foremost, and Buck couldn't blame him for that. But they couldn't help Vin if they didn't have all the facts.
"What aren't you saying, Chris?"
Chris swallowed as he looked up to meet Buck's gaze. "He locked the door, Buck."
"Yeah? So? You have a key."
"Four dead-bolts. Vin added four new locks to his apartment door."
Buck felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. Hell, for years they'd nagged at Vin to actually use the one flimsy lock that he had. But if he'd added four locks to the door, it could only mean one thing: he was scared, and scared bad. Suddenly JD's words about Vin seeing things and hearing things took on even greater significance.
"I hate to say this, Stud," Buck said carefully, "but I think he's paranoid and delusional. I think he truly believes O'Connor is alive and out to get him. JD said . . . he said he thinks Vin is . . . hearing things."
It was painful to witness, the way Chris folded in on himself, his hands gripping his hair. After long moments, he met Buck's eyes again and sighed. "I should have known. I should have seen."
Buck shook his head. "You couldn't have known. He was doing so well for awhile there. We all thought he was over it."
Suddenly jumping to his feet, Chris yelled, "Over it? You don't get over what we went through! You just learn to live with it." In an only slightly calmer voice he added, "You learn to live with the memories . . . the nightmares."
Now Buck was on his feet. "You havin' dreams again, Chris?"
Chris looked like he wasn't sure how to answer, and considering Buck's reluctance to believe him in the past, he couldn't blame him for hesitating. But finally Chris did mutter, "Just one."
"Go on," Buck prodded, not at all liking the sick feeling in his gut.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Chris muttered, "It was the night before the bust."
"And I dreamed that Vin disappeared from that storage room in the back. We couldn't find him . . . there was blood on the window sill."
"Oh God," Buck mumbled as he suddenly recalled JD's dream. He'd felt all along that something wasn't right, and Ezra had, too. And now Chris was having dreams and Vin hearing voices . . .
"What?" Chris asked.
"We've got t' get to Vin," Buck tossed out as he quickly grabbed his keys and coat. "Come on."
"I'll explain in the car!" he exclaimed.
His heart pounded all the way to Vin's apartment, though he managed to keep the panic from his voice for Chris's sake. It was probably ridiculous and he was more than likely overreacting, but he wouldn't feel better until he had one scrawny, screwed-up sniper in his sights. Whatever was going on with Vin, they'd work it out - and he told Chris that over and over as they made their way to Purgatorio.
Chris had said nothing since they'd crawled in the car. Buck got the impression he was trying not to overreact himself, trying to hold on to the belief that it was all a fluke. But it was a lose-lose situation: either Vin was terribly sick and needed a lot more help than anyone wanted to think about - or Ian O'Connor really was a threat to them once more.
Once they reached Vin's home, Chris gave up any pretense of holding it together. He bounded out of the car and up the stairs before Buck barely had a chance to put the car in 'park'. By the time he caught up to his friend, Chris was banging on the door to Vin's apartment.
"Open up, Vin! Come on! I'm not leaving until you let me in!"
When five more minutes of raised voices and vicious pounding produced no results, Buck turned to Chris and offered, "Maybe he just ain't here."
"Jeep's out front," Chris responded shortly.
"Maybe he walked?"
Chris turned to him, not even attempting to hide the fear in his eyes. "What's your gut telling you, Buck?"
Buck swallowed. "T' break down the damn door."
"It ain't gonna happen with all those bolts, Chris. We gotta find another way in."
With a quick nod, Chris replied. "I know one."
Buck wasn't afraid of heights, but climbing four stories on a rickety old fire escape, then maneuvering ten feet on a narrow ledge from the landing to Vin's bedroom window, left him breathless and lightheaded. But that was far preferable to the fist in his gut when he saw the broken glass.
Chris was ahead of him, and when he gasped sharply, Buck instinctively latched onto him. "Hold on, Stud," Buck said lowly in the blond's ear. "Let's just go inside, check it out."
Chris easily swung his body through the open window, his feet crunching on the broken glass that littered Vin's bedroom floor. Buck came in right behind him, but Chris had already taken off into the living room and kitchen, hollering for Vin.
Vin wasn't there; Buck knew it without moving three steps from the window. And as he took a closer look at the shattered window pane, he knew something else, too - Chris's dream had come true.
+ + + + + + +
"Blood on the windowsill," Nathan heard one member of the forensics team tell another. "Probably Tanner's," the man added in a cold, detached way that made Nathan want to choke him.
But as he stood in the doorway of Vin's bedroom and watched the men work, he had to acknowledge that the true source of his anger was himself. He'd known. For weeks, he'd denied the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that all was not well. He'd ignored the dreams and even worse, he'd ignored the signs that Vin was suffering.
How many times had he told Chris that the headaches were normal? That Vin was just tired . . . just stressed . . . just recovering a little more slowly than they'd hoped? Oh sure, he'd talked with Josiah about it, gotten downright desperate at one point demanding they do something, but he hadn't actually done a damn thing.
And now it was too late. That bastard had Vin again and he'd let it happen. They all knew it was O'Connor, even before they found the bloody message scrawled on Vin's bathroom mirror, "We meet again".
"Blood in the bed, too," he heard through the fog in his head, and he rushed to the bedside to take a look. Maybe he could determine the extent of Vin's injuries . . .
"Don't waste your time, Nathan," Ezra suddenly spoke up from where he stood in the doorway. "O'Connor only inflicted enough harm to incapacitate Vin, not to kill him. The real concern is what will he do to Vin before we find him? What kind of devious torture has his twisted mind concocted this time?"
"I don't want t' think about that," Nathan replied with a groan as he went to Ezra's side.
"Nor do I," Standish replied, before turning his attention to the other men in the room.
"I want every liquid, every pill, every morsel of food tested. Every hair, every particle of cloth, every speck of dust, every sliver of-"
"We get it," the forensics expert cut him off with a roll of his eyes.
"You think Vin was being drugged?" Nathan asked softly.
"I think it would explain his . . . unusual behavior," Ezra replied under his breath, obviously intent on keeping Vin's recent paranoia and mood swings between his teammates.
It made sense, and once again, Nathan was filled with remorse that he hadn't considered the possibility sooner. "Let's go on back to the office," he suggested. "Nothin' much we can do here."
Ezra nodded but didn't say anything else until they exited the apartment. Even though they were alone in the hall, he kept his voice low when he asked, "How is he?"
He and Standish had their differences, but they could always communicate when it counted; Nathan knew immediately that the other man was asking about Chris. "I only saw him for a few minutes," he replied with a sigh. "Buck had him out of here the minute forensics showed up."
"And he didn't look good. I'm not sure Chris can take another round. You know how close he and Vin are." He lowered his eyes then and admitted under his breath, "And I keep having these dreams that he . . . that he . . ."
He couldn't say it, couldn't finish it. All he could see was Vin dead and Chris turning his weapon towards his own head. Ezra would think he was crazy.
But to his astonishment, Ezra's face paled as he muttered, "Good Lord. Where are Josiah and JD?"
"Canvassing the neighborhood. Haven't found nothin' though, and I think we both know they won't. O'Connor is as slippery as a snake."
"Call them back to the office," Ezra ordered. "We need to talk. All of us."
With a puzzled frown, Nathan nodded. He wasn't sure what he'd said that triggered something for Ezra, but at that moment, they needed all the help they could get.
An hour later, they were all seated at the conference table - with two notable exceptions. Chris stood at the window, his back to them; though Nathan thought it was most likely the vacant chair that Larabee couldn't face.
Tense silence filled the room for about three minutes when Buck barked impatiently, "So come on, Ezra. Why did you call us here? We've got work t' do and-"
"I know that, Buck," Ezra snapped. "But I think something is going on here that we need to get out in the open. And perhaps if we stop pretending and denying our instincts, we'll have a better chance at discerning what we need to do next."
"What are you getting at?" Josiah asked.
"Nathan has been having dreams. And so have I," Ezra admitted almost sheepishly.
"What? Me, too!" JD blurted.
Chris finally turned towards them and pulled a shaky hand through his hair. "What the hell is going on?"
"Buck! You told me it was nothing! You said not to worry about it!" JD yelled.
"How the hell was I supposed t' know?" Buck argued back.
Josiah, ever the voice of reason, calmly stated, "Now hold on everyone. Let's just discuss this rationally."
"There's nothing rational about any of this," Chris replied through gritted teeth.
"I understand, Chris. But your dreams and Vin's played a significant role in the past - and it's possible that is the case with the rest of us now. If we're going to figure out where O'Connor has Vin, we have to examine every possible angle," Josiah explained. "JD, why don't you begin? Tell us about your dream."
JD licked his lips and looked at Buck.
"Go on, Kid," Buck encouraged.
"O'Connor has me," JD began, uncharacteristically succinct. "He has a knife to my throat and he's gonna kill me. So Chris . . . so Chris shoots him in the head. And then . . . well, he knows . . . I mean Chris knows that O'Connor is the only one who knows where Vin is and that we'll never find him . . ."
JD's voice trailed off and all eyes turned to their leader. The look on Chris's face made Nathan's stomach roll as he thought back to the moment in his dream when Chris put a gun to his own head. Maybe it wasn't such a stretch of the imagination.
Chris must have felt him staring at him, because he turned abruptly towards him and asked, "What about you, Nathan?"
He didn't want to say it; it was the last thing Chris needed to hear. At least there was still a chance to save Vin in JD's nightmare, but his dream was literally a dead end.
Shifting uncomfortably, Nathan began, "Well, I uh . . . I keep seeing . . ." He swallowed and looked apologetically at Chris. "I keep seeing Vin . . . covered in blood." His voice wavered when he added, "He's . . . he's dead. And Chris, you pick up your gun and you . . . you turn it on yourself . . ."
This time, no one looked at Chris. Nathan tried to keep his head down, but his eyes were drawn to the empty space where Vin should have been.
Ezra broke the heavy silence by clearing his throat. "My dreams are far less violent," he said, "but terribly disturbing none the less. In them, I can see Vin clearly, he is close by, and it's apparent that he is hurt and frightened. He begs me to help him, but for some reason, I cannot. It's as if some invisible force is holding me back."
"That's it?" JD was obviously unimpressed by the significance of Ezra's dream.
"While my vision may be less gruesome than yours or Nathan's, I assure you, JD, that it is equally disturbing. There is a desperate sense of helplessness . . . and the look on Vin's face . . . it's as if I have somehow betrayed him."
"Alright," Josiah stepped in. "Buck? What about you?"
"No. Just that one when Chris and Vin were still in the hospital. But my gut's been actin' up ever since. Just had a . . . feelin'."
"Me, too," Josiah agreed.
"So what does this mean?" JD asked, his eyes wide.
"It means Vin and Chris are not the only ones 'freakishly linked'," Josiah answered. "We all have a sixth sense when it comes to each other. I only wish we'd thought to speak up sooner."
There were mumbled agreements among the group, when Ezra reluctantly offered something else. "There was another time, on my return flight from Florida. O'Connor suddenly appeared next to me on the plane with a message for Chris."
"What was it?" Buck growled.
"Well, I was stunned. I was certain he was dead, so I'm not sure I caught it clearly, but I believe he said, 'Tell Chris and his beautiful mate that we've just begun'."
"And you didn't tell us?" Chris barked, facing Ezra head on. "We might have been able to stop this! How could you keep that to yourself?"
Clearly flustered, Ezra stammered, "I looked for him on the plane, but there was no trace of him, so I thought . . . I thought I was dreaming."
For once, Nathan actually felt sorry for Standish. "It's alright, Ezra. We're all guilty."
"It's not a matter of guilt, my friends. We all just wanted so badly to believe it was over," Josiah offered, though his attempt to comfort fell flat.
"Well it isn't over," Chris spat as he stalked to the door. "And now Vin is in the hands of that madman again."
"But Chris, the dreams give us something to go on. We have a better idea what we're facing."
"Forgive me, Josiah, if I'm not grateful to know in advance that Vin is going to die."
But Chris was already out the door and down the hall.
Nathan leaned back in his chair with a deep sigh. Maybe Josiah was right; maybe they stood a better chance of thwarting Ian O'Connor with their combined premonitions, dreams, and gut feelings. He wasn't one to put his faith in such hocus pocus, but something strange was definitely going on, and if it helped get Vin back, he wouldn't question it.
He only knew one thing for certain: they had to keep his dream from coming true. While the other men's visions were disturbing, only his nightmare left no room for hope.