+ + + + + + +
Chris wasn't sure he could make it to the men's room before he lost his coffee. But once inside, nothing came up. He leaned against the stall for a full five minutes, before turning to the sink and splashing cold water on his face. He caught his reflection in the mirror, but it wasn't his face he saw - it was Vin's, the last time he'd seen him.
I trusted you . . .
It didn't matter that Chris hadn't lied to him, because Vin truly believed that he had. And now he might never get the chance to set him straight. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep his mind from imagining the horrors Vin was certainly experiencing at Ian's hands. And undoubtedly, that included filling his friend with lies and delusions that he'd been let down by the men he was closest to.
Chris swallowed and took a deep breath, not entirely sure that coffee wouldn't make a reappearance yet.
"Chris?" Buck called out as he poked his head in the restroom door.
His tongue thick in his mouth, Chris grunted, "Huh?"
Stepping inside, Buck offered, "They got some preliminary results from Vin's apartment. There's definitely something in the orange juice."
With hollow eyes, Chris nodded numbly and replied, "Amazing isn't it? How quick we were to assume Vin had lost his mind?"
"He drinks a goddamn glass of juice every night and every morning, Buck!" Chris yelled as he turned to face him. "We're supposed to be his team . . . his friends, for God's sake . . . the men who know him best. And not one of us thought to check and see what the hell was making him act the way he did!"
"Now hold on. We had no reason to suspect that anyone was out there drugging Vin's orange juice."
"I should have known! Hell, we all should have!"
Buck narrowed his eyes as he gripped Chris by the shoulders. "You done? You done blaming yourself and carrying on about what we all should have thought or done or said? Because we don't got time for this. What's done is done. Vin's out there and we've gotta find him. It's time t' get your head back in the game, Chris. You got that?"
He got it alright. He got it so well that he knew they'd never find Vin until O'Connor was good and ready for them to. In the meantime, all he could do was sit back and wait . . . and think about how he'd failed Vin, how he'd missed the clues.
But hell, that wasn't accurate, either. He'd deliberately closed his eyes and his mind - literally shut the door to his office all week long - so he wouldn't have to think about the fact that his best friend, the man he'd walked through hell with, was crumbling before his eyes. How many times had he peered through his office window in the last few days, watching covertly as Vin's hands trembled? How many times had he ignored the subtle panic in Vin's eyes when the younger man couldn't quite keep up with a conversation? How often had he looked the other way when it seemed that Vin wasn't exactly sure where he was or what was going on around him?
Chris had blamed it on lack of sleep and the ever present headache. Nathan had reminded him that Vin had suffered a severe head injury and that the headaches were normal, expected even, under the circumstances. He accepted the explanation because he couldn't bear the thought of Vin being sick again - being forced back on leave. Even more, he didn't want to believe that all the psycho shit Mackenzie and his crew made a living off of applied to Vin. Never to Vin. Tanner had a strong mind and a stubborn streak a mile wide - he wouldn't let a bastard like O'Connor get to him.
Which was exactly why he should have known. All signs pointed to the fact that Vin had been controlled by something foreign and unnatural. And they'd let it happen; let him suffer through it alone, believing that his friends had somehow betrayed him.
Well, they had, in a way. Every one of them knew something was terribly wrong and they'd done nothing.
"Come on. This guilt party's over. We got work t' do," Buck said as he pulled him by the arm. But he stopped at the entrance to the restroom and turned to Chris, a question burning bright in his eyes, "You wouldn't do it, would you, Chris?"
Cocking his head, Chris clarified, "Do what?"
"You know . . . what Nathan said. No matter how this comes out, you wouldn't . . . you won't . . .?"
Oh. Buck was obviously referring to Nathan's dream. "No, Buck, I won't eat my gun," Chris answered, more to get Buck off his back than because he really believed it. The truth was, he wasn't sure what he'd do. Every time he got a glimpse of happiness, it was jerked away from him. He was tired, and he honestly didn't know how much fight he had left. And if he lost Vin . . .
"Think I'd like your word on that, Chris," Buck pressed.
"Okay," Chris answered. He didn't add that his word didn't mean much. After all, he'd given his word to Vin that O'Connor was dead and that the bastard would never touch him again.
Obviously, the net worth of his word was absolutely zero.
+ + + + + + +
A burning pain in his side awakened him, and he groaned as he tried to twist away from it.
"Now, now, hold still," a voice said softly, though there was no warmth in the tone.
Vin struggled to open his eyes, to move his limbs, and found he could do neither. "Wha . . . what?"
"I'm so glad you're awake. I wouldn't want you to miss this," the voice continued.
A sharp pinch to his side, and he gasped, finally managing to peel his eyes open a fraction. Cold, blue eyes met his . . . pale face, white teeth. "No . . ." Vin moaned breathlessly.
"Yes," Ian O'Connor contradicted him, his grin widening. "We are together again, my dear Vin. Although I am sorry about the wound. I hadn't meant to cut you this time, but unfortunately, you refused my invitation."
Another pinch and Vin grunted as he lifted his head. He was lying on a bed, and O'Connor's head was bent over his side, a needle and thread in his hands.
"It's not terribly deep, but we have things to do, and as much as I love the smell and taste of it, the blood would be an inconvenience. Besides, I'm not ready for you to die yet. Although, I admit that I have dreamed of it, your death . . . and his."
O'Connor looked up at him, his eyes almost glassy as he went on dreamily, "It excites me in a way that nothing has in a very long time. Just thinking of it arouses me, stirs things in me that I haven't felt since our last encounter. I see your rich, red blood covering your body . . . your beautiful blue eyes, vacant and unseeing as your partner wails in misery . . . and turns his weapon on himself . . ."
"Never," Vin whispered hoarsely. "Chris would never do that."
"Wouldn't he? I don't believe you know what he would do. I don't believe you know what he has done."
Vin groaned again and closed his eyes. He could only pray he was dreaming again. For days, images had swum before him and voices swirled around him. He'd felt like he was sleepwalking; like reality and dreams had melded together until he couldn't sort them out anymore. Truth and lies, fiction and reality, who he could trust . . . who he couldn't . . .
Fingers played lightly across his stomach and chest, caressing the scars left from a human mouth, and they felt so real.
"Do you remember this?" the dreaded voice continued. "My mouth on you? Did Chris tell you about it? Did he tell you how he watched? How he wished it was him? How he begged me to let him put his mouth on you, too?"
"No!" Vin argued. It wasn't like that . . . though he had no memory of what had happened before. But surely Chris wasn't there; he'd have told him if he was. And Chris would never . . .
"He wants you. He's waiting for you now. He's here with us. Do you see him?"
Vin pulled his head up again, straining against the bonds that tied his wrists and ankles to the bed posts. The room was casts in shadows, the dim light of candles reflecting off the pine walls of what appeared to be a small cabin. He peered through the darkness and thought he saw movement . . . there, in the corner . . .
"Chris?" he asked weakly, not really believing his friend was with him, but praying it was so. The blond's face suddenly appeared before him, and he called out to him, "Chris! Help me!"
O'Connor laughed cruelly. "He's not really here, Vin. Your mind is playing tricks on you again. I'm sorry. It's so confusing, isn't it? So difficult to determine what is real and what isn't."
Vin lowered his head back to the pillow and bit his lip as the image of Chris's warm, green eyes swam before him, then disappeared completely.
"They told you I was dead, didn't they?"
"Yes," Vin hissed, chiding himself for continuing to answer someone who wasn't there, couldn't possibly be there. But the needle continued to pierce his skin and he fought to control his panic. The pain felt so real . . .
"They lied to you. I was off the boat and on my way long before it blew up. And your friends knew it. Everything they told you, everything you think you know is wrong."
Gritting his teeth, Vin continued the imaginary conversation, "No reason . . . they have no reason t' lie."
"Of course they do," O'Connor replied smoothly. "They all have their reasons. None of them are who you think they are. Buck Wilmington, for example. You took his place - you became Larabee's best friend and right hand man . . . his mate."
Ian leaned forward, and Vin was unwillingly drawn to his gaze. "Wilmington put drugs in your juice, Vin. He wanted you to think you were going insane. He made it so easy for me."
"No . . . no," Vin shook his head. Not Buck . . .
"And young Dunne? He's jealous of your relationship with Chris, as well. He knows that if it came down to his life or yours, Chris would always choose you. He's relieved that you're gone, he doesn't want the others to find you."
"Not so . . ." Vin argued as he pulled against his bonds once more, struggling in vain for a way out of the nightmare.
"And Sanchez and Jackson - the two men who are normally most concerned with your mental and physical well-being - they ignored you this week, didn't they? The excruciating headaches you suffered, the strain of seeing and hearing things that weren't there - they turned the other way. They're tired of it, tired of taking care of you."
Did they? Were they? He wasn't sure . . .
"That leaves Standish. Ah, but I don't have to tell you how he really feels about you. You already know. He abhors the way you live, the way you talk, the way you dress. He doesn't understand you. Tell me, my dear Vin, if he had the chance to save you, do you think he would take it? Would he risk his life for yours?"
"Shut up!" Vin screamed as he writhed on the bed. It was too much. They were all lies.
Or were they? Vin gasped as he tried to block out the words of the madman. But his mind couldn't deny that his friends had been acting strangely, treating him differently. In truth, O'Connor had given voice to the doubts that had plagued him all week long. Were his teammates tired of dealing with him? Wouldn't it be easier on all of them if he was out of the picture? Even Chris? Especially Chris?
"And then there is Chris Larabee, the man who destroyed my life. And yours. You see Vin, that is what you and I have in common - the real bond between us. You may not realize it yet, but you soon will. He knows he can't have you, but he wants you. Badly. So he keeps you tied to him in every way possible . . . keeps you down. You're nothing but his lapdog. And all you've suffered is because of him."
"No! You're wrong!" Vin yelled. "All I am is 'cause of him!"
O'Connor laughed again. "Is that right? Then we shall see exactly what you are. Or rather, what you are worth to your so-called friends. Soon, in fact. Very soon."
Vin had no time to process what O'Connor meant by his statement. He felt a sharp sting in his arm as the room grew even dimmer.
"Sleep now," a voice commanded him. And real or imagined, he had no choice but to follow along.
+ + + + + + +
Sleep was not in the cards for Vin's teammates, but Ezra didn't argue when Buck suggested the men call it a night. At nearly three am, they'd done everything they could think of, short of calling in the National Guard, which JD suggested at one point. APBs were out and every available resource and security net was being utilized.
It wasn't enough, and it was with heavy hearts that they admitted that all they could do was wait for O'Connor to make the next move.
Chris wasn't about to leave the office, so Josiah agreed to stay with him. Nathan reluctantly went home to Rain, apologizing once more before he left for a dream he had no control over. Buck had literally pulled JD out of the office, with the stern command that the young man wasn't to leave his side until this was over. It seemed Buck was bound and determined to keep JD's dream from coming true, but Ezra had a feeling it wouldn't be that simple.
He also knew he would be wise to take similar precautions - at the very least, to spend the remainder of the night with one of his teammates. But they were due to meet again in four hours, and O'Connor was unlikely to make a move so early in the game. And more than anything, he needed a few hours in the sanctuary of his own home to assimilate his thoughts.
He spent the thirty minute drive to his townhouse thinking about the strange events of the day. Normally, he'd give as much credence to dreams and visions as he would to a fortune teller in a tacky carnival. And yet, the bond between him and his teammates could be not denied, and therefore, their collective dreams could not be discounted.
And already, Chris's dream had come true - Vin was missing.
Arriving in the middle of the night was not terribly unusual for him, but he admitted to a certain amount of discomfort as he exited his vehicle. In fact, a definite chill raced up his spine, even before he heard the chilling voice not a hundred feet from the entrance to his home.
"Oh good," the voice said. "You've finally arrived. Vin is so looking forward to seeing you."
Ezra gasped as he peered into the headlights that shone from a single car parked in the street near his home. It was almost surreal, seeing the man he had sought so desperately for so long standing soundly and surely in front of him.
And dear Lord, he had Vin with him.
With one hand on his weapon, Ezra cautiously approached the pair. He noted that Vin's shirt was torn and bloody, but at least his friend was standing. Although he wobbled precariously as Ezra neared.
"Ez?" Vin slurred drunkenly, weaving towards him until O'Connor squeezed his arm tightly and pulled him back.
"Not so fast, love," the wicked man cooed. "Your friend and I have matters to discuss."
His dream flashing before him, Ezra pulled his gun, determined that Vin would not be in the devil's clutches another minute. "How kind of you to bring our lost comrade home," he stated coolly.
Ian laughed. "Yes. Isn't it?"
He was close now, close enough to hear Vin's breath quicken as he reached out for him. "Ezra? Are you real?"
Ezra leaned forward and barely brushed Vin's fingertips as he offered softly, "Yes, Vin. I'm real. And everything will be fine."
"Will it now?" O'Connor bated. "I suppose it could be - for him and for you - though not necessarily for others you care about."
"I don't know what you're talking about and I don't care. Step away from Vin and perhaps I'll reconsider blowing your fucking head off."
"Actually, it isn't my head that is likely to be blown off. You might want to consider what I hold in my hand before you resort to such violence."
A quick glance was enough to set Ezra's stomach churning. A detonator . . . O'Connor held a detonator in his hands.
"You're bluffing," Ezra said, his heart pounding.
"Maybe. Maybe not. Answer this for me, Mr. Standish - would you trade his life for Mr. Jackson's and his lovely wife's?"
It took all Ezra had to hold his gun steady as he considered the implication of the question. Could he get off the shot before O'Connor had time to trigger the explosive? Could he take that chance?
"Or what about Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Larabee? They're together, correct? And I believe a similar situation exists with Wilmington and young Dunne. Two birds with one stone . . . or should I say, one explosive device?"
"Quite. But at the moment, I'm being rather reasonable. You see, Mr. Standish, I'm offering you a deal. You can have my dear Vin - take him with you right now - but someone will pay the price for his freedom. Tell me, is he worth it?"
Dear God. It all made sense now, the invisible force in his dreams that kept him from Vin . . . it was an impossible choice. Risk the life of his fellow teammates, or let O'Connor take Vin away once more.
Did Vin know what was at stake? Did he understand?
Ezra could see that Vin was trying to follow the conversation, but it was taking all of his concentration just to stay on his feet. Ignoring O'Connor for the moment, he asked gently, "Vin? Are you hurt?"
Vin tried to focus on him, but it appeared to be a lost cause. He wavered again and mumbled, "Don't feel too good, Ez. Can you . . . help me? Please?"
He felt tears burning behind his eyes as he answered, "I will. I just have to . . . work a few things out first." He turned to O'Connor then and demanded, "Just what kind of game is this? What do you want?"
"A bit more time with the lovely Mr. Tanner . . . and for you to deliver a message to Mr. Larabee for me."
"Give me the detonator and I'll consider it."
"I might be insane, but I am not foolish, Standish. Get in the car, Vin. Your friend has made his choice."
"No! Wait . . ."
But Ian roughly pushed Vin into the car and slammed the door. Confused blue eyes met Ezra's through the window. He could hear Vin ask, "Ez? What's goin' on?"
O'Connor turned back to him. "Tell Mr. Larabee to meet me in twenty-four hours, where it first began."
As O'Connor climbed in the car and drove off, Ezra held Vin's troubled gaze for as long as he could. He then reached for his cell phone, his hands shaking as he choked, "Nathan, get out of the house! Now! And tell Josiah and Chris to get out of the office!"
Nathan started to question him, but Ezra cut him off and called Buck, giving him the same terse instructions before dialing the bomb squad. He quickly rattled off six addresses to be checked out, adding his own, Vin's, and the Larabee ranch to the list of possible targets. Only then did he collapse to the curb and roughly brush the moisture from his eyes. He wasn't a man who cried. In fact, he couldn't recall the last time he'd given in to such displays of emotion. But he knew it would be a long time before he could get Vin's stricken face out of his mind.
What if it was a bluff? What if he had the chance to end this misery and bring Vin home, and he'd blown it? How would Vin ever forgive him? How would he forgive himself?
Is he worth it?
Ezra would hear that icy question in his head forever. And what had his answer been? A resounding, "NO".
It took him a moment to register the sound of his cell phone as he gulped in a breath. "Yes?"
"What the hell is going on?" Chris practically screamed.
"I . . . I . . ." he gulped.
The tone abruptly changed. "Ezra? Are you alright?"
"No, I'm not. Just tell me you and Josiah are out of the building."
"We're out. We'll meet you at your place."
"No. I'm not sure it's safe. We'll meet at the Denny's on Federal."
God, he must be out of his mind - he was suggesting meeting at a diner.
His legs moved of their own accord, and he drove back into town without conscious thought. Stubborn tears filled his eyes, but he blinked them away, determined to appear strong before his colleagues when he admitted what he'd done.
Unfortunately, he couldn't remove the image of Vin's desperate face so easily. And if they didn't get him back - if JD's or Nathan's dreams came true as well - he was certain those sad, blue eyes would haunt him for the rest of his life.
+ + + + + + +
Standish looked as bad as Josiah had ever seen him. In fact, he wouldn't swear to it, but he thought the man might have shed tears. Ezra's voice wavered as he described his encounter with Ian O'Connor.
"He had the detonator in his hand. I didn't know . . . couldn't be sure if he was bluffing. After all he'd done, it seemed entirely too possible that he might commit such a heinous act," Ezra stated emphatically. It was as if he felt the need to plead his case, though that wasn't true. No one blamed him for his actions, nor made an attempt to second guess them. Josiah was certain they all would have done exactly the same thing.
Nathan was the first to ask what they were all dying to know. "How was he? Vin?"
"He was, uh . . . he was standing," Ezra hedged.
"Just say it," Chris demanded, his face hard and pale as alabaster.
"His shirt was torn and bloody, though I couldn't get a good look at any wounds. He seemed . . . confused . . . he couldn't focus." Ezra looked down as he added, "I don't think he understood why . . ."
Josiah closed his eyes as he suddenly imagined himself in Ezra's place. Vin, right there in front of him, watching and waiting for his friend to help him, then literally shoved back into the nightmare with no understanding of what was happening or why. Or even worse - the wrong understanding of what had happened. Josiah groaned as the light bulb went off in his head. Suddenly he understood the intention behind O'Connor's latest move.
"I don't get it," JD spoke up. "Why would O'Connor do this? I mean, why go to all that trouble just to get a message to Chris? What was the point?"
Josiah turned his gaze to Chris, gauging his reaction to the question. When the blond closed his eyes and turned away, Josiah knew the man had figured it out as well.
"He wants Vin to believe we don't care about him, that we've forsaken him," Josiah answered softly. "Judging by Vin's behavior this past week, I'm guessing he's been filling his head with lies for days now. It's all part of the game."
"And I played right into his hands," Ezra despaired.
"You didn't have a choice, Ez," Buck offered softly, with a strong grip to the man's shoulder.
"That's right," Nathan agreed. "If anything had happened to Rain . . ."
Josiah noticed that Chris didn't say a word. So maybe they all wouldn't have reacted as Ezra had after all.
"So where did this all start, Chris? Exactly where are we gonna meet this murderin' sonuvabitch tomorrow night?" Buck adeptly changed the subject.
The ringing of Larabee's cell phone pre-empted the answer. As Chris rose swiftly from the table and moved off a few feet, Josiah noted that every man at the table followed his movement.
Chris returned only moments later and leveled his gaze at Ezra, "They haven't found anything yet."
Ezra's face turned a peculiar shade of green and he pushed himself away from the table. "Excuse me," he mumbled, as he made a bee line for the restroom.
"God damn it, Chris! He didn't have a choice!" Buck scolded, standing to meet Chris eye to eye.
"I didn't say he did!" Chris argued.
"You don't have to say it. It's written all over your face."
Chris finally admitted what he was really thinking. "O'Connor was right there in front of him. He could have blown the bastard's head off and this would be over."
"Yeah, and the bastard could have blown your head off at the same time," Buck reminded him.
"I don't care!"
"Well, fine. I guess you don't care about Josiah's head either then? Or mine, or JD's, or Nathan's? I guess none of us add up to what Vin is worth. That about right?" Buck spat, his face flushed in anger.
"That's enough," Josiah said firmly. He'd let the argument go on, knowing it was healthy for the men to get their frustration out, but it had gone too far.
The relationship between Chris and Vin was something none of the men truly understood, but it was accepted without question or discussion. If Buck held any resentment over it, he'd never so much as hinted at it. But Chris's reaction to Ezra's predicament brought some unsettling issues to light. How far would Chris go to save Vin? JD's dream had to be front and center in Buck's mind . . . would Larabee spare JD's life at the possible cost of Vin's? There was room for doubt.
Chris wilted at Buck's words, scrubbing his hand over his face as he responded in a low tone, "I want him back." He swallowed then and passed his gaze over every man at the table, "But not . . . I'd never endanger any of you to save Vin."
"Of course not," Josiah quickly agreed, though unless he was reading the man entirely wrong, he couldn't say Buck was convinced.
In fact, Buck said nothing more as he resumed his place at the table, until Ezra finally returned. "Y'alright, Bud?" Buck asked then, his concern genuine if a bit overdone. Josiah figured Wilmington was making a point.
Still pale, but no longer green around the gills, Ezra adopted his usual composure and nodded, "Of course."
And if his eyes watered when Chris murmured, "You did the right thing, Ezra," no one called him on it.
All of the men sat back expectantly then, waiting for their leader to take charge. Josiah may have had concerns regarding Chris's emotional state - and possibly his judgment - but this was still his ballgame.
Larabee remained standing, inhaling deeply before addressing his men at the table. "We'll meet him at the old theater on Sixth. That's where I killed his brother years ago."
"Shit. That place is old and dark . . . and creepy," Buck said with an exaggerated shutter.
"What's the plan gonna be?" JD asked nervously.
"I have no idea," Chris admitted.
The discouraging discussion that followed offered few ideas. They were running low on energy and ammunition. And although no one wanted to put it in words, it felt like they were fighting a foe that was way out of their league - some sort of supernatural being, rather than a man of flesh and blood.
An hour later, after receiving an all clear from the bomb squad, they made their way to Ezra's townhouse. JD and Nathan quickly settled in the spare bedroom for some much needed sleep, while Buck collapsed on the couch. Ezra retired to his bedroom, though Josiah doubted the man would sleep. As absurd as it seemed, it would have been far easier on Ezra if O'Connor's threat had held water.
Josiah had just leaned back in the leather recliner and started to relax for a moment, when he caught Chris glaring at Wilmington as the man snored softly. He quickly jumped to Buck's defense. "He's just tired, Chris. Like we all are. It doesn't mean he's not worried."
"Why is everyone so quick to assume they know what I'm thinking?" Chris barked as he took a seat on the couch opposite Buck. "I know he's exhausted and I know he's worried."
"Alright. I apologize," Josiah backed off. "Why don't you rest, too? You can't go another twenty-four hours without sleep, Chris."
"I don't need sleep. I need to get Vin back. That's all that matters right now."
Josiah leaned forward to look Chris in the eye. "And if we don't?"
"What the hell does that mean? We will. We have to."
"God damn it, Josiah! I'm not in the mood for your head games this morning."
"Believe me, Chris, I'm far too tired to spar with you right now. I just need to hear that no matter how this comes out, you won't give up on us."
Chris shook his head with a sigh. "Those damn dreams . . ." Tipping his chin up, he met Josiah's gaze and asked, "Why is it so easy to believe I would kill myself over Vin? I didn't put a bullet in my brain when Sarah and Adam died."
"There are many ways a man can end his life, Chris. It's my understanding that you were on a long, slow path to self-destruction. Now there are a lot of reasons that road changed, but I'd venture to say that Vin Tanner tops the list."
To Josiah's surprise, Chris agreed. "He does."
"And after all you and Vin have been through together, especially in the last few months, to lose him - to lose another person you love to one of your enemies - well, it would be . . . difficult."
Chris scoffed. "Difficult?"
"Impossible? Unbearable?" Josiah pressed.
"I don't want t' talk about this," Chris muttered, laying his head against the back of the couch with a deep sigh. He rubbed his eyes with his fists as he added, "It's a mute point. I'm getting Vin back - alive."
Maybe Chris was right in his refusal to accept even the possibility of losing Vin. Maybe they were all taking too much stock in dreams; wasting precious time and energy worrying about what might happen.
But then again, Josiah had studied too hard, read too much - been around too long - to ignore the warning signs that were right in front of him. With the exception of a few minor details, two dreams had already come true.
Two down, two to go . . . with two lives in the balance, Josiah thought grimly. And as his eyelids unwillingly drooped closed, he could only pray that the answer to it all came to him in a dream.
+ + + + + + +
JD's heart was in his throat . . . or maybe it was his stomach that refused to stay where it belonged. He swallowed and prayed that he wouldn't throw up. He'd never been so damn nervous in his life. Okay, not nervous - scared. Scared shitless to be exact.
Buck was right; the long abandoned theater on the outskirts of Denver was dark and creepy. Right out of a horror film, and any second now, JD expected Ian O'Connor to materialize out of thin air right in front of him.
"Easy now, JD," Buck breathed in his ear, and JD swallowed again.
They'd paired up. He was with Buck of course, mostly because Buck insisted on it, but also because there was no way he was going with Chris and chancing his dream coming true. Chris couldn't be with Nathan, either, for the same reason, although no one said as much. So that left Ezra and Nathan to take the balcony, Chris and Josiah on the main floor, and him and Buck in the basement.
Where it was even darker . . . and creepier.
Chris refused back-up, at least initially. He'd finally given in and agreed to let Travis know what was going on, but he was adamant that O'Connor wouldn't show at all if anyone but his team was involved. Travis was giving them twenty minutes before he brought in back-up anyway.
JD was beginning to think that was nineteen minutes too long.
"Can't see a damn thing," he mumbled crossly as the two men hugged the wall that lined a long, dark hallway.
"That's right. Neither can O'Connor," Buck pointed out.
"Hell, I wouldn't count on that, Buck. The man's like a . . . a vampire or something," JD whispered with a shiver, recalling the bites on Vin's torso. "He can probably see in the dark. In fact, he probably gets more powerful as the sun goes down . . . absorbs the energy of the night . . . feeds on it, like the blood-"
"JD!" Buck spoke hoarsely in his ear once more. "Hush!"
JD had to admit that was probably a good idea. He was scaring himself even more - if that was possible. Fortunately, Buck was sticking as close to him as humanly possible. JD could feel the taller man's breath in his hair as he followed close behind him.
Suddenly he heard Buck mumble, "What the-?"
"What?" JD asked, turning sharply to face his partner. He couldn't see or feel his friend nearby, so he called out to him in harsh whisper, "Buck? Where are you?"
"Buck? Come on, quit fooling around," his voice a little louder now to carry over the pounding of his heart.
The sound of something heavy hitting the floor spurred him to quickly flick on the flashlight he carried. It took only moments for the small circle of light to illuminate the form of his best friend, crumpled on the floor a few feet behind him. "Buck!" he shouted as he instinctively raced to the fallen man's side.
He never made it. A strong arm reached out in the darkness, encircling his waist and holding him tight.
No! His head screamed though he couldn't force a sound from his dry throat. Just a dream . . .
"Quiet now," an icy voice whispered in his ear. "And perhaps I will let your friend live to see morning."
JD gasped as he struggled to pull himself free of the strong grip.
"Hold still," the voice demanded behind him, "or I shall be forced to alter my plan, which is of no real consequence to me - but certainly might be to you and Mr. Wilmington."
He felt the knife then, cold and sharp against his throat as O'Connor's grip on him tightened. The devil would kill him right there, JD was sure of it. And Buck, too, if he didn't do as he was told.
"Now drop your weapon to the floor and come with me."
It couldn't be real, JD told himself as he was roughly dragged along the narrow hallway to a steep, wooden set of stairs. He staggered clumsily as they made their way up, the knife slipping enough to draw blood and reinforce that it wasn't a dream after all. The wound stung, but instead of dwelling on his own precarious situation, all he could think of was Vin. How many times, how many hours had Vin spent in this evil man's clutches? How many different ways had this same blade cut into his body? How did he stand it? It was a miracle Vin had stayed sane as long as he had. They had to get Vin back; that thought, that prayer burned first and foremost in his mind. His teammates had to stay calm, he had to stay calm.
The stairs finally came to an end and O'Connor pushed him through a curtain into an open space. JD blinked back spots when the area was suddenly flooded with light, but he quickly realized that they were now on the stage of the old theater. Part of some macabre play - and he was the star.
The light blinded him, but still he knew that somewhere out there, Chris, Nathan, Ezra and Josiah were waiting. O'Connor had to know it, too, but if he felt outnumbered or backed into a corner, he didn't show it. Instead the man demanded cockily, "Show yourself, Chris Larabee."
Chris emerged from the shadows on stage, not thirty feet from where Ian held JD. "There are four other men here, O'Connor," he warned. "Even you can't take us all."
O'Connor laughed. "Actually, Mr. Wilmington is currently incapacitated, which evens the odds a bit. It appears that Mr. Sanchez is in the third row or thereabouts, but he'd have to go through our young friend here to get to me. It's possible that Standish or Jackson up there in the balcony could aim a bullet at just the right angle to kill me and miss young Dunne, but not likely. I think we all know there is only one man who could make that nearly impossible shot, and - sadly for you - he is not here."
"I could make it," Chris promised, his voice deadly and his eyes like stone.
Ian shifted the knife and JD felt more blood trailing down his throat, soaking into the collar of his shirt.
"Perhaps. But Dunne will be dead along with me - and you'll never know where our lovely Vin is waiting."
JD saw it happen; saw the cool façade crack as Chris accepted the truth of those words. But Larabee's aim held true as he took another step forward and demanded, "Let him go."
"Perhaps you didn't hear me. Vin is waiting. Rather uncomfortably, I might add."
The grip around his throat tightened, and JD struggled to pull in a breath of air. It seemed O'Connor might choke him before he bothered to slit his throat. His heart beat furiously as gray spots swam before his eyes. Stay calm, he reminded himself, but the panic grew with each strangled breath.
Chris must have seen his desperation, because the green eyes grew dark with anger as he growled, "What the hell do you want, Ian?"
O'Connor ignored the question. "Don't you want to know about our mutual mate? How he has faired these last two days under my hands? How he waits for you, tied spread-eagle to the bed posts . . . limbs pulled tight . . . sweat glistening on his bloody chest? Can you picture it, Chris? So beautiful he is, so alluring . . . one can hardly resist-"
"He begged for you at first; called out your name hour after hour. But eventually he accepted that you weren't coming . . . that none of his friends were coming."
"Just tell me what you want," Chris choked, no longer able to hide his own desperation.
"So many ways we could play this . . . which version shall we go with?"
"Cut the drama and get to the point. If you want me to go with you, just say it."
"Not so fast; the drama has hardly begun. Our spectators deserve their money's worth, after all."
How many minutes, JD wondered, before backup arrived? Ten? Five? Not soon enough, he knew with dreaded certainty as Chris narrowed the gap and demanded once more, "Let him go."
"I think not," Ian cooed softly in JD's ear. "More innocent blood on your hands - it's too delicious to pass up."
"It's my blood you want. And if you spill one more drop of JD's, you'll be dead before you hit the floor."
"My life matters very little to me. I dare to say that it matters far less, in fact, than our precious Vin's life matters to you. I have nothing to lose by killing young Dunne, but you have everything to lose by killing me."
He was going to die. His dream had been wrong on one crucial point: Chris couldn't take that shot, it was written in his eyes. JD knew the others were out there, but O'Connor was right - none of them could pull it off. He was going to die.
Apparently Chris had come to the same realization. "Just . . . let him go. I'll do whatever you want," he begged softly.
"I understand, you know," O'Connor went on as if Chris hadn't spoken. "I understand why you love him like you do. I've enjoyed every priceless moment Vin and I have spent together. He is so tough and so vulnerable all at once. And he suffers so well. Those eyes . . ."
From his angle, JD could barely make out O'Connor's face, but he knew the man had closed his eyes and was now rambling almost incoherently as the blade pressed deeper into his throat. O'Connor was totally insane and incapable of reason, and nothing anyone could say or do would get through to him.
End of act one: he was going to die.
+ + + + + + +
Buck came to only moments later. His head was pounding, but it didn't stop him from staggering to his feet. JD's flashlight was on the floor, still casting a white circle of light that shone directly on the younger man's weapon.
Damn. JD was in the devil's grasp, Buck was sure of it. He'd failed the kid . . . failed Chris . . . failed Vin.
But there was no time for self-recrimination. He picked up the light and the gun, and moved swiftly down the hall. It wasn't long before he heard voices, coming from above him. Climbing the stairs two at a time, he quietly came through the door that led him backstage.
It took him all of two seconds to realize that the situation had gone to hell in a handbasket. JD's throat was coated in blood, and his captor's eyes were glazed as he mumbled disjointed phrases about Chris and Vin and his long dead brother.
Chris had both men directly in front of him, but with JD shielding most of his captor's body, the only shot he was going to get was right through O'Connor's forehead. Coming up from behind, Buck could easily get him anywhere he wanted, but only one shot would surely and quickly end the cut of the blade without posing a further threat to JD. A head shot - the back of the skull - and he took it without blinking.
O'Connor's head exploded and he went down, taking JD with him, and Buck didn't know if he'd made it in time or not. Maybe the blade had already severed JD's artery. There was so much blood, it was impossible to tell what belonged to whom.
It seemed to take hours, rather than seconds to reach his fallen friend's side. He quickly pulled JD up into his arms, brushing the hair from his face as he frantically searched for a sign of life.
JD groaned then, and opened impossibly wide eyes to greet him. "Buck?" he whispered. "I'm alive?"
Tears flowed from Buck's eyes, but he didn't care. He chuckled lightly and answered, "Looks that way."
Nathan's voice came from over his shoulder. "Move aside, Buck. Let me look at him."
Buck shifted, but he didn't release his hold as he pulled JD up to lean against his chest.
JD sighed tiredly, but he didn't say anything until he got a good look at what was left of O'Connor's head, lying less than a foot beside him. "God, Buck," he whispered hoarsely. "I guess he was human after all."
Nathan spoke softly as he turned JD's head away from the gruesome sight and examined his throat, "It's alright now. You're gonna need a few stitches, but it'll be fine." He tipped his head then and added, "You okay, Buck? You're bleedin', too."
Buck nodded absently, vaguely aware of the knot on the back of his head and the annoying ache that accompanied it. But his attention was focused on JD, even as he half-listened to Josiah and Ezra talking over his shoulder. They were saying something about backup arriving any minute and forming a search crew to look for Vin.
That was the first moment he took to look at Chris, and he wished he hadn't. Buck expected anger - figured Larabee would have liked to empty his gun on O'Connor's corpse just for good measure. Although Chris might have saved one bullet for him since he'd blown Vin's chances to hell right along with O'Connor. And Buck could have taken that. Hell, even tears would have been better than the empty expression that blanketed Larabee's face: hollow . . . hopeless . . . lost.
For a moment, guilt swept over him; JD was safe in his arms, but only God - and what was left of the devil beside him - knew where Vin was.
But he'd done the right thing; the only thing. Chris couldn't make the choice - should never have had to make that choice to begin with. Buck told himself that not only had he spared JD's life, he'd spared Chris, as well.
Chris walked over to them then, peering down at Buck and JD grimly. "I would have done it," he said, his voice pained, like the words cut his throat.
"I know," Buck replied, though it wasn't true. He didn't know what Chris was going to do - didn't really trust him with JD's life when it came down to it. He could tell himself he'd made the shot so Chris wouldn't have to, but there was a whole lot more behind his split-second decision to pull that trigger, and sooner or later they'd have to deal with it.
It would have to be later. At that moment, they had one hell of a mess to clean up - and a partner to find.
They'd have plenty of help. The building was suddenly overrun with officers and paramedics . . . lights and sirens and squad cars quickly filling the previously forlorn theater with a life it hadn't known in years. Real-life drama playing out, though it seemed to Buck like some higher power had written the script and given his friends a special preview through their dreams.
Their dreams . . . dear God, Buck groaned. They hadn't been able to keep even one from coming true. And there was one to go . . .
He took small comfort in the fact that the last dream, Nathan's dream, couldn't come true unless they found Vin. That was right, wasn't it? How could Nathan visualize a bloody Vin if they never found him? But as Buck climbed into the ambulance beside JD, he remembered the most disturbing portion of Nathan's vision: Vin was dead. And Chris . . .
Chris would kill himself. Maybe not as quickly and certainly as Nathan's dream portrayed, but it would happen. It wasn't grief that would do it, and it wasn't guilt. It would simply be defeat. The man had lived enough, fought enough, endured enough, and finding Vin too late - losing him in such a heart-wrenching manner - would just be too much. The proverbial straw.
It wasn't until hours later that Buck learned of the single clue O'Connor had given them before his death: Vin was tied to a bed somewhere. It wasn't much of a tip. O'Connor had given them twenty-four hours after he'd left Ezra's place - more than enough time for the killer to travel most anywhere. Vin could be hundreds of miles from them, or right under their noses.
Once again, every available resource had been called in, from the FBI to the local PD. Josiah had even gone into what Buck referred to as his "zen state", trying to get inside the dead man's head and imagine where he might have taken Vin. Buck had to give the older man credit - taking a trip through O'Connor's head had to be like traveling through hell.
Chris was undoubtedly trying another route - communicating with Vin via telepathy or whatever the hell their freakish link was called. But judging by the despondent look in Larbee's eyes, it wasn't working. The day had come and gone, night was falling once again, and still there was no sign of their missing friend.
Buck had left JD at the hospital hours earlier. The doctor said the kid was about a centimeter away from lying in a morgue. So they kept him under twenty-four observation, though Buck figured they held him more for exhaustion than anything else, forcing him to get the rest he needed. In fact, none of the men had slept more than a few hours in three days and it was beginning to show in quick flashes of temper and sharp tongues.
Not from Chris, though. Larabee hadn't said much of anything to anyone. In the past, Buck would have been the one to approach him; to offer an ear and a comforting hand. But he was certain that he was the last man Chris wanted to hear from at the moment. And the truth was, he didn't know what to say. He and Chris had faced some tough times in the past, but this was different. He had decided for Chris; had taken control of JD's fate - and Vin's - completely out of his hands.
And the hell of it was, he wasn't sorry. Buck had replayed that moment over and over, and every time it came out the same. He'd do it again.
Chris probably knew that, probably even accepted it. But it didn't change the fact that no one had any idea where Vin was or how to get him back . . . no one except Ian O'Connor, who was well and truly dead this time. Buck couldn't banish the image of the bastard laughing in his grave.
It looked like the devil had won after all.
+ + + + + + +
It was dark again. The only way Vin could measure the passage of time was through the light from one small window in the room where he was imprisoned. The candles had burned out hours earlier, leaving him alone in the dark with nothing but the sounds in his head.
They weren't coming.
Ian had told him that, over and over . . .
"If I don't come back, you'll know that Chris chose to kill me rather than come with me . . . rather than come for you. They haven't come for you yet, have they? They're not coming."
His arms were numb, but his legs ached mercilessly, the muscles contracting painfully from being pulled tight. Spasms would rip through his tortured limbs and he'd arch his back off the bed, powerless to do anything more than ride it out. The wound on his side burned, along with the more recent cuts on his chest where Ian had carved something on his skin with his sharp knife. Unfortunately, the wounds weren't deep enough to cause him to bleed to death. No, he'd die far more slowly from dehydration.
"Even if you survive, you'll never be the same. I will always be there, inside you. Do you hear me, love? I will always be with you. There is only way for you to be free - you have to die."
Freakishly linked . . . but no, not to Ian. To Chris. Wasn't that right? Vin pushed himself to remember, to believe, to have faith in the man he'd called his best friend for the only portion of his life that mattered. He tried to visualize him but he couldn't. He couldn't see Chris or feel his presence. Only Ian's . . .
"They're not coming . . . he chose to kill me . . ."
"Shut up!" Vin yelled into the dark, empty room, yanking hard on the ropes that tied his wrists to the bedposts.
A sound, like wood cracking, echoed over his beating heart and gasping breath. Was it his imagination? Was he hearing things? He pulled again. No, it was definitely there, near his left wrist; soft wood groaning with the strain of his frantic movements. He twisted as much as he could and pulled harder, again and again. Finally, he felt it pop, the wood breaking free at the same moment the bone in his wrist snapped. He cried out in pain and instinctively pulled the injured limb to his chest. Ironically, the rope held strong where bone and wood did not, and the broken pole dangled from his cracked wrist.
White spots danced before his eyes and he fought to remain conscious. It was nothing, he told himself; a minor inconvenience and he could work around it - had to work around it. So he bit his lip and grunted as he reached towards the knotted rope that trapped his right arm to the opposite bedpost. It was awkward at best; he could barely reach the tight rope and every movement of his clumsy fingers sent pain spiking through the injured wrist.
It seemed to take hours. In fact, dark black had turned to dull gray as the new day dawned outside the window. His fingers were swelling along with his wrist, the rope that still held the broken post now tightly embedded in his skin. Twice he broke down and sobbed. It seemed that hope dangled in front of him, just out of reach; tormenting him along with the never ending voice . . .
"I will always be with you . . . there is only one way to be free . . ."
It wasn't the first time he'd seen a ray of hope that the nightmare might end. There was another moment, when they'd met up with Ezra. At first, he thought that was his imagination, too, but Ian had assured him it wasn't. He still couldn't understand why Ezra just stood there - why he let Ian drive off with him without firing a single shot.
"I told you why. They're glad to be rid of you. They're relieved that you're gone."
He tried desperately to push the voice aside as he concentrated on the tight rope. And when the knot finally came loose, Vin scarcely believed it. It wasn't real, his mind was playing tricks on him, he thought, even as he pulled his right arm free of its constraints. Muscles protested their new freedom, but he rejoiced at the sureness of the pain.
It took less time to untie his ankles, but still the process was slow and difficult. He barely had the energy to sit up, and several times he had to lie back down on the bed and catch his breath. But as the last knot broke apart, he wept in relief. The muscles in his calves and thighs ached and throbbed mercilessly, but he ignored the sensation as he shifted to the edge of the bed and stood up for the first time in days. His legs didn't hold, and within seconds he was lying on the cold, hard floor. He didn't care. He relished the simple sensation of the hard surface beneath him and the ability to curl his body in on itself.
It was only then that he realized he'd yet to untie the broken post from his left wrist. The knot was surrounded by swollen flesh, and he wanted to ignore it - wanted to find his feet and get the hell out of hell. But he risked losing his hand if he didn't act soon, although even that seemed strangely insignificant. He'd already lost Chris . . . lost his friends . . . lost his mind . . . losing a hand wouldn't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.
"There's nothing left for you. Do you yearn for peace? There is only one way . . ."
His aching wrist was screaming at him now, and he welcomed the pain as a distraction from his thoughts. The rope wouldn't loosen - he'd have to cut it off. Hopefully, Ian left one of his knives behind. He stumbled three times before he finally made it to his feet, and he had to hold onto the wall to make any real progress. Fortunately, the cabin was small. After traveling only a few steps, he entered the main living area.
The first thing he saw was a bottle of water sitting on the counter. This time he managed to hold back the tears that threatened as relief swept over him once again. Staggering forward, he reached for a bottle and drank his fill, ignoring the cramping in his gut. He couldn't remember when he'd last drank, or eaten for that matter. Rarely, Ian offered him water, but never food. In fact, he couldn't remember ever seeing the man eat; Ian used his mouth for other activities.
"I'll always be there . . . I will always be with you . . ."
"No!" Vin shouted, turning around frantically to scan the cabin.
Ian was there, in the corner. Half his head was missing and blood coated his face, but still he grinned. "Even death cannot keep me from you."
"No! Go t' hell!" Vin screamed.
The apparition evaporated as Vin's legs gave out again and he sank to the floor. The water threatened to come back up, but he took a deep breath and willed it to stay down. It was then that he saw one of Ian's many knives, lying on the table, waiting for him. Like Ian had purposely left it behind, and maybe he had.
Vin's good hand shook, his gaze wavered, and bile rose up in his throat as he sawed through the rope encircling his mangled wrist. One last obstacle to overcome, he told himself. But as the twine gave way and he pulled it from his skin with a deep groan, he knew that was a lie. He didn't know where he was. He had no phone, no food, no shoes . . . nowhere to go, no way to get there, no one to go to.
"They're not coming . . . they're glad to be rid of you . . ."
But he had to get away - away from the visions and the voices. He grabbed the water bottle and tucked it in the pocket of his loose fitting jeans. His concentration was completely focused on reaching the door, so he nearly tripped over the pair of shoes - his shoes - that sat on the floor near the table. What the hell? He wasn't wearing shoes when Ian had taken him from his bed. And he didn't remember the man bringing them along. But sure enough, they were there.
"Crazy bastard," Vin muttered under his breath. It hit him then: the water, the knife, the shoes . . . Ian knew he would escape. Hell, the devil probably planned it that way. The last thing Vin wanted to do was what Ian expected, but he didn't have a choice. He slipped on the sneakers and headed out the door.
The air was cool, but not uncomfortably so. With a little luck, the weather would hold a few more days and he wouldn't freeze to death. "Might have thought t' leave my coat, too," he mumbled, and he swore he heard Ian's laughter in the breeze.
The cabin was on a mountain, fairly high up from what he could see. But he'd have to go up a bit further to get his bearings, figure out a direction. It would be slow going; he was weak and lightheaded, and his legs felt like lead. He reckoned it didn't matter much.
No one was waiting for him.
+ + + + + + +
Three days had passed since Buck blew O'Connor's fucking head off.
Four days since Ezra let the devil drive off with Vin in the front seat.
Five days since he and Buck discovered Vin had been taken out of his window; five endless days of tracking down false tips, random sightings, and dead-end leads. And with every tick of the clock, the chances of finding Vin alive dwindled. How long could a man survive tied to a bed? No food, no water . . . no hope.
He didn't say it to anyone, but Chris didn't believe any more that Vin was alive. He couldn't feel him . . . couldn't get a sense of him no matter how hard he tried. It never mattered before how far apart he and Tanner were in miles or in opinion, Vin was always within reach, always part of him. Freakishly linked . . .
Chris slammed on the brakes of his truck as he pulled into the driveway of his ranch. He hadn't been home since Vin was taken, and he wasn't sure what possessed him to head there then. The horses were taken care of, and there was nothing there but empty rooms.
As he stepped out his truck, his gut cramped up so badly that it stole his breath, and he had to hold on to the car door until he could stand upright. What was he thinking? He couldn't do this, couldn't be there. The ranch was no longer just his home - it was a place he shared with Vin, more often than not.
His intention was to turn around and get back in the truck, but something nagged at him to check on the horses first. He heard a noise near Peso's stall as he entered, but even then he never dreamed of what he'd find there - who he'd find there. It had to be his imagination . . . his mind playing tricks on him after long days of little food and less rest. Another goddamn dream - only this one was too good to be true.
"Oh my God," he breathed.
He remained rooted where he stood at the barn door, sure that if he moved the illusion would disappear and Vin would be gone. When that didn't happen, he cautiously moved forward.
Vin was sitting on the floor near Peso's stall, slumped up against the far wall. He was barely recognizable with dirty, straggly hair covering his face. His t-shirt was torn and stained with dark, red blood, and he cradled one arm against his chest. But dear Lord, even in the dim light Chris could see that he was breathing.
He could see something else, too - Vin held a gun in his good hand. It was the old pistol that Chris kept in the barn to ward off wolves.
"Vin?" he choked, still not believing what he was seeing. How could it be possible? How long had Vin been there? How had he gotten there? The man looked like he could barely hold his head up let alone walk.
Vin raised his head and slanted his eyes towards Chris. His gaze was unfocused and Chris wasn't sure if his friend even knew who he was.
"Vin? Vin, it's me - Chris. Vin, can you hear me?"
Vin abruptly turned his eyes towards the opposite corner of the barn and mumbled, "Stay out of this."
Chris followed his gaze, but there was no one there, though it was clear Vin thought there was. With baited breath, Chris moved just two steps closer, though he ached to rush forward and pull his injured friend in his arms.
"Don't," Vin growled, the gun in his hands coming up unsteadily.
Holding his hands up in surrender, Chris replied softly, "It's alright. I won't hurt you."
"That ain't the problem," Vin replied, as his head dropped back against the wall and his eyes drifted closed.
What was that supposed to mean? Chris lowered his voice even more as he fought to maintain his composure. "What is the problem, Pard? Let me help you with it."
"Little late fer that, don't ya think?"
"No, it's not too late. You're here and you're alive, and-"
"Too fuckin' late, Chris!" Vin turned his head towards the corner again and shouted, "Shut the hell up, Ian!"
With a sinking heart, Chris realized that Vin was still hearing voices, even though it had to have been days since he'd last been drugged. He also noted the casual use of O'Connor's first name, and it made his stomach turn.
"He'd dead, Vin," Chris said slowly.
If Vin was surprised, he didn't show it. "Blew his head off, didn't ya? Figured that was more important than comin' fer me?"
"No! God . . . no, Vin. It wasn't like that. Buck did it. He had no choice. O'Connor would have killed JD." And he knew at just that moment that that was true. Another second and they would be burying JD. None of them could have lived with that, including Vin - especially Vin.
"Buck put drugs in my juice," Vin mumbled, the gun slipping just a bit. "Ian said . . . said he . . . he . . ."
Chris hesitantly took three more steps. "O'Connor drugged you, Vin - not Buck. He was crazy. But he's dead now."
Shaking his head, Vin murmured wearily, "No. He's right here."
"I have the pictures of his body. I can show you."
"It don't matter!" Vin shouted as he pointed the weapon at his own head. "He's here! In my head! All the time! And there's only one way t' make him stop."
Chris suddenly remembered Nathan's dream: Vin covered in blood, dead. Was this how it was going to happen? Never had any of them considered the possibility that Vin would kill himself. It just didn't fit with the man he was . . . or the man he used to be before O'Connor twisted his brain.
There had to be a reason for the vision, Chris reminded himself. His dreams had showed him the way during their last encounter with the O'Connor. Surely it was meant to be that way again - surely that was why Ezra and JD and Nathan had been plagued with nightmares this time around. It had to be so they could save Vin and vanquish the devil once and for all.
Swallowing the bile in his throat, Chris moved forward and crouched down a few yards from his distraught friend. "We can work this out, Vin. I promise you. We'll find another way."
But Vin just sighed and turned hollow eyes towards him. "Don't lie t' me no more."
"I've never lied to you, Vin. Never."
"You were there," Vin choked.
Chris shook his head in confusion. "Where? Where was I?"
"I remember it all, Chris," Vin said, his eyes narrowing as his voice dropped to a low rasp. "You were there - on the boat. You saw what he did to me. You watched. You liked it. You knew all along."
"No. I swear that isn't true. O'Connor filled your body with drugs and your head with lies. You have to trust me, Pard. I wasn't there."
Chris felt a glimmer of hope when the confusion in Vin's eyes turned to doubt, but it was short-lived.
"Don't matter," Vin murmured, his finger tightening on the trigger. "Just want it t' end. It's gotta end."
"Vin, please listen to me. This isn't the way," Chris pleaded desperately.
Vin sighed again, but he kept the weapon trained on his temple. "Can't take this anymore. Ian says . . . says this is the only way t' find peace. He won't leave me alone 'til I'm dead."
"Yeah? Well then there better be a bullet in that chamber for me," Chris returned, his voice shaking with more fear than anger, though he suspected Vin didn't know that.
"Don't say that, Chris," Vin moaned tiredly. His hand was trembling now with the weight of the gun.
Chris was certain Vin's strength wouldn't hold out much longer; he just had to keep him talking a few more minutes. "Why the hell not? You think I can live with watching my brother blow his brains out with my gun in my barn? I'm tired, too, Vin. I want it to end. This way we go out together."
He meant it. He couldn't imagine watching Vin take his own life. Didn't think he could bear it, knew he wasn't strong enough. What Nathan saw . . . what the others feared . . . what he promised he wouldn't do . . .
"That's what he wants," Vin whispered, his gaze clear for the moment as he met Chris's eyes.
"I know," Chris said sadly. O'Connor had planned it all right down to this very moment. "Are we gonna give it to him? We gonna let him win, after all we've been through?"
He'd never know if his words got through, or if it was just plain exhaustion that overtook Vin. He didn't care. All that mattered was that Vin lowered the gun to his side and collapsed against the wall.
Chris quickly moved in and kicked the weapon out of reach, before sliding to the floor and finally pulling Vin against him with a sigh of relief. He knew there was much to be done, but he took a moment to wrap his brain around the sure, solid feel of the man in his arms.
"Thank God," he breathed, his mouth pressed against Vin's filthy hair.
"Why didn't you come for me?" Vin asked, his voice small and child-like against Chris's chest.
"I tried. We all tried everything we could think of to find you, Vin. You have to believe me, we never stopped searching for you and we never would have."
Vin's only reply was a soft groan as he inadvertently jostled his injured arm.
"We'll talk about all of this later. Right now, we need to get you some help. Need to get you to the hospital."
Stiffening in his arms, Vin snapped, "No. I ain't goin' there."
"Vin, you know-"
"No, Chris. I can't . . . can't stand the thought of people around me right now. I keep hearin' things . . . seein' things. They'll lock me up and you know it. Don't do that t' me."
He was right. If Mackenzie had even the slightest idea that Vin had held a gun to his head, in addition to having hallucinations, he'd put him in a padded cell and add more drugs to the cocktail that already had Vin screwed up one side and down the other.
"At least let me call Nathan."
"He's tired of takin' care of me."
Chris had to bite his lip to hold back a curse, and he wished once again that he'd emptied his clip in the madman's corpse. "That's O'Connor talking. Nathan has been sick with worry. All of the boys have been."
"No. No one but you 'til . . . 'til he's gone. Promise me, Chris."
He? Vin must have been referring to the ghost of his tormentor.
"Alright. But we let Nathan bring us supplies and take a look at you."
Vin nodded weakly, and Chris pulled out his cell phone to call Nathan. Jackson would have an absolute fit - with good reason. Vin had no business staying there with him, but he was not going to put the man through any more misery than he had to.
"Nathan? It's . . . it's, uh, Chris," he stumbled.
"What it is? What's wrong? Did they . . . did they find him?"
"No. Yes. I mean, I need you to come out here and bring your . . . stuff."
"What? What stuff? What's going on?"
"He's here," Chris said softly. "Vin. And he needs some help, but-"
"My God! He's . . . he's there? But how? How is he? Have you called an ambulance? Have you let the others know? My God, Chris!"
"Nathan, please just listen to me. Vin's here and he's hurt, but I promised him he could stay with me. He's not going anywhere. At least, not for awhile."
"Chris-" Nathan started to warn, but Chris cut him off.
"We're doing it this way for now and I don't want an argument. Get whatever you think he needs - fluids and antibiotics for starters - and come as quickly as you can. Tell the others they're not to come until I call them."
"I'm not a doctor, Chris. I can't just walk in the pharmacy and walk out with IV fluids and drugs!"
Chris ignored the rant. "Better get a splint, too. It looks like his wrist is broken."
"What? I can't fix that! We ain't livin' in the nineteenth century. I can't just snap his bones back together and wrap 'em up with a piece of wood."
"Call in your favors and get out here."
There was deep sigh on the other end of the line before Nathan finally agreed. "Alright. I'll do it. But I don't like it. My God. He's there? He's really there? God. How? I just-"
Chris ended the call abruptly and turned back to Vin. "Think you can make it to the house?"
"Yeah," Vin breathed.
But he couldn't. Vin couldn't even get his feet underneath him, and Chris was left wondering once again how his injured friend had gotten there. How far had he come? How long had it taken him? How long had Vin been waiting in the barn for him to show up? What if he hadn't come to check on the horses? Chris had the terrible feeling that if he'd waited another day - hell, another hour - he would have been too late.
It took all of his strength to get Vin on his feet, and he ended up pretty much carrying him to the house. Chris felt weak himself, exhausted beyond reason, but he knew it would be a long time before he could rest. He'd given his word to Vin that he would take care of him alone, and he intended to keep it.
Might not have been one of his better ideas, though, he had to admit. He had to take a minute to catch his breath after literally dumping a limp and lethargic Vin on the bed in the spare room. Dusk was falling, so he turned on the bedside lamp to get a better look at his battered friend. Vin was bruised and bloodied - but it was the sunken eyes and cracked lips that told Chris where to begin. Fortunately, he was just alert enough to swallow the water that Chris offered. Tanner even roused enough to complain, "No bed . . . put me on the . . . the couch."
"No. I'm sorry. I understand . . . but no." Chris was sympathetic to the fact that Vin had been tied to a bed for however many days, but he could only give in so much.
As bad as Vin looked, he smelled worse, so the next thing Chris thought to do was strip him down and clean him off. A shower would be better, but he'd never keep the man on his feet that long, and he wasn't sure that getting his wounds wet was a good idea. He started with the shoes, which were definitely worse for the wear, but thank God Vin had them. The thought made Chris pause - Vin had been taken from his bed, probably wearing what he had on, namely a t-shirt and sweat pants. So where had the shoes come from?
"Ian left them for me," Vin mumbled, as if he'd read Chris's thoughts.
"How considerate," Chris muttered under his breath. "Should've left you some socks, too," he added, after getting a look at the blisters on his friend's feet. How many miles had Vin walked?
There'd be time to figure that out later. He took the sweats off next, quickly washing off Vin's legs before sliding on a pair of his own sweats to keep his young friend warm. Vin was already shivering, whether from cold or fever he wasn't sure and probably didn't want to know.
"I'm just gonna cut the shirt off, Vin," he said softly, and he got a weak nod in response.
Chris knew Vin had been knifed from the evidence they'd obtained, but it didn't stop him from feeling sick when he cut away the filthy shirt and saw the crude black stitches lining his friend's side. The wound was red and angry looking . . . Nathan would have his head.
The shirt stuck to another wound on Vin's chest, and Chris cringed as Vin groaned. "I'm sorry, Pard," he offered softly as he gently worked the cloth loose with some warm water.
A moment later, the fabric pulled free, revealing more shallow cuts from the blade of O'Connor's sharp knife.
He felt sick, but he swallowed the bile in his throat once again. He felt tears burning behind his eyes, but he blinked them back. He felt like putting his fist through a wall, but he willed himself to keep his cool. For Vin's sake . . . he had to act like it was nothing for Vin's sake.
But dear God, nothing prepared him for what the bastard had done to his friend this time.
+ + + + + + +
"What!" Buck roared. "Vin's where? How the hell did he get there? And what the hell is Chris thinking?"
"I have no idea, Buck. I'm in the dark the same as you," Nathan replied with a huff. "Just let me get out there and see what's going on. I'll call you back as soon as I can."
"I don't like it. I'm coming, too."
"No, you're not. You need to let Travis know so they can call off the search. Take care of things on that end."
"Shit. What am I gonna tell him? Half the damn FBI is out lookin' for Vin. What am I supposed t' say?"
"I think you can talk anybody into anything if you set your mind to it. Now go do what you're good at so I can get to what I'm good at."
"Yeah. Alright," Buck agreed, though his reluctance was obvious. "But so help me, Nathan, you tell Chris if he don't call me in the next two hours, I'm comin' out there."
Nathan shook his head as he hung up. Josiah hadn't handled the news much better than Buck, and he imagined Ezra and JD would feel exactly the same once Buck shared the news with them. They all just wanted so badly to see Vin for themselves. It had been five long days filled with worry - and for Buck, JD, and Ezra - a hefty dose of guilt, as well. Josiah had done his best to persuade the men that they'd done nothing wrong, but until they saw for themselves that Vin was safe and sound, they weren't going to believe it.
If he was safe and sound. Nathan still wasn't sure he hadn't dreamed the phone call. Vin was at the ranch. Vin was at the ranch? How? When? Why? Alright, maybe the why wasn't such a stretch . . . of course Vin would go to the ranch. And since O'Connor was dead, he had to have gotten there by himself.
Which meant he couldn't be too badly hurt; Nathan told himself that repeatedly as he drove to the Larabee home. His car was filled with medical supplies and food, the latter courtesy of Rain. Much to his chagrin, one of his physician friends had trusted him enough to give him what he'd asked for. He'd almost hoped the man would say 'no' so he'd have an excuse to knock some sense into Larabee's thick skull.
Damn Chris anyway for having so much faith in him, Nathan thought. All of the men believed he was a damn miracle worker. Well, he wasn't. And as soon as he got to the ranch, he planned on explaining that to his boss one more time before loading Vin up in his car and taking him for the professional help that he needed.
"Already know he was cut . . . probably ain't had much of nothin' t' eat or drink . . . broken wrist? Is that what Chris said?" Nathan muttered under his breath as he grabbed his bag and walked to the door.
Chris greeted him, and the look on his face was enough to stop Nathan in his tracks.
"Chris? Is he . . . alright?"
"Yes. No. Hell, no."
"Goddamn it, Nathan! Buck killed the bastard too damn quick!"
"Buck did what he-"
"I know he did what he had to but . . . goddamn, Nathan. Vin has . . . the bastard took a knife and . . . he . . ."
"Just take me to him, Chris," Nathan said calmly, hoping he hid how unnerved he felt by Larabee's uncharacteristically rattled behavior.
Chris started down the hall, but he abruptly turned around and grabbed Nathan's arm. "Don't tell Vin," he said in low voice.
Nathan knit his brows in confusion, but Chris was already at Vin's bedside. "Nathan's here, Vin," he said softly.
It felt like a dream; Nathan had the ridiculous urge to pinch himself. Vin looked only slightly better than a dead man, but he was in one piece and he was breathing. He even managed to open his eyes, turn his head, and sputter, "I'm . . . sorry, Nate."
His eyes moist, Nathan asked, "Sorry? For what?"
"This is . . . the last time, I promise."
Nathan turned to Chris in question.
"He thinks you're tired of taking care of him," Chris explained through gritted teeth, though Nathan suspected there was much more to it than that.
"Aw, Vin, now you know that's not so," Nathan said gently as he sat down on the edge of the bed.
But Vin's eyes clouded over and he turned his head towards the opposite wall with a deep frown.
Chris quickly moved to the other side of the bed and spoke slowly, "It's not true, Vin. Whatever he told you, whatever you hear, it's not true."
"But . . . Nathan . . . Ian says he-"
"Look at me, Vin," Chris said firmly, and Nathan held his breath as Vin slowly turned his head towards the blond. "It's not true," Chris repeated. "Nathan wants to help you. No one here would ever hurt you. You know that. Deep down inside, you know that."
Vin sighed and closed his eyes, but he didn't say anything more.
"Chris?" Nathan tipped his head towards the door, indicating that the other man should follow him out.
When Chris complied, Nathan asked in a loud whisper, "What the hell is goin' on?"
"What kind of a stupid question is that?" Chris bellowed before he caught himself and lowered his voice. "You know what's going on. You know what kind of hell he's been through."
"He's still hearin' things, isn't he?"
Chris pulled his hand through his hair and avoided Nathan's eyes when he answered. "Does it matter right now? Just tell me how to take care of him. That's all we need."
"Damn it, Chris, don't you get it? You can't take care of him. He needs more help than either one of us can give. And I'm not talkin' about the knife wound or the fact that he's dry as a bone. You know what I'm saying."
The steel in those green eyes could cut right through a man, but Nathan held his ground and didn't look away.
"You gonna help him or not? Because if not, you can get the hell out."
He meant it, too - Nathan had no doubt that Chris would throw him out on his ass if he pushed any harder. And what would happen to Vin then? He could die thanks to his best friend's stubbornness.
"You know what they'll do to him," Chris said quietly, though the low tone couldn't hide his desperation. "They'll tie him up - give him more drugs. We'll never get him back, Nathan."
It wasn't like that any more. They didn't do things that way. Vin wouldn't be strapped down in a padded cell and injected with sedatives and antipsychotics. Unless he fought them . . . which he would . . .
Chris was right, and maybe that goddamn stubbornness would work in Vin's favor.
Shaking his head, Nathan went back in the room to do what he could for both men. He pulled up a chair to the bedside, then carefully pulled back the blanket that covered the injured man. "Just gonna take a look at what we got here, Vin," he said softly, though it appeared his patient was asleep.
It was pretty much what he expected - the knife wound was crudely stitched together with black thread. Angry red at the edges, infection setting in, and he'd have to open it up and let it drain. But the wound wasn't deep, and with some heavy duty antibiotics, it wouldn't kill Vin.
Neither would the other mostly shallow cuts on Vin's chest. Nathan studied the marks and . . . oh dear God. Suddenly he knew what Chris was referring to when he asked him not to tell Vin. O'Connor had carved three letters - his name - in Vin's skin.
Nathan sucked in a breath and bit his lip.
"What's wrong?" Vin slurred.
"Nothing. It's okay," Nathan hastily reassured the man. But he turned his eyes to Chris, and saw his own rage and sorrow reflected there. Chris was right about that, too - O'Connor died much too quickly.
"Need t' get him hydrated," Nathan moved on. "Clean up the wounds. This wrist is a mess. I can put a soft splint on it, keep it stable for now, but it's only a temporary fix. Probably shouldn't give him anything for the pain - hopefully he'll sleep through it."
Chris was standing over him, hanging on every word, even though Nathan had primarily been talking to himself. Sorting out the plan . . . focusing on anything except what Vin had experienced at the hands of a monster.
"Should I make him eat?" Chris sounded like a scared kid rather than the head of one of the toughest, most respected ATF teams in the state.
"Not yet. And just a little at a time. Something light to start with." Nathan looked up him then and added, "I need to be here, Chris. You can't do this alone."
That did it. The Chris Larabee the world knew roared to life. "The hell I can't. I promised Vin that it would just be us until . . ."
"Never mind. Just do what you have to and leave us alone."
"Fine," Nathan snapped. "But I can't work with you hoverin' over my shoulder. Go sit down," he commanded with a nod towards the recliner in the corner of the bedroom. Chris was dead on his feet, and with a little luck, he'd be out as soon as his back hit the chair.
It wasn't quite that quick, but by the time Nathan had the IV fluids infusing in Vin's withered veins, both Chris and Vin were breathing deeply. It took him a long time to remove the sutures, mostly because he was trying hard not awaken his patient. Vin would toss and moan occasionally, but he remained mostly asleep. Nathan figured he had to be well past exhaustion, maybe closer to unconsciousness when he factored in the low grade fever, the loss of blood, and lack of food.
But he guiltily admitted that made his job easier. It was hard enough working on his friend's thin, abused frame without seeing those impossibly blue eyes staring at him. Frightened eyes . . . full of confusion, uncertainty, and mistrust.
Chris's words came back to him, "We'll never get Vin back." Could be that they wouldn't get him back anyway, Nathan thought with deep sorrow. Even though Vin was lying right in front of him, he wasn't the man they knew and loved.
And something else had happened before he got there. Chris told him that he'd found Vin in the barn, but Nathan was sure he was hiding something other than the fact that Vin was still having hallucinations and delusions.
And one lingering fact remained in the back of Nathan's mind - what of his dream? The others had come true in some form or other, all except his. Maybe this wasn't over.
Vin groaned softly, and Nathan leaned forward to place his hand on his forehead. "Shhh. . . easy now," he soothed.
The blue eyes snapped open so abruptly, that Nathan instinctively pulled back.
There was something wrong - something terribly wrong. The eyes that met his were cold and deadly, and the voice that came from Vin's lips was not his own. "He's mine. You can't save him," it said.
Nathan jumped off the bed, his hand over his mouth as he gasped. He immediately turned his gaze to the recliner, but Chris remained asleep. By the time he turned back to the bed, Vin's eyes were closed once again.
His heart was bounding out of his chest as he tried to make sense of what he'd witnessed. It couldn't be real. He was just so tired; days and days of little sleep and too much stress. That had to be it.
But with shaking hands he picked up his cell phone and called Josiah. He'd already made his way into the living room by the time Sanchez picked up.
"Nathan? How is he?" Josiah asked, foregoing a greeting.
"He's . . . I don't know," Nathan admitted shakily. "It's just that . . . I thought I saw . . . O'Connor and Vin. I mean, O'Connor in Vin."
"What? You're not making any sense."
"I know. None of it makes sense. Don't you know that by now?"
He heard Josiah sigh on the end of the line. "Nathan, what's going on?"
"I don't know. I just don't know," Nathan replied, his voice breaking.
"I'm on my way," Josiah said and hung up.
Chris would kill him for calling in reinforcement. But Nathan didn't care. They were in over their heads.
The devil was still among them.