Ezra was thankful he was able to convince Vin they should enjoy a leisurely meal at Ciao Bella instead of ingesting a sickening amount of grease and mystery meat at McDonalds. Although Standish knew the deal was sealed when he offered to pay for the evening repast.
Sated after having risotto with porcini mushrooms, the southerner was enjoying the drive to the townhouse where Tanner would be a guest for the next few days. His soon to be roommate was quiet, looking out the Jaguar's window, feigning to focus on the passing scenery.
Vin looked straight ahead. "Think, Nathan would mind if we dropped by?"
Ezra tapped his fingers along the leather-encased steering wheel. He didn't want to intrude on Nathan and Rain after the scene in the hospital. It had been decided silently among the men to give the two space. "I'll call to check." Standish picked up the phone, finally deciding that Vin needed some absolution from Nathan, and Rain would have to put up with it for a few moments. On the second ring Jackson's girlfriend answered the phone. "Rain, I apologize for intruding. . ." Ezra began after exchanging pleasantries.
"But, you want to come over?" Rain sighed loudly. "Not all the troops, I hope."
Standish glanced over to Tanner. "No, just Vin and myself." Ezra felt he needed to add, "Only for a moment."
The southerner could hear a whispered conversation between Rain and Nathan. Then Rain returned to the phone. "We'll see you soon."
Standish shut off his phone and returned it to the dashboard. "We are welcome, but are instructed not to tire him out."
"Just need to say something to him." Vin drawled and reverted to looking out the window. "It'll only take a minute."
They were at Nathan's split-level in fifteen minutes. Ezra pulled the Jag into the driveway and they walked up the cement walkway dividing a precisely manicured lawn. Rain was waiting for them at the door with a smile.
"Come on in." She waved them in. "Nathan's on the couch."
Jackson was sitting up, his back propped up with two pillows and a remote control in his hands. "Hey," he said as he shifted against the cushions with a grimace. "Glad you guys stopped by."
"I do believe that Rain's companionship is much more desirable than ours." Standish relaxed on the settee across from the couch while Tanner sat uncomfortably on the corner of the recliner. Rain had retired to the kitchen to get something to drink.
Nathan laughed, then winced. "I don't know. All we've been doing is talking." The wounded man took a sip of water. "Now Vin, no need to get embarrassed. I'm tired 'cause of the surgery nothing else."
The long haired agent smiled slightly then began to ring his chapped hands.
Nathan did not seem to notice Vin's distress. "Have you been back to Starbucks yet?" He directed the question to the sharpshooter then asked, "Anything going on in the office?"
Ezra gestured with his neck to Vin, who was looking intently at the beige carpeting. Jackson raised his eyebrows in puzzlement. "Something you fellas came by to talk about?"
Tanner cleared his throat. "Nate, don't know iffen you heard, but this mess, you being shot, is all my fault."
Nathan looked at Ezra for confirmation. Standish gave a slight nod affirming there was some truth in Tanner's statement. The southerner knew the medic to be compassionate and understanding. He would listen and draw his own conclusions.
"Vin?" Jackson replied.
Ezra didn't think it was possible for Vin to take up less of the chair he was sitting in, but the sharpshooter edged forward. "Some trouble from way back and I just wanted to say I'm sorry." Tanner looked up to the injured man. "I'm sorry." He uttered again. "I never wanted this to happen . . ."
"Vin, stop blaming yourself." Nathan pushed himself up, so he was sitting. "You didn't shoot me."
Tanner shook his head, ignoring what his friend was saying. "The shooter wanted me not you. There's a contract out on me, and they keep picking off the wrong person."
"Geez, maybe you should talk to Rain, between the two of you…" Jackson took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time-simple as that. . .IT COULD HAPPEN EVEN IF I WAS AN ACCOUNTANT OR A DOCTOR." Nathan raised his voice, obviously so that his girlfriend could hear. "What are the rest of you doing about this?"
Standish was surprised the medic had become so riled. "Calm down, Nathan. The rest of us are handling the situation. Judge Travis has given the team time to find the person responsible and get the contract removed." Ezra stood up, motioning to Vin that it was time to leave.
Nathan put his arm out and the long haired man grasped it tightly. "If you need me or just want to talk. . ."
Tanner nodded. "Know where to find ya. . ."
Standish squeezed the infirmed man's shoulder. "Take care of yourself, Agent Jackson." Standish bent down lower so only Jackson could hear. "Do not be too hard on your paramour. She is just scared."
Nathan nodded in understanding.
After thanking Rain for the hospitality they walked back to the car in silence. Ezra knew nothing had changed for Vin. He saw a man as stubborn as himself unwilling to grant any quarter in an uncontrollable situation. Standish knew no therapy or friendly discussion would reduce Tanner's burden. Ezra wanted to curse Chris Larabee for adding to Vin's guilt.
"Whatever happens, just don't get killed." Standish mumbled under his breath as they entered the Jag and he started the engine.
"What did you say, Ez?" Vin said as he pulled the seatbelt over his chest.
Josiah had shown Vin to his room. Tanner was being kept on the move, hence the change of sleeping arrangements. The Victorian house was still a work in progress. The spare room was sparse, but clean and functional. The sharpshooter nodded and tossed his bag on the bed.
Sanchez was at the door when he turned around, "Are you tired or do you want to talk?"
Vin grinned and placed a hand on his neck. "A little of both, I guess."
"I still have some bottles of my homemade brew in the 'frige. . ." Sanchez started to head down the stairs, knowing his beer was a temptation no one could resist. He could hear Vin's stocking feet behind him.
They sat comfortably on the couch enjoying the silence and a moment to put their feet up. "I spoke to Chris a few days ago."
Tanner paused from drinking his beer, then brought the bottle back to his mouth and drained the remaining contents. "I'm bringing back some bad memories for him." Vin toyed with the bottle before putting his feet on the floor and placing it on the coffee table.
"Brother, you know this has nothing to do with you. . ." Sanchez began, hoping he could have his two teammates come to some sort of understanding.
"Nathan, Buck and JD were all shot 'cause of me. And I've become Chris's nightmare." Vin scooped up his bottle and headed into the kitchen, the door swinging wide in his wake.
Josiah emptied his bottle and followed. Before entering he heard the crash of something breaking and thanked God it wasn't a television. He found Tanner bent down picking up the pieces of a broken beer bottle. "Sorry, Josiah . . ."
"That's okay." Sanchez pulled out a chair for himself and gestured for Vin to sit down. Tanner placed the glass bits in the trash before taking the seat. "You're not the devil, Vin. You're not evil . . ."
Tanner shook his head. "Never thought I was, but from Chris's point of view it doesn't look good."
Sanchez swallowed at the sharpshooter's eerie calmness. Josiah did not want Vin to resign himself to death. The larger man had walked that path before and wanted to save his friend from the agony. "No, that's not true. You're not Chris's demon."
Vin met Josiah's gaze. "I did what was done to Chris."
Sanchez grabbed Tanner's shoulders firmly. "You had a duty to your country to stop a man from doing harm." The large man kept his hands on Vin's shoulders until the sharpshooter shrugged them away.
Tanner closed his eyes and stood up. He turned and went to the sink where he gazed out the window. Sanchez wondered what the long haired man saw out in the darkness. "I can't change it. I don't know if it would made a difference then either. Have you seen what those weapons do? He had to be stopped and stopping in that remote hellhole of a place was the best choice we had to limit the collateral damage." Vin sighed.
Josiah opened the refrigerator again and pulled out two more beers. He placed one on the counter. The sharpshooter opened the bottle. Josiah raised his bottle in a toast, as did Vin. "Chris will come around. We just have to give him time." Vin nodded. Josiah knew these men needed his prayers more than ever.
Buck smelled the coffee as its aromatic tendrils made their way under the door of his room. Junior had gotten up early again, or Wilmington thought, more likely didn't sleep. Vin had been at the loft for three days and for those days had been up as the sun rose. Buck stretched and decided to open his eyes. He hit the alarm clock so it would go off at its designated time of seven, being careful not to extend his arm too much. His shoulder still felt achy and would take time to heal. Buck took a deep breath and made his way out to the kitchen. "Damn Vin, in my own house I like my own coffee not your damn sludge."
Vin smiled as he brought his bowl of cereal to the couch. "Hell, it's supposed to wake you up, Bucklin."
Wilmington hesitated as he poured the dark brew. "So does a fine woman and like a woman I like more sugar and less vinegar." He didn't want to drink it, but also didn't feel like making more coffee either, with a few teaspoons of sugar it was almost bearable.
"Hey, JD," Vin greeted the still yawning young man, who kept a hand at his wounded side.
Wilmington handed Dunne a mug of coffee as he sat down at the kitchen table. "Didn't even hear you wake up."
JD took a sip of the strong coffee, grimaced then glared at Buck, with a sigh he got up and opened the refrigerator, pulling out the carton of orange juice.
Vin brought his empty bowl in the kitchen and rinsed it in the sink. "I fixed some eggs, and toast figuring breakfast was the least I could do for you guys putting me up for the last couple of days."
"That was nice of ya, Junior. . ." Buck nodded and looked suspiciously at the yellow mass still in the frying pan on the stove. Tentatively he grabbed a fork and scooped a small amount into his mouth. Wilmington smiled. The eggs were edible. He took out two plates from the cupboard and paced a heaping pile on each plate along with two pieces of toast. One dish was placed before JD and Buck sat down across from him.
Tanner was antsy after flicking through all the morning shows. He shut the television off and began to fiddle with the stereo. Vin hurriedly went through the stations, settling on one station.
Buck, concerned for his neighbors at the early hour and still trying to get into their good graces after the last party, spoke up. "Wanna turn that down?"
JD paused from gnawing on a corner of the toast. "That's one of those songs that Buck says men hate."
Vin gave a confused glance to Buck. "Respect by Aretha Franklin?"
"Yeah and there's another one." Dunne took a larger bite of the bread. "You know, at first I was afraid I was petrified. . ."
"Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side." Wilmington dropped his fork then picked it up and waved it menacingly at his roommate. "Dammit JD! Now I'll have that song stuck in my head all day!"
Involuntarily Tanner's foot began to tap. He stopped once Wilmington threw a piece of toast at him. "What's the third one?" Vin held up the bread and began to eat it.
"Buck thinks Dancing Queen, but I think it's Paradise by the Dashboard Light." JD had started to eat his eggs. "Casey loves that song . . ."
Vin shrugged his shoulders, turned, shut the stereo off and sank down on the couch.
Buck tried to make the sharpshooter as comfortable as possible. The stress from having a contract on your life and the coolness of Vin's relationship with Chris caused tiny lines near Tanner's mouth and eyes to become prevalent. In the past week and a half there had been no further attempts. Vin had spent time with Ezra, Josiah and tonight was going to stay with Chris. There had also been no further leads except for David saying that there may have been a sighting of Malak al-Maut in Tel Aviv, meaning he was going after David.
JD waved as he shuffled off to take a shower.
Buck placed his plate in the sink. "If you want to go in a little later—maybe catch up on some sleep-we can wait, call up Chris and let him know . . ."
Tanner stood up to show that he was still alert. "I'm fine."
Wilmington walked over to the living room and pushed the sharpshooter back on the couch. "Pacing the place at all hours. . .You've been having nightmares?"
"Some." Vin sighed as he dropped his head back against the pillows.
Buck sat down on the coffee table. He wanted to talk to Vin, show he cared. "You're staying with Chris tonight."
"Yep," Tanner brought his head up and stared at his friend.
Wilmington met the level stare, imparting his support to the younger man. In the office the team tried to act like everything was normal, but it wasn't. Vin and Chris barely said two words to each other and the others were trying to patch up the friendship. "You gonna be okay?"
Vin nodded, reached out and slapped Buck on the shoulder. "Bucklin don't get all maudlin on me. The man isn't gonna kill me."
No, Wilmington thought, but there was going to be blood spilled, and Buck wondered if there would be anything left of either man when it was finished.
The tow headed boy was laughing, spinning in a circle, happy to be playing. He smiled at Vin and beckoned him to come and play. Tanner walked over to the boy. He studied the child who seemed so familiar. The boy held out his delicate hand. Vin reached out, feeling at ease with the child.
"Why did you do it Vin? Why did you kill me?" The boy snatched his hand back.
Tanner shook his head, "Adam. I'm sorry…Adam."
Vin awoke with a start. He tore himself away from the image. Chris was speaking to him. Tanner cleared his throat. "Sorry, you said something?" He had been trying to feign sleep to avoid talking to Chris, but somehow he had drifted off and ended up in his nightmare.
Larabee's eyes were fixated on the road before him. "Nothing."
Vin tried to calm the anxiety closing in on him. He opened the window a crack to let in some fresh air. The nightmare had started right after his declaration to the team. Tanner wondered how he would survive with Adam Larabee haunting him. More than that, he wanted to know what his fate with the team was going to be. "Two weeks are up you know." The sharpshooter didn't mean to say it out loud.
Chris didn't acknowledge the statement. Vin wrapped his arms around himself and tried to cage the unfairness, which he felt was attacking him. "Weird feeling knowing there is a fucking madman out there who wants you dead." Vin laughed at the absurdity-through it all he was still thinking about Chris. "And I still think about the shit you're going through…"
Larabee brought the speed of the Dodge up a notch. "You're not going to die." Tanner had to hold on to the dash as they took a sharp turn. Roughly, Chris pulled over to the side of the road. The car behind them beeped in irritation of the erratic driving. Chris placed both hands on the steering wheel. "Did you ever think about telling me?"
"Tell you about it?" Vin shook his head, and stared outside at a flickering light. "No, I kinda knew what would happen, and you weren't supposed to know about this, about a lot of the stuff I did before." Tanner turned and looked at Chris. Vin sighed. "I thought you'd understand that. . ."
"I'd like to think I would have acted differently. . ." Larabee let his hands drop from the steering wheel. "Vin, I want revenge for Sarah and Adam, too." Chris let his head drop back then turned his head to face Vin. "I know it wasn't you." Larabee closed his eyes and looked away. "But there's just so much. . .and I don't have any answers. I just don't."
Tanner tried to gulp some of the emotions threatening to assault him. His voice was hoarse; reverberating with feelings, making it hard to say the words. "You think I didn't beat myself up over it after I found out?" Tanner took a deep breath trying to force enough air into his lungs so he could finish. He wished he hadn't found out, but the job was based on intel that they were missing. If they knew, then maybe they would have found another way, but the man was still going to die. "Jobs like that made the army less of a home, I guess. I didn't call another place home 'til now."
Chris nodded and rubbed a hand down his face. "Where does this leave us?" The words hung in the air for a few moments.
Vin looked away and noticed he was a few blocks away from his apartment. "In Purgatorio," the sharpshooter replied, but knowing he was closer to hell. "Just take me home." Tanner lifted his hand and gestured to the road. "I need to figure some things out."
Chris pulled away from the curb and they drove in a weighted silence of things left unsaid and the heaviness of knowing their friendship was being tested. Vin unbuckled his seat belt as Chris parked the Dodge yet again near his apartment building. Quickly, Tanner grabbed his bag and stepped out of the vehicle, wanting to get away. He almost made it when Chris reached out.
"Vin, I. . ." The moonlight cast a pale glow over Larabee's features and for a minute Tanner saw Adam's face.
Vin pulled away and shut the door. He raised his hand. "Night, Chris. Don't worry- it'll be fine."
Chris watched Vin enter the building. He waited a few moments, looked around and didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. For one night it would be okay, Chris told himself as he placed his signal on to leave the curb. He waited, allowing a distant car to pass. The vehicle drove by and Larabee knew he should leave. Instead he punched the steering wheel in anger at himself and the whole damn situation.
He cradled his hand in pain. The stinging subsided, but left Chris wanting the simple feeling of pain to stay. The team leader was tired of the complexities of his emotions. He was exhausted from second guessing each of his decisions. Chris had to make sure he was being fair to Vin. He didn't want to let his feelings affect his work. . ."Damn I'm one screwed up bastard." He mumbled to himself.
He had detached himself- just like when Adam and Sarah were killed. Somehow his friends had turned into his co-workers. He had tried to stay away from going out with the team after work instead enjoying the solitude of his office or home. And his time alone made him connect more with Vin's enemy. He understood Malak al-Maut's thirst for revenge. Larabee was jealous of what the man had achieved. He hadn't forgotten his wife and child and found their killers. Chris exhaled a long breath. He grimaced when he thought about how he had treated Vin at the office—with distinct, cold professionalism.
It wasn't a solution, but as he told Tanner, he just didn't have the answers.
Chris looked at the building one more time. Damn, Vin had forgotten his jacket. He would just give it to the sharpshooter tomorrow and maybe they could talk too. Larabee turned on his signal to exit.
"Ahh hell," the leader shut off the ignition and grabbed the jacket. He needed to talk to Vin and they needed to settle this or more like Chris coming to peace.
He climbed the stairs to Tanner's floor and immediately noticed the quietness. Chris reached for his weapon, then remembered the local children's museum had free night on Wednesday and the tenants always made an effort to bring their kids. Larabee shook his head at his own tendency to be quick on the draw. He knocked softly on the sharpshooter's door to give him warning, then turned the knob.
It was locked. Chris would have liked to think the sharpshooter was being careful, but the thought didn't sit well with the leader. Larabee listened at the door and there was only silence. The blonde man walked away gripping the jacket. Carefully he folded the jacket and lay it down before running at the door and kicking it open.
Vin was kneeling on the ground, his hands behind his head. A man wearing dark sunglasses, a loose scarf wrapped about his neck and a faded baseball hat was behind him. Chris was face to face with Malak al-Maut.
"Gun down." The man ordered, without removing his weapon from Tanner's head. "He has to die for what he has done."
"Git outta here, Chris." Vin put his chin up and slowly closed and opened his eyes. "I don't want anyone else to be hurt." Tanner dropped is head again. Larabee was scared, in his friend's eyes he saw a man who accepted he would make the ultimate sacrifice. Larabee lowered his gun.
The covered man brought the pistol down hard on the long haired agent's neck. Vin tumbled forward and Chris took a step.
"I had to come here and do this myself. The contract was always meant for me, to serve as a warning, to alienate you from your friends. The guilt must weigh on you, Tanner with your friends hurt because of you." The man tsked tsked Larabee. "You think I could not have walked up to him on the street, shot him, then walked away? But then he would have died surrounded by his friends and that was too good for him. He needed to die alone."
"I know what happened to your family." Chris held his hands out loosely. The gun was dangling, non-threateningly from his fingers. "I understand what it's like to lose your wife and son." Larabee licked his lips wondering where this tactic would take him.
The assassin grabbed Vin's hair then appraised Chris with his dark brown eyes. "I don't think you understand until your skin burns not because of the explosion that took my wife and son, but by your hatred for the men you need to find and kill. These scars remind me, every day, of what I lost and have to get revenge for." The click of the safety being removed was audible in the living room of the small apartment.
Vin brought his eyes up once more to Chris. He grimaced as his hair was again pulled back. "Get this over with!" Tanner yelled out, struggling against the firm hand that pulled him back.
Larabee brought the gun back into his hands and took another step forward. "You want to kill him so you don't have to admit to yourself, that you were responsible for their deaths."
The man growled. "NOOOOOOOO!"
In a second, Chris propelled by emotion, rage and guilt rushed forward. His voice deep and animal like. "Admit it. It's your own fucking fault. Just like it was my own damned fault! YOU made the weapons. YOU took the risk and your family paid the price!"
Too late the assassin raised his gun up to stop Larabee's attack. Vin took the opportunity to strike, hitting the man in the leg. He started to pitch forward, his gun still ready to shoot when the rumble of a gunshot resounded in the apartment.
Vin lay on the ground for a minute, trembling slightly. He stared unblinking at the plaster ceiling with his free hands he pushed the dead body off him and sat up.
Chris was standing over him, smoking gun in hand. He nodded at the sharpshooter and put his gun away. Larabee outstretched a hand, which Tanner clasped and was brought to his feet.
Chris pulled out his cell phone, dialed, then whispered in his phone. Vin shook his head, not caring if it was the police or one of the team on the other side of the phone. He was still in disbelief he had survived and the Malak al-Maut was dead in his apartment, not in Tel Aviv as had been reported. and that his own guilt had not been misplaced. This man wanted to make sure Vin suffered for his past. The seriousness of the situation made him start to laugh uncontrollably.
Tanner was scared by his own reaction and went to the kitchen, rummaging through the cabinets until we found what he was looking for—Johnny Walker. "I thought when you came through the door-I'm fucked-he's not going to take the shot." Vin opened the bottle, and didn't look up. "Then I looked at this bastard holding a gun to my head and thought I'm fucked." When Tanner looked up Larabee was staring at him.
Chris looked away and concentrated on closing his phone. "I called the police-let them know we need the coroner."
"Police? We may want to call the FBI or CIA on this one." Vin took a swig of the whiskey. It tasted bitter. Tanner knew it wasn't the liquor but the aftertaste of being so close to death. He spit the drink into the sink. Chris had joined him in the kitchen. The sharpshooter glanced at the body and then at the blonde man. "Thanks," he said. Tanner stepped past the team leader, opened the freezer and grabbed a bag of frozen vegetables resting them against his neck. He could feel the pounding bruise resulting from the blow he had taken on his neck. Vin also hoped the chills running down his spine would jolt him and make him step back to what was happening.
Chris placed a hand on the sharpshooter's shoulder. "Vin…I …."
Vin snorted and let his head rest against the freezer door. Tanner turned around. He took a deep drink, this time swallowing the whiskey and relishing in its burn.
"I'm sorry," Chris sighed. "I'm sorry, Vin."
"In your head you thought someone like me was who killed your family." Tanner narrowed his eyes. Being a marked man had brought with it a sense of impatience and a tiredness of excuses and pauses.
Larabee roughly scraped his hair with his fingers. "I had done everything right—wife, kid and job. It was taken away from me by God knows who and then you tell me you did the same thing." Chris began to raise his voice then paused. "And this is the kind of person that would take away a man's happiness—I had a face when I didn't have one before and that face was Vin Tanner's."
Vin grabbed the frozen vegetables resting on his shoulders and threw them on the kitchen table. "I don't think I wanted to hear that even if I knew it." Tanner wanted out of his own apartment.
Larabee gripped his arm and pushed him so the back of his legs were against the edge of the kitchen table. "I was wrong. I was mixed-up." Chris shook Vin, who tried to break free. "You're the face of a friend." The leader finally let go of the sharpshooter.
Vin took a deep breath and lightly pushed Chris away from him. "It's not your fault." Tanner grunted as he walked to the living room. He flopped down on his couch and glanced one more time at the dead man, creating a stain on the floor that would have him on his hands and knees scrubbing. This one horrible man had stirred up so much trouble and grief. "Damn you," he added under his breath.
Larabee stayed in the kitchen. "I wasn't there, Vin, to protect them."
Tanner took another long drink and let his head fall back. "Three lives versus the thousands of soldiers and civvies seemed like a fair trade." Vin held the bottle in the palms of his hands remembering what he used to tell himself to ease his soul. "There was nothing you could have done to protect them." Vin had gone on the mission, and nothing would have stopped him, David or Robert from completing it. Vin held out the bottle to the blonde man. Chris gripped the bottle and sat down on a corner of the couch.
Larabee drank and handed the bottle back to the longhaired man. "I can't say that I am ever going to give up looking for Sarah's and Adam's killers, but I know you'll be there and the team, willing to help."
They would be there for each other, willing to give a hand when it wasn't wanted or thought it wasn't needed. Vin had realized that- his old ways were melding with what these men offered. They would live to fight another day. Vin would atone for what Malak al-Maut had put his friends through- Buck, JD and Nathan for their physical wounds and Chris for the emotional ones. It echoed in his voice when he replied, "I'll be there."