Rating: PG, slash
Acknowledgement: A huge thanks to Sandy Herrold for beta and support!
Color the Landscape
by Marie Blackpool
Bright in Chris's black and white dream, Vin was falling with a red bloom on his chest. He fell in a cloud of floating packing peanuts, a tiny figure in the snow globe of Chris's latest deep-frozen memory.
"Chris!" Buck shook him. His head bounced against fake wood paneling as he straightened the slump of his back. "They called first class. Want to try again?" Chris looked around, and Buck jabbed a thumb towards the gift shop. Vin was leaning against the wall facing away from them, his bandaged arm held favored in front of him. Chris knew without seeing his face that he was scowling. He had been for the last few hours.
"Our boy is looking a little out of sorts," Buck said cheerfully.
"He ain't a boy," Chris muttered, despite knowing he was being baited. Buck had some nerve with J.D. sitting next to him. He avoided Buck's amused look.
Chris hauled himself up to the counter and waited impatiently for the small brunette to grace him with eye contact. "Ma'am, did everyone check-in for first class? I'm trying to get my friend bumped up, if possible, because he's hurt—"
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir, everyone did check in. We would have called you if there was any opening. I can see if there's any other seat opening..."
Chris sighed. She got busy again, but he couldn't see what good it would do to shuffle them around. A tiny seat on a full airplane in economy was just as bad as any other tiny seat on a full airplane.
"The best I can do is to get two together. A center and a window. Would you like me to change these for you, sir?" She held out her hand for the tickets Chris only just realized he was holding. His, Buck's, Vin's, and J.D.'s. Because they had changed their flight on short notice to try to beat the storm, they were scattered all over the plane. They hadn't argued too much at the check in counter, because Chris was counting on being able to upgrade Vin at the gate.
"Let me see what we've got," Chris said, as his brain kicked in finally. He spread out the boarding passes and said, "Can we get a seat on the right side window, or left side aisle? More room for his arm." J.D. was in 22B, which was no good; Buck was in 18D, aisle on the wrong side; Vin was currently in 26E, really no good, while Chris was in 20F—aha!
"I could just swap with Vin," Chris said.
The agent suddenly became very accommodating, maybe because she caught sight of the moping, but attractive, injured party over Chris's shoulder. "I think I can get two together by the window," she said and worked busily to achieve this. Chris almost stopped her from making the effort, but caught his tongue in indecision. It is probably better for Vin to feel crowded by someone he knew than some aggressive guy who wanted to talk about the NASDAQ the whole flight. She handed him new boarding passes, and announced triumphantly, "19E and F! Enjoy your flight, sir. You and your friend can board anytime, if you'd like the extra time."
Chris thanked her mechanically and went to deliver the news and the tickets. Buck and J.D. immediately started squabbling over their seats, while Vin just took it with a muttered thanks. Chris scanned his face for signs of pain or fever, since he was there anyway, but all he saw was the scowl creeping back into place when his inspection was noticed.
"She said we can board anytime, Vin," he said with a sigh. He reached down for Vin's bag, but Vin beat him to it. He followed Vin to the gate, avoiding Buck's interrogating gaze. It was none of Buck's business, anyway. Before handing off his ticket, Chris paused, tempted to check his messages again, see if the bullet had been found—but they would keep, he supposed. Vin would need help getting his stuff into the overhead, and if Chris didn't do it, Vin would just do it himself.
The cabin was empty except for a male flight attendant who smiled pertly at each of them in turn as he shifted magazines around an overhead at the rear. Vin paused at 19 and glanced back at Chris. "You sure you don't mind the center? I could take it."
"Nah, I got you the window," Chris said gruffly. "Wanna give me your coat?"
Vin dropped his bag onto the middle seat and cautiously lifted the loop of the sling over his bent head. Chris narrowed his eyes at what he thought was a wince nearly hidden by the fall of long brown hair. Vin awkwardly peeled back his coat one-handed, and carefully shrugged his left arm out of the sleeve. Chris hovered, and finally gave in and caught the leather jacket's weight as it fell down Vin's back. Vin turned himself out of it, and Chris helped him slide it off the stiff right arm. Chris knew he wasn't imagining the pallor on his friend's face after the maneuver; he tried to ignore it as he folded both their coats up and packed them away.
He threaded himself into the narrow row while Vin was arranging the sling around his neck again. Chris leaned to the left to give him room for his elbow and head.
"You taking that pain medication?"
"Stow it, Chris," Vin snapped.
"I'll take that as a 'No,'" Chris sighed. He shook his head. It was going to be a long flight. He spread his knees to pull open the backseat pocket and rifled for the in-flight magazine. His knee rested against Vin's thigh for a moment, warm through two layers of jeans. When he straightened, Vin's left arm was on the arm rest. He tucked his elbow against his body and prayed that whoever got the seat to his left would be slender and accommodating of his leftward tilt.
Boarding passengers filled the aisle, and Chris flipped pages. He couldn't concentrate on any articles, barely saw the pictures spinning by. He was exhausted, hadn't had more than a few minutes shuteye in two days now. It was doubtful he would really get any sleep, though, with this tension between him and Vin, especially with them sitting so close. Chris sighed. He took a breath to try a sally at Vin's reserve, but when he looked over, the man had his head back and eyes closed. Well, that was just fine; better asleep than in pain.
He'd sat up all the previous night in the Motel 6 armchair brooding at Vin, who tossed restlessly in the far bed. The pain pills weren't enough, or Vin was having bad dreams or a touch of fever. Probably that shot of whiskey when they got out of the hospital wasn't a good idea. Vin had looked so rattled at being the patient this time. The conversation in the hotel room when they'd gotten there definitely wasn't a good idea. Now he wondered why exactly Vin had brought it all up. He must have had some idea how Chris would react.
"I think it might have been Andersen," Vin said. He crossed his boots on his motel bed and eased back against the piled pillows.
Chris was confused and distracted. "What might have been?" He was packing their stuff up, since their new flight was at 6 a.m. the next morning. He piled their bags at the foot of the other bed.
"Who shot me," Vin said tiredly.
Vin's spare jeans slid out of Chris's hand. "What?"
"Todd Andersen. We used to work together in El Paso. He's had it in for me for years." Vin leaned his head back against the wall and breathed out what could have been the driest chuckle.
Chris narrowed his eyes at him. "You're kidding, right?"
There was a long pause, during which Chris was afraid Vin had fallen asleep; he'd have to wake Vin up for this, despite his wound.
"I think it started at the academy. I won all the marksmanship awards, and he was pretty good, but not as good as me. I was a little cocky too." Vin opened his eyes to smile at Chris, that self-deprecating dimpled smile that drove the secretaries mad. It bemused Chris too, occasionally, but not now.
"I always thought he was checking me out in the locker room, too." Vin sighed and shut his eyes. He said it casually, like a comment on the weather. "I couldn't figure out if it was part of the competition or what. Then there was this party at graduation. We all got pretty hammered. Me and some friends—you know Mike Diggis? And Rodd Escuela? Well, they're good guys, in Atlanta now..." Vin reached across with his left arm to rub at his shoulder. Chris watched his fingers dig into the nape of his neck and almost winced in sympathy. "Mike and Rodd and me rounded up some guys to go to a bar downtown to keep on partying. I didn't think Andersen was around, and I wouldn't've invited him anyway—but we got there and I went up to get the drinks and it was really packed at the bar, so I didn't think anything of it at first, but someone was crowding me..." Vin rubbed a hand over his face and widened his eyes at the memory. "I ended up with the bar in my gut and someone feeling me up and down and breathing in my ear. He could've clubbed me to death with his woody, too. If it hadn't been so crowded and I hadn't been kind of slow on the uptake at that point—" Vin shook his head and laughed once.
"When I could turn around again, I saw Andersen snaking away and kind of laughing, in a mean way, like he got away with something. I couldn't swear in court it was him, but I'm pretty sure he was messing with me."
"You're saying he wanted your ass. Hey, just trying to clarify the picture here," Chris snickered at the look on Vin's face.
"Whatever, Larabee." Vin rolled his eyes and grinned. "Then it was a couple of years. I was working in El Paso on loan to the explosives unit because there was suddenly a whole bunch of bomb threats—it was right after Oklahoma City. Andersen was there too.
"He was undercover again, cause that's what he always does best. He was a gun dealer with a shop with some Mafia connection when we could use it. I was hanging around, pretending to make messenger runs and money runs and generally keeping my eyes open.
"He had a bunch of sources, snitches who hung out at the shop and smoked in the alley behind. He said they were snitches, but I always wondered a little. A lot of them were boys just getting their feet dirty, probably not much use for information. It was a little like he was getting them connected, even making them, maybe in a couple of ways, if you get me."
Chris squinted across the room, not willing to go there without more help. "Why do you think that?"
Vin looked embarrassed, eyes skittering away briefly. "Well, I saw him with one of them. One night I came to the store to pass him something, and the light was on in the back room. I heard him yelling and some kid's voice begging or something. When I went back there, he was roughing this kid up over some errand he messed up. It sounded like the kid was supposed to bring back some agreement for meeting with one of the explosives dealers, and couldn't get any commitment. He was just 14, hadn't ever done much like this before. Beats me why Andersen wanted to use kids like that." Vin shook his head in baffled disgust.
"Anyway, the kid was almost crying after Andersen had hit him a couple times. I was just going in when Andersen grabbed him by the neck and pushed him down in front of him, slow, like he could have murdered him in cold blood right there. But then he unzipped, pulled himself out, and told the kid to blow him.
"He saw me in the door and he even smiled. 'Want some?' he said. I kind of froze. I was pretty new to the undercover thing and didn't really know what was okay and what wasn't. Maybe this was normal, I was thinking. While I stood there, the kid was going at him, and he just stood there looking at me, like he dared me to say anything, or like it was me doing him."
Vin was looking down at his toes on the bed in front of him, instead of at Chris.
"Finally I just left without saying anything. For days I kept thinking about it and thinking of good exit lines, like 'I prefer them legal and willing,' stuff like that. And I never reported it, because you know how it is with undercover stuff. It's always a little gray."
Chris started to object—it was his job to object to that dark a gray. But he did remember how it was sometimes, when you were starting out, especially with relationships in the field. If Andersen was generally believed effective, Vin could have thought this kind of behavior was normal. And it was true that the reports were never completely accurate, could never be.
"Then it got a little more confusing." Vin shifted restlessly. "About a month later, the kid—the snitch—turned up floating in the river facedown. The autopsy said he had been sexually abused and then his neck broken. It had been too long for any real evidence to remain, and since I didn't say anything about what I had seen, no one thought about Andersen. Except me. And he knew it when he looked at me. I got myself transferred out of there into a training program not too long after, because they caught one of the Nitro sources and decided it was too big an operation for us after that." Meaning the FBI cleaned it up.
Chris sat down, digesting implications. "So you think he might be out to get you after all this time?"
Vin started to shrug, winced, finished it with his left shoulder. "Can't really say. It probably sounds paranoid, doesn't it. Just wouldn't be surprised if it was him. But I don't want to find out."
"You brought it up. Now I'm worried about it."
"I didn't bring it up to worry about. Just making conversation."
Chris shook his head.
"Leave it, Chris."
"You know I can't do that."
"You can if you want to. I'm asking you to." Vin looked mulish.
"If he did it, I can't let him get away with it. He could've killed you!"
"Nah, remember, he ain't a good shot. He could've hit me accidentally anyway, which is what he'd say."
"They'll run ballistics, and it'll come up even if I don't push it. They'll investigate."
"But it won't be a big deal if you don't say anything about it. Paperwork, this stuff happens. Just let it go, Chris."
"Why? Why don't you want him to get what's coming to him, and keep him from doing something like this—or worse—next time you're around? Or to someone who can't take care of themself?"
"I don't want to drag it all out again. I'm speculating, there's no evidence either way, and it's my word against his."
"Well, you know where I stand on that one." Chris was just flabbergasted at Vin's attitude.
"I don't think I have a lot to be proud of and I just want to forget about it. You going to be my friend or my boss on this one?" Vin sounded genuinely out of sorts. When Chris didn't answer, he scowled, kicked off his boots after armless flailing, pulled up the floral bedspread, and turned his back.
Wishing he had a bottle of whiskey for company, Chris sat up all night thinking about that choice, and wondering where he should take a stand on it. Chris watched Vin toss for hours, murmuring and twitching from time to time. The fluorescent lights from the parking lot cast weak shadows on the floor at his feet through the thin curtains, stretched over his untouched bed and didn't quite reach his friend and subordinate. He wasn't doing such a good job with the distinction between those two roles. He trusted Vin's intuitions about people even more than his own most of the time. If Vin thought something was up, shouldn't Chris do something about it? Besides, why else would Vin tell him, if not to get some reaction? And on and on all night, until the dark outside turned gray and he stirred himself to finish packing.
Chris reran the arguments that had paralyzed him in the hotel room as he flipped through the United magazine. It was possible Vin was wrong, that even if Andersen were a homicidal maniac at some point in the past, he hadn't shot the bullet that hit Vin. It was possible Vin was right, Andersen was still dangerous and particularly had it in for Vin, but the ballistics team wouldn't find the bullet and be able to make the match. In which case, they would never really know. It was possible the bullet would be found, the match made, and internal affairs would perform a routine investigation. In that case, it was also possible some of the history would come out, but it was less than likely if Vin didn't talk. And if Chris didn't talk. It would be put down to an accident in the line of duty, yadda yadda. Which apparently was what Vin wanted.
Chris rubbed his eyes, and peripherally watched Vin stretch his legs as far as possible and shift in his seat. Chris had wondered for a long time if Vin had a touch of claustrophobia. He didn't seem too happy on airplanes. But maybe it was the flight thing, not the sardine thing.
If Chris didn't talk. As Chris saw it, he had a bunch of possible choices here. He could wait and see if ballistics found anything. He could wait for internal affairs to start asking questions, and he could plant some suspicions without getting explicit. Or, he could get explicit. Maybe Vin would never figure out it was him that tipped them off. He was surprised he was even able to think about that as a plausible option. But naturally he wanted this guy put away, if he was responsible. And he wouldn't mind seeing Andersen hurt, if possible, a feeling Chris could admit without being proud of it. The guy could have killed his best agent, not to mention his friend. Chris figured he had a right to be upset, even if Vin didn't see it that simply. It seemed to come down to a choice between what Vin wanted and what Chris believed---which he never before thought might turn out to be so different.
Chris tore the page when he turned it with a temperamental jerk. He could almost hear Vin's eyes cracking to peer at him. His arm on the armrest tensed slightly and then relaxed deliberately; Chris could feel it in his elbow and upper arm.
Not only did he want the guy to get what was coming to him, but it was Chris's job to take action if an agent was acting irresponsibly, dangerously, or unlawfully. Andersen should be investigated in any case, even if he hadn't shot at Vin. Vin had said enough to make Chris suspect the man was already a problem case for Bob Whiting in St. Louis, and whoever had been saddled with him in El Paso---McIntyre?---probably had a pretty thick folder of reports on his behavior. So suppose ballistics didn't tie Vin's shooting to Andersen; Chris could still say something to Whiting, maybe casually probe about the agent's performance... if he kept Vin out of it, and Vin never needed to know, and if the El Paso case weren't reopened... Chris had to admit to himself that it was unlikely anything could be pinned on him about the dead informant after all this time.
The plane had filled, and because it was that kind of day after that kind of weekend, the seat on Chris's left was occupied by a portly gentleman in a business suit. He smiled absently at Chris and took his remaining armrest, leaving Chris with his arms pressed against his ribs. Chris's aversion to being in a stranger's space caused him to lean back towards Vin again, until their shoulders abutted. Vin shifted minutely to give him room, but their shoulders still ended up pressed together. When Buck sat down in the row in front, he gave Chris a big grin, though his smile faded a trifle as he raked his eyes across Vin and back to Chris.
Chris knew Buck detected something amiss between them, but he was hoping Buck would just leave it alone. He wasn't going to say anything if Buck asked, but he didn't want to have to lie either.
A month ago when it was just the two of them at the saloon, Buck had said, "You better decide what you're going to do with Vin."
Chris looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"You've been blowing hot and cold for months now, and I think he's looking mighty confused. He really respects you, but he's getting frustrated by you being friendly one day and standoffish the next. How come you didn't want to go fishing with him until me and J.D. said we'd go?"
Chris shrugged. "We went to the car show the weekend before. I can't spend all my time with him."
"You can't figure out how to be his friend and his supervisor." Buck grinned in realization. "Which is funny, coming from me, but you're having a harder time with him for some reason."
Chris stared at his half empty glass. He couldn't deny it. But, if he were honest with himself, he hadn't figured out if it was those words exactly that he should apply to the conflicted feeling he had around this particular young man.
"It's pretty obvious how you two took to each other. Your little diversionary tactics, if you pardon the expression, are just making him worried. None of my business, of course," Buck added. Like that ever stopped him.
"You and me go way back, and we know where we stand on the job and off." Chris groped for a way to say this that wouldn't sound too partial. Which was really the heart of the problem—he was too partial. "I think Vin is really good, and should get every chance he deserves for—for whatever he wants. He should get a team of his own someday."
"I agree," Buck said softly. He eyed Chris. "You're afraid if you spend too much time with him it will look like favoritism if you promote him?"
Chris didn't answer, sipped his beer instead. It felt stupid said bald like that.
"In a couple more years his record will stand on its own. He's smart, hard-working, motivated, and plays well with others. No one will doubt you had a right to promote him, not if they've ever met him. And if you're not sure yourself, you could send him out on outside jobs to get him more experience with other teams."
"There's this gig in Atlanta, that's got his name all over it. I've been sitting on the forms for weeks now."
The news broke over Buck like a light coming on. He made a little soundless "oho" exhalation, grinned and shrugged. Like it was all clear now. Chris shook his head. Leave it to Buck to imagine he saw through all bullshit after having three drinks. It was still feeling complicated to Chris, but Chris saw some wisdom there; if he was worried that his judgment of Vin's abilities was too biased, reports from other team leaders would give him more data points. And get Vin more exposure outside of Denver, which could only be good for him.
Like St. Louis had been good exposure, Chris thought sourly. He leaned his head back, exhaustion finally making him rein in his teaming thoughts and try for some sleep.
"...review the safety card in the seat pocket in front of you... six emergency exits, two located in the front, two over the wings, and two to the rear of the aircraft..."
Bob Whiting seemed to run a tight ship. When Chris and his men arrived in St. Louis, Whiting had them in conference immediately with the details of the sting laid out crisply and efficiently. The expanded team featured men from Denver as well as Chicago, plus a couple of DEA agents from Seattle. The DEA and FBI had tracked the lines of coke distribution all the way from Canada, through Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, and into Missouri. They had hooked up with Whiting's investigation of unregistered guns including automatic weapons and found a way to connect the dots.
Andersen was Whiting's undercover guy; Chris never got more than a passing glance at him. He seemed the consummate undercover agent, looking every bit the part of a heavy wanting to pick up a shipment of Brownings. Thinking back on the silk suit, slicked back hair, and designer shades Andersen wore as he welcomed the dealers at the warehouse, Chris could imagine him going into business on his own, maybe even killing an informant. His fashion statement alone was suspicious. At the time, though, he'd just thought Andersen was a good actor doing a great job making their targets feel at ease.
And then the actual op went down. Andersen shook hands with the occupants of a rental Jaguar. After a couple words about the terms of the deal, which Chris heard over his earpiece, Andersen swung open the doors to let in a minivan. The Jag had four guys, the minivan had two up-front. The ATF and DEA had eight men hidden throughout the warehouse. Plus six more outside. Chris spelled out "six question mark" in sign language at Vin who was behind him up on a gantry in back of some empty crates. He saw Vin nod and repeat the gestures in Buck's direction. When he looked to his left, behind the derelict forklift, Whiting was passing on the same message to the men within his line of sight. Chris rubbed his palm up and down the cool handle of his pistol and waited.
Andersen gestured at the drivers of the van and told them they should stretch their legs. They glanced at each other and got out. Mortenson, their target, raised an arm in elegant wool and flicked a finger towards the back of the van.
"You've got the cash with you, of course," he said, and it definitely wasn't a question.
"I brought it. I want to see your product first." Andersen was one cool agent.
Mortenson frowned delicately at his accountant, a spidery little man who looked like Chris's third-grade teacher. "Let's have a mutual show of good faith. Where's yours?"
"I'm a cautious man, no reflection on you, mister. But, okay, half of it's over there on that crate." Andersen waved the smoking end of his Marlboro at the metal suitcase. Chris held his breath as the accountant jogged over and popped it open to inspect the cash.
"Where's the rest? I'm not interested in selling half of my guns." Mortenson was starting to look irritated.
"It's here, but I'm not telling you where until I see all the merchandise and verify it's in working condition. I've never been sold junk before, and I'm not about to start now." Andersen took one last drag, dropped his butt and punctuated his point by grinding it out definitively. He headed towards the back of the van.
Like in a cheesy Hong Kong movie, everything turned slow motion as they watched Andersen watch Mortenson open the doors. It took an eternity for him to signal to his driver to unlock the back and show the merchandise.
The door swung open and blocked Chris's view of Andersen. He swore soundlessly. It was up to Whiting to signal the move from his higher vantage point, but Chris always liked getting visual confirmation of the signal from the inside man himself. In the breathless moment while the gun inspection happened out of his view, he imagined Andersen flipping up a tarpaulin to check the merchandise. He imagined him nodding curtly and conceding, "The other half of the cash is there under the forklift."
Whiting snapped through the microphone: "It's a go," and the room exploded. Chris leaped to his feet, shouting, "DEA, put your hands up!" The guys from the Jaguar were his primary concern, closer and clearly the muscle: they reached for their pieces instead of taking his advice, and he targeted the closest, squeezing off a couple shots and taking him down while he was still looking surprised. To his left, Buck and Whiting had leaped from their cover and were wrangling the van drivers and Mortenson. Whiting's other men were keeping cool heads, brandishing their guns and hollering but not shooting too much. The other three from the Jag were rolling around behind the car looking cornered and therefore nasty; Chris clipped another one as he tried to blast away at Whiting's man Jimenez, and Jimenez snagged the culprit by the arm and cuffed him to the grillwork on the front of the car. It wasn't quite out of the firing zone, but it was fast and obvious. Chris made sure the gun was accounted for in Jimenez's hands and went after the other two guys.
"Chris, we got company coming in," Vin's voice said intimately in his ear, to him and everyone else who was wired. Sure enough, the doors were swinging open, and guys with guns were piling in. Things got crazier then, and the details were at once etched brutally in adrenaline and wiped vague in a surplus of noise and motion. Bullets were chipping the wood Chris was ducking behind, and he was sprayed with needle splinters from one close call. The thug who was targeting him fell with a hole in his neck, and Chris was pretty sure he had Vin to thank. Chris scuttled behind the wheel of the Jag and snapped off a couple rounds, thinking nervously about reloading and wondering why he didn't just carry a second gun like Vin did. "Because it spoils the line of my jacket" suddenly didn't seem like a good reason.
Motion to his left suggested that Buck was crawling around under the van, done with the driver or Mortenson or both. Where were their guys from the dock? A voice on a bullhorn boomed, "The building is surrounded, put down your weapons and come out with your hands up." It would have made Chris laugh if he wasn't too busy gritting his teeth. It might be by the book, but it was a little ludicrous to think anyone was sane enough to listen to that advice inside the warehouse. He had to assume the cavalry was going to come in any minute. He hugged the grease stains on the floor. At least they owned the high ground, which meant they would eventually get everyone. Just a question of minimizing the damage all around.
And then he was watching the snow fall under the place where Vin had been up on the catwalk; and Chris jerked his head up and awake. He could feel the heat of Vin's body along his right side, reassuring even if a little too warm for health. A weight shifted beside his head. A careful turn showed him Vin out cold, finally relaxed and leaning towards Chris, his head rolling when Chris moved. It almost made Chris smile, but the sight of J.D. standing in the aisle with his arm along the back of Buck's chair arrested his amusement. He suddenly felt uncomfortable. They must have been a sight, asleep on each other.
"Come on, Buck, it's mine and I've hardly had ten minutes with it today!" J.D. was whining.
"Just let me show you how it's done, junior. You can have it back after I beat my high score. Which is already twice yours, I'm pointing out." Electronic beeping issued from Buck's lap. The large man using the armrest to Chris's left sighed audibly and flipped newspaper pages with a snap, some kind of cultural comment. Chris shifted restlessly, feeling trapped. J.D. saw him move and grinned.
"Looks like Vin is catching up on his sleep, huh."
There didn't seem to be much to say to the obvious. Chris felt even more irritable when Buck craned his head around and nodded in solemn approval. Chris wasn't sure why he was annoyed; probably he himself needed more rest. It wasn't like Vin needed protecting from their concern. Chris imagined he could feel Vin's warm breath on his neck, ghosting the small hairs with his sleeping rhythm. It made him want to cup Vin's face in his hand and hide him from the world, let him get some undisturbed shut-eye, without everyone commenting on it. He frowned at himself for the bizarre thought.
Behind Chris, someone coughed dryly, scraping his raw nerves. He tuned in on the low murmur of voices beside the cougher: it was a conversation he'd heard many times on flights, even had himself—a man and a woman getting to know each other. "Are you still married?" the man asked, the moment of truth. She was. Chris tuned out again. Mary hadn't been, in his case.
He imagined them from their voices: early 40s, him in jeans, thin, bearded or scruffy, silver jewelry at his neck and on his wrist, her blonde, hair pulled back in a casual and practical ponytail, light makeup, perhaps wire-rimmed glasses and a crocheted vest. She carried a laptop and worked on her business flights. He carried, but kept it in the overhead and read the paper instead.
Beside him, Vin was stirring, hair tickling Chris's cheek. Chris shifted his elbow in even further to give him more room. When he glanced over, he saw a frown settle between Vin's eyes before he had even opened them. He looked feverish and pained again. He swallowed audibly, straightened, and muttered, "Sorry."
Chris shook his head, a mute negative. He took out the in-flight magazine and flipped around again. "No problem. How you doing?" He wanted it back as soon as he said it. Mother hen.
Vin aborted a shrug, visibly bit off a retort. "Hurts a bit."
Chris nodded. He groped for another topic. "So. What do you think you'll do on your sick leave?"
After a long pause, Vin said, "Dunno. Can't really go hunting or fishing, even camping'd be tough... maybe I'll go visit Kathleen."
"She in Phoenix?" Even though he knew.
Chris couldn't follow that up innocuously. It was like Vin was challenging him to argue about his interest in a married woman again, a woman who wasn't ever going to make him happy. Not a fight Chris wanted to have now. There could never be a winner.
When Chris didn't respond, Vin shifted, sighing. He stretched his boots further under the seat in front, brushing against Chris's foot. Chris turned pages, thought about Mary, whom he'd just quit having time to see, for no good reason. He'd told himself it was the job, but he still seemed to have time to play with the guys. Telling himself it was team bonding, crucial for their work, was just bullshit.
He considered asking Buck if he'd seen Andersen aiming at Vin. Buck was the only one in the right area at the right time. No matter how he thought back, he knew his view had been blocked by the van doors. He wondered if he could sleep again with Vin restless beside him. For something to do, he turned on the overhead light and made an effort to be interested in B&Bs in Montana. Vin reached for his shoulder with his left hand and massaged the muscles. A grunt escaped him, and he twisted in his seat.
"Sorry, I gotta standup and stretch."
"Sure. Mister?" Chris lifted himself fractionally and waited for the man beside him to fold up the paper and shift his bulk. In the aisle, he watched in concern as Vin tried to maneuver himself out of the narrow row with one arm and tensed knees. He was a shade whiter when he was finally vertical. He nodded at them and squeezed past Chris, heading for the rear of the plane. Chris watched him, knowing J.D. and Buck were watching too, and probably watching him watching. The newspaper signaled it was ready to be read again, and he nodded absently and climbed in again.
He felt less claustrophobic now. Behind him, the interrupted get-to-know-you continued across the aisle. He'd forgotten to see if she looked like Mary. All he could remember was a glimpse of a purple shirt or sweater. His observational skills seemed to be degraded, maybe due to lack of sleep. Maybe he should order Vin to take more pain pills—as if Vin ever accepted his authority in any issue concerning his physical well-being. It was as if Vin had a boy's obliviousness to his own mortality. Must be an age thing; he knew he had been just as reckless about 10 years ago, back when Sarah had died. The old gloom darkened the edges of his vision. He couldn't let it go entirely, even with a team he loved in a job he was good at, with a legitimate valve for his anger at abuses of the innocent.
And then he was back on Vin again, like a sore muscle he couldn't let rest.
Buck twisted his head and peered over the seat. "Yeah?"
"Ah—never mind." He shook his head in frustration. It would feel like a betrayal, but of what he couldn't decide. An agreement he had never given Vin?
"Any time," Buck smirked and went back to the game. Chris felt lonely for the first time in months.
"Sorry, mister, I need to get out too," he said softly to the portly man.
Vin was leaning his good arm against the bulkhead, one leg propping him up, peering through the tiny porthole window at black sky. Chris hesitated to announce himself, not sure what to say. He dodged a stewardess who reached past him for a coffee pot in the galley wall. She eyed him and the lavatory door—green lock—and u-turned around him. His reflexive apology made Vin straighten and turn.
Vin went back to rubbing his shoulder, which was starting to look like a defensive gesture. Leave me alone, I hurt; I'm mean.
"Thought I would see how you're doing."
"Like I said." Vin conceded, "It's better standing and being able to move."
"Those seats get smaller every time." Chris nodded. God, he was making small talk with Vin. Vin was making small talk with him. He shook his head. "Vin—"
"Let's not go there, Chris." Vin looked angry and stubborn.
"I can't leave it alone. You know how I feel about this."
"No, I don't—I don't get you at all. And I'm sorry I brought it up."
"I'm glad you did. The guy's dangerous, should be put away. Aren't you worried about his other kids?"
"Yeah. But I could've been wrong about that one. Just like I could've been wrong about this." Vin touched his sling.
"If you think there's something there, in either case, I trust you. You've got a great instinct."
He succeeded in making Vin looked embarrassed, then pissed off-again. "Don't try to manipulate me, Chris. I was on drugs last night. And you know what, I don't think it was Andersen. He wasn't anywhere in sight when it happened. And I ain't seen him in years, so I must just be paranoid from all this pain medication."
Chris took a moment to admire this move—speaking of manipulation. "Sorry, I know you too well to buy that one. You really meant it last night. You had enough reasons for me to want to get this guy examined."
"I'm going to look pretty bad if you tell Whiting all of this, or McIntyre." Vin now looked deflated.
Chris was startled at how little he'd considered this angle. He'd made that little speech to Buck about Vin's future prospects, after all. Worse, he had the paperwork in his desk. It could still be okay: His own wild youth hadn't prevented his own promotion, not even those alcohol-soaked years after Sarah died. But he'd never knowingly kept a corrupt agent's murder under wraps, either.
He and Vin stared at each other silently a long moment. A woman excused herself and opened the lavatory door behind Chris; he took a step forward and jammed himself in front of the bulkhead door beside Vin.
"I didn't want you to ever look at me like that again," Vin said quietly. He had a shadow over his eyes.
Chris frowned at him. "Like what?"
"Like I let you down."
Chris opened his mouth, but couldn't do anything but shake his head. "That ain't what I was thinking at all. You've got to know that."
"You've got every right to think it. Hell, you should probably examine my record a little closer, knowing this."
"Shut up, Vin. Or I'll give you something to examine all right." Chris was starting to feel punchy, and like he wanted to punch Vin.
Vin cracked a small grin. "For all you know I get blow jobs from my snitches. Or those kids I took on the shooting course last month. Remember I forgot to give you those course evaluation forms?"
"Yeah, Tanner, and you're still going to turn them in, or you'll find some way to make it up."
"Like what? Clean out your backyard?" Vin was obviously about to laugh, but Chris still felt irritable. At himself for not thinking about all the angles on this problem.
"That or everyone else's case reports for the next five assignments." That stopped the smiling. Vin straightened up, looking ready to punch back. "Especially the undercover ones."
"Think that might teach me a lesson?" Vin asked seriously.
"Imagine so. Especially about minors." Chris felt a small muscle in his jaw jump.
"Maybe you're right, maybe you should talk to Whiting." It wasn't a concession, more of a sentence.
"I'll do it when I'm good and ready. For the moment, I'm not sure it's where the problem is."
They stared at each other for a frustrated moment. Chris wasn't sure how they had gotten here, even though he was pretty sure he had done more than half of the driving.
"Maybe we've both got a problem, Chris."
"I think maybe that's been true for a long time now. What do you think we should do about it?"
Another beat. "Depends what yours is."
"I don't know yet. You're part of it. You've got a great future ahead of you, your own team somewhere." Whoa. Cards on the table with an unintended flush. Chris deflated.
Vin let out his breath in a half sigh. "That's your problem? Sounds more like mine." It seemed like he was about to fold without even showing his hand.
"Depends on you. What you want. I can't read your mind, even if you think I think I can." He knew none of this would connect for Vin, but he felt better saying it.
The little smile was coming back, through outrage and surprise. "Don't know what I want either. I don't think I want you talking to Whiting, dragging it all back out again. And it's got nothing to do with my future, just history. Thinking about that makes me feel a little sick. Sicker, anyway."
"All right. If that's what you want. But you know that doesn't make me completely satisfied."
"I know, but I don't know what will. If you can't let it go, you're likely to get me messed up in it. I'm happy with things just like they are, maybe even a little more like they are."
Chris let that last part go, it was just too hard to parse. There was another issue making him mad. "Can't you trust me a little bit? I could be subtle with Whiting." But actually he'd lost track of who was being subtler. Chris had already shown all his cards, here. Maybe Vin knew about that paperwork and was trying to sabotage any kind of promotion possibility, he thought, and immediately recognized the kind of paranoia that resulted from too little sleep and too much caffeine. Or was this Andersen story some kind of test that Chris was failing? Even if it wasn't what Vin had in mind, Chris still felt like he had flunked.
A tremor started under their feet, and the seat belt light binged on. Neither of them moved. Chris was not sure how this challenge had mutated from dealing with an employee issue and a disagreement with a friend into something even more complicated. He recognized the feeling he'd had at the bar with Buck, the same feeling he'd had watching Vin get a bad night's sleep last night. It had been here for a while now; it wasn't something he understood. It seemed on the verge of coming clear, if he just stopped squinting at it so hard and maybe looked out of the corner of his eye. If he just didn't move too fast and scare away a shy revelation.
Like he was reading Chris's mind, Vin's eyes squeezed shuttle a little, considering and a trifle amused. He didn't seem mad, or threatened, just flummoxed. But he seemed to recognize how much Chris meant this. He nodded slowly and said—-
and then the floor dropped out under them. Chris flung out an arm to stop Vin from falling against his hurt shoulder, bracing them against the bulkhead. For a second, Vin was wrapped in his arm, holding on to his bicep and yes, that was Vin's hip against Chris's, and he was solid and warm and smelled a little like Old Spice. Chris's, borrowed that morning. Funny, he could never smell it on himself. Maybe it was the long hair.
"Sirs, I'll have to ask you to return to your seats," snapped a harried looking flight attendant. The overhead intercom crackled, "Sorry, folks, going through a little bit of turbulence. Please stay in your seats and fasten your seat belts for the next few minutes."
Vin straightened up and met Chris with a glance, almost shadow-free now. Chris followed him down the aisle, ready to catch him if they lost their footing again. The chubby gentleman was looking distinctly pale and unhappy about climbing out of his seat to let them in. Chris watched Vin pull himself in with his good arm, and literally followed on his heels. Another lurch, and they landed half on each other and half on unforgiving armrests.
"Reckon maybe some more drugs wouldn't be a bad idea right about now," Vin muttered as they sorted out their tangled seat belts. Chris grinned.
"I've got some extras, if you want 'em."
"What for? The doctor thought I might flush them and regret it?"
"No, for me, for having to listen to you being irritable for weeks every time you hurt yourself."
"Wouldn't want to take those. You need them."
"You're right there."
Chris's eye skated past Buck's head, not sure if he wanted to think this was being overheard or not. There wasn't anything in it, but he didn't want to spend any time in interrogation either. And Buck could be a god-awful gossip, when it came down to it.
The plane was still heaving around a little, and the guy to the left was looking like heaving was an idea that was catching. Vin was paler by the second, too. After another deep plunge, Chris fished around in his unreasonably tight pocket—requiring elevating his groin above polite levels—and retrieved one of the spare capsules and handed it to Vin.
Vin dry-swallowed it immediately. "Thanks, boss," he murmured. "Not that I'm a coward or anything, but—"
"Nah, one of us might as well relax."
The plane did figure eights around them. Vin, grabbing for the armrest between them at the same time as Chris, caught the top of Chris's white knuckles and held on shamelessly. Chris considered letting go to clutch him back, but he had lost the fight for the armrest to the left and wasn't letting go of this one.
"After that bust, it would be kind of funny—"
"Shut up, Vin. That's an order."
Funny the kind of things you thought about at moments like this. Instead of reviewing his life in a summary slide show, he was remembering the last time his stomach turned over: At the sight of Vin falling, packing peanuts snowing down on him, hiding the blood and his face; and the whispery sensation of those peanuts Chris couldn't clear away--- they clung stubbornly, sighing into crevices, slipping through his searching hands. Chris wondered if his next near death experience would replay the feeling of holding hands with Vin on a United flight, or if he would rewind further back to the warehouse's packing supplies spotted with blood. As the airplane fought the competing demands of gravity and weather, Chris considered inviting Vin around for dinner, dinner for just the two of them.
Vin was starting to murmur as the pill took effect. His head rolled with fluid ease on the headrest and he whispered, "Hey, Chris, don't you wish we could just go back to St. Louis and find Andersen ourselves, ask him a few questions... just me and you. Just settle it."
Chris smiled, privately for himself. The Vin he knew was back. "Yeah, that would make me feel a lot better."
"No paperwork or anything." Vin's eyes were falling shut on a fantasy of Wild West Justice. Chris relaxed back in his chair, and marveled at how uncomplicated everything suddenly felt.
"I trust you, Chris."
Chris barely heard it, a murmur in his ear. He opened his eyes and turned to see Vin smiling drowsily.
"Yeah, I trust you too. That's just my problem. But I won't do anything until you tell me to."
Vin shut his eyes. "Just give me a little while longer to think about it."
Chris nodded without saying anything more. He waited out the plane's battle before shutting his eyes too.
It took Chris a week to get around to inviting Vin over for dinner. He thought of it every time he talked to Whiting about the St. Louis wrapup, every time hoping to hear that the bullet had been found and cleared by ballistics. Without Vin around the office, though, there was no easy opportunity to bring up an invitation. It wasn't until Friday night at the bar, where Vin joined them to knock back a few, that he managed a quiet word.
He sidled up to where Vin was watching Buck and J.D. playing darts. "Got any weekend plans?"
Vin glanced at him and smiled. "Nope. Just recuperating. You?"
Chris shook his head. "Nothing particular. I was thinking about eating dinner at some point."
Vin's smiled widened as he watched J.D. hit a bullseye. "Sounds like a plan. I guess you usually just snack?"
Chris grinned. "I've been known to cook something occasionally."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"Could do almost anything, depending on what's in the house. Spaghetti, hamburgers, stir fry. Of course, if I went to the store, it could get fancy."
"So you planning on doing some shopping, too?"
"Might. That would make for a pretty full weekend."
"Could you use a hand there? I could run by the Safeway for you."
"I don't know, Vin. You ain't got a lot of hands to spare."
"I think I could manage to carry a small chicken or a fish."
"If you're up to it. Say, 7, Saturday?"
"See you then. With your groceries."
Chris gave him another sidelong smile and headed back towards the bar. Mission accomplished neatly.
"So I can have some of this meal, right?" Vin asked as he handed over a couple of wrapped fresh fish.
Chris pretended to ponder for a moment. "Yeah, I figure I can make enough for two. If you've got time to hang around while I fry these up." He beckoned Vin into the house.
Chris could feel Vin watching him as he worked over the stove. "Help yourself to anything in the fridge. There's some beer in there, if you want."
Provisioned with drink, Vin wandered over towards the sliding glass doors leading out to the deck and backyard, still covered with pieces of a motorcycle Chris was repairing. And had been repairing for months now. Chris eyed Vin's back.
"So what did you do with those course evaluations?"
Vin looked sharply at him. Chris smiled benignly, and a second later, Vin's face relaxed. Chris flipped the fish, and Vin meandered back to lean against the dining room table and watch.
"Truth is, I just forgot to give them out. I had a few bad moments when some of the bullets disappeared."
Chris raised his eyebrows.
"One of the recruits took some extra shots at another target, it turned out. But I made everyone sit tight while Johnny and I counted and recounted and blamed each other."
"He going to let you back on the range again?"
"Not much chance. I'm still thinking about my strategy. Maybe he's got a messy backyard too."
"Hey, mine is just a work in progress. But if you're tired of it, you could help me fix the bike up."
This offer shut Vin up for a minute. The jokes around the office about Chris's mostly unsuccessful fixerupper hobby were borderline insubordinate. He'd long ago refused all help, since for him the point of it was learning how to do it himself. He took a certain pleasure in the manual struggle. True, the struggle had been mostly abandoned, but the goal was still worthwhile.
"I don't really know much about fixing bikes. Doubt I would be much help."
"Perfect. Whenever you want to give it a shot."
Vin tapped his sling with the beer bottle. "Have to wait until this is off, at least. I can't really do anything left-handed."
Chris took a considering look. It hadn't occurred to him that the right-handed Vin was pretty seriously handicapped at the moment. Everyday activities like tying shoes, brushing teeth, washing up, must all be severe trials. He didn't look any more scruffy than usual.
"You shoot left-handed, don't you?"
"Only when I have to."
"So I guess when you come back, you'll be doing paperwork for a while?" It was not quite a question, but Chris also didn't want to be delivering any decrees based on his own personal concern that Vin not overdo it too soon.
Vin grimaced, nodded. "The doc said I'd have to be in physical therapy for a couple weeks before I can get out in the field."
"I'll do my best to find you something interesting to file."
Chris handed him some plates, and they spent a few minutes silently setting up to eat. Chris mulled over the topic that was itching at the foreground of his worries. He poured himself a shot of whiskey to chase his beer, and after he downed it, found Vin's eyes on him.
"Something on your mind?" Vin said it like he already knew anyway.
Chris nodded, turned back to the stove, verified the fish and potatoes were done, turned it all off. "Whiting's guys found the bullet in the warehouse. We got the ballistics report yesterday. It wasn't from any agent's gun." As he put the pans on the table, he checked out Vin's reaction.
Vin looked thoughtful. He was staring at the table rather than at Chris. He looked up and said, "Good news, and not too surprising, I guess."
Come on, Vin, it could never be that easy, and you know it. "It came from one of the guns in the van. Seems a couple of them were loaded and someone made use of them."
Vin sat down. Chris could see his gears working, the same way Chris's had when he got the report yesterday. The report hadn't specified that only a few of the guns in the van were loaded, Chris had learned that in an e-mail exchange with Whiting. With superhuman effort, he had stopped himself from picking up the phone and asking any more questions. The St. Louis office was going by the book and he wouldn't accomplish anything by badgering them. Plus, he'd promised Vin.
"They fingerprint them yet?"
"Doing it this next week." Chris sat down, and scooped one of the fish onto Vin's plate and the other onto his own. They both knew who had been near the van, at least at the beginning of the bust. It still didn't mean anything, since in the chaos almost anyone could have reached in the back and gotten lucky.
"Suppose they were loaded for demonstration purposes, huh."
They ate for a couple of minutes, with total concentration on food -- and in Vin's case, partly on manipulating silverware and deboning with his left hand.
"Sorry, should have tried to fillet it first."
"I could have bought fillets, too; didn't even think about it."
Chris slowed down eventually, and picked up his beer and watched Vin work at the fish. He had the tiny frown of attention he got when he was wrapped up in any hard problem, physical or intellectual. Pain and boredom aside, at some level he was probably enjoying the challenge of living one-handed and relearning how to get around.
"Damn it," Vin sighed. Or maybe not. He put down his fork and reached for his beer as well. "A man could starve to death in front of a plate full of food."
"Want me to feed you?" Chris grinned evilly.
"You didn't go down to Phoenix." As soon as he said it, Chris wondered what he was probing for. Kathleen wasn't a subject any safer than St. Louis was.
Vin drank from the bottle and shook his head. "Didn't think I would enjoy myself in this condition."
Chris nodded. After a pause, he ventured like an offering, "I'm just as glad you didn't go."
Vin looked at him in surprise. "Why? Is there something you want me to do?"
Chris found himself at a loss for words, not an uncommon situation. He went for the whiskey bottle, and grabbed another glass for Vin. He sat down again and poured them both a couple fingers. Vin took his, still looking puzzled.
"Just talk to me."
"About what?" Vin looked suspicious now. Of course he knew.
"Andersen, you. What happened---" Chris gestured with his glass. "With us, about Andersen."
Vin knocked back the drink, proving he could still drink one-handed. He put the glass down firmly, and Chris slid the bottle across towards him. He didn't reach for it immediately, just looked at it and thought hard. When he looked up again, Chris could see none of the irritation he had seen on the flight from St. Louis. Warmth spread up from Chris's gut, as alcohol and relief dissolved his tension.
"Sorry, Chris. I don't know what was wrong with me. I don't know why I told you about him in the first place. Especially when I don't really know what happened."
"So you really didn't see anything from the scaffolding? I wondered if you saw him aim at you."
"Nope, didn't see anything. It was all paranoia."
"Drugs and pain," Chris amended. He didn't believe Vin was the paranoid type, of course. "If you didn't want me doing something about it..."
"I just wanted to talk about it," Vin admitted. He didn't look too happy about it.
"Nothing wrong with that. You knew it would make me crazy, though, not doing anything about it."
"I don't think I thought that far ahead. I was mostly worried what you'd think about me."
"About you? I was a little surprised you didn't want me to follow up on this with Whiting." Not to mention confused and disappointed, Chris said to himself.
"I know. But I was really worried about what you'd think about me and Andersen, me letting him get away with all that in El Paso. Me not saying anything then."
Chris hesitated. He poured some more. Poured more for Vin too. "I thought you were young and maybe a little afraid of this guy. I think you made a mistake, but I think you think so too."
Vin glumly nodded and reached for the glass. "Yep. I think that's why I told you. I still feel guilty about it. I feel like I should do something about Andersen myself."
Aha. Chris could see what was going on now. "If I did it, it wouldn't be the same thing. But it would be legal!" He grinned.
Vin smiled a little. "I've been thinking about it some more. I do think Andersen is bad news. If you can look into it, find anything out, but carefully -- I'd really appreciate it."
Chris almost rocked back in his chair. "I can be subtle," he reminded Vin. "I'll get this shooting incident looked at without mentioning any names, make sure they check everything over and talk to every possible witness. We'll see if anything surfaces there. And I'll think about how to look into Andersen's recent record without alerting anyone."
"Maybe J.D. could break into Whiting's files, if they're in the network." Vin was getting caught up in Chris's enthusiasm. He looked less depressed, at least.
"Legal, remember?" Chris shook his head with a chuckle.
"Maybe you should remind J.D. what's legal with that computer of his. I think we're all little confused, after some of the stunts he's pulled."
"You're probably right. I think I'm always looking the other way when he's pulling rabbits out of his hat. If they're not shooting, I'm never too worried." It was an uncharacteristic self-admission, especially about his management style, but he'd had enough to drink and wanted to give Vin something back. As he looked at his glass, he realized he had something even better for Vin. "Most of the time I don't even know how I ended up with people working for me. You know I used to be a pretty serious alcoholic?"
Vin's eyes flashed to meet his, but he didn't say anything. It was likely most of them knew, the skeleton if not the whole history. Chris said quietly, "For a couple years after Sarah was killed, I drank myself unconscious regularly. It was bad enough that sometimes days would go by that I didn't remember afterwards. I was still working, too. Must've been on autopilot." He shook his head. Even now there were grey gaps, sizable, echoing, sickening. He remembered coming to in a stall at a McDonald's in the middle of the day, vomit smelling of alcohol and bile on the seat and ground. It was a miracle he hadn't killed anyone or gotten killed; and it was a mercy (or punishment) that his boss hadn't canned him. "If I hadn't been out in the field most of the time, I'd be working somewhere else now."
"So no one figured it out?"
"Must have, but no one did anything about it. I was working for Sam Whitman at the time, and he was having his own problems with a kid on drugs. The most he said to me was, 'Keep it on your own time, and if I hear anything about your temper, you're getting transferred.'" They both smiled. "When he put me up for promotion a few years later, you could have knocked me down with a sneeze. I think he thought I'd be less dangerous behind a desk."
"Why did you take it?"
"I don't remember." Chris shrugged. He must've been bored. He remembered being bored a lot, after he stopped drinking himself towards the grave. It was also possible he had agreed with Whitman that it would be good for him to have some responsibility for larger things. Arguably it had been; he was still alive, and he wasn't behind bars. "What do you think about having your own team someday?"
Vin shrugged one-sidedly, something he seemed to be getting good at. "I'm not really interested right now, I'm happy just doing what I'm doing. I like Denver." He met Chris's sharp look with a completely guileless expression, no indication of any preternatural knowledge about the paperwork in Chris's desk. Chris felt cresting relief that ebbed as soon as he realized he would have to tell Vin, to be completely fair.
"So if there was a hypothetical opportunity for you with the firearms task force in Atlanta, you wouldn't be interested?"
"Well, it would depend on timing, your arm, and if you were interested." Chris wanted to kill Vin for playing.
Vin hesitated. "You'd recommend me if I wanted it?"
Chris was taken aback, even a little hurt. "You have to ask? Yes, I'd recommend you. It's why I'm asking you."
"That's nice of you." Vin looked genuinely relieved. "No, I don't want it right now. Maybe in a couple years. You make it look like a pain in the neck I don't need."
Chris chuckled. He drank back another whiskey and felt the buzz lifting him in the chair, promising no gravity, no repercussions, and no mortality tomorrow. Vin drank with him. It was a long conversation, for them, and they needed to recuperate a little anyway.
After a good long moment, in which Chris realized it was pitch black outside and the crickets were humming, Vin said, "I want to ask you something, Chris."
"I get the feeling you don't feel comfortable when I invite you along on fishing trips or -- anything social, I guess."
Chris looked down at the table. The world had acquired matter again. He sighed. "That's not exactly right. Or maybe it is, but it's complicated." He groped for an explanation for both of them. It would be the first time he put it into words. "I feel a little awkward about you. It's easier if it's a group. With just you all the time, it feels, I don't know --" he stumbled and looked at Vin for help.
No help there, Vin just looked worried. The small frown was back as he tried to understand.
"All the time? We don't do anything all that often. The car show was the only thing for months. What did we do before that?"
Chris thought back, and realized Vin was right: The two of them had helped Nathan fix his roof problem, and Ezra and Josiah had helped with Buck's niece's missing dog, to Ezra's unending chagrin, and all the dinners and drinks at the saloon always featured almost everyone else. And that took them back to at least six months ago, which had to be the last time Chris had suggested Vin come over and watch a game with him. They'd sat there in his living room eating chips and commenting idly at the television, but afterwards Chris had gotten nervous. He'd turned down Vin's offer of the next game at his place and started mixing up his saloon conversations a little bit more. He knew Vin had noticed, had felt him watching him occasionally, quiet in the crowd.
"You're right. It's my problem, it's not you. It's nothing you did."
"It involves me. I'd just like to know how to fix it."
With the weird clarity of insight that came from drinking at a certain time of night, Chris realized finally that his standoffishness hadn't just confused Vin, but distressed him. That Vin cared whether Chris felt comfortable around him alone.
"I like spending time with you. I'd like to spend more, but... it's a little awkward with me being your boss."
Vin looked like he was going to laugh. "I didn't think you worried about stuff like that. You spend plenty of time with everyone off-hours. Hell, you spend more time with us than you ever did with Mary."
"Ain't that the truth," Chris said dryly. Vin looked abashed.
"So it's really just me? What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing! Like I said, if I weren't your manager, it wouldn't feel so strange."
Vin looked surprised at Chris's defensiveness. Chris couldn't get clearer, because he wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to say. He watched Vin watching him, looking far soberer than he had a right to, calm but working hard at following this snaky argument. Chris found himself begging him to figure it out for him and let him know what the hell his problem was.
Eventually, Vin let go of his empty glass and reached slowly across the table. He pushed away the empty pans and moved the bottle and stretched his hand to where Chris's glass rested with his hand wrapped around it. Surprised, Chris let go, thinking Vin wanted the glass. Vin touched the back of his hand gently with his hand, and Chris froze at the touch. The contact was gentle, warm and unthreatening. Chris relaxed and looked up from where Vin's fingers skimmed over his knuckles to find Vin regarding him curiously.
"I think we could solve this if you asked me," Chris said quietly. "I can't invite you."
"If I want you to go fishing with me, I can ask you, and you won't wait for Buck and J.D. to invite themselves along?"
"That's about it. But I think you have to be the one to ask."
"I can do that. Who do you think is checking up on you?" His hand stayed over Chris's, and Chris suddenly felt weak. He flattened his hand to the table, and felt Vin's follow his down and stroke along the back of his wrist until their fingers lay interlocked on the table. Chris lifted his fingers to grip Vin's and hold him there.
"Everyone. No one particular. I don't want anyone thinking you're getting preferential treatment. If it ever comes up."
"Am I?" Vin was at least half teasing.
Chris was distracted by the solid weight of their grip and the hope that he would remember this in the morning, that it was a promise and not a fantasy. Finally he said, "Maybe you are, but you are paying me back for it. No, not like that -- you're my best man, Vin. I want you to get all the opportunities you want."
"I thought you were going to say I'm cleaning your backyard. Either one is fine." Vin smiled.
Buoyed again suddenly, Chris reached across with his left hand and untwined their hands on the table into a real clasp. He looked forward intently at Vin and said, "I'm still trying to figure out what's going on, but you have to tell me if this isn't what you want. I promise it's okay, and we can still go fishing with or without chaperones."
"I'm not totally sure yet, but I think I feel the way you do. Let's just see how things go, okay? This isn't something I do every day."
Chris raised his eyebrows, but Vin wasn't giving anything away. "Me either. I'm not even sure what it is. But I know I like touching you, which tells me something."
"Tells me something too," Vin snickered. "It's clarifying the picture a little, Larabee."
Chris laughed, squeezed his hand, and let go to pour them some more. "To clarity, then. A long time coming."
Vin drank to it, and said, "Not that it's exactly related, but I'm not going home tonight."
Through the fuzzy shield of his drunkenness, Chris felt alarmed, like Vin had raised the stakes on him. "Right, the whiskey. I wasn't even thinking. No problem, the couch folds out."
"Nah, I didn't drive here, I got a lift. I can't drive with this thing on."
"A lift? To the store too? Who--" Chris rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me, Buck."
Vin nodded. "He was real happy to help out."
"I just bet he was."
Vin looked innocent.
Chris shook his head and climbed to his feet to clear off their plates. His head reeled, and he steadied himself on the edge of the table for a moment, feeling Vin watching him. "Hey, just wait till you try to get up." He piled the pots and dishes in the sink.
"If I weren't a wounded man, I would volunteer to wash up."
"That's a nice excuse you've got there. Just how long are you going to be wearing that thing?"
"Doc said another week." Vin looked disgusted.
"It still hurting?"
"Only if I get too energetic."
Chris didn't seem to have anything to say. He was starting to feel a little too emotional. "Want to go take a look at that bike now?"
"In the dark?"
"I got a light in back."
Vin gave his half a shrug, and pushed himself up to his feet. Predictably, he swayed, reached for the table with his left arm, and almost missed. None too steady himself, Chris rescued him with an arm bracing his good shoulder. When Vin was vertical again, Chris remembered how it had felt on the airplane to have him so close. Freed from his usual reserve, Chris slid his arm down Vin's back and watched the expressions cross over his friend's face: amusement at his own clumsiness, surprise at finding himself held so close, and the breaking of curiosity as he met Chris's eyes. Chris discovered he wanted to touch more of him, as long as they were there positioned so conveniently; he ran his hands up both Vin's arms, touching the sling carefully, and felt his way up to the neck of Vin's shirt, until he reached skin. Vin swallowed under his touch, and the pulse of his throat jolted through Chris, a minor discovery. He felt the length of Vin's hair soft against his hands, and he stroked it back from Vin's cheeks, only now realizing he had wanted to touch it for a while. He couldn't smell anything but alcohol on both of them right now.
Like a blind man, he ran his fingers over Vin's cheeks, feeling the stubble that was almost always there, and was maybe a little worse now. Vin watched him steadily, almost looking afraid. Chris ended with a light touch on Vin's mouth, just to feel the breath over his lips and imagine.
"You all right?" Chris asked, as he let him go.
Vin looked at him.
"I think so." He cleared his throat. "Maybe we should take a look at that bike."
Chris stepped back, gave him a thoughtful look, and nodded.
The crickets were singing opera around the edges of the high grass when they stepped down from the deck into the yard. The pieces of the dismantled bike were spread out on a tarp. Another tarp, the rain cover, lay crumpled up beside it. Chrome gleamed pointedly in the light from the bare bulb hanging beside the back door. Chris crouched on the tarp and fondled the engine, which looked newly cleaned and polished. Vin sat down on the steps.
"I had to send this to Colorado Springs to get it rebuilt."
"I guess Frank's repair shop was too expensive?"
"This is a classic BMW, from 1970. Frank never saw one of these in his shop. You know where I got this?"
"At the dump?" Vin smiled.
Chris shot him a black look under a stray lock of hair. "I'm going to send you home in a minute. I got it at a rally for vintage bikes in Colorado Springs a year ago. Never even thought about fixing one up before, but there it was."
"You got a book or something? How you going to figure this out?"
"I fixed a bunch of cars, this can't be that different. Yeah, I found a bunch of books. I call the guy in Springs if I have any hard questions."
"So what do you figure needs doing?"
Chris shrugged. "The engine needed rebuilding. It was in an accident at some point, so the chassis probably needs aligning. The brakes need to be replaced. Shocks, forks, few other parts. Depends how far I want to go."
"You're not going to try to paint it yourself, are you?"
"Might. Haven't thought that far."
"Ezra probably knows someone who could help with that. He's always got some classic car connection."
"Yeah. Every time he brings it up, I suddenly have a meeting to get to. Back when I got it, I had a lot of meetings."
Vin grinned, and Chris smiled back. There was a mosquito hovering over him, golden in the back light. Chris reached forward and caught it, surprised at his own coordination.
"Bugs are out." He showed the smeared mark to Vin.
Vin, looking thoughtful, barely glanced at it. Chris dropped his hand, suddenly self-conscious.
"What are you going to do next?" Vin said.
Chris assumed he meant the bike. "I need to see if I can get the motor into the frame. It'll take four hands, probably."
"You want to try now?"
"You've only got one."
"We can try anyway, see if three is enough."
Chris shrugged, pushed aside the smaller parts carefully, keeping the loose arrangement of piles intact, and pulled the largest part of the bike upright. He gave it over to Vin to hold, and hefted the motor into position. After a couple of failures to get it lodged properly, he realized that without the books this was harder than it looked.
"I think maybe that's backwards," Vin suggested.
Chris pulled it out and swapped it end over end.
Vin scooted forward on his knees to brace the frame against his chest, his bound arm holding it awkwardly in position.
Chris tried to slide the engine in, and succeeded finally by propping it first against Vin's body. Vin helped him guide it, his hand warm and sure as it slid around Chris's to grip the solid metal in place. It didn't fit precisely right; Chris had to force one side harder than the other and it remained lopsided. "Damn, frame must be more bent than I thought." He looked up at Vin and was surprised at how close he was. Vin met his gaze with a rueful nod. For a second, Chris forgot about the engine weight. Vin stretched down to catch it as it slid free.
"Sorry," Chris muttered and juggled it against the frame and his abdomen and Vin's good arm. It crashed down on his knee, and he swore, less at pain than at worry over the motor and Vin's balancing act.
Chris leaned over to check the motor and managed to clock himself in the forehead on the frame as Vin shifted it to help.
"Shit, Chris, can we just put this down?" Vin said, starting to laugh.
"Ouch. Yeah, hang on." Chris let go of the frame and hefted the motor toward the edge of the tarpaulin. He twisted and reached back for the frame. "Let's just let it down right here in the middle." He took the weight from Vin, and scooted backwards on his knees to make more room. A spark plug or some nuts rolled away. Vin leaned towards him, and Chris took the frame out of his hand.
"Whoops," Vin muttered, and caught himself unsteadily on Chris's shoulder just as Chris was setting the frame down. Vin's unexpected weight brought Chris down flat on the frame, and Vin followed him, forming a silly human sandwich.
Head spinning, his face pressed against the dirty tarpaulin, Chris started to laugh helplessly. He could feel Vin shaking above him. "You OK up there? Arm OK?"
"Think so, except I might be kneeling on one of your forks. Or I was."
"You want to watch out for those. Those are the hardest to replace," Chris said gravely. He spat out a piece of grass he'd somehow inhaled.
"I'll try to keep that in mind. Next time we are out here in this trashed state." Vin wheezed another chuckle into Chris's back and his good arm crawled up from somewhere around Chris's hip to get a purchase on his shoulder, a surprisingly arousing action. When his weight was off Chris's back, Chris pushed himself up from tarpaulin and frame and regarded Vin from his hands and knees. Vin, a little disheveled, was grinning widely, sitting back on his heels. At the look in Chris's eye, he squirmed backwards until he was sitting on the porch steps. He leaned on one knee with his good elbow.
"So," Vin said. "I can see why you're so into this bike."
"Yep. It's all about delayed gratification."
Chris was speechless. He said back on his own heels and considered. Vin's look challenged.
"You're having too much fun playing with the pieces to ever finish. You know it's going to be great when it's done, but you won't know what to do when it's finished."
"I thought maybe I'd ride it."
"How come you haven't finished it?"
"Maybe I needed help. Maybe I knew it would be even more fun with help."
Vin put a show on, like he was considering disagreeing. "It might be. What are we going to do when it's done?"
Chris stopped playing, and smiled slowly, holding his eye.
Vin nodded, the same smile dawning over his face. He said quietly, "Like I said, delayed gratification."
"Up to you if you want to hurry up and gratify."
They sat silently looking at each other, and Chris thought about how lucky the mosquito landing on Vin was, but he didn't dare reach out this time. A moth fluttered around the bulb, wings lit, flickering like an old black and white film. He needed to get a bulb cover to prevent the foolish ones from immolating themselves. Vin's face was shadowed, and he could barely make out the expression on it when he looked back from the light. He blinked to refocus, and in that space of minute darkness, Vin had moved. Now he was holding his good arm out towards Chris.
"I think I want it your way. But I want to try kissing you."
Chris swallowed. "You sure about that?" He moved anyway, not so sure himself, blessing the whiskey for making this plausible and for not letting him worry how it might turn out tomorrow. He stepped around the bike parts and sat down next to Vin on the step. Vin turned to look at him. Half his face was lit and eager, while the other half stayed shadowy and uncertain. Vin's hand had subsided to hover over his lap, undecided. Because it was easier, Chris reached for it and held it as a first test: Vin gripped his hand, fervent as thanks.
Chris waited. In the space of 1000 beating insect wings and accelerating heartbeats, Vin looked at him and Chris held his hand hard, the only sign of his fear he could show. So softly it might have been a shadow, Vin smiled and leaned forward, eyes on Chris's lips. Vin's hand shook his off, not hard since his muscles abruptly failed, and he felt a warm touch at his jawline, steadying him. Chris started to say something reassuring and forgot immediately at the contact of his mouth.
At first it was strange, to be kissing and be kissed by his friend. It was warm and close, but simultaneously cool and tentative, experimental. He turned his head a little, wondering if there was anything to reach for in this kiss. Did they really feel any passion? Worse, was Vin trying on an idea gotten from Chris?
Chris felt Vin's mouth searching against his, as if he were taking the idea seriously. Chris was almost afraid of the touch of tongue, like it might constitute final proof that they were really doing this. He wasn't sure he could wait for Vin. He opened wider, holding his breath for rejection of his hunger. Vin opened wider, accepting him, and sucked gently. Then he felt the touch of tongue against tongue, alien like the first kiss always was.
Half afraid he would scare him, Chris raised both arms to embrace Vin loosely, cautious around his hurt shoulder.
They both tasted of whiskey, and Chris wasn't sure if the pulse beating in his neck was Vin's, communicated through the warm hand along his jaw. Their tongues tangled and confused him, he wasn't sure where he ended. He opened his eyes and realized he couldn't remember closing them. He didn't like having missed the fall of Vin's hair so close, ghosting close in a breeze, irresistible. He reached up around Vin's back, and drew it out of their faces gently. Vin pulled back, and Chris followed before stopping to see what was wrong -- but it was just Vin smiling at him and at the gesture, his eye warm and close. Chris smiled back, knowing he had given away something at the tenderness of the touch, but surely he had with the kiss too.
Vin scooted closer on the step and turned back for another. His hand slid around Chris's ear and up into his hair, carding it, making Chris shiver with appreciation. Chris pulled Vin as close as possible around the arm and greeted his lips enthusiastically. The visceral quiver he felt at the contact was unnerving. He knew it meant his entire body wanted more, he wanted to do more than embrace Vin's mouth and run his hands over his shoulders and shirt. He groaned in surprised chagrin as he recognized the swell of lust.
It was like a curtain opening over a new day: this was what he'd been battling with himself over. It was still a little bright to look out at, and the shape of the scenery was fuzzy in the distance, but he wasn't afraid of the view. If Vin was also responsive to the kiss, there wouldn't be anything frightening in the landscape ahead.
Chris disengaged regretfully and sat back, trailing his hands down Vin's shoulders until they fell away and landed uselessly on his knees. Vin watched him curiously, lips wet and appetizing. Chris shook his head. He cleared his throat.
"I liked that."
Vin grinned. He nodded, looking satisfied.
The landscape came into focus for Chris, and in it was the two of them. They sat for a minute without saying anything, finally looking away from each other into the backyard where the long grass and dandelions were bluish in the backyard light, and the crickets sang arias to winking stars. Everything looked beautiful, especially the pieces of his bike at their feet. He imagined doing this on many more summer nights, maybe even at sunset. They could barbecue and bring beers out here and watch the daylight fade and leave them alone in this singing darkness with the lights on in the house behind them.
"We should probably hit the sack," Chris said finally, like it was the most normal thing to do. It was, tonight. Despite learning how much his body really wanted Vin, he wasn't going to do anything to rush them to wherever they were headed. He wanted to enjoy the trip too much to hurry.
Vin sighed, "Guess so."
Chris offered him a hand up, and Vin accepted graciously. As comments from Vin went, it was a pretty expansive one.
That night, Chris found himself awake, staring at the ceiling in his bedroom. He couldn’t tell how long he'd been awake, he'd moved seamlessly from troubling dreams about Vin to turning the situation over and over in the dark, considering all angles, baffled at himself. How long had he been wanting Vin? When did it start? Were there other men before? He didn't think he'd ever wanted Buck that way, and he couldn't remember being close enough to anyone else to notice anything special. It was different from what he felt for Mary, which had required work... after Sarah, he didn't have the energy to build things anymore.
Which begged the question: did he want to work for Vin, or was he just being ambushed by a peculiar trick of feeling that couldn't last? And worst of all, was this responsible behavior for them -- they had to work together, and with other people who knew them well.
At least Chris wasn't lying there thinking about jumping into the sofabed with Vin. He shook his head in frustration and realized he was sober again. Sadly, soundly sober. He got up and in the dark made his way into the living room. He paused at the end of the hall until he was sure from the soft rhythm of breath that Vin was really asleep, and then tiptoed to the arm chair and sat down gingerly on the edge. When it proved quiet as it took his weight, he shifted back to sit comfortably.
He watched the gentle rise and fall of Vin's arm as he breathed, the shadow's moving outline only just discernible against the dark couch cushions. Vin's head was invisible under the sheet, behind the pillow that was close to falling off. Chris tested the sight of him there and found it reassuring and warming. This feeling was real, even if it had crept up on him while he was too tired to contemplate another woman in his life. His soul hadn't dried up. He imagined running his hand lightly over his friend's hair, down his neck, up the shoulder, over the wounded arm and down his waist to his hip. He wanted to touch him tenderly without waking him up, entirely for the pleasure of this allowable closeness, for himself alone.
He smiled to himself in the chair and watched Vin sleep until he dozed off without even noticing it.
One month later, he got an e-mail from Bob Whiting in St. Louis, asking him what he thought about Andersen, who wanted to be considered for the job in Atlanta. Chris rocked back in his seat and marveled at the justice of the universe.
When the guns had been fingerprinted, Andersen's prints had been found on a couple, but so had prints of the dealers. Since Andersen was inspecting the merchandise, his prints could have gotten there legitimately. Chris had nevertheless spent a couple hours crafting an oblique query to Whiting, intended to sound innocent but justifiably curious about Andersen's record. Whiting had picked up on it with a puzzled but thoughtful negative: "I don't have any reason to think he fired those weapons; it certainly didn't appear in his report. I'll look into it, though." Andersen, on being questioned once more, denied having shot the guns. The file on the incident in the warehouse was closed, but Chris had the feeling he had planted a doubt or two in Whiting.
This message about the Atlanta job seemed to confirm it. Ordinarily, he probably wouldn't have been contacted by Whiting for a reference, since Chris and his men had had little exposure to Andersen in St. Louis, and Chris had never worked with him before.
Chris looked up from the e-mail with a predatory smiled growing. He could see Vin in the bullpen with the other men, sitting at his desk reading something. Chris wondered again if keeping his curtains open, providing such a convenient view in and out of his office, was really helping their concentration. Although, to be honest with himself, his was at greater risk, since Vin was still doing a lot of make-work while his arm healed. He and Vin had been heroic about keeping the attraction between them out of their workspace. They hadn't been locking themselves in the broom closet together or running off to lunch alone at Vin's apartment, although those ideas flirted through his mind occasionally. Despite their good behavior Chris did find himself smiling a little more readily these days, and Vin wasn't exactly acting morose about being stuck in the office with him. Sometimes it took extreme self-discipline for them not to grin at each other like fools during an ordinary conversation.
Chris went to the door and, before he said anything, Vin looked up at him. Chris beckoned. Something in his face made Vin frown as he joined him in the office. Chris shut the door behind them.
"Take a look at this message I just got from Whiting in St. Louis." He pointed at his chair and Vin sat down, looking even more grave. Chris stood beside him, where he could see his face, and flipped a pen around his fingers as he watched him read. When Vin had read it twice, he sat back in Chris's chair and started to smile.
"Well, isn't that funny. This is the same job, right --?"
Chris nodded. He perched a hip on the side of his desk.
"I guess that figures. If you thought I'd be interested, it's likely a job Andersen would want."
"As I see it, this is your chance."
"You think I should just write it all up, what happened in El Paso?" Vin looked incredulous.
"No, maybe not exactly like you said it to me, but enough to say that he had a little bit of a shady reputation and you can't really recommend him."
"It's not me he's asking for a recommendation, it's you."
"I think he left it kind of open." Chris swung around the desk to point at the screen. "He says, ' If you've got any doubts about his suitability for this job, or information about his performance in the past, I'd appreciate hearing about it.'"
A knock at Chris's door made them look up sharply. Buck swung the door open and poked his head in with a grin.
"You guys want any of these tickets to Josiah's niece's musical tomorrow night? Hey, don't look like that, it's some kind of benefit thingy. I said I'd ask everyone for him today."
Without looking at Chris, Vin said, "Can't, we've got plans already."
Buck threw up his hands in a "don't mind me, it's none of my business" pantomime that would have pissed off Chris if he weren't suddenly in a great mood.
"Get out of here, Buck, we're trying to get stuff done."
Buck disappeared, mercifully without any more editorial additions, apart from a smile of fatuous satisfaction that Chris ignored.
Immediately back on the problem, Vin still looked doubtful. "So how are you suggesting we handle it? I write something, and you forward it?"
Chris shrugged. He sank down on his heels beside Vin, so they could look at each other more easily. "We can write it together, or you can write it. Whatever you want."
"We can't say anything real specific, or it could turn into --" He stopped, frustrated.
Chris nodded. "I don't think he's looking for details anyway, just reasonable doubt. You worked with him, so you make it reasonable. He's probably already worried about recommending him, that's why he's asking."
Vin's face cleared up and he nodded. "Okay, let's do it together. Just a few sentences, right?"
"Should do it." Chris smiled at him, risking overflow of affection and relief in inappropriately close quarters.
Vin looked down at him and smiled too, making the risk factor increase exponentially.
"I think I'll take advantage of the desk in front of us," Vin said and put his hand gently on Chris's hand where it balanced on his knee. He squeezed it, like a tiny hug.
Chris turned his hand up to lace their fingers and squeezed back.
"Hey, that's your hurt arm, are you sure it's up to this?" he said over an inexplicable constriction in his throat.
"It's not my arm I'm worried about right now," Vin said, rolling his eyes meaningfully. He detached himself reluctantly and climbed out of Chris's chair.
Chris chuckled and followed him to the door. Before he opened it, he said, "So what about dinner tomorrow night? We could go out to that new grill Ezra was talking about."
"What happened to me inviting you?" Vin pretended to be shocked.
"We could go out if you asked me."
"So how about dinner tomorrow night, Chris? Are you free?"
"I don't know, I'll have to check my calendar. What time?"
"Is seven too early? I've got to get to bed, got work the next day."
"Seven should be fine. I'll have to let you know, though."
"You know where to find me," Vin said and went out the door.
They were both grinning like idiots. Chris couldn't find it in himself to care as he went back to work with a bounce in his step. His eyes lingered on Vin through the window as he sat at his desk. With Vin out there-- and tomorrow night ahead of them-- the view out of his office was looking pretty darned good these days.