It had started so well and turned so horribly wrong so very quickly.
The arms dealer was there---the big guy, not his flunky---and he had a huge collection of illegal weapons laid out in front of them and the buy was going down. Ezra had given the signal; everyone was moving in. It even looked as if the bad guys were going to give up relatively peaceably. The airplane hangar was empty, save for Ezra's Jag, the dealer's Ford F350, the middle man's Lincoln, and a Piper Cub. Inside the Lincoln was the man's girlfriend. And it all still might have been OK except for her. Then one of the bodyguards took a lousy swing at Ezra and all hell broke loose.
Each of the seven ATF agents had their man to move on; they drew their weapons and the air was filled with the calls of the agents identifying themselves. Ezra went down but was coming right back up again, and Chris was there to cover him. The other men had scattered, but the agents were coming at them from all directions and it was clear their arrests were imminent. One of the men, though, pulled off a poorly aimed shot that struck the Piper's tank, and the airplane fuel ignited instantly. Chris heard the screams of the woman in the car parked adjacent to the plane, and turned to look as flames enveloped the car.
Vin heard something else. He had his rifle trained on a cooperative suspect in front of him when he heard Chris scream; an anguished, haunting scream that scared Vin down deep inside. Vin swung the rifle into the side of the man's head, knocking him down, and turned and dropped it in mid stride, even as he began to run towards Chris.
It seemed as if the big hangar filled with a roar as Chris took off running towards the flaming Lincoln. And Vin ran harder. He ran at almost a right angle to Chris and when he came close launched himself through the air at the man running straight towards the inferno. Another few inches and he might have had the upper hand, but as it was, Vin hit Chris in the knees, throwing his arms around him and pulling him down. Chris's arms were free, and he was reacting as a man possessed. He remembered those screams. Sarah's screams. He couldn't let it happen again.
In fury, he lashed out a Vin with a well placed elbow that connected with Vin's nose and knocked his head back. But Vin didn't let go. He was struggling to get a better hold when Chris grabbed him by the neck and bounced his head off the pavement. Still he didn't let go and Chris struck him again, with all the strength and pain and anger he carried within him, he smashed the face of his best friend into the concrete again and again until he let go and Chris broke free.
By then, Josiah and Buck had reached the pair, and the two men piled onto Chris, trying to stop him from hurting Vin any further. Finally,the roar of the fire and the fight seemed to ease and Chris looked down in horror at Vin's still form, lying on the floor, a growing crimson pool forming around his head.
When Buck and Josiah realized Chris was no longer focused on running into the flames, they too, turned and looked at Vin. And then the roar grew louder. Josiah lifted Vin by the chest and eased him onto his side, wiping the blood away from his nose and trying to see if there was a clear airway. Buck was screaming into his radio for an ambulance, and the other men were trying to get the suspects into a group and under control. Backup was there by then, and someone managed to get the doors up on the hangar. Josiah lifted Vin and Ezra stepped up to help him. Everyone struggled out of the burning hangar, and gathered on the tarmac outside. Everyone except Chris.
Chris was gone.
Two hours later, Vin hunched over his chair in the waiting room of the hospital, holding a towel and a large icepack over his face, cradling his head in his knees. Josiah sat on one side of him, and Ezra on the other. Buck had finally been ordered out to look for Chris, since his temper tantrums and threats to the nurses weren't getting Vin treated any faster. And Vin, while he seemed to be in a lot of pain, kept asking where Chris was. Over and over, in a muffled, split-lip-whisper that haunted Josiah. JD and Nathan were trying to handle the logistics of the arrests and locate Chris.
Suddenly, Vin began to raise his head slightly. Josiah thought he was going to ask again for Chris, but instead he motioned towards the tiny restroom just off the waiting room.
"I'm gonna be sick." The muffled, miserable plea caused Ezra to grab his arm and guide and steady him until he dropped to his knees in front of the toilet and threw up. Josiah went to get the nurse again.
"Mr Tanner, I assure you, that is the least of your worries right now."
"I wanna know if he's OK."
"We'll find him. The others are out looking. I shouldn't think you would be worrying about him right now."
Ezra accepted a fresh towel from a nurse and tried to exchange it for the one Vin was holding over his face.
"Mr Tanner, I'm the nurse. We're still pretty backed up with some serious trauma cases. Do you know where you are?"She leaned over his back to try to look at him while she spoke.
"Do you know what happened to you?"
He nodded again.
"OK. The nausea is probably normal, but I'l be coming back to check on you real soon, OK? Do you want a basin?"
He shook his head, leaned his forehead onto the edge of the stool in front of him, and closed his eyes.
"Ma'am, he needs to see a physician. Right now. This is an ATF agent, did you know that? He may have a serious head injury, and you have him on his knees in front of a toilet in the waiting room. Are you telling me this is the best you can do?"
"Yes, Mr Standish, it is. I'm sorry, but all the rooms are full of more serious injuries right now. As long as he remains lucid, just keep the ice on the bruising and I promise I'll get him into a treatment room as soon as possible."
Ezra felt a tug at his arm.
"Leave her alone, Ez."
"Mr Tanner, you---"
"Is Chris here?"
Ezra squatted down beside him in the tiny room. It was so small the door couldn't close with the two of them in there, and Ezra knew there was no way Josiah would fit. It was the last, pitiful straw that the crowded waiting room could not be closed off from the misery of the suffering agent. The only good thing was that he knew Vin really didn't care.
Periodically during that long evening, Ezra would tap Vin, indicating a clean dry towel and a fresh ice pack, and Vin would raise his head off the porcelain long enough to switch. Ezra stayed beside him, cramped though they were, and occasionally would bless him with a long story of his glory days in the FBI. At one point, Vin felt Ezra rise and he thought there would be another towel coming. There wasn't, though, and when he opened his eyes they fell on a pair of Nike's beside him. Vin knew he wasn't thinking very clearly, but he just kept staring at those Nike's, trying to figure out what they meant. Suddenly it hit him. He raised his head and looked into Chris's sad face.
"Hey pard, you OK?" Vin asked.
Chris shook his head. And then he smiled.
"What's so funny?"
"Not a damn thing. You're lookin at me through eyes you can't open, you got cotton stuffed up your nose, you're on your knees chuckin in the toilet because of me and you wanta know if I'm OK?"
Vin tried to smile. "Have a seat. Ezra needs to stretch anyway."
Chris stepped over Vin's back and hunkered down beside the toilet. Tentatively, he reached out and put his hand on Vin's back.
Vin relaxed visibly, closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the stool.
"You look like hell, Vin."
"Thanks. I'm glad you're here. I thought maybe you wouldn't come."
"Don't. Just stay right here. Don't leave, K?"
"I'm not going anywhere."
"You might get throwed up on."
"I can live with that."
His eyes fluttered open.
"Be nice to Ezra, OK? He's a good guy. Ain't just anyone who'll hold your head while you throw up."
"OK Vin. Whatever you say."
He smiled and closed his eyes.
"It'll be OK, Chris. It always is."