Into the Woods

by skaia7

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Buck had listened to the conversation, waving his hand at the others for them to keep quiet. When it was over, he had quickly explained what was going on, and they formed a plan. Nathan was going to stay with J.D. and Ezra, not knowing if Valdez would have someone at the hospital in case his plans with Vin went awry, while Buck and Josiah assembled a team to head out to the warehouse.

As Josiah and Buck started walking out of the hospital, keeping calm and not showing any trace of the panic they both were feeling, a nurse came running up to them.

"Mr. Sanchez!"

"Ms. Bickerstaff!" the profiler grasped the anxious woman by her shoulders. "What’s wrong?"

Her eyes were wide, her face white. "It’s Taya! She’s gone!"

"They’ve got her," Buck stated, his eyes flashing.

"Who?" the nurse demanded. Josiah let go of her arms, and gently pushed her to the side.

"Don’t worry," the ladies’ man said. "We’ll get her back."

"What are you talking about? Who’s got her?" she called after them.

But they had started running, not caring if Valdez’s spies saw them. Half the hospital had heard that exchange – there was no hiding it now.

"Come on," Buck called over his shoulder to the ex-preacher. "We’ve gotta hurry!"

+ + + + + + +

Taya lay on the floor, a good distance between Chris and Vin. She was bound and gagged, dirt smudging her face. She was staring right at Vin, her eyes wide with fear.

Valdez had let Manuel go a few more rounds with Chris, and then the two of them had left him bleeding and semi-conscious on the floor. By now, Vin’s own body was screaming in pain – partially from empathy with Chris’, and partially from his own rough handling. His body was still healing, his arm and leg throbbing inside their casts. But he couldn’t allow himself to think about it. Instead, his mind buzzed with ways to get them all out of there alive.

Valdez and Manuel had left, slamming the heavy trap door to the cellar and plunging them into darkness. Little light came from the dirty window, so Vin knew night had fallen.

"Taya?" he whispered, dragging his injured body to where she lay. He got as close to her as he could before the handcuff cut into his wrist, letting him know he could go no further. "Darlin’, can you hear me?" She nodded her head. "Good, that’s real good, sweetheart." He smiled at her. Reaching over with his broken arm, he pulled her gag down away from her mouth, willing his atrophied fingers to work. "I need you to go over to Chris. Just crawl over to him. Can you do that?" Again, she nodded. "Good, that’s real good." He finally got the gag off, and watched as she rolled over, using her elbows to crawl towards Chris.

The man in black lay against the wall, his shirt torn open to reveal various gashes and bruises forming on his arms and torso. One eye had swollen shut. The other was half-closed, cloudy and unfocused.

"Chris?" Vin called.

The older man’s head moved slightly towards the sound. Taya leaned down, reaching out with her bound hands and gently patting his shoulder. "Chris?" she tried. She took his hands in hers. "Squeeze my hand if you hear me." The gentle pressure answered her. "Vin! He squeezed my hand!"

"Thank God!" he breathed, slumping against the radiator with a sigh of relief. "We just gotta hold out ‘till Buck gets here."

+ + + + + + +

Crouching down behind a bush, the moustached man peered through the foliage at the dingy warehouse. He and Josiah had watched as Chris was handcuffed and led inside the dark building. Every fiber of his being had wanted to jump out and pump Valdez so full of lead he could use various extremities as pencils, but they had no way of knowing if Vin and Taya were being held in the warehouse. For all they knew, Vin could be across town, and Taya at an entirely different location. He forced himself to duck down and wait.

There had been three men flanking Valdez – two small weasley looking men, and one hulking brute.

He prayed to God Chris didn’t come in contact with that one…

"Okay," he whispered to Josiah. "There’s been no exterior activity for nineteen minutes. I say we move in."

The profiler nodded, then signaled to the other two teams on their side of the warehouse. They all moved in slowly, keeping an eye out for snipers. Reaching the door, they flanked it, keeping eye contact with each other and raising their guns. Buck reached out and turned the knob.

It was locked.

On the silent count of three, they kicked the door down, jumping inside with their guns trained, expecting to see an armored guard.

But there was no one.

They looked at each other, warily splitting up and moving to the opposite sides of the vast room. All around there stood enormous old vats and other mysterious equipment. They strained their ears in the silence, again expecting to hear men running toward them and the sound of gunshots. But it was eerily quiet.

The other teams entered behind them, and together they made a thorough search of the warehouse. But after an hour of diligent searching, they hadn’t found any evidence of Valdez or his men having been there.

It was like they’d vanished without a trace.

Buck and Josiah came back together near the back wall, each with a puzzled expression on his face. "We saw them go in," Buck muttered, rubbing the back of his neck.

"And we didn’t see them come out," Josiah added.

"We had every exit covered. That means they’ve got to be here somewhere," Buck scratched in the dust with his boot. "They didn’t just disappear."

Suddenly, his eye caught a glint of something on the side of a vat. Walking over, he ran his hand over the grimy surface and felt the slight unevenness. His eyes grew wide.

"Josiah! Feel this," he guided the older man’s hand along the metal surface. "It’s a door!" Feeling around, he found a recessed niche. Inserting his fingers, he pulled hard, and felt the metal give way.

The door swung wide to reveal a flight of steps leading down. He waved for the other teams, hardly daring to breathe, and then descended into the darkness.

There was no light, and he couldn’t risk turning on a flashlight. Who knew what would be waiting for them in the dark…

Once he got to the bottom, he felt his way along a cold passage, not knowing what he would find. Josiah had stayed behind to bring up the rear, and to cover their tracks. It seemed to take forever, sweat dripping down his neck and his eyes straining wide to catch any glimmer of light. Finally, his hands brushed a hard surface. He could hear the other agents shuffling along behind him, whispering to each other in the pitch-black corridor. Feeling along, he found a doorknob, and turned it…

It swung open, revealing another flight of steps leading up, this time dimly lit from whatever waited at the top. He held his gun ready, and gave a nod to the rest of the team. They slowly ascended the stairs, every nerve on edge, waiting for the first sign of Valdez and his men.

Once they reached the top, the found a door standing wide open… leading to the outside.

Buck let out an anguished howl of rage. "Those bastards!" he turned around and slammed his fist into the metal door.

"They must have snuck out right under our noses," Josiah said, coming up from the hidden passage.

"Well?" Buck demanded, his eyes furious. "What do we do now?"

+ + + + + + +

"Vin?" Taya whispered, crawling across the cold floor. "Vin??" she repeated urgently, alarmed when she received no answer.

They had been left alone in the frigid darkness for hours. Chris had slipped into unconsciousness, his body finally succumbing to the severity of his wounds. She had been curled close to him – both for mutual warmth and for the sense of protection that emanated from him. Because of their proximity, she had felt him grow heavy, finally falling listlessly to the side.

It had scared the young woman out of her mind.

And now, making her way slowly across the stone floor towards the dim figure silhouetted against the weak light, her fear grew to consuming proportions.

"Vin, answer me!" she whispered, reaching the prone sharpshooter. He was lying on his side, facing the radiator, but peering through the dim light she could see his eyes were closed. She reached out and laid a hand on his neck, alarmed to feel the cold clamminess of his skin. "Come on," she urged, gently patting his cheek. "Wake up! Please, wake up!"

He stirred a little, but didn’t wake. She bit her lip, trying to think of what to do. It was so cold down in the cellar that she couldn’t feel her fingers or toes. It was a wonder Vin hadn’t ended up with frostbite from his month-long imprisonment.

In any case, they wouldn’t last much longer in this cold.

Using her bound hands, she dragged herself back across the floor to where Chris lay. Wiggling her shivering body behind his, she then worked her arms around until they encircled his lean frame. Finally, using mostly her legs, she started easing them both away from the far wall.

The senior agent stirred in her arms, groaning in pain. "Shh," she soothed. "We’re just going over to see Vin," she murmured in his ear. "We’re all gonna get warm."

It took all her strength to get across the room, dragging the dead weight of Chris’ muscular body behind her. By the time they finally reached Vin, her muscles were screaming in pain. She maneuvered until she was sandwiched between the two of them, Chris’ head leaning back against her shoulder, and Vin’s head on her lap, his body lying against her legs. She was panting, sweat sliding down her back and soaking the area between her shoulder blades.

Sweat is designed to cool a body down after exertion, and only a few minutes, she was colder than she had been before. Luckily, Chris and Vin were too out of it to be bothered by her chattering teeth. But she hunkered down between the two injured agents, praying that Vin’s friends would find them soon…

+ + + + + + +

Nathan was about at his wits end.

J.D. and Ezra had been quiet for while, courtesy of their painkillers. But it had been nearly five hours since the medication had been administered – four hours since Chris’ phone call from Valdez – and the two were now driving the medic so crazy they were about to land themselves in intensive care… and his would be the hands that did it!

On top of that, Buck had called a few minutes earlier, letting him know the situation down at the warehouse. God, could it get any worse??

Vin had been abducted early that afternoon, just after lunch. Chris had left the hospital shortly after four, and it was now approaching eight o’clock…

Eight hours.

Vin had been missing for over eight hours. Chris had been gone five, and the remaining members of the Seven were worried sick.

To make matters even worse, those bastards had taken the girl.

Ezra and Josiah hadn’t been the only ones to visit Taya while she was recuperating. Buck had paid her a call while making his nightly rounds hitting on the nurses, and Nathan had stopped by with J.D. the week before Vin’s release from the hospital, taking another impressive bouquet of flowers and a plush teddy bear. Chris was the only one who had yet to meet her, having spent the bulk of his time divided between Vin and the ATF office.

Like each of the rogue agents, she had no surviving family. Mary had been the only one to be with her during her recovery, having taken an instant liking to the bright, vivacious girl. The fact that she saved Vin’s life – plus her own captivating charm and magnetic personality – had so endeared her to the hearts of the Seven that they felt as if she were one of their own.

And now, Nathan sat in one of the hospital’s torturous chairs, his head in his hands. He’d just screamed at Ezra and J.D. to shut up, and they had mercifully ceased their irritating bickering. Ezra had leaned back, closing his eyes, and appeared to be falling back asleep, and J.D. had turned on his side with his back to the other agents, sulking.

It wasn’t really their fault, he realized. It was killing all of them to be stuck in that tiny hospital room instead of out helping Josiah and Buck recover Chris and Vin.

Just then, the bedside phone rang.

"Jackson," he answered, his body tense, thinking of the last phone call they received in this room.


"Orrin," the medic sighed with relief. Orrin Travis was the team’s supervisor, and probably the only person who knew every detail of this case. "What’s wrong?"

"You’re not answering your cell phone," the older man commented.

"This is a hospital, Orrin," Nathan replied, trying to keep a tight rein on his patience. "They’re not allowed."

"Then how did Chris get that phone call earlier?"

"Since when does Chris Larabee care about what is or isn’t allowed?" Jackson quipped.

Travis chuckled softly. "Good point." His tone then turned serious. "I’m calling because I’ve got a lead on Valdez."

The EMT jumped for his jacket, fishing out a pen and a scrap piece of paper. "I’m ready."

"We’ve been doing a lot of checking into the real estate near Leadville," the senior agent said.

"Near where Vin was found," Nathan added.

"Right. And we’ve discovered that a cousin of Valdez owns a piece of property in that area. I’ve got the directions right here."

Nathan’s hand quickly scribbled down the information. He straightened up, putting the precious piece of paper in his back pocket.

"We’re on it."

+ + + + + + +

Chris hadn’t moved in a long time. Too long. His breathing was shallow, barely even there. At times Taya would press her fingers to his neck, reassuring herself that he was still alive.

As for Vin, in the long hours since she’d huddled them all together, he had gradually curled his body around hers, instinctively seeking warmth. Valdez had shut them in while the sun was setting, and now the only illumination in the dank prison was the weak beams of light from the cloud-covered moon. Rain had started falling… there was a storm moving in.

Her own healing body wasn’t holding up much better. She felt weak and light-headed – hunger, thirst, and cold wreaking havoc on her over-wrought system.

She wasn’t sure how much longer they would last.

A noise came from overhead, and she snapped to attention. The trapdoor swung open. Her breath quickened, her entire body tensed with fear.

A figure with a lantern appeared at the door, and a heavy set of footsteps descended into the pit.

Feeling movement on her left side, she glanced down and found Vin’s eyes on her, his gaze clear. She opened her mouth to speak, but he broadcast a silent warning, and she kept silent.

The lantern was set down on the floor in the far corner, casting a dim light across the small space. The figure slowly approached the three prisoners, and in the shadows she could make out that it was one of the two small, weasley Mexicans.

Kneeling down, he pulled a knife from his belt, and placed it against her throat. "Hola, pequeña muchacha. Se va el jefe, así que usted y yo podemos tener cierta hora solamente junta..." he whispered softly, his hot breath on her neck.

Her eyes widened as his other hand reached between her legs…

"Deje la muchacha solamente," Tanner’s gravelly voice pierced the silence.

"Was I speaking to you, dog?" the smaller man spat.

The sharpshooter’s eyes held steady. "If you don’t get your hands off her," he warned, his voice deadly soft. "You’ll find yourself missing ‘em. And I’m sure Valdez will be very interested to hear why."

The other licked his lips nervously, his eyes darting around. "No tu creo."

"You’d better believe me," Vin’s quiet voice dripped malice. "O me usted forzará demostrar."

The villain’s face shone with perspiration. Raking his eyes up and down Tanner one more time, he gave an evil smile and turned his attention back to Taya…

Only a hair’s breadth of a moment passed, and then Vin’s legs shot out so fast Taya’s eyes couldn’t follow them. Lightning would have been impressed. He wrapped them around the henchman, pinning the bent arms to his greasy chest. Then, twisting expertly and causing the other man to drop the knife, Vin gripped it in his good hand. Finally, jackknifing his body, he pulled the other man close, pressing the knife to his wrists.

"I told you," he hissed, pressing his face close to the other man’s. "You touch her again, you’re gonna lose ‘em…"

Two swift cuts, and a bloodcurdling scream followed his soft words. Then, he kicked out, throwing the Mexican across the room, his bleeding stumps held out in front of his body.

The wounded man stared at his arms in horror, noises of panic coming from his tight throat. Then, as the large quantities of blood continued to pour from his severed wrists, he collapsed in a heap against the wall.

Using the knife, Vin quickly cut the ropes around Taya’s wrists and ankles. "Go on," he whispered urgently. "Get out of here while you can."

"No!" she protested, clinging to his bloody flannel shirt. "I’m not going to leave you here…"

"GO!" he pushed her away. "Go before someone comes back!" Her expression was anguished as she stared at him in the dim lantern light. "Please," he whispered hoarsely, his eyes moving to Chris’ still form. "You’re the only chance we’ve got."

Taking a deep breath, she nodded. Running to the stairs, she glanced back at them one more time, before disappearing out the hatch.

When she had gone, Vin dropped the knife to the ground, erupting in a fit of coughs, his breath coming in wheezing gasps. Blood covered his clothes, causing them to stick to his skin. Drawing his knees up to his pain-wracked body, he whispered softly, "Dear Lord, I hope she makes it…" before slipping mercifully into unconsciousness.

+ + + + + + +

Valdez sat in his Italian leather recliner, looking out into the moonlit night. He had expected to hear from Juan by now, but there had been no word of the arms dealer. The man had surfaced a year ago, and was very slippery. He was a gringo – not Hispanic – and always seemed to show up at just the right moment.

Three weeks ago, the strange American with his imported liquor and expensive suits had bargained with his men over a weapons exchange, to be completed in a few days. But there had been no word from the man. He was beginning to wonder if this person was who he said he was…

Leaning back in the chair, he inhaled deeply on his cigar. Once Jorge arrived, they would head back to the cabin. Jorge would bring some interesting toys to try on his captives.

His lips curved in a vicious smile. He was especially looking forward to hearing the girl scream.

+ + + + + + +

Taya ran as hard as she could through the woods. In the nearly two months since she had last been in this area, the thick snow had melted, turning the forest floor to a thick sludge. The air was still bitterly cold, and her breath made clouds of thick fog as she exhaled.

She had no idea where she was going. This is what Vin must have felt like, she realized, though she was deeply glad she wasn’t nearly as badly wounded as he had been.

From up ahead, she heard the sound of a car, and knew she must be near a road. Not even thinking about who might be up ahead, she reached the edge of the woods, and jumped out onto the pavement, waving her arms wildly.

A car screeched to a halt. She smiled, elated at finally reaching some help. But as she watched the driver get out of the car, her eyes widened in disbelief…

+ + + + + + +

Three men lay on the cold stone floor of the cellar. Two of them drifted in and out of consciousness, while the other grew colder in the chill of death. In the cabin above, the door stood wide open, frigid air rushing in.

A car pulled up beside the cabin, and two men got out. Valdez took in the wide open door, and sent a chilling look to his companion. The two rushed into the cabin, and stopped short to see the open trapdoor gaping like a grave.

They rushed down the steps, and found the gruesome scene.

Blood was streaked from where the two agents lay against one wall all the way across the room to where Pedro lay in a large pool of it, his eyes wide open with the shock of death.

The girl was no where to be seen.

Emilio Valdez emitted a scream of rage. Stalking up to the corpse, he began viciously kicking it, shouting, "¡Cómo podría usted permitir que ella se consiga lejos! ¡Usted estúpido, pedazo sin valor de mierda!"

Jorge stood to one side, his stomach turning at the sight of so much blood. He was a man who had made his living by physically maiming others, but he had never seen a human being drained of every last drop of blood in their body. Pedro was slumped against the ground, Valdez’s kicks making squished sounds as they slammed into his shriveled body.

Finally, the older man’s rage was spent, and he turned his attention to the other two inhabitants of the dingy cellar.

Striding over to the two prone agents, he gazed down at them with an evil gleam in his eyes. "Jorge, les haremos la paga para esto."

+ + + + + + +

Buck jumped out of the car and ran towards the frightened girl. He watched as her face crumpled into tears, her relief at finding the team of agents coming out to rescue them so palpable it made his heart ache. He reached her just as her knees buckled, catching her before she could hit the ground.

"Shh," he murmured softly, folding his arms around her as she buried her face in his chest. "It’s alright, darlin’. The cavalry’s here. Everythin’s gonna be okay now."

Josiah stepped from the passenger side. He allowed Buck to continue his reassuring ministrations for a few more moments, and then came to their side. "Taya, where are they?"

She lifted her tearstained face and motioned back into the trees, the way she had come. His eyes followed her gaze, and then he gave a nod. "Come on, Miss Taya," he said, placing a large, gentle hand on her back. "Why don’t we let Agent Simmons take you back to the hospital? Mary Travis is there waiting for you." Another agent came up, reaching his arms out for her to take hold, smiling kindly.

When they had loaded her into one of the other cars, the two agents exchanged grim expressions before pulling their weapons from their holsters and making their way into the woods.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had never felt so awful in his life. He opened his stinging eyes, feeling a thousand different points of pain in his body all shrieking at him at once. Raising his pounding head, he squinted in the dim light, trying to make out the hazy figure standing over him.

The click of a gun brought his vision sharply into focus.

Valdez was standing over him, pointing a pistol right between his eyes.

"So," he said, his voice soft but heated. "You managed to help her escape, you and your little friend." His boot nudged Vin, who was still out cold.

"Leave him alone," Larabee growled.

"I don’t think you are in any position to give orders, Señor Larabee," the older man hissed. Turning his head towards the sharpshooter, he suddenly aimed the pistol at Vin’s good leg, and fired.

"NO!" Chris screamed, watching as Vin came to with the explosive pain. The smaller man’s eyes went wide. He sucked in a breath, his mouth open in a silent scream.

Valdez smiled wickedly, rearing his foot back and delivering a swift kick to Vin’s broken leg, causing a huge split to appear in the wall of the cast. He then pushed the gun into the sharpshooter’s shoulder, and fired again. The bullet ripped through, splintering the bone. But Vin refused to make a sound, his face a silent mask of agony.

"You bastard!" Chris roared, rallying his body and trying to move to protect his friend.

Vin could do nothing more than curl on himself, writhing in pain. Valdez delivered another brutal blow to his head, causing his vision to blur. Then, the Mexican kneeled down, cocked the hammer, and pointed the barrel right between Tanner’s eyes…

"I told you I would make you pay, Larabee," he hissed. "Now, you will watch your friend die before your eyes…"

Suddenly, there was a wail of sirens from outside the house. Valdez jerked his head around, looking at Jorge, both of them with surprised expressions on their faces.

In that split second of distraction, Chris lashed out, delivering a swift headbutt to Valdez. The Mexican was knocked back onto his heels, the pistol dropping from his hands and sliding across the floor.

Before Valdez could jump for the gun, Larabee launched his body on top of the drug lord, pinning him to the ground.

"¡Consiga el arma!" Valdez shouted to Jorge. But the other man was paralyzed, hearing the sounds of cars pulling up to the house, doors slamming, and someone on a bullhorn shouting ‘ATF! The house is surrounded! Come out with your hands in the air!’ Jorge stood frozen, his eyes wide with fear.

"Jorge!" Valdez shouted again, trying to wrestle his way free of Larabee’s grasp. Above ground, the ATF command was repeated over the bullhorn in Spanish. ‘¡ATF! Se rodea la casa! Salido con tus manos en el aire!’

But Jorge did not go to his boss’s aid. Instead, he turned and ran, quickly climbing the stairs and disappearing out the hatch.

In the meantime, Vin was in agony. His broken leg was on fire, pain blazing up and down his nerves like bolts of lightning. The gunshot wounds also burned, and the three points of heat were so intense that the rest of his body had begun to shiver uncontrollably. His head was spinning, his vision horribly blurred and getting worse by the minute.

But even in his excruciating state, he knew that Chris needed him.

Maneuvering his wracked body, in spite of the overwhelming pain that threatened to cause him to black out, he reached with his foot for the gun. His booted toe barely brushed it, his cast-bound leg lying uselessly to the side. Stretching further, he scrunched his body down until his foot could wrap around it, and then, gathering his strength, he kicked it up to his hands.

His good arm was the one handcuffed to the radiator, so the only option was to try and grip the pistol in his weak fingers, his arm made heavier by the plaster cast. He struggled to curve his fingers around the handle, grunting with the effort. Above them, shouts were heard, and then shots fired.

In the frigid cellar, Valdez finally managed to get free of Chris, bashing the senior agent’s head against the stone wall. He scuttled away from the bound men, and rose to his feet. His gaze was murderous.

He began to cross the distance back to the agents, the look in his eyes letting them know he would not allow them to leave alive.

All that stood between him and their lives was the gun in Vin’s weak hand.

Vin had finally managed to get a decent grip, and shakily raised the pistol, aiming it at Valdez.

The Mexican saw the barrel trained on him, and stopped short. But instead of showing fear, his mouth curved into a smile.

"Tan. Usted piensa que usted puede todavía batirme, eh amigo?" he said softly.

Vin’s arm was shaking badly, the corners of his vision closing in as he slowly began losing the battle to remain conscious. The blow to Chris’ head had knocked him out cold, so Vin couldn’t call on him for help.

Valdez knew this. He also could see that the sharpshooter wouldn’t be able to hold the gun up much longer. Tanner struggled to remain upright, the barrel waving wildly back and forth as his hand began to lose its hard-won grip. The older man’s grin widened.

And then, he began to laugh.

The horrible sound went straight through Tanner’s body, paralyzing him with fear. It was the sound that had haunted his nightmares, the sound he wasn’t able to escape.

And now it flooded his ears, causing the precarious hold he had on his sanity to dwindle.

Valdez took a step closer. Then another.

But then, from above, came a familiar voice.


That voice snapped him back. Raising the gun, he pointed it right at Valdez’s laughing face.

And he pulled the trigger.

The bullet ripped through the older man’s forehead, barreling through his brain and causing the back part of his skull to blow apart, the fragments spraying out and painting the wall behind him a blistering red. The body swayed, hanging upright for a moment or two after the life had left, before falling backwards to the floor with a final, resounding thud.

At that moment, Vin’s strength failed. The gun fell from his hand, and his body slumped back against the radiator. His fading consciousness barely registered the agents that stormed the cellar, Buck’s face swimming in front of his vision as he finally gave in to the blackness…

+ + + + + + +

The first thing that registered were the soft beeps. They came from somewhere on his right, though for a few moments his fuzzy brain couldn’t place the sound. Then, as the tangy smell registered in his nostrils, he suddenly knew where he was. Cracking open his gritty eyes, he took in the stark white walls of the hospital, and groaned.

"I don’t wanna hear it, Tanner," came a gravelly voice off to his left.

His eyes shot open wide. "Chris?"

"Well, it ain’t Santy Claus."

He pushed himself shakily up onto one arm, trying to peer across the room to where the senior agent lay in his twin bed, one arm flung over his eyes.

Then it all came back to him. Valdez… the cellar… Taya…


But before he could ask Chris if she was all right, a nurse breezed in through the door.

"Ah, Mr. Tanner. I see you are awake," she said, giving him a curt nod. "Lie back, I need to check your sutures." And her very firm hand pushed him back to the bed.

Pain exploded in his shoulder, reminding him of why he was there in the first place.

"Goddammit!" he hissed, tensing as the pain washed through him.

Ms. Bickerstaff looked up sharply from where she had been checking his chart. "You watch your language, buster."

"Aw, hell," he groaned, still trying to catch his breath. "Y’could be a little more gentle. I been shot, fer Christ’s sake!"

The woman glared fiercely at him, her starched uniform nearly bristling with indignation. "You will be more respectful when you speak to me," she replied, her eyes boring holes in his. "Or I’ll make your life so miserable you’ll wish you’d never set foot in this place!"

Lady, I already do.

By the time Bickerstaff had finished with him, he was in so much pain that he had squeezed his eyes closed, clenching his jaw in order not to let out a string of curses at the brutal treatment. Damn! I had better chances with Valdez! he grimaced as she started poking around his leg wound.

"I’ll take over now, Ms. Bickerstaff," a voice said.

Vin looked up at the newcomer, a grateful expression pouring from his eyes. He had been so oblivious to everything but the pain he hadn’t even noticed when Nathan came in the door.

The nurse didn’t say a word, just gave that same harsh expression to the medic, before turning around and marching from the room.

"How you doin’ Vin?" the healer asked, his brown eyes kind.

"Gawd," Vin swallowed, his tongue thick. "’Feel like I ‘been run over by a lawn tractor."

"Yeah," Nathan smiled. "I bet you do. After ole Battleaxe had ‘er hands on ya, I don’t blame you one bit." His gentle hands smoothed over Vin’s arms, rubbing it reassuringly. "I’ll go find Pearl. ‘See if she can give ya somethin’."

Vin just grunted, his body sinking back into the mattress as the various pains settled down into an all-consuming throb. The other agent disappeared, leaving the two injured men alone together.

"You okay?" Chris asked softly.

Vin sighed, rasping a quiet, "Yeah," as a reply. His brain felt thick, his thoughts sloshing around and making him feel strangely light-headed. There was something he wanted to ask Chris… wasn’t there?… he couldn’t remember…

A young, pert nurse came in, Nathan following close behind. She approached Vin’s bed, smiling kindly. Patting his shoulder, she told him, "Don’t worry, you’ll feel better in just a bit," as she injected a painkiller into his I.V.

Suddenly, he remembered.

"Nate," he reached out and took the EMT’s arm. "That girl… is she all right?"

"Don’t worry, Vin," the other man laid his large hand on the sharpshooter’s shoulder. "She’s fine. Just more scared than anything else. I think Mary’s bringin’ her by later today, so you can see for yourself." Tanner relaxed a little, but his eyes darted to the other bed. "He’s gonna be fine, too," Jackson answered his unspoken question. "Got some busted ribs… took a small nick to his lung tissue, but it didn’t do too much damage. They did have to go in and repair it… and his kidneys were bruised pretty good. He’ll be sore for a long while. But he’s a tough ole codger," Nathan grinned. "He’ll be up and around in no time."

"Ole codger’s tryin’ t’sleep," Larabee’s voice floated from the other bed. "Ya’ll mind keepin’ it down?"

Both men smothered giggles, Vin pressing his cast-bound arm to his side as the laughter shook his aching frame. Within a few moments, the drugs began to make his body feel heavy, disconnected. He didn’t even notice when Ezra and Buck came to drop off some clothes and relieve Nathan of his hospital shift.

The pain floated away to some other plane, and he sank into a welcome, healing sleep.


"Watch out!"

Two helmeted figures on a bright Suzuki streaked by as J.D. quickly dove out of their way.

Josiah laughed heartily, sitting at the table on Chris’ deck and looking out over the spacious yard. Nathan was leaning over the railing next to Rain and Mary, wide smiles on their faces. Behind them, Ezra and Nettie were perched in the shade, looking on as the young played, feeling very peaceful and relaxed. Chris stood at his grill with Buck, working on the smoked ribs.

The dirt bike pulled up next to the deck, Vin and Taya pulling off their helmets with a release of joyous laughter. J.D. helped Casey up from the grass, kicking the soccer ball at the other couple. "Ya’ll nearly got us killed!"

"Aw, come off it, J.D." Vin replied good-naturedly, helping Taya off the bike. "We missed ya’ll by a mile."

"Hey!" Buck called. "Soup’s on!"

"Soup?" Casey asked. "I thought we was havin’ ribs?"

"Were having ribs," Ezra corrected, coming to the stairs and handing her a lemonade.

Her brow furrowed. "So we aren’t having ribs?" she asked again.

The Southerner sighed. "Yes, Casey, we are having ribs. Buck merely used a colloquial expression that means ‘time to eat.’"

"Oh," she replied, accepting a plate from Chris with a smile and taking a seat at the long wooden table.

Everyone gathered around, talking and laughing. In the three months that had passed, a lot of changes had taken place. Chris had made a complete recovery, with only a small scar to show where they had gone in to repair the hole in his lung tissue. Vin was still in physical therapy, trying to rehabilitate his right leg and arm to their former strength, but things looked promising. His right arm was nearly back to normal, with just a slight weakness to the fingers that was only barely noticeable. His physical therapist warned him that as he grew older, he’d probably have aches in his right leg – which was broken twice: once in the accident, and then again by Valdez – whenever the weather changed. But she advised that if he kept active, it shouldn’t bother him very much.

And active was definitely a word to describe Vin Tanner.

Ezra leaned back, taking a long look around the table. Chris and Mary sat near the head, smiling at each other and talking in hushed tones. This whole ordeal had brought them closer together – close enough that the undercover agent’s keen eyes had spied them holding hands earlier as they watched J.D. and Casey play a game of soccer against Vin and Taya.

As for the young pair, they had developed a remarkable relationship of their own. Taya had visited Vin throughout his recovery in the hospital, and – with sufficient coaxing from Buck – Vin had eventually worked up the courage to ask her out.

Going through their harrowing ordeal had bonded the two so completely that it was hard to imagine they had ever been without one another. Taya loved Vin’s wild spirit, his deep respect for nature, and his quiet strength that allowed him to overcome any challenge. On top of the fact that the girl was beautiful, Vin was captivated by Taya’s own untamed nature, her quick smile and compassionate heart causing his own to beat fiercely whenever she was near.

Standish watched now as the two sat across from each other, staring deeply into each other’s eyes, and more-than-likely playing footsie under the table. Buck and Nathan were in a good-natured argument over the top draft picks for the NFL. Josiah was hearing Nettie’s opinions on Eastern versus Western religion – not for the first time. And, J.D. and Casey had for once ceased their squabbling, and were sitting side by side, Casey feeding J.D. a bite of mashed potatoes, both smiling sweetly at each other.

His eyes crinkled into a contented smile, sipping on his imported liquor and wondering how any man could be more fortunate, to be surrounded by such friends. In the relatively short time these people had known each other, they had formed fast and true friendships that filled the different voids in their lives in ways no one could have ever imagined.

Now, they all sat in this blissful harmony, the hardship of the past few months mercifully forgotten for a while. When the food was gone, Buck, Josiah, J.D., Nathan and Chris went out into the yard for some touch football in the fading light. Mary, Rain, Nettie, and Casey sat with Ezra on the deck, sipping lemonade and cheering on their favorite team members.

Vin opted out of the game, choosing instead to take a long walk down to the barn with Taya. The couple looked very picturesque, holding hands and strolling casually as the sun set romantically behind them.

Ezra looked up, watching the clouds turning colors on the horizon. He sighed deeply, hearing the joyous sounds of laughter, feeling the rays of sunlight on his face, and the warmth of friendship in his heart.

As far as he was concerned, this was what made it all truly magnificent.

The End

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