Disclaimer: I do not own them and I make no money off this work of fanfiction.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Nancy for allowing me to illustrate this story and for giving it a home.

It started slow, welling up from the very center of his being, blossoming, until it consumed him. Kneeling in the tall grass, following the sign of the enemy, leading the way into battle, he felt no fear. He was ready. He felt the Spirit move in him. He was one with the universe and Creation. The elation of the hunt was upon him and holding his eagle wing fan in one hand and his coup staff in the other, he bobbed his head and tapped his heel against the hardened earth to the rhythm of the drumbeat, the heartbeat of the mother. He blew on the eagle-bone whistle as the beat changed. He rose up and began the intricate steps of the warrior's dance.


Shit, Tanner! How th' hell do ya get y'rself inta these messes? Vin thought as he held his hands up trying to placate the distraught young man holding a wavering gun on him.

He had just been driving down the street, minding his own business, on his way to work just as the sun was beginning to rise, when an hysterical young woman ran in front of his car, screaming at him to help her. He slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting her, as she braced both hands against the hood of his jeep.

Vin stared into her terrified eyes momentarily as his brain processed what was happening. He jumped out of the car when the girl turned back the way she had come. Backing away with her hands in front of her, she screamed, "Nooooo!"

Then he saw the man. He couldn’t have been more than in his early twenties. He was advancing toward the woman with a gun. Without really thinking, Vin approached the pair and placed himself in between, hoping to distract the man long enough to talk some sense into him.

"Hey buddy," Vin smiled, "look, you don’t wanna do this."

The man didn’t appear to hear him. Vin could see that he had been crying. Vin could also feel the fear radiating off the young woman behind him.

"OK, I don’t know what’s goin’ on here, but this ain’t the way t’ handle it." Still no response from the gunman. Over his shoulder, he asked the girl, "What’s ‘is name?"

After some hesitation, she answered, "Mike."

Returning his full attention forward, he said, "Mike…Mike, com’ on pal. Why don’ ya put the gun down an’ we’ll talk about it. Maybe I c’n help."

Finally the man blinked and seemed to register the fact that there was someone else there besides him and the girl. He looked at Vin, slowly shaking his head, "No…she…lied," and the tears flowed more freely.

Behind him the girl grabbed hold of Vin’s coat with both hands, she was sobbing, "I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it, I’m sorry, please…Mike…"

"Look, let’s talk about it, we c’n work it out," Vin pleaded, but he saw the total despair in the young man’s eyes and with a deep sense of foreboding, knew this was going to end badly.

He could hear the faint sound of sirens and knew that someone in the gathering crowd had called the police. The scene was surreal as the headlights from Vin’s jeep spotlighted the three of them.

Vin saw it, but the girl behind him didn’t, the exact moment when the man reached his decision, the exact moment when he lost all hope. She was still holding desperately onto his coat. He tried to drag them both down, but her unyielding weight slowed him, and then they were both falling.

At first he felt nothing. He saw the muzzle flash, and for a brief fraction of a second, he thought maybe, the man had missed. Then his chest exploded in a searing, lightening bolt of pain that ripped through him, propelling him back into the girl. He hit the asphalt with a solid thud, but felt nothing except the white, hot fire in his chest. He felt blood trickling from his mouth. He opened his eyes, and the last thing he saw before his world went black, was the young man putting the gun to his own head and pulling the trigger. Then his sightless eyes were staring into Vin’s own, then, there was nothing.


Chris looked up as Buck paused in the open doorway of his office, "Seen Junior yet?"

The ATF boss frowned as he glanced at the clock on his desk. It was late for Vin, "He’s not here?"

Before Buck had a chance to answer, Chris’s phone rang. Reaching for the receiver, he paused, a tendril of dread crawling up his spine. Picking up the hand piece, he placed it against his ear, "Larabee."

Buck’s relaxed posture disappeared as he watched his friend’s expression change. Chris looked up, and Buck could plainly read the fear in his eyes.

"Where?" The leader barked, "we’ll be right there."

Chris slammed down the phone, stood and grabbed his jacket, "Vin’s been shot. They’re taking him to Denver General," he said the way of an explanation. As he rushed from the room, Buck grabbed hold of his arm.

Meeting his old friend's eyes, he whispered, "He said it’s bad…real bad."

"Oh God…," Was all Buck could manage, then, "Go on. I’ll tell the others and Travis. We’ll be right behind ya," he said to Chris’s retreating back.

It was still rush hour and the traffic was excruciatingly slow. To Chris, it seemed even slower, as he pounded the steering wheel in frustration. He let himself be angry with the other drivers, because if he didn’t, the fear would creep in and overwhelm him. The fear that his best friend might die, and, God please forbid, he might die before he got there.

Finally, he reached the hospital, pulled into the first open parking space, ignoring the irritated glare from the motorist he beat to the spot, and raced through the ER doors.

Hurrying up to the receptionist’s desk,  he barked, "I’m looking for Vin Tanner."

Used to dealing with anxious family members, she calmly asked, "Are you a relative?"

Gritting his teeth in an attempt to be civil, he answered, "Chris Larabee, I’m listed as next of kin."

Typing in the information, she nodded, picked up the phone and informed the person on the other end that Vin Tanner’s family was here. She listened for a few moments, hung up the phone and addressed Chris in a gentle voice, "I’m sorry, Mr. Larabee, but Mr. Tanner is in surgery. You can wait in the surgery waiting room and someone will be with you as soon as possible."

He tried his best to not grab the woman and shake her senseless. "Look…I got a call saying that my friend was shot. Is…there…anyone…that can tell me what the hell is going on?"

Despite being clearly intimidated by the threatening glare she was getting, she managed to sympathize with the distraught man. Once again, picking up the phone, she had a brief conversation with someone. Breathing a sigh of relief to be passing on the responsibility of dealing with the volatile man, she asked, "Mr.?"


"Larabee, if you’ll wait here for a few minutes, the physician who attended Mr. Tanner when he came in, will be out to talk to you."

"Thank-you," he managed, if somewhat sarcastically.


Chris whirled at the sound of his name, to find himself face to face with one of the DPD detectives.

"Jennings," Chris acknowledged with a handshake.

"I’m the investigating officer," the detective offered by way of explanation. "I don’t know anymore than you do about how Tanner’s doing, but at least I can fill you in on how it happened."

"Hang on a sec, Bill." Chris saw that the rest of the team had arrived and were hurrying through the ER doors.

Jennings nodded to the anxious men as they gathered around their boss and friend. Before any of them could ask, Chris said, "Vin’s in surgery. His doctor will be out in a minute to talk to us. Jennings, here, was about to tell me what happened."

The detective regarded the six men with compassion. It was bad enough anytime a fellow officer was hurt in the line of duty, but this group, The Magnificent Seven, was known to be more of a family than just co-workers. "We think, although at this point we can’t verify it, there was a domestic dispute between a young woman and her husband. It ended up outside and we think she flagged Tanner down to help her. Somehow, according to witnesses who heard the girl screaming and came out to see what was going on, he got between the two of ‘em. Apparently he tried to talk the man into giving up his gum, but the man ended up shooting Tanner, the girl, and then himself."

Jennings paused, seeing the range of emotions on their faces, everything from disbelief to the seething anger on Larabee’s, before he continued, hesitatingly, "So far, we haven’t been able to find out what started the whole thing. The guy’s dead, the girl is critical, and they aren’t sure she’s going to make it, and Vin’s in surgery. He was unconscious when the EMTs got there. We do know that it was one shot, at close range. It went through Tanner and hit the woman, who was standing behind him."

He just finished when a young man in green surgical scrubs came out and up to the receptionist’s desk. She pointed toward the group of men.

"One of you Chris Larabee?" he asked as he approached.

"That’s me," Chris said, stepping forward.

Holding out his hand, the man said, "I’m Dr. Nickells. I was the ER attending when they brought Mr. Tanner in. I understand you have Power of Attorney for Mr. Tanner?"

Chris’s patience was growing thin. "Look, Dr…"

"I’m sorry, Mr. Larabee," Dr. Nickell’s interrupted, "I have to ask. It has to do with the new privacy laws."

Mentally counting to ten, Chris ground out, "Yes, I have Power of Attorney."

Catching his look at the other men, Chris growled, "They’re OK. I’m just going to tell them whatever you tell me, so get on with it."

Noting the obvious frustration, the doctor nodded, knowing that in the end it was useless to argue, and began, trying to make it as concise as possible."Well, your friend was lucky that EMS was already on the way. Someone called 911, otherwise he might not have made it. He has a gunshot wound the right side of the chest. The bullet went through the lung. They were able to stabilize him enough on site with IVs, a chest tube and intubation, to get him here and into surgery. He’s lost a lot of blood and was in shock, but we had an OR waiting and that will give him his best chance."

The team stared at the doctor in stunned silence. "I’m sorry," he said sympathetically, "that’s really all I can tell you, because that’s all I know.

"The surgery waiting room is on the second floor. I’ll let them know you are there." Bbefore turning to go back into the ER, the young doctor once again regarded the grief-stricken faces of the men gathered around him, "I’m really very sorry about your friend."

The physician was almost to the door when Jennings stepped forward, "Doc, the girl?"

Dr. Nickell’s started to protest when the detective flashed his badge. Sighing, the doctor suddenly looked much older than his years. Briefly shaking his head, he said sotto voce, "she didn’t make it."

Hesitating for a moment, he seemed to give himself a mental shake then nodded and smiled grimly at the ATF team and went back to work.

Chris looked at his friends and saw the horror he felt reflected in their eyes. This couldn’t be happening, not to Vin, not to his best friend.

Chris couldn’t quite get his legs to move. He felt numb all over, his mind blank. He heard someone talking to him, but couldn’t seem to manage to put meaning to the words. He felt strong hands on his arms guiding him to a chair and he had no strength to resist. A cup was placed to his lips and he sipped the overly sweet liquid without thinking.

Finally the syrupy brew caused him to gag and cough, and reality came crashing down on him. Someone removed the cup and he heard a voice ask, "Chris, you OK? Chris?"

With watery eyes he turned to face his oldest friend, "Buck?"

Understanding more than he wanted to, the big man squeezed Chris’s shoulder, "I know buddy, I know."

Then he heard the rumble of Josiah’s deep voice, "Why don’t we move up to the surgery waiting room. We want to be there when Vin gets out of the operating room."

Chris nodded and let his friends lead him to the waiting area. Gradually, the unfairness of the situation caught up to him. Buck could see the change and hoped it wouldn’t lead to an explosion. He put a hand on the tense arm in an effort to calm and reassure.

Chris sat with his hands locked together between his knees, bent forward with his head down, "It’s not right Buck. Vin was only trying to help and that bastard shot him."

"I know," Buck tiredly agreed.

Knowing there was nothing else that could be done, the group settled in to wait.


Several hours later, an exhausted surgeon entered the waiting room. He paused in the doorway, immediately identifying the ATF agents he had been warned about. While there were other families waiting for word of their loved ones, the men of Team 7 had gathered at one end of the room. The six somber men were given a wide berth, as if the others sensed the aura of danger that surrounded them.

Various law enforcement people had been dropping by periodically, all day, so it took a moment for them to register the fact that the doctor was there. Standing quickly, Nathan asked, "How’s Vin?"

The others anxiously stood and moved closer to hear what the man had to say.

"I’m Dr. Woods. I’m the trauma surgeon that operated on your friend," he paused. "As you know, your friend sustained a gunshot wound to the right side of his chest, a single bullet, a through and through to the lung. He was stabilized as much as possible in the field and when he got here he was briefly assessed in the ER and then was taken straight to the OR. We were able to repair the damage to his lung and chest wall and stabilize the broken ribs," again he paused; knowing what he had to say next would not be received well.

Looking the doctor straight in the eye, tired of waiting, wanting to know, even if the news was bad, "but…" Chris growled.

Meeting the glare head on, the doctor continued, "Mr. Tanner lost a lot of blood. We’ve given him several units of blood and blood products, as well as IV fluids, in an effort to keep up with the loss. That in itself can lead to complications. At the moment, he is listed as critical. He’ll be in the Surgical ICU. He’ll be on a ventilator and we have started him on antibiotics. He has an arterial line to better monitor his blood gases and blood pressure. We’ll keep the chest tube in for now to help keep the lung inflated. We’ve done all we can…now it’s up to Mr. Tanner."

He had barely finished when Chris demanded, "When can we see him?"

Patiently, from years of dealing with distraught family members, Dr. Woods answered, "The nurses have to get him settled and then we’ll do a portable chest X-ray to make sure didn’t dislodge the chest tube when we moved him. After that, I’ll have someone notify you."

Nathan stepped forward at that point, extending his hand, "Thanks Dr. Woods. We appreciate everything you’ve done." He glanced at Chris, who had turned and strode angrily over to the window.

The surgeon, also looking at Chris, smiled sadly and nodded his understanding as he returned the handshake.

Buck started to follow Chris when he felt a staying hand on his arm. He turned a questioning look at Josiah. "Let me," the older man said and pointedly looked over to a corner of the room. The youngest member of the team had barely said a thing since they had received word of the shooting. Now, he sat huddled in a chair in the corner, his face ashen.

Buck closed his eyes, mentally cursing himself for not having noticed before. JD and Vin had grown close. The other men figured one reason was that JD’s natural exuberance and love of life gave Vin a chance for a childhood he’d never had. With JD, Vin was able to let go a little, have the fun and enjoy the things he had missed out on while he was busy just trying to make it from one day to the next.

JD, for his part, deeply respected Vin. They were closer in age than any of the others but Vin had packed a lot of living into his few years. The team’s sharpshooter, for all his experience, did not have the advantage of an advanced education. That didn’t matter to JD though, because Vin always treated him as an equal while respecting the young computer whiz’s own special skills and contributions to the team. Vin didn’t treat him like some ‘wet-behind-the ears kid’, even though he was.

Now JD was hurting, and Buck had been so wrapped up in his own misery and fearing how Chris was going to survive if Vin didn’t make it, that he hadn’t even noticed how all this was affecting JD.

Nodding in acknowledgement, Buck went to sit by his young friend, "Ya OK, buddy?"

For several seconds, the big man was afraid the youth hadn’t heard him, then the young agent turned eyes as big as saucers, toward him. "Is Vin gonna die?" JD’s voice was small and pleading. He desperately wanted Buck to tell him no, but that wasn’t a promise Buck could make.

Looking first at his hands, folded between his knees, then at the ramrod stiff figure standing by the window, "I don’t know JD," the big man said.

JD continued to stare at the older agent who had come to be like a brother to him, "Buck…he can’t die. He just can’t."

Buck straightened and answered a little angrily, "JD, we don’t have any say in it."

He immediately regretted his tone when the young man quickly looked away and seemed to draw in on himself.

Scrubbing his face with one hand, he placed the other on JD’s shoulder, further chastising himself, when he felt him tense at the touch, "I’m sorry JD. I’m just as worried as you are and I just don’ know what t’ tell ya. Ya know, this is one of a’ those times when ya just gotta believe. Believe that Vin is gonna be OK. Ya heard what the doc said. Now a lot depends on Vin and ya know what a scrapper he is," the big man grinned. "Hell, ya know how much Vin likes a good fight. Ain’t no way he’s gonna give up without one."

Grinning a little himself, JD nodded his head, "Yeah, Vin does like a good fight."

Buck gently slapped the young man’s shoulder, then squeezed his neck, "And we’ll be right there with ‘im, kicking his butt the whole way," he vowed. Once again his gaze rested on the man in black, who had now been joined by Josiah.

Chris knew the ex-preacher was there, but wasn’t sure he was ready to talk yet. What he wanted to do was beat the shit out of something…or someone, out of Vin for getting himself in this mess. Hell… he closed his eyes, sighed and bowed his head.

"Me, too," came a deep rumble beside him.

The ATF leader looked up, "Huh?"

"Me, too. I’d dearly love to put my fist through something right now, but I can’t think of any way that would be constructive."

Despite himself, Chris managed a small smile. He found that a small amount of the tension was gone. "God, Josiah," he sighed.

The older man put his hand on his boss’s shoulder by way of an answer.

They stood in silence for a few minutes before Chris continued, "kinda ironic isn’t it? Every day we put ourselves in harm's way and get paid to do it. But, this…"

When Chris stopped, swallowing hard, Josiah finished the thought, "where he was only trying to help. I know." The ex-preacher could have waxed philosophical about fate, but he seriously doubted the volatile team leader was in any mood to hear it.

"What if he doesn’t make it?" Chris asked in voice barely above a whisper.

Josiah’s hand tightened and a trace of annoyance crept into his voice, "Don’t you count him out, Chris. Vin is strong and he’s a fighter, but he’s going to need all of us believing in him to get him through this."

Chris’s jaw tightened, he had stopped believing in the good things in life when his wife and son were killed. That is until he met up with the six men that formed the Special ATF Unit known as The Magnificent Seven. Fate had brought together seven completely different personalities, but somehow they complimented each other and not only with their various skills.

And in particular, Fate sent Vin Tanner. From the moment their eyes first met, they both knew that their friendship was more than just that. Neither quite understood the depth of the relationship, but Chris knew that if Vin didn’t make it, another large part of his heart and soul would be lost, and this time he wasn’t sure if there’d be enough left to go on.

Again, as if reading his thoughts, Josiah continued, "Chris, most of all he needs you. You are the family he never had. It’s your strength he’ll turn to."

Something shifted deep inside Chris Larabee, as the ex-preacher’s words sank in. Josiah saw the change when his boss, the team leader and his friend, made up his mind that come hell or high water, he would pull Vin Tanner, one scrawny-assed Texan, kicking and screaming if necessary, back to the land of the living, by shear will power if need be.

Josiah grinned broadly and clapped his hand on the black-clad shoulder. Realizing what the ex-preacher had done, Chris smiled grimly, nodded his head in resolution, and returned his gaze out the window.

Ezra hadn’t said much either since they had all begun their vigil several hours ago. Now, he watched out of the corner of eye as Buck comforted JD and Josiah, Chris. Sighing, he once again shuffled the cards that substituted as his worry beads. He supposed that it was only right, although he was just a little resentful that no one thought he wouldn’t need some reassurance.

Ruefully, he realized that he was partly responsible. He took great pains to avoid emotional attachments, even to these six men whom he regarded as more than mere colleagues, much more. God forbid that he would ever let them see it, his mother would be appalled. But, then there was Vin. Vin had taken great pains to ignore Ezra’s attempts to not get involved. The man simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. Ezra was frequently on the receiving end of Vin’s practical jokes, and though he feigned extreme annoyance, secretly it pleased him. Now, he supposed, it was only natural that they would conclude he didn’t need the support of his friends, but he did. He really wanted someone to tell him that Vin was going to be OK.

He was so engrossed in his self-commiseration that he failed to notice Josiah taking a seat beside him and he ‘almost’ jumped when a deep voice broke through his reverie, "He’ll be OK."

Defensively, Ezra asked archly, "And what made you think I was concerned that he wouldn’t?"

Josiah grinned."You telling me you aren’t worried?"

Ezra tried to look indignant then realized he wasn’t fooling anyone, sighed and conceded. "Well, maybe, somewhat. However, I have the utmost faith in Mr. Tanner’s recuperative powers."

Josiah placed a hand on the undercover agent’s shoulder. "Me, too, brother, me, too."

Nathan paced. He was the one who went after coffee and something to eat for the team. He felt he needed to make sure that everyone kept up his strength, but he also needed a distraction. Over and over his mind played out the different scenarios. He tried to tell himself that he just needed to wait to see with his own eyes what kind of shape the sharpshooter was in. But with what they were told about the wound and what the surgeon had told them, his imagination couldn’t help but conjure up the worst possible situations.

So he paced and he prayed. He also prayed that no one would ask him what he thought because he just didn’t know and he was worried.


It had been about forty-five minutes before a young nurse appeared in the doorway, "Mr. Larabee?"

Chris turned and moved forward. As anxious as he had been to see Vin, now that the time had come, he was afraid and his feet turned to lead. Then the rest of the men gathered around him and he felt their strength. Somehow, whatever was going to happen, they would see it through together, all of them, all ‘seven’ of them.

"I’m Larabee." His voice was gruffer than he intended from the fear that still formed a lump of ice deep inside him.

Eyes wide at the tone of voice, she stared at the man in black who was at the center of a wall of masculinity. Nathan stepped forward. "Miss?"

"Uh," she tore her eyes away from the glaring green ones and fastened them on the black man with the kind, sympathetic ones, "uh, you…can…see… Mr. Tanner now, but…but only two at a time."

"Thank-you ma’m," said the man with the mustache, smiling at her reassuringly.

Turning to the other friendly face gratefully, "Uh…if you’ll follow me…," she started to say.

Chris pushed past her, followed closely by Buck, who explained over his shoulder as they went by her, "Thanks hon, we know the way."

Chris, with Buck in tow, rushed to the unit, and after getting directions, hurried to Vin’s cubicle. There, Chris stopped cold, almost causing Buck to run into him. He thought he was ready for what he was going to see. Hell, Vin had been in the hospital before, had been shot before, had been in ICU before, but that hadn’t prepared him for what he saw now.

He had seen Vin so still on stakeouts that birds would land on him. He would seem to become part of the landscape. It was part of what made him so good at his job, that ability to blend in. But, this unnatural stillness made him look…dead.

Chris gasped, his heart skipping a beat as he took in the visage of his best friend. He felt Buck grip his elbow as the color drained from his face and he swayed.

"Easy Pard," The big man murmured.

It took a moment for Chris to hear the steady, if somewhat fast beat of the cardiac monitor and the faint woosh of the ventilator. His eyes never leaving the waxen face, he slowly became aware of all the signs in the room that Vin was still alive.

The young man’s skin was so pale, the smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks stood out in stark contrast, making him look even younger and more vulnerable. The handsome profile marred by the ET tube protruding from his mouth, held in place with an ET bar to keep it from moving, covering his whole mouth.

A monitor to one side obviously was for the heart rate and blood pressure. Chris didn’t know what the other lines meant, but all he really cared about, for now, was that they were telling them, Vin was still alive. IVs were running on infusion pumps and there was a bag of blood dripping slowly through a warmer. A nurse was calmly and efficiently recording the information from the various machines.

Chris wasn’t sure how long he stood there before he felt a gentle nudge on his back. The nurse looked up just then and smiled. Chris moved hesitantly forward, the nurse meeting him halfway. "Hi, m’ names Sue, I’ll be takin’ care of Vin t’day," she introduced herself.

"Chris," the blond said absent-mindedly, his eyes not leaving the form of his best friend.

Following his gaze and seeing his reluctance, she gently took his arm and lead him to Vin’s side, explaining softly as they walked, "I’m sure the doctor has told ya ‘bout Vin’s condition. I know how bad it looks with him so quiet ‘n all, but we’re givin’ him medicine t’ keep him from fightin’ the ventilator when he wakes up."

She watched as Chris inched toward the bed. He reached out a hand to touch his friend but drew it back, noticing the IV.

"Go ahead," she said. "He’s heavily sedated so we don’t know if he’s conscious, but I’m bettin’ he’ll know you’re here. Touch ‘im, talk to ‘im. That’ll do just about as much good as all these fancy machines."

Sue stepped back a few steps to give Chris the illusion of privacy. She saw him fighting a battle within himself as he slowly reached out and placed his hand over the limp fingers of the young agent.

The hand was cold, so cold. Chris looked up sharply at the monitors, as if to reassure himself that Vin really was still alive. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. "Jesus, Vin," he whispered.

He felt a strong hand on his shoulder. "Buck..." He shook his head, not able to articulate what was in his heart.

"I know, buddy." Drawing up a chair, he gently pushed him down into it.

Chris didn’t resist, mostly because he felt like his legs simply weren’t going to hold him up any more.

Buck backed up, stopping beside Sue. "My name’s Buck Wilmington. Vin’s a friend of ours. We all work together, " he offered as an explanation.

Sue smiled up at him. "Yeah, I’ve heard about y’all."

Buck laughed softly, "Are you by any chance from Texas?"

"As a matter of fact, I am."

"Thought so. So’s Vin. You two’ll have a lot t’ talk about." Then he realized what he had said, but was determined to be optimistic, "When he gets that there tube outta his mouth."

Hearing the sadness in his voice, she said, "We’re gonna work hard to make sure that’ll be soon. I’d love t’ talk t’ somebody from home. Y’all talk so strange up here," she teased.

Buck laughed but felt a tightening in his chest as he watched his two friends.

Chris was unaware of the conversation behind him. His total attention was on Vin. Unconsciously his grip had tightened on the cold, limp hand, as if he was using his own considerable will power to warm the young sharpshooter.

Buck walked to the other side of the bed. Careful of the equipment and the line going into his wrist, he grabbed Vin’s other hand. Leaning over the siderail, he asked softly, "Hey, Junior. How ya doin’? Well, I gotta tell ya son, ya look like shit."

He shrugged a little when that comment elicited a sharp look from Chris. He looked at the pale face with the long hair lying limply back and onto the pillow. He reached over and gently brushed his fingers through it, a look of overwhelming sadness on his face. He would give just about anything for those blue eyes to open, glare at him and hear him say, Fuck you, Bucklin.

Leaning closer, Buck whispered, "Vin, I want ya t’ know we’re all here for ya. I’m gonna let the others come in now. They’re all anxious t’ see ya." Giving the hand a squeeze, the scoundrel said, "You hang in there, ya hear?"

As he left, Buck gripped Chris’s shoulder. Buck knew that, now, that Chris was allowed to be with Vin, nothing short of a tornado would get him to leave.

Once alone with his young friend, Chris stood slowly and mimicking Buck’s motions, combed his fingers through Vin’s lank hair. "Jesus, Vin. How the hell do you get yourself into these messes?"

He had to keep telling himself that Vin’s lack of response was due to medication. It was the only way he could deal with it.

He watched as another nurse brought in another unit of blood. They checked the numbers on the bag with the numbers on Vin’s hospital ID bracelet, then Sue hung it.

He noticed movement at the door and turned his head to see JD standing there, nearly as pale as Vin. Seeing him with eyes as wide as saucers, it occurred to him just how young and inexperienced the boy really was, not that any amount of experience could prepare you for seeing a friend in this condition.

"Come on in JD," Chris encouraged softly.

The nurse looked up and smiled, signaling the young agent to take her place, opposite Chris.

Hesitantly, JD moved into the room, taking in all the tubes, machines, the blood and the large white dressing across his friend chest. JD swallowed hard and looked imploringly at Chris.

"They are keeping him medicated so he won’t dislodge the chest tube and the breathing tube," Chris explained.

Nodding his understanding, the young man returned his gaze to his fallen comrade, "Hey, Vin."

Glancing up at Chris, who smiled for him to continue, "Hey, you gotta get better soon. No one can play a joke on Buck like you."

Chris listened as JD rattled on, not hearing what he said but knowing it was the voice that would get through to Vin.

After several minutes, JD left and one by one the others came in, speaking in low tones to the young agent, offering words of encouragement and reassurance. Vainly Chris watched for any indication that they were being heard, but there was none.


Drifting…so peaceful here, kind of in between. Floating…does that make sense? A feeling of well being…no pain…no hurting…no sadness…just light.

What’s that buzzing? I think it’s important but I’m not sure I care. It jes feels so good here.


The excruciatingly long day passed into an interminable night, with Chris never leaving his best friend's side except the hour at the nursing change of shift, when everyone was required to leave the ICU for report. The rest of the team came and went, but one always stayed, just as much for Chris as for Vin. They made sure he ate and drank. They knew it was futile to try and get him to sleep, but encouraged him to at least lay his head down beside Vin and rest.

The next morning Chris waited impatiently for the all clear to resume his vigil. During the hour break, he showered in an area the hospital provided for families of critically ill patients, and changed into the fresh clothes Buck had brought. When he arrived back in the ICU, Dr. Woods, Sue and four others in short white coats were talking in low tones while studying Vin’s chart.

Chris slipped in the door and tried to hear what was being said. Sue noticed him and said something, in a low voice, to the doctor, who looked up and nodded at Chris. He continued checking the chart entries before moving over to greet the black-clad man.

Extending his hand, he said, "Good morning Mr. Larabee. Vin seems to be stabilizing. Yesterday, among other things, we were concerned that he was developing a condition not uncommon with hemorrhagic trauma, or in other words, where a lot of blood is lost, called DIC. This is a clotting disorder where the body clots in some areas but not in others. The danger from this is that he could bleed to death and we might not be able to stop it. That is the oversimplified version, but luckily, we seem to have averted that. His labs are better this morning. The drainage in the chest tube doesn’t show any signs of fresh bleeding. His temperature is a little elevated and his blood work tells us that there is some infection, but that isn’t totally unexpected and we are giving him some broad spectrum antibiotics. So for now, it appears he is doing as well as can be expected."

Chris listened intently to everything the doctor said, and then turned his attention to the forlorn figure in the bed. All the machines, the ventilator that was breathing for him, his pallor, the tubes, it all made him seem so vulnerable, so dependent, a condition that Vin hated. Swallowing, then clearing his throat, Chris asked in a harsh voice, barely above a whisper, "What about the ventilator?"

Dr. Woods followed his gaze, "A couple more days, maybe…we need to make sure that he’ll be able to breathe on his own without causing further damage."

Chris nodded. There was a long pause before he remembered the doctor was still there. "Thanks doctor."

"Sure." Then he left, followed by the entourage of med students that had moved outside the cubicle to give the two men some privacy.

The nurse had also stepped out, leaving the two friends alone, together, for a few minutes. Chris moved to stand beside the man who had come to mean so much to him in such a short time. Leaning close, he reached for the now slightly too warm hand then whispered in the ear he exposed by brushing the long hair back. "You hang in there, Pard. Me and the boys are here for ya."

The blond stood there several moments stroking Vin’s hair. "You know I’m not good at expressing my feelings…well," he grinned a little, "unless I’m pissed."

Gazing at the too young features, he continued, "but I just wanted you to know…" he paused and closed his eyes briefly, feeling them moisten. "Shit Vin, I guess you probably know how much you mean to me, even if I don’t put it into words." Gathering his thoughts, he continued, "That’s the thing about you and I, we never have needed words. You have always been able to read me like a book. You’re like a brother to me and I don’t want to lose you, okay?" He choked on the last words and bowed his head to collect himself.

"Hey there, sweetheart. How’s our boy today?"

Chris turned his head quickly to the wall, and brought his hand up in an attempt to scrub away the wetness that had gathered on his face.

Buck entered. "Morning Sunshine! Brought ya some breakfast." Going to the other side of the bed, he reached down and ruffled Vin’s hair. His voice softened as he greeted the young sharpshooter, "Hey Junior."

Chris raised his eyes and met those of his oldest friend. Reading the compassion there, Chris shook his head. "How much did you hear?"

Buck gestured toward Vin. "Ain’t important what I heard, what’s important is what he heard."

Chris looked sadly at the figure in the bed, "Do you think he did?"

"Yep." The big agent grinned. "With that silent communication-shit you two go going, I’m sure he did."

Chris gave him a little smile while shaking his head, but said ‘thank-you’ with his eyes.


There’s that buzzing again…damn…I know it’s s’possed to mean som’thin’, som’thin’ important…his muzzy brain tried to wrap around and hold the sound…and…the…feeling. Yeah, the feelin’…warmth…safety…<Chris>. I need t’ get back…to where…from where? Pain, growing bigger than the warmth…noooooo…he didn’t want the pain…in his chest…it hurt. He…couldn’t…breathe. He wanted to go back, where there was no pain. He couldn’t do it, not yet, He let himself slide back.


Chris’s head rose sharply, "Buck!"

Alarmed, Buck looked frantically at the monitors, then back to Chris. "What? What is it?"

"Did…?" Chris stopped, realizing from the look on Buck’s face that he hadn’t heard. He could have sworn he had heard Vin calling his name. Shaking his head to try and clear the confusion. He glanced down at his hand that was still clinging to the young agent’s, and realized that, though briefly, Vin had slightly squeezed his hand.

"What is it Chris?" Buck, once again, queried.

Trying to recover his composure, Chris answered, "Buck…it wasn’t much, but Vin squeezed my hand." Wonder filled his voice.

"You’re kidding?" The big agent slowly grinned. "Is that possible?"

"Entirely possible." The two men turned as Sue and another nurse came in.

"Vin is just heavily sedated, not comatose. He is unconscious or asleep mostly, but he probably wakes slightly every once in awhile, just enough to be aware that someone is with him." Her kind eyes gazed at the two concerned friends."And I’d say he knows that it’s someone that cares about him."

Sue could see that the men were a little uncomfortable that she had witnessed their display of emotion, so she hurriedly took control of the situation. "This is Jess," she introduced her companion. "Why don’t y’all go out t’ the waiting room and eat the breakfast Buck brought while Jess an’ I give Vin here his bath."

"Whooeee, now I’d surely like you two lovely ladies givin’ me a bed bath, but ol’ Junior here’s a bit shy, an’ he might not appreciate it as much as I would," Buck said, ginning and winking at the two nurses.

"Well, we’ll be very careful to preserve Mr. Tanner’s dignity," Jess assured him.

"OK. Well, Boss, let’s go dig inta this delicious repast I brought ya."

"Repast?" Chris’s eyebrow rose as he let Buck usher him to the waiting room.

The big man grinned, feeling good about the small positive sign that Vin was going to be OK. "Yeah, well, I suppose I been hangin’ ‘round Ez too much."

Chris couldn’t help but grin, too. The hand squeeze definitely was a hopeful sign, but Chris knew something Buck didn’t. Vin had spoken to him and suddenly he felt easier about the outcome. Maybe, Vin was going to be OK.


The next two days passed slowly for the rest of Team 7. By the third morning, they had settled into a routine. Chris pretty much stayed at the hospital; only leaving to take short sleep and shower breaks at Buck’s. One of the others would check in periodically during the day, and in the evening they would visit with Vin, telling him about the day’s activities and any cases they were working on. Buck would regale him with bawdy stories, half hoping he would open those big baby blues and say, ‘go t’ hell Bucklin’.

Chris paced nervously, waiting for the change-of-shift report to finish, so he could return to Vin’s side. The plan was to start weaning him off the vent today. He wasn’t too surprised when the others showed up. He knew they were just as anxious as he.

When the time finally came for him to go in, Buck went with him. Dr. Woods and a nurse Chris didn’t recognize were waiting for him.

After shaking Chris’s hand, the doctor started explaining the procedure to the men. They had removed the chest tubes the night before. Slowly, they would decrease the sedation and see how he reacted. They would also decrease the vent settings to allow him to trigger respirations on his own. When he started breathing on his own, they would extubate him.

Chris listened intently to the doctor. When he paused, he asked, "And if he doesn’t breathe on his own?"

"Well," the doctor hedged, "I see no reason why he wouldn’t, but let’s cross that bridge if and when we get to it."


Dr. Woods held up a staying hand. "I understand that you want to know all the possibilities, Mr. Larabee, but your friend is young, strong and in good health. The truth is, medicine isn’t an exact science. Honestly, I can’t tell you for certain that everything is going to be OK, but I can tell you that as of right now, I have no reason to think that we won’t be able to get him off the vent. So, let’s not borrow trouble and just believe that he will do well, OK?

Setting his lips into a grim line, he reluctantly nodded. No, it wasn’t OK, but what could he do about it? And the doctor seemed to be trying to be as honest with him as possible.

When the doctor left, the nurse introduced herself. "My name is Kathy. I’ll be taking care of Vin today."

Chris gave her a small smile and simply said, "Chris," and moved up beside Vin’s bed.

"Howdy ma’m, name’s Buck, we’re friends of Vin’s," Buck offered gallantly, attempting to make up for Chris’s distance.

Kathy smiled, "Hi, Buck. Yes, I’ve heard about you."

Drawing himself up to his full height, and placing his hand on his heart, he said, "Well, I certainly hope it was all good." He gave her his best Wilmington smile.

She laughed but didn’t comment as she proceeded to check the orders on the chart, adjusted the dosage rates on the infusion pumps and began her assessment.

Kathy had heard about these men, the whole staff had. She knew they were ATF agents, and friends. Word spread at how protective they were of their injured comrade. Now, she observed first hand how much they meant to each other. Even the joking by the overtly friendly agent, she knew, was to divert attention away from the aloofness of the blond, to protect him.

As most experienced nurses have, she had dealt with overly protective families before, but she had to admit, this ‘family’ was a little different, not to mention, none of them were hard on the eyes, including her patient. Tenderly she began her assessment of the young man, saying a silent prayer that all would go well and he would be returned to good health.

Chris watched as Kathy went through her routine, but when she left and Buck had gone to let the others know what was going on, he stood, leaned over the railing, latched onto a limp hand and whispered in Vin’s ear. "OK, Cowboy, they are going to start letting you wake up. The doctors and nurses have done all they can and now it’s up to you. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to hurt like hell. But, we are here. We’ve got your back."


There is that buzzing agin, no, wait, words. Someone is talkin’…cain’t quite figur’ ‘em out…the voice…important…<Chris>. With that realization, came a sense of safety, but also came the pain. He was vaguely aware that air was being forced into him and every time his lungs expanded, fire lanced through his chest. Briefly, he tried to stop it, tried to make the machine stop, but in the end, it was too much effort and he let the machine continue.

He couldn’t quite get his mind around the concept that the machine was ‘breathing’ for him; all he knew was that it hurt. He tried to move away from it but couldn’t make his body obey. He knew he was going to have to face that pain, knew his friends would be there to catch him when he faltered, but for now, it was too much. Finally, exhausted, he let sleep reclaim him.


Nathan had just walked into the room, when the vent hesitated in its rhythmic cadence. Chris, keenly attuned to the various sounds in the room, looked up sharply.

Nathan placed a reassuring hand on Chris’s shoulder and grinned. "It’s OK. He’s starting to wake up and he’s fighting the vent. That’s good. It means he’s not dependent on it."

Chris nodded his understanding when he felt a tightening on his hand. He smiled; Vin was waking up.


Throughout the day, the medicine used to keep Vin sedated was decreased and with increasing frequency, the alarms on the vent were triggered, as he attempted to breathe for himself. So gradually, the vent settings were adjusted, so that by the end of the day he was breathing mostly on his own. But as he was allowed to wake, it also became apparent how much pain he was in, as he periodically moaned and moved about restlessly.

It was hard on the men waiting to see their friend hurting, but they realized that letting him wake up was important.

Early in the evening, Dr. Woods and a nurse came into the room where Chris and Ezra were keeping vigil.

"I think we can try extubating Vin now. He is mostly breathing on his own with the vent helping him just very occasionally." The doctor leaned close to Vin, calling his name. "Vin…Vin, can you hear me?"

Vin moaned and stirred.

"Vin, come on…open your eyes."

Slowly the eyes blinked open. "Vin?" Dr. Woods repeated and the young man turned, myopically, toward the voice.

"Vin, we are going to take that tube out of your mouth. Do you understand?"

An unfocused blink was the only response.

"OK. Take a deep breath." And with that, he pulled the tube out with one smooth motion that left the agent coughing and gagging.

With the pain intensified from the coughing, Vin tried to cover his chest with his hand and turn to his side, to curl into himself. The only thing stopping him was Chris applying gentle pressure on his shoulders. "Easy Vin, easy there Pard."

Vin’s thrashing calmed somewhat, as he responded to his best friend’s voice, and he turned tear filled eyes to Chris.

"…hriss," came a hoarse whisper.

Chris nodded his thanks to Ezra when he was handed a glass of ice water with a straw. "Here ya go Vin, take a sip of water."

The senior agent placed the tip of the straw between the parched lips. Vin seemed to understand as he took a small drink. His gaze tried to focus on the man helping him.

He only managed to swallow a little of the refreshing liquid, before closing his eyes in pain and exhaustion. The nurse returned with a syringe of medication. She explained that she was going to give him a little to ease his discomfort, but that it wouldn’t be enough to completely sedate him like before. As she left, she placed a nasal cannula on Vin, set to deliver a small amount of oxygen.

Vin opened his eyes briefly before the medicine lulled him back to sleep. In that few seconds, Chris saw, along with the pain, recognition. Vin was back and some of the weight around Chris’s heart lifted.


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