Disclaimer: I do not own or profit from the m7 guys, but I appreciate the freedom to borrow them for a bit.

Comments: This is the flip side to my previous fic, "Point of View" - thanks to Laramee for the suggestion! It would probably make more sense if you read that fic first, but of course, that’s assuming it makes sense at all. It was written in honor of the November birthday girls on the B&B list who requested an injured Vin for their ‘gift’. It was actually my assignment to hurt Vin – and I threw in emotional turmoil and some Chris-hurting for extra credit (don’t you just hate over-achievers?).

Warnings: Cursing, violence.

"Burgers okay with you, Vin?" I ask him, even though I know what his answer will be. I can see that he’s trying not to sigh, but it’s there anyway . . . silently screaming at me. He doesn’t care and he wishes I wouldn’t go through the motions of asking. Just do it, he’s saying to me, just fix whatever the hell you want because I don’t care.


It’s me who sighs out loud. I don’t know how much longer we can go on like this. We don’t play games, Vin and I. We never have. But ever since the shooting, we’re like cats on a hot tin roof . . . tip toeing around each other as if the slightest poorly put phrase could somehow tear apart this tenuous grip we have on our friendship.

It’s all about guilt.

I can’t let go of it, and the more I drown in it, the worse Vin feels. And of course, the worse he feels, the guiltier I feel.

I’m convinced it was me who shot him. Travis tried to pull some bullshit over my eyes that they were unable to determine whose bullet nearly killed Vin in the shootout at Inez’ place, but I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now.

I know it was me. And I can’t look at the pain in his eyes without seeing and knowing that I put it there.

He’s miserable at this very moment, in fact. He tries real hard to hide it, but he’s terrible at it. I brought him back to the ranch when he was discharged from the hospital a few days ago, and he’s been putting on a piss-poor act ever since.

"You take your meds?" I ask him, and this time he does sigh out loud.


I nod as I pull the frozen patties out of the freezer. He’ll eat maybe two bites and that will be it. I’m not sure why I bother, considering my appetite is all but gone.

"You take yours?" he asks, and I can see the guilt in his eyes, too.

"Yeah," I say.

That’s all I say, even though I want to remind him that none of this is his fault. He was the one who wanted to go ahead to the bar that night, even though we’d received the threat on his life earlier that evening. It was storming like hell outside, and he was sure he’d be safe with the six of us. Of course, he couldn’t know that he’d be taken down by one of his friends . . . by one of his partners. It was dark and it all happened so fast, but it doesn’t change what happened. We shot Vin in the back and he damn near died.

His guilt comes from the fact that I was hurt, too. I took a direct hit to my shoulder – I’m still going to therapy every other day for it. I don’t blame him any more than he blames me, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re drowning here. I’m determined he won’t see my discomfort, and he’s doing his best to hide the same from me.

He’s sitting at the table in my kitchen, his elbows resting on the table as he tries to tilt his back to a more comfortable position. It’s impossible. The bullet ripped through muscle and rib and lung before lodging in his chest, and no matter what he says or how he tries to hide it, there is no good way for him to sit or lay or move or breathe.

His face is still pale and drawn, and I can count every rib. I have to bite my tongue every time I help him get dressed – which is another story. Me with one arm and him hardly able to raise either arm . . . well, it’s not easy and it’s not pretty. I know he hates it, but there’s no way he can manage on his own yet. He’s just now able to walk from the living room to the kitchen without having to stop and rest two times.

I try to sneak a glance at him out of the corner of my eye to see if I can gauge how bad it is right now . . . how much I should push him to lie back down until dinner is ready. His eyes are closed and I see him very slowly lower his head to rest in his hands; his elbows still propped dangerously close to the table’s edge. My heart irrationally skips a beat as I fear that his arm will slip and he’ll lose his balance, and I can actually picture him grimacing as he struggles to pull himself upright again.

"Go lay down, Vin," I say, much more harshly than I intended – thanks to my overactive imagination.

He looks up at me, puzzled but resigned. He wants to sigh again, but he pulls it back just in time. Without a sound, he tries to stand up – his hands gripping the table; his knuckles white. He’s too damn proud to ask for help.

I get that. I would be the same. I am the same. He tried to help me open a jar this morning and I damn near bit his head off. We’re some pair, aren’t we?

His face goes a shade whiter and his breathing changes and I can’t stand it. I move closer and grip his arm and I say real soft, "I’ve got you, Pard."

"Thanks," he says, only it’s more like a groan and it cuts deep. I did this to him.

Buck says we have to put it behind us. Josiah and Ezra continue to insist it was one of them that shot Vin. JD still doesn’t believe it was any of us. Nathan’s just worried that Vin’s not bouncing back quite as fast as he’d expected.

Vin doesn’t want to blame any of us; he’s still saying it was his fault and can’t we just let it be? He wants it to be over . . . but we’re miles away from that happening.

There’s all this guilt suffocating us. Vin’s far from well. And we still don’t know where the guy is who was behind it. One of the punks plea-bargained and gave us a name, but so far he’s still at large and still a threat. In fact, there are two armed men stationed at the edge of my property right now. Vin doesn’t know that. We decided he didn’t need any more to deal with right now.

Of course, the boys wanted to stand guard themselves, but Travis insisted on having outside help. He said there was enough emotion clouding the issue as it was – if anything else happened to the team, there’d be no moving on.

As if we were actually moving in the direction of . . . moving on.

We stumble unsteadily towards the couch, Vin and I. My bad arm is in a sling and my good one is wrapped around his waist, and not for the first time, I wonder how I’ll catch him if he gets the notion to pass out on me. The boys weren’t too happy about that, either – me and Vin being here alone. I could see that Vin couldn’t take much more smothering, though, so I sent them home last night. They’ll be back later – no way are we getting rid of them for long – but at least we’ll do our game-playing privately for a few hours.

It’s not right. Vin and I just hit it off from the start, and it was raw and honest and real. Now, hell, I don’t know what’s real, but I sure know what isn’t honest.

His eyes are closed before he’s even horizontal, and as I reach down to pull the afghan over his legs, he moans just a little and he whispers, "I’m alright . . . don’t worry."

It’s a game. See, now I say, "I know. I’m not worried. Just rest."

And then I delude myself into believing that he actually is resting and he actually is okay and that everything will be fine. Just fine.

It was just an accident, after all. How many times have I heard that? I go sit in the chair by the fireplace and even though there are only the burnt remnants of another fire from another time, I stare vacantly at the brick hearth.

And I relive it all again.

We were at the office, finishing up the end of the day paperwork. Vin could have went on ahead, but he waited for me. It was storming, and I didn’t care for the thought of him driving in that weather in that run-down jeep of his anyway. We were about to leave when the phone rang.

I could tell by his face that it wasn’t good, but he shrugged it off. He told me it was a tip that one of his old enemies was after him . . . that the guy had hired a few punks to nab him. We stuck around for a few hours and worked on a couple of leads, but it had been a long week and we were both looking forward to relaxing with a beer and our friends. The weather was so bad, that I agreed with Vin when he said no one would try anything that night. Or maybe I just wanted it to be that way. I made Vin promise he’d stay with me for the night, and he teased me about being more of a worry wart than Nettie.

So we went to the bar and then these three guys came in and we both knew. They grabbed a hold of Inez - and Vin . . . shit, why the hell didn’t he listen to me? I told him we could take them. I told him to just lay low, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. He may have the patience of the proverbial saint when he’s on a stakeout, but put a friend in jeopardy and he can’t wait to throw himself in the way. Damn it, Vin.

The lights were out and the storm was raging, and there was Vin in the middle of the room, scooting his gun across the floor and volunteering to go with them like they were on their way to a church picnic. I reached for him then. I thought I was being subtle, but one of the guys saw me and he started shooting.

Do you have any idea how many times I’ve replayed that moment in my mind? How many different ways I’ve relived it and rehashed it until reality blurs with illusion and I’m left, once again, wondering what really happened?

The punk took the first shot and it landed in my shoulder. But I took the second and probably the third. And I can’t for the life of me remember where Vin was. I can’t for the very goddamn life of me remember if he was still standing. How could I have pulled the trigger without any conscious thought of where he was?

When Nathan said Vin had been hit . . . it was like . . . like . . . there’s no way to describe it. There’s this point, you know, this point where the imaginary line begins that you can’t cross because you know that you can’t deal with what lies on the other side. I guess you’d call it the breaking point. After I lost my family, everything that happened in my life was relative to that experience; the line clearly drawn. Flat tire? No one’s dead, I can deal with it. Bad day at work? I can deal with it. The furnace breaks and the roof leaks and the toilet’s clogged? I can deal with it.

Shoot my best friend in the back? Okay, so maybe death isn’t the only thing I can’t deal with.

I could barely make Vin out; the shadow of his body was oddly distorted as he laid flat out on the floor for what felt like hours. I could feel the blood oozing down my arm, and I couldn’t seem to stop my head from spinning, but all I could think about was getting to Vin. I don’t know what I thought would happen once I’d grabbed a hold of him, I just knew that those punks were not leaving that room with him. I just knew that I couldn’t let him lie on that floor and bleed to death while I sat twenty feet away. Death is irreversible and permanent and way, way past the breaking point and over that line.

No matter how long it felt, they tell me it all came to an end within minutes. I remember shooting the kid who had the stupid idea that he could get away with finishing Vin off. I don’t take a life lightly, but he asked for it. Maybe it makes me less of a man, but I didn’t even think twice about it that night.

I remember Nathan saying Vin had been hit in the back. It was like I’d been shot all over again. My last thought before I hit the floor of the bar was that I’d killed my best friend.

My first thought after I woke up in the hospital was exactly the same. Now, my first and last thoughts every morning and every night are just a variation of the same. I shot Vin. I nearly killed him. The way he looks, he could die yet . . . over the line, past the point to the place where I can’t deal.

He’s shifting a bit on the couch, still trying and failing to find that elusive position where he doesn’t hurt. He grimaces, though he makes no sound. I find myself shifting, too, as if I could find that place for him, and I jar my shoulder. I groan before I can stop myself, and I can’t help thinking that if it wasn’t all so stupidly, tragically horrible – it would be funny.

I should get up and make the hamburgers. He just might be hungry this time. Or I might be. But my eyes are heavy – the result of the pills I took earlier, I’m sure. Normally, I’d skip ‘em, but taking care of Vin is forcing me to take care of myself for a change. At least Nathan would be happy to hear that. He was the number one opponent to Vin and me being out here alone today, but Josiah got through to him.

They’ve been here in shifts ever since I brought Vin home three days ago. Vin sleeps a lot, but not enough. He was getting more and more depressed and withdrawn; as if everyone’s good intentions were more like expectations that he couldn’t quite live up to. I could see that he was trying to act well and happy and good, just so they wouldn’t worry, but he couldn’t pull it off and he knew it.

It’s that guilt thing, again. Josiah and Ezra and Buck were practically tripping over themselves to wait on Vin hand and foot. The harder they tried to take care of him, the harder he tried not to need them to take care of him.

Last night, he was dozing fitfully on the couch, so Josiah and I woke him up and helped him to the bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed and wrapped his arms around his chest and there was pure misery in his eyes, though he didn’t look directly at me or Josiah.

He just said in that maddeningly slow drawl, "Let . . . me . . . be."

Josiah and I looked at each other and we both knew it was time to give Vin some breathing room. He went out and talked to Nathan, and they argued some, but it was agreed that none of the guys would come out today.

I’m thinking I should call and tell them not to come tonight, either. It’s not been a great day for either of us. We’re both hurting and both tired – and both tired of hurting. Vin goes back to the doctor tomorrow, while I go to my therapy appointment. Maybe it’d be best if the guys left us alone until then.

I reach for the phone on the nearby end table – grateful that it’s on my right side and grateful once again that the punk had the courtesy to hit my left shoulder.

The phone rings three times before Buck picks up. "Hey," he says, knowing it’s me by the caller ID on the office phone.

"Hey," I say softly, with a glance in Vin’s direction. He doesn’t move, though, so I go on, "Why don’t you just stay home tonight, Buck? We’re doing okay."

He hesitates. "I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Chris."

"Buck . . . I . . ." and I realize that I don’t know what I want to say exactly.


"I just think it would be better."


"Chris . . . you and Vin are still not . . . good."

"I’m fine." I am fine. As long as I don’t think real hard or look at Vin too hard, I’m perfectly fine.

"Okay, then how about this? That guy’s still out there."

"Travis has taken care of that."

With a sigh, he gives in. "Alright. I’ll tell the others. But you call us if you need anything at all, y’ hear? Anything, Chris. And if you hear anything unusual . . . or see anything . . . or even think anything. You got that? Anything at all. We came too close t’ losin’ you both and we’re not gonna let it happen again."

Yeah. I get that. No one wants to cross the line. "I promise, Buck. We just need a little time."

A lot of time. A hell of a lot of time. More time than I can probably imagine.

I hang up the phone then and I look over at Vin once more and I see that he’s awake. He nods slightly. His eyes meet mine and for the first time since this all happened, it’s real and honest. He needs to get past this as badly as I do.

I’m just not sure I can do it.


I don’t know how t’ get through to him. How many ways can I say, "It ain’t your fault?"

How many times do I have t’ ask ‘em all t’ just let it go? They’re all actin’ like they care so much, but they won’t give me what I want the most. They won’t let it go.

I keep thinkin’ that maybe when I’m on my feet again, it’ll go away. But Chris . . . his eyes are scarin’ me. I’m beginning t’ think he’ll never let it go. And it’s damn sure that we can’t go on this way.

What would I do without him? From the first time we met, it was like we knew each other from the inside out. I always knew where we stood; always knew that no matter what went down, he’d be at my back. I never had that before; never thought I needed it. But now, I’m not sure I could go back t’ livin’ without it.

Sure, he’s still here, at my back, but there’s all this damn guilt chokin’ him and it’s squeezin’ the life out of us both . . . forcin’ us t’ play games with each other.

I don’t know how t’ fight it. Can’t put a bullet in it or stuff it away. I’m real good at both those things – but that won’t work right now. I can’t fix it for Chris, so I can’t fix it for me, either.

Can’t he see that I just need him t’ be him? I just need us t’ be us.

I hear him tell Buck t’ stay home, and I feel a first ray of hope. He must have read my mind . . . like old times.

The guys mean well, I know that. But I can’t keep up the act, and the last thing I need is more people feeling more guilt while they hover over me.

Let me be. Let it be. Please. Just let it go.

I look him in the eye and I hope that he gets it. We need t’ get through this, Cowboy.

He gets it, but he’s still not sure.

I try t’ sit up and it hurts like hell. Chris jumps up from the chair he’s been sittin’ in and he leans over t’ give me a hand. I hate bein’ helpless. As if all the other shit we got goin’ on ain’t enough.

"Where you headin’?" he asks me.

I don’t have a clue, really. I just couldn’t lay like that another second. Sittin’ up ain’t feelin’ so hot, either, though – and I know walkin’ ain’t the answer. Shit.

I shrug, and even that hurts. I guess I have t’ be honest and say that I’m startin’ t’ wonder if I’ll ever feel good again. I’ve been shot before; been knifed and beat up and banged up more times than I can count – but I can’t quite recall ever feelin’ this bad. But maybe you forget, y’ know? Like when a woman has a baby – they say she forgets all about the labor once she gets a look at her kid’s face. Somethin’ like that. Anyway, I reckon I just forgot how bad I felt those other times.

I try t’ take a deep breath and it feels like a knife in my lung, so it comes out more like a gasp. I don’t want t’ see Chris’s face at that, so I keep my head down – my eyes on my socks.

Can’t remember the last time I had a pair of shoes on. I guess it would have been that night. It all comes back to me at the strangest times. Like now, while I’m starin’ at my socks and tryin’ not to think about how much I hurt and how much my hurt hurts Chris. Must be them pain pills that gets me all muddled up like this.

That night, there was a humdinger of a storm. Me and Josiah and JD like t’ be right out in the middle of it all – but Nathan’s gets a mite miffed when we act "like a bunch of foolhardy kids."

I got the call that one of my old enemies was after me, but I didn’t put much store in it. I have a past that comes back t’ haunt me now and then. I’ve always managed t’ take care of myself before, and now that I have the boys at my back – well, I didn’t figure there was much t’ worry on.

I didn’t figure on havin’ t’ worry about Inez, though. When that kid grabbed her, I thought I might get sick right there. I couldn’t let nothin’ happen t’ her. Don’t think I could live with that.

I reckon it wasn’t so smart of me t’ go walkin’ out into the middle of the room like I did, but I’d do it that way again. I’ve thought it over, and knowin’ everythin’ I know now, I’d do it again. I just couldn’t take the chance that they’d hurt Inez. She really is one hell of a woman – Buck’s right about that. Not that I’m competin’ with Buck for her affections, as Ezra would say. I’d never hurt him that way. Maybe if he wasn’t so hot for her, I’d feel different, though. I mean, like I said, she’s one hell of a woman.

Which is mostly why I did what I did that night. But I guess it’s also because I didn’t want anyone else hurt, either. I feel bad about Chris and JD. The Kid is actin’ like nothin’ ever happened, but Chris still has a ways t’ go. I was tryin’ to avoid that.

I don’t remember much at all after slidin’ my gun across the floor. I sort of remember lyin’ there on the floor, with this burnin’ pain runnin’ through my back t’ my chest. I figured it must have come from one of the boys behind me, and my last thought was that I hoped they didn’t make a big deal out of it. Anything can happen in a gunfight – especially on a night like that where the shadows from the candles and the lightening were makin’ everything look wrong.

Of course, it’s been nothin’ but a big deal ever since. Ain’t a one of them listenin’ t’ me.

"Vin? You gonna move? Or is there something entertaining about your socks?"

I look up at him and roll my eyes, and I know this is where I should mutter somethin’ sarcastic and clever . . . somethin’ that will make him believe I’m alright. But nothin’ comes t’ mind and I’m pretty sure it’s all the damn pills I’m takin’.

"Yeah." Ezra’s right; I really need t’ work on my vocabulary.

Maybe the bathroom would be a good place t’ head for. I’m thinkin’ it’s been awhile and besides that, it’s a pretty good place t’ hide. Chris won’t see that I’m hurtin’ so bad that I think I’m gonna throw up.

I tilt my head that direction and for the second time today, he reads my mind. He pulls his good arm around my waist and helps me stand up and if that isn’t the stupidest thing. My legs are perfectly fine but I can’t even manage t’ get up on my own.

It takes a long time t’ get where we need t’ go, but we make it without either of us groanin’ or sighin’ or fallin’ on our faces. That’s about all we can ask for these days. As soon as he lets loose of me, I close the door and I sit on the toilet seat with the lid down because I don’t really need t’ go anyway; I just needed t’ hide a minute. I lower my face to the counter and I try t’ catch my breath and keep from gettin’ sick.

"Vin? You okay in there?" he asks from outside the door.

Shit, Chris. I want t’ tell him to get the hell away from the door and leave me be, but I don’t. I say, "Yeah," instead.

But I’m not okay. Damn stupid idea t’ walk all the way here for no good reason because now I know for certain that I’m gonna be sick. I slide t’ the floor and lift the lid and I’m wishin’ I could die. Don’t ever remember feelin’ this bad. I can’t even hold my head up and I have this terrible thought that I might drown right here while I’m pukin’ my guts up in a toilet.

And I really need Chris so I’m prayin’ he didn’t listen t’ me when I told him t’ get the hell away – if I said it out loud. Did I? Damn pills.

I’m chokin’ and gaggin’ and I can’t feel nothin’ but the most god-awful pain in my back and chest and . . . I . . . need . . . Chris. And all of the sudden he’s there, behind me. He kneels down beside me and he rubs my back and pulls my head out of the toilet – and that’s a hell of a thing for a man t’ have t’ do. I hate this. I can feel hot tears stingin’ my cheeks, and I’m wishin’ again that I was dead . . . but then Chris would never get over it. He’d never let it be.

Guess I’ll just have t’ go on then. Guess I’ll just have t’ save dyin’ for another time.

I finally stop heavin’, but I can’t hold back the groanin’ this time. In fact, I can’t stop groanin’ - over and over again, and it feels so good t’ just get it out. Oh God, Chris. I feel myself collapse against him and I know the only thing keepin’ me alive at this moment is the man at my back.

"Shh," he whispers. "It’s alright. We’re gonna get through this, Vin. I promise."

Even though I can’t see his face, I can feel the difference in him. Thank God! I want t’ shout it; I’m so relieved. He’s bein’ him and we’re bein’ us and I need it so bad . . . need him so bad.

But all I say is, "Yeah."


It all changed when I charged through that door and saw Vin draped over the toilet, his face practically floating in the water. I knew right then that I had to put my feelings aside; that he needed me and all the other shit was just gonna have to go away.

I knew that it was time to give him what he wanted most: to let it go.

I still wasn’t sure that I could do that – but I was damn sure I couldn’t live without him and that was a real possibility if I didn’t get my act together.

Of course, the most immediate action to be taken was to get him out of the toilet.

He’s asleep now. It took us a long time, or what seemed like a long time – time seems to have gotten a bit distorted here of late - to get him to the bedroom. It scared me, the way he was listing to one side and moaning like I’d never heard him before. He’s been hurt more times than I can count, but I don’t recall ever seeing him like this. I figure he must have known, too, that we’d turned the corner since he was finally giving in to it . . . finally letting me see how bad he felt.

I helped him lay down and pulled up the covers. He met my eyes and I couldn’t decide which was more evident – the pain or the gratitude. I almost had to look away. An hour ago, I would have.

But not anymore. He needs me. He needs me to be strong and honest and real. He needs who we are and what we have to be just like it was before. I can’t imagine I’ll forgive myself, but it’s time I quit thinking about me and concentrate on my friend.

I wasn’t sure whether to give him a pain pill or not; neither one of us wanted a repeat of what had happened in the bathroom. So I picked up the phone and called Nathan, which may have been a mistake. I could see him putting on his coat and reaching for his keys the minute I opened my mouth.

"You don’t need to come, Nathan. I was just wondering – could it be the pills making him sick?" I asked him.

"Could be, Chris, but then it could be something else entirely. You know what his body’s been through. I’ll be there as quick as I can." He was zipping up before I could get out my next sentence.

"No, Nathan. That’s not necessary." I turned an uneasy glance Vin’s way then to be sure I was doing the right thing. He nodded at me. We still needed time.

Silence. Then finally, "Chris, this isn’t a good idea. One of us needs to be there."

"Yeah, I know, but . . . just for tonight, let us handle it."

He sighed and I heard the same hesitation in his voice that I’d heard in Buck’s earlier. "Give him just one of the pills with a little food. From what you said, it’s probably the pain that made him sick, not the medication. And call me, Chris. Call me if anything at all changes. You hear me? Anything at all."

So I gave him the pill with some of that imitation chocolate pudding crap you get in those little plastic containers. It doesn’t taste like the chocolate pudding I knew and loved, but Vin likes it.

That was an hour ago, so it must have worked because nothing’s come back up and he’s sleeping alright. I keep checking on him like he’s a two-year old. He’d hate that . . . or maybe not. Maybe he needs that right now as much as I seem to.

The sun’s starting to go down, so I turn on the closet light and pull the door mostly closed – just enough so I can see without tripping over anything. He groans a little and licks his lips and I can see that he needs a drink, so I head for the kitchen.

He loves root beer. Nathan would probably have my head but I really don’t think the sugar and caffeine are a concern at this moment. I pull out the can and pop it open and stick in the straw as I head back to the bedroom.

Vin never had much root beer as a kid. He never had much of anything as kid. I try not to think about his dismal, sorry excuse for a childhood because it just makes me mad, and I’m sure that doesn’t do my blood pressure or my ulcer any good. But the fact is, the littlest thing can make Vin’s face light up. Like a good swig of root beer.

I sit down on the edge of the bed, and he turns his head a little, but doesn’t open his eyes. "Gotta drink for you, Pard," I say as I poke the straw in his mouth. Even though it’s fairly dark, I can see the chocolate pudding stuck in the cracks of his dry lips, and for some reason, it makes me smile.

Thank goodness Buck and JD did the grocery shopping. Nathan would have bought healthy stuff and Ezra would have bought gourmet stuff and heaven only knows what Josiah would have come up with. At least Buck and JD understand that even a recovering Vin needs what he calls "the good stuff."

He takes a swallow, still without opening his eyes, and I see just the slightest hint of a smile before he greedily sucks more. And in a crazy, stupid kind of way, it makes me feel a little lighter . . . as if this one moment of simple pleasure, this one moment of knowing that I’ve made it a little easier for him . . . is enough to make it all bearable.

And as I head back to the kitchen, I catch myself grinning again when I picture talking with Nathan tomorrow. Somehow, I just have to work into the conversation that I fed Vin pudding and root beer for dinner. I know I might be a little twisted to gain some kind of perverse pleasure from the expression that he’s sure to give me, but at times like this – I have to take it where I can find it.

As many times as I have experienced it, it still takes me by surprise when everything abruptly changes. I’ve been in the middle of dozens of busts where things just suddenly go awry. Hell, my whole life is an example of things suddenly going awry. But it doesn’t stop me from being surprised when it happens again.

I’m just starting to feel hopeful; just starting to believe that we can set it all right again, when I feel my hair stand on end. It’s not just an expression, you know – Buck will tell you that my hair literally stands on end when trouble is near.

I’m at the entrance to the kitchen and I head straight for the phone. I don’t hear anything or see anything . . . but I feel something, and Buck’s words are ringing in my ears . . . "anything at all, you call."

I know there are men standing guard, but when it comes right down to it – they’re not my men and even if they were, shit happens and things just go awry. The breaking point is always looming and I feel a sudden surge of fear that something is gonna happen to push me over that line.

I’m two feet from the phone, my good arm outstretched to reach for it – when I hear someone behind me. I start to turn, but I already know it’s too late. The pain is immediate and intense, and as I fall to the floor, all I can do is whisper his name, "Vin."


It’s been one god-awful, shitty day after another, but I kinda have t’ smile when I think about telling Nate what Chris fed me tonight. Probably ain’t right t’ take pleasure from rilin’ up a friend, but a man’s gotta take what he can get at times like this.

I know Chris has been checkin’ on me like clockwork. I can’t seem t’ sleep for more than ten minutes at a time, but I’m too tired to do anythin’ more than just lay here with my eyes closed. When he put that straw in my mouth and told me t’ drink – I gotta tell y’, I was about t’ spit it right back at him. After all the shit I’ve put up with in my life – I was beginning t’ think it would be all this fussin’ that would finally do me in . . . drive me right on over the edge into bein’ plumb crazy.

But damn, that root beer tasted so good and it took me all of two seconds t’ remember that that fussin’ was exactly what I needed. I knew that Chris and me were gonna be just fine the second it hit my lips. He knows me better than anyone ever has.

I can’t lose him.

I think about it all the time, y’ know. I never let anyone get too close in my life. It’s safer that way. We all have those things . . . those things that we know we can’t take; things that will break us clean in two. I’m not good at losin’ people. I still can’t figure how I let myself get so close t’ the guys because now, well, losin’ any of ‘em would be unbearable. And Chris . . . I can’t lose him. For awhile there, it felt like I was losin’ him with him standin’ right there in front of me, though.

I hear him head off for the kitchen, and I’m thinkin’ maybe I should at least try t’ get up. I don’t know why, but somethin’ tells me it’d be a good idea. Of course, that’s before I actually try t’ move.

The pain pills help – make me loonier than all get out – but they do help. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able t’ move at all without ‘em. I take a deep breath – a risky action at this point – and when I find that I can actually manage it without my stomach goin’ all queasy; I go ahead and push myself up.

I wonder if I’m doin’ somethin’ stupid again. Like that walk to the bathroom earlier. Maybe I should lie back down and close my eyes. Yeah. That’s exactly what I should do, and I’m almost there when I hear a sound.

A sound that doesn’t belong.

I don’t know why it always surprises me when things go wrong. Hell, my whole life has gone wrong in one way or another. Meetin’ up with Chris and the boys was the best thing that ever happened t’ me, but it still ain’t helped my luck all that much. I guess the fact that I’m lyin’ here tryin’ my damnedest to get out of this bed proves that.

What the hell’s goin’ on? My heart’s about thuddin’ out of my chest. Something’s wrong – really, really wrong. Oh God, Chris.

I’m movin’ faster than I have since I got shot and I don’t feel a thing, but my head’s spinnin’. I lean against the wall and I try t’ get a grip . . . ain’t gonna do either of us any good if I go chargin’ out there and fall flat on my face.

It’s quiet now. Maybe it was my imagination . . . maybe Chris just dropped something. He has been exceptionally clumsy with that bum arm of his . . . should’ve seen him try t’ open a jar this mornin’.

Yeah, that’s it. Chris just dropped something. I’ll just take a minute and catch my breath and go on out and check.

He’s okay. He has t’ be okay . . . because I can’t deal with him not being okay. I’d never let on to that . . . never tell a soul I felt that way. It’s embarrassing enough how flustered and damn near panicked I act whenever he gets a scratch.

My heart is poundin’ so hard, it’s hard to hear, but I keep my forehead propped against the wall just next t’ the door of the bedroom and I strain t’ hear anything, anything at all. Come on, Chris. Just say somethin’. Slam a door or turn on the tv or just . . . say . . . something.

But I don’t hear a sound, so I move just outside the door into the hall and it seems like I’ve gone ten miles rather than ten feet. Once again, I lean against the wall and I try t’ catch my breath . . . and then I know it’s too late.

He rounds the corner and pushes me up against the wall and oh God, he’s got a wooden club in his hands and he’s pushin’ it in t’ my ribs. They cut me open right there, in that spot, even though the bullet went in from the back. Nathan said it was less dangerous gettin’ it out that way and frankly, I didn’t care one way or the other because I hurt clear through anyhow.

I try not to cry out, but I can’t stop it as he grinds the club harder against me. My head is up against the wall and my eyes are squeezed tight because I can’t . . . breathe. I don’t even know who it is or what the hell he wants and I can’t stop whimpering like a damn dog.

Please let me go . . . please . . . Chris.

Where’s Chris? He has t’ be down. And that’s enough for me t’ block out the pain and open my eyes and try t’ push the guy off me.

"Nice t’ see you again, Tanner," the voice growls in my ear. I know that voice. I thought they’d got him. Didn’t Chris tell me that?

No. No, he said they knew it was him . . . said they were close. Well, here he is, guys, and now would be a real good time for them two men Travis put out front t’ show up. Yeah, I know they’re there. I’m sick and hurt and messed up in the head, but I ain’t deaf.

He backs off a bit, but keeps the club pressed up against my chest as he whispers again, "So, you glad t’ see me?"

I wasn’t even glad t’ see him when we worked together. It was years ago, back when I was bounty huntin’. He and I handled a few cases together, but he was trigger happy and when I ended up testifyin’ against him, he ended up doin’ prison time himself. He vowed he’d get back at me, but I always thought he was too damn lazy t’ go through with it.

He’s here now, though, and I’m in a heap of trouble. I should kick him in the balls and run, but that thought is so ridiculous, it’s laughable. I can’t even focus my eyes and he knows it.

"You always were stupid, Griffin," I growl, and even I know it sounds weak and pitiful.

He laughs and he says, "Looks kinda like you’re the one in a bit of a predicament here, Tanner. And you look a little under the weather, too. What happened? One of your friends finally get sick of you and put a bullet in your back?"

He’s laughin’ hard now, and I wish I could shut him the hell up but I’m too busy tryin’ t’ breathe.

Where the hell is Chris?

"There’s men out front . . . and men . . . on their way," I gasp, in a pathetic attempt to intimidate him. But he just laughs harder.

"Trust me, Vin. The men out front are no longer a problem and by the time your friends find you, it will be too late."

He grabs hold of my arm and yanks me through the hall and into the livin’ room. I can hardly keep on my feet, and I can’t tell up from down but it doesn’t appear t’ concern him much. I land on the floor after he finally lets go, and I cry out again, and I hate it. I hate givin’ him that satisfaction.

I curl up on my side and try to clear my head because . . . where’s Chris? I have t’ find Chris.

From where I’m layin’, I can see the entrance t’ the kitchen. I think I see something or someone on the floor and I raise my head up enough t’ get a better look. I groan when I see him. He’s laid out flat on his stomach . . . not movin’ . . . with blood under his head.

But he’s okay. He has t’ be okay.

I call out t’ him, "Chris!" But my voice is weak and breathless so I know he couldn’t have heard me even if he was perfectly fine – which it’s clear he’s not. He’ll be okay, though. We’ll get through this, that’s what he promised and he’s never broken his word to me yet.

I don’t remember making the conscious decision t’ crawl towards him, but I must have because suddenly, he’s feet in front of me, rather than yards. Griffin is just sittin’ there laughin’ like the lunatic he is. The man always did walk just this side of crazy.

"This is just damn entertaining, Vin, old friend!" he says. "I never figured on it being this easy or this much fun."

A few more feet and I’ll be there. Please Chris, I need y’ right now . . . be okay.

"Real touching, too . . . especially considering he’s the one who put the bullet in your back."

He stops then and waits for me to react. He thinks he’ll shake me up, but it doesn’t work. There’s no way he’d know whose bullet it was.

"You think I’m messin’ with you, don’t you, Tanner? Well, maybe I know more than you think I do. Maybe I know more than you and your six partners know."

He pauses but I don’t; I’m just inches away now.

"It was Larabee who shot you. I did you a favor taking him out like I did."

I reach for Chris, and it’s like my arm won’t move for the longest time. Finally, I grip his shoulder and I try to turn him over, but I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I don’t even have the strength to get his face off the goddamn floor.

"Chris," I say, even though it’s more like a moan than an actual word, and I see him move just a fraction. I want to give in to my relief, but for Chris’s sake, I know I can’t. It’s better if Griffin thinks he finished him off.

Griffin gets up and he pushes me back away from Chris, and then he gets right up in my face and says, "Didn’t you hear me, Tanner? He shot you. You look like hell and it’s a sure bet you feel that way, too, and it’s all his fault."

I laugh. It’s a soft, barely there laugh, but it’s genuine because this is all so needless and stupid. No one gets it. I don’t care who shot me. It just doesn’t matter. I don’t care if it was Chris or Buck or Ezra or Josiah. Nothing changes for me because I know it was an accident. I know that the best thing in my life is the team and as long as we’re together, I just . . . don’t . . . care.

He shakes his head like I’m an idiot, and then it’s like he remembers why he came. He jerks me up and it hurts, but this time, I swallow my cry because I’m determined he’ll have t’ work for it. Griffin always did make it easy on himself, though, so before I’m even upright, he swings that club against my back and throws me against the wall.

It won’t be long now. The blackness is looming at the edges of my vision, swirling around as it tries t’ pull me under. I’m on the floor, I think. I think I’m throwin’ up again, too, but I can’t find the energy t’ care. I can hear him talkin’ and laughin’ and when he reaches for me again, I know it’s all over.

Chris will wake up and find me dead and he won’t be able t’ deal with that. I know where his breaking point is, too.

I’m so sorry, Chris.


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