There wasn't a lot to pack. Between both Vin and Jake they had accumulated barely two duffle bags of cloths, keepsakes and belongings. By eight thirty on Friday morning the sum total of their worldly possessions were loaded into the back of the jeep, which had been gassed and was ready for a trip halfway across the country.
Jake looked nervously at the jeep. They were just about ready to leave, and Larabee hadn't shown up yet. Maybe eight thirty was too early to expect him, or maybe what he thought Vin had had with the man wasn't as all-powerful and important as he'd thought.
Jake shook off that thought; he'd seen how much Vin cared for those men, emotions like that couldn't just be not returned. So it was up to him to buy some time for Larabee to arrive.
"Vin, do you mind if I go say good bye to the ladies at the mission?" he called over to his brother as he came down the steps. He felt Vin's eyes on him, felt the suspicion in the gaze, felt the refusal coming. "They were real good to me," he hastened to add. "I don't want them to worry."
"Don't take too long," Vin warned him, "I want to be on the road by noon."
"'kay." Jake smiled brilliantly and took off like a rabbit.
Vin watched him go, shaking his head with a small smile. The kid was up to something. Sure there had been some truth in his words, but there was also something he wasn't saying. Vin figured that either Jake would tell him later, or he'd find out. Just so long as it didn't get either of them in trouble, it wasn't a problem.
Chris watched as the boy he'd talked to yesterday ran off after he and Vin loaded some bags into the jeep.
Chris had spent a restless night in Buck's guest room, tossing and turning, haunted by Jake's words. A part of him wanted to be angry with Vin for leaving and letting them think he was dead, another desperately wanted his friend back, and his heart kept hearing what Jake had said, "He doesn't think he's worth it."
He had every right to hate Vin, but those simple words stopped him. He doesn't think he's worth it. The very thought of it tore at Chris's heart, and knowing Vin the way he did, he knew that they could be nothing but true; Vin had one of the lowest opinions of self worth that Chris had ever encountered.
That thought had disturbed Chris's sleep and at first light he had dressed and slipped silently out of the apartment to go to the address he'd been given. The sun was just barely peeping over the horizon when Chris had pulled up and parked across the street from the building Vin was in. He made a rather suspicious figure, sitting there in his truck, watching a building, but there were very few people around, and even fewer who noticed him.
Chris wasn't sure how to approach Vin. He could practically read the man's mind, but he didn't know what to say to him. As he watched Jake leave, he realized that if he was going to do anything, he ought to do it now; he was running out of time.
Chris took a deep breath, steeled himself for the coming confrontation and climbed out of the truck.
"Going somewhere?" he asked as he approached the man perched in the driver's seat of the jeep.
Vin tensed and jerked around. "Chris," he breathed on seeing the blond, letting himself relax a little.
Chris stared at the sharpshooter. It almost didn't look like Vin sitting in front of him. When he had seen him before he'd noticed the haircut, but it hadn't registered, even watching as he and Jake packed up the car Chris hadn't consciously acknowledged that Vin had cut and bleached his hair.
"Where ya headed, Vin?" he asked, shaking off his surprise.
"Friend offered me a job," Vin met Chris's gaze squarely.
"Thought you had a job."
"Chris " Vin sighed.
"No. Don't Chris me. You had a job, you had a family, you had a life! You want to tell me why you think it's okay to run away from it all?"
"Not runnin'," was the muttered response to Chris's tirade.
"That's not what it looks like from here."
Vin studied the man standing in front of him, taking time to note the black smudges under tired but angry eyes, bracketed by pain lines.
'Limited view hinders perception,' Ezra would say, but Vin settled for, "Ya cain't see the big picture from where yer standin', Cowboy."
"Then tell me," Chris demanded.
"'s better this way," Vin said evasively.
Chris felt anger fueled by fear and pain surge up within him. "How so?" he demanded, practically shouting at the smaller man. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be told that your best friend is dead? To go to his funeral, and know that you'll never see him again? Do you know the kind of pain that causes? Do you?"
Chris had finally pushed Vin to a point where he was willing to fight back. "You tryin' ta one-up me Larabee? Why don't ya try this one on fer size, do ya know what it's like ta come back home after just about killin' yerself ta help a friend and findin' out that yer dead cause yer best friend left a heart-broke message on yer phone, an' knowin' that ya cain't go back 'cause they're better off without ya? Well, what'a ya got ta say ta that?" Vin's chest was heaving when he finished, and his eyes dared Chris to argue.
Chris stared at his friend, saw the soul-deep hurt in his eyes, and felt the anger drain out of him. "How can you say that Vin? How could you ever think that we'd be better off without you?"
Vin slumped back in the seat with a sigh. "Yer safer without me around. Don't want any a' y'all ta get hurt 'cause a' me. 'Sides, y'all 're gettin' along fine without me."
"No, we're not Vin," Chris denied quietly, leaning in closer. "Did you read the memorial plaque we put up at the look out?" he asked. When Vin frowned at him he proceeded to explain. "There's a quote on it that Josiah found, pretty much sums up how we all felt. 'Where you used to be there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in daytime, and falling into at night.' A poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote that, and I'd swear that she was describing how I've felt ever since they told me you were dead. Maybe it looks like we're doing fine, but all we're doing is existing. There's a difference between living and existing; you taught me that."
"It's not that simple Chris." Vin's eyes begged him to understand.
"Because there's a hit out on you?" Chris demanded.
"It's too dangerous. I don't want any a' ya gettin' hurt 'cause a' me."
"Don't you think that it should be our decision?" Chris queried, but Vin wasn't about to give in. Seeing the stubborn refusal in Vin's eyes, Chris just about blew up. "Why now? Why is it so important that you leave now when it wasn't an issue when a hitman came after you during a bust? What's changed since then?"
"Nothing's changed," Vin growled. "But he wasn't after me, Larabee, he was after you. Guy named Marintez took issue with you killin' his kid."
Chris was rocked by this news, but he didn't let Vin see it. What Vin didn't seem to realize was that he'd just given Chris another weapon to use. "Then why is it all right for me to put the others in danger by having a hit out on me, but you can't?"
"Ain't the same."
"Yes it is."
"You didn't know."
"I still put the rest of the team in danger."
Vin shook his head. "I'm not gonna put y'all in that position. And I'm not gonna make y'all lose me twice."
"It can't be worse than it is now," Chris countered loudly. "There's a hole where you used to be, I don't know how to fill it, and it's killing me."
"And you think I don't have a gaping hole were my life was?" Vin shouted back. "You think it doesn't kill me every time I think about you guys and how much I'm walking away from? But how much bigger do you reckon that hole would be if one a' y'all got killed 'cause a' me?"
"We won't let that happen," Chris stated vehemently.
Vin desperately wanted to believe him, but "How do ya figure on doin' that?" he challenged.
"We'll be watching your back, and you'll be watching yours. You won't have anything to worry about. We won't lose you again." Chris said the last with a quiet intensity that Vin couldn't help but believe, even though he knew that for the sake of all involved he shouldn't.
Vin closed his eyes and sunk further into the seat. He wanted so badly to go back, missed the boys so much, but he didn't want them to get hurt because of him. He felt a warm hand squeeze his shoulder and knew instinctively that it was Chris, lending silent support and in his own way conveying friendship and love.
When Vin opened his eyes, Chris's heart ached for the desolation in the soulful blues. "I need a sharpshooter," he told the younger man softly. "The job's yours if you want it."
"Y'got a sniper, Chris, I saw. He weren't too bad," the barely audible words were empty of the life, light, and spirit that was characteristic of the Vin Tanner that Chris knew.
"Grant was a certified jackass," Chris informed him. "He was reassigned after a confrontation. We've been using part time snipers."
"I'll think on it," Vin allowed, and Chris felt elated at the words, though he didn't show it.
"I should warn you though, the job comes part and parcel with five good for nothing jackasses who have an infuriating ability to weasel their way around your defenses and become family."
"Six jackasses," Vin murmured, with a ghost of a smile.
"Six jackasses," Chris affirmed with a final squeeze before he let his hand drop.
"Ya sure ya want me back?" Vin inquired, eyes looking searchingly into the warm emerald eyes of his brother.
"Damned stubborn Texan," Chris grumbled good-naturedly. "I'll expect you at your desk on Monday."
"I ain't promisin' anything," Vin warned.
Chris nodded, knowing he could not ask for more, and no one, not even him, could force Vin into anything.
"And there's Jake ta think about, but I reckon you already know that."
Chris nodded with a small smile. "Who is he? Seems like he cares a lot about you."
"'s m' little brother," Vin allowed, but offered no further explanation.
"He's a good kid."
"I'll see you later, Vin," Chris reluctantly bid his best friend goodbye, offering his hand.
"Goodbye, Chris," there was a finality about Vin's parting words that sent a shiver down Chris's spine, but when he grasped Chris's forearm in their familiar and unique grip, Chris had the feeling that everything was going to work out.
Jake had watched as Vin had talked to his friend, watched the emotions play out through their body language, watched as Larabee left, then turned his attention to his brother. Judging by the defeated slump of Vin's shoulder, he was emotionally drained. Jake knew that he needed to be there for his brother. He wasn't sure when it had happened, but at some point in the past weeks Vin Tanner had become the most important person in his life, and he would do anything for him. Jake didn't know if Vin felt the same way, but it didn't much matter, Vin had already done more for him than anyone had since his mother died.
Jake crossed to the jeep and slipped quietly into the passenger seat.
"What do ya think?" the question was so quiet as to almost be inaudible.
"What you've got with them's special, Vin. It's not somethin' you should be just throwin' away; it's not somethin' you're likely gonna get lucky enough to find twice."
"You think we should stay," Vin summarized after a long silence.
"I think you should stay; I think you belong with them. And I'll stay with you, no matter what you decide or where you go."
"Nathan know you're back?" Buck asked as he walked into Chris's office.
"No, Buck," Chris drawled sarcastically, "he thinks I'm at home resting while a remarkable look-alike is filling in for me."
"And you all say that I'm full of crap."
"There a reason you're bothering me Buck?"
"Just wanted to see that lovely sling of yours," Buck teased.
"I will shoot you, Wilmington."
"Aw, c'mon Chris." At Chris's baleful glare, Buck decided that it might be best to get down to business. "Now Chris, I want you to listen to me, and not get mad, okay?"
Buck now had all of Chris's attention. "Get to the point, Buck."
"We need a sharpshooter Chris," Buck sighed. "Especially with the bust comin' up. I know you don't want to replace Vin or anything, and it wouldn't be really, but Vin wouldn't want any of us dyin' because of him either."
"I know that," Chris said quietly, thinking back on Vin's earlier testimony.
"JD put together a list of candidates. I think you should take a look at it. I don't want you to be mad at him for it, he was just trying to protect us." He offered Chris a folder, which the blond took, but didn't open.
"I'm not mad. I appreciate the effort, but I've got a sharpshooter lined up. He should be here Monday." He hoped.
Buck studied Chris doubtfully, but ultimately accepted Chris's words without question. "Okay," he conceded, "but I think you should keep the file, just in case."
"I will," Chris vowed.
Buck nodded and turned to leave.
Buck turned at the words. He nodded his acknowledgement. "You want us to clear out Vin's desk?" he asked already knowing what the answer would be.
"I'll take care of it," Chris told him.
Buck acknowledged Chris's words, and left the office and Chris to his thoughts.
Chris went into the office early on Monday morning. It had been hard to focus during the weekend, and harder still not to get in his truck and go check up on Vin. Every time he was about to do just that, Chris stopped himself. Vin needed space to make his decision, and if Chris pushed, he might well lose him anyway. It made for a tense weekend, and Monday couldn't come fast enough.
His heart plummeted in his chest when he entered the parking garage and didn't see Vin's jeep. It didn't mean anything, he reminded himself. Vin could be coming in later, or maybe he wasn't driving the jeep, or It wasn't doing him any good to speculate, he decided on the way up to Team Seven's offices in the elevator. Vin would show up when he was good and ready to.
That said, he still felt a surge of disappointment when he walked into the office to find it dark and empty. It wasn't that there was no chance that Vin would show up later, it was just that - well, Vin had always come in early unless he was sick, injured, undercover or at the firing range. And sometimes even then he was still the first one in.
Chris turned the light on and went directly to his office, paying little attention to the room about him. If he had been more alert, he might have noticed the shadow that detached itself from the others, might have seen it follow him to his office, might have seen it before it was more than a breathe away.
"You really sure ya want me back Cowboy?" the quiet drawl startled Chris, and he had to work hard not to jump.
He studied the man standing in his office, having to fight down the elation he felt to keep it from being apparent. It always surprised him the way that Vin could move without being heard and fade into the shadows; even now, in an illuminated room, Vin seemed to half disappear in shadows. Vin's face was haggard and drawn, the decision to stay had obviously taken a lot out of him, and even still it ate at him.
"It ain't gonna be easy 'r safe," Vin inserted into Chris's silence.
"I know," Chris nodded slowly, "and I'm willing to take that risk on one condition."
Vin froze, Chris was sure that he had even stopped breathing.
"You let your hair go back to the way it was." Chris's lips curled into a faint grin.
Vin's entire demeanor changed. "And what if I don't wanna?" he growled, but his eyes sparkled.
Chris just raised an eyebrow.
Vin smiled, Chris knew him too well. "I'll think on it."
"Good enough," Chris decided. "Now get over here and I'll fill you in on what we're doing."
On top of the paperwork necessary for Vin to come back to work, Chris had given him the task of backing Ezra up in a coming meet, and there was some prep work necessary for that.
There had been a break in the seemingly fruitless case that Team Seven had been working on, unsurprisingly it had come from Ezra. In the time that Chris had been hospitalized Ezra had managed to break through the dealers defenses, and a meet was scheduled for the next day. There would be no bust or exchange of goods, though such a rendezvous might be set up, but Chris wanted Vin in the rafters to watch his back, so Vin was going to go over the blueprints.
Knowing full well that though it was less important, the paperwork would take longer, Vin started with the analysis of the blue prints. Even with the utmost care and the most intense scrutiny, it didn't take long for Vin to finish with the plans. By the time that he was finishing up and starting the more tedious paperwork the team had begun to filter in.
Surprisingly enough it was Ezra who was the next into the office, and as soon as he saw Vin at his desk rolling up the plans he headed over. "Mr Tanner, it is wonderful to have you back where you belong."
Vin smiled shyly, ducking his head and blushing a little. "Reckon it's good ta be back," he murmured.
"I am certainly glad you feel that way, and hope that you do not take your leave of us again in the foreseeable future."
"I'll see what I can do about that Ez."
"I appreciate that Vin." Ezra reached out and squeezed the Texan's shoulder in a companionable gesture before moving off to his own desk and settling to work, everything right with his world once again.
Vin settled down in his seat and bent his head over his paperwork.
JD and Buck were the next to come into the office, bickering and teasing each other as was their habit. Listening to the good natured banter, Vin couldn't help but think how much he had missed this.
"Who's that?" JD whispered to Buck, indicating the blond man sitting at Vin's desk.
Buck glanced over, not surprised to see the man sitting at Vin's desk, but he was surprised, and a little angry to see that all of Vin's stuff was still there. "Probably our new sharpshooter," he sighed, pushing away the anger.
"How come he's sitting at Vin's desk?"
"Well kid, reckon he needs a desk, and that one's free," Buck tried to make light of the question.
"Buck," JD hissed, "you know what I mean. Why is it still Vin's desk?"
"I don't know," Buck sighed. "Chris said he'd take care of it."
"Doesn't look like he did a good job of it."
"Now kid," Buck appeased, "I'm sure Chris had his reasons."
"You're so full of crap Buck." There was bitterness in JD's voice.
"Listen kid, remember that it's not his fault, okay? He's new and he might be a nice guy if you give him a chance."
"Yeah, sure Buck."
"Excuse me." Both men jumped, not having heard the man come in. He was small and stocky, not much taller than JD, with intense dark eyes, and he carried himself with an ease that said he could take care of himself and anyone else he chose.
"Buck Wilmington," the ladies' man greeted, offering a hand. "How can we help you?"
"Mike O'Malley," he replied taking Buck's hand. "I'm looking for Vin Tanner."
There was a moment of dead silence when the two members of Team Seven stared hard at the newcomer. JD was aghast, and Buck fought back anger; it was obvious that this man didn't know what had happened, but still
"He - he's dead," JD stammered.
Pain and disbelief flashed in O'Malley's eyes. "When? How?"
Buck took a deep breath. Whoever he was, this man apparently cared about Vin and hadn't known about his fate. He was about to answer his question when a voice from behind him beat him to it.
"Poor bastard turned up dead in a little town outside Denver coupla' months ago." All three turned at the soft drawl to find the new man standing hipshot behind them. "Guess the guy was real beat up too. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would ya Mike?"
JD and Buck stood staring at the blond man that looked just like Vin would have if he'd cut and dyed his hair.
"Jesus Chist, Grif," Mike grinned, "you scared the shit outta me there."
"'Fraid you were gonna have ta find another sniper?"
"More worried about trainin' one. Had a hell of a time breaking you."
Vin smiled. "So Mike, what brings ya'll the way out here? Ya didn't come 'cause I called did ya?"
"No," Mike frowned. "Didn't know you called, came to tell you that we took care of Joe, so you shouldn't have anything to worry about anymore."
"Why'd you call me?"
"Tell ya about it while I walk ya ta yer car," Vin stated. Before leading the other man out he glanced over at Chris who had come out of his office to observe the exchange. I'll be back Cowboy, he told him with his eyes. Chris nodded and went back into his office.
Vin and Mike headed for the stairs, talking quietly, leaving JD and Buck gaping behind them.
Josiah and Nathan exited the elevator to find Buck and JD standing there, still staring at where Vin had disappeared.
"Something the matter brothers?" Josiah asked, exchanging a puzzled look with Nathan. A quick scan of the rest of the office revealed Chris in his office, Ezra hard at work, and nothing to explain the two men's behavior.
"V - Vin - " JD sputtered, pointing towards the stairs
Josiah and Nathan exchanged another bemused glance. What was going on here?
"We saw him," Buck whispered. "Vin - he was here."
"Buck, there's no way " Nathan said quietly
"He was here, Nate, I'd swear on my life." Buck turned to face the medic.
"I saw him too," JD asserted, turning to face his teammates as well.
"We're not crazy."
"We didn't say you were," Josiah soothed. "It's just "
"It's hard to believe. Vin's dead."
"Don't you think we know that Nate?" JD demanded harshly. "But I know what I saw, and Buck'll back me up."
"I'm not - "
"Conference room, fifteen minutes," Chris called. "I want to see plans and progress, gentlemen."
"I don't doubt that you know what you saw," Nathan continued. "It's just hard to believe."
"You know what they say about seeing and believing," Josiah added.
"Of course, there's also something to be said about believing your friends," Buck countered before stalking to his desk. JD looked torn, but while he could see where Nathan and Josiah were coming from, it was clear he agreed with Buck.
"It's all right, son," Josiah sighed. "He's probably right."
JD gave them a little half-grin and went to his own desk to collect his things for the meeting.
"You serious, Josiah?" Nathan asked quietly.
"It's hard to believe, but in principle he's right. And imagine if it really was Vin."
Nathan sighed. He knew that Josiah was right, in principle, but then again Vin was dead. There was nothing for it. JD and Buck wouldn't hear it, and Josiah could be surprisingly pig-headed when he wanted to be.
"What the hell did you do to your hair, Tanner?" Mike demanded. They'd made it to the car-park in the basement of the building, descending in silence.
Vin gave him an embarrassed little half grin and raised his hand to his shorn hair self-consciously. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Yeah, maybe, but you won't have to worry about that anymore. Joe's going to prison and we took care of the hit."
"Sure 'preciate that."
"Hell Grif," Mike teased with a smile, "you know I did it more for me than for you."
"Yer a lazy sonofabitch, you know that, don't you O'Malley?"
"Yeah well," he shrugged. "You gonna tell me why you called me?"
"Was thinkin' on takin' ya up on yer offer."
"I'm not liking the past tense here, Grif."
"Sorry Mike, changed m' mind."
"Recently I take it," Mike teased.
"What was yer first clue?"
"Think it mighta been everybody thinking you were dead."
"Yeah, ya know anythin' about that by any chance?"
Mike sighed. "Needed you to be seen in the area. Just in case."
"Somebody gunnin' fer me, Mike?"
"Maybe. It coulda been because of Joe, but there's no proof either way. We're looking into it. Andy Stevens was a good man, well liked and respected; people want answers."
"Ya'll let me know?"
"You have every right to. I'll see what I can do about making you live again, too."
"Thanks Mike. You know that I'm going to have to tell the guys something."
"Yeah. You can tell them what they need to know."
"Tell them that he was a good man, and that he may very well have died protecting you."
"They'll want details."
"Can you trust them?"
"With m' life."
"But they don't trust you with theirs?"
Vin sighed, trust Mike to pick up on that, and then harp on it. "'s got nothin' ta do with them. I don' trust me with their lives."
Mike sighed, knowing that prying would get him nowhere. Vin had one of the most under-developed senses of self-worth that Mike had ever encountered. "Tell them what they need to know, keeping in mind that the information is confidential."
"Thanks Mike, for everything."
"Anytime, Vin. You ever need anything, you know how to get in touch, and you ever rethink that job "
Vin grinned. "Well, if I die again, maybe. You ever need a sniper, you know where I am."
"Take care of yourself Grif," Mike offered his hand.
"Always do. Watch yer back, I can't always be around ta do it for ya."
"You're a cocky son of a bitch."
"But ya love me anyway."
"God only knows why."
"See ya 'round, Mike."
"You're not supposed to."
"But I always do."
Vin grinned and gave him an impudent two-fingered salute as Mike climbed into his car.
There were five men sitting in the conference room when Chris came in. "Gentlemen," he greeted as he entered, "I trust you had a good weekend."
There was a general murmur of assent as Chris settled in his place at the head of the table.
"Are we to assume that the meeting is going to commence while our sharpshooter is absent?"
"You know what they say about assuming Ezra," Chris shot back with a feral smile.
"Touché, Mr Larabee."
JD leaned over to Buck and whispered in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "What do they say about assuming?"
Buck looked at his young protégé with an expression akin to horror. "You're joking, right kid?"
JD frowned. "No, I want to know."
"Well," Buck sputtered, "It means - They say - Well "
"Never thought you'd have to answer that question when you agreed to show him the ropes, did you brother Buck?"
Buck scowled at Josiah. "I don't see you jumping in, Preacher."
"He asked you," Josiah smiled innocently.
"Smug son of a bitch, aren't you?" Buck muttered.
"Will somebody tell me what they say about assuming?" JD demanded, almost sounding petulant.
"They say," a voice drawled from the doorway, "that assumin' makes an 'ass' outta 'u' an' 'me'. Course, Bucklin don't need any help makin' an ass a' himself, does right nicely on 'is own." The lean Texan sauntered into the room, all eyes fixed on him, noting that they had left an empty seat to Chris's right; he slipped into it, unable to ignore the feeling that this was where he belonged.
"Now that we've got that cleared up, and we're all here, let's get down to business," Chris drawled.
"And the first order of business ought to be how Vin got ta be not dead," Buck interrupted.
There was a general murmur of assent and Chris cocked his head in Vin's direction, an inquiring look on his face.
Vin gave him a miniscule nod, finding himself once more the subject of intense scrutiny. "Wasn't me," he said simply.
"I think even the densest of us figured that out," Josiah joked lightly.
Vin's lips twisted in an ironic smile. "Reckon," he murmured. "Some a' y'all met Mike. He's an ol' friend a' mine, we go way back, ta m' Army days. Mike's in the CIA now; he was neck deep in shit and sinkin' fast, needed some help an' figured he could count on me."
"What was he doing?" JD asked breathlessly.
Vin eyed them speculatively. "All a' y'all gotta und'rstan' that this is all confidential." Everyone at the table nodded with a different degree of enthusiasm, but Vin knew that no matter what, none of what was said would leave the room. "Mike 'as tryin' ta take down a ring a' corrupt CIA agents. We managed, mostly, cept'n a few got away."
"So, how'd you end up dead?" Nathan asked, looking like he still almost disbelieved his eyes.
"Feller by the name a' Eli Joe took except'n ta me an' m' part in the whole thin'. He was one a' the ones we missed, an' he put a hit out on me. When I got back ta Denver an' found m'self dead, I figured it was better tha' way, 'cause none a' y'all would get hurt 'cause a' me."
"Except there was that guy at that bust," JD put in quietly, "Timothy Herald."
Vin shook his head, a wry half-grin on his lips. "Nah, he wasn't after me. He was gunnin' fer Chris. Ya had a pretty penny on yer head, Cowboy."
Chris glared at him, but it seemed that the Larabee glare still had no power over Vin Tanner.
"Wait just a second," Buck bellowed. "There was a contract out on Chris?"
"Well hell Bucklin, why did ya think he kept endin' up in the hospital?"
"Thought maybe he was just clumsy," Buck countered, with an impudent grin. Unfortunately for Chris, the Larabee glare had mostly lost its power over Wilmington as well.
"What about the body?" Nathan interjected. "There was a body. Ezra saw it."
Vin sighed. "That was Andy Stevens. Mike had him out there ta make m' disappearance less suspicious. He's not sure why he died. Mighta been 'cause a' the hit, 'r 'cause someone else 'as gunnin' fer me, or mayhap he had enemies a' his own. Mike's lookin' inta it."
"And how is it, Mr Tanner," Ezra interjected, "that you plan to rejoin the living once more?"
Vin grimaced. "Mike's lookin' inta that too."
"I see," the Southerner drawled, "and in the meantime can we count on you to remain in the area?"
"Yeah, Ez," Vin assured quietly, "I'm back fer good this time."
"I must say that I am pleased to hear that. If I may, Mr Tanner," Ezra queried tentatively, "why did that gentleman call you 'Grif"? I have heard you referred to by several sobriquets, but I can see no reasoning for that particular one."
"Griffin. 'was m' code name in the Army," Vin explained quietly. Ezra nodded his understanding.
"Well," Chris proclaimed crisply, "now that we've got that squared away, we can turn our attention to the real business."
As the meeting progressed, Vin sat back and let the voices and personalities of his teammates wash over him, content to be once more in their presence.
When Ezra had first joined the team, he had been untouchable, remaining aloof and professional at all times. It had been Vin's constant dogged efforts that had finally brought him out of his protective cocoon and turned him into a fully functioning member of their team. People remembered that.
What they tended to forget was that Vin Tanner, a loner either by nature or nurture, had himself remained separate from the entity that became Team Seven for the first several months of his tenure as sharpshooter, had in fact, not become fully integrated until he had drawn Ezra into the fold.
In the intervening time even the members of Team Seven, those that had experienced it before, had managed to forget that. They remembered after they got him back though.
Perhaps they thought that when the euphoria of Vin's miraculous return wore off things would return to what was considered "normal" for Team Seven, but that was not the case. Joy and amazement at their good fortune eventually faded and was gradually replaced by a myriad of emotions, not the least of which were hurt and anger as each member of their odd little family reacted in his own way.
By the end of that first day, the initial shock and pleasure had worn off and individual reactions began to emerge.
Everyone had, at several points in the day, drifted over to Vin and found some small reason or petty excuse to talk to and touch Vin, as if to assure themselves that he was really there. Nathan especially had found excuses to hover in full blown mother hen mode. He wanted to know if Vin had been eating properly, sleeping regularly, keeping himself out of trouble and was physically all right. Vin answered evasively, shrugging of the attention and shying away from Nathan's questing hands, which only served to worry Nathan further.
Josiah spent a good deal of time trying to start a dialogue with Vin about his time away, to ascertain, for his benefit as much as Vin's, the state of his psyche. Most of his efforts were thwarted, but he was largely undeterred.
Chris, for his part, got very little work done. What time wasn't spent in the bullpen, openly or surreptitiously keeping an eye on Vin, was mostly spent doing the same through his office door.
Ezra too, was keeping a careful watch on his friend, though of all of them, he was the most discreet about it, perhaps because he had had the longest time to adjust to the idea that Vin wasn't actually dead.
Buck was the only one who fell easily back into a wholly normal routine, jovially laughing and teasing the Texan, though he was far from his only target, and making his best effort to make Vin feel like things were getting back to normal.
They weren't really, and that worried the entire team, but as the days wore on, Vin drew further and further into himself, and consequently away from them. When he slipped out of the office at five, precisely, the others were left with the niggling feeling that in a lot of ways they hadn't really gotten him back after all.
Of all of them, the most out of character and unexpected response to Vin's return came from JD. After the initial meeting, the youth had drawn into himself, quiet in a way that was more akin to brooding than introspection. He made few overtures of friendship or welcome towards the sharpshooter, and he alone refrained from bombarding Vin with attention in any form. It didn't bode well, either for Vin, or whoever got in his way about it first.
Which happened to be Buck. Wilmington had watched all day with a concerned eye as his young roommate's anger had quietly built, increasing every time he so much as looked in Tanner's direction. It was at the point that by the time they got to their apartment, after an uncomfortably silent ride home, JD was about ready to explode. And Buck was more than ready to let him, knowing that it was better the young man got it out of his system before he confronted Vin with it in a move that was more likely to drive Tanner farther into himself than not. It hadn't just been the youngest Buck had watched self destruct all day.
Buck dropped his jacket on the nearest available surface, his concerned gaze following his roommate as JD stormed into the kitchen and then back out again. "You want to talk about it?" he asked quietly.
"There's nothin' to talk about, Buck," JD snapped.
"Somethin's been botherin' you. Got yourself an attitude that'd give a shark indigestion." JD opened his mouth to respond, but Buck didn't give him a chance. "And I think it's got something to do with Vin."
"What would you know Buck?" JD scoffed.
"I'm not as clueless as you think. I know you're angry, have been since just after Vin showed back up, and I haven't survived in law enforcement without knowing how to put two and two together. So, why are you mad at Vin?"
"Why the hell aren't you?" JD shot back harshly. "He just up and leaves, let's us think he's dead for months, puts us through hell. You saw what that did to Chris, to all of us! Why don't you want to kill him for that?"
Buck sighed, why couldn't it ever be easy with the young 'uns? "I ain't saying that it don't hurt some, that a part of me ain't angry, don't hate him for what he did to Chris, to me, to you," Buck admitted. "But I know Vin never meant to hurt any of us, was in fact trying to keep us safe. And mostly I hurt for Vin, 'cause knowin' Junior the way I do, I know he didn't think he was worth it, not the trouble, not the pain or heartache, or the danger if he did come back, none of it."
JD paled, realization hitting, and Buck felt some satisfaction that his point had hit home. He didn't particularly like doing it, but sometimes a little guilt was a good thing. The last thing Vin needed was an angry JD sending him on another guilt trip, that boy just didn't know the meaning of the word 'little' in relation to guilt, or a lot of other things for that matter, like self-sacrificing.
"I guess I didn't think of it like that," JD admitted, horrorstruck.
"You have to remember, kid, this was probably just as hard on Vin as it was on us, maybe harder." When JD looked askance at him, Buck added, "If nothing else, we had each other, Vin didn't have anybody."
JD paled even farther, and Buck got the feeling that a little had probably just become a little too much guilt. "Don't worry about it JD, just be the friend you always have been and we've got the best chance of really getting him back."
JD nodded gravely.
Buck wondered if he really knew what was to come. They'd gotten Vin's body back, but he had a feeling that was going to be the easy part. Now they had to work on his soul.
"What?" Jake asked, startled and a little confused. He knew something had been bothering his brother lately, but Vin hadn't been at all willing to talk about it, so this spontaneous confession while they were sitting in their apartment staring blindly at a fuzzy tv screen was disconcerting.
"He's mad; he's trying not to be, but he has been since I went back."
Vin sighed. "Dunno. Mayhap cause I didn't come back soon enough, mayhap cause I came back."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"Sorta does. They've all been weird."
Vin hadn't yet opened up about his friends or how any of them were reacting to the situation, so Jake decided it was best not to argue the small points. Besides, if something made sense to Vin, it could be hard convincing him that the rest of the world didn't see it that way. "How so?" he asked.
"Jest are," Vin shrugged. "I don't know how to get back ta normal."
Jake thought about that for a while before responding. He had come to the realization that it would have destroyed Vin if he had had to really leave these people, but he'd been shuffled around too much to not know that sometimes things had to change. "Maybe you're not supposed to get back to what was normal, maybe you've got to make a new normal."
Vin was quiet for a long time, considering. "Don't know how ta do that either."
"Reckon ya don't have to. Y'all figured it out the first time. Just gotta give it time."
Each member of the Seven had a different view on what was going on in Vin's head, why he was pulling away, and how to get him back, really back. The one thing everyone agreed on was it was something they had to do. The problem became not so much agreeing on an idea, but getting one to work, because no matter what they tried, Vin still seemed to retreat further and further into himself as time passed.
The one place Vin was able to fit back in as seamlessly as if he'd never left was his position as sharpshooter. Perhaps it was because he was allowed to be alone simply by virtue of the nature of the job, or maybe it was something else entirely. Whatever the reason, it proved to be his salvation.
Ezra had finally managed to set up a buy with the gun dealer whose good graces he'd been working on insinuating himself into. Vin, as expected, was assigned to the rafters, away from his teammates' smothering expectations with the simple task of watching their backs. That was the one thing Vin had not forgotten how to do, in fact had never stopped doing.
From above, Vin knew where everyone stood, knew where they all were. Ezra, as the middle man, was on the warehouse floor with Buck who was posing as the buyer. Chris, because of his lingering injury, was consigned to the surveillance van, and JD, Josiah, and Nathan were backup with Team Two.
"Freeze, ATF," someone called, Vin wasn't sure who, and it didn't matter, what mattered was the reaction. The gun dealers immediately went for their weapons and started firing indiscriminately. Vin took out one, then spotted a man with Ezra in his sights, unfortunately Vin would have to break cover to make eliminate the threat. The thought barely registered before he was moving, the threat to Ezra greater, graver, and more important than any potential one to himself. A deliberate shot, and that threat was no more.
In the same instant that Vin broke cover, a particularly industrious and surprisingly bright bodyguard looked up and happened to notice the sharpshooter. He managed to squeeze off a shot a split second before Buck's bullet slammed into his chest.
Wilmington watched in horror as the Texan, who had been balanced precariously to take his shot, fell back with a silent cry.
As suddenly as the melee had started, it was over, and Buck heard himself screaming out to Vin in the suddenly silent warehouse. Not connected to the others by a headset as he might have otherwise been, there was little he could do, but upon hearing Buck's cry, a worried Nathan took it up. "Vin, you alright up there?" the medic demanded.
"Tanner, respond," was Chris' command after a few seconds of silence, voice made harsh by concern and fear.
After another harrowing second, Vin's cranky Texan drawl came over the mic. "I'm fine," he assured them. "Stupid bastard jest surprised me."
"You hit, Vin?" Nathan inquired, more than a little concerned.
"I'm fine - "
"Vin," the EMT warned.
The string of profanities that carried through the mic was a bit worrying, but at the same time extremely comforting to Team Seven, who had gone so long without experiencing one of the Texan's spectacular temper tantrums. It was refreshingly normal.
"We're waiting on an answer, Tanner," Chris warned in that tone he had that said he wasn't going to put up with this shit for much longer.
"Through and through," Vin finally informed them. "M' left arm, looks like we'll be twins Larabee."
"Can you get down here on your own?" Jackson asked, ever the medic.
"Reckon so," Vin decided. "It ain't too bad really." Jest hurts like a bitch, he didn't add.
"Good. Get down here before you lose too much blood," Nathan instructed. "I'll check you out while we're waiting for the ambulance."
"Now you hold up there one goddamned cottonpickin' minute," Vin protested, already on his way down. "I ain't goin' t' a hospital, and I don't need no ambulance."
Buck, who had stolen one of Team Two's headsets, grinned at the feisty sharpshooter's reaction. This was the Vin they knew, loved, and had missed so much, not the shadow he had been since he'd come back.
"You'll go to the hospital if Nate says you need to," Larabee growled at the obstinate sharpshooter. The blond had made his own way into the warehouse and moved to wait with Nathan for the rapidly descending Texan.
There was some incoherent grumbling, but no outright refusal. Several minutes later, all the felons were safe in the custody of the ATF, and Vin Tanner was enduring the not so gentle ministrations of Nathan Jackson under the watchful eye of Chris Larabee.
"Well?" Chris demanded of the medic.
"I'd really feel better if he went to the hospital," Nathan declared.
"But I don't need ta go," Vin countered.
"I think it's a good idea - "
Vin looked Chris square in the eyes and said in a quiet, intense voice, "I can't." When Chris raised an eyebrow in silent question, Vin said even more quietly, "Jake."
It wasn't an explanation or argument that the others seemed to follow, but Chris got it, and several other things clicked into place at the same time, like why Vin never stayed late any more. He nodded his agreement, but if they were going to do this, they'd do it on his terms. "Here's what we'll do; Vin, you'll spend the night at the ranch, and I'll watch for any signs of infection or complications. If anything comes up, Nathan will be the first one I call. Buck will drive you out there, and I'll pick up Jake and bring him out. That sound all right?" Vin nodded slowly. "You still in the same place?" Again the nod. "Alright. Buck, get over here," he called for the ladies' man.
"Chris, I don't think - " Nathan started to protest.
"He doesn't need a hospital?" Chris interrupted.
Nathan shook his head slowly. "Not strictly," he hedged.
"Then this is what we're doing." Chris' word was final. "Vin knows he's going to have to do things my way, or go to the hospital."
Nathan thought about responding, but he was an intelligent man. He knew when the battle was lost."
"Hey Boss, what's up?" Buck sauntered over. "Junior giving you a hard time?"
"Fuck y'all, Bucklin."
Buck's grin widened at the familiar response. Chris rolled his eyes. Every one there knew that now things were finally getting back to normal, the boys just had one major surprise left for them.
"I want you to take Vin out to the ranch for me." Chris instructed. "I'll follow, but I've got something I need to take care of first."
"Sure thing, Pard. Junior here'll be real safe with me." Buck winked at Vin, who smirked.
"Just see that he gets there in one piece," Larabee sighed.
"Not to worry Stud. Come on Slick, let's get while the gettin's good." Vin got up, shook off Nathan, and followed Buck as he walked away. "Don't want to give the old geezer any time to forget what he wants."
Chris sighed at the parting shot, and watched as the duo picked up JD on their way out.
Josiah moved up between Nathan and Chris. "Kids," he sighed, barely hiding a smirk.
"Whatcha gonna do?" Nathan added, slightly more successful at hiding his amusement.
Chris rolled his eyes.
Jake was sitting on the front steps of the apartment building, silently observing. He enjoyed this time of day, sitting here, taking in the sounds of the neighborhood. Of course he liked it best when he was sitting with Vin. When the black Ram pulled up, Jake spotted it immediately by virtue of the fact that it was so out of place in this part of town.
He watched, first with interest and a bit of suspicion, then with gut churning fear as a man he recognized as Chris Larabee climbed out of the cab. There was no way he could imagine that this was even remotely a good thing.
He stood up as Larabee approached him, and the blond could easily see the fear in his eyes. "Where's Vin?" he asked anxiously.
Chris smiled reassuringly, pleased once again to see that Vin had someone, outside of the team, who cared so much about him. "One of the boys is taking him out to my place," Chris told him, hoping to allay some of the fear. "He's going to be fine; he took a bullet to his arm, but it shouldn't be anything to worry about."
"Then why are you here and he isn't?"
"Nathan wanted to send him to the hospital, Vin didn't want to go, this was the compromise."
"Did he need to go to the hospital?"
"Depends who you ask." At Jake's dark look, he elaborated. "Nathan would have preferred it, but it wasn't strictly necessary."
Jake seemed to study Chris, as if assessing the validity of his words. "So what are you here for?" he asked finally.
If Chris was surprised by the question, he didn't show it. "Did you really think Vin would leave you here alone all night?"
Jake shrugged. He hadn't really thought about it.
"Well, if you've no objections, I'm going to take you out to the ranch for the night."
Something in Larabee's eyes said there'd better not be any objections, not that Jake was going to offer any. "Just let me get some stuff first, okay?"
"Sure," Chris agreed, "I'll pack a bag for Vin while you're at it."
Jake shot him a peculiar look, as if to say, you think I wouldn't have done that, before turning and heading into the building.
Chris followed the boy, and had to bite his tongue to keep from commenting on the rundown state of the building. He hated that Vin always chose to live in places like this and not somewhere at least halfway respectable, but if he was any judge, he'd bet that Jake would be just as defensive of this place as Vin likely would have been.
Jake led the older man into the apartment, taking note of how the ATF agent carefully catalogued everything around him. Chris had had every intention of helping Jake pack, but he found himself standing just inside the door, reluctant to get in the way as the youth moved efficiently around the small living quarters.
The apartment was too small, Chris decided. There was only one bedroom, and he had no doubt that, in most cases anyway, Vin was the one who slept on the sofa. The kitchen was tiny and almost not worth the effort of cooking in, and the whole place had a run down, ill-kempt air about it that made Chris hate anew the impulse that kept Vin in this section of the city. Of course, this time he might just have the motivation that would get Vin to move; namely, Jake, his health, well-being and education. But it was an argument that could wait for another time.
"All ready," Jake said suddenly, appearing in front of him with an overnight bag and startling Chris from his thoughts.
Chris nodded brusquely and led the way back to his truck. He knew this boy was important to Vin, though the reticent Texan had never actually said as much, and in light of that, Chris decided that he'd use this unexpected opportunity to get to know this boy who now played such a big role in his best friend's life.
Vin wasn't certain exactly how he had ended up at Chris's ranch surrounded by all of the boys, but sure as shootin', here they all were. JD and Buck had driven him out, Josiah and Nathan had followed soon after that, and Ezra had arrived, as always, fashionably late. Now all they were waiting for was Chris, and, in Vin's case, Jake.
Currently, JD and Nathan were involved in a heated discussion in the kitchen about what constituted healthy food. Ezra had long since judged the conversation useless and was enjoying an imported beer in the living room, trading barbs with Buck. Josiah sat on the sidelines of that particular battlefield, tossing in a comment every now and then to spur the combatants on. Every now and then one or both of the pair would turn their attention and so-called-wit on Vin, to which he would respond in kind.
For the first time in a long while, a real smile graced the Texan's face. This just felt right; whatever it was that changed this afternoon, it - they - felt right again. Maybe it was just that Vin had let loose and allowed them to get close again. In Vin's mind, there were only two things that would make the night better.
Almost as if his thoughts summoned them - though they certainly hadn't any other time he'd thought it since arriving - Chris and Jake walked in the door. There was no need for Chris to announce their presence, when Chris Larabee entered a room, even one in his own house, people took notice, especially people who had been waiting for him.
Jake was quite a bit less noticeable as he immediately shrank into the shadows, wary of his welcome among these strangers who were his brother's friends. Of course upon seeing Vin seated in a recliner, he shattered his anonymity by approaching him, thus drawing all eyes to him. "Are you all right?" he demanded.
"'M fine," Vin assured him. "Jest too many worry-wartin' mama hens about." He shot a mock glare at Nathan who was now standing with JD in the portal between the kitchen and the den.
"Maybe if you had the sense God gave a rock, they wouldn't need to," Jake exclaimed.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Vin demanded quietly. The rest of the room held it's breath, not entirely sure what was going on, but a few of them, namely Chris, Buck and Nathan, were silently applauding the boy.
"Means you shoulda gone to the hospital," Jake was a decibel level away from shouting.
"Didn't need to."
"You were shot!" Now he was shouting. "Of course you needed to!" And with that, Jake made a friend for life in Nathan.
Vin grumbled a little, then caught sight of Chris. "You better wipe that goddamned smirk offa yer face Larabee, else I'm gonna have to do it for ya." Chris of course, was not at all fazed by the Texan's threat.
Buck chose that moment to interrupt. "Hey Tanner," he boomed, "aren't you going to introduce us to the kid?"
Vin gave them all a lopsided grin. "Guys, this is m' brother Jake. Jake, these 're the guys." He proceeded to introduce them all by name, although Jake already had a fairly good idea who they all were.
Jake smiled shyly at them and found out very quickly how foolish he was to fear meeting them. Buck, of course, greeted him with his usual enthusiasm and good-will. Nathan had already fallen in love with Jake, and both of them ignored Vin when he told Jake he wasn't allowed to associate with the medic. Josiah smiled genially from across the room, willing to give the boy some time to adjust instead of overwhelming him all at once. Chris sat out too, having learned on the ride over where all the Tanner talking genes had gone. JD smiled pleasantly at the boy, but slipped out of the room the first chance he got, not at all sure he liked this new development, and, truth be told, a little jealous.
Vin watched in contentment as the brothers of his heart met and, as far as he saw, willingly accepted the brother of his blood. Everything was going to be fine now, and for the first time since leaving all those months ago, Vin let go, knowing he didn't have to be on guard all the time because his brothers were more than happy to watch his back for him, just as he was happy to watch theirs.