by Cmurph

+ + + + + + +

By 9 p.m. everyone was in place. Chris and J.D. watched as Ezra talked effortlessly with Molto. Larabee picked up his field glasses and saw Buck near the loading dock and knew Josiah was just behind him. Looking up and to the right he saw only a dark shadow where he knew Vin crouched with his Emerson 990 fixed on Molto's gunmen.

Silently he clicked on his radio and whispered to Nathan.

"Set?" he asked.

"All set, Chris," Nathan's voice came through Chris' earpiece. "Garrison is in position - the truck just arrived. There's Davis."

Each of his men had an earpiece to hear the conversation Chris was having with Nathan, and he could almost feel the electricity that shot between them.

The bay door opened and the truck drove in. The passenger side door opened and Davis hopped out. Chris listened to Ezra and Molto making small talk, watched as Ezra shook hands with Davis, then gesture towards the truck.

The three men walked to the back of the truck and pulled open the doors. Two men swung out carrying automatic rifles. Davis ordered them to bring out a crate. Molto motioned to one of his men who stepped forward with a brief case. As Davis pried open the crate, Molto opened his case, and Ezra moved slowly to the side.

Davis looked up at Ezra and smiled.

"You know, I sent a little photo file to a friend in Houston the other day," Davis said. "E-mail is a wonderful thing."

Davis brought the gun up quickly and Ezra dove for cover as shots began firing around him.

Chris saw shots coming from Buck and Josiah's location as some of Molto's men went down. More men poured out of Davis' truck as Garrison and his unit swept in through the doors.

The sharp bark of Vin's E-9 had echoed above him almost as soon as Davis' gun had appeared and Chris had watched as Davis jerked back and screamed. Ezra was pinned behind a packing crate when the E-9 spat fire again and another man went down.

The gunfire was swift and fierce between the remaining players, but Chris was confident in his team -confident until he saw Tanner running along the catwalk.

"Damn it!" he swore. "I told that kid to stay put!"

Chris watched as Tanner swung a leg over a railing, his rifle slung over his shoulder, then saw him sail through the air, grabbing the railing of an adjacent walk with his good arm, pulling himself up awkwardly.

"Where's he going?" J.D. asked.

Chris scanned the chaos below. He saw Ezra, tucked away and safe for the time being. Buck and Josiah were laying down good cover and Garrison and his men were already surrounding some of Molto's men. He saw Davis down - Tanner had crippled him but left him alive. He realized suddenly that he didn't see Molto.

"Nathan!" he called into his mike. "Keep an eye out for…"

"Molto!" came a shout from above and Chris saw Tanner take a knee and aim at the figure retreating out the back. Molto went down inches from the bay door and Chris took a breath, glancing up at Tanner in time to see his back arch as a shot from behind and below found its mark.

The report of two automatics firing simultaneously brought his attention back down to the ground where one of Molto's men lay in a puddle of blood. Both Buck and Josiah raced from cover to climb the ladder leading to the catwalk.

Chris looked back to where the still form of Vin Tanner lay sprawled on the catwalk, then tore his eyes away to see that Garrison's unit had rounded up what remained of Davis and Molto's gang and J.D. was cuffing an injured Davis.

"Nathan? Vin's down," he spat into the mike.

"On my way," Nathan answered. Chris heard the medic calling in for an ambulance.

Larabee checked on Molto - a clean hole pierced the back of his head. Dead before he hit the ground, Chris thought. He made his way below the catwalk where Buck and Josiah now knelt beside Vin.

"Buck?" he called up to them.

"Lower right side - no exit wound," Wilmington called down anxiously. "Where's Nate?"

"Coming," Jackson called as he hurried in with a medical case in his hand.

"Larabee? What've you got?" Garrison asked coming up beside him.

"One of my men is down," Chris answered.

Garrison peered up at the catwalk.

"When'd you get a sharpshooter?" he asked.

"What?" Chris asked, his attention on Buck and Josiah's efforts to bring Vin down the ladder. He turned back to Garrison. "He's not…I mean, he's a U.S. Marshall on loan."

"That Tanner?" Garrison asked pointing. Chris nodded. Garrison clapped him on the shoulder. "Hell of a shot. If he comes out of this clean I'd sign him up if I were you."

Chris shook his hand as Garrison and his men continued cleaning up. Nathan had a blanket spread down on the ground and waited as Buck and Josiah carried over the unconscious marshall.

Chris, J.D. and Ezra joined them.

"You o.k., Ez?" J.D. asked.

"Not a scratch," Ezra answered.

"Nate?" Chris asked the medic.

"I think the bullet hit the lung," Nathan said, working quickly. "I don't know where it ended up." He looked up at them all. "Someone make sure that ambulance finds us right away."

"On it," said Buck, racing out the door.

Chris knelt beside Vin and took up his right hand. Vin stirred, his eyes sliding open. He coughed and Chris winced at the blood that sputtered out of his mouth.

"You were supposed to stay put," he said gently, wiping the blood away with a sterile pad from Nathan.

Vin looked up at him. His mouth opened, but no sound came out. His eyelids slid closed again. Chris looked at Nathan, the question burning in his eyes.

"I don't know, Chris," Jackson answered.

The team parted as Buck ushered the ambulance in through the bay doors, guiding them to where Tanner lay. Nathan checked pulse and respiration while Chris continued to hold Vin's hand tightly in his own.

The paramedics took over and soon Larabee's men watched helplessly as Vin was transferred to a gurney, the doors of the ambulance closing as the siren started up again.

"He's gonna make it, Chris," Buck said as the ambulance pulled away.

Chris looked at his friend and nodded, searching his own heart for the strength to believe the words himself.

"He has to, Buck," he said quietly. "He has to. Somewhere along the line the good guys have got to win."

+ + + + + + +

It was almost midnight before all the clean-up was done, reports filed, evidence inventoried. Chris had had to meet with Orrin Travis and a representative from the U.S. Marshall's office in Houston. Josiah had been on the phone with Troy Middleton and received a promise from him that he would represent Bobby Anelli 'with pleasure' in his bid for reinstatement.

Larabee had sent Buck and Nathan on to the hospital - Nathan to run interference for them with medical staff, Buck to give Kip Dunning a call when they had more information on Vin's condition. He had kept J.D. with him, and now the two drove in Chris' truck as he punched in the numbers for Nathan's cell phone.

"You want me to drop you at your place?" he asked J.D. as he waited for Nathan to answer.

"Yeah, right," J.D. said sarcastically.

Chris shrugged.

"Buck might be home by now. If not, I can give you call…Nate?" he said suddenly into the phone. "…how long? Did they give you…uh huh."

"What?" J.D. asked.

"He's in surgery yet," Chris told him briefly.

"What does Nate think?" J.D. asked.

"We're about 10 minutes away," Chris said, checking his watch. "Did Buck call Houston? Okay, we'll talk to you in a bit."

Chris slipped his phone into his jacket.

"Nate says nobody's giving him any promises right now. Bullet tore into the right lung. He's lost a lot of blood."

J.D. nodded in silence

+ + + + + + +

Chris and J.D. walked into the waiting room where Josiah, Buck and Ezra sat in the orange plastic chairs that lined the room. Styrofoam cups littered the tables around them. Buck nodded at Chris as he approached, his ear glued to his cell phone.

"Yeah - we'll be here until we know something for sure. You want me to call any time?" Buck smiled into the receiver. "He'll be happy to see you. You give me a call when you pull in and I'll be there to pick you up, alright?" He signed off and looked at the rest of the team.

"Damn - I like those Houston guys," Buck said, shaking his head. "Kip's already got himself booked on a flight here. He and Jerry arrested Beeman. Jerry's staying behind to make sure all the Ts get crossed."

"Where's Nate?" Chris asked, glancing around the room.

"Shaking some trees," Buck answered. "He's gonna see if a doctor will fall out that's willing to part with more than the fact that Vin lost a lot of blood."

"Vin say anything?" Chris asked, accepting a cup of coffee from Josiah as he took a seat.

"According to the paramedics he never came to," Josiah answered.

"It would've been me in that ambulance were it not for Mr. Tanner's superior marksmanship," Ezra said quietly.

"Are you kidding? You'da been in the morgue, Ez," Buck said bluntly. "That was a hell of a shot."

"And we'd be at the bar instead of this damn waiting room if he'd have stayed put," Chris said bitterly.

"We would've missed Molto," J.D. said.

"Maybe. Maybe Garrison would've got him. Or Nate," Chris said tersely. "And maybe he would've gotten away clean. But sooner or later we would've caught up with him without ending up here wondering…"

"If we let him down again?" Josiah finished.

Chris flashed him a furious look as Nathan came through the swinging doors at the end of the hall.

"He's out of surgery," he said, approaching them. "Doc says it looks good. He's not slipping out of here so easily this time, though."

"Can we see him?" J.D. asked eagerly.

Nathan glanced at the clock - 1 a.m.

"Probably not until visiting hours later today," he said. "He won't be awake until then anyway."

"Well I'm gonna go home and catch some shut-eye," Buck said, "I'm beat. I'll wait for Kip's call and bring him in with me when I come back later today. Let's go, J.D."

J.D. nodded. Buck slapped Chris lightly on the shoulder in passing as the two headed out the door.

"I think I'll get some sleep, too," Josiah said. "Maybe I'll give Troy a call later. See how his meeting went with the FBI."

"I'm right behind you Josiah," Nathan said, grabbing his coat.

Only Ezra remained, elbows on knees, staring down at the cold cup of coffee he held in his hands.

Chris sat beside him.

"I'll hang around, Ez, go on home," Chris said, sighing.

Ezra leaned back in the chair, tossing the cup of coffee into a trashcan behind him.

"Thank you, Mr. Larabee, but I prefer to remain close-at- hand myself."

"There's nothing you can do, Ezra," Chris assured him. "He's going to be fine. You'll just end up with a stiff neck from the chairs and indigestion from the coffee."

Ezra eyed him suspiciously.

"And will you be heeding your own advice?"

Chris sighed. He pulled a chair around to prop up his feet, threaded his hands behind his head and leaned back, closing his eyes.

Ezra smiled knowingly.

"I thought not."

+ + + + + + +

Vin brushed a hand across his face. His fingers hooked on the oxygen tube beneath his nose, taped to either side of his face.

"Leave it."

He groaned softly, slowing prying open one eye, and then another, gradually focusing on the man seated at the side of his bed.

"Well?" he rasped, his throat thick with the after-effects of the anesthesia.

"Well what?" Chris asked.

"You gonna yell at me?"

"Would it do any good?"

Vin gave him a tired smile.

"You been here all night?" he asked, ignoring the question.

"Yeah," Chris said, holding up two fingers. "That's two nights of sleep you owe me." He stood, stretching. "Ezra's here, too."

Vin lifted his head quickly to look about the room and immediately regretted it, falling back with a groan.

"Uh-huh," Chris said nodding. "That's right. You're in for the long haul this time, hotshot."

"Ezra's okay?" Vin asked with eyes closed.

"Fine. Everyone's fine. Everyone who stayed put is fine," Chris said with a glare.

"Thought you weren't gonna yell at me," Vin said, opening one eye.

"No, I asked if it would do any good."

"Good morning, gentlemen," Ezra said, entering the room with a cup of Starbucks which he handed to Chris.

"Hey, Ez," Vin said smiling. "Good to see you without a gun in your face."

"It would be better to see you breathing without assistance," Ezra said, "But I'll settle for the fact that you are, indeed, breathing."

"Davis will be processed this morning," Chris said. "Middleton will probably be on the news announcing your innocence by noon."

"You efficiently dispatched Mr. Molto," Ezra added.

"Yeah - I know," Vin said with certainty, closing his eyes again.

Chris shook his head at Vin's confidence in his ability and, taking the cue, tapped Ezra on the arm.

"We'll see you later," Chris said.

"Yeah - okay," Vin answered, already half asleep. "Chris - Ezra? Thanks."

Larabee and Standish left quietly and walked slowly down the corridor. They stopped briefly at the nurse's station to let them know Vin Tanner had been awake, then continued on out the front doors of the hospital.

"What was that?" Ezra asked. "Not even five minutes? It really was unnecessary for us to have tortured ourselves by spending the evening in that waiting room just to say good morning," Ezra said as he scanned the lot for his car.

"Yeah, it was," Chris agreed.

Standish looked back at him.

"Damn glad we did though," he said with a smile.

+ + + + + + +

Three days later Vin was still in the hospital undergoing a rigorous schedule of inhalation therapy to prevent pneumonia as his lung healed. Conveniently, the cast was taken off his arm while he remained hooked up to IVs of antibiotics and machines monitoring his breathing and heart rate.

Kip and at least one or two of Larabee's team had been by every day since he had been admitted. They watched with enthusiasm as Troy Middleton took center stage on the nightly news - first lambasting the FBI for it's handling of U.S. Marshall Tanner's illegal firearms possession charge and then for the injustice done to Agent Robert Anelli.

Tonight it was just Chris - as it often was - watching the evening news as he sat beside Vin's bed listening to the familiar whirring, clicking, and beeping that filled the room.

Vin turned off the television as the Late Show came on and picked up the small rubber ball he was using to get the strength back in his left hand.

"Kip's heading home tomorrow?" Chris asked.

"Yeah. I can't believe he used up so much vacation coming out here," Vin said, shaking his head in wonder.

"I guess you've got some good friends back home."

Vin stopped pumping the ball and looked at Chris.

"What?" Chris asked.

Vin shook his head slightly and went back to working the ball.

"I guess I never thought of it as home," he said, wondering at the thought. "It's where I live, where I work, but…" he shrugged.

Chris watched him for a moment.

"You ever think about relocating?" he asked - and immediately regretted it. Vin stopped working the ball as if he'd been shot. He swallowed hard in the silence and Chris thought desperately for what to say to fill the void - to undo what he'd done.

Vin closed his eyes and sighed.

"I'm kinda tired, Chris," he said finally. "I think I'll call it a day."

"Sure, Vin," Chris said, grateful for the exit. "I'll stop by tomorrow. Buck and J.D. are planning on having a little send-off for Kip here - is that alright?"

"Yeah," Vin said quietly, eyes still closed. "I'll see you then, Chris."

+ + + + + + +

Damn! Chris thought as he made his way to the hospital elevator. He punched the garage button hard, berating himself for the last exchange with Tanner. How could he have been so stupid? He told Orrin his team was complete -he didn't need another hothead to worry about. And Tanner? Tanner was wound so tight - what possessed him to just blurt something like that out to the kid? Of course he'd be spooked. According to Vin, the only guys he trusted were in Houston. So what if he didn't consider it home - it was safe. That's all that mattered to Vin Tanner.

And what was that question all about, anyway? Where did it come from? Did he really think Tanner would join a team after all this? Did Chris really want him?

Chris climbed into the truck and sped off home, windows down, letting the night air refresh him from hours in the stale hospital room. Did you ever think of relocating? There it was again - that stupid question and Vin's response - or lack of response - that kept playing over and over in his mind.

He hardly remembered the drive home, putting the truck in the garage. Before he realized it he was in the stable, brushing Cisco in strong, fluid strokes. He caressed the forelock and was rewarded with a flash of memory - seeing Vin stroke the animal in the same way. Realizing how blissfully in tune the kid had been with the horse. Remembering how much he had wanted to give Vin a chance at the joy and peace his son had known. To give him a chance at being part of something he could believe in. And then it was clear.

That's why he had asked the question. Now it was up to Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Kip Dunning had a 1 p.m. flight out of Denver so they were planning to meet at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, Vin had had a bad night. Chris was concerned when he got the news from the day nurse - concerned he had been the cause of Tanner's restless night. But Dr. Monroe told them all there had been a fluid build-up in the lung that had caused a slight infection. They were treating it heavily with antibiotics and had put Vin through a rigorous inhalation routine at 8 a.m. The doctor recommended they tone down the send-off and give the antibiotics time to work.

J.D. perched on the windowsill in Vin's room. Chris and Buck sat in chairs by the door.

"It figures," Kip said, sitting lightly on the side of the bed. "You'd do anything to get out of a party - even when it's not for you."

"Sorry," Vin smiled weakly. "I know the guys were looking forward to sending you off in style."

Kip shrugged.

"They've treated me so well while I've been here - it would've been hard to top in just a few hours in a hospital room."

"Oh yeah," Buck nodded sarcastically. "Sleeping on a fold-out in my front room -dinners at Gino's - that's high living."

"Hey, the price was right," Kip said to Buck, smiling. He turned back to Vin. "Jerry called last night. Told me to tell you to take it easy - guess I should've given you that message yesterday, huh? Beeman went down squealing - surprise, surprise. You're name is clean as a whistle."

Vin gave a short laugh.

"Right," he said disdainfully.

"Aw, hell, Vin," Kip said. "You know how it is. The brass just…"

"I know, the brass just likes clean-cut Marshall Duddly Do- Rights."

"Hey, man," Kip argued, his eyes narrowing, "Jerry and I don't exactly…"

"I know," Vin interrupted. "I know. I'm sorry, Kip. I just…sometimes I think…I mean, I get so sick of all the…look, I'm just tired, okay?"

"Okay Vin," Kip said uncertainly. He looked over at Chris for a moment, then glanced down at his watch. "I guess with this two-hour security check business I better get going." He took Vin's hand. "Buck? You got one more chauffeur ride in you?"

"All part of the package, Kip," Buck said, rising. "Come on, J.D. - you can play sky cap."

"Aw, Buck," J.D. whined as he followed behind Wilmington. "See you later Vin?"

"Sure, J.D.," Vin said.

"What about me, Vin?" Kip asked, suddenly very serious. "Am I gonna see you later, too?"

Vin glanced at Chris. Larabee didn't fail to notice.

"I'll see you, Kip," he promised. "And thanks."

Kip held the handshake for a while, staring hard back at Vin, searching his eyes for answers. Vin closed them.

"Yeah, right," Kip said. He turned to leave.

"Kip?" Vin called after him. "Tell Jerry thanks for everything, too, alright?"

Dunning turned back slowly.

"Sure, kid," he said, nodding with a quiet smile this time. "I'll tell him." He glanced at Chris again. "I'll tell him everything."

Chris walked over to the bed where Vin lay with his eyes closed. He placed the back of his hand on Tanner's forehead. Vin slid an eye open.

"What's up, Mom?" he asked.

"You've got a fever, cowboy," Chris answered. He looked at the various monitors to find the one that gave Vin's vital statistics. "103.6º according to your little friend over there. I think we'd better tell Dr. Monroe."

"Shit," Vin said with a sigh, shifting painfully in the bed. How much longer is this going to set me back? he wondered.

Chris pulled a chair up next to the bed and gave Vin a long look.

"In a hurry to get back?" he asked.

Vin looked away.

"I heard you yesterday," he answered.

"I know you did," Chris said. He smiled slightly. "Scared the hell out of me this morning - I thought the idea made you sick."

Vin looked back at him.

"That question come from the brass or were you just curious?" he asked.

"Travis has been thinking about it longer than I have," Chris answered. "That's why he had your PF sent over almost a week ago."

Vin eyed him carefully.

"You read it?" he asked slowly.

Chris nodded.

"I was wondering where Tom Clancy got his story lines from."

Vin shook his head.

"You read my personnel sheet?" he asked seriously.

"Told me yourself you had trouble with the brass, I know…" "No - I mean…there's no college on there," Vin said, looking away again.

"You finished the academy."

"Yeah -barely. If it hadn't been for range and response…"

"Did you see Nate or J.D. in the middle of the gunplay the other day?" Chris interrupted him to ask.

"Well, no, but…"

"Everyone has their strengths, Vin. I worry about hiring a guy who made the honor role in English class instead of someone who can shoot the ear off a gnat and Ezra's a dead man," Chris explained.

Chris could see Vin was having trouble keeping his eyes open, and that he was thinking hard on what Larabee was saying.

"Look, let me call Dr. Monroe - see if he can get you something to help with that fever. You don't need to be thinking about this stuff right now, you need to get yourself well and out of that bed." Larabee got up and went to the door to find the doctor.

"Chris?" Vin called to him. He stopped and turned back.

"You think the rest of the guys…" Vin asked hesitantly.

"Yeah, Vin, I do," Chris said smiling. "Hold tight, now, I'll go get the doc."

+ + + + + + +

Larabee walked over to the nurses' station and waited for the young woman seated there - Krista the name badge said - to look up.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

"I just wanted to let someone know -my friend's working on a pretty good fever in there," he said motioning towards Vin's room.

"What's 'pretty good?'" she asked with a kind smile.

"The monitor says 103.6," Chris answered.

She frowned and pulled Vin's chart, then looked at a schedule on her desk.

"Dr. Monroe is just out of surgery. I'll leave a message for him as soon as he returns to his office." She made a call, then picked a stethoscope up from the desk and draped it around her neck. "I'll come take a look myself for now."

"Appreciate it," Chris said, following behind her.

"Mr. Tanner?" she asked as she walked into the room. "Your friend here says you're looking for ways to stick around…" Krista was interrupted by a sudden beeping that came from one of the monitors at Vin's bed. She flicked a switch on the machine and quickly bent over Vin. Suddenly she was punching a red button on the wall by his bed and calling into the intercom.

"I've got a code blue -stat - Room 314," she shouted.

Chris backed against the wall as he heard the rumble of a cart coming down the hall with a flurry of nurses behind it.

"Please leave, Sir," a young man said to him, ushering him out the door.

"What happened? He was just…" Chris sputtered as he felt himself being moved along.

"I've got pulse - no respiration," Krista said to the other two nurses.

"What do you mean - no respiration?" Chris asked, struggling to remain in the doorway.

"Please, Sir, give us room to help him," the male nurse, David, said again, this time closing the door in his face.

Stunned, Chris backed into the hallway and slumped into a chair across from Vin's room just as Ezra Standish glided around the corner. Ezra saw the ashen face of the team leader and froze, the smile on his own face draining away.

"What happened?" he asked, shocked by the look on Chris' face and the sounds of commotion coming from behind the closed door to Vin's room.

"I don't…" Chris muttered, staring at the door. He looked up at Ezra finally. "I don't know," he said. "I think he stopped breathing."

Ezra's eyes narrowed. He shook his head, uncomprehending.

"Stopped breathing?" he asked. "What…he was fine. He was…"

"He had a bad night. I just went to the nurses' station to let them know he was running a fever. When we came back to the room…" he gestured towards the door, then let his hand drop into his lap. He leaned back into the chair, his head thumping lightly on the wall behind him.

"Perhaps we should…" Ezra began.

Chris jumped up, looking past him at the approaching image of Dr. Monroe.

"Doc?" Chris said meeting him at the door. "Something happened - he stopped breathing - the nurse…"

Monroe quickly pushed past him into the room. Chris slid just inside the door behind him and listened as Krista reeled off medical jargon - respiration, bp, bagging, intubate?

The doctor did a quick check of Vin, then nodded to Krista as she handed him a long tube and mouthpiece. Chris watched in shock as the doctor slowly inserted the long tube down Vin's throat as the nurse hooked it up to the oxygen machine beside his bed. Monroe watched the monitors, and Chris saw a look of relief spread from one nurse to another. The two nurses who had come with the cart starting cleaning up empty plastic bags while Krista reset a few of the machines. Dr. Monroe called back to the male nurse and noticed Chris standing inside the door.

"Get me a room downstairs," Monroe said to David. Then, "Mr. Larabee?"

Chris glanced out the door as David left and nodded to Ezra to join him.

"What happened?" Chris asked as he and Ezra moved hesitantly beside the bed.

"It looks like the infection in his lung is worse than we thought," Dr. Monroe said. "I've inserted an airway that will help him breathe while we work on addressing the problem."

"Why did he stop breathing?" Ezra asked.

Monroe shook his head.

"I'm not sure about that right now. I'm moving him downstairs so we can keep a better on eye on him. I'll call Dr. Lawsik in on a consult and hopefully we'll have more answers for you this afternoon. Excuse me," Monroe said, taking a chart from Krista and walking out the door with her.

Chris and Ezra glanced at each other, then moved closer to Vin.

"Damn," Chris swore, as he watched the machine breathe for Vin. "What is it about this kid that keeps him from ever catching a break, Ez?"

"At least this time he's not alone," Ezra said quietly.

"No," Chris answered bitterly. "He's not alone. He's sick, hurt, and laying there with some damn tube shoved down his throat but he's got us to stand by helplessly. I'm sure it's a comfort to him."

"Sarcasm does not become you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said with a sudden edge to his voice that surprised Chris. He looked up at Standish. "Neither does it provide any comfort to Marshall Tanner. I would suggest abandoning that attitude before he regains consciousness. I find it ineffectual and tasteless. Hopeful reassurance is what the current situation warrants. Our presence is all he requires."

+ + + + + + +

Chris left word on Buck and J.D.'s answering machine that Vin was in trouble and had been transferred to a different room. Nathan and Rain were gone for the weekend. He left word with them, too. Josiah had shown up for a visit several hours after Vin had been relocated and followed the paper trail left behind to find Chris and Ezra on the second floor talking to a doctor Josiah didn't recognize.

"…how the abscess developed," the doctor was saying as he approached.

Chris and Ezra nodded at him.

"This is Dr. Lawsik," Chris told Josiah. "He's just explaining what they're going to try with Vin."

The doctor nodded at Josiah and continued.

"We've inserted a tube into the lung to drain the abscess. I'm hoping to avoid going in again. I've upped his antibiotics. The breathing tube will stay in place until that lung is clear," Dr. Lawsik explained.

"What are we talking about here, Doc," Chris asked, his jaw tight. "What's the bottom line?"

"I have every belief he's going to be fine," Lawsik assured them. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I also believe he's going to be here a while. The two procedures we've had to instigate today - the intubation for oxygen and the drain for his lung - are very invasive. They work well, but they're painful. And once they've been introduced the recovery time is automatically lengthened as the body heals not only from the injury or illness that made them necessary, but from the scars the body incurs from the procedures themselves."

"You must hurt to heal," Josiah said gravely.

Dr. Lawsik nodded.

"I'm afraid so," he said. He looked at the three agents again. "It's going to be extremely important that he has a solid support system in place. In cases like this - where the injury is treatable but the treatment intense - family and friends can be the deciding factor in a successful and rapid recovery. Is it safe for me to assume that's going to be one area of his health management I won't have to worry about?"

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra said, turning to Chris with an arched eyebrow.

"We'll handle our end, Doc," Chris said evenly, ignoring him.

Lawsik nodded.

"Positive reinforcement, gentlemen," he said finally, shutting Vin's file. He turned to leave, then looked back at Chris. "I trust that means the three of you will wipe that 'scared shitless' look off your faces before you go into that room."

The three friends watched Lawsik walk to the nurses' station where he turned in Vin's file.

"Well, gentlemen," Ezra said. "It would appear we have our orders."

+ + + + + + +

It was almost 5 p.m. by the time Buck and J.D. made their way down the hall to find Josiah drinking coffee outside Vin's new room.

"What the hell happened?" Buck asked incredulously with a wide-eyed J.D. in tow.

"An abscess in the lung," Josiah explained briefly. "They had to put in a tube for oxygen and another to drain the lung. He's running a fever."

"Did they miss something in surgery?" Buck asked hotly. "Someone screw up?"

"No, Buck, it's just a complication with the kind of injury Vin had," Josiah said calmly. "Don't go barging in there like a caped crusader. That's not what he needs now."

"What can we do, Josiah?" J.D. asked as Buck paced angrily.

"Doc said he'll need a lot of support," Josiah said, eyeing Buck. "Positive support, Buck."

"Yeah, yeah," Buck said. "I know. It's just…"

Josiah put a gentle hand on Wilmington's shoulder.

"Listen," he said. "We all feel the same way. Eating ourselves up over the injustice of it all isn't going to help any. Vin needs to feel our confidence in him - in his recovery. And I'll tell you the truth - that's going to be hard to do. Two steps inside that room you're going to want to put your fist through a wall," he said, swallowing hard. "I finally convinced Chris and Ezra to go home for awhile. They were exhausted. Pumping Vin up in the face of his pain and disappointment is emotionally draining. What you have to decide is how dedicated are you to really helping Vin get through this? 'Cause he doesn't need your pity, he needs your strength."

Buck eyed Josiah carefully.

"Come on, J.D.," he said, staring at Sanchez. "We got a job to do."

Josiah smiled.

"And you're our best man for it, Buck," he said.

Buck and J.D. walked into the hospital room. Monitors, tubes and wires seemed to be everywhere. Vin lay pale and still on the bed, the oxygen tube taped around his mouth. Another tube snaked out from under a gauze bandage on his chest and emptied into a bag on the side of the bed. Another bag, Buck saw, was attached to a catheter that led up under the blankets. Oxygen pumped in a steady rhythm from a machine near the bed. Two IVs dripped silently into Vin's arm. Buck heard a sharp intake of breath behind him and glanced back at J.D.

"You can't handle this, Junior, you wait outside, okay?" he said kindly. "I know you want to help, but passing out isn't going to give Vin much confidence."

J.D. bit the inside of his cheek and glared back at Buck.

"I'm not going to pass out," he said firmly. "I'm going to help Vin."

Buck smiled reassuringly.

"Let's go do some good, then, partner," he said.

Buck pulled a chair up close to Vin's bed and snuck a hand inside the rail. Vin's right hand was curled into a tight fist, his forehead creased in pain. Buck spoke softly before reaching to pry open Vin's hand and clasp it in his own.

"Hey, Marshall," he said with a grin. "What's new?"

Vin opened his eyes slowly and worked to focus on the faces before him. Buck was smiling and he could feel the gentle pressure of his hand. J.D. was smiling, too, but the kid looked green.

God, how he hated this. Hated being here - hated being the cause of so much concern. No wonder he had shunned the aspect of a team so much. It hurt bad enough lying here without thinking about how much it was affecting other people, too.

"Cut it out," Buck said, suddenly stern. "Cut it out, Vin," he repeated. "I can see it in your eyes -don't bother trying to deny it. Face the fact that you've got people here who care about you and just want to see you walk out of here. It's not a burden to us -it's an opportunity to realize just how much you can mean to people. It's how things work around here, Tanner."

Buck saw Vin focusing on what he was saying. He had the kid's attention.

"Would you think any less of J.D. if it was him in that bed looking to us for support? Of course not. You'd be sitting here right beside me giving him all the encouragement he needed. So don't think you're so much different than anyone else. God knows how you did it in such short time, but you managed to make yourself an indispensable part of this team whether you like it or not."

There was movement behind him, and Buck watched J.D. pull up a chair to the other side of Vin's bed. He was happy to see the color had returned to the kid's face as he reached to put a strong hand on Vin's shoulder.

"Yeah - it hurts for me to see you this way. And hurts you to lay there and take it. But I'm telling you this now - and you hear it loud and clear, Marshall - it would hurt both of us a hell of lot more if you pushed me away right now."

Vin stared at Buck, unable to look away. The pain was less, it seemed. More bearable somehow, as he looked into the strong, confident eyes before him. He looked over at J.D. - saw the kid was stronger too, now - and felt the better for it. Vin lifted his jaw - almost imperceptibly - but Buck caught it. He beamed down at Vin.

"Damn straight, Cowboy."

+ + + + + + +

Regardless of every instinct in every member of Larabee's team, work came at 8 a.m. on Monday morning. Their weekend had been consumed with their efforts to bolster Vin as he fought the infection that burned with every breath pumped. But necessary as they knew it was to be there for Tanner, they still had a lot of work to do to complete the case against Davis and Molto - not to mention the assistance Houston required in closing its own files on Tanner's innocence and Beeman's conviction.

Buck had been in contact with Kip and Jerry over the weekend - giving them the disappointing news of Vin's setback. He also wasn't surprised to find the previously easy relationship with them more reserved. Chris had told him about the discussion he had with Vin about joining the ATF -had told him Kip suspected Vin was seriously considering leaving Houston. Buck knew they were good friends and that despite the Houston marshalls' friendship with Vin, their desire to see him work in a system he felt comfortable with, they had to feel as though Larabee's team was stealing a friendship they obviously valued.

"We really appreciate your help on Beeman," Buck said during a phone call early Monday morning with Jerry Neal. "It'd be hard to take care of clearing Vin's name from here."

"Yeah, well," Jerry said, "we try to take care of our own."

Buck felt the uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line.

"Hey, look," Buck said, "Whether it's getting him up on his feet and out of that hospital or finding a place where he can use those God-given talents of his to the best of his ability, we all want what's best for the kid, right?" He heard Neal sigh heavily.

"Yeah. Yeah, we do," he admitted. "Hell, Buck, we know he's not happy here. A couple'a beers and a pizza on Saturday night don't make up for feeling hassled five days a week. Kip said he saw right away how well Tanner fit in with ATF - especially your admin."

"Travis?" Buck asked, confused.

"No, no, what's-his-name?" Jerry asked. "Larabee?" Buck laughed.

"Chris? Our admin? Hell, yeah, I guess he is," he said, somewhat surprised. "But no, we don't think of him like one of the brass. He'd be the last to admit it, but deep down he's a rebel just like Vin. He just learned how to play by the rules a little better, that's all."

"Well, if he can teach Vin that," Jerry said, "it might just save the stubborn kid's neck. And for that we'd owe him big time."

"Hey, he's the first guy we've worked with that actually shut Chris down once or twice," said Buck. "I think they're good for each other."

Jerry laughed now, too.

"Hey Buck? I'm still not saying we're going to let him go without a fight. But I'll admit you guys would be worth losing to," Jerry said. "Until he makes a decision, you guys take good care of him there, alright? Keep us plugged in?"

"You know it, Jerry," Buck promised. He signed off with Jerry and punched in the extension for Garrison. Chris wanted the commander's report on his desk by Wednesday and Buck was going to give him a gentle reminder. He nodded hello to Ezra as he waited for the phone to ring.

"Ed Garrison, please," he said into the phone, then cupped his hand over the receiver. "You stop to see Vin this morning?"

Standish shook his head no.

"I plan to visit during lunch hour," he said, moving to his desk.

"Ed? Buck Wilmington, I'm calling…yeah, well, I'm doing you a favor here, Ed. You don't want a call from Chris right now…" Buck looked at the elevator as Josiah exited and made his way down the aisle. "You see Vin?" he mouthed.

Sanchez shook his head.

"…Yeah, he's still in ICU. Been kinda hard on all of us. I figure a little nudge from me has gotta be better than the sledgehammer you'd get from Larabee…thanks Ed."

Buck hung up the phone and looked around the office. Everyone except Chris. It figured.

"He was still there when I left last night, too," Nathan said, catching Buck's glance.

"They're gonna release Vin and admit Chris the next day the way he's going," Buck said, shaking his head.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat next to Vin's bed with a cup of coffee and the Denver Post. He heard a soft clinking sound and looked up to see Vin tapping the metal rail on his bed with the side of the nursing station call box he held in his hand.

Larabee folded the paper and tossed the cold remains of his coffee into the trash as he got up.

"Hey, Vin," he said with a tired smile.

Vin looked at him, then glanced at the door. Chris looked down to see Vin's thumb motioning him out of the room.

"Well good morning to you, too," he said. "I'm headed to the office. I just wanted to be here when Lawsik made his rounds this morning. He said…" Chris was interrupted as the door opened and Lawsik walked in. "Perfect timing, Doc," he said, shaking the man's hand.

"Mr. Larabee," Lawsik said. He moved over to Vin's bed. "Good news for you this morning Mr. Tanner. The breathing tube comes out today."

Chris saw Vin's eyes brighten. Lawsik turned to him.

"His morning stats look good. We'll take the breathing tube out today, and hopefully the drain will come out tomorrow if he can go 24 hours without a problem." Lawsik spoke to Vin again. "I'm going to find a nurse to give me a hand, then I'll be right back. Hope you don't mind if I take your valet here with me for a bit."

Vin blinked once and waved them both away.

In the hallway, Lawsik flagged down a nurse and asked her to bring a set-up for the removal of the airway, then spoke to Chris.

"It doesn't take long, but it's not too pleasant having this removed. And he's sure to be sore and a little surly afterwards. You might want to say your good-byes before I go back in."

Chris glanced in at Vin and waved, then looked back at Dr. Lawsik.

"Maybe he could use a friend, then?" Chris answered steadily.

Lawsik smiled.

"How long have you two been friends?" he asked, obviously pleased with Chris' response.

Chris laughed.

"I'm not even sure we are yet," he answered truthfully. "For now, we're just associates. I'm hoping he'll take a job for us when he gets out of here, but for now…"

"Well, if this is how you and your friends treat an associate, I'm putting in a transfer to the…what is it? ATF?"

"Sorry, Doc," Chris said with a smile. "We've already got a medic. But I'll keep you in mind if something comes up."

"Geri? Ready?" Lawsik said as the nurse returned. "Let's do this."

There was no room for Chris on either side of Vin - Lawsik was on the left, the nurse Geri on the right, so he settled for positioning himself at the foot of the bed. He felt silly, but placed a strong hand on Vin's ankle. For some reason it seemed important to keep physical contact with Vin - to be sure he knew Chris was there.

"Now, I know you aren't able to cough," Lawsik said to Vin, "But I want you to take a deep breath and then use your throat muscles as if you're going to cough as you blow the air out. You may need to cough up some fluid after we remove the tube - go ahead, don't fight it. The sensation is unpleasant, but it will pass quickly if you get everything out at once. We'll go on three, Mr. Tanner. Ready?"

Vin blinked and Chris tightened his hold. Lawsik counted to three and Vin choked out the tube. The doctor was right -the procedure was rough - but Chris kept his eyes riveted on Vin's face so that as soon as the tubing was removed, Vin saw him standing at the foot of the bed. Vin coughed violently as Geri held a towel to his mouth and Dr. Lawsik held him forward in the bed. Finally the spasms subsided and Vin lay back exhausted. Lawsik nodded approvingly at Geri, took some vitals and replaced his stethoscope around his neck as he picked up Vin's file.

"Ice chips for a while. We'll get you off the feeding tube tonight and start with some soup and the infamous green jello," he told Vin. "Things are looking good, Mr. Tanner. Like it or not, we're going to have you out of here soon."

Vin smiled and tried to talk.

"Ah ah," Lawsik said, shaking his head. "Not for a while yet, okay? Give that throat a little time to heal." He turned to Chris. "A few minutes Mr. Larabee. Then he needs some rest."

Chris thanked the doctor and watched him leave. He crossed to the side of the bed and smiled down at Vin.

"You take it easy. Ezra's coming by around lunch - I'll be back tonight after work," Chris told him.

Vin held up fingers - o.k. Chris nodded and turned to leave but stopped as a strong grip held his arm. He looked back at Vin.

Thanks he mouthed.

+ + + + + + +

It was a long week before Vin received the welcome news that he'd be released Saturday morning. The chest tube had come out the next day - as Dr. Lawsik had promised - and Vin was disappointed that three more days passed before he received his walking papers. Now that the time had come, he sat nervously on the end of his bed, realizing suddenly he had no clothes to go home in. It was with some relief, then, and a little guilt, that he looked up to see Chris Larabee standing in the doorway.

"Ready to go, Cowboy?" he asked. He entered holding a paper bag that he proceeded to unload - sweatpants, sweatshirt, tennis shoes from his apartment.

"We took the liberty of raiding your apartment," he said, tossing an envelope containing Vin's personal effects on the bed beside him. He pulled a package of Fruit of the Looms from the bag. "No one was volunteering for laundry duty so I picked these up along with some socks."

Vin smiled shyly.

"Thanks," he said simply. "I was wondering…"

"Well wonder no more. Here are your clothes and your bed is still unmade from the last time you used it. Didn't anyone ever teach you about good-guest conduct?" Chris asked.

Vin shrugged.

"Most places I've been a guest didn't include a bed," he said, then looked up suddenly from putting on the socks. "Hey - ain't I going back to my place?"

"Hey - no you ain't," Chris answered with mock surprise.

"Why not? I'm not in your custody anymore. Troy told me everything was cleared up."

"Troy didn't put you in my custody," Chris answered.

"I did," said Dr. Monroe as he entered the room. "Good morning, Vin."

"Hi Doc. What's the problem?" he asked.

"Please," said Monroe signing Vin's discharge papers. "I've seen you twice in two weeks - almost lost you the second go-around. You think I'm going to let you out of here on your own recognizance? Guess again, Tex."

"Tex, kid, cowboy…why does everyone around here have trouble using my name?"

"You'd prefer Vincent Ulysses?" Chris asked, trying to hide a smile at the shock on Vin's face.

"How'd you…"

"I think I'll move along," Dr. Lawsik said laughing. "You're all signed out. When the nurse comes you're free to go." Vin could still hear him laughing as he walked down the hall.

"That's not in my file," Vin said. "How'd you…"

"Vin Tanner?" a young man asked from the doorway. "Got your ride. Ready to go?"

"Let's go, Vin," Chris said, heading out the door.

"This ain't finished, yet, Larabee!" Vin called after him as he hastily finished dressing.

+ + + + + + +

By Saturday afternoon Vin was unpacked and standing outside the corral, watching Chris exercise his horses. Chris took the leads off both of them finally and let them run loose, walking to join Vin on the side.

"How're you feeling?" Chris asked, pulling himself up on top of the fence rail.

Vin glanced down at his watch.

"Pretty good," he said nodding approval. He looked up at Larabee. "You made almost half an hour before you asked me that again."

Chris smiled.

"Sorry. Habit," he shrugged.

They watched the horses in an uncomfortable silence.

"I've been thinking about what you said…you know," Vin said hesitantly.

Chris waited quietly for him to continue. Vin glanced at him, then back at the horses.

"Ya'll been good to me here."

Chris let the silence continue.

"I lived a lot of places," he said quietly. "I don't think I ever expected to fit in anywhere. I think after a while I just stopped trying. Less disappointing, you know?"

"You seem to fit in pretty easy here," Chris offered carefully. "Considering the company, that's saying a lot," he smiled.

Vin continued watching the horses run.

"Other than Kip and Jerry, it's not like I have any real ties to Houston. Like I said, I never really thought of it as 'home' or anything."

Chris nodded.

"How hard would it be to get used to the idea of this being home?" he asked finally.

There was no answer from Vin.

Chris jumped down from the fence and called the horses to him. He put their leads back on and opened the corral to lead them back to the stable. He paused in front of Vin again.

"If it makes a difference to you -it'd be hard for us to get used to the idea of this not being your home."

Vin watched Chris walk the horses into the stable. He heard car doors slam and saw the rest of Larabee's team arriving - and smiled.

+ + + + + + +

Saturday evening caught Chris smiling, too. As usual, his place had become the base camp for a get-together with the team - all celebrating the fact that Vin had finally been released. Chris was amazed at how comfortable the group was together - it was almost hard to remember a time before Vin Tanner. It made him feel good - until he thought back to their conversation in the corral. There was still nothing in stone that said Tanner would leave Houston.

Orrin had been to see Chris several times in the last few days - checking on Vin and feeling out the possibilities of a transfer. Chris knew with Travis he had the backing of all the brass he'd need to get the paperwork taken care of. But he was less sure of Vin's position on the matter.

He looked up to see Buck and Vin coming towards him, a rifle in Vin's hand, two beers in Buck's.

"Where are you two going?" Chris asked as they edged past him to the back door.

"I'm going to see if I can hit one of your targets while I'm riding Cisco," Vin said, opening the door.

Chris moved around them and slammed the door shut with his hand, grabbing one of the beers from Buck.

"You're kidding, right?" he asked, amazed. Buck and Vin looked at each other, then back at Chris.

"What?" they asked in unison.

"What? What?" Chris sputtered. "He just got out of the hospital, Buck. His wrist's been broken, his lung torn apart - what're you thinking? And YOU!" he said, shouting at Vin. "You damn-near died in there, you know. You've ridden a horse one time and now you think you're going to go out there and play Lone Ranger? You're crazy! Both of you! And you can forget about the beer, yet, Vin -come on, you know that!"

"See?" said Buck suddenly, pointing at Chris' forehead. "That vein there. When that pulses? You've had it. I usually have to give it two or three tries to get to that point but you're good - you got it right away!" he said, impressed, clapping Vin on the shoulder.

"Out," Chris said quietly. "Now."

Buck turned Vin around quickly and headed him back towards the living room.

"I don't mess with that deadly quiet shit," Buck muttered to him as they left. "I'm strictly a 'get him to blow up and then split' man myself. But you got talent, boy, you could take it to the next level."

+ + + + + + +

After supper they sat around the television watching the Elway-less Broncos struggle against the Rams.

"You'll have to start stocking up on Bronco T-shirts and caps, Vin. There's no room for Dallas fans on this couch," Buck said, opening another beer.

"You're more than welcome to join me at the theater on game day, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said with disdain. "I require no such statement of allegiance from my guests."

"Come on, Buck," J.D. said, defending Vin. "You don't give Josiah a hard time."

"No one gives a Colts fan a hard time," Buck said. "They've got enough problems of their own."

"Don't let him get to you, Vin," Josiah said. "Halfway through the season last year Buck was looking long and hard at the green and gold."

"After what Johnny did to them in the Super Bowl? Hah!" said Buck.

"You'd give your right arm for Favre, Buck, admit it," J.D. chided him.

"We weren't talking Favre, we were talking Green Bay," Buck explained. "Favre is an institution unto himself."

J.D. shook his head and smiled at Vin.

"You still plan on keeping that place in Purgatorio?" Nathan asked. "There's an apartment opening up in our building next month if Chris doesn't mind you sticking around here for a week or two."

"Yeah, Vin, you gotta move out of there. You're just asking for trouble," Buck advised.

Vin glanced at Chris, but the team leader could read nothing in his usually expressive eyes.

"There's a condo for sale in my building," Ezra offered, "if you're more interested in an investment."

"If he is," Buck interrupted, "he's not gonna invest in that place Ezra. He'd be as uncomfortable as hell around all those stuck-up…"

"I assure you…"

"Aww -don't 'assure me' nothin', Ez," Buck interrupted.

"Hey," Chris said, uncomfortable with where this was all going. "Let's leave him alone, huh? It's his first day out of the hospital. Maybe he could use some time to get his bearings again?"

"He's right here, Larabee," Vin said, suddenly - and inexplicably - irritated.

"Sorry, Vin, yeah, I know…" Chris apologized.

"I happen to like the place in Purgatorio. I like my neighbors. You guys got a problem with that?"

"No, No Vin," they chorused.

"And I as to football," Vin continued, standing. "I'll cheer for whatever team I damn well please, alright Buck?"

"Yeah, sure, kid, I…"

"And that's another thing. It's Vin. Not Kid. Not Tex. Not Cowboy. Not hotshot. Not…" he paused, daring Chris to speak. "It's Vin," he finished.

"Of course, Vin," Josiah said. "We're sorry if…"

"Take it easy, Vin, the guys are just…" Chris interrupted. He was starting to feel a little defensive of his men - of these men who had done so much to make Vin feel at home. He stood to face Tanner.

"Look. I just don't like how everyone around here assumes I'm staying all of a sudden," Vin said hotly.

"Well?" asked Chris.

"Well what?" Vin shot back.

"Are you?" Chris asked pointedly. "Staying?"

"I expect so," Vin answered without hesitation.

"Fine then."

"Fine," Vin nodded. He turned towards the others, then spun back to face Chris.

"And one more thing… I don't want you comin' back a month from now sayin' you're sorry you hired me. Nobody's takin' away my Harley, nobody's makin' me get a haircut, nobody's tellin' me where to live. You want my gun, you get me. Take it or leave it. I ain't changin' into some ATF do-right clone…"

"I resent that," Buck whispered to Ezra.

"I'm pretty sure we all should," Ezra whispered back.

"…that asks how high when you say jump," Vin finished.

Chris nodded.


Vin stared back at him, waiting for a fight. There was none.

"Alright then," he said, sitting down again.


Buck looked over at Ezra in awe.

"Good God, Ez, it's him," he said.

Ezra, and the rest of the team, looked back at him.

"Who?" Ezra asked finally.

"Vin," Buck answered with a smile, his hand extended out in introduction to their new team member. "Our Deliverer."

The End