by Cmurph

+ + + + + + +

"Damn," Buck muttered to himself as he rummaged through the pocket of his jacket. He'd left his office keys at home again and needed to check a file in the locked cabinets at the end of the room. It was 5:15 p.m. - almost everyone had left already. Ezra and Josiah were off to visit Vin, Nate to pick up Rain, J.D. had a programming class. He and Chris were the only ones that remained, and Chris was in a budget meeting that was running late - as usual.

Wilmington knew Chris kept the extra keys in his desk. He took one quick look down the hall to make sure Larabee wasn't coming and slipped into the team leader's office.

Sitting behind the desk, Buck pulled open the middle drawer and saw the key ring.

"Bingo!" he said, snatching them from the tray. He was pushing himself away from the desk when his eyes caught sight of the folder open on it. It had Vin's name on it. Buck turned it around to open it and was stopped cold by the draft of a letter that rested on top of the other items in the file.

Chief Danvers:

 0; I am submitting here a formal request for reconsideration of your denial

of a recent Finding of Cause for the reexamination of Special Agent Vincent U.

Tanner. It is my hope that the attached documents will prove conclusive in

affording Agent Tanner special dispensation in taking the final exam...

"What are you doing?" Chris asked, startling Buck. Wilmington looked up, a feeling of guilt riding over him for getting caught nosing into Vin's business. It was quickly replaced by anger as the full implication of what he had been reading hit him.

"They're not going to let him test, are they?" he said, barely controlling the rage and bewilderment that threatened to overwhelm him.

"That's none of your business, Buck," Chris said, pulling the file away from him and rearranging its contents.

"The hell it isn't," Buck hissed. "It's the business of every man on this team who's sat with Vin the past three weeks, trying to help him take his mind off the pain and frustration he's dealing with every damn day over there. We're pulling every agonizing inch along with him. They deny Vin, they're denying all of us. Or do you feel different?"

"You know I don't," Chris shot back. "But I'm handling it, alright?"

"What's their excuse this time? It taking too long for Vin to regain the use of the leg that got shot out from under him by our own agent?" Buck asked.


"Or they don't want him to take the damn written test even though he's out-performed half the guys the ATF employs already?"

"Orrin and I..."

"You and Travis. Yeah. Seems to me you both were gonna handle this from the start..."

Wilmington took the right-hand fury that flew from Chris square in the jaw and fell back against the wall. He shook his head to clear it and worked his jaw back and forth with his hand as he looked up at Chris.

Larabee seemed as shocked as Buck. Where had that right cross come from? Surely not his own hand?

"Well, hell, Chris, maybe you should save some of that for Gaines," Buck told him.

"Buck, I..." Chris started, reaching a tentative hand out to help his old friend up.

"Forget it, Chris. I was out of line," Buck said grasping his hand to haul himself back into the chair. "I know you're worried about the kid, too."

Chris allowed himself to sink into the chair across from his desk. He looked up into Wilmington's eyes.

"I'm doing everything I can, Buck. So is Travis - you've got to trust me on this. Trust Orrin, too," Chris said.

"How close is he to retirement?" Buck asked with a shrug. "I guess you don't bite the hand that's holding your pension."

"I know," Chris nodded. "I hate the thought of having to put Vin's future up against things like pensions and careers."

"You're forgetting that there's more to Vin than this office. You told him from the start we'd be there for him despite whatever happened here."

"You really think he'd fight as hard as he has been for anything less than another chance at this office?" Chris asked.

Buck looked away, answering in silence.

"Ezra's been talking to some special education therapist in his condo. Asking her about working freelance with Vin. J.D.'s bugging me about buying some computer that's voice- activated. Nate's been breaking down the physical exam based on the strength requirements so Vin can mentally apply his physical therapy towards specific tasks he'll have to perform for the test. Josiah's talking to Troy to see if there's any legal recourse for Vin in having to take the test at all. Do you see anyone around here willing to accept anything but the fairytale ending?"

Buck's answer - if he'd had one -would've been cut off by the ringing of Chris' cell phone. Larabee pulled out the phone and clicked it on.

"Larabee...What happened?" Chris looked over at his friend, his face a mask of concern. Buck straightened up and waited.

"What does Matthews say?...I'm on my way." Chris punched off the phone and grabbed his jacket from the coat rack.

"That was Ezra. Vin's trying to leave the Institute."

"What?" Buck called, running after him into the elevator. "Why?"

"I know it's been a bad week for him. I guess the therapist said he's hit a plateau and that can be hard to overcome. But today about an hour after he finished his last therapy session he called Dr. Matthews to tell him he was checking out."

"Can he do that? I mean, what does the doctor say?" Buck and Chris walked to their cars parked next to each other in the underground basement.

"Matthews isn't happy. I've gotta get there before Vin blows every chance he's got," Chris said, climbing into his car.

"Right behind you," Buck said.

+ + + + + + +

"You called Larabee, didn't you?" Vin barked angrily as Standish returned to his room.

Josiah had been pleading their case for the past hour and stood ready to intercept Vin if he tried to leave. Matthews stood, arms folded as they faced a stoic Vin Tanner, stalling for time until Chris Larabee could come and talk sense to the man.

Vin hobbled about the room using a metal crutch as he pulled his street clothes from the closet. Ezra wondered how Vin proposed to dress in the blue jeans that lay scattered across the bed with his knee encased in the metal cage supporting it. But Vin was already running out of steam. The evening therapy session had clearly exhausted him beyond all measure. It was obvious Vin was in no physical condition to go anywhere. But psychologically, he was walking out on the program.

"What happened, Vin?" Josiah asked for the third time. So far all he'd gotten for an answer was silence. Vin would look at Sanchez, at Standish, then just shake his head and continue to stubbornly pack his things.

"Vin. I know you're sick of hearing this. But it is a plateau. It's hard to overcome, but..." Matthews explained.

"Yeah," Vin interrupted. "You're right. I'm sick of hearing about it. Look, Doc, I appreciate everything you and your staff have done, and now I'm leaving."

"Isn't getting back full use of your leg worth the fight anymore?" Matthews asked.

"What am I gettin' it back for, Doc?" Vin exploded.

"For the job, Vin," Josiah said, resting a hand on his shoulder. "You know that. It's a lot to go through, but we'll be with you. We'll work with you until you get the chance to prove to the brass you can make it on your own."

Vin shook his head with a bitter laugh. He looked up as the door to his room opened.

"That how it's going to work Larabee?" Vin asked him point blank.

Josiah and Ezra looked to Chris for the confirmation they needed to keep Vin at the Institute. With shock they saw the uncertainty in the eyes of their leader - saw the guilt in the eyes of Buck Wilmington who stood behind him.

"Mr. Larabee, care to elucidate?" Ezra asked, leveling his own gaze at Chris.

"Everyone out," Chris said to his men, then, looking to Dr. Matthews. "Doctor, if I could talk to him for a minute?"

Matthews nodded reluctantly. He passed close by Chris' shoulder as made his way to the door.

"Talk fast and well, Mr. Larabee," he murmured as he left.

"Chris..." Buck said, unwilling to let his friend face Vin's wrath alone.

"Let me handle it, Buck," Chris told him, his eyes never leaving Vin.

+ + + + + + +

"What happened?" Josiah asked Buck as they congregated outside Vin's hospital room.

"We checked the visitor's book for Vin. Gaines was here," Buck told them.

"Yeah, we saw that too," Josiah said, nodding at Ezra. "But what does that have to do with Vin wanting to leave?"

"They're denying him a chance to retest," Ezra concluded, looking at Buck.

Wilmington shrugged.

"I didn't get the whole story. Something is up, that's for sure, but Chris didn't get a chance to tell me everything before you called," Buck told them. "I did see a letter on Chris' desk that was asking for them to reconsider..."

Their conversation was interrupted by the muffled shouts coming from the room. The agents looked at each other, embarrassed to be hearing the confrontation, embarrassed that it was taking place because of the red tape in their department.

"Let's get something to drink," Josiah suggested. The others eagerly accepted the suggestion and moved off to the cafeteria.

+ + + + + + +

"So, you're gonna elucidate, huh?" Vin snarled as the door closed behind Buck. "I think Gaines made things pretty clear already. Even for a dumb bastard like me."

"Listen, Vin," Chris said, trying to stay calm in the face of Vin's anger.

"I'm pretty much done listenin' to you Larabee. It may take a little longer, but even an idiot figures out not to pet a dog after he gets bit twice."

"I was coming to talk to you today. I don't know why Gaines felt he had to come down here. I knew you'd take it wrong..."

"Take it wrong? How else do you take 'I'm sorry you won't be rejoinin' us'?"

"He doesn't have all the information Vin," Chris explained.

"Oh, and you do, huh? Apparently you didn't have the information that caused this whole mess to begin with. What makes you think you've got it now?"

"If you'd calm down long enough..."

"For what? To hear more promises?"

"Just sit down and listen to me, will you? Wait for..."

"Wait? Wait for what?" Vin said. He threw clothes into a duffel bag. "You want me to hang around here and get the other knee shot out? You need me for a shield against some other agent with a dead son and a grudge against you?"

Chris froze as if he'd been struck. The anger within enveloped him in a red haze.

"The hell with you," he said to Vin. "You're not some kid getting the short end of the stick anymore. You're a grown man. Old enough to know nothing in life is certain and little of it is easy. You want to pretend you're the only one who got a bad roll in life? Fine. You want to blame everything that happens to you on someone else? Go ahead. I was wrong to guarantee you a spot on the team without taking the exam. It's my fault Prichett singled you out. My fault you got the bullet in your knee. My fault for telling you getting back on the team would be a piece of cake. But how straight were you with me? Who lied about the GED? About the dyslexia? About Austin?"

Vin stopped packing. He leaned forward on the bed as if he'd been punched in the stomach.

"Get out," he said without looking up.

The door opened and closed.

+ + + + + + +

"We're out of here," Chris said, pausing long enough in the cafeteria to tell his men it was time to go.

"What about Vin?" Buck asked as the three men stared back at him. "Did you convince him to stay?"

"I have no idea what he's going to do," Chris said. He turned back into the hallway and started walking.

"What do you mean? What happened?" Buck said running to catch up as Josiah and Ezra trailed behind them.

"He told me to get out. I got out," Chris answered.

"What happened with Gaines?" Josiah asked.

"Gaines told him he was sorry Vin wouldn't be rejoining the ATF," said Chris.

"What? Is that true? Buck said..."

Chris stopped on a dime, Wilmington almost running into him from behind.

"What'd you tell them?" he asked Buck.

"I told them I saw the letter asking for reconsideration of a denial of a Finding of Cause addressed to Gaines," Buck told him.

"Just lying about, huh?" Chris said, glaring. "Did it occur to you when you opened the file and read the letter that it was private information? The fact that you read it in my office, on my desk, in Vin's file didn't stop you so why not tell everyone else?"

"I'm sorry, Chris, but we're all concerned about Vin. We just want to see him back on the team," Wilmington said, apologizing.

"Is that going to happen, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.

The three men looked at the team leader. Chris looked back at them, his mind racing over the conversation he'd had with Vin.

"I wouldn't put money on it Standish."

+ + + + + + +

Two days later Chris got a call from Dr. Matthews. Vin was gone. He'd met for a long time with the surgeon but in the end there was nothing Matthews could do to keep him against his will. As far as the pro bono work, Vin had gone through with the operation and the required three weeks of rehab. Matthews would've liked another two, but he had no legal recourse to make Vin stay. He'd checked out early in the morning, calling for a cab.

"You check his place in Purgatorio?" Buck asked Chris as he told the men that evening at the end of the shift.

"No," Chris answered.

"So what, we're back to square one?" J.D. asked angrily. "Vin gets stiffed, and we fold on him?"

"This time he threw the hand in, J.D.," Chris said. "I told him Gaines didn't have the whole story. He didn't want to listen."

"Can you blame him?" Nate asked. "We haven't exactly offered him a smooth ride..."

"We offered him our friendship, Nate," Chris argued. "That's the only positive we had to give him from the start. If that's not worth fighting for..."

"He's been fighting all his life," Ezra interrupted. "Perhaps he felt friendship should be more easily attained."

"What the hell's easy about friendship, Ezra?" Chris asked. "It's not unconditional. It's not free. It takes work. It requires give and take. It works best when it's based on honesty - even when it hurts. I was never anything but honest with him."

"If this is about the dyslexia..." Ezra began.

"It's about more than that Ez. This time I'm the one with a few more pieces to the puzzle," Chris told him.

Buck's cell phone rang in the silence of the squad room.

"Wilmington," he said into the phone. He looked up at the others. "Where are you now? - - -We're on our way."

"Vin?" asked J.D. hopefully.

Buck shook his head.

"No. But he made contact," Buck said as he grabbed his jacket and took J.D. by the arm. "Come on, kid. We're going to pick up Nettie Wells at the airport." He stopped and turned to Chris. "Unless you want..." He stopped at the look Larabee gave him. "No. I didn't think so."

+ + + + + + +

Buck waved as Nettie Wells walked through the busy Denver terminal to meet them.

"Oh Buck," she said as she hugged him, drawing strength from his embrace. "Did you see him yet?" she asked.

"Thought I better use you as a shield," he told her, taking her bag. "He's not really talking to us right now."

She nodded and looked around Buck's shoulder.

"This must be J.D.," she said with a tired smile. "You're the one who found me."

"Yes Ma'am," J.D. said, taking her hand. "Sure wish we could've met under happier circumstances Miss Wells."

"It's Nettie. And so do I, J.D."

Buck steered her towards the parking garage.

"When'd he call you?" Buck asked as they walked.

"Late last night," Nettie said as they walked to Buck's car. "He told me - or tried to tell me - what happened. He was drunk."

J.D. shot the woman a look across the car as they waited for Buck to open the lock.

"I've seen him drunk before, J.D.," Nettie said, waving a hand. They got into the car. "But it's been years. He was furious, then almost on the verge of crying, then furious again. Mostly the alcohol made him incoherent."

"You sure he was calling from his apartment?" Buck asked as they drove towards Purgatorio.

"I heard him over the phone, trying to pay a pizza delivery man." She laughed bitterly. "I think Vin gave the kid a $20 tip."

"This business with the ATF - we don't know the whole story either, Nettie. And Chris isn't talking," Buck told her apologetically.

"That can wait. I have no doubt Mr. Larabee is doing all he can. Or was doing all he could. That's why I'm here. To straighten this mess out and get the boy talking again. Whether he wants to admit it right now or not, Chris Larabee is the best friend he could have. And the most important. I'm here to make him realize that."

"They had words at the hospital, Nettie. I think Chris might need some convincing, too," J.D. said.

"Then I'll take care of that, too," Nettie said confidently. She laughed at J.D.'s expression of surprise. "That's what I do, son. I take care of Vin. Lord knows it's a full time job."

They rode the rest of the way in silence.

+ + + + + + +


Buck knocked again on the door of the third-floor walk-up in Purgatorio.

"Vin? It's Buck. I got Nettie with me. Open up."

He knocked again.

"Vin Tanner open this door," Nettie shouted firmly, knocking on the door herself.

There was a muffled sound coming from within, but none of them could make it out.

"Vin? You okay?" Buck asked, concerned.

Bottles clanked, there was a sound of glass breaking. They heard a groan, but still no movement towards the door.

"We're breaking in, Nettie," Buck said, moving her to the side.

Nettie put a hand on his arm and turned the doorknob. It opened easily. She smiled slyly as she looked up at them.

"Always try the easy way first. What kind of cop are you?" she asked.

The three walked into the apartment and stared about it in fascinated revulsion. Empty beer and vodka bottles littered the floor along with half an uneaten pizza. Buck moved quickly through the apartment until he found an unconscious Vin lying face down on the bathroom floor. A broken bottle lay beneath his hand, blood from a cut on his hand pooling together in a puddle of warm beer.

"J.D. - I need a hand," he called behind him. J.D. made his way gingerly through the mess. Nettie followed close behind.

"Maybe you better wait here, Ma'am," J.D. told her as he saw Vin's feet protruding from the bathroom.

"Seen him dead drunk before, J.D. Not a sight I relish, mind you, but one I'm familiar with," Nettie assured him.

J.D. came up behind Buck just outside the small bathroom.

"Holy cow, Buck," J.D. said, looking at the mess. He spotted the blood on the floor.

"He okay?" he asked.

Wilmington ran a towel under the faucet, then gingerly turned Vin's hand over. He wiped the blood away, revealing a deep cut almost two inches long on the palm of Vin's hand before blood pooled again to conceal it.

"Lucky we came when we did. It'll need stitches," Buck told them, pressing the towel against the cut to stem the flow of blood.

"Should I call an ambulance?" J.D. asked.

"No. Let's get the blood stopped, clean him up, sober him up a little - if we can, then drive him in ourselves," Buck said. "Maybe call Nathan. But let's get him cleaned up and onto the bed, first. Nettie? We may need you, too."

Carefully they pulled Vin into a sitting position. Buck wrapped a new towel around Vin's hand, then wrapped his arms around Vin and under his arms. J.D. took Vin's right leg, carefully supporting the healing knee. Nettie took the other as they lifted Vin and carried him into the bedroom.

"Now get me a bowl of soapy water, a bowl of rinse water, a washcloth and towel and leave me be for a bit," Nettie ordered.

Buck and J.D. looked at each other.

"What?" Nettie asked. "Ain't nothin' any mother wouldn't do for her son. You think he'd be any less embarrassed to know you two done it? Go on. Make your call to Nathan."

J.D. got the water and towels for Nettie while Buck went to make coffee, tucking his cell phone under his chin as he worked.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat at the bar, a glass of untouched whiskey before him. He knew the liquor held no answers for him, and right now, answers were what he needed most.

What should he do about Vin? Maybe this just wasn't meant to be. Maybe the kid should go back to Houston. After all, it hadn't exactly been an easy road from the start. Now there was more mess, more secrets, more obstacles to overcome - and for what? For a kid he didn't even know could really cut it? He had a past that kept throwing them curve balls. Chris had a good team going. He didn't need this extra hassle. That's what he'd told Orrin from the start. So what happened? What suddenly made him think having Vin Tanner on his team was worth fighting for?

You know darn well what it was.

Came the familiar voice that spoke from his heart. Whenever he doubted, whenever he wanted to throw it in, that voice came to him - his second conscience. Sarah.

He brought something alive in you again - the need to protect - feelings you haven't had since the three of us made a home together. Grown man or not, he needed you, and that felt...

"Good," he said to himself.

And how did it feel when Buck asked you if you wanted to check on Vin? When you answered with that icy stare of indifference?

Chris sighed.

"Like crap," he said again, quietly. His cell phone rang.

"We're at his place," came the voice of his old friend. "He's in pretty rough shape. We're going to have to take him to Mercy for a couple stitches. Might be nice if you gave us a hand." The phone went dead.

Chris eyed the whiskey, then took out a five and balanced it on top of the untouched shot glass.

+ + + + + + +

"Nate said keep the pressure on and run him into Mercy," Buck said, returning to the bedroom where Nettie sat next to a conscious, but barely functioning Vin, helping him pull a clean T- shirt on.

"I'm okay," Vin murmured, blushing.

"Uh-huh," Buck said nodding, ignoring him and turning back to Nettie.

"You need any help getting him in a new pair of pants?" Buck asked her.

"These'll do," she answered, nodding down at the sweatpants Vin wore.

"I can call a cab," Vin said, avoiding their eyes.

"Uh-huh," Buck said again. "Hold your hand above your heart."

Vin cradled his hand against his chin.

"We need to bring anything along for the ride? I don't want him pukin' in my car," Buck said to Nettie.

"I'm right here, you know," Vin said irritably. "You can ask me."

"I trust Miss Nettie's judgement a little more than yours right now," Buck answered, allowing his disappointment in Vin to show through.

Tanner didn't miss the attitude, and blushed again.

"He's got nothin' inside left to lose," Nettie told Buck.

"Buck?" came a call from J.D. Wilmington turned on his heel and strode back into the front room. Chris Larabee stood in the doorway.

"How bad is he?" Chris asked.

"Cut his hand pretty good. Nate can't get away right now - some family thing for Rain. Told me to keep his hand wrapped and elevated and take him into Mercy," Buck answered.

Chris looked around at the debris J.D. was working to remove.

"Did a pretty good job of it, I see," Chris said.

Buck nodded.

"Had a pretty good reason."

Chris took a deep breath and sighed.


Buck led him into the bedroom where Nettie had helped Vin to sit on the edge of the bed, his head hanging. Vin saw the black boots of the team leader and shook his head. Slowly he raised it to meet Larabee's gaze.

"You gonna tell me how stupid I am too?" Vin asked.

"I don't remember anyone here calling you stupid," Nettie admonished him. "'Course, if that's how you feel I don't think anyone would disagree with you."

"Let's get him to the car," Chris said.

"You gonna lecture me now or later?" Vin asked as Buck and Chris each took an arm over their shoulders.

"Shut up, Vin," Buck said, exasperated. "You're gonna make me wish we left you on the bathroom floor."

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat in the exam room with Vin as they waited for the doctor. Vin sat on the bed, his one hand cradled in the other, his right leg stretched out delicately before him. Twice he had glanced guiltily at Chris who sat paging through a battered year-old People magazine.

"What?" Chris asked without looking away from the magazine.

"Nothing," Vin said sullenly. He squeezed his eyes shut, rubbed his right hand across them, then went back to holding his left wrist.

"Maybe you'll get lucky and they'll give you a subscription for some painkillers," Chris said, turning a page. "Unless you plan on chasing them down with a beer."

Vin made a face at the sarcastic remark. He glanced at Chris again.

"How'd you find out about Austin?" Vin asked finally.

Chris tossed the magazine onto a side table and looked hard at Tanner.

"Like most things with you. Second hand."

Vin looked away.

The door opened and an ER doctor and nurse came into the room. They went about their business quickly and quietly, asking Vin questions, cleaning the wound. The nurse gave Vin a shot to freeze his hand and the doctor went to work stitching the cut.

The nurse wrapped the hand and put Vin's arm in a sling, instructing him to wear it for 24 hours.

"Stop at the nurses' station on your way out. Dr. Corey will leave a prescription for pain there," she told Vin.

"I don't need it," Vin told her.

"Your call," she said. "But it's better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it." She smiled at Chris, shaking her head, and left the room.

Chris got up and grabbed one of the crutches J.D. had brought along from Vin's apartment. He secured the metal cuff around Vin's bicep as Vin grasped the handle. Chris moved next to him to steady Tanner on the left. Vin glanced at Chris.

"Or don't you need me, either?" Chris asked him.

Vin looked at him, feeling the blush rise in his face.

"I'm sorry, Chris," he said softly.

"Well. We're back to Chris. That's progress. I can only stand one of my agents calling me 'Larabee.'"

Vin looked back at him, surprised.

"I didn't think..."

"Yeah, I noticed," Chris said, interrupting him. He allowed Vin a small smile. "Let's get out of here. We've got a lot of talking to do."

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Buck sat in the front seat of the van. Nettie sat behind them with Vin, and J.D. brought up the rear. They rode back to Purgatorio, stopping at Nettie's insistence at an all-night pharmacy to pick up the prescription for Vin.

When they pulled up in front of Vin's apartment they saw a lone figure standing outside, leaning against a familiar Harley V-Rod that shone in the light of the street lamps.

"Damn," Vin whispered as the van pulled to a stop. Buck helped Vin out of the vehicle and handed him his crutch.

Ezra stood as the small party approached him. In silent awe, Vin stroked his hand across the leather of the seat, admiring the new tires, the wax job, the glistening upholstery. He looked at Ezra and swallowed hard.

"I made a few shipping arrangements while you were convalescing," Ezra explained. "And it appeared to be in need of some refinements."

Vin felt suddenly overwhelmed - the stress of the last few days, the aftermath of his recent bender, the dull throbbing that was returning to his knee, his hand, his head. And now this supreme gesture he felt he in no way deserved, bruising his heart.

"I...I can't..." he stuttered.

"Not right now, obviously. It was to be your 'welcome home' gift. However, I felt that perhaps it would provide some much-needed incentive following recent events. I fear you'll need to return to the care of Dr. Matthews et. al. for further therapy before you'll be able to ride. Fortunately, the good doctor has a room waiting for you."

Vin remained dumbstruck as his friends surrounded him. Ezra smiled at Vin's reaction to his largesse. It had been worth every penny.

"Come on, Evel," Chris said, placing a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Let's get you to bed." He shot a look of admiration, and thanks, to Standish. "Apparently we've got a road trip tomorrow."

Vin looked up at them all and nodded.

+ + + + + + +

Less than 24 hours later, Nettie was amazed at the transformation that had taken place since arriving in Vin's apartment the night before. Now she sat in his room at the Orthopedic Institute surrounded by Vin's friends. He was already back on his therapy schedule. He suffered silently through a lecture from Dr. Matthews. She had finally met all of Chris Larabee's team and approved heartily of each of them. Josiah had even moved her to the guestroom in his lower flat, concerned about her safety in staying at Vin's alone.

Now, one by one, they filtered out, back to their homes after having welcomed their prodigal friend back to the fold. Buck, Chris, Ezra and Josiah were left.

"When you're ready you can pick me up in the cafeteria," Josiah told Nettie as he shook Vin's hand.

"Thanks for looking after her Josiah," Vin said.

"My pleasure. Nice to have the company for a time," Josiah answered. He smiled once more at her and closed the door behind him.

"I think you've sparked a little interest there, Miss Wells," Chris said with a smile.

"Josiah? Way too young for this old bird," she said laughing.

"I hear he likes mature women," Buck said.

"Honey, I passed mature 20 years ago. I'm more along the lines of 'well-preserved' now."

"You gonna be okay?" Vin asked, taking her hand.

"I don't know. Are you gonna pull any more fool stunts while I'm here?"

"Nettie..." Vin said with a sigh.

"Come all the way up here to visit and I gotta help haul you out of the toilet like some street lush."

"I'm sorry, Nettie, Jesus Ch..."

The three friends were shocked as the old woman's hand shot out slapping Vin squarely on the side of his face.

"What's with you boy?" she asked angrily. "There's no end to the nonsense lately. Here you come running down to me -running away from friends who wanted to help you. Running out on this hospital -that good doctor that agreed to help you for free - for free! When Lord knows you'd be crippled for life on the care you could've afforded on your own. Got yourself drunk. Could have bled to death on that floor if Buck hadn't raced us over. Now you think you can take the name of the Lord God in vain in front of me?"

She looked around at the others who stood dumbstruck in the face of her anger. "What must they think?" she continued in her barrage. "What must these fine men think of how I raised you? No better than some street punk. I took you off the streets to keep you from that life and you turn around and embrace it."

She was almost trembling now with the sudden rage that consumed her. Vin bore the reprimand in stoic silence. When she finished at last, he took the hand that had struck him and laid it tenderly against the red bruise along his cheek and held it there.

"I'm sorry, Nettie," he said again. She took his face in both her hands and kissed him. Her face suddenly wet with tears, she laid her cheek against his, resting there so long the others felt they should leave, to give them their privacy in this moment. But just as suddenly as the anger had come, the tears were gone and she stood and smiled tentatively at them all, taking a hanky from her sleeve to wipe her eyes.

"I best see Josiah before he leaves me stranded," she said. She nodded to them and left without another word.

Vin watched her go, then turned to the others who stood yet in an uncomfortable silence.

"It's just her way," he said with a shrug. "She's tough, and she's seen it all. Then suddenly everything comes on her all at once and she's gotta blow off some steam."

"I guess," said Chris, shaking his head.

"That was nothing. You should'a seen her the night my buddy Jimmy Taglia got cut. Damn near broke every dish in the house," Vin told them.

"She slap his face in the hospital too?" Buck asked.

"No," Vin said, suddenly sorry he'd brought the subject up. "ID'd him in the morgue." He turned to Ezra, needing to change the subject, to cover the uncomfortable silence he'd created.

"Thanks again, Ez, for the bike. I don't know when I can repay you."

"I am not in the habit of accepting remuneration for gifts bestowed," Standish told him.

"No, I mean money," Vin said, confused.

"So does he," Buck said with a grin. "It just sounds so much more impressive when he says it."

"Which reminds me, my friend Jacqueline has agreed to assist Mr. Tanner in improving his reading skills," Ezra told them. He turned to Vin. "She can start tomorrow if you're agreeable."

"Can she start tomorrow even if he's disagreeable?" Buck joked.

"Alright. Enough," Chris said ushering them both towards the door. "Let's give him some peace and quiet. Tomorrow sounds like a busy day again."

"Goodnight, Vin," Buck said with a wave.

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra said. "I'll be by tomorrow with Miss Carter?"

"Sure, Ez," Vin agreed. "Thanks again for the bike."

Ezra nodded and left with Buck.

Chris closed the door behind them. He pulled a chair up next to Vin's bed and turned it around, resting his arms atop the back.

"You and I still have some talking to do," he said simply.

Vin nodded.

"Yeah, I know. Austin."

"Austin. Gaines. The ATF. I'm not here to grill you Vin. I'm here to help. But it's like working with Troy. You've got to give me all the information so there are no more surprises when I stand up against the brass," Chris explained.

"How'd they find out about Austin?" Vin asked.


Vin looked away, began playing with the bandage that covered his hand.

"I'm sorry 'bout what I said," he told Chris. He looked up at Larabee. "I don't hold you a'grudge for any of this. For Prichett. I'd do what I done again for any'a the guys. Especially you."

Chris shook his head with a smile.

"You know your grammar gets worse when you're drunk, tired, or mad?"

"Hell, that's 90% of the time. Ask Nettie."

Both friends laughed.

"Look," Chris said finally. "Gaines got your medical report from New Mexico. As far as he could see, there was no way you were ever going to even walk again, not to mention pass the physical. He jumped the gun. I've got a letter started to Chief Danvers that will explain everything, and requests that you be given an opportunity to take the written and performance exams as soon as Dr. Matthews deems you fit."

Vin nodded, listening closely.

"Now. About Austin..."

"There's no charge, Chris," Vin began.

"I know that. If there were, nothing I could do would help. Austin isn't going to keep you off my team. But I need to know the facts Vin. I can't take any more surprises from the past and still hold things together."

Vin reached for a glass of water. Chris freshened up the water in the glass and settled it in Vin's right hand.

"I only did about a year of bounty hunting before I got the marshall job," Vin began. "I had my first interview in Houston. Things were moving along pretty well. I was just waiting to hear if I had a shot at the job. I'm coolin' my heels when I get a call from Jimmy Mack. Jimmy was one of those guys you called a friend - but you didn't trust him any further than you could throw him."

Chris nodded. He knew the type.

"Jimmy's got a line on a hot property - Eli Joe McCain. But the guy's big. Too big for Jimmy to handle alone. So he wants me to help. Split the bounty 50-50." Vin shrugged.

"I figure, what the heck. I'm still twisting in the breeze over the Houston interview. I could use some quick cash. So I help him." He took a sip of the water, closed his eyes.

"If you want to do this tomorrow..." Chris said, seeing the evident exhaustion in the young face.

"No," Vin said, shaking his head. He opened his eyes slowly. "Let's get it done." He shifted in bed, took another sip of water.

"So we end up in back of a clip joint facing this Eli Joe. He pulls a gun, Jimmy and I pull our guns. Mexican stand-off. Now those two start talking and I realize there's more than just a bounty going on here. Jimmy owes this guy money for something. Suddenly I'm thinkin' I want to be anywhere but there, you know?"

"I get the picture," Chris agreed.

"Yeah. Well. Like I said, things are getting hot and I start backing up a bit. I don't want to get caught in the crossfire here. All of a sudden I hear a shot and things go black. I hit the ground and my head's on fire."

Vin pulled back a section of the shoulder-length hair he sported. A white crease parted the hair above his ear in a three-inch scar that reached almost to the back of his head.

"Nice little reminder of trustin' people like Jimmy Mack," Vin said, letting the hair fall back into place.

"Anyway, next thing I know I wake up on the pavement, a uniform standin'over me readin' me my rights. Eli Joe McCain is dead and good ol' Jimmy Mack is nowhere to be seen. Austin PD pick me up for murder."

"But there was no conviction," Chris prompted.

"No. There was no gun. Drove those Austin boys crazy. I gotta at least hand it to Jimmy for takin' both our guns with him and disposin' of 'em. No witnesses, no powder burns, no guns - except for Eli Joe's which wasn't fired. My word against a stiff." Vin shrugged again. "They cut me lose. But it killed 'em to do it." Vin leveled a look at Chris. "I steer clear of Austin."

"No shit," Chris said with a sigh. "What did Houston have to say about all this?"

"Well, by the time I get things straightened out there's a call for me sayin' they want to meet with me for a second interview. I almost didn't go - figured word would hit 'em any day about Austin. But I went. Had nothin' to lose. The guy who interviewed me was a real combat freak. Never served, but loved all the heavy surveillance crap. Kept tryin' to get me to give him the "low-down" - his words, can you believe it? - the "low-down" on Iran-Contra. We must'a talked for an hour. Nothin' about my academics, nothin' about Austin. All he wanted was to talk special ops. Next thing I know he's shakin' my hand and welcomin' me to the team."

Chris shook his head in amazement, then looked at Vin.

"If Jimmy Mack and Eli Joe had each other in their sites, who shot you?" he asked.

Vin shrugged. "That's another reason I steer clear of Austin."

Chris scratched his head. Took the empty glass from Vin and placed it on the nightstand.

"That it?" he asked. "Long as I keep you out of Austin we're okay?"

"Hell, Chris, I don't know. If you're lookin' for some kind of promise that that's the only trouble I can give you, forget it. I made enemies in Houston growin' up. I got two gangs mad at me - one for bein' their enemy, one for bailin' on 'em when Nettie took me to Capitan. I got any number of surprises that could come outta special ops. I'm sorry this one took you by surprise. And I understand if somethin' comes up that you can't cover. You were right. I can't keep blamin' everyone else for my trouble. I'm the one who screwed things up in the past. I'll take the hit if somethin' comes down now."

Chris shook his head. He saw Vin fighting to keep his eyes open and figured this interview needed to come to an end. The kid was exhausted.

"Alright, Vin. Concentrate on what I'm going to say for one more minute, and then you can get some sleep. You got dealt a crap hand growing up - no one in his right mind would argue that point with you. You've made some mistakes, but you've paid for them, too. Starting tomorrow, you work with Dr. Matthews, you work with this friend of Ezra's, you work with us. If all that work ends you up in a desk back in my squad room I'll be a happy man. If it doesn't, we'll find you another job you can take pride in. The only mistake you've got to avoid from now on is trying to play the hand alone - walking out on the friendship we're offering you. It's there for the taking, Vin. But you've got to want it as much as we do or it's not going to work."

Vin had listened quietly and intently. Chris heard his own words ringing in his ears and thought how much they sounded like the countless talks he'd had with his own father growing up. How many men in Vin's young life had taken the time to talk, man-to- man with him? Had there even been any? As furious as he'd been with Vin over the past few months for making what he felt to be poor decisions, he couldn't help being amazed at the fact that Vin had ended up as decent a man as he had. It revealed a lot about Nettie Wells. And even more about Vin Tanner.

"I'm done runnin', Chris," Vin promised. "It ain't never done no good. I should'a remembered, growin' up, the smartest thing I done was stick to Nettie after runnin' my whole life. I reckon it's time to wise-up again."

Chris smiled.

"I think you better get some sleep. You talk much longer you're going to be downright unintelligible."

Vin nodded, closing his eyes. His chest rose and fell once, twice - and he was asleep.

Chris sat in the darkened room listening to the even breathing, recalling nights he sat at Adam's bedside after an illness, a nightmare, or sometimes just to relax, listening to that steady, peaceful breathing.

+ + + + + + +

For two weeks Vin worked doggedly at his physical therapy and reading sessions, and for two weeks his friends marveled at Tanner's energy and determination. More often than not, Chris would come to visit in the evenings to find Vin studying the worksheets Jackie would leave behind along with a pile of rulers, post-it notes and highlighters she had bought for him, or the procedure manuals Josiah had checked out for him stacked on the bedside table. At times Vin's knee would be draped with ice packs to control the swelling from his vigorous workouts. Several nights Chris had poked his head in the room to find Vin dozing, dictionaries and manuals open on his lap.

It was halfway through Vin's third and final week of in-house therapy at the institute that Chris entered the room to find him staring vacantly out the window. One of the manuals Josiah had left lay awkwardly on the floor, obviously flung there in frustration. Sheets of paper were piled on the bed, crumpled in angry wads.

"Bad day?" Chris asked gently as he pulled up a chair next to Vin's bed. There was no response from Tanner. "You've been doing great, Vin. Everyone says so. Dr. Matthews is already writing a paper on your progress. I think he's looking forward to your physical exam for the ATF as much as we are."

Slowly Vin turned to look at Chris. Always when Chris had come he'd seen such an intense determination in Vin's features. Tonight he saw only pure exhaustion.

"I don't think I can do it, Chris," Tanner said quietly.

"Why in the world do you think that?" Chris asked with surprise. "The knee..."

"Not the knee, Chris. The test," Vin answered dejectedly.

"Jackie says you're reading has improved an entire grade level already. Josiah says you know the manual backwards and forwards. There's no reason to believe..."

"It's not understanding the test, Chris. Or even reading it," Vin said shaking his head. "I've been timing myself against the test booklet J.D. gave me." Tanner sighed, leaning his head back into the pillows. "I'll never be able to write those essay questions fast enough, Chris. The multiple choice, true and false, I think I can ace 'em. But those three essay questions are timed and I just can't write that fast."

Chris thought quickly. This was the first sign of dejection Tanner had shown since they'd convinced him to return to the institute to complete his therapy. He couldn't let Vin slide back again. He'd come too far, worked too hard.

"Listen," he said finally. "Let me worry about that. We'll figure something out."

"No, Chris. No more 'end arounds.' I'm not gettin' back in on another technicality. If I can't get in solid, I don't want to go through with it," Vin told him.

"Alright. I'll look into it. But don't give up on it now, Vin. Not when you're so close. Keep plugging away as hard as you have been. Promise?" Chris asked.

Vin sighed.

"Yeah. Okay," Vin agreed. "You and the guys have done so much for me..."

"Not nearly as much as you've done for yourself, Vin. If the rest of the ATF agents had to go through what you have in the past few months in order to get on board, we'd have the best team in the country. I don't think half the guys on the force could come back after an injury like that."

"Hell, that was easy," Vin said with a grin. "It's this readin' stuff that's killin' me."

Chris shook his head, thinking back with a shudder to a few of the therapy sessions he'd sat in on with Vin. There had been nothing easy about it and he knew it.

"When's Nettie heading back?" he asked, changing the subject.

"She says she wants to stay 'til I pass," Vin said. He shook his head. "But I don't think she'll make it. She's a really busy person for a retired lady. And I don't think Josiah's gonna be able to get me registered to test for another month yet."

Chris gave him a smile.

"We'll fly her back for the victory celebration."

+ + + + + + +

"Yeah, yeah, in a minute," Vin called. He'd been rummaging around a kitchen drawer looking for an opener - his supper sitting in a can on top of the counter. Two more bangs sounded on his apartment door as he slammed the drawer shut in frustration.

He'd been home for two weeks now -even rode the V-Rod behind Josiah's jeep as they took Nettie to the airport.

"Supper!" said Buck as Vin opened the door to see his friends standing before him with buckets of chicken and six packs of beer.

"Whoa!" Vin said with a smile. "Great timing. I was just about to nuke a can of soup. What's the occasion?" he asked, ushering them all in.

"November 15th," Josiah said, grabbing some plates from the cupboard.

"It's September 24th," Vin said, checking the calendar on his wall.

"Yeah, but you're takin' the test on November 15th," Buck said with a smile.

Vin looked around at the agents, his eyes resting on Chris.

"What about..." Vin said hesitantly.

"Troy Middleton found that there happens to be a very legal amendment to the ATF testing procedures drawn up in light of the Americans With Disabilities Act concerning reasonable accommodation," said Chris with a smile. "For the three essay questions you'll be allowed to give your answers orally. They'll tape them, have them transcribed, and include them with your written test papers."

Vin's eyes narrowed as he looked back at Chris.

"You're sure that's legit. That's not just somethin' special for me?" Vin asked.

"Being able to write quickly isn't a job requirement for your position, Vin," Josiah explained. "If accommodation would have to be made in order for you to perform your job in the field, it wouldn't be acceptable. Writing reports is a requirement, but as long as you can complete them in a timely manner, getting them done by a stopwatch isn't a necessary factor."

"You'll have the same time limits as everyone else in completing the test, Vin. It's just that your answers will be on tape instead of on paper," Chris added.

Vin took a deep breath, a slow smile spread across his face.

"It's really gonna happen, ain't it?" he asked them.

"It's really going to happen, Vin. By the book. You pass and no one will ever be able to question your position again," Chris promised.

"Guess I better concentrate on passin' then, huh?" Vin said.

"For now, let's just concentrate on eatin'," Buck said, clearing the mess off Vin's battered coffee table and placing the buckets of chicken on it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris ran with Vin every morning, each week extending their route a little longer until Larabee found himself having trouble keeping up with his younger friend. Jackie Carter worked with Vin every afternoon. Sometimes Ezra would drop by during lunch to act as a cheering section or devil's advocate, depending on what Vin needed to get him through that day's lesson. Twice a week Buck accompanied Vin to the gym and twice a week J.D. or Josiah would work on test questions with him in the evening.

Nate insisted that weekends be free of any studying. As the test date came closer he saw the toll the strain was taking on Vin and worried what it would do to the ambitious student, both physically and mentally.

"He's got to get his mind off it sometime," Nate said to Chris one morning as they drove to Vin's. They were going to take him to the zoo for a nice walk on a crisp autumn day miles away from books and obstacle courses.

"You know it, I know it, but getting him to believe it is another thing. He feels like any moment he's not working on passing the test is a wasted moment," Chris said, shaking his head.

"I know," Nathan agreed. "And I really do understand. We've all been there. When you've got a deadline for something looming over you - especially something as important as this - you feel guilty if you're not devoting every waking hour to it. But it scares me, Chris."

Larabee slowed to stop at a traffic light and glanced over at Nate.

"You think he might hurt his chances of passing if he's burnt out?" Chris asked.

"No. I'm thinking of what happens if he doesn't pass," Nate said. He put up a hand to stop Chris' protest. "I know, I know, no one wants to think negatively like that. And really, I don't either. But hell, Chris, we've got to be realistic, too. If he doesn't pass, after devoting his every waking moment to preparing for this test, how's he going to work his way out of that disappointment?"

"We told him we'd be there for him," Chris said quietly as the light turned green.

"We were all there for you, too, Chris," Nate reminded him of the years following Sarah and Adam's deaths. "Friendship - even the best of it - only goes so far. Doesn't it."

Chris glanced at Nathan, a stolid resolve reflected in his gaze.

"I'm not letting him down, Nate. I'll be there for him. Friendship only goes so far. But to me - he's family."

+ + + + + + +

"I feel silly," Vin said, pulling on his jacket as Chris and Nate entered his apartment.

"Why?" Chris asked, closing the door behind him.

"Going to the zoo. What's next? Buck taking me to the circus?" Vin asked.

"Don't think of it as going to the zoo. Think of it as taking an excursion through foreign countries while admiring the native flora and fauna," Chris said with a shrug.

Vin stared at him.

"I thought you hated it when Ezra talked like that," he said.

"No, you hate it when Ezra talks like that," answered Chris.

"I don't like it much better when you do either," Vin countered, grabbing his keys.

"You need to get your mind off this stuff Vin," Nate said, guiding him out the door.

"I can get my mind off this stuff by driving a little motor- cross too," Vin complained. "But no one seems to be putting that on my calendar."

"Wait until you've got a job with the ATF. Then when you get busted up it'll be on our time and you'll have insurance to pay for it," Chris told him as they walked down the stairs.

"That's great, Chris," Nate admonished him. "Tempt the fates a little more why don't you?"

"Yeah!" Vin agreed. "I got enough 'busted up' for two lifetimes by now."

"Which is why it would be a mistake to ride motor-cross," Chris concluded.

Vin stopped at the foot of the stairs, shaking his head.

"How does he do that?" he asked Nate.

Nathan slapped him on the shoulder as they passed through the door and onto the street.

"That's why he gets the big bucks, Vin."

+ + + + + + +

"He just left Room 215. He's on his way to the course."

Chris made the announcement to the squad room where five faces looked up to hear the first report on the morning of November 15th. The team leader smiled.

"You all look like a bunch of expectant fathers," he told them.

"Bite your tongue, Chris," Buck said.

"Chic say how he did?" Josiah asked. Mike Stavibyczyk was the instructor charged with giving Vin the written test.

"You know Chic," Chris answered. "He'll be the first to buy Vin a round if he passes, but he won't let anything slip until the board gives him the official verdict."

"Who's doing the physical?" Nate asked.

"Ehrlinger," said Chris.

"Shit," Buck swore. "He's a tough old bird. He won't give Vin an inch."

"That's why I asked for him," Chris said.

"What!?" J.D. and Buck exclaimed together.

"This time no one's going to say Vin got in here on a wink and a nod," Chris answered. "Chic's a friend, but he doesn't grade Vin's test, the board does. The only other instructors are Davisch and Haynes. Both good friends of mine. You know as well as I do that some of those physical tests are up to the instructor's interpretation. I'm not going to have anyone saying Vin passed that physical because I pulled strings."

"And if he doesn't pass?" Buck challenged.

"Then I don't want him crawling up some 50 ft. water tower, or hanging from a catwalk in a warehouse, or chasing after a prime suspect on foot. I won't put the life of one of my men in his hands if he's not 100%," Chris said tightly. "And before you get all indignant on me, you know yourself Vin would feel the same way."

"That leaves the rifle range for last. Who's he got there, Davisch?" Josiah asked, breaking the tension.

Chris nodded.

"There'll be physical proof of that test, too," he said. "No one will be able to fudge his pattern sheet."

Larabee's men smiled as Ezra voiced their thoughts.

"No one will have to."

+ + + + + + +

By 5:30 p.m. not one of Larabee's men had left the squad. There had been no call from Vin, and they waited anxiously to hear from Roy Davisch. When the phone rang at 5:35, Chris jumped in his chair and grabbed for the receiver.

"Roy?" he answered. "How'd he do?"

"Ten for ten, buddy," Roy said. "My god, Chris, that boy could shoot the flea off a tick at a hundred yards."

Chris sighed and smiled as his men crowded the door to his office. He motioned them in and put Davisch on speaker phone.

"The guys are here, Roy," he told the instructor.

"Ten for ten boys," Davisch repeated, laughing as he heard their shouts of celebration. "And confidentially, I heard Ehrlinger say Vin kicked butt out there. Stumbled once on the tires, but the half of a point Early might take off for that is hardly going to hurt him up against his kill rate."

"Where is he now?" Chris asked.

"Tanner? He left here about an hour ago," Roy told them.

"He look okay to you?" Nate asked, concerned.

"Yes, Mamma Jackson," Davisch replied. "He was really beat, though. Probably went home to sleep for a week. I know I would."

"Thanks, Roy," Chris said. "I appreciate you being there for the last part of the exam. I know there was nothing you could do to help, but it made me feel better knowing he was in good hands."

"Hell, Chris, I have a feeling he could've put those numbers up blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back," Davisch told him. "Well, I gotta get home. You'll probably hear the final results before I do. Give me a call, alright? I want to buy that boy a drink when they give him back his badge."

"Will do, Roy. Thanks again," Chris said as he punched off the phone.

"An hour ago," Buck said thoughtfully. "He hasn't called us. Where do you suppose he is?"

+ + + + + + +

Chris turned onto the drive that led to his ranch, pulling his truck up to the front of his home. The boys had called Vin's apartment, stopped by the local bar, but there had been no sign of Vin Tanner.

Larabee opened the front door and peered through the darkness of his living room. There was a chill to the air. He hadn't turned the heat on yet - wouldn't until December 15 - a personal quirk for which the men rode him mercilessly - but there was a distinct draft circling the room. He turned on a light and made his way into the kitchen where the sliding glass door stood open an inch. A kitchen chair was missing from the table and now Chris saw it with its occupant on the back porch.

Chris reached into the cupboard for a bottle of Jack Daniels and two shot glasses and walked out onto the porch.

"Just 'cause I'm cheap doesn't mean I like to freeze. Close the door why don't you?" he asked Vin Tanner as he handed him a glass.

"Hope you don't mind I used my key," Vin said, taking the glass and holding it as Chris filled it for him. Larabee threw a leg over the porch rail and perched there as he poured himself a drink.

"So what's new?"

Vin smiled guiltily as he tilted his chair back against the house and slowly raised his right leg up to rest it against the porch rail.

"The guys mad at me?" Vin asked as he fingered his glass.

"Maybe a little disappointed," Chris said honestly. "I'm sure they wanted to hear all about your day."

Vin nodded, then took a drink.

"I don't think they blame you though," Chris assured him. "It's been a long road. You need a little time to unwind."

"I know I owe 'em," Vin sighed.

"They don't think of it like that," Chris told him. "They figure anything they did to help you was at least half self-serving. They wanted you back on the team."

Vin nodded silently again.

"So how does it feel to be done with it?" Chris asked.

Vin shook his head and took another drink. He looked out into the night, then turned to Chris.

"When I was 12 I had to cut a guy in a turf war to make my bones. I did it - but not before taking a shiv in my side that needed fourteen stitches to close. In Asia I sat in a tree still as stone for two days in the rain with nothing to eat, burning with fever, while a rebel force circled just beneath me. Up on that mountain, waiting for Prichett to find me again, my leg busted to pieces...Chris, I ain't never been as scared as I am right now." He looked down at his hands, sweating against the glass he held.

Chris took a deep breath and let it out slowly, choosing his next words carefully.

"So Monday morning Gaines calls me and tells me you didn't pass."

Vin looked up at him in cold shock.

"What happens next?" Chris asked him pointedly.

Vin swallowed hard. Chris leaned towards him, holding the blue eyes in his gaze.

"What happens next, Vin?" Chris asked again.

"I start lookin' for another job," Vin answered slowly. "One I can take pride in." He tried a tentative smile. "The only mistake I got to avoid is tryin' to play the hand alone."

Chris grinned, saluting him in a wordless toast as he downed his whiskey.

"Now. That's not something to be afraid of, is it?"

+ + + + + + +

Nettie Wells scrunched her face in curiosity as the knock sounded on her door again. She wiped her hands on her apron after securing the top on the last jar of stewed apples and crossed her small living room to answer the door.

"Miss Nettie Wells?" the stranger said, holding a clipboard and pen out to her. "Western Union."

"Now who on earth'd be sendin' me a telegram?" Nettie asked, signing her name as she took the envelope from him.

She put her hand to her mouth suddenly as she glanced at the calendar on her wall. Slowly, with trembling hands, she opened the telegram to reveal the one word sent to her by express across the miles.


+ + + + + + +

"Happy Thanksgiving everyone," Chris said from the head of the table, raising his glass in a toast to all present.

He smiled at his team -his friends - seated around the large oak table in his living room. Nettie Wells sat at his right, extending her glass to Vin who sat on his left. Glasses clinked all around. They had wanted to celebrate Vin's return to the ATF, wanted to bring Nettie to Denver to join them. Thanksgiving Day had provided the perfect background.

"Vin," Nettie said, nodding towards her prodigal son. "You got somethin' to say." It wasn't a question, it was obviously a gentle prod.

Chris looked with surprise at Vin. Never a man for public speaking, even in a private setting, Chris could see his friend was ill at ease. Nonetheless, Tanner rose slowly, the napkin that had rested on his knee now twisted between his hands.

"I wanted to thank y'all for everythin' you done for me in the past months," Vin said uneasily.

The six friends smiled at each other. Vin's southern drawl pronounced in his obvious discomfort at addressing them so formally.

"It's alright Vin. Sit down before you fall down," Buck said, dismissing him. "Let's get to eating."

"No," Vin said suddenly, forcefully. Buck's smile disappeared as quickly as it had come and the others focused their attention more directly on the young man. They had been embarrassed by his nervousness, trying not to add to it by staring at him. But now Vin had their rapt attention and each man felt the weight of the words their newest agent was to offer.

"No, I...," Vin swallowed and looked anxiously at Nettie who nodded her encouragement.

"Only reason I'm standin' here now is 'cause of all of you." Vin looked at each of the people sitting around the table. Nathan - whose calm comfort had seen him through the fear and uncertainty of doctors, tests, x-rays and therapy. J.D. - who had found Nettie. Who believed in him so fiercely it frightened him to fail. Josiah -who had worked tirelessly with him going over code books, procedural manuals, pre-test booklets, with endless, unfathomable patience. Buck - who had pushed him in therapy, pushed him in the gym, but most importantly had kept him laughing, daring him to take one of the most important events of his life too seriously. Ezra - who had seen into his soul and realized the bike was more than just transportation to him. The only one who had given it a thought. And he had brought Jackie to him. And with her, an understanding of the world of words he had never had before, had never hoped to own. Hesitantly his eyes rested finally on Chris. Chris - who took him into his home, took away the anger, the emptiness, and replaced it with a friendship so solid. An anchor in what had been a life adrift.

He shook his head.

"I ain't got the words," he said finally. He shrugged. "I wish..." then shook his head again.

"Despite what Ezra says," Buck said with a warm smile, "It ain't always about words, Vin."

"No, Buck, I..." Vin said, sighing heavily. "I really want to tell y'all and...you don't understand. You don't know...it's more than just the test, the job...it's..."

Ezra was unable to watch the struggle any longer.

"Mr. Tanner, if I may," Ezra said softly. "You feel the need to put your feelings into words to give them validity. As though the emotions behind them, the gratefulness you wish to extend, will not be authenticated unless spoken aloud. May I remind you of the poet's words - The eyes are the mirror of the soul. Vin, the soul speaks more eloquently than any orator, and its validity is unquestionable."

"Here, here," Nathan said, raising a glass.

"Well spoken, Ezra," Josiah agreed. The friends toasted once again as Vin took his seat, grateful to be out of the limelight.

"Now. Let's eat," said Buck with a grin.

+ + + + + + +

Vin stood on Chris' front porch, smiling as he watched Josiah and Nettie enjoy the afterglow of sunset. The others had left, laughing at how much they were actually looking forward to Monday. Vin's first day back where he belonged.

The sharpshooter heard the scrape of boots on the weathered porch.

"Forgot this," Chris said as he handed the sheepskin coat to Vin. Tanner shrugged it on, grateful for its warmth against the autumn night.

"Don't want to catch a cold before your sick leave kicks in," Chris said with a smile.

"Gonna feel strange comin' back to work," Vin said.

Chris pulled a black wallet from his pocket and handed it to Vin.

"Maybe this'll help get you through the door," he said.

Vin flipped it open to reveal his badge. He brushed his thumb across the shield.

"Damn, Chris, that's the prettiest thing I've ever seen," Vin said with a smile.

Chris leaned back into the hall closet and turned back to Vin.

"Even prettier than this?" he asked.

Tanner looked up at him, speechless.

"What good's a sharpshooter without a rifle?" Chris asked, handing Vin an immaculate E-9 Proshot.

"Chris..." Vin said, his voice thick with emotion.

"Hell, I couldn't let that damn Standish one-up me," Chris said. "I wish I could've gotten your old one repaired, but Davisch said it was no good. The scope was completely gone and the sites on the rifle were dinged pretty bad. He said you couldn't depend on it. I've still got it if you want to keep it around just for..."

"No," Vin said, caressing the blue steel of the barrel. "No. I'd rather..." he looked at Chris. "I got that in the service, Chris. Standard issue for special ops. But this..."

Chris smiled.

"I'm glad you like it, Vin. I was proud to get it for you. Use it in good health," he said. "Yours...and ours."

Vin looked at him with a declaration of purpose, a sacred vow.

"I will, Chris."

"You ready Special Agent Tanner?" Nettie called to him from Josiah's car.

Chris and Vin smiled at each other, then looked out to the woman as she stood waiting.

"Coming!" Vin said. He turned back to Chris, his eyes suddenly troubled as he shook hands goodbye.

"At dinner...What Ezra said. It was good and everythin'. But still, I wish..." He looked at Chris, shook his head and sighed. Then laughed self-consciously. He put his badge in his pocket and slid the strap of the E-9 comfortably over his shoulder.

"Yeah, right. I got no better idea now than I had then," he said. "Guess Ez was right. Just gonna have to hope folks can read my thoughts. Hope they speak for me."

He nodded once more to Chris and bounded off the porch to where Nettie was waiting.

Chris watched him go, and thought of the look in the young man's eyes at the sight of the badge and gun that spelled the future he hoped to have.

Volumes, Tanner, he thought to himself. They speak volumes.

The End


God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas, but for scars.

- Elbert Hubbard