Author's Notes: This story was inspired by the song Don't Stop me Now by Queen.
Any mistakes or mishaps or anything else amiss are mine, but I hope you enjoy the story regardless!
Thanks to my Big Sis Kerry, for looking over this for me, and to my best pard Ingunn for the great title picture she created, and for always having my back. You're the best :O)
Last but not least thank you to Mog for creating the ATF universe and letting us play in it!
Feedback: Would be great, but no flames please. Thanks!
Disclaimer: I don't own 'em though I darn well wish I did. They belong to you know who, I just borrowed them for a while and I'll grudgingly give them back!
Originally posted in the Euro-Posse 2002 Gathering Exclusive Zine.
Vin sat on the floor, too stunned to do anything else but breathe. Time seemed to be standing still. He looked down at the dead body, not six inches from him, and then up at Chris Larabee, who was standing fifteen feet away still holding his gun.
Two blue eyes watched as Chris drew nearer.
"Vin? Were you hit?"
Vin craned his neck to look up at Chris, who was now standing over him.
"Are ya with me Pard?"
Now Chris's eyes were level with his. The blond had lowered himself on to his haunches to get a better look at his obviously shocked agent.
"I...he..." Vin stammered, unable to make a sentence. His chest hurt from the force of his heart pounding within its walls.
Chris placed a hand on the young agent's shoulder. "It's okay, Vin. We'll talk later." The team leader's eyes swept over his friend, looking for any sign that the agent was hurt. "Just wanna know you're alright. Are you?"
Vin was still struck dumb but managed a nod.
"Good." Chris stood up and held out a hand to his friend. He watched as Vin stared at it for a few seconds before reaching out and grasping it with one of his own. Pulling the shocked agent to his feet, he didn't let go until he was sure the Texan could stand on his own.
"D'ya need to be checked over?" Chris was getting a little concerned now. Vin seemed to be in a state of shock. He could understand it in a way, but the Texan had been in similar situations before, even worse ones, but had always managed to shrug them off almost immediately.
"Huh?" Vin lifted his blue eyes to look at Chris. "Uh, no. No, I'm fine" he finally mumbled. "I'm fine."
"Good, now let's go find the others." Chris started to move off, expecting Vin to follow.
The leader of team seven turned around and was surprised to see Vin still standing in the same spot. "Yeah?"
Chris could hardly hear the softly spoken word. "No problem, Vin. You've done the same for me a thousand times."
He watched as Vin sighed heavily and bobbed his head. "Coming?" he asked, and this time waited for the younger man to move towards him before moving off again.
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Chris looked sideways at Vin, who was sitting in the front of his dodge with him. They had finished at the scene and were headed back to the office. The young agent had been quiet since the incident during the bust, and Chris was a little worried about it. It wasn't the first time Vin had a gun pointed at him, but this time it seemed to have affected him deeply.
The Texan had his head back against the headrest, and was staring straight ahead with expressionless eyes. Chris was beginning to wonder whether he should maybe have him checked out at the hospital after all.
"You sure you're okay?" he asked as he manoeuvred his dodge through traffic.
"Uh huh." Vin answered rubbing his eyes with his hand. "Jest need t' get some sleep...feel tired all of a sudden."
"I'll just finish up what I gotta do and take you home then." Chris answered.
"S'okay, m' jeeps at the office. If ya don't need me is it okay if I head home?"
Chris didn't like the tone of Vin's voice. Something was eating at him and he wanted to talk to him about it. He decided he would quickly finish up in his office and then meet Vin at his apartment.
"Well, if you're sure you're up to driving, then that's fine. I'll drop by later...see how you're doing."
Vin nodded and closed his eyes. All he wanted to do was go home, close the door behind him and gather his thoughts, because right at that moment they were all over the place. He wanted to stand in the middle of a field and scream. There were so many questions he needed answered.
Why was he taking this close call so hard? It wasn't the first time he'd looked death in the face. So what had made him suddenly feel the way he did now? Why did the thought of holding a gun make him shiver? Why did he wish he didn't have six friends that he was suddenly so much more worried about? Why was he having thoughts rushing through his mind about what it would be like to be dead? Why...why...why...????
Chris looked over at his friend, startled by his sudden cursing session. He frowned when he saw Vin with his head in his hands, and the sharpshooter was shaking.
"If you say about goin' t' the hospital one more time Larabee, I'll kill ya."
Chris held up a hand in surrender, saying nothing as he turned into his regular space in the government building parking lot.
"I'm gonna come by later Vin. So let me in, okay?"
They climbed out of the Ram and were standing in front of it before Vin answered.
"There's no need. I'm gonna take a shower and sleep. I'm fine Chris, the close call just spooked me is all." Vin's eyes tried to show the blond that he was okay.
"I'll drop by anyway." Chris answered. "See you in a couple."
He watched as Vin nodded resignedly and headed for his battered jeep. The blond didn't turn away until the vehicle had disappeared from sight, and when he did the worry deepened in the pit of his stomach. Something was very wrong, he just had to figure out what it was and make it right again.
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The shower was hot and the steam filled Vin's small bathroom. The sharpshooter stood with his face turned up towards the spray of water, letting it hit his forehead and run down his troubled face and off of the long tendrils of hair to mix with the water that circled and then disappeared down the plug hole.
His head ached and his stomach was empty, but he knew there was no way he could eat anything; and each time he closed his eyes all he saw was the barrel of a gun staring him in the face.
Cursing, he flipped the water off and, not being able to see through the steam, fumbled for a towel. His fingers found one finally and he stepped from the shower, rubbing his long hair vigorously.
"Tanner, ya need t' get a grip." He told himself angrily as he tied the towel around his slim waist and padded into the living room. Flopping onto the sofa, he picked up the remote and turned on the tv, settling back when he found a station showing re-runs of sit-coms; that was about all he thought he could handle.
He rested his head against the back of the comfy old sofa that had definitely seen better days and let the rumble of voices from the tv show fade into the background, leaving him to think.
It had gone like any other bust, straightforward and quick. That was until that punk Eddie had burst in and blown Ezra's cover. Team five were supposed to have taken care of him and kept him out of the way, but it was plain something had gone wrong.
Vin could see that things weren't going to happen right in front of him and so moved from his high vantage point and made his way through to the rooms at the back of the warehouse where everyone seemed to be running to. The spray of bullets had his heart pounding, wondering if his team was keeping out of their path. The shooting had begun to die down by the time he ran into a room at the back of the warehouse. But one of the men they'd been after had just run in the opposite door. For a second or two the two men stared at each other not moving, and then Vin saw the other man begin to move his gun upward and knew he had to act fast.
Raising his own gun, he dove to the side and fired, but nothing happened; just a click and nothing. His blue eyes widened at the realisation of how vulnerable he was and he watched as the sneering man walked towards him, his gun held in front of him. He heard the click as the gun was cocked and waited for the inevitable.
When the gunshot rang out his heart lurched and his breath caught in his throat. He hadn't felt anything yet, and wanted to hold onto what could have been his last breath. Looking up at the other man he frowned when he saw the surprised look on his opponent's face, and a second later the man lurched forward and fell dead at his feet.
Vin released the breath he thought would be his last when his huge blue eyes met Chris's relieved green ones.
The sniper groaned and ran a hand down his face, bringing his thoughts back to the present. He went to the kitchen, grabbed a beer from the fridge, and settled back in the welcome embrace of the soft sofa once more.
A sharp knock at the door half an hour later startled the Texan awake, making him juggle the empty beer bottle to keep from dropping it. Still clad in only a towel, he ran to the bedroom and pulled on a pair of sweat pants.
When the door opened, just as he was about to knock again, Chris's scrutinising green eyes took in everything from the damp shaggy head to the bare chest and feet.
"Didn't have to go to any trouble sprucing yourself up for me." The sarcastic remark was answered by a one finger salute as Chris walked into the room.
"Finish the report?" Vin padded to the kitchen, scratching his head and yawning. Grabbing coffee, he raised the jar and arched an enquiring eyebrow.
"Yeah, need some of your sludge." Chris sat down, a smile on his lips. "The report's on Travis's desk." He answered the earlier question.
Flipping the switch on the kettle, the Texan dropped onto a stool next to Larabee and rubbed his tired eyes.
"So." Chris broached. "How are you feeling?"
The blue eyes rose to meet Chris's gaze. "I'm fine. Jest went a bit screwy fer a while."
"You sure?" Chris wasn't convinced. He could read the troubled face too clearly.
"Yeah, I'm sure. So get that I'm gonna get him an appointment with psych look outta yer eyes." The sniper stood and grabbed two mugs from the cupboard.
Chris blew out a breath. The look on his face told the ex-bounty hunter he wasn't impressed.
"Ah hell, I'm sorry Chris. I'm wound up tighter 'n the elastic in a golf ball."
It was Chris's turn to raise an enquiring eyebrow. Vin handed him a mug and stood by the leader, a grin lighting up the handsome face. "Learned that on Oprah." He motioned with his head and Chris stood.
"Oprah?" The quizzical look deepened as he followed the Texan to the living room.
"Yeah, Tiger Woods was on Oprah...talked 'bout golf balls."
The two men lowered their bodies to the sofa.
"What's that look fer?" Vin enquired of the trepidation on the blond's face.
"I was just bracing myself for a spring up my ass."
Vin snorted and switched the tv onto the news channel. Pictures of the warehouse flashed up on the screen, and the Texan swallowed, lowering his head.
Reaching for the remote, the blond pushed the standby button, his eyes not leaving the younger man's face. "This is really bothering you isn't it?" he asked gently.
"Jest keep seein' that gun in front o' me, Chris." Vin took a gulp of his coffee. "Like I said, it spooked me is all."
"You've been in much worse scrapes than that before, Vin. Why now?"
The sniper sighed and downed the remainder of his coffee. "Probably jest tired. I'll be fine in the mornin'."
Staring at the forlorn face of the man at his side, he doubted what Vin was saying. Something was eating away at his friend, and it was frustrating not knowing how to help him. His eyes took in the haggard features and he gulped down his coffee and stood, after watching Vin yawn for the umpteenth time. "Should be heading home. If you want company, you can come back with me."
"Nah, if I wanted company I'd've asked ya t' stay." Easing himself up from the sofa, he took the mug from his companion, placing it on the coffee table. "Go home, I'm fine."
Chris studied the face again. He was in two minds to insist he stay, but didn't want to push the troubled man. Reaching out, he clasped the Texan's shoulder. "Call me if you need to talk...if you need anything, okay?"
Nodding, Vin gulped hard, shoving away the emotion that was so close to the surface. "I will."
He followed Chris to the door and, after opening it, the leader of Team Seven turned back to face his friend. "I mean it. Call me."
"An' I mean it...get out o' m' house." A smile touched his lips and his blue eyes almost twinkled...almost.
"Hell, you call this a house?" Chris teased. "Thought it was a shoe box."
"It's fine when ya wanna hunker down fer the night though, ain't it?" the Texan called to the shaking shoulders.
Chris raised a hand and waved it towards the ex-bounty hunter. "Heck I'd sleep in a dumpster when I'm tired."
Vin couldn't stop the chuckle when the blond flashed a wide grin at him before the elevator door closed. "Yeah, well I'll remember that next time. Reckon there's plenty o' those in Purgatorio." He yelled, knowing his voice would penetrate the thin steel doors.
Still smiling, he closed his door and leaned against it. The smile slowly slid from his face as the feelings he'd had off and on since the warehouse incident resurfaced.
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Vin threw the covers from his hot body and stared at the ceiling. The night had been filled with bad dreams. Tossing and turning, he'd woken up countless times with sweat covering his body.
The dreams were all different, but all boiled down to the same thing.
Why was he still alive?
Each time he woke, his thoughts tried to comprehend what had happened the day before, when he spent those few seconds staring down the barrel of a gun.
Suddenly, a feeling came over him, like he was being hit by water from a cold shower. It all became clear in that moment...he should have died...it was a mistake that he wasn't dead.
Sitting up and rubbing his tired eyes, a peace settled over him. He was living on borrowed time, and he was darn well going to make the most of it.
Jumping from the bed with a renewed burst of energy, he walked to the bathroom with feather light steps.
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The elevator doors opened and Chris forced his body to move out onto the floor. His green eyes scanned the office and he saw all but one of Team Seven were present.
Five sets of eyes watched as the blond set his jaw in a hard line and walked into his office, closing the door quietly behind him. None of them had missed the dark circles under their leader's eyes. They all knew something was going on with Vin, and knowing how close the two men were, they were well aware of the fact that when one man hurt, the other hurt right along with him.
Sitting at his desk half an hour later, Chris raised his head when he heard Vin's name being called. Walking to the door, he opened it and stuck his head out, his eyes immediately finding Vin about to sit down at his desk. Closing the door again, he walked to his desk and picked up the phone. He pushed three numbers and listened to the tone until he heard a click and a cheerful voice.
"Vin, can I see you for a minute in my office?"
"Sure, be right there." Vin hung up, and picking up the box of doughnuts he'd brought in with him, he walked slowly past his team mate's desks, dropping a doughnut on each one. He grinned at the various remarks this brought, from "Good grief, are all Texan's so unrefined?" from Ezra, to "Hot dangit, Vin! Knew you'd come through with breakfast!" from Buck.
Opening the door without knocking, Vin grinned at the man sitting at his desk as he shut the door behind him.
Putting down his pen, Chris tried to look nonchalant as his eyes met the sharpshooter's. He managed to hide his shock at the transformation that had taken place since the night before. The dark circles under the tired eyes were there, but the blue twinkling eyes and the light hearted face were not what he'd expected.
"You okay?" he asked, his voice not quite hiding his surprise.
"Never better," Vin winked and fell onto the sofa. "Had a good night's sleep an' I feel fresh as a daisy."
Frowning slightly, Chris stood and moved around his desk, perching himself on the corner. "You sure?"
"Never surer," Vin put his head on one side. "Reckon I was shocked is all...'m fine now."
Chris wasn't convinced, he knew the Texan too well. But he decided to drop it for now. "Good...that's good."
The Texan stood after the short silence that followed Chris's words. The two men locked eyes before Vin turned his away, adding fuel to Chris's thought that all was definitely not as well as the sharpshooter was trying to make out.
"Well, if that's all, I got a report to write." Vin's words brought Chris's attention back to the here and now.
"Yeah, that's all." He watched the younger man walk to the door and touch the handle. "Vin...?" As the younger man turned with a questioning look, the blond studied his face again. "If you need to talk..."
"'m fine, Chris." The Texan left after giving his friend a reassuring smile; leaving the team leader pondering on the look he saw fleetingly cross Vin's face.
"Heard it all before," he said under his breath as he walked back around his desk and sat down. His heart felt heavy in his chest; this was far from over.
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The next two days seemed to prove Chris's reservations wrong. Vin was settled in his work and was his usual energetic self. Team Seven's leader even thought he was more energetic than normal, seeming to be in the fast lane with everything he did. All the same, the blond couldn't help the lingering feeling in his gut and every now and again saw a look in his best friend's eyes that he didn't like.
Two more days passed before he began to trust his original instincts. The day before, Vin had seemed to have more energy than usual. It amused the rest of the team, but worried the hell out of Chris. There was something else too; the Texan seemed to be avoiding meeting his eyes more and more, and seemed to go out of his way to steer clear of him.
Making up his mind, as he woke that morning, Chris decided he was going to corner his friend and talk to him.
Leaving the elevator, he did a double take when he saw five men surrounding Vin's desk. Frowning, he walked towards them, listening to the excited voices as he approached.
"Hell Vin, you should have gone to the ER."
"'s nothin', Nathan."
"Junior, sometimes you scare the hell outta me with that sense of adventure of yours."
"Bucklin', I'm fine...big enough t' take care o' m'self."
"What was it like, Vin?"
"Hell JD. Can hardly find the words t' describe it..."
"What's going on?"
All talk ceased abruptly as the five men around Vin turned and parted to let Chris through. The sight that greeted him made him grit his teeth. "What happened to you?"
"Went hang glidin' an' kinda missed m' mark." Vin grinned and winced when the movement pulled at the cuts on his face.
Chris narrowed his eyes and ground his teeth as he studied the Texan's face. He had untold grazes along the left side of his jaw line and a large bump on the side of his forehead.
"You went hang gliding?"
"Yeah, never got around t' doin' it b'fore, figured it was time I did."
"Where'd ya do it?"
Vin's chest plummeted, he could feel the tension emanating from his best friend. "Ain't tellin'."
"So, it was somewhere you're not supposed to hang glide." The blond's features turned stormy.
Vin stuck his chin out doggedly. "That's about the size of it, yeah."
The two men stared at each other; one with a blue eyed air of defiance, the other with the look of a friend who knew something wasn't right.
Neither man noticed the other members of Team Seven sidle off to their desks. They all knew what it was like when Chris and Vin locked horns, and none wanted to be in the near vicinity when the shit hit the fan.
"I hear you went rally driving somewhere you're not supposed to the other night too." It was a statement rather than a question.
Vin felt the hairs bristle with annoyance at the back of his neck. "Yeah, always wanted t' try that too." The Texan drawl had a sharp edge to it.
"Mind telling me what else you always wanted to do?" Green eyes started to flash and Buck issued a whispered 'Uh oh."
"Yeah, I do mind." Vin stood and the two men stared at each other, anger now dominant on both of the handsome faces.
"Got something to hide?" Chris shot back.
"Nothin' I need t' hide from you," Vin spat back. "Jest figured I got m' privacy an' I ain't gotta answer to no one 'bout what I choose t' do."
Buck winced as he watched Chris's whole body tense up. Josiah started to walk back towards the two men, his natural instinct to help calm things down urging him forward. A hand caught hold of him and he turned to see Buck looking at him. The ladies man shook his head slightly, warning him off. Best it was left...the two volatile men locked in battle were best left for now.
"Fine," Chris said finally, and spinning on his heel he stalked down to his office, slamming the door behind him.
A silence fell over the room, each man lost in their own thoughts at what had just taken place. Hearing the tapping of a keyboard, all eyes turned to look at Vin, who was typing as if nothing had happened.
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Walking into the dimly lit bar, Buck squinted his eyes and spotted Ezra and Vin sitting in a booth.
"You two are on to a good start." He noted of the many beer bottles on the table.
"I can assure you those do not belong to me," Ezra announced, raising a glass of wine to his lips and darting his eyes to the Texan at his side.
"Sit down, Bucklin," Vin ordered louder than he normally spoke. A large smile was plastered on his face and he put an arm around the ladies man's shoulders as he sat down.
"Hey! Get m' friend here a beer," Vin called to the waitress before turning his eyes back to Buck. "So where 'r the others?"
"Couldn't come," Buck answered simply. "Had stuff to do."
Vin nodded his acceptance and stood. "Need t' make room fer more beer."
Buck raised his eyebrows at Ezra as the two men watched the Texan totter towards the men's room. A worry settled on the ladies man; he'd never seen Vin this way. The sharpshooter only ever had one or two beers before turning to soft drinks. Something was definitely not right, and he suddenly understood the worry he'd seen in Chris's eyes over the last few days.
Starting to turn their gaze away from Vin, they once more settled their attention on him when they noticed their friend had found something interesting at the bar.
They watched as he walked over to a man and woman sitting on stools. The agent's bodies suddenly went into alert mode as Vin was shoved away roughly by the man.
"Hey now that ain't nice. Was jest askin' ya t' leave her be." The Texan voice found it's way across the bar to his two friends.
"Ah hell." Buck stood and looking at Ezra the two men walked towards the fracas just as Vin was thrown backwards into a table.
"Please stop, don't hurt him," the woman pleaded. "Bernie, leave the kid alone. He was just trying to help me."
"Shut up!" the beefy man hissed back as he walked towards the still recovering Texan and grabbed him by his t-shirt, hauling him to his feet.
"You don't wanna do that." Buck grabbed the man by the arm as it was pulled back to hit Vin again, but the bigger man shoved backwards with a flick of his shoulder, causing the ladies',man to sprawl on the ground. He then slammed his fist into Vin's face, sending him sailing back to thud against the wall.
Recovering quickly, Buck jumped to his feet and, aided by Ezra, managed to grab Bernie before he caught hold of Vin again. Pinning him against the wall, Buck drew his face up real close. "I suggest you leave now," he growled. "If you value your sex life."
Sneering, the big man held up his hands. "Just about finished here anyhow." He shrugged free as Buck relaxed his grip, and grabbing his reluctant girlfriend, left the bar.
Turning to Vin, the two men moved quickly to help the stunned man to steady himself.
"What the hell happened?" Buck asked as he pushed the sharpshooter into a chair.
"He was bad mouthin' her...callin' her stuff he shouldna... couldn't jest walk by."
Shaking his head, the ladies' man took the cloth Ezra had got from the waitress and began wiping at the blood running down the Texan's face. "Reckon you can stand, Vin? So's I can get you to the ER?"
"Don't need the ER." Vin pushed away Buck's hand and rose shakily to his feet. "'m goin' home."
Rolling his eyes, Ezra took hold of one of Vin's arms, while Buck took the other. "I'll take you home," the southerner said resignedly. "But please don't let your cut head bleed over my leather seats."
"We'll both take him," Buck stated. "I wanna make sure he gets home safe without running into any more trouble."
With a nod to each other, the two older men half carried Vin to his jeep.
Reaching inside the Texan's jeans pocket, Buck retrieved his car keys. "I'll drive his car, you wanna follow and then you can bring me back to get mine?"
"Good plan, Mr Wilmington." Ezra saluted and headed for his Jaguar.
Reaching Purgatorio, Buck pulled up outside Vin's apartment building and turned off the engine. Turning sideways, he looked at the bruised and cut face of the sleeping Texan. Sighing, he climbed from the battered vehicle and walked around to the passenger door and opened it. "Come on sleeping beauty, time to go beddy-byes." Releasing the seat belt, he started to pull the unconscious man from the jeep.
"Can I be of assistance?"
Buck cursed and jumped, almost dropping Vin as Ezra appeared at his side.
"Thank God, thought I'd have to drag him up five flights on my own. The elevator ain't gonna be working that's a certainty."
By the time the three men reached Vin's door, two of them could hardly draw a breath, and the third was only semi-conscious. Fumbling again for Vin's keys, the friends almost fell into the apartment when the key was turned in the lock.
"Make some coffee, Ez." Buck guided Vin to the sofa and laid him down gently.
"Bucklin..." Hearing the urgency, the ladies man looked down at the frantic, bloody face with the wild blue eyes and understood immediately.
"Shit!" Grabbing the Texan he half carried, half dragged him past a startled Ezra. Lifting the lid of the toilet seat, he held back Vin's hair, as the kneeling man retched and threw up the contents of his stomach.
Wincing at the dry heaves, the big hearted man knelt beside his young friend and put an arm around his shoulder. "Hell Vin, what's happening to you, huh?"
Finally able to move away from the toilet, Vin turned and rested his head against the wall. His flushed, sweat coated face was a picture of misery, as his watery blue eyes rested forlornly on the ladies' man.
Grabbing a cloth, Buck wet it and held it on the sniper's forehead. Settling himself cross-legged in front of the Texan, his concerned sky blue eyes looked into the Texan's face.
"Why don't you tell ol' Buck what's happening to you, Vin? I wanna help if I can."
"Nothin's happenin' t' me, Bucklin. Jest lettin' m' hair down is all." The choked, raspy voice clenched at the older man's heart.
"Seems like you're not yourself, Junior. And I want you to promise me you'll take care of that scrawny Texan ass better in future." Not getting a reply, Buck took the cloth away from Vin's forehead. He sighed and looked almost pleadingly at his young friend. "Chris is real worried about you...we all are."
"No need." Grunting, Vin pulled himself until he was on his knees.
Sighing again, louder this time, Buck grabbed Vin under the arms and hauled him to his feet. "You need sleep, come on." Guiding him to the bedroom, he settled him on the bed. "Good thing it's Saturday tomorrow, don't think you'd be able to fool Chris in the morning." Pulling the Texan's boots off, then his jeans, he covered the younger man with a sheet.
"Thanks Bucklin." The words were barely audible as Buck watched heavy lids close over big blue eyes. He stared down at the sleeping body on the bed, watching the chest rise and fall.
Shaking his head, he left the bedroom and found Ezra sitting on the sofa, sipping coffee. Slumping down next to the undercover agent, he picked up the steaming mug that the southerner nodded towards.
"How is he?"
"Asleep." Running his fingers through his hair, Buck turned two worried blue eyes to the con man. "I'm worried Ez, this ain't Vin. There's somethin' eatin' away at that boy...I just wish I could figure out what before he manages to kill himself."
Nodding slowly, Ezra's face turned thoughtful. "Maybe it would be prudent if one of us stayed with him tonight."
"You read my mind." Buck smiled. "I'll stay, my car is safe where it is. I'll just make sure I'm gone before he wakes up...you know what an independent cuss Vin can be."
"Oh Lord, yes," Ezra replied, chuckling into his mug.
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"What the hell have you done to yourself now?"
Nathan's question made Vin grin. "I did a base jump, but don't tell Chris. It's kinda not what yer supposed t' do."
"A base jump?" The men looked from one to the other, none of them having a clue what a base jump was.
"You jump off somewhere high with a parachute." JD informed them impatiently.
Four sets of horrified eyes settled back on Vin's bruised face.
"Tell me you didn't do that." Nathan's voice held a note of fear.
"Can't, 'cause I did," Vin answered triumphantly. "An' I might do it again too. Iffen I can figure out how not t' crash int' rocks."
"Vin, this is getting out of hand..." Josiah began, but was cut off.
"Sorry, gotta run. Chris loaned me t' Team Three this mornin'." Vin jumped to his feet and ran towards the elevator, five sets of stunned eyes following his progress.
"That boys gonna get himself killed," Josiah stated, swallowing away the sick feeling that was rising in his throat.
"Yeah, even I have to admit, he's getting a bit too fond of extreme sports," JD added as he sat at his desk.
"More bruises on his body than I've seen in my life," Nathan mumbled as he walked towards the coffee pot.
"Hell Junior..." Buck sat heavily in his chair.
The ding of the elevator made Vin smile. He was always impatient while he waited for it to arrive, and that noise informed him that this time he wouldn't have to. Waiting for the doors to open, his heart sank when his gaze fell on two green eyes that turned hard as they studied his face.
"Vin..." Chris began as he exited the elevator.
"Sorry Chris, team three's waitin' on me." Jumping swiftly into the elevator, the sniper pushed the button and the doors closed.
"Dammit, Vin!" Team Seven's leader hadn't missed the new cuts and bruises that were visible on the Texan. He ground his teeth, an action that had become a habit over the last ten days since the warehouse fiasco.
Glaring at the five men who were trying to look busy, the blond stormed into his office and slammed the door behind him.
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"Thanks, I'm glad you told me." Chris hung up the phone and ran shaking fingers through his blond hair. A fear had settled over him as he listened to the leader of Team Three telling him how the sharpshooter had broken cover and almost got himself shot that morning. In truth, the fear had been growing in him for nearly two weeks.
Vin was worrying the hell out of him and giving him more grey hairs than he should have at his age. The Texan was almost out of control. Always running off somewhere; doing something that inevitably left him with cuts and bruises. He hadn't sat down and had one of their relaxed conversations for what seemed like an age, and Chris missed that. Hell, he missed Vin; the Vin he knew like he knew himself. The Vin of the last couple of weeks wasn't his best friend, he was some hyper active, supersonic machine that was intent on inflicting damage on himself.
Chris suddenly frowned, an idea settling in his head. Could that be it? Is that what it's all been about?
Walking to his door, he threw it open and green eyes found the Texan's desk. It was empty.
A silence enveloped the room, as each man's eyes flitted from one to the other.
Chris shifted his weight impatiently. "I'll ask again...Where's Vin?"
The men shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
"We tried to stop him, he won't listen anymore."
Chris's eyes settled on JD's uneasy features. "Where is he?" The growl made the youngest of Team Seven gulp in fear.
"He's on the roof."
The blond turned his attention to Josiah. "What's he doing on the roof?"
Silence reined in the room once more.
"What's he doing on the roof?" The bellow made the men jump in their seats.
"Flying a kite."
Chris stared at Buck in disbelief. "What?" his voice was quiet as he approached the ladies' man's desk.
"He's flying a kite," the moustachioed man said again, louder this time.
Chris took two steps backwards as his eyes went from one man to the other. He was about to ask why they hadn't stopped him but knew why. Because they couldn't have. He stared unbelievingly at his team, but deep down knew what they were telling him was true. Vin was out of control, and it had to stop...now.
Without another word, Chris spun around and headed for the elevator. Tapping his foot impatiently while he waited, his heart pounded as worrying thoughts entered his head.
As the lift doors opened he squeezed through the small gap and almost cried out in frustration while he waited for the doors to close again.
The five remaining agents sat in silence, unable to concentrate on anything other than what was going to happen on the roof. Whatever it was, the day had finally come when Vin and his problem would be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the surface. Looking from one to the other, they all headed for the coffee pot, and waited.
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It seemed to take an eternity for the elevator to reach its destination. By the time it ground to a halt, its sole occupant's nerves were raw. The doors opened slowly and the blond growled as he turned sideways and eased through the still growing gap. Stepping onto the roof, the anxious green eyes shifted around urgently, searching for any sign of Vin. Hearing a muffled curse behind him, Chris turned and moved cautiously towards the sound.
He stopped dead in his tracks, his breath catching in his throat as his eyes caught sight of Vin. The Texan was perched precariously on the edge of the roof, his body stretched up to the sky as he tried to manoeuvre the colourful kite.
Chris was too afraid to call out or even move, for fear of startling Vin and making him lose his balance. He held his breath and watched with wide frightened eyes as the sniper continued to control the kite in the billowing wind.
Relief washed over him in a cold flood when Vin finally stepped back to relative safety, pulling the kite closer towards him. After watching his friend take a further step backwards, Chris ventured forward, content that the Texan was out of danger.
The startled man turned around sharply, tugging on the kite string as he did, and the two men watched as the multi-coloured object floated slowly to the ground.
The two friends' eyes locked, but neither spoke as each assessed the other's mood.
Gradually, Vin's features took on a look of amusement. Dropping his gaze, he picked up the kite and walked towards Chris with a smile on his face. "It came this mornin'...couldn't wait t' fly it."
Chris grabbed Vin's arm as he drew alongside and waited for the Texan to look at him. "Vin...we need to talk."
Shaking his head, the sniper pulled free of the grasp. "Nope, sorry. Gotta go."
Chris hissed and gritted his teeth. Reaching out, he grabbed Vin's arm again. "Why are you avoiding me, Vin? Why won't you talk to me?"
Vin stopped and turned, his blue eyes turning serious as he let out a sigh. "'Cause y'll make me stop...an' I don't wanna stop." He gulped and shrugged before pulling free again. "Gotta run."
"No!" This time Chris grabbed at the Texan with both arms, spinning him around to face him once more. He flinched at the flash of anger that crossed the younger man's face. "You're gonna listen this time, Vin. No more running away. We're going to my office...Now!"
The blue eyes turned hard. "Alrighty then. Let's go an' get it over with. Then I got somewhere I gotta be."
The two men waited for the elevator in strained silence. Both stepped into the small space and watched as the doors closed, encasing them in the small structure. Vin looked everywhere but at the man by his side, and Chris couldn't help but feel weary from the two weeks of mayhem that the Texan had caused.
Five heads turned as the elevator chimed it's arrival and ten eyes watched the two men walk stiffly and silently to Chris's office, the kite trailing by the string behind them. The leader of team seven stopped and watched Vin precede him into the room, pursing his lips as the string was dropped at his feet. Turning towards the other members of his team, they flinched at the look of anger and frustration on his face.
"Hold my calls" he barked, before turning and entering his office, closing the door none too quietly behind him.
"Think we should call for back up now or later?" Buck asked wryly.
"Nah, I don't think we need to do that. Just have someone standing by the fire alarm, ready to smash it," Josiah answered, his eyes not leaving the closed office door.
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Chris walked past the tense body standing in the middle of the room. "Sit down, Vin," he said tiredly, perching on the corner of his desk.
"Reckon I'll stand, if it's all the same t' you," the Texan answered tightly.
Holding down his anger, the blond responded as calmly as he could. "Whatever you wanna do."
Silence reigned supreme for what seemed like an eternity, but in truth, was only a few seconds. Finally, Chris could stand the tension no more. He was going to put an end to this madness once and for all. He almost laughed hysterically as he recalled something Josiah once said...'There is no such thing as sanity - just different degrees of madness'...he could relate to that only too well at this moment. Pulling his thoughts together, he brought his eyes up to rest on the pensive face of his best friend.
"Vin, I wanna help. You've been rushing round like a headless chicken...you're more highly strung than a kite..." he stopped, realising how ludicrous that sounded under the circumstances. Looking at Vin, he saw the Texans' blue eyes twinkle for just a second, before they turned hard once more.
Standing up, he moved until he was standing only inches from Vin. "I'm not getting through to you am I?" He studied the younger man's face: it remained hard and unmoving. It was as though Vin had cut himself off from what was happening. "Right, we're going for a drive."
That got a reaction.
Vin's mouth opened to protest but Chris didn't give him a chance. Holding up his hand, he silenced the Texan with a warning look. "No argument, I'm doing this as your boss and your friend, whichever way you care to look at it is up to you." He felt a sense of triumph as he saw a look of uncertainty cross the Texan's face. Motioning towards the door with a nod of his head, his eyes never left the sniper's face. "Let's go, Tanner."
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No words were spoken as they made their way to the parking lot. Chris could feel Vin's anger and tension; it mirrored his own. His lips twitched despite the gravity of the situation, as he recalled the looks on the remainder of Team Seven's faces as he brusquely informed them that he and Vin were leaving and not to expect them back.
Reaching the Ram, both men stopped walking and Chris steeled a glance at the icy blue eyes that pierced his own smouldering green ones. Opening the door, he held it and pointed inside. "Get in."
Vin didn't move, just continued to glare angrily at Larabee.
"I'm not saying it twice." The two men continued to stare at each other, but in the end the older man won. Without a word, the Texan climbed reluctantly into the passenger seat and, snatching the door from Chris, slammed it shut.
Relief was an understatement of what Chris felt as he walked to the driver's door and climbed in. Just the fact that Vin had eventually got into the Dodge gave him the hope that he could get through to the troubled Texan, and pull him free of the demons that were intent on keeping him hostage.
The drive to the ranch was endured in a tense silence. Vin seemed to be sleeping, his head resting back against the seat. But Chris knew better; just the way the younger man was sitting told him that Tanner was very much awake. Mulling away the time in thought, the blond dreaded their arrival at his ranch. Because he had no idea what he was going to do when they got there.
Pulling up noisily on the gravel drive, Chris turned off the engine and looked over at the scratched and bruised face of his best friend. The blue eyes were open and staring straight ahead. The Texan seemed calm on the outside but Larabee could feel the raging emotion running through Vin's veins.
"Can we go fer a ride, or are ya gonna lock me in yer dungeon?"
Chris's face took on a look of surprise; this he hadn't expected. Ignoring the cutting remark he answered with a smile. "Sure, we'll saddle up right now, Peso's missed you the last coupla weeks."
A fond, almost wistful look passed across Vin's face before he snapped the seat belt off and jumped from the Ram. Digging his hands into his Levi pockets, the sniper headed steadily for the barn with Chris following close behind.
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Riding always seemed to calm both men, and the silence was pleasurable as they looked around them at the fine scenery that surrounded the ranch. But Chris eventually decided the silence had gone on for too long. Turning to the Texan, he took a deep breath.
"So what's going on Vin? Are you trying to prove that you're not indestructible or that you are?"
Chris finished at the same time the body on the horse next to him tensed. "Don't make me talk...don't make me say what I don't wanna say."
"What is it you don't wanna say, Vin?" Chris knew he was pushing, but the time to let things slide was well and truly over.
The Texan looked straight ahead as he rode, his eyes scanning left and right. His jaw moved from side to side as he ground his teeth. Then Chris watched incredulously as a smile lit up Vin's face and his eyes twinkled with mischief.
Before he could stop him, Chris watched as Vin spurred his horse forward, the dust flying up behind the quick moving horse and rider.
"Running away again, Vin?" The blond's shout to the retreating back was lost in the wide, open spaces. "Shit!" The annoyed exclamation was coupled with the older man spurring his horse forward to chase Tanner.
The wind thundered past them as both men rode along at a break neck speed, the low branches cutting at their faces and arms and ripping at their jeans and t-shirts.
"Shit, Vin!" Chris's words were whispered, lost in the fast moving wind. The blond knew what was ahead, and was pretty sure Vin knew too. But the Texan didn't seem to be slowing down. He heard the younger man whoop loudly and then looked on horrified as a branch from a tree knocked the sharpshooter clean off of Peso and sent him over the side of the steep hill Chris knew had been approaching fast.
Chris pulled up sharply, yelling at the same time, and was off his horse before the beast had stopped moving. Peering over the edge, he saw Vin's still form lying at the bottom of the hill.
"Shit!" Reaching for his cell phone, the blond realised it was still in the Ram. "Shit...shit...shit!" Looking down again, he braced himself and took off over the edge, half sliding, half running down the steep incline until he reached his friend's side.
Two blue eyes blinked up at him and Chris sighed out a relieved breath.
"Hell Vin, you scared ten years off of me. You okay?"
"I'm fine. Just had the wind knocked outta me is all," the Texan answered tightly. He winced as he pulled himself to a sitting position. "Think I may rest here fer a while though." Shuffling along the dirt he leaned against a tree and closed his eyes, touching at a sore spot on his arm.
"What about the next time?" Chris couldn't stop the anger in his voice, as he stood menacingly over the shaken man.
Tanner opened an eye and looked hard at his friend. "Don't know what yer talkin' 'bout."
"I'm talking about the next time you go off hell bent on getting yourself killed. Do you think you'll just have the wind knocked out of you then?" The leader had to fight against the urge to grab the defiant Texan by the scruff of the neck and pin him against the tree.
There was no answer as Vin averted his eyes.
Settling himself in front of the wary younger man, Chris steeled himself. This was it. The time had come. "I've tried not to interfere with all the stuff you've been trying out lately; I put it down to your sense of adventure, even when it got more than a bit dangerous." He stopped and ran his fingers through his dishevelled hair. Looking at Vin, he saw he still had his attention and so ploughed on. "Vin, I've been worried. You're my friend. This isn't like you. Hell, flying a kite is one thing; I'd expect that from you...but standing on the edge of a roof while you did it?" he paused again, noticing that Vin was once more avoiding his eyes. He decided to go for the jugular. "So tell me, what was it about that guy who was gonna shoot you that got you so determined to finish what he couldn't?"
A deathly silence followed until Vin slowly raised his eyes and looked sorrowfully at Chris.
"How'd ya figure it out?"
"You're my friend, it's my job."
Vin swallowed and dropped his gaze to the dirt. "Jest sent me crazy, Chris. I figured I was livin' on borrowed time. So I decided to celebrate bein' alive, an' live life to the limit before I died. Felt like I could travel faster than light and reach out and touch the moon. I cheated death, and I was jest pushin' t' see how far I could go. I knew I was doin' it, jest couldn't seem t' stop m'self, didn't want anyone else to either, so I avoided ya as much as I could. I was enjoyin' the rush, I almost felt like nothin' could touch me." He raised his eyes again; his face turning hard. "I should be dead...I shouldn't be here...I cheated death...and you helped me do it."
Chris sat back on his heels, shock covering his handsome face.
Anger boiled through the blond's body. Growling, he jumped to his feet and in one swift movement grabbed Vin and pushed him roughly against the tree, holding him there. "Where's your mind gone, Vin? Can you hear yourself?"
The question was met by harsh breathing as the Texan fought to heave his chest in and out.
"So you took it into your head to help destiny along, huh?" Chris shifted his weight, moving his mouth nearer Vin's ear. "You're telling me that you survived a hellish childhood to throw it all away over a near miss?"
Vin's mouth set in a hard line.
"I thought you were made of sterner stuff, Tanner."
"I am," the sharpshooter growled, his heart clenching at every word Chris spat at him. Tears of frustration, anger...and something else, were running down his face. All at once he felt himself deflate like an old balloon. His shoulders sagged, and the older man, pinning him down, sensed a change.
"It's okay Chris, ya can let go...y've stopped me...m' rollercoaster ride t' destruction is over."
Warily, the blond loosened his hold on his friend, stepping back as the Texan slid heavily to the ground, dropping his head in his hands.
"M' sorry Chris," the voice croaked. "Reckon ya should've sent me t' psych."
A smile played on Larabee's lips. He was surprised at how relatively easy it had been to reach his friend. "I'm sorry too, Vin. But for a second there, I didn't think I was getting through to that hard head of yours."
"Fer a while, ya weren't. But I'm glad ya finally did, it's a relief t' be rid o' the feelin's I've been harborin' inside."
"This mean I've got my friend, Vin Tanner, back?"
The sharpshooter raised watery eyes to look at his best friend who had seated himself at the anguished man's side. "Reckon so, borin' huh?"
"Nah, there's too much adventure in you for you to be boring...that's definitely not the word I'd use." Chris leaned back against the tree, the overwhelming relief making him feel suddenly tired.
"Ah hell, I gotta go track down Peso." The Texan put his face in his hands once more.
Chuckling, Chris clapped him on the back. "No you don't, He's waiting for you at the top."
The two men helped one another to their feet and proceeded to slowly climb the hill. The blond reached the top first and turning around, held out a hand to the struggling Texan.
Grinning, Vin grasped the offer of help and grunted as he was pulled up. "Thanks Chris." Green eyes held blue, both men hearing the double meaning in those two drawled words.
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"It's gotta be the parachute jump. It's much more daring."
JD's excited voice met Chris and Vin's ears as they stepped out of the lift together. It was a week since Chris had kidnapped Vin, and all was relatively back to normal.
"Hey Vin! Come help us choose what to do this weekend," Buck beckoned with a wave of his hand.
The two friends looked at each other and grinned. Walking over to the others they looked at the array of brochures on Ezra's desk.
"I don't know how I was talked into such a hazardous undertaking," Ezra stated, rolling his eyes.
"What's going on?" Chris picked up one of the flyers, dropping it as though it had burned his hand when he read the large letters. "Who's planning on doing a bungee jump?"
"We are...I think," Nathan informed the team leader, flopping resignedly into a chair.
"Y'are?" Vin raised his eyebrows and a smile played on his lips. "Reckon you should do the parachute jump m'self. More of a rush."
"Well, thanks for the helpful input," Josiah uttered wryly, clearly not pleased about being roped into the adventure.
"Alright, parachute jump it is then!" Buck slapped the table with his palm. "You'll come won't you, Vin?"
Two twinkling blue eyes met two amused green. "Nah, reckon I'll leave that to you adventurous types." He started to walk towards the coffee pot. Glancing over his shoulder he grinned a wicked grin. "I'm goin' fishin'."