Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction and there is no profit. Magificent Seven belong to Mirsch, CBS, MGM and Trilogy. Many thanks to MOG for the creation of the ATF/AU.

Rating: PG13

Warnings: Language, violence

Notes: Thank you to MOG for impressing the hell out of me. You betaed! And this fic only improved because of her. Now, note this is a work of fiction so sometimes as MOG has pointed out I do play loose with reality.  Many thanks to Kim as the OCC.  Comment is appreciated.

Archivist's Note:   This fic was previously hosted on another website and was moved to Blackraptor in September 2006.

They say he sat on a king's ransom although he lived plainly. He was a hermit, alone in the crackling dry hills. There had been rumors-rumors to protect against nosy neighbors and a man's privacy. At least that is what Ali chose to believe. The hermit had called for a driver. Ali needed the money. He had children to feed. The driver easily found the stucco house and pulled the four-door Renault in front of the home.  Ali didn't have to get out. The mystery man exited with one bag. Despite the warmth, he wore a turtleneck. His head was covered, eyes shielded with sunglasses, face strategically hidden.

A normal bust did not culminate in two injured agents.

"Did you see where the shots came from?" Chris asked pushing a hand through his hair, making his tense forehead more pronounced.

Vin pushed off from the wall he was leaning against.  The sharpshooter crossed his arms tightly then closed his eyes, going over the scene in his mind. Ezra and JD were on the outskirts of the courtyard. It was a small bust with big ramifications. Guns would be stopped from entering at least one high school in Colorado.

JD was thrilled he was going undercover, having only played a computer geek before in another operation in which he kept silent and his head bent over a keyboard. This time Dunne didn't care he was playing a 'kid.' The young agent was the source of the ATF's information- the go between. His mission was to make friends with the teenagers known to have weapons, find out who their source was and try to broker a deal between the source and another player, Ezra.

The source, Samuel Givens, was interested in gaining another avenue in which to acquire guns. The meeting, after school, in the yard was quiet..

Buck was next to Vin, finding it difficult to keep quiet. Tanner had sent the mustached agent menacing looks.

Wilmington begged to go with the sharpshooter in the tree when the team had been discussing the bust. Vin had protested.  Buck, usually filled with bravado and machismo had leaned in closer to the team, and in a soft voice stated his purpose. "I just want to be close to the kid. Make sure he's all right." The congenial agent prevailed.

In the tree, Tanner brought his finger to his lips as Wilmington mumbled,  "Kid's head is going to be swollen for days after this."

Vin thought JD was having fun the past few days, enjoying the time with the teenagers even though it was the 'wrong crowd.'  Dunne never had an opportunity to be a real, irresponsible teenager. Tanner figured the young agent's head wouldn't be swollen. It would be a let down to go back to work with the adults.

The sharpshooter sensed the climax to the bust. He pointed at his eyes and then to the area in the courtyard. Buck nodded.

Below, Ezra and JD took out their badges. Everything seemed peaceful. Weapons were placed on the ground. Then Buck and JD got shot.

Vin opened his eyes, assaulted with the harsh fluorescent lighting and the turquoise colored vinyl chairs. He let out a breath. "I don't know. I was climbing down." Tanner slightly bowed his head, then brought it up again to face the team leader. "Looked like it was all clear."

Chris looked away and Vin swallowed the lump in his throat. The sharpshooter knew he wasn't to blame, yet his answers were lacking and insufficient.  Larabee stared at the hall his friends had been taken down. Tanner rubbed his eyes. They both stood transfixed until Ezra came up behind them.

"Mister Givens was not forthcoming with any information." Standish drawled. Ezra and Nathan had gone back to the office to see if they could find out where things went wrong.

Next to him, Jackson closed his cellphone. "And intel confirmed, again, he did not have any known backup." The medic gave a quick glance down the hall, checking for the doctor. "Just like we said from the beginning-he's a one man band."

Standish rubbed his chin for a moment. "Then we told Givens that an assault on a federal  officer could add to his jail time. . ."

Nathan shook his head. "He was scared Chris, but he was adamant he had nothing to do with the shooting." Jackson placed his hands in his pockets. "He told us he would swear on a Bible"

Frustrated, Chris slammed his hand, palm flat, against the wall. "Damn."

Vin nudged Nathan to continue, letting Chris ride out his aggression.

Jackson nodded.  "Then he started to rollover on his contacts."

"We left him in the capable hands of the assistant district attorney."  Standish added, looking away from the irate leader, he directed his question to Vin. "Any news on Buck and JD?"

"Not yet,"  the sharpshooter sighed, moving slightly away from the leader to give him some space to pull himself together. The only thing that would help him and the others was to know that their friends would be okay.

Tanner watched Josiah as he calmly sat, going through old copies of Field and Stream. The large man cleared his throat breaking up the tete-a-tete. "Here comes the doctor." Sanchez stood up and went to stand next to his teammates, giving Vin a reassuring squeeze on his shoulder.

The dark-haired doctor removed his surgical cap and smiled as he clutched it. "They're going to fine."

Josiah grinned as he watched his teammates. The doctor made the team wait until after the roommates were moved out of recovery and asked they be patient. The team's version of patient consisted of  men pacing, fidgeting  and tapping until they saw their friends being rolled down the hall.

"Honey, wait, those are my friends," Wilmington said awkwardly waving his hand towards the general direction of the team. A sheet covered part of his torso, but part was left exposed showing the neat white bandage pinning his arm against his chest. The mustached agent had taken a hit in the shoulder, the bullet lodged inside.

JD followed behind, having taken a bullet in his side leading to a nicked liver.  He cleared his throat as he passed and offered a wan smile. "Is someone going to write me a note for school tomorrow?"

Josiah chuckled, "Wasn't  I playing the dad?"  Sanchez had gone the first day of the undercover operation to register JD for school.  As they walked into the office the young agent was already getting into his role, whining and being mouthy to his so-called father.

The men followed their infirmed friends in the room and tried to stay back as the two were moved from their gurneys to their beds. The nurse took some time to write some notes on their charts. "Are you two okay?"

Dunne nodded, and Wilmington flirted. "With you by my side I'm going to feel better in no time."

The nurse shook her head. "Boys, not too long." She eyed each man. "They need their rest."

"Don't worry, we'll be leaving shortly." Nathan replied. "I don't think they need us to entertain them." Jackson added, noting Buck was reaching out already to the television remote control.

Chris stepped forward and pulled the object from Buck's hand, putting it out of reach of the injured man. Larabee was a little surprised when the overhead TV came to life.

"It slipped?" JD said, opening his eyes wide trying to look innocent as he held the remote.

Josiah walked over and reached up to shut the TV off. "No TV until you do your homework."

Dunne groaned at Sanchez's comment.

Buck shifted against his pillow and grimaced. "Where the hell did the shooter come from?"

Josiah had noticed that Vin had been a step behind, practically hidden by the large man's frame.

"Couldn't tell." Tanner said, looking unblinkingly to Wilmington, avoiding the other men. Sanchez didn't know what was eating the longhaired agent, after all, he had saved Buck from falling. Tanner had turned to climb down the tree, then noticed the mustached agent falling back. Luckily, and there just had to be a lot of luck involved, Vin was able to grab a fistful of Buck's shirt.

"Possibly a northwestern direction." Ezra said as he sat down in the only available chair in the room.

"There's a team on the scene trying to figure it out." Chris added as he glanced between the two men making sure for himself they would be fine. "I should have a report soon."

Wilmington adjusted his position yet again frustrated it was difficult to move with one arm pinned to his side. "At least you were there to catch me, Junior." Vin looked up, and nodded, accepting the thanks quietly.  "Don't think  I wanted to take a bullet and end up with a cracked head."

"I don't know? Maybe you would have ended up with a different personality." JD replied as he tried to stifle the yawn causing his eyes to water. "A normal one would be nice."

"Now, what fun is that?" Wilmington retorted as he raised and lowered his eyebrows.

Nathan cleared his throat and pointed to his watch.

Chris, understanding they were overstaying their welcome, placed a hand on the end of JD's bed. "Get your rest. We'll be here in the morning."

After three days, the two team members were coming home to finish recuperating. They were going to go back to the CDC under the careful scrutiny of the other five men.  Josiah and Chris were going to pick them up after lunch.

In the aftermath of the bust the office had been working hard to find out what happened. The conclusion were theories ranging from a leak in the office to perhaps revenge by a Given's competitor. No one wanted to believe it was some sort of fluke. Combined with the two hospitalized men, Nathan found himself stressed.  This morning he was starting his day at Starbucks.

Jackson was not surprised to see Tanner in line already. He waved to the sharpshooter who gestured he come forward. Nathan shrugged his shoulders and whispered apologizes to the people directly behind the longhaired agent.

Vin seemed oblivious to the rolling eyes and the dirty looks the people in line were giving him. "Hey, Nate what do you want?"

"Some tea," the medic replied as he tried to stifle a yawn.

Tanner shook his head. "You sure you don't want a double espresso?"

Nathan laughed. "And have it eat my stomach lining?" Jackson looked ahead to the menu, wondering what the tea of the day was.  "No, Rain had me up." He said absentmindedly, before realizing how that could be construed.

"Don’t want to know." Vin said in a low tone under his breath.

Rain had been at his place working on a proposal. Her apartment was being fumigated. Seeing how on edge he was, she had graciously volunteered to give him a massage. "Wouldn't kill you to have someone in your life." Jackson commented.

Tanner pulled out his wallet, and took out two five-dollar bills. "Like being alone."

They were next in line. "What about companionship? What about sex?" Nathan finished saying as they reached the barista.

The young woman flushed in embarrassment at having heard the conversation. Her voice became an unnatural soprano. "An espresso and?"

"Yeah," Tanner quickly responded, feeling uncomfortable with the conversation and the fact it hadn't been private. Vin then shook his head. "Oh, and one .."

"Darjeeling tea," Nathan had quickly made his decision. "Grande."

The woman called out the order. The two agents waited in silence. Vin shifted his gaze around the tiny confines of the coffee shop, still uncomfortable from the odd, overheard conversation. Jackson read a pamphlet on teas, more turning the paper around in his hand then actually reading it. He returned it back to his spot when their order was completed. Once they left Jackson felt the need to apologize. "Sorry." The medic knew Vin would not be going back to that particular Starbucks for awhile.

Vin took a tentative sip of his steaming brew. "You always think about stuff like that?"

Nathan grimaced as he sipped the unsweetened tea. He always worried about the men and their well being. They led complicated lives. "I guess."

They had reached Vin's Jeep. Nathan was parked a little further down. Tanner placed the paper cup on the dashboard. "I'm doing fine, Nathan, rest easy."

"If you say so," Nathan chuckled and began to walk away.

"I say so." Nathan heard Vin reply. Jackson fidgeted the cardboard sleeve on his cup. He was surprised when the whole cup dropped out of his hands. He gasped and felt warm liquid on him. He was stunned when he looked down and saw it was blood not tea.

He wasn't expecting Vin to knock him down either. "Nate! Get down!" He heard Vin yell at him, patting his face with one hand while Tanner's other hand held a weapon.

Jackson tried to respond, but his tongue felt thick. He felt his breath quicken and then the searing pain in his side. "Oh God," he groaned.

Probably looked like a psycho. Vin's cuts glowed a deep rust color from the iodine and his jeans and jacket were torn in places. The bullet shattered his back window and the glass rained down on Nathan. Tanner had leapt out of the Jeep and in the process skidded on the glass littering the pavement. A shower would have cleaned him up, but the emergency room team insisted on looking him over to make sure the glass wasn't imbedded and the cuts were not too deep.

Finally the nurses had left him alone. The sharpshooter waited a bit to get his equilibrium before slowly putting on his soiled clothes. He needed air. Tanner looked around before stepping on the mat to open the sliding doors. The rest of the team wouldn't miss him. They were waiting upstairs for Nathan to come out of surgery.

He stood taking steady breaths. Vin saw the man next to him smoking. "Can I have a smoke?"

Silently the stranger gave him one. He closed his eyes as it was lit. Tanner felt his fingers indent as he slipped in the cigarette. He took a long drag, forcefully blowing the smoke through his nose.

The longhaired agent turned around and saw Chris pulling the curtain back from Vin's exam room. Tanner nodded through the glass doors and put out the cigarette.

"Is Rain here?" Vin asked.

Chris frowned. "Yeah, she's upstairs."  Larabee glanced to the ground. "Shouldn't be much longer now."

Vin looked out into the bright day, making out the distant outline of the city. "He gonna be okay?" Ezra had reported to him that the bullet had done damage to Nathan's intestine.

"Yeah, risk of peritonitis, but he's going to pull through." Chris spoke louder as a car came up near the place where they stood.

Vin rubbed the right side of his chest, feeling the scabbing skin through a rip in his shirt.  "What do you think is going on?"

"We've been talking upstairs." Chris turned and faced his friend. They shared a look, as if to prepare themselves for the trials about to come.  "Think it may be an old case."

Tanner closed his eyes, scared at the amount of enemies they had made over the years. "Damn," the whispered word sighed in the air.

Chris gave a twisted grin. "Let's go upstairs."

"Nurse just came out, said they are just closing now."  Buck sat in the chair in the waiting room fidgeting with his sling.  Chris had tried to make the two roommates go home, but they had been adamant about staying.

Vin saw Rain by the operating room doors, far away from the team and as close as she could be to Nathan. Her arms were crossed around her.  "How long has she been there?"

Josiah glanced over to the worrying woman and sighed. "Since she got here."

"She kinda snarled at the rest of us."  JD commented as he tried to stifle a yawn.
Ezra placed his deck of cards into his suit jacket. Buck figured in five minutes he would take them out again. It was Standish's nervous habit. "I have tried to draw her into conversation, but she is not talkative."

Wilmington saw the lone woman, looking so vunerable. He caught Chris's eye and gestured to Rain.

Larabee nodded. "I'll go talk to her."

The mustached agent watched as his old friend soundlessly joined the young woman. "Rain, he's going to be fine."

She did not turn around. "I hope so."

"Buck said the nurse told him they were almost finished." Wilmington watched Larabee struggle to make conversation. This was not his strong point. He could bully harden criminals, but was not the type of person to turn to for a sympathetic ear.

"Yep," Rain replied, taking another step away from the team leader.

Chris took a step back, closer to his men. "Why don't you come and sit with us."

Her back still turned, she shrugged her shoulders. "No, thanks."

Larabee turned back to look at Wilmington. Buck gestured to his friend to make some sort of overture.

"Okay, I understand. We're right there if you need us." Chris turned away.

Rain snapped around, her face was tear streaked and she roughly dragged a finger under her nose. "I don't think you do understand."

Wilmington winced and not from the pulling of the stitches in his shoulder. Ezra had started to take out his cards again and then stopped, giving the conversation in the corner his full attention.

"Excuse me?" Larabee stated.

"Look at your precious team—they are the walking wounded." She pointed to JD and Buck.  "And now Nathan?" She ran her fingers through her tangled hair.

"It's the risk of the job," Chris replied. The rest of the team looked over hearing his voice raise.

"Ha!" She snorted. Her eyes watered with unshed tears. "Part of the job is to get people mad enough at you that they'll seek revenge.  Nathan never said anything about that."
Wilmington looked away, as had the rest of the team. Rain quivered with resentment. She was finally realizing Chris was a major figure in their lives, as was the team.  The Team was everything. Buck felt terrible for Rain and Nathan. The medic was the only one to have an established relationship.  Wilmington wondered was this what it would be like if any of them got married? Family versus the job? This was the part of the job they never talked about.

Chris was silent.

Rain looked down to the linoleum floor. "I overheard your conversation."

"It's a theory." Larabee bit the words out. From his tone it was obvious he had told her she had crossed the line and their conversation was none of her concern.

She snapped her head up.  "That's great, just great."  The conversation was dropped as Nathan was rolled through the doors. The team stood up and pressed in closer to the gurney, but giving enough space for Rain and Chris.

Wilmington watched as Rain pressed a hand against the cushion of the gurney near Nathan's head.  Jackson had his head turned away towards Larabee. For a second he opened his eyes. Chris grinned and nodded.

"Is he gonna be okay?"  Buck asked the doctor who had at last exited behind Nathan.

"I think so. We're going to give him antibiotics and hope to keep the peritonitis at bay."  The doctor rubbed his chin. "If you'll excuse me. The nurses will set him up in ICU."

Rain followed the nurses. This time wrapping her hand in Nathan's.

The men started to follow and Chris called them back. "Let Rain spend some time with Nathan.  We'll come back in the morning."

Buck nodded, appreciating his friend's consideration for the young woman.  "Plus you guys need to take care of us. Hell, Junior needs some tending too."

Vin shook his head. "I'm going home."

Ezra took that as his cue. "I will escort Agent Tanner home."

"Guess that leaves me and Chris to tuck you in, Brothers." Josiah pointed to the elevator.

"JD has an impressionable mind!"   Buck said jokingly as he put an arm around his roommate.

Dunne shrugged his shoulders, causing Wilmington to drop his arm.

"Think of the damage you'll do, the last thought before he falls asleep will be you two." Buck mimicked an exaggerated shudder.  "That would give me nightmares for years."

Chris walked ahead of the wounded man. "You can always stay in the hospital Buck and I'm sure that Nurse Rita will be happy."

Wilmington began to pick up his pace. He was tired, but there was no way he was being left behind and be ministered to by THAT WOMAN. She had made him feel worse instead of better, her hands rough instead of helping. She downright intimidated Buck. "You don't play fair."

"I sorely detest being regulated as backup." Ezra said as he tugged on the edge of his Kevlar vest. The nylon like material chafed against his sensitive skin.

Vin was struggling to put his vest on as he and JD played with a koosh ball.  Dunne laughed as he tried  to pick a moment to throw the ball when the sharpshooter was occupied. Tanner had been using different body parts—feet, head and even an elbow to return the projectile.

Josiah was already suited up and sitting on the corner of Buck's desk.

Standish pulled on a loose cashmere sweater, which covered the hideousness of the vest. "Yes, Mother always said be a leader and not a follower."

"My father always said walk in the footsteps of the Lord." Sanchez replied as he got up and tucked in the designer tag of the sweater for the southerner.

Ezra looked back to see if Chris was ready to leave. It had been a week since Nathan had gotten shot. The medic had been released today and ordered to stay home another two weeks before coming into work. JD and Buck had returned to administrative duty only two days earlier. "Mother believed she was the only omnipotent being in my life." Standish replied matter-of-factly.

The team laughed, and Standish smiled at his remark too. Although they were still missing one in their ranks, it felt good to have some comradeship.  They had been on edge, combing through the files to see if there were any criminals with grudges against them.  That of course turned out to be an gross understatement.

Larabee placed the phone down and exited his office, shutting the door behind him.  "Nathan's doing fine and says hi." Chris had his vest over his arm and began to slip it on.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Buck said as he twirled in his chair watching the men get ready to leave and meet Team 3.

"I think we have that covered." Chris answered.

Vin, finally in his vest, was tossed the koosh ball in the air, waiting for the right time to lob it to JD. "Let's see, would Buck jump in front of a bullet?"

Ezra, equally as serious as the sharpshooter replied, "Yes, he has done that selfless act."

At this point Vin threw the koosh ball, and JD caught it with one hand. "Would Buck break cover to warn his friends?" Dunne shook the ball as he asked his question.

Standish looked up as if to ponder. "I do have a recollection of that happening."

"WWBD?" JD added. Then cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify his voice. "A new movement that would destroy the ATF."

Chris sighed and shook his head. "Thanks, Buck, appreciate it." He pointed to the door, and the others began to follow him out.

The southerner was the last to exit, stopping a moment at the mustached agent's desk.   "Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Mimicking Buck's cadence.  "Mother always said to get the last word too."

Ezra then lifted his hand and caught the koosh ball that JD had thrown at his head.

"Grasshopper," Buck winked at the undercover agent. "Master is waiting for you."  Wilmington gestured to a frowning Larabee who was holding the elevator door.

Ezra dropped the ball and gave the two agents a two-fingered salute. "Another time, my worthy adversaries."

Josiah squinted in the afternoon sun. The all-clear sign had been given. The large man began to walk toward his teammates. Vin was leaning on a parked car. Chris,talking to him.  Ezra was pulling off his ATF windbreaker as quickly as possible and heading from the other direction. Team 3 had an uneventful bust and Sanchez figured he wouldn't be human if he didn't think, 'Why couldn't something happen with their team instead?'  It was a thought that the large man quickly admonished himself for having. He gave a thumbs up to one of the members of Team 3.  He nodded a greeting to Chris and Vin. "If we huddle around each other and look busy then we won't have to be a part of clean up."

"Is this the voice of experience?" Standish said as he rolled up the jacket until it was a ball that he could hold in the palm of his hand.

Chris turned around and glared at the errant southerner. "Ezra, get over here."

The four men formed a small circle. Chris joined Vin in leaning against the car. There was a silence amongst them.  Josiah cleared his throat. "Think Buck and JD found anything?"

Vin shrugged his shoulders.  He stepped back for a moment surprised as the window to the car shattered.  Chris bent down too, as did Josiah and Ezra.

"Up there!"  Standish stated as he pointed to the building across the street. A man could be seen scrambling to leave the perch.

"You two take the rear!" Chris yelled out to Ezra and Josiah.  Standish and Sanchez sprinted off, guns drawn, to the building across the street, while Tanner and Larabee went through the front door.

The southerner pointed to the back door. Taking point, Ezra opened the door while Josiah provided the backup. They crept slowly up the stairs listening for any sounds of the shooter. At each floor they stopped and looked around for anything out of the ordinary. It was a ten-floor building and by the time they made it to fourth floor they could hear shots coming from above.

"They do make it easy," Josiah grinned, as he climbed the stairs at a quicker pace.

"And considerate." Ezra followed close behind. "We only had to ascend a flew flights."

Through the stairwell Vin and Chris could be heard yelling for the culprit to stop. As Ezra and Josiah made their way to the next landing they saw the perpetrator charging down. Sanchez stretched out his hand and shut the door to the fifth floor. The blond haired man gasped and went for his gun.

Ezra pointed the gun at the man's head. "ATF, please cease and desist." The click of the Walther caused the man to flinch.

Larabee came charging down the stairs, slamming the man against the wall. "Why the hell are you shooting at us?"

The man shrinked back, but somehow found a reserve of courage. "Shooting?"

Chris pushed his forearm against the assassin's throat. "That f***ing thing you did with the ****rifle!"

"Ringing any bells?" Vin commented as he sat on the railing watching the scene with Josiah and Ezra.  Sanchez shook his head as the sharpshooter balanced himself and taunted the leader.

"I believe a bet is in order. Ten dollars on how long it takes for Agent Larabee to break the assailant's neck."

"Four seconds," Vin replied after a moment.

"Now boys, it's not nice to bet on a man's life."  Josiah gave the man a pitying look. "If you raise the stakes though. . ."

"There's a contract!" The man screamed in a high pitched voice. He coughed as Chris eased up on the grip. "There's a contract on Vin Tanner!"

Josiah watched the shock go through the room and Chris let the man drop in a heap to the floor.

Vin kept looking behind him as he walked in the shadows of the alley. It had taken a lot of favors, phone calls, and the ability to allude the team in general although Chris seemed to know he needed to go off for a bit to find some answers.

Then it all came together. The Wizard had survived and wanted him dead. Vin Tanner was worth an exuberant one million dollars. Knowing the truth made him mind blowingly aware of everything-the twisting of his gut, the eyes that seemed to follow him, the guilt that weighed on his shoulders and the responsibility of having to tell the truth to his friends. He hadn't had that nightmare in a long time and foolishly he believed he finally buried it. That night in the desert. . .

Vin sat, his short brown hair wrapped in a turban, his beige fatigues blending into the desert.  It was getting cold and he shivered.  This would be the end. Three days of tracking his target.  He followed the man; code-named the Wizard, to a remote cabin on the ridge of the mountain in Dubai. The man was an engineer responsible for the biological warfare that Hussein had decided to unleash. He had to be stopped. Sergeant Tanner prepared the scope of the rocket launcher.  It was easier in this case to take out the whole shack instead of taking out the individual. It would be merciful but also send a loud message to the Iraquis.

The Wizard had never been alone until now. He was always carefully guarded. Intelligence had reported he was going on a remote vacation for a few days and that would be the time to strike. The lights were still dim in the cabin. It would be an awesome site to see the projectile fly through the sky.  Vin set his scope and fired.

In the distance the lights winked on in the cabin. Tanner leaped forward and screamed a warning to the unsuspecting man, wife and child before they were shattered into oblivion.

Vin made his way back to the Jeep, rolling his shoulders to feel the comfort of the holster on his back.  He had taken the Wizard's family and the man wanted justified revenge years later.  Tanner needed some sleep and went to the only place that maybe he could feel a little safe.

When JD came into the office he noticed there was no way that Vin could hide the fact that he had slept there. Coming out of the bathroom wearing sweats he kept in the locker were dead give away.

"Nice to see you in one piece, Junior." Buck commented as patted the longhaired agent on the back.

The sharpshooter shrugged.  "Gonna have to talk to everyone when they come in. You have time this morning?" Vin nodded to JD too.

Wilmington rolled his eyes as if to ponder the situation. "For you, I can clear my schedule."

"In about half an hour." Tanner said as he placed the toothbrush back in his draw. He slowly shut it as if enjoying every aspect of being in the office. "Chris says we can use the conference room."

Dunne looked at his watch. "And Ezra has time to get here."

Vin nodded and then sat down to do some paperwork, seemingly engrossed in the sheaves.

JD looked at his roommate and mouthed, 'What's going on?'

Buck gestured to go back to his desk.  "Chris figures this has something to do with black ops." Wilmington quickly glanced at Tanner, a glint of pity passed through his eyes.

JD felt the surge of excitement as the room began to crackle with tension. He loved this cloak and dagger stuff. Secret lives, black ops made everything exhilarating and dangerous.  It was like reading a Tom Clancy novel.  The young agent was part of the inner sanctum. He sat at his desk and kept kept an eye on the elevator, waiting for Ezra to come in.

Thankfully he didn't have to wait long.  Ezra had foregone his usual trip to Starbucks.  Quietly, the team began to get up and go into the conference room.  Vin came in second to last, with Chris shutting the door behind them.

JD sat on his hands as he waited for the story to be unfolded. It had been just yesterday when Josiah, Ezra, Chris and Vin had come back and told them about the contract. Dunne researched to see if he could discover any further information.

Tanner had looked a little shell- shocked. Truth be told Chris and Buck were grilling him, while Ezra was trying helpfully to jog his memory.  JD then pushed him over the edge by exclaiming, "Holy shit! Vin you're worth a million bucks!"

The outburst had caused a death pall to come over the room.  The sharpshooter's eyes had gotten wide and he walked out of the room.  "Something I gotta do."

"Think we should stop him?" Josiah had taken a few hesitant steps forward.

Larabee shook his head. "We all know what this is about."

JD had no idea. He knew that some of the guys had this deep, secret past, but never knew the full extent.  Buck would neither confirm nor deny any of JD's suspicions until today.

Vin began his story, tracing circles on the wood counter with his fingertips as he spoke in short clipped sentences. His monotone recollection sounded like a report. In his mind Dunne, tried to envision the vistas of the desert, picturing Tanner to be a pseudo Lawrence of Arabia.  Unfortunately, JD could not refrain from taking a sharp intake of breath when Vin finished the tale.

"I lined up the target in my scope. I fired. The lights went on. His wife and child were there. Target was neutralized." Vin stopped tracing patterns on the wood.  "Current reports say the Wizard is alive."

JD turned his head to his roommate who had shifted his gaze to the leader. Chris sat frozen in his chair, gripping the armrest for a moment before standing up and heading to the window, his back to the team.

Wilmington started to get up to talk to his friend, but Sanchez caught his eye and gestured with his hand to stay put.  JD saw it all with clarity before him. Buck's past with Chris.

Tanner folded his hands in front of him, looking like a man accepting his fate. "Ever wonder why I'm good at my job?" The longhaired agent didn't wait for an answer. "Cause I never think there's going to be a tomorrow. Shit like this is bound to happen. I ain't afraid to die. . ."

Buck slammed his head on the table. JD was startled. "I hate it when you all talk like this. I am afraid. Don’t plan on dying today or anytime too soon."

Vin leaned forward, his hands on the table firm and stubborn. "That's what I'm saying. I don't want you boys caught up in this. I f***ed up."

"Agent Tanner…" Ezra protested. The sharpshooter waved off the comment.

"I know you guys are a bunch of cocky bastards. But, I'm serious. Nate, JD and Buck are hurt because of me." Tanner stood up and pushed his chair in. "We need to put some distance between us."

Standish grabbed his arm as he walked by, "And what makes you think they won't go after your friends and exploit them as a weakness." Tanner shook off the hand.

"Sit down, Vin. Let's figure this out." Josiah said calmly.

Vin stopped and closed his eyes, opening them and looking at JD. The young agent nodded.  The sharpshooter gave a twisted smile.  Dunne knew it was too late. Tanner was leaving.

"Sit down, Tanner." Chris said, his face void of emotion, mirrored in the glass of the tall windows.  JD shivered at the coldness.

Buck followed Chris back to his office and closed the door as they both entered. Larabee slid into his chair.

"Lotta shit going on in my head, Buck." Chris glared at his friend and the lines around his mouth tightened. "I gotta deal with Travis. . ."

Wilmington crossed his arms defiantly and sat down in the chair across from Larabee. Chris bowed his head and began to do some paperwork, figuring by ignoring Buck he would leave.

Instead, the mustached agent made himself comfortable, putting his feet up on the desk. Buck didn't have to wait long for the leader to erupt. He pulled the middle desk drawer open then slammed it so hard the jolt pushed Buck's feet off the desk.

"Jesus, the man could be me. It is me. I lost a wife and son and if I knew who to retaliate against then I would." Larabee looked up at the bullpen, then quickly turned his attention back to Wilmington.

"I was there Chris, but this isn't the same and you aren't this man." Buck pulled his chair closer to the desk. He willed his friend to let his anger go and tried to reason with him.  "You heard. It was an accident."

Chris stood up, planting his hands on the solid oak before him. "That's right he was only supposed to leave a boy fatherless and a wife a widow." He snarled.

"You know what?  You're right. You're always right. Everyone is f***ed and then we die." Buck stood up and headed for the door. He paused with his hand on the knob. He swallowed, allowing him time to tone down his voice.  "There's a team out there looking for a leader."

Chris looked away and Buck shook his head. He felt his hand tighten on the knob.  He had to try one more time. There was too much on the line, too many demons being brought back to life.

"He was a kid. He followed orders." Wilmington still had his back turned. "Chris, he left the army." The mustached agent turned and relaxed against the door. He looked down, praying Sarah hadn't died, Vin hadn't killed that family and things could be different and yet the same. "What more do you want?" Buck closed his eyes, opening to see his friend was listening. "Blood? Well you'll have it—if he gets his way."

Chris wiped his hand down his face, the mannerism did nothing to remove the tenseness that had settled on the leader. "He shattered someone's life and you know what, Buck? The pieces don't fit the same afterward."

Buck felt his throat constrict and his voice carried a hoarseness of the sadness he felt remembering the dark days and the lost friendship. "I was there, Chris. I loved Sarah and Adam too. I miss them too." Wilmington opened the door a crack and let his hand rest against the trim.  "If Vin goes down, can you live with that? He's a marked man."

It was his fault. He wasn't being vain. All Vin wanted to do was hit something, throw anything and scream at the unfairness of it all. Instead all he could was quietly look for his pen. Tanner quelled the need to slam the draws in frustration. The sharpshooter already had the team's attention and it would be hard to drift into the background where he was comfortable. He had pulled the desk draw out all the way ready to rip it out and spill the contents for the stupid Bic pen.

"Vin," Josiah stated. "You need some help there, Brother?"  Sanchez placed a hand underneath the desk draw before it hit the floor. Josiah placed it back on track.

"What?" Vin snapped, distractedly. Catching the larger agent's softening and pitying eyes Tanner settled on a pen, not the one he was looking for, but he didn't care anymore. He closed the draw quietly. "Sorry Josiah, you wanted somethin'?"

Sanchez stood up. "No, no, just telling you I'm here if you need to talk."

Vin settled back in his chair and shook his head. "I need to talk Josiah, but not now . . ." These men were already involved, already knew more than he was willing to tell them about his past.

Josiah gestured to the break room. "Come and join me for a cup of coffee."

The sharpshooter shrugged his shoulders in a noncommittal manner.  The large agent began to walk off. Tanner looked at his desk and realized he wasn't going to get much accomplished today, so maybe a cup of coffee would be a good distraction.

"You didn't touch my brew did you?" Vin announced as he turned the corner into the side room. Josiah was there already as was Ezra.

Standish was leaning against the kitchenette and glanced over to the coffee maker. "No, I believe it is still attacking the glass carafe."

Vin smiled and poured himself a cup. He stayed near Ezra, watching Josiah flip through the paper left behind on the table.

Ezra picked up the carafe and swirled the dark brew. "If your coffee disintegrates this machine perhaps my dream of an espresso machine may come true."

Tanner took a sip of his coffee. He thought about responding to the southerner, but knew he was not in the mood for their usual banter.  Vin took the mug and dumped out the remaining liquid in the sink.  "I told y'all I don't want to talk.  Ya know what's going on-can see it plain as day." He turned the water on to wash out the cup and wash away the brown liquid.

Josiah had folded up the newspaper. "Chris doesn't hate you."

"He will." The sharpshooter dried his mug with a paper towel. "The more he thinks about, the more questions he'll have, the more dark memories. . ." Vin let his words trail off omitting the ultimate conclusion- until I'm dead.

"I realize you feel as though you can read our leader's mind, but perhaps your conclusion is incorrect." Ezra said as he opened and then closed the refrigerator.

Vin turned around and shrugged his shoulders. He knew what he felt in his heart and in his head.

Standish walked away from the refrigerator and filled a plastic cup with water from the bubbler. "I would like to open my humble abode to you."

Vin crossed his arms and shook his head. "Ezra, I know I said I'd go along with your plan, but I'm not liking the idea of everyone risking their asses for me."

Josiah stood up and  tossed the newspaper in the recycling bin. "I think we can decide that Vin, you just have to decide to accept a little help." Sanchez placed a warm hand on his shoulder.

Tanner nodded in acceptance. Maybe he was too tired and too weak to tell them all to go to hell and take care of it himself. Maybe it was fear that everything was coming to an end and he did not want to be alone.

Josiah didn't call first. He only hoped Chris hesitated before shooting a surprise visitor to the ranch. Luckily, Sanchez made enough noise as his Suburban  crunched along the gravel driveway.  Josiah waited for the Chevy to settle before stepping out and heading to the front door. It swung open as he made it to the first step.

"What brings you here, Josiah?" The large man noticed Chris's revolver slack by his side. Larabee held the door open.  Sanchez wiped his feet and walked into the home.

The TV was on and Chris went back to his recliner, placing the gun on the coffee table. Josiah took a seat on the couch. "Taking a leisurely drive to clear my mind."

The leader kept his eyes on the television, paying attention to the basketball game. "I told you that Travis cleared our slates for two weeks, to figure this out."

Josiah pretended to have some interest in the game. "Vin's spending the night at Ezra's." He said matter of factly. Chris didn't respond. Sanchez stretched his large frame. "Kinda strange you weren't the first to offer."

Larabee glanced over to his guest, then returned his focus to the ending period. "Well, that would be usual and we need to stir things up."

The  larger agent nodded, knowing this wasn't going to be as easy as he thought. "True." He looked around the room and decided to get something to drink in the kitchen.  He found a bottle of beer and twisted the cap over the sink, noticing the spider plant was still healthy.  Josiah took a long draw before going headlong into the created mess. "Chris, I'm going to play devil's advocate." He continued without pause. "Vin gets killed. How are you going to feel about that? Part of you has to feel relieved?"

Chris stood up, shocked at what his friend had just said. "What the f**k do you mean by  that?"

Sanchez  walked back into the living room, the beer clenched in his hand. "Or if after two weeks we can't find the man responsible? He has to be cut from the team."  Josiah smiled. "You don't have to face him."

In three steps Chris met Josiah in the middle of the room. "That's enough." He growled, his face paled from the anger he felt.

Sanchez knew once he started, there would be no turning back. He felt the need to interfere and bring to light  the secrets and shadows festering in the dark. Vin and Chris had to see the chasm between them would only grow and bring them and the team to ruination. "Better yet! We find the man, everything turns out okay and then that leaves you where?" Josiah calmly relaxed on the couch again and took another sip of the beer.

Larabee walked away, picked up the glass on the coffee table and threw it at the television. "What the hell do you want from me?" Chris flopped back down on his recliner.

Sanchez stood up and shut the TV off. "I know what you're thinking Chris. You're human after all and I'm just saying try not to feed the darkness."

Chris placed a hand on his forehead and bowed his head. "Josiah, it may be too late. . ."

Ezra was thankful he was able to convince Vin they should enjoy a leisurely meal at Ciao Bella instead of ingesting a sickening amount of grease and mystery meat at McDonalds. Although Standish knew the deal was sealed when he offered to pay for the evening repast.

Sated after having risotto with porcini mushrooms, the southerner was enjoying the drive to the townhouse where Tanner would be a guest for the next few days. His soon to be roommate was quiet, looking out the Jaguar's window, feigning to focus on the passing scenery.

Vin looked straight ahead. "Think, Nathan would mind if we dropped by?"

Ezra tapped his fingers along the leather-encased steering wheel. He didn't want to intrude on Nathan and Rain after the scene in the hospital. It had been decided silently among the men to give the two space. "I'll call to check." Standish picked up the phone, finally deciding that Vin needed some absolution from Nathan, and Rain would have to put up with it for a few moments. On the second ring Jackson's girlfriend answered the phone.  "Rain, I apologize for intruding. . ." Ezra began after exchanging pleasantries.

"But, you want to come over?" Rain sighed loudly.  "Not all the troops, I hope."

Standish glanced over to Tanner. "No, just Vin and myself." Ezra felt he needed to add, "Only for a moment."

The southerner could hear a whispered conversation between Rain and Nathan. Then Rain returned to the phone. "We'll see you soon."

Standish  shut off his phone and returned it to the dashboard. "We are welcome, but are instructed not to tire him out."

"Just need to say something to him." Vin drawled and reverted to looking out the window.  "It'll only take a minute."

They were at Nathan's split-level in fifteen minutes. Ezra pulled the Jag into the driveway and they walked up the cement walkway dividing a precisely manicured lawn. Rain was waiting for them at the door with a smile.

"Come on in." She waved them in. "Nathan's on the couch."

Jackson was sitting up, his back propped up with two pillows and a remote control in his hands. "Hey," he said as he shifted against the cushions with a grimace. "Glad you guys stopped by."

"I do believe that Rain's companionship is much more desirable than ours." Standish relaxed on the settee across from the couch while Tanner sat uncomfortably on the corner of the recliner. Rain had retired to the kitchen to get something to drink.

Nathan laughed, then winced. "I don't know. All we've been doing is talking." The wounded man took a sip of water. "Now Vin, no need to get embarrassed. I'm tired 'cause of the surgery nothing else."

The longhaired agent smiled slightly then began to ring his chapped hands.

Nathan did not seem to notice Vin's distress. "Have you been back to Starbucks yet?" He directed the question to the sharpshooter then asked, "Anything going on in the office?"

Ezra gestured with his neck to Vin, who was looking intently at the beige carpeting. Jackson raised his eyebrows in puzzlement. "Something you fellas came by to talk about?"

Tanner cleared his throat. "Nate, don't know iffen you heard, but this mess, you being shot, is all my fault."

Nathan looked at Ezra for confirmation. Standish gave a slight nod affirming there was some truth in Tanner's statement. The southerner knew the medic to be compassionate and understanding. He would listen and draw his own conclusions.

"Vin?" Jackson replied.

Ezra didn't think it was possible for Vin to take up less of the chair he was sitting in, but the sharpshooter edged forward. "Some trouble from way back and I just wanted to say I'm sorry." Tanner looked up to the injured man. "I'm sorry." He uttered again. "I never wanted this to happen . . ."

"Vin, stop blaming yourself." Nathan pushed himself up, so he was sitting. "You didn't shoot me."

Tanner shook his head, ignoring what his friend was saying. "The shooter wanted me not you. There's a contract out on me."

"Geez, maybe you should talk to Rain, between the two of you.." Jackson took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time-simple as that. . .IT COULD HAPPEN EVEN IF I WAS AN ACCOUNTANT OR A DOCTOR." Nathan raised his voice, obviously so that his girlfriend could hear. "What are the rest of you doing about this?"

Standish was surprised the medic had become so riled. "Calm down, Nathan. The rest of us are handling the situation. Judge Travis has given the team time to find the person responsible." Ezra stood up, motioning to Vin that it was time to leave.

Nathan put his arm out and the longhaired man grasped it tightly. "If you need me or just want to talk. . ."

Tanner nodded. "Know where to find ya. . ."

Standish squeezed the infirmed man's shoulder. "Take care of yourself, Agent Jackson." Standish bent down lower so only Jackson could hear. "Do not be too hard on your paramour. She is just scared."

 Nathan nodded in understanding.

After thanking Rain for the hospitality they walked back to the car in silence.  Ezra knew nothing had changed for Vin. He saw a man as stubborn as himself unwilling to grant any quarter in an uncontrollable situation. Standish knew no therapy or friendly discussion would reduce Tanner's burden. Ezra wanted to curse Chris Larabee for adding to Vin's guilt.

"Whatever happens, just don't get killed." Standish mumbled under his breath as they entered the Jag and he started the engine.

"What did you say, Ez?" Vin said as he pulled the seatbelt over his chest.

Josiah had shown Vin to his room. Tanner was being kept on the move, hence the change of sleeping arrangements. The Victorian house was still a work in project. The spare room was sparse, but clean and functional. The sharpshooter nodded and tossed his bed on the bag.

Sanchez was at the door when he turned around, "Are you tired or do you want to talk?"

Vin grinned and placed a hand on his neck. "A little of both, I guess."

"I still have some bottles of my homemade beer in the refrigerator. . ." Sanchez started to head down the stairs, knowing his beer was a temptation no one could resist. He could hear Vin's stocking feet behind him.

They sat comfortably on the couch enjoying the silence and a moment to put their feet up. "I spoke to Chris a few days ago."

Tanner paused from drinking his beer, then brought the bottle back to his mouth and drained the remaining contents. "He tell you that I f***ed up." Vin toyed with the bottle before putting his feet on the floor and placing it on the coffee table.

"Brother, you know this has nothing to do with you. . ." Sanchez began, hoping he could have his two teammates come to some sort of understanding.

"Nothing to do with me, Josiah? Hell, Nathan, Buck and JD were all shot 'cause of me! And I've become Chris's nightmare!"  Vin scooped up his bottle and headed into the kitchen, the door swinging wide in his wake.

Josiah emptied his bottle and followed. Before entering he heard the crash of something breaking and thanked God it wasn't a television.  He found Tanner bent down picking up the pieces of a broken beer bottle. "Sorry, Josiah . . ."

"That's okay." Sanchez pulled out a chair for himself and gestured for Vin to sit down. Tanner placed the glass bits in the trash before taking the seat. "You're not the devil, Vin. You're not evil . . ."

Tanner shook his head. "I did something wrong, Josiah, and now I have to pay for it. What goes around comes around."

Sanchez swallowed at the sharpshooter's eerie calmness. Josiah did not want Vin to resign himself to death. The larger man had walked that path before and wanted to save his friend from the agony. "No, that's not true. Don't believe Chris. You're not his demon."

"I killed someone's family." Vin met Josiah's gaze. In a low voice he continued,  "I did what was done to Chris."

Sanchez grabbed Tanner's shoulders firmly. "You had a duty to your country to stop a man from doing harm. I know his wife and child were an accident." The large man kept his hands on Vin's shoulders until the sharpshooter shrugged them away.

Tanner closed his eyes and stood up. He turned and went to the sink where he gazed out the window. Sanchez wondered what the longhaired man saw out in the darkness. "My biggest regret, iffen someone had only told me there was a kid and his mama. . .It woulda been different, Josiah. . .It woulda been different." Vin sighed.

Josiah opened the refrigerator again and pulled out two more beers. He placed one on the counter. "I know your soul, Vin Tanner, and you're a good man." The sharpshooter opened the bottle. Josiah raised his bottle in a toast, as did Vin. "Chris will realize it too, son. We just have to give him time." Vin nodded. Josiah knew these men needed his prayers more than ever.

Buck smelled the coffee as its aromatic tendrils made their way under the door of his room. Junior had gotten up early again, or Wilmington thought, more likely didn't sleep. Vin had been at the loft for three days and for those days had been up as the sun rose. Buck stretched and decided to open his eyes. He hit the alarm clock so it would go off at its designated time of seven, being careful not to extend his arm too much. His shoulder still felt achy and wouldn't take time to heal.  Buck took a deep breath and made his way out to the kitchen. "Damn Vin, in my own house I like my own coffee not your damn sludge."

Vin smiled as he brought his bowl of cereal to the couch. "Hell, it's supposed to wake you up, Bucklin."

Wilmington hesitated as he poured the dark brew. "So does a fine woman and like a woman I like more sugar and less vinegar." He didn't want to drink it, but also didn't feel like making more coffee either, with a few teaspoons of sugar it was almost bearable.

"Hey, JD," Vin greeted the still yawning young man, who kept a hand at his wounded side.

Wilmington handed Dunne a mug of coffee as he sat down at the kitchen table. "Didn't even hear you wake up."

JD took a sip of the strong coffee, grimaced then glared at Buck, with a sigh he got up and opened the refrigerator, pulling out the carton of orange juice.

Vin brought his empty bowl in the kitchen and rinsed it in the sink. "I fixed some eggs, and toast figuring breakfast was the least I could do for you guys putting me up for the last couple of days."

"That was nice of ya, Junior. . ." Buck nodded and looked suspiciously at the yellow mass still in the frying pan on the stove. Tentatively he grabbed a fork and scooped a small amount into his mouth. Wilmington smiled. The eggs were edible. He took out two plates from the cupboard and paced a heaping pile on each plate along with two pieces of toast. One dish was placed before JD and Buck sat down across from him.

Tanner was antsy after flicking through all the morning shows. He shut the television off and began to fiddle with the stereo. Vin hurriedly went through the stations, settling on one and putting the volume up.

Buck, concerned for his neighbors at the early hour and still trying to get into their good graces after the last party, spoke up.  "Wanna turn that down?"

JD paused from gnawing on a corner of the toast. "That's one of those songs that Buck says men hate."

Vin gave a confused glance to Buck. "Respect by Aretha Franklin?"

"Yeah and there's another one." Dunne took a larger bite of the bread. "You know, at first I was afraid I was petrified. . ."

"Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side." Wilmington dropped his fork then picked it up and waved it menacingly at his roommate. "Damnit JD! Now I'll have that song stuck in my head all day!"

Involuntarily Tanner's foot began to tap. He stopped once Wilmington threw a piece of toast at him.  "What's the third one?" Vin held up the bread and began to eat it.

"Buck thinks Dancing Queen but I think it's Paradise by the Dashboard Light." JD had started to eat his eggs. "Casey loves that song . . ."

Vin shrugged his shoulders, turned, shut the stereo off and sank down on the couch.

Buck tried to make the sharpshooter as comfortable as possible. The stress from having a contract on your life and the coolness of Vin's relationship with Chris caused tiny lines near Tanner's mouth and eyes to become prevalent. In the past week and a half there had been no further attempts. Vin had spent time with Ezra, Josiah and tonight was going to stay with Chris.

JD waved as he shuffled off to take a shower.

Buck placed his plate in the sink. "If you want to go in a little later—maybe catch up on some sleep."

Tanner stood up to show that he was still alert. "I'm fine."

Wilmington walked over to the living room and pushed the sharpshooter back on the couch. "Pacin' the place at all hours. . .You've been having nightmares?"

"Some," Vin sighed as he dropped his head back against the pillows.

Buck sat down on the coffee table. He wanted to talk to Vin, show he cared. "You're staying with Chris tonight."

"Yep," Tanner brought his head up and stared at his friend.

Wilmington met the level stare, imparting his support to the younger man. Buck could only hope that Chris wouldn't explode. He hoped Vin wouldn't tear into the leader either. All in all they were on a collision course. In the office the team tried to act like everything was normal, but it wasn't. Vin and Chris barely said two words to each other and the others were trying to patch up the friendship. "You gonna be okay?"

Vin nodded, reached out and slapped Buck on the shoulder. "Bucklin don't get all maudlin on me. The man isn't gonna kill me."

No, Wilmington thought, but there was going to be blood spilled, and Buck wondered if there would be anything left of either man when it was finished.

The tow headed boy was laughing, spinning in a circle, happy to be playing.  He smiled at Vin and beckoned him to come and play. Tanner walked over to the boy. He studied the child who seemed so familiar. The boy held out his delicate hand.  Vin reached out, feeling at ease with the child.

"Why did you do it Vin? Why did you kill me?" The boy snatched his hand back.

 Tanner shook his head, "Adam.  I'm sorry…Adam."

Vin awoke with a start. He tore himself away from the image. Chris was speaking to him. Tanner cleared his throat. "Sorry, you said something?" He had been trying to feign sleep to avoid talking to Chris, but somehow he had drifted off and ended up in his nightmare.

Larabee's eyes were fixated on the road before him. "Nothing."

Vin tried to calm the anxiety closing in on him. He opened the window a crack to let in some fresh air. The nightmare had started right after his declaration to the team. Tanner wondered how he would survive with Adam Larabee haunting him. More than that, he wanted to know what his fate with the team was going to be. "Two weeks are up you know." The sharpshooter didn’t mean to say it out loud.

Chris didn't acknowledge the statement. Vin wrapped his arms around himself and tried to cage the unfairness, which he felt was attacking him. "You know how sick it is knowing you're gonna die soon? Knowing there is a f***in' madman out there who wants you dead." Vin laughed at the absurdity-through it all he was still thinking about Chris. "And I still think about the shit you're going through…"

Larabee brought the speed of the Dodge up a notch. "You're not going to die." Tanner had to hold on to the dash as they took a sharp turn. Roughly, Chris pulled over to the side of the road. The car behind them beeped in irritation of the erratic driving. Chris placed both hands on the steering wheel. "Did you ever think about telling me?"

"Tell you about it?" Vin shook his head, and stared outside at a flickering light. "No, I kinda knew what would happen." Tanner turned and looked at Chris. "You know I wanted a little peace in my life." Vin sighed. "I thought you'd understand that. . ."

"I'd like to think I would have acted differently. . ."  Larabee let his hands drop from the steering wheel. "Vin, if I had my chance I would want revenge for Sarah and Adam too.." Chris let his head drop back then turned his head to face Vin.  "I know it wasn't you." Larabee closed his eyes and looked away.  "But there's just so much. . .and I don't have  any answers. I just don't."

Tanner tried to gulp some of the emotions threatening to assault him. His voice was hoarse; reverberating with feelings, making it hard to say the words. "You think I didn't beat myself up over it?"  Tanner took a deep breath trying to force enough air into his lungs so he could finish. "I left the army- a place I called home. I didn’t call another place home 'til now."

Chris nodded and rubbed a hand down his face. "Where does this leave us?" The words hung in the air for a few moments.

Vin looked away and noticed he was a few blocks away from his apartment. "In Purgatorio," the sharpshooter replied, but knowing he was closer to hell.  "Just take me home." Tanner lifted his hand and gestured to the road.  "I need to figure some things out."

Chris pulled away from the curb and they drove in a weighted silence of things left unsaid and the heaviness of knowing their friendship was ending. Vin unbuckled his seatbelt as Chris parked the Dodge yet again. Quickly, Tanner grabbed his bag and stepped out of the vehicle, wanting to get away. He almost made it when Chris reached out.

"Vin, I. . ." The moonlight cast a pale glow over Larabee's features and for a minute Tanner saw Adam's face.

Vin pulled away and shut the door. He raised his hand. "Night, Chris,"

Chris watched Vin enter the building. He waited a few moments, looked around and didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. For one night it would be okay, Chris told himself as he placed his blinker on to leave the curb. He waited, allowing a distant car to pass. The vehicle drove by and Larabee knew he should leave. Instead he punched the steering wheel in anger at himself and the whole damn situation.

He cradled his hand in pain. The stinging subsided, but left Chris wanting the simple feeling of pain to stay. The team leader was tired of the complexities of his emotions. He was exhausted from second guessing each of his decisions. Chris had to make sure he was being fair to Vin. He didn't want to let his feelings effect his work. . ."Damn I'm one screwed up bastard." He mumbled to himself.

He had detached himself- just like when Adam and Sarah were killed. Somehow his friends had turned into his co-workers. He had tried to stay away from going out with the team after work instead enjoying the solitude of his office or home.  And his time alone made him connect more with Vin's enemy. He understood the Wizard's thirst for revenge. Larabee was jealous of what the man had achieved.  He hadn't forgotten his wife and child and found their killer. Chris exhaled a long breath.  He grimaced when he thought about  how he had treated Vin at the office—with distinct, cold professionalism.

It wasn't a solution, but as he told Tanner he just didn't have the answers.

Chris looked at the building one more time.  Damn, Vin had forgotten his jacket. He would just give it to the sharpshooter tomorrow and maybe they could talk too. Larabee turned on his signal to exit.

"Ahh hell," the leader shut off the ignition and grabbed the jacket. He needed to talk to Vin and they needed to settle everything once and for all.

He climbed the stairs to Tanner's floor and immediately noticed the quietness. Chris reached for his weapon, then remembered the local children's museum had free night on Wednesday and the tenants always made an effort to bring their kids. Larabee shook his head at his own tendency to be quick on the draw. He knocked softly on  the sharpshooter's door to give him warning, then turned the knob.

It was locked. Chris would have liked to think the sharpshooter was being careful, but the thought didn't sit well with the leader. Larabee listened at the door and there was only silence. The blonde man walked away gripping the jacket. Carefully he folded the jacket and lay it down before running at the door and  kicking it open.

Vin was  kneeling on the ground, his hands behind his head. A man wearing dark sunglasses, a loose scarf wrapped about his neck  and a faded baseball hat was behind him. Chris was face to face with the Wizard.

"Gun down."  The man ordered, without removing his weapon from Tanner's head. "He has to die for what he has done."

"Git outta here, Chris." Vin put his chin up and slowly closed and opened his eyes. "I don't want anyone to be hurt." Tanner dropped is head again. Larabee was scared, in his friend's eyes he saw a man who accepted he would make the ultimate sacrifice. Larabee lowered his gun.

The covered man brought the pistol down hard on the longhaired agent's neck. Vin tumbled forward and Chris took a step.

The man tsked tsked Larabee. "You think I could not have walked up to him on the street, shot him, then walked away? But then he would have died surrounded by his friends and that was too good for him. He needed to die alone."

"I know what happened to your family." Chris held his hands out loosely. The gun was dangling, non-threateningly from his fingers. "I understand what it's like to lose your wife and son." Larabee licked his lips wondering where this tactic would take him.

The assassin grabbed Vin's hair then appraised Chris with his dark brown eyes. "I don't think you understand until your skin burns not because of the explosion that took my wife and son, but by your hatred for the man you need to find and kill.  These scars remind me, everyday, of what I lost and have to get revenge for." The click of the safety being removed was audible in the living room of the small apartment.

Vin brought his eyes up once more to Chris. He grimaced as his hair was again pulled back. "Get this over with!" Tanner yelled out, struggling against the firm hand that pulled him back.

Larabee brought the gun back into his hands and took another step forward. "You want to kill him so you don't have to admit to yourself, that you were responsible for their deaths."

The man growled. "NOOOOOOOO!"

In a second, Chris propelled by emotion, rage and guilt rushed forward. His voice deep and animal like.  "Admit it.  It's your own f***in' fault.  Just like it was my own damned fault!"

Too late the assassin raised his gun up to stop Larabee's attack. Vin took the opportunity to strike, kicking his foot out and hitting the man in the leg. He started to pitch forward, his gun still ready to shoot when the rumble of a shot resounded in the apartment.

Vin lay on the ground  for a minute, trembling slightly. He stared unblinking at the plaster ceiling with his free hands he pushed the dead body off him and sat up.

Chris was standing over him, smoking gun in hand. He nodded at the sharpshooter and put his gun away. Larabee outstretched a hand, which Tanner clasped and was brought to his feet.

Chris pulled out his cell phone, dialed then whispered in his phone. Vin shook his head, not caring if it was the police, or one of the team on the other side of the phone. He was still in disbelief he had survived and the Wizard was dead in his apartment. The seriousness of the situation made him start to laugh uncontrollably.

Tanner was scared by his own reaction and went to the kitchen, rummaging through the cabinets until we found what he was looking for—Johnny Walker. "I thought when you came through the door-I'm f***ed-he's not going to take the shot." Vin opened the bottle, and didn't look up. "Then I looked at this bastard holding a gun to my head and thought I'm f***ed." When Tanner looked up Larabee was staring at him.

Chris looked away and concentrated on closing his phone. "Police will be here in awhile."

Vin took a swig of the whiskey. It tasted bitter. Tanner knew it wasn't the liquor but the aftertaste of being so close to death. He spit the drink into the sink. Chris had joined him in the kitchen. The sharpshooter glanced at the body and then at the blonde man. "Thanks," he said, hoping the tone was sarcastic. He needed to get a reaction out of Larabee for all the sh*t he had been put through. Tanner stepped past the team leader, opened the freezer and grabbed a bag of frozen vegetables resting them against his neck. He could feel the pounding bruise resulting from the blow he had taken on his neck. Vin also hoped the chills running down his spine would jolt him and make him step back to what was happening.

Chris placed a hand on the sharpshooter's shoulder. "Vin…I …f**** up."

Vin snorted and let his head rest against the freezer door. It was a poor apology. Tanner turned around. He took a deep drink, this time swallowing the whiskey and relishing in its burn.

"I'm sorry," Chris sighed. "I'm sorry Vin."

"I need you to explain it ta me." Tanner narrowed his eyes. Being a marked man had brought with it a sense of impatience and a tiredness of excuses and pauses. He wanted answers for the feelings of guilt and misery he carried because the man in front of him added to his already heavy burden.

"I thought you were the bad guy and I was the good guy." Larabee roughly scraped his hair with his fingers. "I had done every thing right—wife, kid and job. It was taken away from me by God knows who and then you tell me you did the same thing." Chris began to raise his voice then paused. "And this is the kind of person that would take away a man's happiness—I had a face when I didn't have one before and that face was Vin Tanner's."

Vin grabbed the frozen vegetables resting on his shoulders and threw them on the kitchen table. "Damnit!" Tanner wanted out of his own apartment. He wasn't going to be able to be detached. He was picking for a fight. Vin roughly pushed Chris out of his way.

Larabee gripped his arm and pushed him so the back of his legs were against the edge of the kitchen table. "I was wrong ! You hear me! I was wrong!" Chris shook Vin, who tried to break free. Tired of his life being under the control of other people for the last few weeks.  "It's my fault."  The leader finally let go of the sharpshooter. "You're the face of a friend."

Vin took a deep breath and lightly pushed Chris away from him. "It's not your fault." Tanner grunted as he walked to the living room. He flopped down on his couch and glanced one more time at the dead man who had stirred up so much trouble and grief. "Damn you," he added under his breath. The Wizard had defeated him even in death, the damnation was on Vin.  Tanner smirked a twisted grin—all these dead people who shouldn't be dead and the people who should have met their maker were alive.

Larabee stayed in the kitchen. "I wasn't there, Vin, to protect them."

Tanner took another long drink and let his head fall back. "I was there, Chris, and there was nothing I could do." Vin held out the bottle to the blonde man. Chris gripped the bottle and sat down on a corner of the couch.

"Are we going to make peace with this?" Larabee drank and handed the bottle back to the longhaired man.

"Thought I had.. I was under orders. And I thought three lives versus the thousands of soldiers and civvies seemed like a fair trade." Vin held the bottle in the palms of his hands remembering what he used to tell himself to ease his soul. "'Til I met you, learned your story, then I'd know I killed a wife, mother, a son and a future..I knew you could never find out." Tanner took another drink. "Hell, Chris you never made peace with Sarah and Adam dying, so it ain't going to happen now." Tanner rested the whiskey by his side.

Chris eyed the bottle and gestured to Vin to hand it over. Tanner shrugged and passed the Johnny Walker.  Larabee took a drink and kept his head down. "They're dead. I know they're dead. I miss them. You're alive, Vin and if he had gotten his chance and killed you…" Chris looked up into Vin's eyes.  "I can't say that I am ever going to give up looking for Sarah's and Adam's killers..You'll be there alive and willing to help—right Vin?"

And Tanner nodded understanding the meaning of the words left unsaid. Chris meant he would need the same kind of help as Vin; help to forgive oneself, help to not go insane over the guilt that became overpowering to handle alone at times, help to let the dead rest in peace and help to go on living no matter the pain.

Life was for the living.

Vin understood only too well Chris's cry for help. It echoed in his own voice when he replied, "I'll be there."

The End