Worth It

by Dawnsunrise




SUMMARY: When does the cost become too high?

DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fan fiction using characters from the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. The story is for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is my desperate attempt to break a nasty case of writer's block.

The shrill ringing tore him from a pleasant dream of sun-drenched fields and a child's delighted laughter. Chris fumbled for his cell with sleep-clumsy fingers and a groan.

"So help me God, Buck, if you've gotten yourself tossed in the can again, you can just--"


His irritation subsided at the soft drawl. "Vin?"

"Could use your help, Cowboy."

Chris squinted at the clock's glowing numbers--2:23 a.m.--and suppressed another groan. "Don't tell me--that bucket of bolts you call a Jeep has broken down again."

"'Fraid it's...a little more complicated."

With a frown, Chris sat up straight. He couldn't put his finger on it, but his friend sounded off. "Vin? Something wrong?" When he didn't get an answer, he lapsed into his command tone. "Vin!"

"Yeah. Shit...don' haveta yell... Heard ya...first time."

Wide awake now, Chris detected the pain, but it was the lack of force behind Vin's grumbling that had him throwing off the covers and reaching for his pants. "What happened?" he repeated with less heat.

"Had a little...dust up. Took a knife...to the side."

No point asking how--in Vin's neighborhood it could've gone down any one of a hundred ways. Pulling on his boots, Chris clenched his teeth against a string of curse words. "How bad?"

"Hurt's like...sonuvabitch." Vin sounded like he was speaking through gritted teeth. "Losin'...some blood."

"You call 911?" Chris had his shirt on now, was reaching for keys and wallet. "Vin?"

"Don' wanna...get 'im in trouble."

Chris's alarm skyrocketed. Vin's drawl was deepening, the words breathless, and the help he'd been sure was right around the corner wasn't coming.

"Damn it, Vin, did they knock you on the head, too? You're a police officer who's been assaulted--you can't hide that!"

"Be fine." The retort was stubborn, mulish, and way too weak.

"Where are you?" Chris jogged to the truck without zipping his coat, ignoring the bite of frigid wind. "Vin? Where the hell are you?"

"Uh...alley. Not sure where. Kinda got...turned around." He paused, breathing hard. "'S not...a bad kid...Chris. Jus' needs...someone to care." Chris heard scuffling, followed by a muffled gasp. "You comin' soon?"

He sucked in a deep breath, working to keep his voice calm and soothing. "I'm on my way. But Vin, you've gotta try to tell me where you are. Look around--what do you see?"

"'S dark." Vin sighed. "Thought I could...talk 'im out of it...you know? Guess I's wrong."

This wasn't working. The truck hit the highway in a spray of gravel and Chris pressed the gas pedal to the floor. "Hang on for a minute, okay, pard? Don't hang up."


Thank God the roads were all but deserted at this hour. Chris gripped the wheel one-handed while he put Vin on hold and frantically punched buttons.


"Buck, it's Chris."

"Damn, Stud, isn't this way past your bedtime?"

"Shut up and listen. Vin's hurt and he can't tell me where he is. I need you to get J.D. to put a trace on his cell. Send an ambulance as soon as you have a location."

All the teasing drained from Buck's voice. "We're on it. I'll be in touch."

Chris disconnected, then clicked back to Vin. "Hey. You still with me?" He pressed the phone tighter to his hear, holding his breath, but heard only dead air. If his friend had hung up... "Vin! Answer me, pard."

More scuffling sounds and then harsh, uneven breathing. "'M here. You comin', Chris?"

Chris swallowed hard, but his voice still came out rough. "Doing my best. How you holding up?"

"Might wanna hurry. Don' feel...so good."

God, he was losing him. Vin was going to bleed out, alone, in some crappy back alley, while Chris sat in his damn truck. He blinked stinging eyes, forcing a lightness he didn't feel. "A knife in the side'll do that. You just hang in there, okay?"

"Cold." The word stuttered on a shiver. "And tired."

Panic rose up hot and thick in his throat. "I don't care how tired you are, you're not allowed to sleep. You stay on the line and keep talking, or I'll kick your ass when I get there. You hear me, Vin?"

"Pushy bastard."

Chris choked a laugh. "Damn straight. How else would I deal with you hardheads?"

A pause, and when Vin spoke Chris could feel the effort behind each wispy word. "Keep talking...Cowboy. Need to...hear your voice."

"You got it." Chris gripped the wheel with slick palms. "I ever tell you about the time Buck tried to date triplets? Damn fool thought he could keep 'em all on a string at the same time..."

He talked until he reached the exit that would take him to Purgatorio, till his friend's responses became nearly inaudible, then ceased altogether. Till J.D. called to say Vin's signal was coming from an alley off Rush Street and that paramedics were on their way. Till he cut the engine, shoved the phone into his pocket, and grabbed his gun from the glove compartment, leaving the truck unlocked and double-parked, hazard lights flashing.

Gun barrel resting against his cheek, Chris put his back to the brick wall and edged cautiously down the filthy, damp passageway between two crumbling buildings. Even in the murky light from a single bare bulb, he could see hypodermic needles mixed liberally with the garbage littering the asphalt. The area appeared deserted, silence broken only by the distant wail of sirens.

Relaxing a little of his vigilance, Chris moved deeper into the alley, breaking into a jog at the sight of a shadowy form sprawled across the pavement. Tucking the gun into his waistband, he dropped to his knees, wincing at the stickiness that soaked his jeans and spread in a growing pool, black in the dimness. Heart pounding, he brushed aside a tangle of brown hair to reveal a pale, waxen cheek.

"Vin. Oh, God, Cowboy. What have you gotten yourself into?"

Willing his hands to remain steady, he ran them over every inch of Vin's body, cataloguing injuries. A sizeable lump on the back of his head--no wonder he'd been less than coherent--but arms, legs, and ribs seemed intact. He knew he'd located the source of the bleeding, just above the curve of Vin's right hip, when Vin moaned and fresh warmth coated his fingers.

"That's not your side, it's your back, you stupid bastard," he muttered, but his hands were gentle as he shifted Vin so that his head lay on Chris's lap instead of the filthy pavement.

He shrugged out of his coat and stripped off his shirt, folding the soft flannel into a thick pad that he pressed firmly against the wound. Vin moaned again, eyelashes fluttering.

"Easy, Vin," he murmured. "It's me."

Gooseflesh stippled Chris's arms, the thin tee shirt no protection against the cold, but he gritted his teeth and endured, unwilling to let up on the pressure long enough to don his jacket. Vin's lips were blue, his flesh cold under Chris's fingertips as he searched for and found a weak, erratic pulse. Blood was already seeping through his makeshift bandage; the smell, thick and coppery, filled the air.

To his surprise, Vin cracked open an eye. "Chrissss."

"Hey." He tried to meet the vague, unfocused gaze. "'Bout time you joined this party, considering you dragged me out of bed for it."


Before Chris could stop him, Vin tried to lift his head. Even the slight movement sparked agony; he clutched Chris's leg in a white-knuckled grip, biting down hard on his lip.

"Don't move." Chris rested a hand on the back of Vin's neck in gentle restraint. "You're bleeding like a stuck pig."

"Guess 's...worse'n...I thought." A shudder wracked his frame and moisture sparkled on his lashes. "God...hurts."

"Shh. Just try to relax, help's coming. Gonna take care of you, Cowboy."

He was gratified when Vin seemed to settle, calmed by the sound of his voice. His friend's eyes slid shut and his death grip on Chris's leg slowly eased.

The sirens were close now, flickers of red and blue ricocheting down the alley.

The knot in Chris's stomach unclenched a little at the sight. "Almost here, Vin. Vin?"

Vin didn't respond. His jagged breathing stuttered and skipped, and Chris leaned in, his lips inches from Vin's ear. "Don't you dare quit on me," he said, but though he meant them to be fierce, the words came out soft and pleading. "Damn it, Vin, you've never backed down from anything in your life. You don't get to do it now. You hear me? Vin!"

Lights blinded him, followed by a deep voice. "Paramedics. Someone call an officer down?"

"Over here!" Chris shouted. "Hurry!"

Suddenly everything shattered into disjointed sounds and images: the brisk tattoo of footsteps and metallic rattle of a gurney; hands, easing Vin from his lap, nudging Chris aside; rapid-fire questions Chris did his best to answer.

Then Buck was there, an island of calm amidst the sea of turmoil. He wrapped Chris, who was now shivering hard, into his coat. "Junior's in good hands. Give 'em room to work."

Chris let his friend lead him several steps down the alley, where he sagged against the brick wall. The full impact of the last hour caught up with him and he swiped a shaky hand through his hair, his legs weak.

"What happened?" Buck asked. When Chris didn't reply, eyes fixed on the paramedics as they worked over Vin's motionless body, he deliberately moved to block his view. "Chris, any minute now that cop over there's gonna start demanding some answers. I'll handle him, but pard, you've got to fill me in."

With a mental shake, Chris forced himself to focus. He described the phone call, and the little he'd been able to glean from Vin's disjointed rambling.

"I'm sure it's got something to do with one of those damn juvenile delinquents," he snarled. "I keep trying to tell him he's wasting his time with them."

Buck scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, well, you know Vin. He's got a soft spot a mile wide for those kids. Guess he figures it's worth it."

Chris snorted. "Right. Stubborn fool goes out of his way to help them and how do they repay him? With a knife in the back."

Before Buck could reply the older of the two EMTs, a dark-haired bear of a man as tall as Josiah, waved them over.

"How is he?" Chris demanded.

The man grimaced. "As stable as he's gonna get. He's lost a lot of blood. We're taking him to Mercy."

Peering over his shoulder, Chris caught a brief glimpse of Vin, strapped down with an I.V. in each arm, before the second paramedic whisked the gurney toward the mouth of the alley.

"Make sure they know he's a federal agent," he said, turning the full force of his glare on the man before him. "I'll be right behind you."

"Will do."

The man jogged after his partner, but Buck grabbed Chris's elbow before he could follow. "Hold on a minute, Stud." He extended his hand, palm up. "Keys."

Chris shrugged off the grip, scowling. "The hell?"

"You got a lot on your mind right now," Buck answered. "No way I'm lettin' you behind a wheel."

"I'm fine, Buck. The hospital's no more than ten minutes from here. The trip from the ranch was a lot longer, and I made it with a helluva lot more distractions."

"And you're damn lucky you didn't wind up in a ditch." When Chris rolled his eyes, Buck pressed a hand to his chest. "Humor me. J.D.'s already out there waiting to drive you to the hospital. I'll bring your truck as soon as I've wrapped things up here."

The honest concern in his friend's face quelled Chris's protests. Not for the first time he considered how fortunate he was to have Buck Wilmington as his friend. "Thanks." He ducked his head, rubbing a hand over his jaw. "Don't know where I'd've been without you tonight. I owe--"

"Just shut up and go find J.D." Buck gave him a gentle shove. "I already called Nathan. He'll see you there."

Chris didn't need to be told twice. He was halfway down the alley when Buck called his name, pulling him up short.


He turned, shuffling his feet. "Yeah."

Despite the darkness he could feel the intensity of Buck's gaze. "He's gonna be all right."

It was Team 7's talismen, a mantra they spoke whenever one of them was hurt--kind of like making the sign of the cross or throwing salt over your shoulder. His throat too tight, Chris could only manage a short nod before breaking into a jog.

He wished like hell he believed it.


Three hours and twenty-seven minutes.

That's how much time had passed since Vin had disappeared through the double doors. He'd been surrounded by EMTs and hospital personnel calling vitals and instructions in clipped, business-like tones.

Three hours and twenty-eight minutes.

Chris pulled his gaze from the clock, tipping his head to rest against the wall and closing his eyes. Despite his relaxed posture, he felt as if he might explode at any minute from the impatience, anger, and fear simmering just beneath his skin.

Evidently his calm exterior didn't fool the rest of the boys. On the other side of the room Buck and J.D. squabbled, Ezra engaged Nathan in a game of poker, and Josiah prayed. A ten-foot bubble of empty space surrounded Chris and no one, not even Josiah, had ventured to breach the line of demarcation.

A lacerated kidney, Nathan had said. No way to be sure exactly how bad or whether there were other internal injuries until they got inside. The fact that Vin had already lost so much blood made the whole situation that much more dicey.

Vin--a good man, a damn fine agent, his best friend--might lose his life. Or his kidney, which could end his career with the ATF.

And for what? Some two-bit street punk who wasn't worth the dirt on the bottom of his shoes?

Chris shoved himself to his feet, answering the others' questioning looks with a glare. "Need some air."

He stalked down the hall and out the nearest exit. Leaning against a post, he lit up a cheroot, ignoring the stares of passing patients and staff. He'd managed to wash up some, and Josiah had brought him a clean shirt, but the knees of his black jeans were still stiff with blood, his boots stained crimson around the edges.

The morning was crisp but sunny, not a cloud in the clear blue sky. The kind of morning Vin'd be likely to show up at the ass crack of dawn, coaxing Chris to join him in an early morning ride.

Anger rose again, fierce and hot, but he clamped his teeth onto the cigar and pushed it back down.

The scuff of footsteps warned him that his brief moment of solitude was over. Chris turned, expecting to see Buck, but it was Ezra who touched two fingers to his brow and moved to stand beside him.

Chris raised an eyebrow. "You draw the short straw?"

Ezra smiled, the barest curve of lips. "Really, Mr. Larabee. When have you ever known me to lose a game of chance?"

Chris snorted, amused in spite of himself.

They stood for several minutes in comfortable silence, Chris puffing on his cheroot, Ezra walking a coin across the backs of his fingers.

"It's difficult to watch a good man wager so much at such deplorable odds," Ezra said. He lifted his eyes from the coin to Chris's face. "It's even harder to see him lose."

Chris ground the butt of his cigar into the concrete with the heel of his boot. "He's an idealistic fool."

Ezra inclined his head. "Perhaps. Yet I'd venture to say it's that very idealism that goes a long way toward making our extraordinary friend the man he is."

Chris gritted his teeth and didn't reply. Damn if Ezra didn't get under his skin like no one else.

Especially when he was right.

The glass doors opened and Buck stuck out his head. "Vin's out of surgery. The doc's ready to talk to us."

By the time they reached the surgical waiting room, the others were gathered around the doctor, who was still dressed in scrubs, a mask dangling around her neck. When they parted for Chris like the Red Sea, her lips twitched and she extended a hand.

"Mr. Larabee, I'm Dr. McCaffrey."

Chris distantly registered hazel eyes, a tumble of dark hair, and a firm grip; focused on the only thing that mattered. "How's Vin?"

She smiled, and he drew his first deep breath since Vin's phone call.

"He came through like a trooper. Fortunately, he sustained a grade 3 laceration, which is less severe than we feared."

"Would you mind puttin' that in dummy terms, darlin'?" Buck asked.

"It simply means that although the kidney was injured, the damage was fairly superficial and did not compromise the organ's ability to function."

Nathan sighed, the stiffness draining from his shoulders. "So he's not gonna lose it."

McCaffrey raised a hand. "Well, he's lost a lot of blood, and there's always the danger of infection--not to mention the fact that the blow to the head left him with a mild concussion."

"But he's gonna be all right?" J.D. pressed.

She smiled. "Barring further complications? He'll mend."

Their collective release of tension was tangible--and audible.

Buck pumped his fist. "Yeah! Way to go, Junior."

Josiah lifted his eyes to the ceiling. "Thank you, Lord."

Nathan shook his head. "Boy's got more lives than a cat."

"It appears Mr. Tanner has beaten the odds after all," Ezra said, his gaze fixed firmly on Chris.

"When can we see him?" Chris asked, raising his voice to be heard over the hubbub.

McCaffrey looked at her watch. "They're settling him into the ICU now, but he'll probably sleep off the anesthetic for the next couple hours. If you'd like to go home, grab some breakfast--"

"What we'd like, is to see him." It came out harsher than he'd intended, but really, who gave a rat's ass about breakfast?

The surgeon blinked, then narrowed her eyes. "Mr. Larabee, I know you're in charge over at the bureau, but I'm afraid this is my turf."

Before he could get really pissy, Buck swooped between them, a shit-eating grin on his face. "Don't mind him, darlin', he doesn't mean to sound like an ass." He gave Chris a pointed glare, then turned the wattage back on McCaffrey. "What Chris was tryin' to say is that when you're part of a team, you back each other up. Especially when one of you is hurting."

"He may wake up confused and in pain," Josiah added quietly, "but he won't wake up alone."

The lines of irritation vanished from the doctor's brow. "I see." She looked warily at Chris. "You realize only one of you can sit with him at a time. There are some rules even I can't bend."

Chris nodded. "Of course."

"All right, then. Whoever's going first can follow me." She raised an eyebrow at Chris. "I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that'll be you."

It startled a genuine laugh from him. "Lead on."

"I'm sure you've heard this before, Mr. Larabee, but don't let all the equipment scare you," McCaffrey said as they pushed through the double doors and headed down a long corridor. "We just need to monitor Mr. Tanner closely until we're certain he's stabilized."

"I've heard it too many times before," Chris admitted. "And if you can forgive me for acting like a jackass back there, please, call me Chris."

She grinned up at him. "It's a deal, Chris."

They stepped into an open area with a central nurses' desk surrounded by glass-walled cubicles. Vin was in the nearest; Chris's feet started moving of their own accord as his gaze locked onto his friend's still form.

They had him lying on his left side, supported by pillows. McCaffrey hadn't exaggerated the amount of equipment. Two I.V.'s snaked into his arms, one containing blood, the other fluids. A clip--pulse oximeter, Chris recalled Nathan's teaching--was fastened to one finger, and a nasal canula delivered oxygen. A heart monitor softly beeped a reassuring rhythm. And… He winced at the bag of bloody yellow liquid that emerged from the blankets near the foot of the bed. Vin was going to love that one.

"His vitals all look good." McCaffrey had pulled Vin's chart from its clip and was flipping through it. "He really is doing well."

"Just hard to see him like this." Chris's voice was rough--too much emotion and too little sleep.

"You sound as if you've been here before." It wasn't a question, but she'd tucked the clipboard in the fold of her arms and was scrutinizing him with sharp eyes.

"Too many times." Chris ran a hand along his jaw; he needed a shave. "He's got a heart as big as Texas coupled with an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation."

"Ah, the classic hero complex," she said, switching her gaze to Vin.

Chris shook his head. "No complex about it, ma'am. Just the real deal."

"Then I guess we'd better do everything we can to get him back on his feet." She slipped the chart back on the hook and gave his arm a quick pat. "Debbie will be his nurse during this shift, so give her a buzz if you need anything."

"Thanks." He put feeling into the words, still a little ashamed at his earlier bluntness.

Her smiled confirmed all was forgiven. "You're welcome. I'll be back later to check on him."

Chris waited until she'd left before walking closer. He carefully moved a lock of hair that had tumbled across Vin's brow, obscuring his face. The normally healthy tan of his friend's skin seemed to have faded overnight, pallor darkening to bruised shadows beneath his eyes. Pain had etched fine lines around his eyes and mouth, and though the staff had cleaned him up, Chris could see traces of blood under his fingernails.

"Seen you look better, Cowboy," he murmured, pulling the chair close to the bed and sitting. He scrubbed both hands over his face, feeling weariness sink into his bones as the adrenaline rush ebbed. "I'm getting too old for this."

Fifteen years in law enforcement had taught him how to catch a few winks just about anywhere. Despite the uncomfortable chair, he let the heart monitor and Vin's soft, steady breathing lull him into a doze.

Sometime later the rustling of paper and whisper of crepe-soled shoes brought him fully awake. Chris lurched upright, relaxing when he saw the nurse, Debbie, checking read outs and jotting the information on Vin's chart.

She gave an apologetic quirk of her lips. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."

"No problem." Chris ran a hand through his hair, certain it must be standing on end. "How's he doing?"

"Everything looks good." She wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Vin's arm and slid her stethoscope into her ears. "In fact, his vitals indicate he should be waking soon."

As if on cue, Vin's face scrunched into a frown and he made a small sound of protest in the back of his throat.

Chris stood, curling his fingers around the bed rail. "Vin? Can you hear me, pard?"

When he looked questioningly at Debbie, she motioned for him to continue. "Keep talking. He's likely to be disoriented. Hearing a familiar voice will help."

Chris nodded, more than willing to oblige. "Hey, Cowboy, it's time to wake up. There's a pretty lady here who's waiting to see those blue eyes."

Vin's breathing sped up and his lashes fluttered. When Chris saw long fingers scrabbling against the mattress, he clasped his friend's hand, ignoring the slight embarrassment he felt at Debbie's presence.

"That's it, Vin. You're doing fine."

The combination of words and touch seemed to do the trick. Vin calmed, cracking open his eyes to stare blearily around him. "Chris?"

Seeing his friend struggling to focus, Chris leaned into his line of vision. "Right here, pard."

"Where--?" Vin's voice broke on the raspy croak.

"You're in the hospital. You remember what happened?"

Vin stared blankly for a moment, then closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Knife."

"That's right. You were hurt pretty bad, but you're going to be fine."

Debbie came around the bed, copying Chris's position. "Hi, Vin. My name's Debbie, and I'll be taking care of you. So if the pain gets too bad or you need anything, just press this, okay?" She tucked the call button into his hand.

Vin gave her a little nod. "Thank you, ma'am."

As Chris watched, Debbie melted.

"A southern accent and manners too. I have a feeling you're going to be very popular around here." She took a large Styrofoam cup and a spoon from the bedside table and handed them to Chris. "Ice chips. They had to intubate for surgery so his throat will be sore for a couple days."


As she moved on to her next patient, Chris pulled his chair a little closer and sat. "You up for some of this?" he asked.

Vin's eyes had already begun to droop, but he perked up immediately. "Hell, yeah."

Navigating the bed rail and Vin's awkward position wasn't easy, but Chris managed to feed him four spoonfuls with only a few misses.

"Don't quit yer day job, Larabee," Vin rasped as Chris mopped melted ice off his cheek.

"Smart ass." Chris settled back in his chair, frowning when he saw Vin shifting restlessly and trying to hide it. "You hurting?"

A twitch of a shoulder, and Vin wouldn't look him in the eye. "Some."

"I can call Debbie, get you something--"

"No." Vin's weak denial was backed up by a clenched jaw. "Don't want more drugs. They probably got me on a shitload as it is."

The only thing that kept Chris from arguing was fact that Vin looked about two minutes from drifting off. "You change your mind…"

"Won't." Vin blinked owlishly, his eyes taking a little longer to open. He licked his lips, looking uncomfortable. "Wanted to say… Thanks for comin' for me, Chris. If you hadn't been there--"

"Not an option," Chris said gruffly. He'd promised himself he wouldn't bring it up until Vin was stronger, but somehow the words slipped out. "It was too damn close this time, Vin. Once you're feeling better, we're going to have a talk."

Vin pried open heavy-lidded eyes to glare at him. "Nothin' to talk about."

Before Chris could retort, he was gone, face smoothing and respiration deepening in the rhythm of sleep. Chris huffed. Hard to believe someone who looked so damn innocent could be such a pain in the ass.

"You're a stubborn, pig-headed bastard," he growled, even though Vin couldn't hear.

Thank God the little voice in his head whispered.

Chris had to agree.


Not mended, but getting there.

Chris leaned in the hospital room doorway, torn between amusement and sympathy. Vin was sitting in the chair, dressed in sweats and a worn ATF t-shirt...and swearing a blue streak as he tried--unsuccessfully--to put on his shoes.

For someone who could look the picture of innocence, Vin had a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush.

His friend chose that moment to look up, catching Chris mid-smirk. Clutching the shoe more tightly, he narrowed his eyes. "What the hell're you starin' at, Larabee?"

Chris straightened and walked into the room. "A stubborn fool, I'm thinking." Before Vin could snap a retort, he continued, "There are at least four nurses right outside that door that would jump at the chance to help you. Hell, Buck's chatting up two of them as we speak."

Vin looked away, a flush rising to his still-pale cheeks. "Don't need no help."

Chris raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that? Seems to me that right now even a little thing like tying shoes might make your back hurt like a sonuvabitch."

After holding out a moment longer to consider Chris's words, Vin's shoulders slumped. "It's the damn stitches. Every time I bend over they pull tight as a string on a fiddle. Feels like they're gonna bust open."

Chris moved closer and held out his hand. They locked eyes for a long moment before Vin dropped his gaze and surrendered the shoe.

"Nothing wrong with asking for help, pard," Chris said, crouching and slipping the sneaker on Vin's foot.

"Can take care of myself." Vin stared at a point just over Chris's shoulder as he tied the laces and reached for the other shoe. "Been doing it most of my life."

"You think I don't know that?" Chris tied the second shoe and then took a seat on the bed. "You're the most self-sufficient guy I know. But just because you're capable of doing something doesn't mean you should have to. You're not alone anymore, Cowboy. Best you don't forget it."

"You're getting' damn sentimental in your old age, you know that?" Vin said gruffly, but his lips curved and his eyes shone.

"Smart ass."

"Someone call me?" Buck stuck his head in the door and waggled his eyebrows.

"Bucklin." Vin nodded, keeping a deadpan expression. "Nice of you to take time out from yer flirtin' to stop by and say hello."

Buck strode into the room, pushing a wheelchair in front of him. "Aw, now, Vin, you know I wouldn't miss celebratin' you gettin' sprung. Can I help it if those nurses just can't resist my animal magnetism?"

"Yeah, right." J.D. rolled his eyes as he came through the door followed closely by Ezra. "Didn't have nothin' to do with the fact that you told 'em you've been having pain in your neck."

"Curious," Ezra murmured. "I've always considered Mr. Wilmington to be a source of neck pain rather than the recipient."

Buck narrowed his eyes. "I heard that."

"You don't quiet down and the whole floor's going to hear it," Chris said. "Be nice just once to get out of here without pissing off the staff."

"So what the hell are we waiting for?" With a grimace, Vin eased himself to his feet, warning Chris off with a glare when he moved to help.

Chris watched his friend head toward Buck. The fact that Vin wasn't refusing the wheelchair testified to how much pain he was still experiencing.

"Nate's getting your meds." J.D. hovered alongside as Vin shuffled across the linoleum, his gaze darting to the bulky dressing at the small of Vin's back and away. "Josiah got hung up at the office, but he said he'd meet us at the ranch."

"What's going on?" Chris asked sharply. "Is Travis still giving him a hard time about the Delaney file?"

Buck cleared his throat. "It's not Travis." He looked at Vin. "It's that detective from the DPD--Williamson. He ain't too happy with your statement. He was pushin' Josiah to tell him where you'd be stayin' so he can question you some more."

A spike of irritation surged through Chris. "You said you'd talk to him," he gritted at Vin, his voice low and deadly.

Vin thrust out his chin, his eyes hard. "Did." He lowered himself into the chair, his movements stiff. "And you can tell Josiah there ain't no reason to send him my way, 'cause I've said all I'm gonna."

"In other words, nothing."

From the corner of his eye, Chris saw Buck, J.D., and Ezra exchange uneasy glances. The only person unaffected by his anger appeared to be Vin. His friend didn't reply, simply met his gaze without flinching.

"Okay, then. Looks like it's time to hit the road, so--"

"I never took you for a fool, Vin."

Buck snapped his mouth shut, J.D. hissed in a sharp breath, and Ezra flattened his lips to a thin line.

But Vin... Vin just looked at him. "Reckon you can think what you like. Don't change anything."

The calm just stoked his anger. He wanted Vin to snap back, to feel the same frustration and rage he did. "That alley I found you in can't be more than four blocks from the community center. Right in the middle of Los Lobos territory." Chris leaned forward, hands braced on Vin's chair. "Doesn't take a genius to figure out one of those gang bangers you've been working with is responsible."

Vin turned his head, and for the first time Chris glimpsed a crack in the armor. "You know so much, you talk to Williamson."

"I would, if I could I.D. which one." Chris gave the chair a shove and straightened, shaking his head. "But, you know, the real mystery here isn't who did it. It's why you're protecting the little shit."

"Mr. Larabee, I really don't think--"

"Shut up, Ezra."

"I told ya we're not havin' this conversation." Vin curled his fingers around the arms of the chair in a white-knuckled grip. "My reasons are my own damn business, so back the hell off."

Something inside Chris broke open, and the banked anger he'd carried since the night of Vin's stabbing burst into flame. "It becomes my business when I'm dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to clean up the mess," he snarled. "You want to do this your way? Fine. But don't expect me to come and pick up the pieces if you're too stupid and pigheaded to see those no-good little bastards aren't worth dying over."

Vin lunged out of the chair, burying his hands in Chris's shirt. "Shut your damn mouth, Larabee, or I swear to God I'll shut it for you. You don't know nothin'. You look at them kids, but you don't see 'em, don't understand the first thing about them. You pass judgment, decide they're worthless bastards. What the hell do you think I used to be?"

Silence, as if everyone in the room held a collective breath. Vin released his grip and stepped back, swaying as the color drained from his face.

Buck was there in an instant, easing him back into the chair. "Easy, Junior. The plan was to get you out of here, not readmitted. Let's head on out to the ranch and--"

"Ain't goin' to the ranch," Vin cut him off. "Just take me home."

The exhaustion and hurt behind the stubborn determination hit Chris like a bucket of freezing water, dousing the anger until only regret and a sickening sense of shame remained. "Vin..." He began, fumbling helplessly for the right words. "Cowboy, I--"

Vin grabbed the wheels and tried to propel the chair backward. "Either someone gets me the hell outta here, or I do it myself."

Chris tried to follow, but Buck stepped between them, eyes hard as he pressed a hand to Chris's chest. "Think you've said enough."

"What the hell's goin' on in here?" Nathan strode into the room, scowling, a white paper bag of meds dangling from one hand.

"J.D., take Vin downstairs so I can bring the car around; he's stayin' with us." Buck used the command tone they rarely heard outside a bust. "Nate, I'd be obliged if you'd go with 'em and make sure Junior didn't pop any stitches." He held up a quelling hand when Nathan started to protest, eyes flicking briefly toward Vin. "Later."

As Chris watched, J.D. shot him a reproachful glare and pushed the wheelchair into the hall. Vin sat rigidly upright, his face turned from Chris and his breath coming in sharp, hard pants. Nathan gave them an exasperated glance, but followed.

Hating the feeling that everything had just spiraled out of his control, Chris directed his frustration at a familiar target. "You got no right getting in the middle, Buck. Vin and I need to talk this out, and--"

"Shut the hell up, Chris."

Chris took a step back, blinking.

"I've got every right." Buck's expression was stony, all traces of the easy-going ladies man wiped from view. "This is my team, and you and Vin are both my friends--even if one of you's been actin' like a grade-A jackass."

"He's going to get himself killed, Buck!" Chris snapped. "Don't any of you get that?"

"Yeah, I do. Better 'n most." Buck's blue eyes pierced him, affection now mixed with irritation. "But I learned a long time ago you can't stop a friend from doin' somethin' he's hell bent for leather to do."

Memories assaulted him, countless nights he'd drunk himself into a stupor, or worse, an alcohol-induced rage. Buck had always been there--friend, doctor, therapist, punching bag. Nothing Buck said or did had been able to make Chris abandon his self-destructive spiral.

But nothing Chris said or did had made Buck abandon him.

As if seeing the memory in Chris's eyes, Buck nodded. "You best take some time and think on the real reason you're so pissed off at Vin, and what it is you're expectin' from his friendship. If you manage to pull your head outta your ass, well, you know where to find us."

Buck didn't wait for a reply, just strode out of the room, his shoulders tight with residual anger. Chris stared after him and tried to figure out just how he'd come to screw everything up so royally, and in such a short amount of time.

A throat cleared. "You look like a man in desperate need of refreshment, Mr. Larabee."

He'd almost forgotten Ezra was still in the room. Pulling himself from his daze, he scowled at his teammate. "What?"

To his surprise he saw sympathy, rather than condemnation, on Ezra's face. "Buy you a cup of coffee, Chris?"

It was a sad state of affairs when Ezra made him the best offer of the day. "Hell, yeah." Chris tipped his head toward the door. "After you."

They didn't talk on the short walk around the corner to the coffee shop. Chris had discovered early on that despite his propensity for big words and long-winded speeches, Ezra knew when to be silent. It was a trait he valued now, as he struggled to decipher thoughts and emotions that had become hopelessly tangled.

Don't expect me to come and pick up the pieces if you're too stupid and pigheaded to see those no-good little bastards aren't worth dying over.

He grimaced. God, had he really said that? To Vin? He took a swig of his coffee and stared out the window, but all he could see was the shocked hurt in his best friend's furious blue eyes.

You pass judgment, decide they're worthless bastards. What the hell do you think I used to be?

"Regret is a bitter pill to swallow." Ezra sipped his latte and regarded Chris with sharp eyes.

"Doesn't feel much like a pill. More like a boulder." Chris sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "I've got a helluva temper."

One corner of Ezra's mouth turned up. "I've noticed."

"Thing is, I've never turned it on him. Not deliberately. Not...to wound."

"Sad to say, I'm sure he's been on the receiving end of diatribes much more vicious than yours." Ezra paused. When he continued his voice was carefully neutral. "I take it you were unaware of Vin's less-than-admirable history."

"I knew he grew up on the streets, had a rough time of it." The implication behind Ezra's words caught Chris's attention and he narrowed his eyes. "You knew?" He resented the irrational stab of jealousy; flushed when he saw understanding seep into Ezra's expression.

"While you and Mr. Tanner may share a bond that is incomprehensible to the rest of us, he and I do have one thing in common." When Chris raised an eyebrow, Ezra sighed. "Let's just say we've both been well acquainted with the harsher side of life, and neither of us emerged unscathed."

Chris huffed. "Ezra, for God's sake, would you park the fancy language at the curb and just spit it out?"

"Very well." Ezra leaned forward, the lazy drawl dropping from his speech. "We've both found ourselves in the worst of circumstances, and as a result, we've done things we're not proud of. As you well know, Mr. Larabee, some mistakes are inconsequential, but some...some are life-altering."

The coffee burned in his stomach. Chris shoved the cup aside and reached for an antacid. "I've caught glimpses of it, now and then. Always figured he'd tell me when he was ready."

"Perhaps he feared you'd look at him differently if he did."

Chris stiffened, clenching his jaw. "That's bullshit! Vin knows I'd never--"

"Really?" Ezra regarded him coolly. "Tell me, Mr. Larabee, how often have you expounded on those 'no good little bastards' to Vin?"

All the air left his lungs in a rush, as if Ezra had used fists instead of words. Chris slumped in his chair, too stunned to do more than gape at his teammate as the pieces fell neatly into place.

He'd never understood Vin's choice of living arrangements and didn't miss an opportunity to voice his disapproval. Nothing as overt as the angry rant in Vin's hospital room, of course. A little dig at the neighborhood. A barbed reference to one of Vin's more troubled kids. Subtle criticism if Vin's hours at the community center conflicted with time spent together or as a team.

Chris had done it with the best of intentions--to save his best friend from being hurt, or even killed, by those he was certain could never appreciate Vin's worth. Yet now he saw that every one of his cutting words had instead found their mark in Vin, the very person he meant to protect.

"Shit," he muttered. "I really am a stupid son of a bitch."

Ezra smiled. "I do believe Mr. Wilmington's conditions have been met. Perhaps you have something Mr. Tanner needs to hear after all."

"Yeah." Chris tossed back the rest of his coffee and stood. "Guess maybe I do."


Buck met him at the door, a distinctly wary expression on his face. "Didn't expect to see you so soon. Thought we had an understanding."

"Yeah, well." Chris scratched the back of his neck. "You might say Ezra helped with the...extraction."

Buck stared at him for a moment before barking a startled laugh. "You don't say. Guess I owe ol' Ez a bottle for that one." He moved aside and waved Chris through the door.

Stepping inside, Chris blinked a little as his eyes adjusted to the dimness after bright winter sunshine. The smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the air, and he heard the faint popping of gunfire from the den.

He raised an eyebrow. "Video games?"

"J.D.'s idea." Buck chuckled and shook his head. "Kid knows the only time he can beat Vin is when he's stoned on pain meds."

Rather than sharing Buck's amusement, guilt twisted Chris's stomach. "Did Nathan check him over? He bust any stitches?"

"Everything's okay; he's just hurtin'." Buck's gaze was sharp. "More ways 'n one."

Chris sagged against the door jamb. "Hoping I'll be able to do something about that."

"That'd be good." Buck hooked a thumb toward the kitchen. "Coffee? Or should I be offerin' you something stronger?"

"I'm good, thanks."

Squaring his shoulders, Chris headed down the hallway to the den. When he got to the doorway, he paused, Buck's solid presence at his back. J.D. sat hunched in an armchair, eyes glued to the TV and thumbs tapping a furious beat to match the gunfire onscreen. Across the room Vin lay sprawled on the oversized couch, eyes shut and lips slightly parted, a controller dangling from one hand.

His chest tight, Chris walked over and stared down at his slumbering friend for a long moment before carefully removing the device from limp, unresisting fingers. Pulling a blanket from the back of the couch, he spread it over Vin, who furrowed his brow, shifted restlessly, and then settled, his breathing falling back into the steady pattern of deep sleep

The television fell silent, and when Chris turned J.D. was standing beside Buck, his expression closed. Chris sighed inwardly. It seemed he had more fences to mend, but for now, Vin came first.

"How long has he been out?" he asked.

J.D. shrugged. "Half an hour or so."

Chris glanced over his shoulder, troubled by the fact that Vin, the guy with hair-trigger reflexes, hadn't even twitched--first when touched and now at the sound of Chris's voice. "He's awful far under, isn't he?"

"No big surprise. He had to take two pain pills." The accusation in J.D.'s voice was clear.

Chris chose to ignore it. Hell, he'd beaten himself up, Ezra had twisted the knife, and even Buck had taken his shot. Might as well let J.D. get his licks in too.

"How about you boys take a drive out to the ranch." He removed the house key from his key ring and tossed it to Buck. "Game's on tonight. The TV's all yours, and you can help yourself to whatever's in the fridge."

Buck neatly fielded the throw. "Uh...don't know if you've noticed, Stud, but it ain't even two o'clock."

"Was hoping you'd take care of the horses. Since you'll already be out there." Chris watched them both process the fact that he was essentially kicking them out of their own home: Buck equal parts irritated and amused; J.D. just bewildered. "I'd consider it a favor," he added quietly, standing firm under the weight of Buck's assessing gaze.

Buck fingered the key. "You'd better have plenty of beer--the good stuff, not that microbrewery crap."

"Just stocked up."

Buck hesitated a moment longer, then nudged J.D. "Let's go, kid."

To Chris's surprise, J.D. planted his feet. "Wait a minute. We're gonna leave? Just like that?"

"That's the idea," Buck replied. "Somethin' wrong?"

"Hell, yeah, there's something wrong!" J.D. waved an arm at Chris, scowling. "I don't see why we're leaving him here alone. How do we know won't lose his temper again and get Vin all riled up, or even hurt?"

"Now just hold your horses, J.D." Buck gave Chris the same look you'd give a bomb set to go off any minute. "You got no call to--"

"Yes, he does." Chris stepped closer, proud as hell of the way J.D. held his ground despite looking a little white around the eyes. "You know because I give you my word. Beyond that... You'll just have to trust me."

J.D. licked his lips and nodded. "Guess I can do that." His voice cracked a little, and he ducked his head. "Chris, I--"

"Got nothing to apologize for," Chris said, cutting him off. "You're a good friend, J.D."

"And damn lucky." Buck grabbed him by the neck and steered him from the room, muttering the whole way. "What the hell got into you? Didn't your mama ever teach you 'bout pokin' sticks at a bear? Next time--" The front door slammed, cutting him off mid-stream.

Chris cringed, but Vin slept on, oblivious.

With a sigh, Chris turned back toward the kitchen. Maybe he could use a hit of caffeine after all.

He'd been sitting at the kitchen table for about a half an hour, nursing a cup of coffee and paging through one of J.D.'s gaming magazines, when he heard the bathroom fan kick on, followed by retching.

"Shit." Chris shoved back his chair and dashed down the hallway.

Vin was kneeling on the tile, arms curled around toilet bowl, the smell of sickness thick in the air. Without stopping to think, Chris dropped beside him, pulling tangled curls from Vin's pale, sweaty face.

Another spasm wracked Vin's body, and he moaned, spat, and glared at Chris. "The hell're...you doin' here?"

"Keeping you from puking in your hair."

Vin screwed up his face to retort, but was hit with another bout of dry heaves. Chris gathered the hair into one hand and rubbed Vin's back with the other, wishing he could do more to relieve his friend's misery. When Vin's stomach finally settled, he sagged forward, pressing his forehead against his folded arms.

Chris grabbed a paper cup from the dispenser on the sink and filled it with water. "Here." When Vin cracked open an eye he handed him the cup. "Spit, don't swallow."

Vin took it with an unsteady hand. "I know the drill. Damn pain meds."

When he'd finished rinsing his mouth, Chris disposed of the cup, then offered Vin his hand. Though he looked as if a stiff breeze could knock him over, Vin rebuffed the offer of help and hauled himself to his feet.

Gritting his teeth, Chris resisted an instinctive grab for Vin's arm when his friend swayed. "You really are a stubborn sonuvabitch."

"You made yerself clear back at the hospital, Larabee." Vin walked slowly back to the couch, one hand skimming the wall. "Give it a rest."

Chris trailed behind, not touching but close enough to latch on if Vin started to fall. "You didn't let me finish."

"Heard enough." Vin stretched out on the couch and curled an arm over his eyes. "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on yer way out."

Damn, he was terrible at this stuff. When it became clear Vin intended to ignore him, Chris went to the kitchen and got a ginger ale from the fridge. He popped the top and set it on the coffee table, parking himself beside the can.

Vin peered from under his arm, mouth turning down when he saw Chris. Still, the lure of the soda proved too strong, just as Chris had hoped. With a sound somewhere between a growl and a groan, Vin pushed upright and reached for the can.

Chris leaned forward. "Look, Vin, I really--"

"I don't wanna fight anymore, Chris. Can we please just not do this?" The weary hurt in Vin's voice thickened his drawl.

"I'm not here to fight. I--" He caught hold of Vin's wrist, forcing his friend to meet his eyes. "Vin. I'm here to say I'm sorry."

An admission he wasn't used to making, not even with Sarah. Chris felt a stab of both shame and satisfaction when Vin blinked. "Never thought I'd hear those words comin' from your mouth."

"They don't come easy," he admitted. He scrubbed both hands over his face and sighed. "Hell, Vin, I just get done spouting off how you can count on us, on me, and then I turn around and--"

"Yeah." Vin looked away, his face blank. "Don't matter."

Chris frowned. "It sure as hell does."

Vin shook his head and laughed, a bitter, jagged sound. "You think that's the first time someone ain't lived up to their promise? It's a fact of life, Chris. One I learned a long time ago."

The cynicism cut deep, and for a moment Chris had trouble drawing breath. For the first time he began to truly comprehend what Ezra had been trying to tell him.

"Well, I'd appreciate it if you didn't write me off just yet," he said. "Despite all that shit I was shoveling back at the hospital, I still intend to live up to my end of the deal."

Vin eyed him over the rim of the soda can. "Didn't sound like shit to me. Sounded like you were pretty damn pissed."

"Yeah. That's how I sound when someone I care about scares the crap out of me." When Vin's eyes widened, Chris nodded. "I was losing you, pard. I could hear it in your voice, you were fading fast, and I felt so damn helpless. I was sure I wasn't going to get there soon enough."

"'M sorry." Vin rolled the can between his palms. "Things were kinda mixed up. Doc said it was a combination of the knock on the head, the cold, and the blood loss. The one thing I was clear on was that I had to call you. That you'd be able to help. I didn't think how it must've been from your end."

"Don't apologize." Chris caught himself, gentling the sharpness from his tone. "God, Cowboy, don't ever apologize for calling on me when you need help. You're my friend. I want to be there for you."

"So long as I do things your way." Vin looked away, jaw clenched. "Not interested in that kinda help, Chris. Too many strings attached."

Chris opened his mouth to protest, only to snap it shut. Wasn't that exactly what he'd wanted? For Vin to move to a better neighborhood, to stop hanging out with kids consumed by guns and drugs and violence. To stop caring so damn much about something that could get him killed.

It's that very idealism that goes a long way toward making our extraordinary friend the man he is.


The force behind the denial snapped Vin's head around, his gaze wide-eyed.

Chris shook his head, fumbling for the right words. "That's not what I want. I'd never expect you to stop being...who you are. I just... I need to understand, Vin. Please, just...help me understand."

Vin stared at him for a long moment--so long that Chris was certain he'd remain silent. Then he leaned forward and handed over the half-empty ginger ale. "Gonna need somethin' stronger than this."

With a raised eyebrow, Chris accepted the can. "You're on pain meds. Not to mention you just finished puking your guts up."

A twitch of his shoulder, and Vin's smile never reached his eyes. "Don't matter." When Chris hesitated, he sighed. "Only way I'm gonna get through this."

Chris's hands shook a little as he pulled the bottle from beneath the bar. A quick shot of his own and he passed Vin his glass with a steady grip. Vin knocked it back in one go, gesturing for Chris to join him on the couch.

"You already know I spent some time on the street." Vin tipped his head back, staring up at the ceiling.

"Up until you joined the Army," Chris said. "Yeah, you've told me."

"What I didn't bother to fill you in on was exactly why I joined the Army." Vin rolled his head to the side, studying Chris. "Weren't like I had much choice."

Chris nodded. "Go on."

"I was only fourteen when I ran away from my last foster home. I ain't gonna talk about why I had to leave. You just gotta know things were bad."

"For a fourteen-year-old to run away to the city? Alone? I'd say they must have been pretty damn bad," Chris said quietly.

Vin flashed him a grateful look. "Found out real quick that things in the big city weren't much better, though. Not many jobs fer a kid my age, 'less you were willin' to turn tricks. And that was something I swore I'd never do. The few times I did manage to earn a little money, one of the bigger kids'd beat the shit outta me and take it. I was hungry most of the time; scared all the time."

Chris kept quiet--just leaned in until his shoulder brushed Vin's.

"And then the Vice Lords took me in. It was just dumb luck, really. I saw one of 'em rob a liquor store and kept my mouth shut when the cops questioned me about it. Guy who did it said he figured he owed me."

"So you joined the gang." Chris was careful to keep his tone free of judgment.

"Suddenly, I had a family, brothers who made sure I had plenty of food and a place to live, protection." Vin swallowed hard, emotion thick in his voice. "I never had anything like that, Chris, not even when it was just me and my ma."

"I'm sorry," Chris murmured.

Vin narrowed his eyes. "For what? That it turns out you got an ex-gang banger for a friend?"

"That being part of a gang was the closest thing you had to a real family," Chris said calmly. "I wish things could've been different. I wish I'd known you then."

With a snort, Vin shook his head. "Nah, you really don't. I lied, stole anything wasn't nailed down, fought, drank... Did drugs, but not the heavy stuff, mostly 'cause I didn't trust anyone that much to watch my back." He twisted his lips into a bitter smile. "Guess you could say I was a no-good little bastard."

How could he possibly answer that? Chris forced himself to meet Vin's sharp gaze. "What happened?"

To his surprise, Vin's smile transformed into something warm and genuine. "Nettie Wells happened. I used to hang around the YMCA, watch the martial arts classes until they kicked me out. Nettie was teachin' reading in a room nearby, and she just...latched on and wouldn't let go." He laughed softly. "Kept tellin' me if I'd just learn how to read I could get myself a real job, move to a better neighborhood, and I wouldn't need to figure out ways to beat people up."

Chris snickered. "Sounds like Nettie."

The laughter faded from Vin's face. "She was the only one who saw me, Chris. Everyone else just took one look an' wrote me off as nothin' but trouble, a lost cause. But Nettie, she saw something better. No matter how much trouble I caused her--and hell, I caused plenty--she said I was worth it. After a while, I started to believe it could be true." Vin curled forward, propping his elbows on his knees despite the discomfort it must have caused his stitches. "Then it all went to hell."

Chris held his breath, Ezra's words echoing in his head: Some mistakes are inconsequential, but some...some are life-altering.

"It was so stupid. A dust up with the Bloods over turf. Started out with words, then turned ugly. When it was all over I was in jail and two kids...two kids were dead. One was a Blood, but the other, Ricky...he was a real good friend."

Chris licked his lips, carefully feeling his way. "Were you the one...?"

"Killed the guy? No. But I could've. I was there, and I was packin'. Only thing saved me from a murder rap was I didn't have the dead kid's blood on my knife." Vin scrubbed trembling hands over his face. "Ain't never gonna forget the look on Ricky's mom's face, the sound of her cryin'. All over some crappy little piece of city block."

Though he kept silent, Chris placed a hand between Vin's shoulder blades.

"I was seventeen years old," Vin continued, his voice raspy. "Coulda ended up in juvy, or worse, tried as an adult. Reckon I would've if it weren't for Nettie. She fought for me, convinced the judge to suspend my sentence and release me into her custody on the condition that I'd enlist once I turned eighteen." He darted a look over his shoulder at Chris. "The rest you know."

"I never realized." Chris shook his head. "There's nothing in your records."

"Sealed," Vin replied. "Thanks to Nettie."

Chris slid his hand up to tug the long hair. "You could've told me."

"I almost did. Lots of times." Vin shrugged. "Lost my nerve."

"Can't say I'm surprised, considering some of the things I've said," Chris admitted. "But I'm real glad you told me now."

Vin sat up straight, turning to face him with a wince. "I need you to understand, Chris. Nettie saved me. If it weren't for her, I'd be rottin' in prison right now, or dead. If I can do that for even one of those kids--"

"Shut up," Chris said, his voice gruff. "I'm the jackass here. You don't owe me any explanations."

Vin ducked his head. "Maybe not. But I do owe you a helluva lot."

The tension curling in his stomach slowly unwound. Thank God he hadn't broken things beyond repair.

Chris smiled. "Then do me a favor, Cowboy." At Vin's raised eyebrow he added, "Watch your back."

"I do, Chris, honest. What happened the other night, it was an accident. Kid I been workin' with was gettin' sucked into dealin' drugs. I showed up at the buy, hopin' to talk him outta it, but one of the other guys made me for a cop and things flipped outta control. Some threats, some shovin', weapons got pulled, my kid panicked, and..." He lifted his shoulders with a grimace.

With effort Chris tamped down on the urge to point out that the situation had been ripe for disaster from the start. Where his kids were concerned, Vin had always led with his heart rather than his head. At least now Chris understood why.

"So next time play it safe," he told his friend. "If you think there's even a remote possibility things could go south, bring back up." He nudged Vin's knee with his own. "I know just the guy for the job."

Vin's eyes lit up. "You'd do that?"

Chris inclined his head. "Said I'd be there, didn't I?" He pinned Vin with an intense stare. "That's a promise I plan on living up to, Cowboy. Count on it."

Vin flushed, one corner of his mouth turning up in a lopsided grin. "Reckon if I can count on anyone, it'd be you."

"Damn straight."

The doorbell rang. Chris rolled his eyes as he stood. "If that's one of Buck's women..."

"Better that than one of J.D.'s computer geeks," Vin said with a smirk.

It was Josiah and Nathan. Raising an eyebrow, Chris swung the door wide.

"Got some news I think you'll want to hear," Josiah said as they headed for the den. "Vin. How are you feeling?"

Any reply Vin might have made was cut off when Nathan snatched the shot glasses off the coffee table and skewered Chris with a glare. "You gave him whiskey? Are you outta your mind?"

"Now hold on," Chris spluttered. "You don't--"

The doorbell rang. Ignoring Vin's snickered "Saved by the bell" Chris opened the door.

It was Ezra.

Chris scowled. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Ensuring you don't say anything we'll all regret." Ezra brushed past him. "It appears my timing, as always, is impeccable."

Shutting the door harder than necessary, Chris trailed down the hallway. Vin was patiently enduring Nathan, who was currently checking pupil response with his penlight. Josiah was flipping through a novel from the bookshelf. Ezra, damn him, had gone straight for Buck's good whiskey.

"Don't you all have someplace to be?" Chris growled. "Josiah, what--"

The front door opened and slammed shut.

It was Buck and J.D.

"Looks a lot like a party, but where the hell're the women?" Buck plucked the bottle from Ezra's fingers and thrust a large bag of cheese puffs into his hands.

"Why don't you go and search for some," Ezra suggested, holding the bag by one corner as if it might bite. "I understand there's a bowling alley right around the corner."

"And people wonder why I've got an ulcer," Chris muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Josiah, you said you have news?"

"Got a call about an hour ago from Detective Williamson." Josiah sank into the large recliner with a soft grunt. "Seems one of the Lobos, a kid named Alexander Vega, showed up at the station earlier this morning."

Chris glanced at Vin, who had stiffened, his expression blank. "Go on," he told Josiah.

"Kid claimed he'd accidentally killed a cop. Wanted to turn himself in."

J.D. frowned. "Killed? Oh! You mean he thought Vin was dead?"

"Apparently," Josiah replied.

"Vin?" Chris took a seat beside his friend. "You okay?"

Vin slowly lifted his gaze to Josiah. "Alex? He turned himself in?"

"Way I hear it, he was pretty broken up," Josiah said. "Shocked the hell out of Williamson."

"He turned himself in." Vin sounded dazed, as if he were struggling to believe his own words.

"Kid was pretty damn happy to hear you're alive. Wants to see you when you're up to it." Josiah's expression was gentle. "If you put in a good word, I think Williamson will go easy. He's a pretty decent guy once you get to know him."

"Goes both ways," Vin said. "Alex is a pretty decent kid."

"So let's get this party rollin'!" Buck waved a paper menu. "Who wants pizza?"

"No pizza for Vin, he just got outta the hospital," Nathan grumbled. "Bad enough Chris's givin' him whiskey."

"For the last time, I did not--"

"Get some of those bread sticks, Buck." J.D. flicked on the television and tuned to the football game. "And we need more beer!"

"Some wine would be appreciated." Ezra curled his lip, dumping the snack bag onto the bar. "To go with the cheese puffs."

"You okay with all this?" Chris asked, concerned by Vin's silence.

"Yeah. I just..." A slow smile spread across Vin's face. "He turned himself in, Chris."

"Took a lot of guts," Chris agreed. He cocked an eyebrow. "Someone must've made a big impression on the kid."

Vin's grin, bright with gratitude, told Chris that this time he'd said exactly what his friend needed to hear.

It was time he stopped fighting who Vin was and started appreciating him for it. Building a friendship with a stubborn, often-infuriating, always-selfless guy like Vin Tanner wasn't always easy.

But damn...it was worth it.