Misperceptions of Justice and Vindication

by Silvia and Laurel

Chapter 1-3 | Chapter 4-6 | Chapter 7-9 | Chapter 10-12


Buck was tired and disgusted with the Vin is innocent mantra and the rest of the team's unwavering support. The evidence seemed pretty straightforward to him, Vin's rifle, Vin's blood on the victim and now this poor boy's final dying gasp was to point the guilt straight at Vin.

He pulled into his parking spot outside his and JD's apartment and sat for a moment thinking about all the hours spent searching for Vin and coming up with nothing but more questions, and to top it all off, JD had made it clear he was fully in Vin's corner and he had turned his back on Buck and announced that he was spending the night with Casey and Nettie Wells.

Buck slammed his fist against the steering wheel in frustration and finally got out of the car and headed up the walkway to the door of the apartment. He was still muttering under his breath as he got to the front door and then stopped in his tracks and stared. With JD staying with Casey tonight that made him the first to arrive home, that meant that the small slip of green wire he and JD positioned in the door jam should still be in position and not lying on the ground just off the welcome mat.

Buck's hand dropped swiftly to his holster and he thumbed open the holster catch and slowly drew his gun while his second hand pulled his penlight. Stepping to the side of the door he carefully reached out and turned the doorknob. Unsurprisingly the knob turned and he was able to open the door and push it slowly inward. Staying to the side of the door for another few moments he listened carefully, when no movement or sound was heard he quickly spun through the door and took a defensive position inside the apartment.

Seeing nothing amiss in the entranceway he began the slow sweep of his flashlight's beam following it with his gun's muzzle. In the beam of his light he saw droplets of blood on the floor leading into the living room. Following the trail he rounded the corner into the living room and the light from his flashlight fell upon a still figure sprawled in the middle of the floor, Vin.

Buck scanned the rest of the room quickly and then holstered his gun, flicked on a light and knelt beside Vin. He felt along his throat for his pulse and felt it, faint but steady. He reached out and eased Vin over onto his back. The instant he turned the man over he winced at the injuries readily apparent. Vin's right eye was swollen nearly over and colored purple and black, his lower lip was split open, swollen and crusted with dried blood. There was a gash at the top of his head near the hairline, his long hair had dried blood in it clumping parts of it together and the front of his shirt bore additional evidence of dried blood.

His first reaction was to call 911 until he remembered the anger that had been evident on the EMTs that had arrived at The Saloon in response to their call for help before the young man had died. His next thought was to call Nathan. Buck still wasn't sure of Vin's innocence in all this but he did know that there was no way he had inflicted these injuries upon himself. So Buck pulled out his cell phone and hit Nathan's number; in fewer than two rings it was answered.

"Nathan, it's Buck. I need you at my apartment immediately." Without waiting for a reply he clicked off, he knew enough about his fellow team members to know that with a cryptic message like that, there would be no delay.

Leaving Vin for the moment he went back and secured the front door to the apartment. Then he pulled the shades to the windows so no one could see inside and lifted the unconscious form of the team's sharpshooter and placed him on the couch. Looking down at the injured man he suddenly realized how young Vin looked. Even through the dirt and dried blood and the swollen features he was struck by the youth in Vin's face.

He shook himself for a moment as the thought struck a chord within and then he proceeded to care for the man. He gently removed his boots and loosened the belt and jeans at the waist for comfort. Then he went into the bathroom and the kitchen gathering a bowl, water, the first aid kit and some towels and washcloths.

By the time Nathan arrived about 15 minutes later he had cleaned some of the blood from Vin's face and hair and had removed his torn and bloody shirt shuddering as he realized there was a shallow but definite knife wound high up on his shoulder.

Letting Nathan into the apartment he stood back and let the medic assess the damage.

"Buck, why didn't you call an ambulance?" Nathan sat back after taking Vin's pulse, checking his heart rate and respiration and taking his blood pressure which was a bit low but not dangerously so.

"Hell, Nathan, that was my first idea until I remembered the reaction of those EMTs at The Saloon. They knew the kid from around Purgatorio and they had had also responded to the Moses Landy killing, it was easy for them to connect the dots and they already figured that Vin was a renegade shooting bad guys and good guys alike. Did you really think they were going to be most helpful right now?"

Nathan paused from unpacking his medical kit and gave Buck a quick glance. "No, you're right. Still the hospital is where he belongs right now. He needs x-rays to check for internal injuries more thoroughly than I can."

"Yeah, and as soon as the ER catches a glimpse of that stab wound they'll file a police report and then we'll have the PD down there and they'll arrest him just like they've been itching to do and we'll be blocked from having access."

"When did you hop on the Vin is innocent bandwagon?" Nathan asked without stopping his assessment of Vin's condition. His hands were probing Vin's abdomen for any hardness and he was tapping and listening for any abnormal sounds from his internal organs.

"I'm not saying he is innocent but I sure as hell don't think he did this damage to himself, and even if he is guilty - and I'm not saying he isn't guilty - if he was beaten like this by his fellow Purgatorio citizens for his actions or if cops did this to him, that ain't right. I don't condone vigilante justice of any kind."

Nathan finished his initial assessment of Vin's internal organs and was satisfied there wasn't any acute damage at least as far as his hands and stethoscope were able to ascertain. He checked Vin's pupils once again to reassure himself and found that while they were reactive to light one pupil was a bit sluggish and more dilated than the other. He probed gently along Vin's skull and was relieved when a small moan escaped Vin's lips.

Glad for some reaction from the still sharpshooter he slowly worked his hands down each of Vin's limbs probing for broken bones; he found none. However, when he pressed along Vin's ribcage he did encounter a slight give around a couple of ribs and Vin did react again to the pressure.

"Near as I can tell nothing is broken, seems to be some slight bruising of a couple of ribs. We'll need some ice for that. I'm going to clean and stitch this knife wound. It's shallow but it looks a bit infected. I can clean it but I don't have any antibiotics and I can't write a prescription for one. He's going to need something to fight the infection. He also needs some fluids, he's dehydrated, an IV is what's needed and again, I don't carry that stuff with me nor do I have it sitting around at home."

"What about Rain? She'd have access to all of that."

"What, you want me to call her and ask her to risk her medical license to write some prescriptions and to steal some IV solutions from the hospital?"

"I don't know, Nathan; I'm just trying to solve this mess."

"All right. All right. Let's both calm down, why don't you call Chris and update him on the situation and I'll -"

Just then both men were startled at the sound of the front door to the apartment crashing open and shouts and running feet, they looked up stunned to see two Denver police officers with their guns drawn confronting them.

"See I told you to trust me. When I saw Jackson heading out with his medical bag I knew something was up. Seems I was right and we've found ourselves the ATF's very own vigilante. Hand him over you two and we'll be on our way."

Buck and Nathan exchanged quick looks and then stood squarely in front of their injured team member blocking him from the would-be captors.

"Now just hold on there. If anyone is going to be taking Tanner in, it's going to be me." Buck said holding his hands up.

"He's been getting between me and my friend Chris for way too long now and he's been rubbing me the wrong way ever since he joined the team. I don't like any more than any of you what the evidence shows he's been doing of late, not that a few less drug dealers on the street is a bad thing but I believe in upholding the law not taking it into my own hands much as I know all of you believe the same so, just let Nathan here finish cleaning him up and we'll bring him out to you. All right.?"

Buck and Nathan had been slowly advancing on the two police officers and backing them out of the room and into the front hall. Buck's calm assurance and level eye had them both lowering their guns and finally holstering them.

"Fine, but hurry up and we'll take him in in our car. And we're waiting right here for you."

"That's fine," Buck replied. "Nathan, why don't you finish up with Tanner, I'll keep these two company." Buck turned towards Nathan keeping his face away from the two cops and he raised his eyebrows slightly. Nathan caught the signal.

"It'll just take me about ten minutes to stitch him up and then we can go." Nathan turned back and disappeared into the living room

Nathan had only been out of sight for a few seconds when he reappeared. "Actually, I need Buck's help for a few moments here." Nodding at the two police officers, Buck followed Nathan into the living room and stopped as he was met with the sight of the empty couch.

"Well, hell, Nate, how did you manage that so fast." Buck whispered.

Nate's whispered reply dripped with sarcasm, "I didn't you fool, he was already gone."

Just then they heard shouts and sounds of a struggle coming from the front of the apartment. Running to the front they followed the two Denver officers as they turned and took in the sight just outside of the apartment. There was Vin, lip newly torn open and bleeding afresh, another bruise appearing on his other cheekbone and gasping in pain trying to clutch his ribcage but unable as he was held between two additional officers, a great deal larger and meaner looking than the first two that had entered the apartment. One of them spoke up as he held Vin roughly.

"Caught him trying to escape out the back bedroom window, good thing we decided to send you two in the front and we cover the back."

Buck realized that, as much as he distrusted Tanner's background, he was his teammate and no one was going to hurt his teammate. Deciding that desperate times really did call for desperate measures he yanked the nearest of the officers in front of him and pulled his gun, Hell, this was going to win him no favors with Chris this time. He was only slightly surprised when Nathan backed his move and did likewise to the other young officer in front of him.

"Well, now, seems like we got ourselves a little bartering to do." Buck drawled, not even stopping to wonder when he started to drawl.

"Seem like we got two of yours, and you got yourself one of ours, so, why don't we just make a little trade. You put ours in that car over there," Buck pointed to Nathan's car. "and then we'll give you one of yours and then, when we get in, we'll give you the other and then we all just part our ways Oh, yeah, and your side arms, just toss them over to the side there in those bushes." To illustrate his point Buck tossed the sidearm of the cop he was holding followed quickly by Nathan tossing his man's gun in behind.

The two cops holding Vin were stunned at this turn of events, damn, these ATF guys, were crazy. Within a minute the exchange had been made and Buck Nathan and Vin were speeding away. At the last moment Nathan decided on a little insurance and pulled from his hidden knife holster one of the knives Vin had been teaching him to use and slashed two tires on each of the police cruisers that were in the parking lot. With that to delay their pursuers they sped off down the street anxious to use the precious head start to their advantage.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan stopped his car in the alley behind the clinic he volunteered at and turned to look in the back seat at Buck who was holding on to their barely conscious teammate. "I'll just be about five minutes. I'll grab everything I can and then we'll move on. It won't take them long to figure that if we don't go to a hospital that we're likely to come here seeing as I've left my medical bag at your place."

"Right, then where are we going?" Buck whispered back.

Nathan turned and gave him an exasperated look. "Do I have to think of everything? That's your job smart guy. You have five minutes to come up with a hiding place."

With that Nathan disappeared into the darkness leaving Buck holding Vin who was starting to shiver as well as moan and stir slightly as he was fighting to regain consciousness.

"Hang on there, Vin. Nathan will be just be a couple of minutes and then we'll go somewhere and get you fixed up real good." Buck absently found himself rocking ever so slightly as he held Vin against him. It was necessary for him to hold onto the man since he was unable to hold himself upright and Nathan didn't want him jostled around any more than necessary since the knife wound was still open and he wasn't sure how much damage had been inflicted on Vin's ribs by the new pounding that the cops had given him.

Buck absently tried to sooth Vin's occasional twitches and moans while trying to think of a safe place to go. Problem was that since the police had put surveillance on them he was having trouble coming up with a safe place to go. It dawned on him just as Nathan emerged from the darkness carrying a box loaded with supplies that he might just have an idea.

"All right, Buck, I did my part. Now, where are we going?" Nathan turned around to look at him.

"You said that one of the kids that volunteers at the clinic and wants to be a paramedic also knows Vin, right?"

"Yeah, Larod, Larod Judkins, so."

"So, he lives in Vin's building, right?"

"Yeah, wait, are you suggesting we go to Vin's apartment? Buck, they probably have surveillance there."

"Except they searched Vin's place and Vin hasn't been there, chances are they've pulled that surveillance." Buck insisted.

"Chances are they - oh, I get it. You want me to call Larod, have him tell us if the surveillance is there or not and then sneak in if it isn't." At Buck's nod Nathan thought for a moment and then shrugged. "Sounds good for now. There's a pay phone at the back of the clinic. I'll call him from there; I don't think we can trust our cell phones since that one officer said he saw me coming out with my medical bag. Be right back."

Once again Nathan slipped into the darkness and Buck found himself alone with Vin who by now had succumbed to his weakness and was again limp against Buck. Buck thought for a moment at how light the man was, he never really considered that fact before but now as he was responsible for keeping Vin from sliding to the floor he realized that there wasn't much effort in it as Vin was very slender, almost thin.

Nathan's quick return broke him from his thoughts and he waited expectantly for the answer. Nathan started the car and put it in motion while he spoke. "Larod's agreed to help. He gave me directions on a roundabout route to come to the building and he's waking up a couple of other kids that hang with Vin. They'll scout the area and post someone to alert us when we're about two blocks away if there's any trouble."

Within 30 minutes the two were under the temporary and watchful eye of some of the kids who quickly escorted Nathan and Buck, carrying Vin's limp form, up to Vin's apartment. Larod gave Nathan's car keys to another of the boys who ran to the car and drove away.

"Don't worry, Mr. Jackson, he's going to hide it and bring back the keys. We've got some spotters out and they'll let us know when it's time to move out."

"Thanks, Larod. I'm going to need your help with Vin's injuries. You can put to use some of your training."

Entering Vin's apartment Buck had to pick his way carefully. When the cops had searched his apartment, they hadn't been gentle or neat. The sofa was tipped over, cushions strewn about, kitchen drawers were open with their contents dumped on the floor, a couple of boxes had their former contents spread across the floor and a small table and the few books and personal items were carelessly strewn on the floor or the book shelves. In general it gave the appearance of a mini-twister having swept through the small space heaving its contents from one side to the other with little regard.

Buck stepped carefully and made it to Vin's bedroom which bore evidence of similar handling everywhere except the bed. A small woman was tidying the bed and gave a final swipe with her hand as she smoothed the fresh bed linens on the mattress and arranged the pillows for Vin's comfort. Buck gently placed Vin on the bed and then stepped back grateful to let Nathan and Larod take over his care.

Buck stood and watched for a couple of minutes while Nathan rapidly inserted an IV in Vin's arm and Larod fashioned a way to keep it elevated for proper delivery using a couple of nails, a hangar and the bed post. As Nathan cut away Vin's shirt and exposed his chest to the bright light Larod had also brought to the bed Buck's stomach clenched as he saw the purple bruising and the gash from the knife wound. He wasn't weak about the sight of blood but seeing Vin's pale skin and the injuries so starkly contrasted made him sick, sick at whoever had inflicted the damage and sick to his own heart that he had maligned this man to everyone he possibly could.

Buck retreated from the room leaving Larod and Nathan to their task and was surprised to see the small woman who had readied the bed hard at work in the kitchen with another, younger girl, the resemblance between them caused him to figure them to be mother and daughter. He paused for a moment and watched as they began sorting the utensils, filling a tub with hot soapy water, washing the items and drying them to be neatly returned to their place.

Another boy, probably in his mid- to late teens Buck surmised passed by him entering the kitchen with a couple of large trash bags, without speaking to the others he rapidly emptied the rotting food from the fridge - whose door had been left open causing the food to spoil - and also cleaned out the trash from the container in the corner of the kitchen and left the apartment only to return and tackle the job of cleaning the refrigerator.

Buck again was ashamed at himself. Seeing these people, awakened in the middle of the night - hell, he thought, dawn was only two hours away - and here they were not questioning the work that needed to be done, only willingly tackling it and this they did for someone who helped the kids with their homework he'd heard JD say, or at least give them access to his computer, or maybe he helped them fix stuff or - Buck realized he had no idea what it was that Vin did for these people but he knew that Vin protected his life, his and the rest of the team's.

His job was to provide cover fire; his job was to be their eyes in the sky. He knew Vin spent long hours on the practice range, he knew Vin constantly sought out weapons experts and listened and learned from them, he knew Vin poured over surveillance photos of their take down site, he'd caught him doing it just prior to their first mission. Vin kept his, Buck Wilmington's life safe, and the lives of the rest of the team.

Without thinking Buck began tackling the living room. In moments he had the couch turned upright, cushions arranged appropriately, or at least neatly, the two old and worn chairs that had been lying on their side were repositioned properly. He went to the book shelf and slowly gathered the few items there and put some order to them. He found some books, not many, but a few books on poetry, that surprised him, and then several manuals on weapons, their care and maintenance, as well as some books on martial arts techniques and history.

He arranged the books by subject and by height and neatly filled a shelf with them. Then he picked up a photo album that had been carelessly dumped so that its spine was now broken. Unabashedly he found himself thumbing through the pages to see what photos Vin Tanner would have.

He found very few. There were some photos of Peso, his black gelding that he kept at Chris' ranch, and there photos of the BBQ that they had together a month or so earlier, then there was a photo of a pretty woman with startling blue eyes, the blue eyes reminded him instantly of Vin and Buck knew he was looking at a picture of Vin's mother. There was a lovely smile on the woman's face but her eyes captivated Buck, the smile didn't reach her eyes, instead those amazing blue eyes spoke volumes about sorrow and anguish.

Buck felt an immediate response of wonderment at what made this woman so sad. He turned to look for other pictures of her but there were none. In fact, there were no other pictures in the album at all. Vin's whole life, some 27 or so years, and there was only one picture of his mother, a few of Peso and the team BBQ of a month ago. Thoughtfully he closed the pitiful album and reverently placed it on the shelf.

The main furniture and items restored to some order Buck next turned to the task of replacing the items strewn from the two boxes. There were some of the usual bureaucratic forms that were necessary when joining the ATF. Buck put those in a loose folder and laid those on the bottom of the box, he'd been with the ATF for a couple of years now and had never read any of his forms, he figured Vin wouldn't be needing to read those any too soon.

Next were the usual bills and other things that accompany a person's life these days, vehicle insurance, one for Vin's bike, another for his Jeep, utility bills, phone bills, apartment rent. Buck stuffed all those in another folder and moved on. Lying in a corner was a rather official looking envelope that had a military seal on it. Next to it was a hand carved wooden box. Buck didn't know his wood that well but this looked like cherry, highly polished, there was a small ding in the corner that Buck was sure happened when the cops trashed Vin's apartment. The lid was a bit loose and when he picked it up it slid partway open. Unable to contain his curiosity he thumbed it the rest of the way open. Inside lay a medal, and not just any medal. Buck was formerly of the Air Force and he knew his medals; this was a Medal of Honor, the highest honor that can be bestowed and they are bestowed with great care and even greater infrequency.

He gazed at the medal silently and noted the piece of paper folded and slid into the top of the box and held in place by a small ribbon. Carefully he eased it out and opened the page: To Vincent Tanner: Ranger: For Service in and for His Country.

Buck stared in silence trying to process what he was seeing. A small sound at his shoulder startled him and he turned quickly to see the young man who had been cleaning the refrigerator.

"Mr. Vin showed that to me once. It was just after he came here, long before he joined your team. I was working on a paper for school, history, my worst subject and we were talking about war and battles and service to one's country and I told him I thought it was all a bunch of nonsense that nobody cared anymore and it wasn't like in the earlier times when battles were fought for important things and heroes were appreciated. He just got a funny look and he said that people who did heroic things did them because they thought there were important, not for glory and not for money.

We talked for a bit longer and then it was time for me to go to bed so I left. Problem was I forgot my report in Vin's printer, so I came back down for it. I walked in, you know he always leaves his door open for us kids to come in here, well, I guess he didn't hear me - funny, he always hears everything - and he was just sitting on the floor, holding that box and looking inside. He about jumped like a cat that got scared when I asked him what that was. Then he showed me and he said that sometimes someone got something like this when they did what needed to be done, something that someone thought was heroic.

I asked him if he got any glory or any money for it and he just smiled and looked at me and said nope, no glory, no money, no publicity, but I got this and the memory of what I did and the memory of knowing that what I did was the right thing, that's all I need. Then he just closed the lid and slid it into the box there with those papers and slid the box back against the wall."

With that the young man stepped back and watched Buck and Buck did just what the boy said Vin had done. When he replaced the lid on the box -- after putting the hand carved box in along with the official looking envelope with the military seal -- and slid it back against the wall, the young man gave Buck a quick smile and then turned and left the apartment pulling the door closed behind him.

Buck realized that he couldn't hear any sounds coming from the kitchen so he peeked around the corner and peered in amazed to see the counters clean, the sink polished and the floor mopped and drying. All the cupboards and drawers were closed and not an item looked to be out of place. He realized he must have spent more time than he had thought pouring over Vin's photo album and medal. He walked the few short steps to Vin's bedroom door which was still closed and leaned his ear against it trying to hear Nathan. At the same moment the door opened and he nearly tumbled into the room as Larod exited. He gave Buck a curious look and then departed the apartment quickly.

Buck entered into the room and saw Nathan exiting the bathroom that was to the side looking weary and drying his hands on a towel.

"How is he?" Buck asked as his eyes darted from Nathan back to Vin who appeared to be resting peacefully, a bandage taped to his chest where Nathan had tended the knife wound, his body cleaned and dressed in light sweats, his face cleaned of blood and dirt but still marred by bruising and cuts, an IV dripping silently into the vein in his arm.

"He's beat up pretty good but I'm fairly certain there are no internal injuries, the knife wound bled a fair bit, but I cleaned it and stitched it, it was more of a passing slash then an actual stab wound. He's pretty groggy and that's probably from pain, dehydration, the head wound and some shock. I'd still like to get him to a hospital for x-rays and a Cat Scan, there's definitely some give on a couple of ribs but I can't tell if they're broken or not. I'm leaning towards thinking that they may be broken but, again, I'm not sure. For now I'm pretty certain he's in no danger, his vital signs are all stable although a bit weak. The IV will help get his fluid levels back up and I've given him some antibiotic to fight any infection but, again, this is only temporary. He needs to be seen by a doctor."

Before Buck could reply Larod returned and the urgency on his face caused both Nathan and Buck to turn their full attention on him. "We've got to move you somewhere else. I'm pretty sure in about 15 minutes or less we're going to have some cops here looking for all three of you."

"How do you know?" Buck asked still amazed at how well 'organized' was the only word that came to his mind, these people seemed to be.

"Because we know what should and shouldn't be here at any given time of the day, sir, and I'm telling you that trouble you're not ready for is on its way here. I've got a car out front and some other guys are keeping an eye out and ready to give us some more time if we need it but we need to move now and move fast."

With that Nathan and Larod set to work gathering up the remainder of their supplies and unhooking the IV getting Vin ready to move, Buck for his part grabbed a backpack he'd seen on the floor of Vin's closet and filled it with a pair of jeans, some t-shirts and underwear, some sneakers and grabbed a couple things from the bathroom and then slung that over his shoulder only to have Nathan grab it from him.

"I need you to carry Vin. Larod and I will take the supplies." Nodding Buck went to the still sleeping sharpshooter and gently gathered him in his arms and followed Larod and Nathan out the door, down the stairs and into the station wagon that was waiting. In less than ten minutes they were quietly on the move to a new place of refuge.


JD awoke with a start and for a moment had trouble remembering where he was, as his eyes adjusted to the early morning light and he took in his surroundings, awareness returned. He was asleep on Nettie Wells' couch having slept at her house for the night - correction, for a couple or three hours. It was just after 6:00 a.m. and he could smell coffee brewing in the kitchen and heard quiet movement indicating someone was up and preparing breakfast.

About 15 minutes later he exited the bathroom having showered and shaved and put on some clean clothes for the day and headed to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee, the aroma was positively calling out to him. He was almost there when a knock at the front door stopped him, who would be knocking at Nettie's door at 6:15 in the morning? Nettie's wondering gaze as she peeked out of the kitchen told him she was just as perplexed as he was.

Turning towards the door he peeked out the side window and then unlocked the door.


Standing on the front door was a teenager holding a copy of the Denver Post.

"Here's your daily paper. Sorry about knocking but I got to collect the monthly bill."

Nettie came out from the kitchen and stood behind JD. "You're not Michael and I settled the bill with him last week, -- oh, my, Thomas is that you?"

The boy ducked his head a bit and looked nervously around. "Yes, Ms. Wells, look I gotta make it look good. You're being watched. There's a message from Mr. Buck and Mr. Nathan about Vin. I needed to make sure you got it so I took over the run from the normal kid today, well your street that is 'cause there's cops watching. They've been following you, Mr. JD. They're following all of you. I gotta go, look Ms. Wells, walk me back out to my bike and apologize for not paying me last week and I'll go."

Nettie nodded, took the paper from Thomas and handed it to JD. Then she grabbed her purse from the front table where she kept it and walked Thomas back out to his bike. She gave him a $10.00 bill from her wallet and spoke loud enough for the men across the street to hear her on the quiet street and sent him on his way watching as he rode down the rest of the street delivering the papers on his 'route' before he disappeared around the corner.

Smiling serenely she cast a glance up and down the street as she breathed in the morning air. She noticed the two men sitting in the car across from her house but pretended that she didn't. Returning to her house she closed the front door and then hurried to the kitchen where JD was sitting at the table with Casey beside him, she had been drawn downstairs by the knock at the door and had heard the exchange from the stairwell.

JD looked up as Nettie entered the kitchen.

"It's a note from Buck. He says he and Nathan have got Vin, he's hurt but they're taking care of him, says we're all being watched, cell phones are probably compromised, trust no one outside of the team - oops." JD stopped as he realized he'd been reading the note out loud.

"Don't be silly, Casey and me are more than members of the team, we're family. I've been watching over Vin for many a year now, so go ahead. What else does it say?"

JD smiled and felt his face blush clean through to his scalp. "Well, it doesn't say exactly where they are but it does tell me who to contact to get in touch with them. Well, actually it's better if Josiah contacts them since they want us to use the shelter he works at as cover. Anyway, I got to get to the office and get working on some secure communications. If all our cell phones are compromised, I need to come up with some other ways. I think I'll get some blackberries, just got a couple of them in to try, I can setup a secure ---"

Nettie just clucked a bit as JD was rambling on and on about his technology as he headed out to the living room to repack his ready bag. She poured some coffee in a travel mug and fixed it up for him and then grabbed an apple and a banana while Casey sliced open a bagel, placed some cheese and ham on it and wrapped a napkin around it. As JD finished packing his overnight bag and headed for the front door the two women met him there and gave him his breakfast to go and waved cheerily - a benefit for the watching officers - as he drove off heading to the office.

(7:00 a.m. Team 7's Office:)

Chris and Josiah were already in the office mostly because Chris had opted to stay in the city - once again he blessed his fortune at having such good neighbors and friends. Charlie Peterson was coming through again in his willingness to care for the horses. Chris had already decided how he would repay Charlie for his help; he knew Charlie wanted to put up a run-in shed in his lower pasture so in the next couple of months he'd take care of that little project.

For now he was awaiting the arrival of the rest of his team and he was less than patient about it. He'd been charging his cell phone for the few hours he'd stayed with Josiah for the night and had left it off for a faster charge. It wasn't until he'd given up and gotten up around 6:00 a.m. after tossing and turning on the couch for about three hours that he thought to check it. Everyone on the team knew where he was, well except Buck who'd left before he'd decided to stay with Josiah and Vin 'cause...better to not go there at so early an hour, so he didn't worry that his cell was off since Josiah's had plenty of charge and he kept it on for the night

So, there Chris was in the kitchen starting to make some coffee when he remembered his cell and he grabbed it and turned it on. Instantly it came alive flashing telling him that he had a message. He dialed into his mailbox and got an angry blast from the Denver PD chief. He called him immediately and was stunned to learn that Buck and Nathan had not only been seen in the presence of Vin Tanner but that they had also attacked two officers and disarmed them and slashed the tires of two police cruisers.

Chris wasn't sure which piece of news was more amazing, that Vin was with two members of his team neither of which had even thought to call him or that Nathan, his one agent who was solid as a rock, always by the book, never have to worry about him doing anything for which Chris would have to apologize for, Nathan had participated in an alleged attack and disarming of two officers as well as the slashing of tires, such activity Chris expected from Buck and certainly Ezra but Nathan?!

The chief had gone on to blast him for aiding and abetting the escape of a fugitive and threatened to go public with the news that there were now three ATF agents that were fugitives and renegades. The instant the chief said he was threatening to go public Chris interrupted him and asked why he hadn't already issued an APB. The accompanying stuttering and hesitating response answered Chris' question; there was more to the story.

He told the chief he'd get back to him in a few hours with news and hung up abruptly. Unbeknownst to him Josiah had been behind him listening to Chris' half of the conversation and when Chris finished and turned and filled him in on the rest Josiah simply nodded and in less than five minutes was ready to go. On the drive to the office - Josiah drove for safety's sake - Chris called Ezra and JD. Ezra as per usual used more words than necessary to express his dismay and his intention to arrive at the office forthwith.

JD, however, was uncharacteristically clipped in his responses. Chris expected a dozen or so questions about why Vin was with Buck and was Buck all right and how did Vin look and a myriad of other things but all he got was "I'm on my way already."

So now it was 7:00 a.m. and Chris was in the office pacing and pacing and pacing. His repeated calls to Nathan and Buck had only yielded a recorded message telling him the cell phone user he was trying to reach was unavailable which only added to his tension. When JD ran into the office Chris jumped forward to meet him and the two about collided in front of JD's desk.

"What do you know, JD?" Chris growled not waiting for the younger agent to speak. Without speaking JD handed Chris the note he'd received earlier and quickly flicked on his computer while Chris and Josiah scanned it. While they were reading it for the second time Ezra arrived and took in the scene of Josiah and Chris intently reading a piece of paper and JD concentrating on his computer, fingers flashing over the keys without pause.

After a few moments Chris looked up, saw Ezra and wordlessly handed him the paper. Ezra watched as Chris sank into the nearest chair and then holding the paper he looked to Josiah for any sign but the big man's eyes were closed and it was evident he was deeply concentrating. Knowing JD was far too engrossed in his computer to even acknowledge his arrival Ezra lowered his eyes to the page and began reading.

He was completing his second read through of Buck and Nathan's overnight adventures and their plans to get in touch with them when JD slammed his hand on his desk.

Realizing he had successfully captured all of their attention, perhaps a bit more dramatically than intended he gave Chris a nod that Chris seemed to completely understand. Wordless their leader walked to the back of the office and opened the door to the stairwell that accessed not only the ground level, but more importantly at this moment, it accessed the rooftop.

The men quickly followed and in minutes all were high on top of the building where the early morning air was still a bit brisk and a stiff breeze kept them huddled close together while they spoke.

"I've got 'em! Chris, they've been tracking our cell phones and they've been trying to hack into our emails and our computer files. They haven't gotten in because of the protection I set up, but they have a bead on each and every one of our cell phones."

"Well, that confirms what Brother Buck put in the message about them watching us and our cell phones being compromised. In all likelihood our offices are bugged as well."

"Josiah, it says that you're to contact someone at the shelter you work at and it says to do it this morning. Get down there and meet up with them and find out how bad Vin is hurt and then get back here as soon as you have that information.

Ezra, I need you to find out about a little activity that happened at Buck's place last night. I got an earful this morning from the Denver PD chief about Buck and Nathan attacking two officers and disarming them and then slashing tires on some cruisers. There's got to be more to the story than that since the chief hasn't put out a wants and warrants on them nor has he gone public with an APB on three fugitive ATF agents. He threatened me with such action but when I called him on why he hadn't already done it he stuttered and stammered. There's more to the story. Find it.

JD, I need you -"

"Already on it, Chris. I've got some blackberries that I'm going to fix up nice and secure, they have Bluetooth technology as well so it's the best and most secure we have available. It'll take some time to get them prepared so I can't give you one right now, Josiah, but give me a few hours and I'll have it ready."

The three remaining members of the team went into action leaving Chris momentarily at a loss for activity. Figuring it was better to give the Judge the heads up despite his limited information at the time he headed to the lobby where he used a payphone to dial Travis' number.

(9:00 a.m. Judge Travis' office:)

"...which is why they didn't put out the APB on Vin, Nathan and Buck." Chris finished updating Judge Travis on all that he and his remaining available team members had been able to ascertain so far.

Chris was grateful that Ezra's sources were quick and accurate. Not only had Ezra come to him with the information that it appeared two of Denver's finest had assaulted Vin which led to the incident of Buck and Nathan disarming two other officers and the slashing of tires but Josiah had returned with the same information from none other than Nathan who had met him discreetly at the clinic and filled him in.

With that information in hand Chris had immediately contacted the police chief who verified that indeed his officers had gotten out of hand and had attacked Tanner and that Nathan and Buck had acted to protect their injured teammate who, the chief hastened to add, had been injured significantly prior to his officers roughing him up a bit. The chief assured him that he didn't condone the actions of his officers and had already unofficially suspended them for a week.

"JD says that our computer system is intact but that's because he had previously installed firewalls and special security measures. Our cell phones, however, have been completely compromised. It appears they're real-time tracing us. If we turn on our cells a trace immediately begins and they start narrowing in on our location by the cell tower we're pinging off of."

"Chris - " Travis began only to be cut off as Larabee began pacing again.

"They've taken circumstantial evidence at best and they've decided he's this evil agent and they're building an airtight case, worse than that they're hunting him."

"You really care about him, don't you?"

Chris smiled at the thought and answered with a lost look "Yeah, you don't know how easy he got me, and he's good, real good, you were right when you picked him for the team. I was reluctant for all the reasons that Buck has been harping on for the past several weeks. But when I met him at your insistence - "Chris paused for a moment as he thought of that moment when he'd locked eyes with the shaggy haired, lanky to the point of gaunt, and totally irreverent sharpshooter -- Travis had taken him to the rifle range to watch the sharpshooter in action and the instant he locked eyes with Vin all his doubts about his secretive past and sealed files and informal education had flown out the window.

Chris remembered asking the Judge about what was inside Vin's sealed files and Orrin had smiled patiently and said that even he didn't have access to those files. Chris figured to test the Judge's allegiance once more so he narrowed his eyes, a look Judge Travis knew only to well and asked again if he knew what was in Vin's files and if that was why he trusted him so completely.

"No, Chris, I told you before, I can't even get close to those files, but I have friends in the military, and also I have friends within the Indian Delegation inside Congress, and when I said I needed a sharpshooter to take care of my people's back, all of them mentioned one name and one name only; his. I don't think I ever told you that originally I had picked another sharpshooter for you to take. I had even talked to him, almost told him he was in, was about to call him the next day, but I wanted to make sure so, when I went to the people I trust most and they told me Vin Tanner, I had no doubts at all after that."

"So he wasn't your choice then?"

"No, but like I said, when my trusted sources told me about Vin Tanner and I went to meet him, at that time he was staying on the reservation with Chief Blue Eagle's people, I went to meet him and couldn't pinpoint him in between all his Indian brothers. They respected him and cared a great deal for him. The chief told me a little bit of his story, enough that I knew there was a lot of pride and fidelity, strength and determination but also about his loneliness. I knew I needed him that day."

Chris saw the truth in the Judge's eyes and felt his own loyalty to Vin and all of his team stirring in his heart. His and the Judge's team were new, too new to have to be dealing with such obstacles but he also knew that in overcoming this struggle they would be all the stronger for it. It was time to get back to putting things right.

"JD is doing something to make our office safe from any eavesdropping device. He said he needed some phones for us, something very specific so he's working on setting up some blackberries on special frequencies that are very secure, he's going to configure them to get inside a ... VPN" he looked at his notes to make sure he'd said the exact words that JD had said.

"Good, Chris, I will-" the sound of shattering glass cut him in the middle of his speech. He was thrown to the ground by a flash better known as Larabee. Larabee kept the Judge pinned to the carpet beneath him while his own gun was drawn and he whirled to face the door as it crashed open and agents came running in with guns drawn. Using their bodies as a shield they surrounded the Judge and backed him to the front office that had no windows for errant bullets to come through.

"I want that bullet found and analyzed; this could be the break we need to clear Vin. If he's as badly injured as Denver PD and Nathan Jackson say, there's no way he could have fired that shot!" Travis shouted as he was hustled to a chair and agents took up a protective stance in front of him.

Chris was already on the phone shouting orders to secure the building across the street and was halfway out the door to join in that effort when Travis voice stopped him. He looked back and saw Travis' face between his human shields' shoulders.

"Chris, Vin is the team's sharpshooter, the man chosen to protect his team and be their last line of defense, well today that role changes. You're his last line of defense. Keep him safe; it's your turn."

Chris nodded once and all but ran from the office.


Vin had no idea how long he had been asleep. He only knew that when he opened his eyes he was staring at a ceiling that was completely strange to him. He carefully stayed still and evaluated his body reading the various signals of pain and aches and tightness that spoke of stitches and an IV and sore muscles and fatigue. His time as a Ranger as well as with the People had taught him a lot about staying still and silent and reading the signs that one's own body sends.

At the same time as he was receiving information about his own well-being he was receiving other information as well. He was lying on something soft and comfortable. There was a light breeze wafting over him that smelled fresh and clean, a window was open. He smelled the unmistakable scent of chicken cooking and there was also the hint of cinnamon and apples on the air.

From a little ways away he could hear the murmur of voices but it was indistinct and he figured it was a room or two away. Closer to him he heard the sounds of breathing and a slight hitch that indicated a snore. Carefully, for he felt the throb in his head and the tightness around his middle that told him someone had taped his ribs, he rolled his head to the side and saw Buck sprawled in a chair against the wall, his head lolled back and leaning on the wall, mouth partly open so that each time he breathed the sound of it rolled over his tonsils and his teeth letting a breathy rasp out.

Vin squinted as Buck's figure blurred in and out of focus. Without knowing why he was hit with a flash of fear and the need to bolt for safety. Slowly, because everything ached and his head felt like it would fall off his shoulders, he eased himself to the side of the bed and carefully sat upright. Taking shallow breaths to calm his racing heart and hopefully ease the nausea threatening, he pushed to his feet and swayed dizzyingly from side to side.

The soft gasp of pain brought Buck out of his light slumber. For a moment he was unable to process where he was and then his eyes focused and his mind cleared as he took in the swaying and battered form of Vin. In an instant he was on his feet and at his teammate's side to steady him.

"Easy, Vin, I got you." Buck gently gripped the slender man's arm to steady him. He was surprised when the usually amiable sharpshooter shuddered away from him.

"No, let go..." Buck was amazed at the efforts the feeble man was making as he struggled against him. "Thought you...friend...just want...turn me in."

Buck realized from the unfocused gaze that Vin was fading fast, whatever energy and conscious thought he had had was slipping quickly away.

"Take it easy, son, you're not going anywhere, just lay back down." Buck tried to ease the injured man back down and was surprised at the resistance. Vin raised his head and for a moment his eyes focused clearly on Buck's face.

"Why don't you trust me...what did I do to you?"

Buck didn't get a chance to reassure the confused young man as Vin's eyes lost focus and rolled back into his head. Buck was easily able to support the weight as the sharpshooter slumped unconscious in his arms and he gently eased him back to the bed and covered him again with the light blanket.

Standing silently for a moment he stared at the bruised features and once again registered how young Vin appeared to be.

"No one's hurting you, not while ole' Buck is here. You just rest." Buck had barely had time to sit back down in the chair he had been resting in when the door to the room opened quietly. He looked up and saw Nathan slip into the room. Noting Buck's pained expression he looked sharply at Vin and then as he took in Vin's peaceful features he turned his attention back to Buck.

"What happened, everything all right?" Nathan whispered.

"He woke up and when he realized I was here - at least I think he realized I was here - he struggled to get away and practically begged me not to turn him over to the police and then he pleaded with me not to hurt him, wanted to know why I was hurting him." Buck slumped forward and held his head with his hands.

"What in the world made him think you were trying to hurt him?" Nathan was taking Vin's pulse and then checked his bandages and slipped a thermometer in his ear to check his temperature.

"That's why those guys found him sneaking out the back window; he heard me talking to them and figured I was trying to turn him in, geez, Nate, what a mess."

"Yeah, well, we're going to get it cleaned up. I met Josiah at the shelter, the whole team is aware of what happened. JD's working on getting us some secure way of communicating and we'll get this mess cleared up. Seems the chief called Chris this morning blasting him for our actions, threatened to charge us with aiding and abetting a known fugitive, destruction of government property assaulting an officer - multiple counts and whatever else."

"Guess Chris won't be holding you up as his one and only sane agent." Buck quipped trying desperately to rein in his confused emotions.

"Yeah, well, according to Josiah once Chris realized the chief had told him he was 'threatening' to take such action, Chris started putting the pieces together and figured there was more to the story. You can bet when Josiah goes back and tells him what really went down at your apartment the chief will be groveling to get back into Chris' good graces and there won't be any more threats."

"Yeah, I'd like to be there when Chris gets a hold of the chief and explains our side of things.

+ + + + + + +

The door to the motel room pushed open, the form slipped inside pulling the door closed tightly behind him. Reassured that the window drapes were still tightly closed against the daylight he flipped on the light switch and started to gaze around the room. In an instant his eyes scanned the room and noted the ropes discarded on the floor next to the broken water glass he had left by the bed.

Frantically he searched the room tearing the closet door off its track in his violent effort to open it, dumping the mattress on the floor as he flipped the bed up a couple of feet to peer underneath it. He tore the shower curtain off the track as he searched the bathroom. In a minute he had searched the motel room and found it empty; Tanner was gone. The front door remained locked but the bathroom window was open and he knew that's how Tanner had managed to escape.

He was going to have to change his plans. He methodically went back to straightening and cleaning every surface in the room chastising himself for letting his emotions get the better of him so that he had to take all this time to remove any trace of his presence in the room. When he was certain that he had cleaned and wiped every surface he proceeded to open the duffel bag he had carried into the room with him. Removing the disassembled rifle from the bag he donned a pair of vinyl gloves and proceeded to clean every surface of the rifle making sure he paid attention to every crevice and chamber area.

When he had removed any physical evidence of his handling he carefully reassembled the rifle and laid it in the center of the bed. He wouldn't need it any longer. Then he made one final scan of the room before he slipped out again and disappeared into the cityscape.

(Team 7's office:)

Ezra answered his phone at the first ring. He was concerned about Nathan, Buck and Vin being out there on their own, he looked at the ID on the phone but didn't recognize it, bugged or not, he'd have to take a chance. "Standish here"

He listened for a moment as the person on the other end talked quickly. He noted that Chris had returned from Judge Travis' office with the frightening yet encouraging news of the failed assassination attempt. Frightening that it had occurred, but it would easily clear Vin of any wrong-doing as soon as the ballistics returned. As Ezra listened his eyebrows raised in concern, obviously not good news "Thank you my dear, for the information. I will sure talk to you later tonight."

He stood up and walked towards Chris' office, he knocked and then waited at the door until Chris nodded to him and he made his way in, sitting in the chair in front of his boss' desk. "I fear I am not the emissary of good news, Mr. Larabee."

"What is it Ezra?" Chris figured what else could go wrong, his team was injured, spread out with three of them in hiding until it was safe, their phones and offices were being tracked, hell they even had surveillance on them in their cars, at their homes, while at work, what else could be wrong.

"My informant just called to tell me that the arm dealers we got a line on that are moving into this area, are about to make a move in the near future, probably as soon as the middle of next week according to their phone calls and the people they are contacting."

"Mmmm, that's bad; I need to tell the Judge, for without Vin to cover our backs I don't think we'll be up for that. Ballistics will be back later this afternoon and by then we'll have cleared Vin publicly but he's hurt and needs care." said Chris. "I'm sorry Ezra, I know you worked hard on this one, but I don't think we a choice right not but I'll see the Judge and let him know."

+ + + + + + +

Chris walked into Orrin Travis' office for the second time that day. The window was almost fully replaced and the Judge was seated on his couch talking on the phone while the workmen completed the task behind his desk.

Chris stood quietly waiting for the Judge to complete the call. When he did and he met Chris' eye he saw the urgency of the message and the meaningful flicker of Larabee's eyes to the workmen.

"Come on, Chris, we'll leave these men to their work and we'll talk in the outer office. They exited the Judge's office and sat in two chairs for visitors, Travis' assistant conveniently was out of the office so the two were able to talk freely.

"It's the Crawford case Ezra has been tracking down leads on. We have good news in that we have a lead on a possible buy next week, however, that's bad with Vin out of action, hell, he's still in the wind as are Nate and Buck."

"Ah, but that was the lab. They rushed the ballistics test. Vin is in the clear, since he's with Nate and Buck and my next phone call is going to go to the Chief to get his men to attest to the fact that Tanner was busted up pretty bad, there will be no choice but to clear him. So, you and your team can get back to the business at hand and that now appears to be the Crawford case."

At Chris' hesitation Travis continued, "And, like it or not I have a replacement - temporary that is," Orrin placated Chris quickly as he saw the flash of anger in Larabee's green eyes. "Hey, Tanner will need time to rest, but crime continues. We don't usually get this lucky and have two major busts back to back so you'll need a replacement for the Crawford bust and I know just the guy."

"Mmm, and who's the replacement?"

"Remember I told you I already had this good sharpshooter for your team, but that I went with Vin because my friends told me about him?"

"Yeah... but you said Vin was far better than this one"

"Yes, but he can still be your sharpshooter, for he is good. He's more than capable of covering your team, I wouldn't suggest him if he wasn't. He probably won't fit in as well as Tanner does which is why Vin was the better choice."

"What's his name?" Chris didn't like introducing a new personality into the team since they were still learning to gel as a team and there had been more than enough upheaval so far, but Travis was right, this was an opportunity to make a real difference in the illegal passage of weapons in his territory and he couldn't pass it up.

"Frainier, his name's Frainier, I'll call him and instruct him to be here first thing in the morning."

"Yeah, all right. But, if Vin's up to it I want him to review all of this Frainier's notes and schematics and his placement."

"All right. I'll let him know he'll have some scrutiny, he probably won't like it but I'll make sure he knows the order is from me. I'll have him be at your office tomorrow morning, 8:00 a.m. sharp."

Chris left the office intent to bring his team back together while at the same time Orrin picked up his assistant's phone, flipped through her Cardex on her desk and after finding the number, he began to dial to bring in a new addition.

+ + + + + + +

"Josiah, lets go." Josiah looked up sharply at the tone in his boss' voice.

"What's going on, Chris?"

For an answer Chris scrawled a quick note and handed it to Josiah. Silently Josiah read it and then smiled broadly as he passed the note on to Ezra who scanned it quickly and then handed it to JD.

"But why the subterfuge?"

"I think I saw a cockroach earlier," JD piped up. Young he might be, he was still Team 7's resident technical expert, Vin might have been cleared by the ballistics as Chris had just informed them but that didn't mean that the team wasn't still being watched and the news hadn't been spread that Vin was, in fact, one of the good guys.

"I need you two to get a hold of this report and get the information spread fast and far. I want this mess cleaned up. Josiah and I will be back shortly. The Judge has ordered us to go pick up some strays."

Chris and Josiah headed to the shelter to make arrangements to bring Vin to the hospital for the care he definitely needed and to bring Buck and Nathan back into the fold leaving Ezra and JD the task of getting the ballistics report to match the bullet from the attempt on the Judge to the bullets used in the killings earlier in the week.

+ + + + + + +

The first sensation that registered was the softness under his head, back and hands. Next he became aware of being warm and that something soft was over him as well. His nose next registered the smell of antiseptic, ugh, that could only mean a hospital. Not wanting to open his eyes despite his newfound awareness of his location he waited until a few more senses checked in. His ears were next to report telling him what his sense of touch was also telling him, he had an IV in his arm and that pulse oximeter on one of his fingers; the beeping was coming above and to his left.

Still not wanting to open his eyes he let his sense of taste report in and then wished he hadn't. His mouth tasted horrible. He was fairly certain he hadn't eaten anything that possibly tasted that horrible, at least not willingly so he figured it must mean that he'd been out of it for a while.

Having the report from his taste buds alerted him to another sensation, thirst. Now he was going to have to open his eyes if he was going to find his way to some water.

Vin finally cracked his eyes open, surprised by how much energy it took to complete that task. As his eyes tried to focus he found he was staring at a ceiling that most definitely belonged to a hospital room. The light was somewhat dim; still it hurt his eyes and caused the ache in his head to flare into sharp pain. As if on cue the various other aches, pains, and generally abused areas of his body decided to report in. Unable to handle the overload all at once Vin emitted a groan as his body tensed and he squeezed his eyes shut against the sensory overload.

Slumped in a chair next to the bed Chris dozed lightly; the low moan to his left startled him out of his light slumber and he sat upright abruptly. Awareness returned quickly and he turned to the bed and recognized Vin's posture for what it was. Simultaneously he rang for the nurse with one hand while gently gripping Vin's arm with his other hand.

"Easy, Vin. Breathe slowly, take it easy. You're safe."

Vin's breathing slowly steadied just as the nurse arrived. Rapidly and with efficiency she checked her patient's vital signs speaking softly each time she touched him or did anything to him. Chris stayed close and kept a hand on Vin's arm when he was able as the nurse moved around him. When she was finished she inclined her head to Chris slightly and he gave Vin a gentle squeeze on the arm before moving off to hear what she had to say.

"He's doing fine all things considered. Now that he's awake the doctor will be able to assess him more thoroughly and prescribe something a bit stronger for the pain. I've paged him and he should be here shortly. Try to keep him awake if you can." Seeing Chris' nod she exited the room leaving Chris to return to Vin's side.

"Hey, I'd ask how you're doing but I think I already know the answer."

Vin cracked his eyes open again and watched as Chris' face swam in and out of a couple of times before his vision cleared and remained clear.

"Water." The word sounded awful to Vin's ears and it felt even worse on his dry throat.

Chris pressed the straw to Vin's lips and Vin took a careful sip and was pleasantly surprised when the semi-cool liquid slipped down his throat without causing any further distress. Taking a second, longer sip he felt a little bit better just with the addition of some liquid in his mouth, swirling a small bit around before swallowing he felt some of the lingering bad taste disappear from his mouth.

"Thanks." He closed his eyes hoping for some relief against the pounding that was nonstop in his head and the ache that was equally unrelenting in his chest. He'd felt that discomfort before, not broken but badly bruised to be sure. He'd be stiff and sore for easily a week if not more. Oh, well, Vin thought, wasn't the first time. He'd be able shake it off quickly and get back to work. Hell, he'd tracked down bounties and brought them in with broken ribs before; a couple of bruises weren't going to slow him down.

Chris set the water cup back down and slid the little table close so Vin could reach it if he wanted. He stared quietly at the bruised man in the bed a thousand thoughts and questions firing in his head.

"Already got me a headache, Larabee, iffen you keep thinking that loud please do it outside the room; it's hurting my head."

Chris grinned and pulled the chair up and settled into it. "Okay, hotshot, I won't ask how you're doing. I'll ask you what the hell happened."

"You mean you don't know?" Vin's confused voice halted any laughter Chris may have been inclined to offer. He realized Vin was serious.

"Ah, Vin, it's real early Wednesday morning. I dropped you off from our successful first take down in the wee hours of Monday morning and that's the last you were seen or heard from until Nathan and Buck got us word that you were injured but safe with them and in hiding." Chris watched the effect his words had on Vin as Vin's blue eyes widened and then he slammed them shut and brought a hand to his head as if to hold his skull together.

"Buck's, mad at me." The words were so softly whispered Chris almost didn't catch them.

"No, Vin, Buck isn't mad; he's..." Whatever Chris was going to say was interrupted at the arrival of the doctor who approached the bed and quickly and pointedly indicated that Chris was to leave the room while he examined the patient.

Chris didn't want to leave but recognized that Vin would likely be a bit more willing to deal with the doctor without him there. Leaving the room he saw Buck leaning against the wall just outside the door.

"Thought I told you to go home and get some real sleep." Chris greeted his friend.

"Couldn't sleep. Geez, Chris, I really screwed this up didn't I?"

"Yeah, you did, Buck. It's a big mess right now." Chris was tired and didn't try to keep the sharp tone from his voice and he didn't look at Buck as he spoke. When the silence between the two men remained heavy Chris ventured a sidelong glass and saw the pained expression on Buck's face and he softened.

Buck was many things, perhaps a bit quick to judge in this case but Chris knew that Buck had a heart of gold and that Chris had a lot to be thankful for for having a friend like Buck Wilmington. He knew Buck had stood staunchly beside him through a lot of garbage over the years, garbage he, Chris Larabee, had been throwing around and never once had he wavered. Buck needed Chris to stand staunchly beside him now.

"Listen, Buck, I know it's a mess right now but it's fixable. We all make mistakes but Vin came to your apartment when he was in need that tells me that he knew, despite all the junk you've been heaping his way since the short time he's been on the team he knew you'd be there for him, and you were."

Buck continued to stare blankly across the hall for a moment or two longer and then he turned to Chris and gave a small grin. "Guess there's no time like the present to start patching things up. Go home stud, I'll stay here with junior and keep on eye on him."

"Call me if you need anything. I've got about four hours until I've got to meet up with this Frainier guy that Travis wants us to use until Vin gets better. How 'bout I crash at your place, faster than driving out to the ranch and I've got the animals covered anyway."

"No problem, you got a key, JD will probably not even hear you go in or he'll already be up working on more blackberries." Buck patted his belt and Chris noticed the new little device attached to his belt.

"So you're all wired up already?"

"Yeah, I'll have to figure out how to use the dang thing."

A quick but firm handshake marked the parting of the two friends. Buck watched Chris' retreating form until he passed through the doors of the unit and disappeared and then he turned and peeked into Vin's room. The doctor was heading towards him and Buck stopped him as he exited the room.

"How's he doing, Doc?"

"Not bad for someone who's been knocked in the head, bruised in the ribs, slashed, beaten twice and left without any fluids, food or care in his condition. I'm going to give him something to blunt the pain although he's already mostly asleep due to exhaustion. I'm going to recommend running another CatScan in 12 hours and after that we'll decide if he goes after that or we keep him for another day. Excuse me." The doctor rapidly gave Buck the update and then headed to the nurse's station to give them the order for pain medication.

Buck stepped into the room and noted that Vin's eyes were closed and his breathing was beginning to fall into the steady rhythm of sleep. Not wanting to disturb the injured man right now and uncertain as to how to begin to mend the divide he had created, Buck sat quietly in the chair at the end of the bed so he had an unobstructed view of the door. He pulled his new Blackberry from his belt and started working through the menu of tasks trying to figure it out, as he fumbled his way he began to wonder why it was he had told JD he didn't need any instructions.


Silvia and Laurel