The Camping Trip

by AJB


Vin knew his attention was wandering again. He also realized it was getting harder to focus on what needed to be done. Without visual cues it was easy to get lost in the shadows.

A particularly rough tumble painfully sharpened his awareness and he hissed in pain when his head knocked against Martin's shoulder. Red and white stars flared behind his eyelids for a long moment, overriding everything else. His legs wobbled.

"Hey, you okay? Vin? Come on, bro, you gotta help me out here."

The garbled noise shook out to understandable words a beat behind the utterance, each syllable a sharp stab into his tender brain.

"Yeah, yeah," he whispered, trying to recall for the moment where his feet were and how to use them. "'m with ya." He felt his hand get readjusted on Martin's hip and he grabbed a handful of denim. Was the ground rolling underfoot?

Martin pushed and pulled Vin along a weaving path, which didn't help Vin one bit to regain his feet.

"We're in a boulder field," Martin panted. "If we keep moving I think we're okay - I doubt he can get a bead on us with all this. We're out of the trees now."

That information meant something, Vin woozily realized. It was so hard to think through the nauseating headache, though. Mental images flashed in his head with Martin's description but interpreting them was near impossible. There was something important there, though . . .

"Vin - are we goin' the right way?" Martin huffed. "Where's the - shit!"

One of Vin's feet slipped forward as Martin's weight suddenly shifted back and down. Vin was pulled to the ground, the impact raising the chorus of painful pounding in his head. He didn't think he could hurt any more - obviously he was wrong. Consciousness wavered, his stomach rolled. Moving wasn't an option.

"Don't let go, Vin. Hang on, you hear me? Vin? Don't let go of me!"

Martin's frantic breath warmed Vin's ear, the moist heat being the first sensation he could name. The edge of panic in Martin's tone was Vin's second realization and he fought to concentrate as the waves of pain ebbed slightly. He tightened his fingers in response.

"Good, that's good. Hang on. You with me? What ever you do, don't move."

"Not likely," Vin mumbled. The buzzing in his brain that was Martin talking was slowly coming clear as pain and the awful vertigo eased. A memory flashed in his mind - the boulder field. "The Outlook . . ." he started.

"We're here," Martin whispered. "I about walked us over the edge." The short laugh was nervous. "Don't try to sit up because I think you'll go over."

Vin realized then that there was nothing under his feet. He was lying mostly on one side with his head resting on Martin and one arm trapped under his brother's body. Vin could feel his brother's arm locked around his shoulder. He slowly and carefully used his free hand to explore the pressure on his chest and found that Martin's other hand was fisted in the cloth of his shirt, holding tight. Martin was the only reason Vin hadn't slipped over the edge of the Outlook.

"I . . . the boulders . . . mark the edge . . ."

"Yeah, I know that now."

They lay there a bit longer to catch their breath. Vin could feel the nervous tremor of Martin's hands but his grip never lessened.

"I haven't heard any sign of pursuit," Martin whispered eventually. Vin felt him raise his head. "I think we're well protected for the moment. Let me pull you up some."

All the shrapnel injuries cried out as one as Martin pulled. Vin bit his lip to keep from screaming and clawed the ground with his free hand to help. He finally found a surface he could push against with one of his own feet and as soon safe. With a groan, he detached himself from Martin and rolled onto his stomach. Each wound throbbed with its own irritation. Vin swallowed the rising bile in his throat.

"Maybe we should just stay here. I don't think he'll be able to find us in these rocks." Martin paused. "It's really dark out there. I can see the outline of the trees below us against the sky. I should be able to see flashlights from here, right? If the others are down there?"

"Yeah," Vin said. "They should be moving from right to left." He was more than happy to whisper. Anything louder would only hurt his head. Levering himself more on his side, the two of them rested in comfortable silence for a few minutes until their breathing leveled out. "Lie on your stomach near the edge," Vin finally mumbled. "Feel the rock face with your hands. Remember the fissures? The black lines in the cliff face?"


"Most of 'em are fist sized. You done some rock climbing; slip an open hand in the fissure and then make a fist. You can hang against the cliff face that way."

"You've done that here, then? Free climbed?"

"Yep. Works great here." A short grunt and subsequent rustling marked Martin's exploration of the cliff edge. "About six feet down the cliff face cuts in. There's no way he can shoot us from above. He'll have to circle around to the bottom."

Vin was starting to feel almost human again. As long as he didn't move, the pains were tolerable. He listened to Martin examine the rock and then return to his side.

"Many people carry crossbows up here?"

Vin laughed shortly, instantly stopping when it roused his headache. "No, not really. This guy's kinda special, I guess."

Martin snorted. "'Special'. Yeah, I'll say. He's obviously good at what he does. Did you see the newspapers on the walls?"

"Saw 'em. Didn't read 'em. Was a little distracted at the time."

Martin chuckled shortly. "Right. Sorry. I think our man's possibly responsible for quite a few bombings. I think he may be the Fed Bomber. If it's not him, then this guy's a huge fan."

A chill zinged down Vin's spine as the horror of that possibility came to him. "He's suspected as being the one that hit the Federal courthouse in Denver last year. Killed three people."

"Yeah. Along with eight other bombings around the country. All Federal buildings."

There was another long, thoughtful pause.

"Shit," Vin finally commented.

"I concur," Martin grumbled. There were a few long seconds, and then he said in a questioning tone, "What the hell?"

Vin frowned at the unexpected comment. Any further discussion, though, was nipped in the bud when Martin suddenly yelped and Vin felt a body slam against him. In the ensuing morass of pain, shooting stars and sudden movement Vin felt his body being pushed along the ground. Martin's abject fear rose like a demon in his mind and was nearly palatable.

"The fucker's got a laser site and the red dot was between your eyes!" Martin whispered frantically as he pushed Vin. "We gotta go over!"

+ + + + + + +

"Mr. Larabee, I do not know about the rest of my team mates but I must insist on a break."

"What he said," JD puffed.

"Chris," Buck laid a hand on his friend's forearm. "We gotta stop a minute."

Chris' step faltered as he regarded Buck's hand. Then his eyes flicked up to lock with Buck's. "In a minute," he growled. "Over there."

The beam of Chris' flashlight danced on the ground in front of him. With a tilt of his head, he indicated a point beyond the tree line. The others followed. As the trail entered a clear patch at the top of a rolling hill, Chris stopped, switched off his light and fastened his eyes on the silver glow of the Outlook. The other four gathered around, huffing, and raised their eyes to the vision spread before them.

"Vin took me rock climbing there," JD said as he scanned the cliff face. "It's a fun climb."

Buck shook his head. "An' I bet you didn't use any ropes, right?"

"Er, right," JD confessed. "Wore helmets, though."

"Fat lotta good that'll do ya when you fall from that height," Nathan grumbled.

"Vin does it all the time."

"What? Fall?" Josiah ribbed.

"No, not fall!" JD protested. "He climbs all the time without ropes."

"Like that's a reason to do it, too," Buck pointed out, rolling his eyes.

They formed a broken line to study the Outlook. The moon was beginning to break over the dark line that marked the trees' canopy behind them and it's weak, silver light reflected off the highest point of the cliff. They drank some water and tried to see where their current path would take them.

"Does the path get better from here?" Nathan asked. "Because it hasn't been too easy to follow so far. It's a good thin you been here before."

"Yeah, it is, because the trail gets worse from here," Chris informed them. The longer he stood here the more his apprehension grew. He tucked away the hydro pack tubing and turned to the Outlook once again. For some reason, he felt drawn to it. The rustling of the others around him drifted away from his attention as he focused on the rocky cliff, carefully scanning each part as it became exposed by the moon's light. Time was forgotten, put aside, as Chris examined the formation. As a sudden wash of fear crashed over him, he saw movement. He blinked, thinking he imagined it, and then stared hard at a spot at the top edge. "No!" he whispered as his heart hammered wildly.

"What? Are we startin' off again?" Buck asked.

Chris frantically patted down his pockets. "Binoculars!" he barked.

Josiah immediately handed over a small pair, recovered from one of the deep pockets of his coat. Chris brought them up to his eyes. It took a moment to orient the landmarks in the darkness, but when he raised the glasses higher, details of the moon-lit part of the granite were easy to discern.

As were the inky outlines of two bodies dropping from the edge.

"Holy crap! Is that Vin and Martin?" JD had followed Chris' example with his own binoculars.

"What do they think they're doin'?" Buck said incredulously. Now that he knew what to look for, he could easily make out the two forms.

"Looks like they're doing in on purpose," JD said. "What are they looking at?"

After his initial surprise, Chris found he couldn't speak because his jaw was clenched in fear. At JD's statement he refocused his attention the higher up of the two forms and saw that he was, in fact, looking up at the boulders above. Chris scanned the cliff's edge which was dotted with huge boulders, following the climber's line of sight.

"Is there some kind of animal chasin' 'em?" Nathan wondered.

"I don't see . . ." JD's statement balked when he saw motion against the boulders. "There is something up there but I can't tell . . ."

"It's a man!" Chris snarled. He shoved the glasses in a pocket and pulled out his gun.

"If you please, Mr. Larabee, I do not think we have enough probable cause to warrant a shooting," Ezra said quickly.

"Would you do that if you didn't have to?" Chris replied, raising the weapon and taking aim.

"Well, this is Vin Tanner we're talkin' about but I don't think even Vin's that reckless," Buck added, pulling his own weapon. "Little chance of hittin' anything at this distance, Chris," he said, still taking aim.

"He only needs to be scared off. Give the boys a chance," Chris growled. "Everyone, turn on your flash lights again. Let that asshole know we're here."

Twin shots shattered the quiet as Chris and Buck fired. Then they immediately holstered their guns and took off down the trail as fast as they could in the dark.


"They'll be here any time now, Vin, you hear? You need to hang on a just a little bit longer."

Martin's voice drifted in and out of his mind, reminding him of a drunken bee flitting from flower to flower. Vin rolled that visual around in his head as Martin's voice faded off once again until it was just a buzz. Buzz . . . buzzing . . . buzzing blotto bee . . .

". . . a buzzed bee!" He marveled, chuckling. Vin's head lolled to one side.

"What?" Martin queried. "What did you say? Vin?"

Vin's chuckled turned into a groan as his head bumped the cliff, the ensuing strike of pain making his body twitch.

"Hold on, Vin, don't let go. Don't let go! Just a little longer, I promise."

"Yeah, yeah." Even whispering made his head burn. He felt a drop of - something - trickle down his forehead and between his eyes. It felt like a bug walking on his face. Maybe bees. Tiny bees marching down his nose. That thought made him chuckle again. "Tap dancin' on m'face," he muttered. Absently, he tried to pull one hand free to swipe them away. His hand, though, was stuck in something.

"Don't do that, Vin. Hold still."

"'M stuck." He tugged his arm again.

"That's a good thing, Vin. Stay stuck. You trust me?"

That word - the "T" word - scuttled every other thought from his aching head. Trust? He felt his forehead furrow and his eyes blink as he pondered the very idea of trust. As mental images of the people he connected with that word flipped through his mind he felt all other things start to drift away.

The throbbing in his head was being replaced by the throbbing of his shoulders. He groaned and allowed the blackness to intrude.

+ + + + + + +


They'd been hanging for a long time and his brother's growing confusion was beginning to scare Martin. That, and the realization that he couldn't "hear" Vin in his head anymore. Something was very, very wrong.

When Martin had heard the gunshots and saw the flashlights below, he'd been greatly relieved. There was no way their pursuer would stick around now. Although he wanted nothing more than to bring the guy down, Vin's safety was his first concern at the moment. And with the signs he was seeing, Martin's fear was that the others wouldn't get here in time.

Vin's idea had saved them. Once they felt out some of the numerous cracks in the face of the Outlook, shimmying down to safety had been easy. All they had to do was slip a flat hand in a crack and then make a fist and they could safely hang, anchored to the rock. Martin jammed the toe of his good foot in another crevice and was able to maneuver without using his injured foot at all.

Vin seemed to be doing just fine, too, at first but now things were becoming scary. Martin figured his could climb up all right when the others arrived but it looked now like Vin would need help. The pitiful moonlight made it hard to find any cracks that would bring him closer to his sibling. Martin was fooled by the many shadows on the rock as he carefully moved in Vin's direction, talking all the while. He was almost within arm's reach when Vin first tugged one arm as if trying to free his hand.

Martin's heart crawled up his throat. "Don't do that, Vin. Hold still." He edged closer, driven by growing fear.

"'M stuck."

If Martin hadn't moved closer, he wouldn't have heard the soft words. "That's a good thing, Vin. Stay stuck." Martin tried to think of a distraction. "You trust me?"

There was no reply except the sound of Vin's breathing, which seemed to sound rather ragged and getting worse. Martin took a second to glance at his brother's face, the lines of pain he saw rivaling the shadows of the Outlook and pushed him make some risky moves to reach his side.

Just in time to see him sag and go boneless.

"Shit!" Without a flash of second though Martin threw an arm around Vin and hooked his armpit just as his sibling passed out. In a quick maneuver, he wedged his good leg between Vin's suddenly limp ones and kept him in place. Martin's injured foot, now jammed against a granite protrusion to hold them both, caused white-hot bolts of pain to shoot up his leg and was the sole thing keeping the pair from a very long fall.

"Vin? Martin!"

Josiah's voice was that of an angel from above.

"Here!" Martin gasped, pressing Vin's still body into the granite. "I need help here! Vin's unconscious!"

"I hear ya. Hang on one sec. JD!"

Martin heard some scrambling and low voices. Between keeping his brother from slipping away and the pain in his ankle his plate was full; the only thing keeping him from being hopeless was the arrival of the rest of the seven. Now he knew the both of them would be safe.

Safe - he had to keep the team safe.

"Josiah!" he yelled.

"Yes, Martin?"

"There's a guy with a crossbow . . ."

"A crossbow? Are you joshin' me?"

"Laser sights, night vision goggles . . . be careful." Martin gasped, his limbs beginning to feel stressed. "Hurry up, will ya?"

A fall of pebbles and dirt washed down from above off to Martin's right causing him to cough with the dust that followed. He buried his nose and eyes into the bend of his elbow and willed himself to just hang on. The sound of slipping rock stopped.

"Hey, Martin."

Martin lifted his head enough to see Nathan next to him and relief washed over him. "He hit his head. He can't see too well and he's got shrapnel imbedded everywhere." The last word was accented with a cough.

Nathan had moved in close. Martin could feel the man's body heat as he tried to examine Vin.

"Can you scoot down enough for me to get this on him? Under his arms?"

Nodding in reply Martin slipped down, allowing Nathan to partially take his place. The medic worked quickly and silently and it wasn't long before he called up to raise Vin. As Vin was lifted away Martin's relief let his aches finally surface. His arm trembled, weak with exertion and the pain from his ankle made him feel light headed.

"Can you climb up?" Nathan asked softly. "I'll have 'em drop the rig to help you along."

"Yeah," Martin breathed. He pressed his head to the cool granite and allowed Nathan to wrap a strap around his chest.

"Up ya go." Nathan urged. He stayed close as Martin edged his way upward.

Six feet never seemed so far. The smell of freshly disturbed earth told him he was at the top about the same time he felt hand snaring his clothes and hauling him over the final crest. One again on horizontal earth Martin lay flat and still, gasping for breath. Voices floated around him and he silently counted.

Josiah's rumbling bass, one; JD's quick questions, two; Nathan's low orders, three; Ezra's southern accented complaints, four . . . that wasn't enough. Martin forced his eyes open and struggled to sit up.

"Didja find 'im?" He said, his voice sounding odd even to himself. "Where are Buck 'n Chris? He had arrows . . ."

"Well, actually he had bolts. Crossbow arrows are called bolts." JD dropped on the ground next to him.

"Yeah. Bolts. Great." He rubbed his neck and looked around. "What the hell is all this?" Martin picked up the strap that had been used to haul him up.

"Well, we didn't have rope so we cut off the straps on our backpacks. Good thing you were only a few feet down." JD pointed his flashlight beam at the pile of strapless packs. "And Chris and Buck are trying to follow Mr. Crossbow." The narrow beam turned toward Martin. "There was only one guy, right?"

"Yeah. I think he's the loner type." Martin went on to briefly describe the small cabin and his suspicions on who it belonged to. "We have to go back there," he finished.

"Not until we get Vin out of here," Nathan stated flatly. "He's got a lot of shrapnel in him. A lot are embedded in bone and there's a possibility this nail in his back has nicked a lung. I'm not sure I should remove it."

"His head," Martin said. "He was saying some crazy stuff before he passed out."

"A very deep gash and a substantial bump. There's definitely a concussion, but I don't know what grade. He was alert for awhile?"

"He was awake. Not too sure how alert. He's been groggy and complaining about his vision. He can't see." Martin's voice cracked with the last statement. Josiah wrapped a light blanket around him. "So," he said after clearing his throat. "How are we getting him out of here?"

+ + + + + + +

When they'd reached the top of the Outlook, Chris and Buck dropped their packs and immediately scouted a perimeter. Convinced it was clear, they returned to find Nathan, Josiah and JD rigging a rescue rope as Ezra guarded at the perimeter's edge. Confident things were in hand, the pair turned outward again to try and find the shooter.

"This guy's good, Chris. He's not leaving much of a trail." Buck was on one knee, keeping his flashlight beam low so the foot prints he found would cast a shadow. "Looks like he's movin' fast."

Chris shifted the weapon in his hand and tightened his grip. He could see the faint line where the path wound through the trees, rising slowly where it would eventually run along a ridgeline. He remembered this part of the path from his hiking here with Vin. "He's heading this way," Chris mused. "They must have crossed paths with this nut job while they were camping."

"Martin mentioned shrapnel. Where the hell did that come from?"

"An ambush?" Chris suggested. "Booby traps?"

"What's he protecting?" Buck asked. "Pot fields, maybe?"

"Not sure how'd he get it out. Possible, I guess."

The pair carefully advanced, trying their best to follow a sparse trail in the dark. Suddenly, Chris stopped and pulled Buck to a standstill.

"Smell that?" he whispered.

Buck sniffed the air. "Smoke."

Ignoring the impossible trail, they carefully moved to the edge of the ridge. From there, they could see a red glow behind a stand of dark tree trunks. Using the fire's light, they were able to quickly weave between the trees until they could see the source. Below them, at the bottom of the slope, a cabin was aflame.

And if the wind kicked up at all, the fire would spread and become an inferno.


Nathan glanced nervously over his shoulder. Even in the poor light, Martin could see that he was conflicted about something as he muttered and moved between his patients. Vin hadn't stirred since being pulled up from the Outlook.

"My foot is really hurting," Martin said softly with a hiss. "You sure about leaving the boot on?"

The medic moved to his side. "Well, no, I'm not. What I'm concerned about it that fire. If we have to move fast I'd rather your ankle was supported. Keep it elevated for now until we know what's what."

A few minutes later Chris re-appeared and squatted next to Martin. He looked worriedly over to Vin before speaking. "I don't think we'll be forced to move," he said lowly. "There's no wind, and the recent snow has made everything wet enough to be okay."

"Is there one of those fire watch stations around here?"

Chris chuckled. "No. It's not wilderness enough anymore to man year-round. Rangers cruise the area and I'm hoping they see the smoke because being in this valley, I don't think they can see the flame. Most of the flame is gone, though. It's smoldering now." He shifted again and groaned. "I think we'll be alright until dawn."

"Vin seems to be holding his own," Martin said, looking past Chris to the unmoving dark form. "I can't feel him."

Chris threw him a look. "Me neither," he quietly replied. He turned and gently ran his hand over Vin's head. "It's like losing a part of yourself."

Martin could only nod.

Buck's outline moved toward them and settled next to Chris. "I think any fire danger is past," he said. "There's no phone reception anywhere. One of us should hike out and get help on the way."

"You volunteering?" Chris asked. "'Cause I'm not moving." His hand rested protectively on Vin's shoulder while his eyes met Buck's.

"Sure. Me 'n JD can start any time. We've been tryin' to conserve the flashlight batteries, so I think we'll make it."

"Where's Ezra and Josiah?"

"Josiah's watchin' the cabin and Ez is prowlin' around the perimeter."

"Okay, then, the sooner you go, the better for us. I don't think any kind of airlift can be done before dawn."

"I agree. Can y'all hold out 'til then?"

Chris studied Vin, pressing the back of his fingers against the lax cheek. "We'll have to because I sure as hell don't want to move him. Take off, Buck."

The mustached agent nodded once and rose, hesitating momentarily before moving off.

"You okay with that?" Chris asked of Martin after Buck left.

"It's the best we can do."

"So tell me about this Federal Bomber," Chris said quietly, his eyes still on Vin. "I only know what I've heard in the news and from any training bulletins."

Martin shrugged. "You know about as much as I do. From what I saw in that shack, I think there may be a few targets he wasn't credited with. We'll have to check county records to see who owns that land. That in itself would be more than anything else they have."

He paused as he adjusted his injured leg, grunting in pain with the motion. Chris dragged over another backpack and settled it under Martin's leg.

"Better?" Chris asked.

Martin chuckled painfully. "It's as good as it's gonna get, I think."

The night passed slowly. Martin dozed fitfully while the other's shared shifts. There was talk about moving closer to the smoldering shack for warmth, but Martin didn't want any part of that and the others respected his wishes.

As dawn grayed the sky the guttural pounding of a helicopter came from the east. Chris rose groggily, rubbing his eyes and allowing the sleeping bag to slip from his shoulders. "I'll get the others."

In order to keep warm, one team member stayed with the brothers while the two took advantage of the heat of the burned cabin. Vin and Martin shared an open sleeping bag while their guard at the moment used the second bag.

The night seemed longer than normal but now that a rescue was in motion, time sped up. Josiah and Ezra appeared, shadowy bags under their eyes. Chris and Ezra hauled Martin to his feet as Josiah simply lifted the still unconscious Vin in his arms.

"Get to the edge of the cliff," Chris instructed. "They'll probably do a one-skid hover. There's no place to land."

The got as close to the edge as they dared, what was left of the team watched as the helicopter approached. The pilot carefully and skillfully rested one skid on the edge of the cliff, allowing the medics within to exit and pack up Vin's still form. Once he was loaded, Martin was strapped to a Stokes basket and also loaded up.

Leaving the others behind, Martin watched the silver face of the Outlook fall away as he and his brother were air lifted to Denver.

+ + + + + + +

The remaining three watched the helicopter fly away. Once it was out of sight, Chris turned to Josiah and Ezra.

"We need to check what's left of that cabin and seal off the area. There's got to be something in there that will tell us who the bomber is."

"I dare say it is folly to think along those lines," Ezra started, obviously in poor humor. "There is nothing remaining but soot and ash. It would be better to leave it for the evidentiary experts. We may inadvertently destroy something of value."

Chris could tell by Josiah's long look and shrug of shoulder that the profiler agreed with Ezra, which made Chris' gut burn. Frustrated, he ran his hands through his hair and let out an explosive breath. "I feel like I'm wasting time," he growled.

Josiah gripped his shoulder and gave him an affectionate shake. "I'd be grateful to catch some sleep," he said. "So you can work off some of that energy standin' guard."

"Hear, hear," Ezra agreed.

The two of them turned in the direction of the burnt cabin and shuffled away. Larabee's glare wasn't very effective on the retreating agents' backs.

+ + + + + + +

Martin was jerked awake as the helicopter door was pushed open. He was amazed he was able to sleep at all, considering the noise of the aircraft. Blinking at the sudden brightness, he tried to find Vin but the number of bodies barking orders and quickly moving around him blocked any chance of that. Instead, he relaxed into the pillows and used his ears.

By the time he was in an exam room he knew that Vin was on his way to radiology. The gurney had barely stopped when JD stuck his head in the room.

"Hey, Martin. How're ya doin'?"

Martin grinned. "I'm good. Could use a shower, though." He scratched his head and felt grit embed under his nails.

"I know what you mean." The young agent stepped in and settled next to the gurney. "We had time to hit the shower and get a short nap before coming here. Is it broken?" JD indicated Martin's ankle.

"Don't know yet. Vin's getting x-rayed first. Is Buck with him?"

"Yeah. We figured its better safe than sorry. Don't know if that nutjob'll come after you two or not."

Martin snorted. "I have a feeling that guy's in the wind. He hasn't made it this long without getting caught by being stupid. And walking into a busy hospital like this would be stupid." He flinched as he moved. "I do have to call in, though. I need to extend my leave time and give my statement to the investigators."

He toyed with the idea of letting his parents know what was going on. Although Martin was having a hard time thinking of Victor Fitzgerald as being his father, he considered Katherine his mother and she deserved an update directly from her son. Martin didn't trust Victor to tell her the whole story, if he told her anything at all.

Vin was a sore subject between Martin and Victor ever since Martin had found his twin brother. The discovery had greatly increased the emotional chasm between them and Katherine was unintentionally suspended in the middle. After the twin's reunion, she had spent a short time under a doctor's care to deal with the stress, but firmly stood her ground. Against Victor's wishes, she'd made it clear that she was willing to have two sons if Vin would have her.

Victor, however, had made it very clear that Vin was not what he wanted in a son even though they were biologically his. He had been painfully tolerant of Vin just to appease the wife he adored. Martin could only see this latest event as more fuel to the fire; Victor did not want his wife worrying about anything let alone a trailer-trash, shaggy-haired Texan with dyslexia.

"You probably won't be admitted," JD said as he dropped onto the wheeled stool in the examining room. Unable to sit still, he slowly twirled around on the spinning seat as he spoke. "So you'll be able to clean up and call from the house. Or are you going back to Vin's apartment? It's closer."

"The apartment, I guess."

That was as far as their conversation went before the doctor arrived and booted JD from his stool.

+ + + + + + +

Hours later a weary and store Martin, fresh from Vin's sporadically hot shower, dropped onto his brother's well worn couch and pulled the telephone closer. Checking the time and being surprised that it was only early in the afternoon, he called his boss, Jack Malone.

"Malone." Jack's voice bordered on a growl.

"Hey, Jack, it's Martin."

"How's the wild west? Have a nice family reunion?"

"It's been great but there's been a little setback." Martin went on to explain the situation. "The good news is that my ankle is only sprained. The bad news is that Vin hasn't come around yet. I'll need more time." He could imagine Jack rubbing his eyes and shaking his head. He'd predicted from the start that the united twins could only be doubled trouble.

"Take what time you need. What about the bomber investigation? Have you given your statement to the investigator yet?"

"Not yet. I drew a diagram of the house interior for the forensic team and they're at the cabin now. The media hasn't gotten wind of it yet."

Jack laughed. "Oh, that's not gonna last long. I hope you plan on informing daddy Deputy Director before he sees it on the five o'clock news."

"Damn," Martin sighed. "I hadn't thought of that. You're right."

"Now there's a call I don't envy you making. Take care, Martin, and keep your head down. Keep me updated."

"Will do. I'll be at the hospital so my phone will be off."

"Just check voice mail regularly. I'll let you know if I hear anything on this end."

"Okay. Bye, Jack." Martin hung up and sagged on the couch. He had an hour until JD was going to pick him up to check on Vin. He could call both Victor and Samantha in that time and considered for about a half-second which to call first. With a smile, he dialed.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat hunched over in the comfort-challenged plastic hospital chair, forearms resting on his thighs and a lukewarm cardboard cup of coffee between his hands. After the crime scene had been taken over by the FBI investigators, he'd been able to quickly shower and change at Buck and JD's place before claiming his spot next to Vin here at the hospital. His friend had been moved from the ICU to a monitored room

The shrapnel had been picked from his friend's body and the head wound stitched and thickly bandaged without Vin waking up. The doctors found a worrisome subdural hematoma causing the unconsciousness and were keeping a close eye on it. Their only prognosis was "wait and see".

It was the waiting part that had Chris irritated. He was admittedly not good at it.

Vin had been lucky, actually, that the shrapnel didn't do as much damage as it could have. There was a chip in his scapula and a bruised lung from the nail, but the other bits had been picked out with little effort. If Vin had not turned away from the blast, his abdomen would have been shredded.

Chris sighed. The doctors were unable to pinpoint the effects of the head injury until Vin woke. All that ran through his head now was Martin's comment that Vin couldn't see very well and the doctors couldn't say if it was permanent or not. It all came down to this waiting game that Chris was too familiar with. His team played that game much too often.

The motion of Vin's head rolling a little to one side caught Chris' attention and he looked up. The muscles of his friend's face twitched, a slight frown shadowing his forehead and mouth for a moment.


Chris stood, quickly setting the coffee cut aside and leaned over the bedrail. Vin's heart monitor showed an irregular beat and his fingers flexed jerkily.

"Hey, pardner, you wakin' up?" he asked, lying the flat of his hand on Vin's chest. Chris could feel a tremor under his hand. "Vin?"

A few long, uncomfortable seconds passed tinged with the uneven sound of Vin's breathing. Chris leaned in a little closer, concerned, and was relieved to hear the door swish open. He straightened and turned, a sharp comment on his tongue, when all the monitors suddenly shrieked and the body of his friend launched into a violent seizure.


Chris was visibly shaken when Buck sauntered into the critical care waiting area. He stopped just within the threshold and watched his friend and boss pace a path between two rows of chairs and knew something bad had happened.

"What's up?" he finally asked. Chris' rhythm stuttered for a pace when he glanced Buck's way.

"It's bad, Buck. What the hell else do you want to know?" Chris snarled, resuming his pace.

Buck refused to be cowed knowing Chris was simply scared. "How bad?"

Finally pausing his frantic movement Chris stopped in front of Buck, his posture tight, tense and ready to explode. Buck stood firm and expectantly held the icy green stare.

The stand-off didn't last long. Chris finally let out a sharp breath and roughly carded his hair with a trembling hand. "Where's Martin?"

"He's on his way. JD's bringing him up. Now what's goin' on, Chris?"

Chris shifted his gaze aside, unable to look at Buck as he spoke. "Vin . . . he . . . he's having seizures. The doc walked in right as they started and said it was probably due to pressure on his brain the bleeding. God, Buck, they drilled a hole in his skull!" The statement pushed him back into motion.

Buck simply stood, feeling sick. "Oh," was all he could say. He was still wrapping his head around the implications when he heard the elevator ding. Glancing over, he saw JD hold the doors open while Martin clumsily exited the car on crutches. They both looked much cleaner and more rested than the last time he'd seen them. They looked grim - one glance at Chris was all it took to set the tone.

Martin's eyes were clearly worried. He didn't have to say anything out loud to ask the question.

"Not good," Buck said. "They had to open his skull to let some blood drain and release pressure."

Without ever saying anything, Martin turned and clumped off to join his brother. When he arrived at the nurse's station they didn't have to ask who he was there to see. Nurse Annie, as her tag said, simply pointed to a room and said "Ten minutes only."

Martin carefully maneuvered into the room, the crutches problematic. Finally at Vin's side, he looked down on the pale, slack face and tried to control his voice as he spoke. "Hey, brother," he said softly. "I'm here now and don't plan on leaving any time soon. Don't stay away too long; it's kinda boring without you around."

Leaning on one crutch he freed one hand and gripped Vin's lax fingers and spoke quietly until the nurse informed him that his time was up. Reluctantly, he stepped back and left the room, accepting the fact that this was going to be his routine until . . . well, until it didn't have to be anymore.

The days that followed were a strange mix of waiting, consoling and following up. As much as Martin was driven to find out the identity of Crossbow Man his drive was tempered by the need to be by Vin's side. He and Chris spent the lion's share of time in the sterile room, listening to the monitors and wishing the windows were bigger and let in more natural light. Vin hadn't shown any sign of consciousness in four days.

And now that he was three days beyond his original date to be back in New York, Martin knew it was time to check in with his mother.

Chris came in during his lunch time to spell Martin. It had become part of the routine since the rest of the team had returned to work. There was still some concern that Crossbow Man might still come after the brothers but that likelihood dwindled with time. Still, there was always someone with each brother at all times, whether it was hospital security, another agent or one of the team.

Martin told Chris that he'd be in the hospital garden, visible from Vin's window and hobbled from the room with his newly acquired cane. A heavily muscled security guard followed at a discreet distance and managed to blend into the garden greenery as Martin pulled out his cell.

It took a few long moments to mentally prepare himself before dialing Katherine's number.

"Fitzgerald residence." Martin recognized the voice of Alice, the maid.

"Hi, Alice, it's Martin. Is mom there?"

"Martin, it's good to hear you. Yes, she's here. Hold on."

Dead air hung in his ear as he was put on hold, and, sooner than he expected, he heard Katherine's voice.

"Marty, honey, how was your trip?"

He smiled at her voice, knowing he would never be able to tell her true state of mind by the way she sounded. Katherine Fitzgerald had nothing on Ezra when it came to poker faces.

"It was good up to a point, mom. I'm still in Denver."

A beat of silence was all she gave away to show instant concern. "Still in Denver? Is everything all right, dear?"

Martin took a fortifying breath and explained - mostly - what had happened. He didn't mention anything about Crossbow Man and implied that Vin's condition was from a hiking accident. Not exactly lying, he knew that omitting the truth was not quite right, either. But for now, she didn't need any extra worry. Martin wasn't sure she bought it all, anyway. If there was one thing Katherine was very good at, it was reading between the lines of her children and biding her time. She usually got the entire truth in the end.

"Oh, Marty, I am so sorry. What are your plans?"

"It's day-by-day at the moment. I'm on sick leave for a while longer. We're hoping to see improvement soon."

They chatted until Martin's internal clock told him it was time to go. He started to wrap up the conversation when Katherine surprised him.

"Martin, I want to help. I want to be there. I know this situation has been difficult . . ."

"Ha," Martin thought. "You mean Victor has been difficult."

". . . but Vincent is part of you and therefore part of me. I can't help it."

He believed her. Looking back, he realized the toll it had taken on her because Victor refused to acknowledge Martin's twin. Although he often questioned the methods of his blood father, he never questioned the love his adopted mother had for him - and could have had for Vin, if allowed.

"Wait and see how things go, okay, Mom? I'll keep you updated. We're okay for now."

"Please do, Martin. I want to help." She sounded disappointed.

"I know. I'll keep in touch. Love you."

"I love you too, son."

Martin closed the phone and sighed, embracing the silence of the garden for a moment longer. Then he pushed to his feet and headed inside to the bank of elevators. When he pushed the button for Vin's floor, a vague feeling of unease began tickling his gut and grew exponentially with each passing second. By the time he arrived, anxiety reigned.

Slipping between the doors before they were fully open, Martin immediately noticed the activity around Vin's open doorway and the fact that Chris was in the hall, obviously pissed. Martin hurried over -

And was hit by a wave of pain that made his stagger.

Chris was there in an instant, speaking lowly and helping him the waiting area. Martin couldn't understand the words, but the fact that he was there, holding him up, seeped deeply into his consciousness. Martin worked to control his breathing, and therefore his revolting stomach, and squeezed his eyes shut again the suddenly intrusive lights around him.

"It's Vin your feeling, Martin. He woke up."

Martin realized he was lying down on a narrow, lumpy couch. The tidal wave that initially hit him receded, leaving vague but persistent pain somewhere behind his eyes. A few deep breaths settled the nausea and he carefully opened his watery eyes. The worried face of Larabee hung over him.

"You okay now?"

Nodding carefully, Martin struggled to sit up. Chris helped. After sitting for a few moments to make sure the pain was under control, he pushed to his feet and wordlessly headed to Vin's room.

The two of them hung outside, listening as three nurses settled their patient. Two finally left, telling Chris that the doctor was on his way. She frowned at Martin, worried.

"I'm okay," Martin whispered, his voice gritty.

When she left they carefully entered the room. The head of Vin's bed had been raised so he was sitting up and the window curtains had been pulled shut. The only light was the soft glow of the incandescent light on the wall behind him. His breathing consisted of a series of tight gasps between clenched teeth; one hand pressed against his eyes and the other tightly gripped the metal side rail.

The nurse, who had been murmuring softly as she worked, gave the pair a brief smile when then appeared. With a final smoothing to the light blanket covering her patient she stepped over to them, talking lowly.

"Keep it low," she suggested. "The doctor will probably give him something for the headache when he gets here."

Chris whispered his thanks but Martin could only nod. The pain behind his own eyes was nearly intolerable.

"Sorry." Vin croaked. Martin knew his brother was apologizing for the transmitted discomfort.

"The doc will help with it soon." Martin rested his hand on Vin's forearm. Vin shifted his grip on the rail to his brother's arm, resulting in a forearm to forearm bond of brotherhood. "Meanwhile, you can hang on to me." He didn't miss Chris' approving nod.

Nothing more needed to be said between the three of them. They shared a strength beyond physical bonds and Vin relaxed with their support. By the time the doctor arrived, his breathing was smooth and regular and his body greatly relaxed.

"Well, it's good to see you awake." The doctor spoke softly as he glanced at Vin's chart. He efficiently checked the various wounds on Vin's body before focusing his attention on the head injuries. Martin got the feeling that the man was working his way up to give his brother time to prepare, and was grateful. He didn't release his grip. Chris stepped back to give the doctor room.

"Let me check this bandage here," he warned Vin before touching the thick wrapping. "The drainage looks good - no sign of infection. Pretty sore though, huh?"

Rhetorical question, Martin knew.

The doctor checked the other side of Vin's head before removing his penlight. "Now let's check those eyes."

Vin grew tense again, his grip on Martin's arm becoming painful. Vin hadn't opened his eyes at all. The doctor peeled back one lid and flicked the light across the hazy, blue eye.

Vin gasped and held his breath in shock.

"It hurts!" Martin snapped, slamming his own eyes shut stealing his own breath away.

The doctor immediately backed off and, instead, gently checked the area around Vin's eye sockets as his patient tried to regain his senses.

"Better now?" he said softly. Vin nodded shortly once, unable to speak. "Can you tell me if you saw anything? Did you see the light?"

It took a few breaths to control his voice. "A little. Around the edges," he said weakly. "It burned."

"I need to check the other eye."

"Is that really necessary so soon?" Chris growled.

"'Sokay," Vin gasped.

"I'll be quick." The doctor leaned over and thumbed the other lid open, flicking the light across the iris with practiced speed. Vin didn't react.

"Go ahead, I'm ready," Vin mumbled.

Martin gave Chris a wide-eyed look. Chris met his glance, looking grim. They both kept their silence.

"It's okay for now," the doctor commented, his voice giving away nothing. "I'll give you something to take the edge off the pain for now."

The fact that Vin didn't argue spoke volumes. The doctor stepped away and called a nurse as he scribbled on the chart. Chris moved in and reclaimed his spot next to Vin. The nurse retrieved something from her pocket and began to fiddle with the IV line. Chris tore his gaze from Vin and looked to Martin.

"Go," Martin said softly, still holding Vin's grip.

Chris followed the doctor out into the hallway. "Well?" he demanded without preamble.

"Mr. Larabee, it's way too early to make predictions."

"Best guess."

"I don't . . ."

"Look, you're the expert here, but I saw a man that was, in essence, blind. Am I right?"

The doctor frowned in thought, obviously choosing his words carefully. Then he looked Chris right in the eye before speaking. "I've seen worse, but yes, he's essentialy blind for now."

"How long will it last?"

"I can't predict."

"Days? Weeks?"

The doctor sighed in frustration and massaged the back of his neck in thought. "Could be months. There's significant damage to the brain and skull. I'm sure we released the pressure quickly enough, but he brain is a tricky thing. There could be scarring. We won't know for awhile, Mr. Larabee. That's all I can offer. I wouldn't plan on him returning to work for quite awhile."

The doctor turned to go but Chris grabbed his arm and stopped him. "He's my sharpshooter, doc. He needs his eyes."

The medical man regarded Chris for a long moment, seeing beneath the anger. "I suggest finding another spot for him," he said gently. "I'm not sure if he's ever going to be 100% again." Stunned, Chris let his arm drop away. "I'm sorry." The doctor paused for a few moments before moving away.

Chris stood, frozen in the busy hallway, unaware of anyone else around him.

How the hell was he going to tell Vin?


In the three subsequent weeks Vin could only clearly recall about five full days. The persistent, debilitating headaches finally ebbed in the passing of time but his vision did not improve. Light didn't hurt as much now, but he still found the most physical comfort in a curtained room.

His condition belied his usual nature. Although Vin was content to rest the first few weeks to keep the headaches to a dull roar, after that, his usual wanderlust made him restless.

Vin was going stir crazy. Today started his third day in a row waking up somewhat painless; his sleep was still disturbed, wracked with vague and riotous images, but a slice of bright warmth on his face told him the sun was up. He was in the habit now of keeping his eyes shut to avoid any light, and as he stood by the window in his bedroom he could hear the stirrings of a new day's routine outside - cars leaving for work, children's voices as they walked to school and the various doors slamming in his building as people left for the day. And for once, the noises did not spark a headache.

His apartment was quiet. Martin finally had to return to New York nearly a week ago with plans to return very soon. Plans for Christmas were still in the air for the brothers - skiing was definitely out of the question.

Vin snorted at the thought. A lot of things would be out of the question if things didn't improve. Before he could depress himself any more, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. The ringer had been turned off for days now as it always made his head pound.

"Yeah?" he answered with a growl.

"Sounds like someone got out of the wrong side of the bed this mornin'," Buck teased.

While Martin was staying with Vin, the team had checked in morning and evening. Now that Vin was alone, they stopped by at least three times a day and now that he was somewhat mobile, he was becoming irritated with the attention.

"The occupational therapist is coming by at one. It's ten thirty now," Buck reminded him. "Nathan said he'd come by a little before."

"I don't need no fuckin' babysitter," Vin snapped, rubbing his temple.

"Now let's not start up with that, Junior, we want you back as soon as you're able. Give the therapist a chance."

Vin didn't bother to reply. Instead, he worked to quell the growing anger and hopefully, the stabbing pain.

"Vin? You there, buddy?"

"Ummm," he mumbled noncommittally. He massaged his head and wandered around the room.

"One o' clock. Nathan'll be by before. Okay? You hearin' me?"

"Yeah, yeah. One o'clock."

"I'll see ya after word, pard."

Vin just hung up and then dropped the phone on the bed with an aggravated sigh. Shuffling his way back to the window, he could tell he was close by the cold that emanated through the glass. Once there, he gently pressed the flat of his palm on the frigid surface. He clenched his other fist in disgust. Vin Tanner was not used to feeling useless, and that's exactly how he'd felt for the last two days.

Responding to a drive from deep within, Vin pushed off the window and carefully made his way through his apartment, collecting his boots and winter coat along the way. He unlocked the door and pulled it open, pausing in the doorway and suddenly feeling very - naked.

Vin shifted, leaning heavily on the door knob and cursing his hesitance. Finally, with a muttered expletive, stepped into the hallway.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee rolled his pen between his fingers and tired to concentrate on the papers in front of him. He'd overheard Buck's conversation - if you could call it that - with Vin, and since then, was feeling unsettled. As the minutes ticked by the more the feeling grew that something was wrong. Eventually, the unsettling feeling made him push to his feet.

"Nathan!" he called as he slowly paced a short track behind his desk.

Jackson poked his head in a few seconds later. "You hollered?"

Chris stopped, rapping the pen against his thigh, his forehead furrowed in thought.

Nathan stepped inside the office and crossed his arms. "Chris?"

Chris tilted his head, not really looking at his team member. "Get on over to Vin's now, okay?" Only then did he raise his eyes to Nathan's. "Just you, as planned. I don't want to crowd him. Call if you need us."

"Okay, then. Guess I'm outta here to face the wrath of Vin."

"He won't be that mad, will he?" JD said. "I mean, he's gotta learn to get around until his eyes get better."

"I'm sure he knows that, too, but you know Vin. He's probably feeing a little trapped by now."

Buck snorted. "A little? If it weren't for the sensitivity to light I have no doubt he'd be out an' about by now. He's been on his feet for what, two days now?"

Nathan shrugged on his coat. "Barely that. I'll grab some lunch for the two of us on the way over."

The cold of the parking garage stung Nathan's nose as he hurried to his car. He called a deli a few blocks away so he wouldn't have to wait for the meal. After stopping and getting the food, he continued on to Purgatorio and maneuvered into the first spot he saw near Vin's apartment building. When he stepped to the sidewalk, he had to do a little dance to keep his feet on the ice.

"Whoa!" he breathed, windmilling his arms for a moment. Once balanced, he grabbed the deli bag and locked up the car.

Nathan carefully made his way down the sidewalk, up the few stairs and entered the building. The first thing he noticed once he closed the door behind him was that the lobby wasn't much warmer than the outside. The second thing he noticed was Vin sitting on the inside stairs, his head dipped low. There were new holes in his jeans and his knees were scraped and bloody and when Nathan got closer, he saw raw marks on the palms of his hands, too.

Nathan approached carefully. Vin didn't move.

"Vin?" Nathan said, stopping within a foot of the man. "You okay?"

"'M fine," he replied softly.

Nathan was itching to inspect the damage but knew better than to start poking at his teammate without warning.

"Let me look at - "

The sharpshooter's body stiffened immediately, and then he started to rise. "I said I'm fine." Vin winced visibly when his jeans slid over damaged knees and he groped for the stairwell rail.

"Oh, no you don't," Nathan said when he saw the rail wiggle loosely when Vin grabbed it. "That rail's not safe." He snared Vin's forearm as he turned and lurched sideways. "I take it the elevator's still busted?" The medic made sure Vin was tucked snugly at his side before they ascended the steps and noticed that he didn't put up any resistance.

"I guess."

"You haven't checked?"

"I haven't heard it in two days."

Nathan was about to stop and check the elevator himself, but realized that Vin had probably been listening to all the building noises for the past few days; there was little else for him to do since the radio or television antagonized his headaches.

"Oh." They advanced a few steps. "Slipped on the ice?" As Nathan held his arm the dampness of his sleeves was obvious. Vin didn't reply. "The therapist'll teach you how to get around safely so it won't happen again."

"Why?" Vin growled.

Nathan frowned. "Why what?"

"Why do I need to learn to get around? I can't do nothin' and I can get around in my place just fine."

They made it to the first landing. Nathan turned him to the next flight.

"This is temporary, Vin. In the meanwhile, you don't need to get hurt worse and you need to learn how to take care of yourself." Again, silence answered his comment. "Unless you like us comin' by everyday . . ."

"Fine. I'll play nice."

That was too easy, Nathan thought. He tilted his head asked and looked Vin over more closely. The tense lines of pain around his eyes were a little deeper and the sooty bags under his eyes were more prevalent. The colorful bruising had mostly faded leaving behind unusually pale skin.

"Are you sleeping?"

Vin's lips pressed harder together.

"Restful sleep will help you heal faster. I can get something for you . . ."


When the reached the next landing, Vin's breathing was stressed. They didn't talk until the next landing.

"What's in the bag?" Vin asked out of the blue.

Nathan glanced at the deli bag in his other hand, realizing Vin heard the paper rustling. "Lunch."

"Roast beef?"

Nathan sniffed the air. "You can smell that?"

Vin snorted, his breathing still labored. "Smellin' and hearin's about all I do lately."


Once they were in his apartment and Vin started to warm up, his palms and knees began to bleed. It took some nagging and a little arguing for Vin to allow Nathan to clean him up and wrap his wounds. They weren't serious, but Nathan had no doubt the areas stung. Vin never admitted to it.

In fact, he didn't say much of anything. Nathan began to wish he had a little of the odd connection Chris had with the man. Then again, he wasn't sure he wanted to know the thoughts that simmered in Tanner's head right now.

He wished Martin hadn't left.

Vin ate enough of the sandwich to satisfy his guest and then retired to the sofa when he couldn't hide the headache pain anymore. Nathan'd just finished picking up the kitchen when there was a knock on the door. He saw Vin cringe.

"I'll get it."

Dropping the dish towel he moved to the door and looked through the peep hole and then unlocked the door. When he opened it, a petite Latina woman with a large gym bag slung over one shoulder smiled at him. "Vincent Tanner?" she asked.

"Over there." Nathan waved at the sofa and stood aside. The small woman thanked him and stepped inside.

She walked around and stood in front of Vin. "Hi. I'm Florencia. Before we start, I need to know your level of pain." She dropped the bag on the floor. Vin twitched. "Hm. A little sensitive to sudden noises, I see."

By the tilt of Vin's head and the tightness he could see in his profile, Nathan knew this wasn't starting out well. He couldn't tell if it was anger or fear he was seeing.

"I'll be showing you how to get around safely and then how to take care of yourself and this place. Do you want to start here or in your bedroom?"

Nathan saw Vin flush red.

"Um . . ." Florencia's steady gazed moved to Nathan as the medic gathered his coat. "Ah . . . I have some things to do . . . somewhere else. Buck'll be checkin' on you later, okay Vin?"

Nathan felt like a coward as he slipped from the apartment. The panicked look on Vin's face stuck with him all the way back to the office.

+ + + + + + +

Martin hobbled piteously across the icy New York sidewalk after paying for the cab, praying he'd make it to the Federal building lobby without embarrassing himself. He wasn't sure if the cane was a help or a hindrance, but it was sure better than crutches. Once inside, he let out a short sigh of relief and limped through security on his way to the bank of elevators.

Nearly four weeks had passed since he'd sprained his ankle and Martin was annoyed at how painful it still was. His doctor said bad sprains like his took longer than a break to heal - Martin didn't believe him at first, but now he wondered.

"Hey, gimpy." Danny's cocky voice made him grin. "Here, let me get that for you."

"I think I can manage pushing a button," Martin grumbled as Danny leaned over and punched the elevator button.

Martin leaned on the cane to relieve pressure on his throbbing ankle.

"So how's your first week back going? You riding the desk for awhile?"

"I'm keeping busy. Not sure how much longer I'm grounded. It still hurts a bit."

The silver doors rang open and the pair stepped inside with a few others.

"How's Vin?"

Martin shrugged, the mention of his brother causing his worry to rise. "Last time I talked to him he was pretty miserable."

"Too bad," Danny sympathized. "You really going back again?"

Martin nodded, waiting for a few people to exit the car before speaking again. "It's hard to explain. I miss him - it's like I'm disconnected or something. It's weird."

"What you two have is definitely weird," Danny laughed, causing Martin to grin. "Why don't you get him to come back here for awhile? Think you're mom'd like that? I mean, it sounded like she'd like to get to know him. Am I wrong?"

The door swooshed open again for the next floor but Martin didn't really notice the exiting passengers as he considered Danny's suggestion. He thought of Vin in that apartment of his, alone, and toyed with the idea. "Oh, yeah. There's that Victor factor," he reminded himself. "But he's in DC until Christmas and mom's at the house here for the holidays . . . alone . . . hmmm."

"You know, that's not a bad idea." Martin bobbed his head. "Won't be easy sell it to Vin, though. He's pretty independent."

"You mean stubborn? Well, there's a surprise." Danny rolled his eyes.

Martin ignored him. The doors opened again and Danny nudged him forward. "Why didn't I think of that?"

"Because I'm the brains of the bunch, Marty old boy."

It took a few seconds for that to sink in. "You're the brains? Where does that leave me?"

"Well, it's obvious to anyone that I'm the brains, Samantha's the beauty, Viv's the soul and Jack's the boss so that would make you the comic relief."

Martin lifted his cane to whack Danny's leg but the agent skittered out of range. "Or the sidekick. You can pick!" He chuckled and ducked into the bullpen.

"Sidekick my ass," Martin muttered, limping in Danny's wake. "More like asskicker. Yeah, that's it. I'm the asskicker of the team. The Enforcer - that's it." Satisfied, he shoved into the office.


Josiah stomped uncharacteristically into the office and slammed down his thermos. He was normally an even-tempered soul, but when roused, the big profiler had a temper that was frightening.

"May I assume that our own Mr. Tanner has finally wormed his way into your heart?" Ezra commented dryly from the other side of the office after a tense beat of silence.

That earned him a Larabee worthy glare from Josiah. The big man opened his mouth to issue an instant reply but managed to get a measure of control and snapped his jaw shut. Instead, he heaved a huge sigh and reached back cradled the back of his neck with both hand as he stretched and gazed ceilingward. The others in the office visibly relaxed from their frozen states

"That boy can test an angel," Josiah finally muttered as he dropped his hands.

"Vin's feeling pretty trapped these days," JD commented. "I feel sorry for that therapist lady."

"The third occupational therapist in four weeks," Nathan growled. "He is getting around better, though."

Buck snorted. "Great. More mobility means he can spread the Tanner charm throughout Purgatorio. I shudder at the thought."

Just then Chris stepped into the room from his office and glanced up, noticing Josiah's return. "Vin eat lunch?"

Josiah dropped onto his desk chair. "More or less."

Chris studied him for a moment. "What's that mean, exactly?"

It was obvious the big man was picking his words carefully as he leaned back before speaking. "Well, let's just say that the potato soup from Millard's Bistro blends remarkably well with Vin's kitchen walls."

Chris' lips pressed into a tense, hard line and his fingers wrinkled the papers in his hand as his grip tightened. Buck let out a short laugh whereas JD, Ezra and Nathan chose to be quiet and focus on their leader. They also looked ready to duck.

"He's acting like a two-year-old," Chris finally growled, slamming the papers he held onto Buck's desk a little harder than necessary.

Buck raised an eyebrow and chose not to comment any further.

"When's Martin arriving again? Friday afternoon?" JD asked.

"Late afternoon," Nathan confirmed. "Chris, if Vin's feeling so trapped it may be time for a change of scenery."

Chris nodded and ran a hand through his hair in thought. "Martin's trying to get Vin to go back to New York and it's beginning to sound like a good idea. That's one of his reasons for coming out."

"But he hates the city," JD protested.

"Martin's mom - Katherine - lives outside the city," Chris explained. "He told me that Katherine wants Vin to stay with her for awhile. It's quiet, lots of room, Martin would be close . . ."

"And so would Victor," Buck noted.

"We could wager on who murders who," Ezra said a little too brightly.

"Martin told me that Victor's in DC for the next few months, at least until spring."

Heads nodded all around.

"Sounds like a good set up," Nathan said. "I know none of us wants to admit it, but we can use the break. Getting Vin to comply might be a problem, though."

JD rolled his eyes as Buck laughed. "Now there's an understatement. We can't even get him out to the ranch."

Chris nodded in agreement. "I think letting Martin take the lead on that job is probably best."

The atmosphere of the room lightened considerably.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pulled up to the curb near baggage claim and thought again how odd it was to see Vin with short hair. Martin was still using a cane, but had no problem tossing his carry-on bag in the back of the truck.

"Good to see you again, Chris," Martin said when he pulled open the door and settled into the front seat. "Thanks for picking me up but I could have rented a car."

"Not a problem. Vin's Jeep needs some use."

They sat in comfortable silence with the local country station softly playing in the background. When they hit the freeway, Martin broke the quiet.

"So I understand he's been a bit . . . difficult?"

Chris chuckled. He hadn't told Martin any details, but obviously the man could read between the lines. "He's scared and frustrated."

"He told you that?"

Laughing again, Chris shook his head. "Not on you're life. I just know him. You know what I mean." The connection Chris and Vin had only a fraction of the strength that was between the twins, but it was enough for Larabee to know what Vin was going through. And Chris had to deal with his own frustration at not being able to help his friend; it wasn't a good mix and he wondered if it was fair for Martin to shoulder that grief.

As if sensing his thoughts, Martin turned and gave Chris an appraising look. "It's been hard." Not a question.

Chris nodded shortly after a slight pause. "I . . . we keep trying. Something needs to change, because what we're doing now isn't working." He gave Martin a glance. "He's miserable."

Martin took a deep breath and clicked his tongue. "I'll see what I can do. So the rest of the team supports the idea of him coming home with me for awhile?"

"Wholeheartedly," Chris said. "And we're all feeling pretty guilty about that."

They both chuckled and during the remainder of the ride Martin brought Chris up to date on the FedBomber investigation. It had become more complicated, but any kind of identification was still impossible.

"It looks like he's an expert at changing identity," Martin said. "The only way he can disappear like he does is if he takes over someone else's life. They expect to find a body buried somewhere on the land where the cabin was."

Chris gave him a sharp look. "Murder?"

"It's the only thing that makes sense. The property there has had the same owner for decades, taxes are paid on time and the social security number is still on file and active - well, was active until the cabin burned down."

"So this guy takes over someone's life - that is, social security number and property, at least - by killing the person and getting rid of the body until he has to move on. Then he finds another victim. How does he choose the victims?"

"They'd have to be older, isolated and with no real family ties so no one misses them. That's the what happened with the cabin owner. He must have had a prior identity or identities before but they haven't found any. The F.B.I. no idea about his true identity."

"Creeps like that eventually trip up some how."

"We can only hope. Based on the stuff I saw in that cabin, this guy's been connected to at least a dozen bombings across the country in the past 11 years. This guy's smart."

When they crossed the arbitrary line that defined the outskirts of Purgatorio Chris' thoughts returned to his friend. Being with Martin for just this little while convinced him that a trip east would do nothing but good for Vin. Still, there was a touch of residual guilt that wouldn't be quenched.

+ + + + + + +

When Martin hobbled into his brother's building on Chris' heels the meager attempt of holiday decoration did little to cheer him. He could already feel the press of anxiety that emanated from Chris growing stronger. It was hard to believe Christmas was less than a week away; celebrating the holiday was definitely not on his agenda this year. Right now, all he wanted was to ease the load his brother carried.

They mounted the stairs, not at all surprised that the elevator didn't work. By the time they reached Vin's door Martin's ankle was tender. The uncomfortable feeling was overshadowed by the wave of emotion that washed over him just standing in the hall. Martin paused before knocking on the door. Chris tilted his head and raised an eyebrow.

"You ready for this?" the ATF team leader asked softly.

"Yeah. Thanks." Martin took his bag from Chris, making it clear he would face his brother alone. Chris looked worried. "It's okay. You're right - he's . . . unsettled."

Chris chuffed at the understatement.

"It's better this way," Martin reassured him. "He knows I'm here. I'll be in close touch."

With a reluctant nod, Chris left. Martin tapped on the door and tried the knob, not surprised it wasn't locked. Pushing the door open he stuck his head into the shadows of Vin's apartment.

It smelled heavy and tangy with sweat. Music played lowly from the living room. The light of the radio glowed on the bookshelf as some instrumental Christmas tune played. Martin stepped in and closed the door behind him after dragging in his suitcase.

"Vin?" he called, squinting as he pulled off his gloves. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the low light. When he thought he could see well enough, he moved into the living room and opened one of the drapes enough to light the room. The place didn't look too bad and Martin attributed it to the rest of Vin's team. They dropped in three times a day to make sure their teammate was eating and taking care of the place. The also took him out to make sure his brother wasn't isolating himself.

"Vin?" Martin called again. He limped his way to the back rooms and tapped on Vin's bedroom door. "Hey, I'm here."

"Martin." Vin's voice carried softly from the direction of the bed.

The room was pitch black. Martin slipped in and carefully moved toward the voice. As he got closer, the stabs of pain he felt in his head made him gasp; Chris told him Vin still suffered from an occasional headache, but he had no idea they were this bad. "Can I get you anything?" he asked softly as he settled on the edge of the bed.

"It'll pass," Vin whispered. Martin took his hand. "I'm glad you're here."

Martin felt the pain that uttering the words caused and squeezed Vin's hand. "Me too." He rubbed his own temple and felt sorry for his brother. Martin was sure he was only feeling a part of what Vin was.

"You take something for it?" Vin's silence answered his question. "I'll get something."

"No," Vin snapped, his grip holding Martin back. "No. Don't want it."

"Vin . . ."

"No. It'll pass."

And it did. The brothers sat there in the dark for nearly an hour before the pain began to ebb. As it did so, their strange connection became stronger and although he tried to hide it, Martin figured out Vin's reluctance at taking the pain killers. He was afraid - afraid of dependence, of accidentally overdosing, of becoming disconnected - and Martin understood every fear.

He also became overwhelmed at the barrage of input assaulting Vin's senses, even in this dark, quiet room. The moderate traffic outside, the soft music in the living room, the breeze brushing the window, the patter of footfall in an upstairs apartment - it all seemed absurdly amplified.

"My God," Martin thought as he sharply inhaled. "How can you stand it?"

"It's getting' worse. It's like the other senses are on overload. It's why I get the headaches. And no, I haven't told anyone. What's the point?"

"I think Chris knows something is off. You can't hide this forever."

"It won't be forever. It can't be."

It was then that Martin first picked up on the depth of Vin's terror. Although he was doing a good job hiding it Martin wonder to what extent the effort was costing his brother.

"I want to take you away for awhile." With that one thought Martin knew Vin understood all the reasons why. Not only was Katherine's house was in the country and away from the constant city noise, but her quiet grace could keep him centered and balanced. Although Vin considered the rest of the team family, he was definitely feeling the pressure of too much attention. They all needed a break, a change, and with this brother's help, Vin realized it.

Even the specter of Victor Fitzgerald on the outskirts was tolerable. In fact, the thought made Vin smile. With Martin taking some of his pain, face relaxed and he chuckled.

"Guess I'll have the opportunity to get to know daddy dearest."

"Not sure he's worth the effort, brother. At least mom'll be there to protect you."

Martin felt a surge of surprise from Vin. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why would your mother protect me?"

"Because she didn't when you were five," Martin said quietly out loud. "And she desperately wants to make up for that. She's really stood up for you this past month. It's part of the reason, I think, that dad - Victor - escaped to DC."

"I don't want to cause no trouble between 'em." Vin's soft voice carried in the velvety darkness of the small room. "She don't deserve that."

"You didn't cause anything," Martin clarified. "Victor brought that on all by himself. He made his bed, and now he's got to sleep in it." Martin chuckled. "Chris and the boys were really expecting you to put up a fight over this idea."

A wave of mind-numbing weariness cloaked Martin's thoughts.

"I'm too tired to fight anymore."

Taken aback, Martin felt a spark of alarm and squelched it immediately by taking the admission at face value. Vin's senses were currently so overloaded and overwhelmed that Martin was sure his brother didn't pick up on the quickly quashed feeling. He let go of Vin's hand, and with it, some of their empathetic connection.

"Rest. I'll start making arrangements."

"Sounds good."

Martin left Vin in the darkened room and gently closed the door. Retreating to the living room, he found the phone and started in on the nearly impossible task of booking a flight for the two of them during Christmas week.

He eventually hung after a long, exasperating experience with a harried ticket agent, generally pleased with the results. His ear hurt. Rubbing it tenderly, Martin stood and spied his still unopened suitcase near the door. Stepping over to it, he picked it up and headed toward the guest room, thinking about calling Chris with their plans when he was suddenly hit with a parade of visuals that were more vivid than any dream.

He stumbled, dropping the suitcase and lurched against the hallway wall as he pressed his hands to his temples in an attempt to keep the visions from exploding out of his head. The pictures flicked by at a mind-numbing pace, making him nauseous. He slipped down the wall as if it were physical assault and moaned.

Then, as quickly as they came on, they stopped.

It took Martin several minutes to catch his breath and settle his stomach, and as soon as he knew his knees would hold him he was on his feet and headed to Vin's side. In the darkened room he could hear Vin's heavy breathing. Martin reclaimed his place on the edge of the bed and laid his shaky hand on his brother's thigh. Vin was sitting straight up, trembling and gasping.

When they were both breathing evenly, Martin asked, "What the hell was that?"

"Don't know," Vin thought. "But it's been gettin' worse."