A Matter of Heart


Editor's Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #10, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado and Erica Michaels are the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-5-2008. Art by Shiloh (shigal13@excite.com)

Rocky Mountains, Colorado

11 January 1999

1:10 p.m.

The thundering chaos overtook him, sweeping him into a maelstrom of stinging ice that assaulted the exposed areas on his face and neck, and tight pressure that squeezed his chest and sucked hungrily at his legs. Unending somersaults nearly stripped away his reason.

Avalanche, Chris realized in a burst of raw panic that set his chest on fire and threatened to steal away what little air he had left in his lungs. Groping frantically in the kaleidoscope of light and shadows, hands fumbling for the small, hard plastic handle to the rip cord on his vest, the ATF agent prayed for the first time in years.

His fingers closed over the hard, cold handle and he pulled with all the strength he had. The air bladders immediately inflated, causing his vest to swell and pushing it up alongside his neck and catching painfully under his ears, but it increased his buoyancy and he could feel himself rising.

His lungs were burning, demanding oxygen.

Chris wasn't actually sure the safety device had worked until he was mindlessly gulping in two deep breaths of cold air before feeling himself being pulled back under again. He kicked, trying to break free of the undertow.

Something large struck him hard across his shoulders and he grunted, instinct drawing him into a ball. A moment later something else glanced painfully off his right leg.

He surfaced again, gulped more precious air, his arms flailing this time as he tried to keep himself on the surface, but the roiling mass of snow and debris pushed him down for a third time, like a surfer trapped under a breaking curl. But he was moving slower now, or at least he thought he was.

Rocks and chunks of broken, uprooted trees pounded him like a hail of angry fists. He concentrated on scissoring his legs, trying to propel himself to the surface again, while his arms curled up around his head to keep himself from being knocked unconscious.

A flash of sunlight told him he was free of the suffocating tumble and he struggled as best he could, gasping for as many breaths as he could draw before he was rolled under once more. And he was.

He curled back into a ball, his arms over his head once more, and continued to pray.

Then there was silence, as profound and complete as any he had ever imagined. He opened his eyes, but there was nothing to see beyond unending white. He sucked in a sharp, shallow breath, realizing that, with his arms over his head, he had inadvertently created an air pocket for himself.

Thank you, Lord, he silently acknowledged.

Thoroughly disorientated, Larabee forced himself to take several more breaths while he begged his mind to start working again. The panic subsided, replaced by a determined will to survive.

Okay, I'm alive. I have to stay that way until they can find me.

Which way am I facing? he asked himself.

Only one way to find out…

He chewed on the inside of his cheek until his fear-dried mouth finally began to water, then let the spit dribble over his lips, waiting as it ran down his chin, then along his jaw toward his ear.

Okay, I'm almost laying on my back, he noted, the thought helping to ease the vertigo that threatened to turn his stomach.

He closed his eyes and imagined his situation. He was almost lying on his back, his knees bent like he had been caught in the middle of a sit-up. His fingers were still laced behind his head, his forearms pressed alongside his ears, making the sit-up image even stronger.

And he was buried under who knew how much snow.

Buried alive.

The panic flared again, but he forced it back by thrusting out angrily with his legs. His feet drove a little deeper into the compressed snow, but no more. He tried forcing his arms up, but they were trapped as well.

"Hey!" he cried as loudly as he could, but his cramped position made it impossible to actually yell. "Hey! Can anyone hear me?"

He waited, listening, but the rapid beat of his heart was the only thing he could hear. He let out the breath he was holding and sucked in another. The small air pocket wouldn't sustain him for very long.

He started to claw with his glove-covered fingers, digging shallow furrows in the packed snow. If he could get at least one of his arms free, he could reach the air tube on his vest and use the air in the inflated bladders to keep him alive a little longer.

Long enough for his team to find him…?

Hopefully… If they hadn't been buried right along with him, he realized. Shit…

Had they been caught in the avalanche? He tried to remember, but he couldn't recall anything to say they had, or hadn't.

He closed his eyes and willed himself to calm down… to breathe slowly… to relax. But his fingers continued to scratch away at the snow that trapped his arms.

He looked down and saw the beacon he was wearing, one of the many pieces of equipment Nathan had insisted they all take, along with the vests, poles, collapsible shovels, and space blankets. If the rest of his team was alive, they might be able to find him using the beacon. But could they do it in time?

Too soon to worry about that, he told himself, realizing his thoughts remained scattered.

How'd I get here? he finally asked himself, hoping it might focus his mind. He needed to focus.

Slowly, memories began to return…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

9 January 1999

4:45 p.m.

Larabee looked at each of his team members, making sure they understood their latest mission. Daniel and Emily Phelps, and their three children, had disappeared from their home six days ago, right after a spate of arson fires. Two local gay bars had been burned down, along with an AIDs hospice and a United Church of Christ building where a rally in support of civil unions had been held the day before. Several people had been injured in the fires, and three at the hospice had died, including a firefighter who had fallen through the roof.

The arson investigation led the local authorities to Daniel and his two brothers, Jacob and Isaiah Phelps. A search of the men's homes turned up simple bomb-making materials and photographs of other gay-oriented businesses, churches and private homes ranging from Fort Collins to Castle Rock on the Front Range. The wives of Jacob and Isaiah apparently had no idea what their husbands had gotten involved with, and insisted the same was true of Emily. They also told authorities that the three brothers had taken up with some men they had met in Estes Park. All three brothers had begun buying guns and ammunition, especially Daniel. If Emily and the children were missing, then, the women insisted, they were being held against their will.

At that point the case had then been handed over to the ATF.

"How are we gettin' in?" Vin asked his boss.

Chris hesitated a moment, knowing his team wasn't going to be overly happy with his answer, but then he said, "We'll be hiking in."

"Hiking? At this time of year?" Ezra questioned, his green eyes rounding with surprise.

"We've all had cold weather training," Chris responded, leveling a half-hearted glare on the undercover man. He wasn't exactly looking forward to the frozen hike either.

"But it's January," Ezra offered, looking more than a little concerned.

"There's no other way into the cabin Phelps is using. Snowshoes, skies, or snowmobiles are the only way, and the last one's too noisy," Larabee said matter-of-factly. "So, we go as far as the skies will take us and hike the rest of the way on snowshoe." He waited to see if there were any other objections, and when there were none, he nodded. "All right, I'll see all of you back here first thing tomorrow morning. Have your gear ready to go and dress for the cold. I want to hit the ground running. We have no idea why Phelps took his wife and kids up to that cabin, or what he might be planning." Given what Sarah and Wendy Phelps had told detectives, Daniel might be planning to kill his family, and then himself. Emily had called Sarah after Jacob and Isaiah had been arrested, concerned about her husband's mood and his reaction to the news report on his brothers' capture.

The agents stood and headed off, a few grumbles drifting back to Chris, but he wasn't worried. His team knew what was expected of them, and they would come through, just like they always did.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

10 January 1999

5:00 a.m.

Chris walked into the basement staging area of the federal building carrying his gear. He dropped his duffel bag down next to the six others already lined up near the loading dock entrance, then headed over to get a cup of coffee and a power bar.

The others were scattered around the space, going over their weapons and other gear, munching on power bars of their own and washing them down with the strong coffee.

Nathan approached him, handing him a beacon and saying, "New locators, just in case."

Larabee nodded, accepting the device. Nathan had taken it upon himself to be their official "mother hen," and he was exceptionally diligent in his job. Luckily for him, that suited Larabee just fine, given the fact that the majority of his team seemed to excel at attracting trouble.

His gaze swept over the men and a slight smile pulled at the corners of his lips. A few more days and they would be celebrating their one-year anniversary as a team. Well, all of them except Tanner, who had joined the team a month later than the rest. Still, it would be their official anniversary, and he planned to host the mother of all parties out at the ranch to celebrate. He had picked well. They were good men, and a great team. He was proud of them, each and every one.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Rocky Mountains

9:45 a.m.

Team Seven stood on the covered wooden porch of a high mountain ranger station, admiring the view that stretched out before them. The jagged mountain peaks, some reaching 13,000 and 14,000 feet above sea-level, were covered with snow. Thick stands of pine, growing at lower elevations, created green skirts below the otherwise pristine white peaks. Clear blue sky overhead made the morning bright, and they all wore sunglasses to protect their eyes from the sparkle of sunlight glinting off the fresh powder on the ground.

Nathan moved from agent to agent, securing a vest over their jackets and handing out other equipment, taking his time to describe each item's use, and its limitations.

When they were done, the older ranger, Brad Clarke, stepped up. "Here's a map. The cabin you're looking for is marked. Be careful, people, you're going to be moving through terrain that borders on a recreational wilderness area. You might run into back-country skiers, snowboarders, or snowshoers out there. We would appreciate it if you didn't kill off any of our tourists – it's bad for business."

Chris grinned and nodded. "I can just imagine. We'll do our best." He glanced down at the map. "Where can we get a lift out?"

Clarke stepped closer and peered over Chris' shoulder at the map. He reached out and tapped a spot. "That's about the only location a chopper's going to be able to get in low enough to pull someone out. But even that's going to depend on good ol' Mother Nature. The weather service is calling for another storm to arrive in thirty-six hours or so, so you'd better make it quick. Given where you'll be, that'll be more like twenty-eight or thirty."

"Shouldn't take us that long," Chris assured the man.

"There'll be someone manning the radio here 24-7," the younger ranger assured them, his gaze still sweeping nervously over the weapons they all carried. "When you need a lift, you just let us know. A Search and Rescue bird should be able to reach you in twenty minutes or so. And you shouldn't have any trouble contacting us from that pick-up location, but if you end up down in a canyon, you'll probably have to climb out to get a clear signal."

"We appreciate the help," Chris told the two men.

"Glad to be of help," Clarke said, extending his hand to Chris, who shook it. "It's damned good to see you again, Larabee."

"Likewise," Chris replied, slapping the ranger's shoulder.

"Why don't you try and get back up here next season for some elk hunting? I'd be happy to show you around."

Chris nodded. "I'd like that, Brad. You have my number now, give me a call and I'll see what I can do."

The former DPD officer nodded, his gaze sweeping over the others to include them as well. "You're all welcome."

"All right," Chris said, "let's get this show on the road."

"Hey, Chris," Clarke said, "one more thing. If you stay on the route I marked, you should be fine, but if you have to wing it, be sure you stay off any inclines greater than thirty-five degrees. We got a few warm days up here in mid-December and the avalanche danger is high right now with all the fresh powder."

"Will do," Chris assured his old friend and gestured for the team to head out.

The two rangers watched the agents on their cross-country skies until they disappeared into the pines. The forest service hiking trail they were using would take them to within a mile or so of the target cabin. From there, Larabee's team would have to make their way in on the trail the cabin owner had built to access the state-maintained one, or they would have to veer off, moving through a quarter-mile of wilderness to reach the fire road that would take them to within a hundred yards of the cabin. In either case, it was going to be some rough snowshoeing.

Clarke shook his head, feeling the old familiar buzz in his gut, and he wished, not for the first time that morning, he was going with them.

"Hey, Brad, who are those guys?" Tim Andrews asked him.

The older man grinned and snorted. "Them? Heard they're calling them the 'Magnificent Seven,'" he told the younger man. "And I believe it." Clarke turned and walked back into the building, determined to man the radio himself until he heard from his old friend.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

In the Rockies

10 January 1999

1:20 p.m.

Even using the government trail, the going was slow. The skies made the trek possible, but they encountered frequent snowdrifts and occasional downed trees blocking their path. And it wasn't long before they were all breathing heavily from the high altitude and the hard work. Chris checked his watch regularly, watching as the precious daylight hours quickly passed.

We have to be getting close to the turn off, he thought a split second before he heard Tanner say, "Chris, this is it."

The blond looked up, his gaze sweeping over the landscape. It looked exactly the same as what they had been hiking through. "You sure?"

"GPS says the trail leadin' t' the cabin should be right here," Tanner replied, nodding at the snow and trees.

"Phelps must not have kept it up very well," Buck offered.

Chris sighed. "We only have about three hours of good light left. We can either head out for the cabin, or backtrack and use the fire road. Suggestions?"

"We hump it in," the sniper offered with a shrug. "Gives us the most daylight to work with."

The others nodded. They might be tired, but they were a long way from done in.

"Okay," Chris agreed.

The men quickly exchanged their skies for snowshoes.

"I'll take point," Chris announced when they were all ready to go. "Vin, find someplace to watch our six – we don't know if Phelps has any friends up here with him. He might have someone out watching the trail."

Tanner nodded.

Chris checked his watch again. "Okay, we rest for ten, then move out."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Outside the Phelps Cabin

2:50 p.m.

Chris lay on the snow, hidden in the shadows of a large spruce as he carefully surveyed the quiet cabin with his field glasses. Now and then he could see movement inside the structure, but the thick curtains made it impossible to determine exactly how many people might be inside. The last satellite intel had put the number of tangos at five – two adults and three children – but there was no way to know if anyone had joined them, or if they were all still in the cabin.

Larabee knew without looking that his other six team members were all in place and ready to move as soon as he gave the word. But he wanted to wait for the sun to drop a little lower in the western sky, behind the razor ridge rising behind them. As soon as it did, the small canyon would be swallowed by shadows that would help cover their advance. So he waited, continuing to watch the windows on his side of the building.

As soon as the sun disappeared from the sky, Chris spoke into his lip mike. "Anything?"

"All quiet," Vin replied from the perch he had found.

"Nothing here," Buck said.

"Quiet here as well," Ezra added.

"All right," Chris said, "we go in three… two… one…"

The agents moved in on the small cabin from different directions. Chris and Nathan entered through the front door, Buck and Josiah from the back. JD covered the windows on the south side of the cabin, the north side left unmanned, being a solid wall. Vin was the last one in, waiting to make sure there were no reinforcements coming.

Larabee heard the muted sound of gunfire coming from the rear of the house even as he was moving forward, his gaze sweeping over what was the living room. He immediately headed for the only door he saw, saying into his lip mike, "Right."

Nathan headed left to the hallway.

The two men continued, each checking behind every door they passed.

Larabee reached the last door in the hallway and stood, his back pressed against the wall. He could hear the sound of someone crying, and a woman's voice, begging. Chris reached out and opened the door, moving inside the room in a crouch.

Inside the bedroom he found Mrs. Phelps sitting on the bed, a young boy of no more than four or five, and dressed in Sesame Street pajamas, held tightly in her arms. Her eyes were wide and frightened, but they immediately flickered from Chris to an open door in the room.

Larabee was moving before he even realized what it was he had seen in the mirror above the dresser, his own HK coming up and firing when a man stepped out of the closet, a Glock in his hands. The man jerked twice, then fell as the woman keened softly, pulling her son's head around so he couldn't see.

Chris reached the closet door in three long strides. He checked the small space, then the man, who he had already known was dead.

"Danny's cousins," the woman managed in a whisper.

"How many?"


"I have a woman and a boy," he announced into his lip mike. "One tango down. Three left."

"All clear," Buck announced a moment later. "One down."

"All clear here," Ezra added. "No contact."

"Clear," Josiah announced.

"Clear," Vin said, "one down."

"On your toes, people, we're missing one."

Chris turned to go, but the women reached out, stopping him. "No, please, my daughter's still out there."

He nodded. "I want you to get down in the corner on the other side of the bed and stay there until we come and get you. Understand?"

She nodded, hurrying to the space and crouching down so her body would protect her son's.

Larabee slipped from the room, drawing the door closed. The hunt was on. "Double-check the closets. Be careful. Tango has a hostage," Chris said into his lip-mike as he re-entered the bathroom.

"Living room," Buck announced, but even as the ladies' man said the words, the closet door burst open and a man lunged out, a Browning in one hand. His other arm was wrapped around the waist of a young girl dressed in flannel pajamas. He was using her as a shield.

"Back off!" the man snarled at Wilmington.

Chris heard the woman cry out a moment before she burst through the door into the hallway. "Please, don't hurt my daughter!" she pleaded.

"Get back to your son!" Larabee snarled at her, and fear forced her to comply.

"Put the gun down!" the man barked at Buck.

"I have a shot," Vin's voice stated softly in Larabee's ear.

"Take it," Chris said, watching as Buck carefully set his MP5 down.

"Easy, mister," the ladies' man said, "let me have the little girl."

The man hesitated for a fraction of a second, surprised by Wilmington's apparent surrender. And that was all the time the sniper needed. A muted pop sounded and the man dropped to his knees first before pitching forward.

The little girl screamed, her feet kicking wildly as she struggled to free herself from the dead man's grip.

Buck moved forward, Vin slipping past the door a moment later to help him lift the man up so the child could escape. She shot to her feet, but didn't know what to do next. Fear froze her right where she stood.

Vin checked the man, then handed his gun to Buck and knelt down in front of the girl, smiling reassuringly. "It's okay now, sweetheart," he said softly. "You're gonna be just fine."

She stared at him, her blue eyes appearing even larger than normal with all the color drained from her face. The sniper watched the girl's eyes fill with tears as her lower lip began to tremble. A moment later her entire body was shaking.

He scooped her into his arms and carried her over to the hallway where Chris stood.

Larabee turned his head, calling out, "Mrs. Phelps, it's all right to come out now."

Moments later the woman burst out of the bedroom again, her son in her arms. She hurried down to where Vin was holding her daughter.

"Who are you?" she asked them, reaching out to caress her daughter's cheek. "Easy, baby," she told the girl.

"We've come to take you home," Josiah assured her as he joined them, then left again when he saw the child in Vin's arms was still shaking.

"Oh, thank God," the woman gasped, her eyes closing for a moment. When they opened again, she asked, "Are they all dead?"

Chris frowned, but he nodded.

"Sarah and Wendy and the children?" Mrs. Phelps asked them.

Larabee shook his head. "They're fine. They told the police Daniel had brought you and the kids up here against your will."

"Oh God, Daniel," the woman gulped, squeezing her son a little tighter. "He was acting crazy… What did he do?"

"The detectives can explain it all," Chris told her. "Right now we need to get you and your children out of here."

She nodded.

Josiah returned with a blanket, and Vin wrapped the girl in it and carried her back out into the living room, sitting her down next to the fire-warmed hearth. Ezra carefully moved the sofa so the body would be hidden from view. Her mother followed them, one hand on her daughter's arm, her son cradled close to her chest.

"Hannah?" she asked worriedly.

"It's all right, ma'am," Vin assured her. "She's just a little scared. It'll wear off in a minute or two. Why don't you and your son sit with her for a bit."

Mrs. Phelps nodded, meeting the sniper's gaze. "Thank you."

Vin nodded, then glanced down at the girl. "Just sorry she had to get caught in the middle of it."

"We're alive," Mrs. Phelps said softly, reaching out to push the hair off her daughter's face. "That's all that matters. We can deal with the rest later."

Chris watched the interaction, then turned to JD. "Call the chopper in. The sooner we get these people out of here the better."

JD nodded, heading outside to make the call.

Josiah moved over to Mrs. Phelps, then asked, "Do you have any other clothes?"

The woman looked down at her flannel nightgown, then shook her head. "Daniel woke me up in the middle of the night… He said he was going to–" She stopped herself. "I– I don't have anything else."

"All right," Josiah said. "I'm going to go grab a blanket for you and your son."

The boy looked up and smiled. "My name's Joshua," he announced.

"Well, I'm very pleased to meet you, Joshua," the big man replied, shaking hands with the small child.

The boy's eyes began to fill with tears. "I wanna go home now," he said softly.

"I know, sweetheart," his mother said softly. "You're going home very soon, I promise."

"How does a ride in a helicopter sound?" Josiah asked him.

The boy smiled, his eyes brightening. "For real?"

Sanchez nodded, then looked at Mrs. Phelps. "The local Search and Rescue people will fly you to Denver. Your family is waiting for you there."

Emily Phelps' eyes filled with tears. "Thank you," she said, reaching out to grab his hand and give it a squeeze.

Nathan stepped up to them, holding two more thick blankets and a pair of boots he had taken off her dead husband. "You might need these," he said, offering Emily the boots.

At first it looked like Mrs. Phelps might refuse, but she nodded and took the shoes, pulling them onto her sock-clad feet while Josiah wrapped Joshua in one of the thermal blankets.

"Are you gonna fly the helo-copper?" the boy asked him.

Josiah grinned. "No, not me. Do you want to learn how to fly a helicopter?"

Joshua smiled. "Yes!"

The profiler looked at Mrs. Phelps, who nodded. "Well," Josiah said to the boy, "why don't you and me go wait for the chopper."

As Emily watched them go, Chris pulled the boots on. He stepped up to her, saying softly, "Mrs. Phelps, these men, did they have some equipment with them?"

"Yes," she replied. "Luke had a briefcase or maybe a small suitcase with him. I didn't get that good a look at it. I don't know what they did with it, though."

"Could you take a look around with Nathan, see if you can find it?" Chris asked her.

She glanced anxiously at her daughter, who was still staring at the carpet, tears rolling silently down her too-white cheeks.

"I'll stay with her, ma'am," Vin assured the woman.

Emily looked back at Chris and nodded, saying, "All right."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

While Nathan, Ezra and JD searched the cabin, finding weapons and more ingredients for homemade bombs, Chris checked on the ETA of the chopper.

"About fifteen minutes out," Buck replied. He and Josiah were sitting on an over-stuffed sofa out on the porch of the cabin, fielding a string of non-stop questions from the five-year-old boy: Are those real guns? Do you kill lots of people? How did you get here? Are we all going to fly home in the helo-copper?

Chris left them to keep the boy entertained, stepping back inside the cabin. He went to the fireplace and put out the fire. Vin had moved Hannah to the couch and was sitting at one end with the girl in his lap. He used a tissue he had found somewhere to wipe the tears off her cheeks.

"She okay?" Chris asked softly.

Vin nodded. "Will be," he said, giving the little girl a hug. "Just a little scared, right, sweetheart?"

Hannah wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tightly, her cheek pressed tight against the top of his shoulder. The sniper gently patted her back through the thick blanket, then smoothed her long blonde hair.

"I want Sparky," she said.

"Sparky? Is that your dog?" he asked softly.

She nodded.

"Well, I'll bet he's waitin' for you in Denver."

She shook her head.

"He's not?"

"Daddy shot 'im," she whispered.

Vin patted her back again, his gaze lifting to meet Larabee's. But Chris didn't know what to say to the child either.

"I like horses," she said softly, her grip still tight.

"Horses?" Vin asked her. "I like horses, too. Do you have a horse?"

"Daddy said I have to wait 'til I'm older."

"Oh, I see," Vin told her. And now her father was lying somewhere in the house, dead. "Well, a horse is something worth waitin' for."

"I wanna see my daddy," Hannah added, a tremor in her voice.

"We're gonna take a ride on a helicopter, you and your bother and your mommy."

She let go and pulled back so she could see Vin's face, then asked seriously, "Daddy isn't coming home with us, is he?"

"No, sweetheart, he isn't," Vin told her.

"Did you kill that man?"

The sniper hesitated for a moment, but then nodded. "Yes, I did. I was afraid he was going to hurt you and your mother and brother."

"Was he a bad man?"

Vin nodded. "Yes, he was."

"Did you shoot my daddy, too?"

Vin swallowed.

"No, he didn't," Chris told the girl.

She dipped her head. "Daddy said he was going to shoot us… He was a bad man."

"Maybe your daddy just got all confused inside. Sometimes when that happens, grown-ups do things they shouldn't do… Things they know are wrong," Vin told her.

"No matter how confused he was, your daddy still loved you," Chris added, reaching out to run his hand over her hair. "He just forgot how to show you he did for a little while."

"That's right," Vin told her.

She studied the two men for a moment as she decided whether or not to believe them. Then, having made her decision, she leaned back against Vin's chest and wrapped her arms around his neck again, but this time her grip wasn't as tight.

"What's a helicopter like?" she asked him.

"Well, it can be a little bumpy sometimes, but it's lots of fun," the sniper said, then proceeded to tell her all about the view and how it would feel like she was flying, just like a bird.

Chris shook his head, amazed by the scene. My sniper… who would've thought, he mused. He glanced over as Nathan and Emily returned.

"We have it," Jackson announced, holding up the briefcase.

JD leaned into the room. "Chopper's here."

"Hear that?" Vin asked Hannah. "It's time for that ride."

Holding her, Tanner stood, then wrapped the blanket a little tighter around her and carried her outside. Mrs. Phelps followed him. Chris watched the woman glance at the fallen man and shiver. That family would have some healing to do, but, like she had said, they were alive. The rest could wait for another day.

He walked out, watching as the two children were hoisted into the chopper in a gurney basket, two of the Search & Rescue people riding with them. Once they were safely inside the chopper, the basket was lowered so Mrs. Phelps could ride up.

Chris waved and the chopper swung off to the east, headed for Denver.

"Hey!" JD squeaked, waving more frantically. "That's our ride!"

"No, it's not," Chris said, trying not to grin.

"You don't mean…?" Ezra started, trailing off when he saw Larabee's emerging smile.

"We need to work on our cold weather skills," Chris told them. "We'll sleep here tonight, deal with the local authorities in the morning, and then we're going to hike back out."

"Back to the ranger station?" Vin asked, looking the least concerned of the group.

"I was thinking more along the lines of that ski resort we passed on our way up here," Standish offered with a hopeful arch of his eyebrows.

"Wrong, on both counts," Chris replied. "There's an old ski lodge about six miles from here. The army used it back in the 40s when they were training troops on skies for the European theater. We're headed there."

"You sure it's still there?" Buck asked him, sounding a little worried.

"Brad Clarke said it was," Chris assured them.

"You and your old DPD buddy set this up, didn't you?" Josiah asked him.

"We did," Chris confessed. "Perfect opportunity to get in some practice. So, grab your gear and let's get moving. We don't have much daylight left."

"But you just said we were going to spend the night here," JD said, waving at the cabin.

"I said here, JD, I didn't say in the cabin."

A chorus of groans was the reply.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Rocky Mountains

11 January 1999

1:27 p.m.

Chris lay under the snow, wondering briefly if his people would even bother to dig him out after the cold night he put them through. It hadn't been easy to stay warm enough to sleep.

After a moment, he tried moving again, and this time he was able to work his right arm free. He quickly fumbled for the air tube, pulling it up to his mouth and sucking in a breath of the fresh oxygen. He closed his eyes in grateful thanks.

Breathing as slowly as he could, Chris mentally reviewed what he knew his team was doing. First, if any of them had escaped the avalanche, they would be using the small locators Nathan had given them to try and find each other. The devices were tuned in to the beacons they all wore. He reached up, making sure that his was still hanging around his neck. It was.

Once they found a strong beacon signal, he knew they would spread out in a line and use the long, thin telescoping poles they carried to probe into the snow, trying to find where he was buried. And they would find him, he knew they would. His people had never failed him.

Once they did find him, they would use the collapsible shovels to dig him out. He would survive…

If they weren't all buried…

If they could find him in time…

Damn those fuckin' idiots! Chris thought.

Team Seven had been less than a mile from the old ski cabin; less than an hour away, depending on how the wind-blown drifts were stacked up. Larabee had been planning to wait until everyone was warmed up before he told them their next stop was going to be that ski resort Ezra had mentioned. Brad Clarke would pick them up in the morning and drop them off there for three days of R&R, compliments of AD Travis.

But his plan had been upset when they heard the low roar of approaching snowmobiles. He and the others were moving along the base of a ridge, working their way around it rather than trying to cross over it due to the angle of the incline. But the snowmobiles were traveling along the top of the ridge, clearly outside the boundaries of the park. If they had been where they belonged, they wouldn't have posed any danger to anyone, including themselves.

As the drone of the engines grew louder and louder, Chris stopped, watching as three young men on their machines appeared along the top of the ridge, then turned sharply and headed away again, racing. A moment later a low growl announced the first rends in the snow pack and, almost instantly, the wall of white began to move above them.

If he ever got his hands on those three men…

Chris shut those thoughts off. They might have been lost. They might not have known the danger. They might just be three stupid jackasses who didn't give a flying fuck about who they put in danger. But, in any case, it was too late to worry about them now.

He remembered yelling to the others to scatter as he ran as best he could in his snowshoes… Then he heard the deafening rumble… and was swept off his feet…

Chris' teeth began to chatter and he shivered. Come on, guys. It's getting cold under here.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Larabee wasn't sure how long he had been buried before the probe painfully poked against his abdomen, but it scared him more than he was willing to admit that he had somehow fallen asleep.

He grabbed for the tip, but his fingers refused to close on the thin shaft. He tried again, gritting his teeth against the pain and the fear, this time getting a grip on the metal pole just as whoever was using it started to pull it up again. He hung on, making them fight for it.

A muffled voice called, "Chris?"

"Here," Larabee gasped, knowing his voice couldn't penetrate the snow piled above him. "I'm here."


Larabee groaned as the probe was pulled free from his hand, but moments later he heard the tearing sound of shovels digging into the snow above him. They had found him…

He smiled and closed his eyes, relief making his chest tight. The last thing he remembered was feeling the tears beginning to fill his eyes, and then he was pulled back into the blackness of unknowing.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"I've got him!" Vin yelled to the others, who were spread out in a line, each probing the snow with their poles. "Chris?" he called, then paused to listen, but he didn't hear anything. "Chris!" he called more loudly. "Dig!" he commanded, pulling his shovel free.

Beside him, Buck opened his pack and pulled his shovel out, beginning to dig as well. Josiah hobbled over to help, and JD stood, watching them, his splinted wrist making it impossible for him to help.

It took ten minutes before they uncovered Larabee's knees.

"His face! Uncover his face!" Nathan snapped.

In a flurry of shovel scoops, then digging with their hands, they finally freed the blond a few minutes later.

"JD, call Search and Rescue," Buck barked.

Dunne nodded, digging for his radio with one hand while Vin and Nathan helped move Chris out of the hole he had been trapped in.

"Damn it! Nothing!" the youngest member of the team said, a touch of fear and frustration making his voice rough. "I can't get a signal!"

"Damn it," Vin growled, glancing around. "Ridge must be cuttin' off the signal."

"It'll make it next to impossible for a chopper to get in here, too," Buck said, looking up at the rocky thrust of mountain.

"We'll have to move him to the top," Nathan said, "then call for help."

Vin looked from one man to the next, fear making him colder than the snow. There was no way any of them were going to be able to make that climb with Chris. Ezra's ankle was badly sprained, Josiah's knee was wrenched or sprained, and JD's wrist was broken. Buck and Nathan were both banged up, the ladies' man favoring his left hip, while Nathan's shoulder was obviously hurting him. That just left him, and he'd taken a good blow to the head. His vision still hadn't completely cleared, but he could see well enough. He'd have to carry Chris to the top himself.

The sniper looked up at the top of the ridge again and sighed softly, wondering if he could do it. Not that he had any choice really, but he still had to wonder.

"Let's get to it," Tanner said.

The first thing they did was check Chris over for injuries. Finding nothing obvious, they did what they could to warm him up and then wrapped him in two of the space blankets they were all carrying.

Vin bent forward, Chris draped against his back and waited as Buck and Josiah tied Larabee securely into place. Once that was done, they immediately set off for the top of the ridge.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The constant jarring slowly penetrated the constricting blackness holding Chris prisoner. Consciousness rose, increased, focused, but not enough for him to actually open his eyes and see what the hell was going on.

Unable to see what was happening to him, he allowed his mind to drift, finally becoming aware of a variety of sensations.

He could feel his legs swinging, like he was sitting on a table that was too tall for his feet to reach the ground… like a doctor's exam table, but this table was bucking, jerking him up and down.

Then he heard it, the labored huff of a man nearly out of breath.

Who is it? he wondered. Why is he out of breath?

The questions arose, found no corresponding answers, and then flowed out of consciousness, his mind drifting again.

He was warm… Finally, warm.

In fact, he could feel a tremendous amount of heat rising from the pillow he was lying against…

No, not a pillow, he realized. Someone's shoulder. He could feel the tight nylon weave of a jacket against his cheek, smell the wet-plastic odor of the material.

But he still couldn't understand what was happening. Where was he? What was going on? Why?

He groaned softly, frustrated over not finding any answers for a second time, and the movement stopped. Somewhere in the far distance Chris thought he could hear voices, but he couldn't make out the words that were being said.

Reaching for the sounds, he strained to hear them, then tried to open his eyes to see who was speaking, but he could do neither. He fought for a moment longer and then stopped. It wasn't that important. The fear that had first gripped him in the tumble of the avalanche was gone. He felt safe, even if he wasn't exactly sure why. He wasn't still under the snow, was he?

Could his oxygen be running out? Was he hallucinating as he suffocated to death?

No, he thought, remembering the poke to his belly by the pole. They found me. They must've dug me out… But where am I?

No answers were forthcoming and he felt the rush of frustration, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Relaxing again, he sank into the warmth, basking in the comforting glow that wrapped around him.

And then the movement started again, a little less jarring than before, but it still made him feel like he was riding some bar-room mechanical bull.

With nothing to do, Chris started an inventory.

His legs were… swinging…

His feet were… cold, but not the rest of him. Well, that was an improvement.

There was an odd tightness cutting into his thighs, but it wasn't too painful so he ignored it, continuing his mental examination.

His back was cooler than his chest, but not cold. His chest was pressed tightly against something, making it a little hard to breathe, but it wasn't nearly as bad as it had been when he had been buried under the snow.

When he had been buried?

He tried drawing a deep breath, and was able to do it with just a little effort, but much less effort than sucking air through the tube on his vest. Pausing, he considered the changes, then tried to smile. He wasn't sure if he had accomplished it or not. But he definitely wasn't buried under the snow any longer! A quiet thrill thrummed through his body. He was free! They had found him, just like he had known they would.

Thank God, Chris thought, his mind returning to the inventory without him really thinking about it. It was kind of a weird feeling…

His shoulders were rolled forward, his arms wrapped around something. He tried to move them, but he couldn't. Something was holding his arms fast in place. Was he tied? Why was he tied?

A little worried, he concentrated on his hands…

His wrists were bound!

He shifted his focus to his fingers, which were still inside his gloves, but the nylon fingertips were brushing against something… against… nylon?

Then he realized what it was he was feeling, what was shifting under his cheek: muscles. And, in an instant, realization struck. He had been tied onto someone's back, someone who was trying to hike out with him on his back.

Christ, Chris thought. That was insane. He could clearly remember the terrain they had been moving through. The climb was too steep, the danger of another avalanche too great to try this.

But he also knew they wouldn't care. If they thought he needed help, they would get him out the quickest way possible, and that meant climbing up that ridge to the top where they could call for a Search & Rescue chopper to come and get them.

Jesus fucking Christ… None of them could do that!

Who is it? he wondered, trying to force his eyes open, but they still refused to cooperate. So he listened.

Who the hell is killin' himself to save my sorry ass?

The labored breathing was back, echoing loudly in his ears, and he could feel the muscles under the jacket straining, working as hard as they could – cording, relaxing and immediately cording again.

You can't do it, he tried to say, but the words escaped his lips as a soft moan.

He wanted to tell whoever it was to stop, to rest, but he knew it would be useless. He couldn't even open his eyes, how the hell was he going to find a way to speak?

A few moments later he suddenly felt weightless for a brief moment before he was jerked hard, like when a parachute opened on a jump. The sudden stop sent bolts of pain slicing through his thighs and his shoulders. He grunted and moaned, but it seemed that no one had heard him.

His heart began to beat faster. What had happened? Were they caught in another slide?

Chris quickly grabbed hold of his thoughts and emotions, forcing the fear back so he could think, concentrate. He had to think. He had to know who was carrying him, what was happening…

No, they weren't caught in another avalanche. In fact, they weren't moving at all. The only sound he could hear was the gasping breath, the only thing he could feel were the trembling muscles under him.

Then another sound reached his ears… retching. Whoever was carrying him was throwing up.

Damn it! This is crazy! Leave me here and go get help. There's no way you're going to make it to the top of that ridge. Christ, why isn't someone helping you? Maybe there was no one else to help? Could he have lost five of his men today?

A new fear warred for attention in his chest. Surely they weren't the only survivors. He couldn't accept that. But if they weren't, then where were the others? Why weren't they helping them?

Larabee's thoughts were scattered when he heard a low, soft groan accompanied by a slow rise and, a few moments later, they were moving again.

Was Vin dead? Buck?

JD? He was still a boy, really…

How would he ever be able to face Rain, tell her that her fiancé was dead?

What about Ezra? His mother would be devastated…


Before long, his savior's breath came in wheezing gasps, and his steps grew increasingly unsteady, but still he pushed on, determined. Whoever the hell it was, he wasn't going to stop, not until he reached the top.

But that was impossible! Didn't he know that? Didn't one of the others? Why weren't they taking turns? Why weren't two of them carrying him? Surely Nathan would have known the climb was impossible for one man, wouldn't he?

Unless it was Nathan who was carrying him… The man would go to any lengths to save one of them, he knew that. Hell, they all would…

He moaned again, softly, frustration at his inability to communicate prompting the sound. He couldn't tell his rescuer to stop.

Chris just hoped that, whoever it was, he could make it.

Soft grunts echoed in Larabee's ears, no doubt wrenched out of his rescuer by the incredible pain that kept the man's muscles twitching and trembling, even as he continued to plod on, step after step.

It wasn't JD, that much he knew. And whoever it was, he was too small for him to be Josiah… or Nathan… or Buck.

All right, he thought, that leaves who? Vin or… Ezra… Or maybe it was a ranger, or even a Search & Rescue man.

He wanted, needed to know who it was, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't force his way past the last barriers trapping him in this half-waking world so he could reach full consciousness. He groaned again, frustration climbing, and the movement stopped for a second time. The man's body was shaking so hard Chris expected him to fall, but he didn't.

Larabee felt the man's head turn.

Probably trying to get a look at me, he reasoned. Because of the groan. He felt the brush of hair against his face and knew, with absolute certainty, that it was Vin who was carrying him.

Jesus, he thought. He and Vin were close to the same height, they had similar builds… How the hell could Tanner do it? He couldn't. There was no fucking way Tanner could carry him up the side of that goddamn mountain. No way at all. It was impossible.

Vin started off again, the sounds of the man's harsh breathing filling Chris' ears again.

No, Vin, stop, he ordered the man, but Tanner didn't hear him of course. Please, he begged, you're going to kill yourself!

Anger flared in Larabee's chest. Why were they letting Vin do this? They had to know it was impossible. He was going to hurt himself, or worse.

Why didn't Vin just leave him there? Why didn't one of the others help him?

He whined in frustration, trying hard to speak, to tell Tanner to stop, to put him down, but the sniper just kept trudging forward, wheezing, shaking, the unstoppable object, possessed by an irresistible force.

For me, Chris realized. He's doing this for me… Jesus…

Chris wasn't sure how long they traveled, but his world was quickly reduced to the rasping, straining gasps that passed for his rescuer's breath, and the feel of the man's muscles under his cheek as they strained with the effort to save his life. Both were interrupted from time to time when Vin fell to his knees, retching into the snow.

His life? His life meant that much to the man? Christ… I'm not worth this, Vin, believe me… I'm not. You have to stop. Don't you hear me, Tanner? I said stop! Damn it, Vin!

Vin was doing this to save his life. And that knowledge brought tears to his eyes for the second time that day.

Please, Vin, stop. You have to stop, damn it…

The voices returned, some sounding concerned, but they were still too far away for him to make out the words that were being spoken. Were the others still alive then? But it made no sense. If they were alive, they would have been helping. They weren't helping, therefore, they must be dead.

A shot of icy dread shot through his heart. Maybe they were dead. Maybe he was close, too. Maybe they were calling him over to join them…

But he couldn't listen. He couldn't go. He couldn't leave Vin here alone. No. Never. He knew too well what that felt like, how much it hurt. He couldn't do that to Vin… he wouldn't…

A few moments later Vin came to an abrupt halt, but then he was moving again.

No, Larabee snapped. You can't do this. I'm not going to let you kill yourself to save my sorry ass. Christ! Damn it, Tanner, put me down!

But Vin just kept moving forward, one shaky footstep at a time.

Jesus… Please, Lord, don't let him do this… Don't let him kill himself for me, Larabee thought as the blackness rose up and carried him away.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Ezra and JD reached the top of the ridge first, both immediately dropping into the snow and gasping noisily for breath. The climb had been incredibly hard for all of them, but especially for Vin, who was burdened with Chris.

When the two men had caught their breaths, they turned to watch as Buck picked his way carefully over half-buried rocks and felled trees. His limp was more pronounced than it had been earlier, but the same could also be said of Josiah as he stumbled along after the ladies' man, Nathan next to him.

JD cradled his arm to his chest, the pain he was feeling clear in the grimace on his face. The rough sound of Buck's breath reached them.

Ezra crawled to the edge of the ridge and extended his hand, saying, "Buck."

The ladies' man looked up and, a moment later, realized what he was seeing. He took the man's proffered hand, letting Standish help pull him up and over the last of the incline. He turned around and dropped heavily into the snow next to the undercover man, panting to regain his breath.

A few moments later, Josiah and Nathan helped each other over the edge, with a little help from Ezra and Buck.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Well below them, Vin continued to struggle up the steep slope, his wheezing gasps masking all other sounds as he inched closer and closer to the top. The sniper's face was flushed and shiny with sweat that beaded on his forehead and ran down the sides of his face and into his eyes, but he ignored the resulting sting, focusing only on reaching the top of the ridge.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

As soon as JD caught his breath, he dug the radio out of his pack and called for help. "Twenty minutes," he announced when he was done. "They… have our position… They're… on the way."

Ezra forced himself to his feet and, looking down at Vin, called, "Search and Rescue is on the way!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The sniper didn't even look up at the shout, he just forced one foot in front of the other, silently praying his strength didn't fail him before he reached the others at the top. But he wasn't sure he was going to make it.

It was getting more and more difficult to breathe, and his legs were growing heavier and harder to lift.

And, worst of all, he could see a tight band of blackness cutting off his peripheral vision, creeping slowly toward the center of his vision. He knew he had to reach the others before his vision went black, otherwise they would end up having to drag both him and Chris the rest of the way. Given the steep rise, he doubted they could do that without someone getting more seriously injured.

Blinking the sweat from his eyes again, he sucked in a breath as best he could and kept moving forward.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"He's not going to make it," Buck said softly, shaking his head.

"He has to," Ezra replied, his gaze locked on the sniper.

"You're almost there, Vin," Buck called to the struggling man.

"Way to go, Brother Vin," Josiah added.

"You can do it, Vin," JD encouraged.

"Come on," Nathan said, "you can do it."

They all watched as the sniper stumbled, fell to his knees in the snow, then pushed himself back up and continued on. The same thing happened two more times, but he was getting closer; only a few more yards to go.

"Here, Vin, right here," Buck called when it looked like Tanner might veer off. "You're almost here. Come to me. Right here."

"A few more steps, Vin, you can do it," JD said, then shook his head and added in a softer tone, "Amazing… It's freakin' amazing."

"Everybody comes home," Buck replied, in a near-whisper. "Everybody."

"Come on, Vin," Ezra called, "you can do it. You're there. You're there."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin could hear the voices, he could even understand some of the words, but the meaning washed over him, incomprehensible. He was lightheaded, and that was probably making it hard for him to decipher what they were trying to tell him.

He would be doing better if he could just draw in a few deep breaths to clear his head. But he was unable to draw those breaths, and he panted hard, trying to hold the blackness at bay, but it kept crowding in on him, trying to suck him into the welcoming oblivion he knew awaited him in the darkness.

When hands reached out, grabbing his arms, helping him the last few steps, and he didn't even really notice.

"Hang on, Vin," Buck said, immediately starting to untie Chris while Ezra helped him.

A few moments later they lowered Larabee to the ground, Nathan moving over to check on Chris while Ezra guided Vin to a large stone jutting up out of the snow, warm and dry from the sunlight shining on it all day. He helped the sniper sit, exchanging worried looks with the others over the wheeze that rattled out of man's chest.

"Vin?" Ezra asked, taking the sniper's face in his hands and lifting it so he could see Tanner's eyes better. They were glassy and the skin around his lips was touched with blue. "Vin, can you hear me?"

Vin blinked once, then nodded. "Can't… breathe."

And it didn't get any easier for the sniper over the next several minutes. He looked up at one point, meeting Ezra's concerned gaze and gasped, "Chris?"

Standish looked over, calling, "Nathan?"

The man looked up and said, "I'll be right there."

"How is Chris?" Ezra asked.

"He's coming around," Nathan said, then looked back at Larabee when the man moaned.

Vin choked and coughed, starting to stand so he could get to Chris, but he dropped back, his hands coming up to his chest. "Can't… breathe."

"Easy," Ezra said, turning back to the sniper. Then he heard the sound of the chopper approaching. "Help's on the way. Just keep breathing."

"Tryin'…" Vin said, his gaze flickering between Nathan and Ezra. "Chris?"

"He's doing better than you are," Standish said.

Vin tried to shoot the man an annoyed glare, but he just didn't have the strength to do it. A moment later he felt the first buffet from the chopper's rotor blades as it moved in to hover above them. He focused on drawing one breath, then another, and another, as a basket was lowered, Nathan and Buck moving Chris into it, then climbing in themselves to be winched up.

"Time to go," Ezra said into the sniper's ear.

Still wheezing, Vin stood, managing three steps toward the next basket before the blackness finally overtook him and he collapsed, face-first, into the snow.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Community Hospital

Aspen, Colorado

11 January 1999

4:20 p.m.

Nathan sighed heavily and pushed off the sofa to pace in the small waiting room. He checked his watch and scowled when he found only twenty minutes had passed since the last time he had checked – forty-five minutes since they had arrived at the hospital in Aspen.

"You should stay off that ankle," JD said softly as Nathan passed him.

Jackson glanced at the younger man, a sharp retort dying in the back of his throat. JD's arm was in a cast, and his expression was sincerely concerned. He glanced down at his ankle, wrapped tightly in ace bandages, then sat down next to JD with another sigh. He hadn't even noticed the ankle up on the mountain, just his shoulder. He shook his head. Hell, they had all had more injuries than they expected.

"We'll hear something soon," Josiah assured him from his chair.

Buck nodded. "We'd damn well better."

Ezra, who was lying stretched out on a second sofa, his leg immobilized and resting on a pillow, chuckled softly. "I don't think storming the nurses' station is going to help our situation, Mr. Wilmington."

"You never know," the ladies' man replied, allowing a tired grin. "What could be taking them so long?" he asked Nathan.

Jackson had no answer for the ladies' man, so they continued to wait.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Almost an hour later JD looked up to see a young man entering the otherwise empty waiting room. He was wearing jeans, a dark maroon T-shirt, matching socks and black Brikenstock sandals. He smiled, asking, "Friends of Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner?"

Ezra sat up, the others standing. The man gestured for them to sit back down.

"Are they all right?" Nathan asked worriedly as he sat.

The young man walked over and sat next to Ezra. "I'm Nick Russkin. I treated Mr. Larabee, and he's doing very well. We're moving him to his own room; you're welcome to see him as soon as he's settled. We're going to keep him for a day or so to make sure there are no complications, but everything looks good so far."

"What about Vin?" Josiah asked him.

The doctor glanced at the big profiler. "I'm not the attending, so I don't really have any answers for you. But I can tell you he was still being treated."

"Mr. Tanner is going to be fine," an older woman said, walking in to join them.

"This is Dr. Sanja Assbecki," Dr. Russkin introduced.

The woman nodded to the others, then sat down next to Dr. Russkin. She was in her late fifties, with short black hair that was liberally salted with silver. Deep laugh lines around her pale brown eyes gave her an air of matronly affection. Her skin was a deep cocoa brown.

"What's wrong with him?" Nathan asked her.

"He took a pretty good knock to the head–"

"What?" Ezra interrupted, looking from Nathan to the other men. "Did he say anything to you?"

Dr. Assbecki smiled. "He told me he didn't say anything. But the blow weakened him, and when you add in that climb… Well, to make a long story short, he's had the equivalent of an asthma attack, and he's currently finishing his second nebulizer treatment. He's also strained a great many muscles, and I want someone in our sports medicine department to do an evaluation. To be honest, I cannot understand how he did it, not with the headache he must have had, and then the respiratory inflammation."

"It's pure, unadulterated stubbornness," Buck supplied, his expression half-amused, half-awed.

"That is as good an answer as any," Dr. Assbecki agreed.

"No," Joshia replied, shaking his head, "it was just a matter of heart, and that boy has more heart than any man I've met."

"Whatever you call it, he probably saved Mr. Larabee's life," Dr. Russkin said. "Not to mention spared all of you more serious injuries."

"But he'll be fine, right?" JD asked the two doctors.

"I think so," Dr. Assbecki replied. "We're going to keep him overnight, to see how his lungs respond to the treatments. I've scheduled an evaluation in the sports medicine clinic for tomorrow morning; Dr. McCouch is very good."

The two physicians stood, Dr. Russkin smiling at them. "Don't worry, they'll both be fine. And you can check with the nurses' station to find out what Mr. Larabee's room is. Mr. Tanner will be joining him in a little while."

"Thank you," Nathan said.

"You're very welcome," Dr. Assbecki replied.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Community Hospital

11 January 1999

8:40 p.m.

Chris glanced tiredly into the open hospital rooms he passed as he was wheeled down the hall to his own room. He was still cold, but at least it wasn't the same bone-bending, icy pain that had held him in its grip earlier. But he was tired, exhausted, really.

Once in his room, the orderly who had pushed his wheelchair helped him into a narrow, but comfortable bed. A nurse arrived to make sure a heated blanket was tucked in around him from foot to shoulders before she added an extra regular blanket to the bed to keep the heat trapped close to his body. His feet were encased in at least two pairs of socks, and there were mittens on his hands, a knit cap on his head, and something warm wrapped around his neck. He hoped he could get comfortable for the first time in many hours soon.

"Thanks," he said, his voice sounding weak and rough.

The orderly smiled. "No problem," he said on his way out. "You take care."

The nurse grabbed an electric cord with a button at the end. "If you need anything, just call, okay? I'm going to go get you something warm to drink. Would you like coffee or tea? Maybe some soup?"

"Coffee's fine."

"Okay, I'll be right back."

Chris watched the woman leave, sleep making his eyelids heavy and he wondered if he would even be awake when she returned. That concern vanished the moment he saw Buck lean into his room.

"You awake?" Wilmington asked him.

"Am now."

Wilmington smiled and limped slowly into the room, Nathan, Josiah, Ezra and JD following right behind him.

"How're you feeling?" Jackson asked him.

"Better," Chris said, holding his anger in check. They all looked battered and at least as tired as he felt. "Still thawing out, but at least my teeth have stopped chattering."

"Nothing else?" Buck asked him, his expression skeptical. It was hard to imagine Chris could have escaped an avalanche unscathed.

Larabee sighed softly. Damn, but they were a pack of mothering hens. "Couple of cracked ribs, some bruises, cuts, and a lump the size of an egg on the back of my head, but that's about the extent of it." He left out the severe hypothermia.

"You are one lucky man," Josiah informed him, shaking his head in disbelief.

Chris' eyes narrowed as he studied the agents. "What about all of you? And where the hell's Vin?"

"Uh, we're all fine," Buck hedged, suddenly looking more than a little uncomfortable.

"Those bandages don't look like 'fine' to me," Chris countered in a near growl. "I want a report – right now."

The others all looked at Nathan.

"My shoulder and ankle. Didn't separate it, but I came close," Jackson explained, nodding down at the sling his arm rested in and deciding he would let the others explain their own darn injuries.

JD held up his arm, which was in a cast. "Fractured wrist… and bruised ribs."

"Wrenched knee," Josiah added, gesturing to his leg and holding up the cane a nurse had given him to use. "Ankle is strained, too."

"Bum hip," Buck added, looking a little sheepish. "Probably a bruised kidney, too."

"Buck," Larabee growled at him.

JD grinned. "He's supposed to be using crutches, but he left them in the waiting room."

The ladies' man shot him a glare, but Dunne was unrepentant. "I told you, JD, those damn things bruise my armpits."

"Next time I see you, it damn well better be on crutches," Larabee told his friend.

Buck sighed heavily, but he held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "All right, all right… Guess it'll give me an advantage with the local ladies…"

Chris looked to Standish, asking, "Well?"

"Sprained ankle," Ezra said simply.

"Severely sprained," Nathan clarified. "He ought to be on crutches as well."

"Yes, well, I was able to talk my physician out of that drastic measure," the undercover man said, looking pleased with himself.

"Vin?" Chris asked, his voice catching. He watched as all five men glanced away from him and felt his chest tighten painfully. Oh God… "Was he–?"

"He's gonna be fine, Chris," Buck interrupted him.

"Then where is he?" Larabee demanded, still worried. He could vividly remember the feel of the man's muscles straining under his weight, the sound of his labored breathing, and the heaves.

"He's still being treated," Nathan explained.

"For what?" Chris asked, his voice rising. What the hell weren't they telling him?

"He took a bump to the head," JD replied.

"And he had something like an, uh, asthma attack," Buck added.


"He can tell you all about it when they bring him in," Nathan added, nodding at the empty bed in Larabee's room. "We told the doctor you'd both behave better if you were in the same room."

"The important thing is, he'll be fine," Josiah summed up.

Chris gave the man a sour look. He was going to demand more information, but decided against it. There was time to find out what was going on, it seemed. Josiah was right, the important thing was that the sniper was going to be fine.

The nurse walked in, carrying a tray with a small glass pot of coffee and a cup. A plastic container was stuffed full with packets of sugar. She set the tray on a bedside stand and rolled it over so it was in easy reach. "Be sure to put in as much sugar as you can stomach," she instructed him. "I'll be back with some more in a little while," she added, then left.

Chris prepared his coffee, adding almost twice as much sugar as he usually would… meaning it was more like what Vin would drink… Damn… He better be all right. If he kills himself saving my life… Got to be a way to kick somebody's ass when they're dead

He made a face when he tried a sip of the hot coffee, but he knew he had to force himself to drink the syrupy liquid. Glancing up, he looked over the men, all of them hurting, all of them worried. "All right, if Vin's gonna be fine, you guys get the hell out of here and get some rest."

"Chris," Buck started to argue, but Larabee held up his hand to silence him.

"That's not a suggestion, people," he added. When he saw the five men exchange mutinous glances, he added, "Look, you told me the doctor said Vin was going to be fine, right? Anything you want to add to that?"

"No," Nathan said emphatically. "Get some rest, Chris. We're going to do the same. We'll see you in the morning."

Chris nodded, then, needing to be sure, he said, "He was the one…"

"Yes," Josiah said softly.

"Yeah… that's what I thought," Larabee offered in a whisper. He cleared his throat and added, "Now, get the hell out of here – now."

He watched them limping and shuffling out of his room, then glanced over at the empty bed, a chill surging through him and nearly forcing the hot coffee back up his throat. "You damn well better be all right, Tanner," he hissed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Community Hospital

12 January 1999

7:50 a.m.

Chris awoke several hours later, warm and pain-free thanks to the medication a nurse had brought in for him some time earlier. He blinked and opened his eyes. It was light outside; he must have slept all night.

Rolling his head to the side, he immediately checked the second bed. Vin was there, under the covers, sleeping. He studied the man's face, noting the dark circles under his eyes but, other than that, he looked fine.

And, thank God, he wasn't hooked up to any machines as far as Larabee could tell, but then he noticed the device attached to the man's finger.

Well, he thought, that makes sense if he was having trouble breathing, they'd want to monitor how much oxygen he has in his blood. But there were no heart monitors, no ventilators, nothing… serious. Thank you, Vin… you damned idiot.

When they got out of the hospital, he knew he owed the sniper a beer and a proper thank you. But, right now… He closed his eyes as the sounds of Vin's strangled wheeze filled his head and he felt again the man's muscles bunching, twitching with the strain, jerking as he humped his sorry ass to the top of that ridge. He knew he would never forget the way the man's muscles had trembled with exhaustion, or the heat that had risen from the man's body, heat that had probably kept Chris alive until they had reach that ridge… How did you thank someone for that?

If they had been in the military it would have been simpler, he would have put Vin in for a medal… But that wasn't a thank you, not really.

A soft whimper scattered his thoughts and Chris looked back at the sleeping man. Tanner was frowning, the troubled sound escaping his lips once again.

"Hey, Vin?" Chris called softly.

The sniper grunted and jerked, his eyes blinking open. It took a moment for his eyes to focus, but then he looked at Chris and grinned sleepily. "'Bout damn time y' woke up, Cowboy," he grumbled.

Chris returned the smile. "Yeah? Well, how are you doing?" he asked, suddenly at a loss. How did you talk to the man who had done the freakin' impossible, humping your ass up the side of a mountain?

Vin nodded and shrugged at the same time as he pushed himself up so he was sitting up in the bed. The movements were clearly painful. Then he snorted softly and shook his head. "Sore," he said by way of a reply.

"I'll bet," Chris replied, his voice hardly more than a whisper.

The two men fell silent for a long moment before Vin asked, "Got all your fingers 'n' toes… 'n' other parts?"

Chris grinned. "Yeah, all the parts are— Everything's where it belongs. I'm fine."

Vin nodded, clearly relieved. "Yeah, me too."

Larabee wanted to say more, to say thank you, but the words just weren't available. They were both spared the awkwardness when a nurse came in, letting them know their breakfasts would be arriving shortly.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Community Hospital

13 January 1999

7:40 a.m.

Chris awoke to the soft sounds of the television playing in his room. He glanced over at the second bed, but it was empty and made up. Then he remembered, they had released Vin yesterday afternoon. The sniper was headed to several sessions of physical therapy once he got back to Denver, but he would be fine. And that made Larabee feel much better. There was no permanent damage, just pulled and strained muscles and ligaments, over-extended joints and severe muscle fatigue…

Just… He snorted and shook his head.

With luck, he would be leaving this afternoon himself. Not that any of his team seemed to be in any rush for him to be discharged. No, they all seemed to be enjoying their time in the Colorado resort town.

"Good morning," Josiah greeted as he walked in and found Chris awake.


"They tried to drop your breakfast off a while ago, but I thought you'd rather sleep. I'll go let them know you're awake so they can bring it up."

"Thanks," Chris replied, looking forward to the coffee, if not the rest of the meal. It seemed hospital food tasted the same no matter where you were. "Where is everybody?"

The older man's eyes rounded slightly and his eyebrows arched. "They're… out. Taking in the sights," he added.


He smiled warmly. "Aspen's a beautiful town… You should see some of the galleries."

"Pass," Chris replied.

Josiah used the remote control to turn up the volume on the television, suddenly very interested in whatever it was that Bryan and Jane were talking about.

Chris sighed and shook his head. Something was going on, but Josiah obviously didn't want to talk about it. A volunteer arrived, carrying his breakfast tray, and set it up for him. He thanked the older man, then lifted the plastic cover, setting it on the bed and digging into his food. An interruption for breaking news caught his attention and he glanced up, watching as a parka-clad reporter started speaking.

"…we have some amateur video of the incident that took place not far from Aspen earlier this morning…"

The screen shifted to an area around a ski resort. At one side of the screen was a long row of snowmobiles, on the other, the edge of a building. In the center of the screen was a pretty young woman who was smiling at the camera while she held a two- or three-year-old girl, helping her to wave at the camera.

All of a sudden, three of the snowmobiles exploded in what was an obviously well-contained fashion, at least to a trained observer.

"Why these three snowmobiles exploded is under investigation, but local authorities believe it was an intentional act. Luckily, no one was injured in the blasts. The early hour meant that tourists were, for the most part, still in their hotel rooms."

Josiah grabbed the remote and pressed the mute button just as Chris bellowed, "Where are they!"

He met Chris' accusing glare and shrugged. "I'm, uh, not sure, they–"

"Were out there, blowing up three snowmobiles!" Chris hissed, his voice low enough no one walking by could overhear, but just barely.

Josiah held his gaze, then pulled himself up and replied, "They deserved more, Chris. They really did. They knew exactly what they were doing, and they didn't care. They also saw the avalanche, and us, and they didn't bother to report it. They could've gotten us killed out there. Be grateful I talked them into just blowing up the machines."

Chris blinked. "They knew?"

The profiler nodded. "You don't think we'd do something like that if we hadn't done our homework first, do you?"

Larabee shook his head and said, "Get them on the cell… I want to say thank you."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Federal Building, Denver

17 January 1999

9:00 a.m.

Chris looked up as AD Travis stepped into his office. "So, how's the Phelps family doing?"

"Dealing with the loss of Daniel Phelps and his brothers," the older man replied sadly, but then he brightened a little, "but I hear Hannah and Andy are telling people all about the 'soldier angels' who rescued them."

Chris grinned and chuckled softly.

"How are you doing?" Travis asked. "All of you."

"Fine," Larabee assured him. "We'll need a couple more weeks, but then we'll be good to go when you need us."

Travis nodded, a sly smile curving the corners of his mouth. "And that, uh, incident in Aspen?"

"What incident?" Chris asked him, looking perfectly innocent. (Even Ezra would have been proud if he'd seen him.)

Travis shook his head. "You know damn well, what incident. You're all damned lucky you weren't caught."

"Or damned good," Chris offered with a wolf-like grin.

Travis chose to ignore that remark. "And what is this I hear about an elk hunting trip?"

"You wouldn't want to go," Chris told him. "Too cold."

"I like the cold. I do well in the cold. Have you been to Washington lately? The budget talks are damn frosty, I can tell you."

Larabee laughed. "All right, then, you're invited."

"Great," the older man enthused. "When do we leave?"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Larabee's Ranch

19 January 1999

7:00 p.m.

Chris looked around him, enjoying the scene. His team were scattered around his living room, well-fed and relaxed. It was exactly how he liked to see them.

But while the rest of his men were enjoying the company and the movie playing on pay-per-view, Larabee was sitting in his chair, the sounds of Vin's harsh breathing as he had struggled to the top of that ridge, echoing in his mind.

Watching the sniper from the corner of his eye, he marveled at how quickly Tanner had bounced back from the ordeal. Oh, he still had several weeks of PT to look forward to, but the doctors all agreed that he was going to be just fine. They were all going to be fine.

But the blond just could not get the feel of the man's trembling muscles out of his mind. It was one thing to know that your friends were willing to lay their lives on the line for you, and quite another to have actually tested it – felt it, heard it, lived it. He just wasn't sure what he was supposed to do.

If it had been in the line of duty, things would have been different. Hell, Tanner had saved all their lives at one time or another while on the job, often by putting himself at risk, and he had gotten hurt, worse than this, as a result. It was what they all expected, and what they were all willing to do for each other…

But this wasn't on the job, not really. This felt different, and it was driving him to distraction.

Surely there had been a better way to do it. They could have rigged up something so two or three of them could have carried him, couldn't they?

And why hadn't Vin told them he was hurt as well?

Okay, it was a head injury, and maybe he hadn't really realized he was hurt at the time. God knew that would be like Tanner – get an injury that allowed him to think he wasn't injured. Damn convenient, if you asked him.

No, Chris told himself, Vin knew. Vin knew exactly what condition he was in, and he chose to do it, alone.


And why did it matter so damn much that he got an answer to that freakin' question?

He wasn't sure. But it did.

He pushed himself up and took a couple of steps toward the hallway, then stopped and said, "Vin, you help me for a second?"

Tanner looked up from where he lay, stretched out on the smaller of the two sofas. "Yeah, sure." He pushed himself up and climbed to his feet, moving more stiffly than he usually did.

Together the two men walked to the kitchen, Larabee going about making coffee for the team while Vin gathered up the cups and started adding sugar and cream to those that needed it.

They worked in silence. But Chris had asked Vin to help him for a reason, and he had to know, had to ask: "Why?"

"Huh?" Vin responded, pausing in his task.

"Why?" Chris repeated, his voice soft, intense.

Tanner's gaze dropped to the floor as he realized just what it was his friend was asking. "Had to be done," he replied.

"Why alone?"

"The rest of 'em were hurt."

"So were you," Larabee reminded him.

Vin leaned back against the counter, his arms folded over his chest, his gaze still on the terracotta tiles. "Not as bad."

"Yes, you were. And damn it, Tanner, you knew it, too."

A heavy sigh and Vin lifted his head, blue eyes meeting Larabee's green. "Didn't want any of 'em gettin' hurt worse 'n they already were."

That brought the blond up short. "That's it?"

Vin's expression turned a little stony. "What're y' interrogatin' me for?" he asked, his accent thickening, a sure sign he was getting uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was heading.

"That's it?" Larabee repeated.

Another heavy sigh, huffed out with a softly muttered curse, and Vin mumbled, "Had t' do it…"


"Had t' make sure it got done!"

That caught Chris by surprise, although he couldn't honestly say what it was he had expected to hear. He lowered his voice and asked, "You didn't trust them?"

That brought Vin's head up, blue eyes flashing slightly. "'Course I trust 'em. I trust 'em with my life," he snapped, then jerked his gaze away from the man and sighed heavily. "Just harder when it's your life is all…" he added, his words trailing off as his cheeks colored with embarrassment.

That sparked a blush across Larabee's cheeks as well. He wasn't sure what kind of expression was on his face, but whatever it was, it prompted Vin to continue.

"You were out of it, an' I could see Nathan was scared. I knew we had t' get y' t' that ridge so we could call in a ride. They were hurt, and—" He broke off, making his own realizations. "And I just couldn't take the chance. I knew I'd get y' there."

"But why?"

"Damn it, Chris, I gotta spell it out for you?"

Larabee didn't reply, as confused as Tanner was in his own way.

Vin's voice dropped and he looked first to the kitchen doorway, to make sure that they were still alone. "Ain't had much family, what I do have means a lot t' me. You're family, Chris. I'm not gonna apologize for bustin' my ass t' make sure I keep what I got."

Larabee shook his head. "Wouldn't want you to apologize, Vin. It's just that…" He trailed off, unsure what, exactly, he wanted to say. "Family's precious," he finally stated. "There's no doubt of that… But I want you to remember something, okay?"

Vin nodded, unable to meet the older man's eyes.

"It works both ways," was all he said, watching as the implications sunk in.

Vin paled slightly and he nodded. "I understand," he said simply, softly.

"Seems pretty inadequate, given what you did, but… thank you."

Tanner nodded. "You're welcome."

The two men exchanged uncomfortable glances, both of them embarrassed, and yet the closeness they felt was undeniable, and too important to ignore.

"Family," Chris said softly, "has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"

"The best," Vin agreed, then he cleared his throat and asked, "That coffee ready yet?"