To the Last Breath by The Neon Gang


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 Patricia Grace, Mary Fallon Zane, 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(

Federal Building
Monday, May 17, 2004
0915 Hours
Larabee looked up from the file he had been skimming as he leaned against Tanner's desk. He frowned. Orin Travis was headed across the office toward them, and if the serious expression on the older man's face was any indication, the news he was bringing them wasn't good. In fact, Larabee would be willing to bet, some kind of shit had just hit the fan...

"Sir?" he greeted as the Assistant Director came to a stop, Travis' gaze sweeping over the agents, all of whom were seated at their desks, except for Larabee.

"We need to talk, gentlemen. Now."

Chris pushed off Tanner's desk and nodded at the conference room. Without comment, the men rose and filed into the room. Travis was the last one in and he closed the door behind them.

He waited until the seven agents had taken their seats, then huffed out a sigh and asked, "Has anyone been monitoring the news this morning?"

It appeared no one had.

Travis scowled and looked down at the carpet, wishing he didn't have to break the news. "As you may or may not know, there is a government research facility here in Denver, well, on the edge of Purgatory, to be exact."

"What kind of research facility?" JD asked. He'd never heard about any government group operating in the run down neighborhood most people avoided if at all possible, and by the surprised look on Vin's face, he hadn't heard about it either.

"A laboratory," Travis supplied.

"Doin' what?" Tanner wanted to know. After all, he lived there, despite all their efforts to get him to move someplace safer.

Travis' lips pressed into a thin line for a moment, then he huffed out a sigh and said, "Apparently they're doing research on bio-terrorism and counter-terrorism." The resulting disgusted look on Tanner's face summed up his feeling on the subject quite nicely the older man thought.

"It gets worse, I'm afraid," Travis continued. "A whistleblower sent the Post a confidential internal memo. Evidently four mice being used in some of the experiments are... unaccounted for."

"What exactly does that mean?" Wilmington wanted to know, his tone defensive.

"It means they can't find the damn things," Travis snapped back.

That reaction apprehended the attention of all seven men. Orin Travis wasn't a man who rattled easily, but this had clearly upset the man.

"The newspaper broke the story earlier today, and the television networks are all over it," Travis explained. "According to the Post reporter, a routine security check the day before yesterday turned up the missing mice. Apparently they've been trying to find the damn things ever since."

"The Ides of March, how appropriate," Standish offered half under his breath.

"What does all this have to do with us?" Josiah asked the AD.

Travis scowled again and huffed out a sigh. "Shortly after the paper came out this morning the facility began receiving bomb threats," he told them. "About two hours ago, at seven a.m., someone tossed a pipe bomb over the wall surrounding the facility. It didn't go off, but it could have. And one of the groups who e-mailed the facility is the same eco-terrorist organization that burned the ski lifts near Aspen and ransacked the university labs last year."

"What will our role be?" Larabee asked his boss, frowning slightly.

"To protect the facility until this situation is over, and to investigate who this morning's bomber was. Forensics is looking at the pipe bomb as we speak. They already know to copy you on the report as soon as they're done. The IT techs are already trying to trace back the e-mail threats, see who might really be dangerous and who's just venting."

Ezra leaned forward. "Might I inquire as to what kind of experiments the missing mice were being used for?"

Travis snorted. "You can, Agent Standish, but as of yet Homeland Security has not seen fit to share that information with us."

"Wonderful," Buck grumbled, shaking his head.

"Did they happen to tell you if those mice are carrying something that can be transmitted to humans?" Nathan asked the AD.

Travis shook his head. "That's apparently 'need to know' as well, Agent Jackson."

"And if they are carrying something that can-?" JD began.

"Then we'd better hope their people find those damn rodents as quickly as possible," Travis interrupted him. "For now, let's just concentrate on making sure no one blows up the facility before they find the damn things..." He took a deep breath and added, "The NIH is sending a team to help the laboratory people find the mice and do whatever it is that needs to be done. We just need to ensure that they're all safe while they do so. God only knows what could be set loose on the city if someone actually succeeds in destroying the building." The older man sighed heavily and rubbed the back of his neck. "Be careful, gentlemen."

The others nodded, but it was clear that no one was feeling particularly good about this assignment.

Monday, 1130 Hours

The members of Team Seven were hard at work. Nathan was accompanying a Forensics team, and a team from the laboratory, to test the area around the facility, ensuring there had been no breach of containment.

Buck was working with the explosives experts, trying to narrow down the bomber, while JD was peering over the techs' shoulders as they worked on tracking down the sources of the threatening e-mails.

Ezra had headed out to tap his wide network of contacts and see if he could find out what Creation's Liberation Coalition was currently up to. The most violent of the extremist environmental groups, the CLC had been known to employ deadly tactics in the past, and this was just the kind of situation that would grab their attention.

Chris was in a conference room inside the covert facility that had been set up to serve as their command center, coordinating the information his men were getting and working on a plan to protect the facility and the people who worked there.

Vin and Josiah were outside, keeping an eye on the building. Tanner was on the roof of another, taller building across the street from the secret research laboratory, while Josiah was working with the company who provided security for the facility to plug a few gaps the team had found.

As Vin peered through his scope at the rear of the non-descript facility, he couldn't help but marvel at how it looked like any number of older, run down buildings that littered the mostly Hispanic community he lived in. God only knew what kind of witch's brew they might be working on inside... And the very thought made him mad. Why didn't the people in the community know this was happening in their backyards?

But he already knew the answer - because the people in the community were considered expendable. They never would have put a facility like this in Boulder, or Denver, or even in Capital Hill. But Purgatory? Sure, why not.

It wasn't right.

His gaze continued to wander over the three sides of the building he could see, as well the buildings closest to the facility. One, an Ace Hardware store, was displaying a large hand-written note in the front window: Mouse-traps Sold Out.

He grinned at that. At least the locals had kept their sense of humor so far.

His cell phone rang and Vin fished it out of his pocket. "Yeah," he said.

"I heard from Travis," Chris' voice announced into his ear. "They think the mice were being used in some kind of weaponized plague-shit tests."

"Wonderful," Vin said on a sigh. "What does that mean?"

"Watch yourself," Larabee replied. "No cheese sandwiches for lunch."

"Fuck you, Larabee," the man replied, shaking his head as he shoved the cell phone back into his pocket. But he was grinning.

Monday, 1700 Hours

That evening Vin sat in a small neighborhood restaurant, devouring his dinner at the worn formica counter. The café, Tolson's, was a favorite among the locals, especially when Mrs. Tolson fixed roast beef for the special.

Bob "Pop" Tolson worked the long counter while "Mom" did all the cooking, and a local teenager took care of the ten booths that were squeezed into the small dining area. Those booths were presently almost full and Vin shared the counter with two truckers he'd seen in there before, and a Black man he was sure must be a first-timer, the four of them enjoying their meals and hot coffee in companionable silence.

Pop gave the ceiling a cranky scowl when a metal-rending noise drowned out the local country music station that was playing his favorite song on the radio. "Damned exhaust fan," he grouched, filling one of the trucker's half-empty coffee cup. "Gonna have to replace the whole damn ventilation system one of these days."

"You finally gettin' that fan fixed, Pop?" one of the truckers asked, flashing a grin at his partner. Pop's reputation as a fix-it man was confirmed by a series of photos and newspaper articles decorating the walls at haphazard intervals - mostly awards and citations of recognition for helpful inventions.

"I am," the old man countered, waving his hand in the air above his head. "That's what all the damn noise is about. Couple of guys have been up there the better part of the day, hammering on the blasted thing and not gettin' any further than I did myself. You'd think they'd finally give up or fix it! With all I'm paying 'em, they'd better get it done." He refilled Vin's coffee cup. "Probably would've gotten it done hours ago, but one of 'em keeps comin' down to help himself to Mother's biscuits; can't get any work done doin' that."

The truckers chuckled and the ATF agent smiled. Then, with a loud, echoing series of clangs the fan started up and a cool breeze began circulating through the café.

"Well, it's about time," the old man grumbled, wiping his hands on a damp towel and heading outside to talk to the repairmen, muttering as he went, "Probably gonna cost me a couple day's profit, too."

A few minutes later the old man returned. Vin had finished his dinner and was working on a slice of Mrs. Tolson's homemade peach cobbler, one of the last she had left. He knew she'd kept it safe for him, though. He hardly ever missed a Monday night, thanks to her cobbler.

The truckers had left, the counter empty now except for Tanner and the Black man. Pop walked over and, checking to make sure he was out of the other man's earshot, asked Vin quietly, "You hear about them mice that escaped that lab?"

Tanner nodded.

"You know about that lab being here in Purgatory?"

"Not a damn thing," Vin replied quietly.

"Hell, Vin, you know how it is around here. Mice get into everything... You can't keep 'em out, especially in the winter, but even this time of year they're a pain in the ass."

"I wouldn't worry too much," Tanner told him. "They would've had to report it if those mice were carrying something that could endanger the public," he told the older man, hoping he was right, but he had his own doubts.

Pop shook his head. "It ain't right," he said. "Just ain't right, but there ain't a damn thing we can do about it, is there."

"Just make sure you and Mrs. T put out some extra traps," Tanner told him.

"Already done," the old man told him, shaking his head. "Hell, they even found a couple of 'em living up in the fan... One of these days we're gonna just retire and leave this business to somebody younger."

Vin grinned. It was a familiar complaint, one the old man had been making for over ten years.

Monday, 1923 Hours

Vin coughed, slowing his usual run to a moderate jog. Something was wrong. His chest had started to burn, he was soaked with sweat, and his vision was threatening to blur just enough to make staying on the park path an act of divine intervention. The slower pace eased his symptoms, though, and he completed his run, ending up back in the parking lot of his apartment building.

Bending over, he braced his hands above his knees and drew in several deep breaths, trying to chase away the vague waves of nausea that made his stomach feel heavy and his throat thick.

Seated on the steps, ten-year-old Jesse Chavez watched Vin with growing concern. He glanced down at the stopwatch he was holding, expecting to find that Vin had shaved another ten seconds off his regular time, but instead he found the man was almost a full minute slower than he had been yesterday.

"Vin? Something wrong?"

The ATF agent sucked in one more deep breath and blew it out, straightening and arching back to stretch his spine, which had begun to ache just slightly. "Naw, just catchin' your cold, I think."

"My cold?" the boy questioned, looking decidedly guilty. "I'm sorry, Vin. Really."

"It's okay, Jesse, it's not your fault." Vin coughed, then massaged his chest through the material of his gray sweatshirt. "Maybe it's the flu," he corrected, not really wanting the child to think he was responsible, although he probably was. Vin had taken Jesse and his sister, Maria, to the clinic when their temperatures had spiked Friday night and their mother had woken him up, pounding on his door in a panic.

"Maybe you should have Dr. Agudelo at the clinic look at you," Jesse suggested. "She's real nice. She gave me and Maria candy after."

"Might just do that, little man," Vin said, taking back his stopwatch and frowning at the results. "But first thing I'm gonna do is get a hot shower." He looked down at the boy, adding, "And I think it's time you headed inside to get that homework finished, don't you?"

"Ah, Vin, I hate homework."

"Yeah, well, it's just part of the price y' pay for bein' a kid, kid," he replied, ruffling the boy's hair.

Jesse sighed dramatically, but he stood and followed Vin inside the building, climbing the stairs behind him to the second floor. "See ya tomorrow, Vin!" he called.

"Okay. Buonas noches, Jesse."

"Si, buonas noches, Vin!" the boy called, disappearing.

Tanner grinned, then continued on up to the fourth floor, more than a little annoyed that he was almost winded by the time he got to his door.

He fished his key out of the key pocket in his sweats and slid it into the lock as another cough rattled in his chest, making it ache. And his muscles were staring to ache as well.

"Oh yeah," he muttered as he stepped inside, "definitely catching something..."

Tuesday 0710 Hours

The following morning, Vin sat at a table in Perkins, along with the rest of his team, the other men all devouring their breakfasts. The sniper looked down at his omelet and sighed softly. He had absolutely no appetite, but he knew he needed to eat. He couldn't afford to get lightheaded while up on the roof, watching the lab.

He noticed Nathan was checking him out, and with good reason, too. He was usually the first one done, and he'd hardly gotten started.

"Vin, you feeling all right?" the former medic asked.

"Yeah, just not real hungry," he replied, then tried to stifle a cough, but he was largely unsuccessful.

"Ooh, that sounds nasty," Buck commented, giving the man a wary look. The handsome man hated getting sick - it cut into his quality time with the ladies.

"Thanks," Vin replied dryly, reaching for his coffee and hoping the hot liquid would kill the tickle that had set in at the back of his throat.

"Sounds like you picked up a nasty cold," JD commented. "The lunch girl, uh..."

"Kimberly," Buck supplied immediately, nodding.

"Yeah, her. She had a really bad cold last week," JD continued. "I'll bet you caught it from her when you rode the elevator down with her last Tuesday."

Chris' eyes rounded slightly. "You actually remember stuff like that?" he asked JD.

Buck rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. "Stud, you wouldn't believe some of the things this kid remembers."

"What?" JD asked, his eyebrows climbing. "I'm just... observant."

"And Miss Kimberly Hartley is someone worthy of observation," Josiah added dryly, digging into his bowl of fruit and spearing several pieces with his fork.

That won a chuckle from Buck. "You've got that right," he agreed. "But she's taken some kind of vow - plans to stay a virgin until she gets married."

"Nothing wrong with that," Nathan told him, scraping the last of his oatmeal from his bowl.

"It's a waste of potential, if you ask me," was the ladies' man's reply.

Vin grinned, enjoying the banter. And JD was probably right. He remembered how sick the young woman had sounded when he'd exchanged small talk with her on their ride down to the lobby. Between that and Jesse and Maria his immune system had probably been overwhelmed and succumbed.

Yep, he'd caught a cold - damn it all. Another cough tore through his chest and he couldn't quite stifle the groan it elicited. That brought Nathan's attention back to focus on him.

"Damn, Vin, you'd better let me check you out when we get to the lab."

"Ah hell, Nate, I'm fine," he replied, forcing a piece of the omelet into his mouth. "Just a cold," he added after he swallowed.

Larabee's gaze shifted to the sniper, the man's green eyes narrowing slightly. "Tanner, you look like shit."

Vin's eyes narrowed as well, and he scowled back at the man, but it had no more affect on the blond than Larabee's glare had on him.

Chris looked over at Nathan. "Check him over as soon as we get there."

The former medic nodded, the decision made, with or without Vin's approval or agreement.

Tanner rolled his eyes, but he couldn't help feeling a little warmed by the men's concern. It was damn nice to have a family again, even if they were a bunch of over-protective, mother-henning, annoying brothers for the most part.

He reached for his coffee, concentrating on that rather than his food while the rest of them finished their meals.

Tuesday 0827 Hours

Later, as Vin was checking his gear, Nathan came over carrying his "kit." Knowing he wouldn't be able to get out of it, Vin sighed and submitted to the man's examination.

Nathan proceeded to do a quick appraisal of the sniper: blood pressure was low, but not abnormally so for a man in Tanner's physical condition; his pulse was a little quick and thready, though; skin slightly pale and clammy; good amount of loose chest congestion, but nothing dangerous; and a fever of almost 101.

"Well?" Vin asked when the man was finished.

"You've probably got a bug of some kind."

"I already knew that, Nate," he replied. "What is it? Cold or flu?"

"I don't know. The NIH team that's here could probably tell you quick enough, but I'd recommend you make sure you're getting plenty of liquids, take some aspirin or Tylenol for the fever, and pick up an over-the-counter expectorant to help with that congestion."

Vin nodded. He had plenty of sport drinks with him, and some Tylenol. Maybe be could run down to the Walgreens on Parker at lunchtime and pick up the cough stuff, and some of the nose-friendly tissues.

"I'm going to go check in, and see how the NIH is doing. You gonna be okay up there today?"

Vin nodded and flashed the man a grin. "Yeah, no problem. Weather's nice enough, and I have a six-pack of Powerade in m' bag to take up with me, some trail mix, too."

Jackson nodded. "Well, you start feeling any worse, you give me a call, okay?"

"Yeah," Vin replied, although he had no intention of doing any such thing.

Tuesday 1742 Hours

That evening Vin lay stretched out on his sofa, watching the local news and thinking back over the day. It had been boring - really, really boring, and completely uneventful. The locals had already begun to return to their regular routines, much of the news coverage having moved on to other stories. The NIH still continued to search for the missing mice, not that he or anyone else expected them to find the damn things.

He coughed and reached up to rub at his chest. At least he wasn't feeling any worse than he had this morning. Of course he wasn't feeling any better, either, but he knew better than to dwell on how he was feeling. Better to think about something else and hope that it all went away - as quickly as possible.

Chris and Ezra had tracked down a few of the angry e-mail writers, but so far everyone they had talked to was all bluster, and no bomber.

The analysis of the pipe-bomb hadn't turned up anything useful. And, God knew, these days anyone who wanted to know how to make one could just look it up on the Internet. He doubted that was going to get them anywhere, unless whoever was responsible tried again, in which case they would nail his sorry ass and go home. But they rarely got that lucky.

So it looked like he was going to be stuck babysitting the building for at least a couple more days. He sighed, knowing it could have been worse. At least this way he got to stay in one place for the majority of the day. And Nathan and Chris were both making sure he had plenty to drink and eat, as well as a variety of medicines to take, although none of them seemed to be helping him all that much.

The aloe-infused tissues had been a godsend, though, not to mention the licorice Larabee had somehow snuck into his bag of supplies. That cut through the annoying itch and masked it for a little while each time he ate one of the little black lumps.

He grinned. Chris always took good care of him.

For a brief moment he wished he was out at the man's ranch, right now. But he didn't want Chris to catch his cold, or whatever the hell it was he was suffering with. Still, he didn't much like being alone when he was hurt or sick.

Not that he'd ever admit it to any of the others, but it sometimes made him downright teary when Chris insisted he come out and stay at the ranch until he was on his feet again, even if it meant the man caught his bug as a result.

And whenever that did happen, Vin always made damn sure he returned the favor, staying with Larabee until he was feeling better, too. They watched each others' backs and that meant a hell of a lot to the sniper, who had spent a large portion of his life feeling alone.

"Hell, 'm turnin' into a damn crybaby," he grumbled at himself as he reached up and rubbed the pooling moisture from his eyes. But he honestly did feel blessed to have friends like Chris and Josiah and Nathan and Ezra and Buck and JD...

Laying there on the roof today, sweeping the building through the scope on his rifle, he'd noticed that one of the NIH guys looked like he'd caught a cold, too. It was the same man he'd seen in Tolson's, although he hadn't known at the time he was one of the people the NIH had sent. Poor guy. He'd heard from Josiah at lunch that the man had spent his morning crawling though air ducts, looking for the elusive rodents. That would have just sucked if he'd been feeling anything like the sniper had been at the same time.

Vin coughed again, this time the wet, tearing sound making him wince as it sent shards of pain lancing through his chest. Damn. If he got any worse, he'd have to call in and get Chris to put him on sick leave, something he didn't want to do. It just didn't feel right to him for the team to be out there without him...

He sighed, knowing he ought to get up and go fix himself something for supper - soup, maybe; it was hot and light - but he just didn't have the energy. Another cough tore through his chest, making him moan.

Damn but he hated being alone when he was feeling like this...

A knock at his door startled him, but before Vin could sit up, Chris had used his key to open the lock. He stepped inside carrying a takeout bag from Tolson's.

"Hey," the blond greeted, a worried frown on his face. "That sounded terrible."

"Didn't feel too good either," Vin acknowledged, peering at the takeout bag. "Y' pick something up for me?"

"Nope, I was hungry," Chris replied, deadpan, but then he grinned at him. "Yeah, I thought you might like some of Mother's chicken soup."

"Great minds think alike," Vin wheezed, maneuvering into a seated position and watching as Chris went to the kitchen to get the soup ready. He felt his eyes filling again and cursed softly, wondering what in the world was wrong with him. He was turning into some kind of weepy Wilma.

"You say something?" Larabee called.

"No, nothin'," Vin replied, reaching for a tissue so he could blow his nose and then covertly wipe his eyes.

By the time he'd tossed the tissue into the small trashcan he'd moved to the end of the coffee table, Chris was back with a bowl of homemade chicken soup and a sleeve of crackers.

"Here you go," the man said, setting both on the coffee table and then heading back to the kitchen, saying, "You get started on that and I'll make us some coffee."

"Okay," Vin agreed, reaching for the spoon in the bowl and taking a sip of the tasty broth. "Mmm," he sighed, his eyes closing. He took a bite of the thick noodles, along with a piece of carrot and asked, "Pop's fan still fixed?"

"Yeah, I think so," Chris called from the kitchen. "But he and Mother seem to be coming down with something, too."

"Oh, man, I hope I didn't get them sick," Vin said, looking guilty.

"You eat in there recently?" Chris asked, coming out to sit in the one recliner in the living room.

"Last night," Vin said, then took another bite of the hearty soup. He loved Mrs. Tolson's homemade chicken soup, but his stomach was telling him it really wasn't hungry.

"Can't catch a cold from somebody that quick," Chris assured him.

"I was in there a couple of times last week, too - after I'd been exposed to Kimberly."

Larabee offered him a shrug. "Well, maybe... You feeling any better?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Vin replied, forcing down another spoonful, but then he stopped as it threatened to come right back up again.

"Vin?" Chris asked, seeing the look of panic that passed through the younger man's eyes.

"Guess I'm just not hungry," Vin replied. "Sorry."

"You... not eating some of Mother's chicken soup?"

"Hell, I'm sproutin' feathers here, Larabee," Vin complained, setting the almost full bowl back on the coffee table and slumping back against the sofa cushion.

Chris stood and walked over to the couch, sitting down next to Tanner and reaching out to press his hand to the sniper's forehead. "Jesus, Vin, you're burning up."

A coughing spasm contorted the sniper's face and he gripped his sides. "You're tellin' me?" he ground out. "Hell, t' be honest, it's been gettin' worse all day. Can't eat, fever's hangin' on, and I hurt all over, too."

Larabee frowned. "Sound like this might be a flu bug, not a cold."

Vin nodded. "Be just my luck. I just hope everyone else doesn't come down with it, too."

"I'll warn Travis," Larabee said, his frown deepening as he noted the sudden pallor of Vin's face. "I think you better stay home tomorrow. I don't want you around the others until I can get everyone a flu shot, or a cache of antibiotics, Kleenex and cough-drops."

"Thanks," Vin rasped. "Your concern's overwhelmin'."

Larabee grinned. "Yeah, well, your crud seems to be worse than anybody else's I've seen. Maybe we ought to call the doctor, get you in to see him tomorrow."

Vin only hesitated long enough to suffer through another series of coughs before he nodded. "Fine. Hand me m' cell 'n' I'll give Chandler a call."

The easy capitulation had Chris feeling glad that he'd suggested a trip to the doctor's office, because if Vin was giving in this easily, he needed to see the man, and as soon as possible. "You call the doc, I'll go see if the coffee's ready. You think you can keep that down, or do you want some tea instead?"

Tanner shook his head. "Rather have the coffee," he said as he surfed down his phone list until he found Chandler's number and let the phone dial for him. A moment later he was speaking to the physician's answering service. After a couple of coughs, he was told to arrive at eight; the doctor would see him first thing in the morning.

"Thanks, I really appreciate it," he told the woman.

"No problem," she replied. "You sound terrible. If you need to, you can go to the emergency clinic at Summit any time, and Dr. Chandler will be paged."

"Naw, I should be okay until tomorrow mornin'."

"Okay," the woman said, "but if that cough gets any worse, I think you might want to come in."

"All right," Vin said, hoping it wouldn't come to that.

Chris returned and handed him a coffee mug that was almost full. "See if I put enough sugar in that."

Vin tried a sip and nodded. "Thanks."

"So, when do you see him?"

"Tomorrow, at eight," Vin replied.

Larabee sat, sipping on his coffee as the news continued to play on Tanner's television. "You know, I think it might be better if you came out to the ranch with me tonight. I can drop you off at the clinic on my way into work tomorrow."

Normally Vin would have argued, not wanting to be a bother, but he really was feeling lousy and he didn't want to face a long night alone and miserable. He nodded, saying, "T' be honest, I was kind 'a hopin' you'd say that."

A ribbon of fear stirred in Larabee's gut when he heard that. It wasn't natural - no arguments, no moaning about everybody trying to mother-hen him, no "I'm fine, damn it," no nothing except the revelation that he'd wanted to go with him to the ranch. Tanner was definitely sicker than he was letting on.

"Okay," Chris said at last. "You finish that coffee and we'll get going."

Vin nodded, hoping he could make it through the night without needing to be taken to the ER. But, quite simply, he felt like shit. He was hot, his chest hurt, his head hurt, his muscles hurt, and his stomach was warning him to set the coffee down - now - or accept the consequences.

He set the cup down, saying, "Probably better if I wait t' have some out at your place."

"Oh... okay," Larabee replied. He set his own cup down and helped Vin to his feet.

They made it halfway to the door before the sniper's hand flew to his mouth and he turned abruptly, hurrying for the bathroom. He just made it, too.

Chris stood in the doorway, listening as Tanner's stomach rejected the soup and the coffee. A moment later, Vin raised one hand and waved him out of the room.

Chris pulled the door closed behind him and leaned back against the wall in the hallway, waiting until the sounds of Vin being sick finally stopped. But the door didn't open, so he resigned himself to waiting.

A short time later

"Vin?" Chris called, listening, but not hearing anyone moving around in the bathroom. He was holding a cup of the herbal tea Nathan had given each of them to help settle their upset stomachs. "Vin?"

"Don't want any," was the muffled reply.

Still, the sniper's voice sounded like he was right behind the closed door, and Larabee jumped, spilling several drops of the hot liquid onto his pant-leg.

"And don't blame me if y' got wet. Don't think I c'n keep it down. Y' better get out 'a here, too... can't afford for everyone t' get sick just because I am."

"Vin, I want to make sure you're okay," Chris argued, glowering hotly at the closed door; the skin on his leg still burned.

"Feels like I got the flu. I look like I got the flu. And I'd really like t' just throw-up alone... in peace."

Larabee pursed his lips, but he shook his head and relented. "All right, you win... this time. But I'm just going as far as the living room. If you need me, call me." He set the cup of tea down on the floor outside the bathroom, in case Vin changed his mind, and headed for the sofa in the living room.

Tanner waited until he was sure Chris had left, then opened the door and cornered the cup. Scooting back so he was leaning against the wall of the small bathroom, he took a sip, hoping the tea might quell the tempest raging in his gut. But, after two more sips, he was bent over the toilet again, heaving it all back up.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed, and it took a moment for him to register the fact that someone was knocking on the bathroom door. He reached up and flushed the toilet, then dragged himself to his feet and shuffled to the door.

"What d' ya want now, Larabee?"

"It's me, Vin," Nathan's voice replied. "Look, I've got Dr. Connor out here. He's from the NIH. We need a sample from you."

Vin opened the door. "Sorry, I was... indisposed," he apologized, noting the doctor was wearing a mask over his nose and mouth. Piercing blue-gray eyes studied him like he was some exotic specimen.

"Just a precaution," Connor explained, reaching up to touch his mask, his eyes narrowing slightly as he took in the agent's pale features, accentuated by the bright fever streaks that cut across his cheekbones. "Is your fever climbing?"

Tanner's eyebrows arched slightly. "I'm not sure. I was... otherwise occupied."

Connor nodded at the covered toilet and Vin moved back to sit down. The doctor then ran through the same checks Nathan had performed on him that morning. Finally, he produced a small plastic petri dish about the size of a half-dollar. "I need a sample."

Vin accepted the container, his forehead rippling in concern. "Of what?"

Connor grinned at the nearly scandalized tone of the agent's comment. "Sputum, Agent Tanner." When Vin's expression remained blank, he pointed to the small container. "Cough, and spit in there."

Vin made a face.

"You heard the man, cough," Nathan said, punctuating the command with the jabbing point of his finger aimed at Tanner.

Vin complied.

"Very good," Connor said, taking the sample and placing the lid over it. "The analysis should be done in an hour or so. With luck, you're looking at the flu. Your symptoms match. In the meantime, drink lots of liquids, rest, and stay warm. And stay here, too."

"Thanks, Doc," Vin said somewhat sarcastically. His gaze shifted to Larabee, who was leaning against the doorjamb as he added, "That mean I need a fulltime babysitter?"

Connor frowned behind his mask and his gaze cut to Larabee. "Yeah, that might not be a bad idea. Can you stay here with him until I call you with the results?"

"Yeah, sure," Chris replied.

"Gee, thanks, Doc," Vin grumbled as Connor packed up to leave, Nathan already waiting for him out in the hallway. "You're a real friend."

"Go rest. I'll call as soon as I know something," Connor said, turning to leave.

"I'll see you out," Chris said, asking Vin, "You be okay?"

Tanner nodded. "Gonna go to bed."

Chris escorted Nathan and Connor to the door, then, after checking to see if Vin had done like he said, asked, "I called Nathan to come check on Vin, how'd you-?"

"I'd called to ask if anyone on your team was sick," the doctor said, pulling his mask off. "Agent Jackson told me about Agent Tanner and I told him I'd like to come along, see for myself what we were dealing with."

"Why?" Chris asked, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

Connor sighed softly, then met Larabee's gaze, saying, "Because one of my team is sick, too... as well as three of the lab technicians and at least four people from the local community."

It took a moment for the truth to register, but when it did, Larabee swallowed hard and said, "It's out there, isn't it."

It wasn't a question and Connor nodded. "It appears so."


"Two of the mice are still unaccounted for... Evidently one or both managed to get out of the building."

"Are they-?"

"I don't have any answers for you at the moment, Agent Larabee."

"The others who are sick, they have whatever it was the mice were carrying?"

Connor nodded. "And I'm reasonably sure Agent Tanner does as well, but I won't know for sure until I test this sample. In the meantime, the two of you are officially quarantined in this apartment."

Chris' expression hardened. "Doctor, I have—"

"Nothing to worry about except for your man in there - at least for the time being. Now, I need to get back. If this is what I think it is, I'll call and have you bring him back to the lab."

Larabee nodded and let the men go. As he closed the front door he felt a cold knot of fear begin to tighten in his gut. He walked to Vin's phone and called Josiah.

"Sanchez," the man said when he picked up.

"Josiah, talk to me."

"It's not good, Chris," he said. "Frank Powell, one of the NIH investigators is sick, and seven locals, too. The NIH was able to determine that it's definitely related to the plague strain the mice had been injected with, but it's changed somehow."

"Who else is sick?" he asked.

"An older couple who own a restaurant not far from the lab, a UPS delivery woman - we're checking to see if she made a stop at the lab after the mice turned up missing - and two air conditioning repair guys from a shop in Purgatory. Oh, and two students from the technical school down here."

"And Vin..."

"Maybe, but..."

"Yeah..." Chris said on a breath. Tanner had it, too.

Tuesday 2110 Hours

Vin lay on a narrow gurney, staring up at the ceiling in the small exam room in the laboratory. The tiles in the ceiling were all white, two of them water stained, the patterns reminding him of a pair of manatee. He sighed, wishing someone would hurry up and tell him something.

Running his hand over his face, he sighed again, a little louder, which captured the attention of the other man sitting in the room.

Josiah pushed himself out of his chair and walked over to Vin. "You need something, brother?"

Vin rolled his head to the side and met the man's eyes. "Just gettin' bored," he admitted. "How long can this take?"

The big man chuckled softly. "You know, for a sniper you have an amazingly low tolerance for waiting."

Vin scowled at the man, but he knew it was true. "Just different, I guess. I hate just layin' here with nothin' t' do... waitin'."

Josiah nodded. "You could try sleeping."

"Tried that," Vin said, a slight grin on his lips, "didn't work."

Josiah grinned back. At least Vin looked a little better than he had when Chris had brought him into the lab a while ago, after the NIH was reasonably sure Tanner had also been exposed to the plague-carrying mice. Some of the paleness might have left Vin's face, but he was obviously not feeling his usual self. "You want me to go see if I can find you a magazine or something?"

"No, thanks, Josiah," Vin said, knowing he didn't feel well enough for that. "Why don't y' tell me what's going on with the mice and all."

"Well, according to the lab guys, the NIH found two of the little beasts in the building this morning sometime," Josiah explained. "But they didn't say where. The, uh, remains of a third were found in the alley between here and the hardware store this afternoon. Evidently that one, or maybe the last one, got out of the building and spread the whatever-it-is to a few people."

"Including me," Vin added.

"Yeah, probably you, too."

"Are they... okay?"

"They're sick, like you, but okay as far as I know."

"So they still haven't found the last one of the mice?"

"I don't think so."

"And the two they found here in the building?"

Josiah didn't want to, but he said, "They were dead. Succumbed to whatever they had been exposed to."

"Any headway on the bomber?" Vin asked, deciding he didn't really want to think too much about what finding the mice dead might mean for him and the others who were sick.

Sanchez shook his head. "Not really, we—" He shopped short when the door was pushed open and Dr. Connor and Chris came in. He could tell by the look on Larabee's face that something was wrong. "We have a problem?" he asked.

"Definitely a problem," Connor replied for Chris. He looked at Vin and quickly averted his gaze, looking at Josiah instead as he said, "Agent Tanner has definitely been exposed to an engineered virus," he said.

"Great," Vin muttered, reaching for a face mask that was sitting on a rolling tray near his gurney. "Tell me again what this bug is?"

"To be honest, Agent Tanner, we're not sure exactly what it is we're dealing with just yet," Connor said, his tone apologetic and a little annoyed. He ventured a look at Tanner's concerned blue eyes, then tapped the back of a closed medical file against his open palm. "But we do know what it's not."

"And that would be?" Josiah prompted.

"It's not a natural bacterial or viral strain of plague. It resembles two of the engineered strains that they have been working on here, but it's not identical to either one of them."

"How is that possible?" Josiah asked, confused.

"That's what we're currently trying to determine," Connor told him. "We're sending samples to our labs in DC, and to the CDC in Atlanta, for further analysis. And the researchers here are trying to determine if this is one of their newest strains, or if it's one that's mutated somehow." He looked back to Vin, adding, "We don't think the strain is actively contagious any longer, so you don't have to wear that mask."

"Then he's going to be okay?" Chris asked the doctor.

"To be honest, we can't say yet," Connor replied, folding his arms over his chest and looking at the three men. His gaze came to rest on Vin. "I'm sorry, Agent Tanner, but you've inadvertently become part of an experiment. We're just going to have to wait and see what happens. I want to keep you here so we can treat this thing as it develops - if it develops."

"That's it?" Larabee asked.

"It's all we can do at this point. But I do need to determine where Agent Tanner became infected." Connor looked back at Vin. "The cases we have so far have one commonality. Mr. Tanner, did you happen to eat at Tolson's Café yesterday evening?"

Vin nodded. "Yeah, I did."

Connor nodded. "Then it seems the café is the source of the contagion," the doctor said. "My man ate there as well. And both Mr. and Mrs. Tolson are also sick, as well as the two men who were working on their air conditioning unit, their waitress from Monday night, a UPS delivery woman, two students, and a family of four who also ate there."

"Are they all sick like me?" Vin asked him.

"Yes, although some are worse, and the symptoms aren't identical in all of the cases," Connor said, but he did know that they were all getting sicker by the hour and, so far, he and his team hadn't been able to come up with a single thing that looked like it might help.

"What happens now?" Vin asked him.

"Now we get you moved into a more comfortable bed," Dr. Connor said. "We'll get you started on an IV so you don't get dehydrated, too. And you try to get some rest."

"Easier said than done, Doc," Tanner replied.

The man nodded, the expression in his eyes sympathetic. But then he had a man who was sick, too. Vin's gaze slipped past the doctor to meet Larabee's eyes.

"Is there anything we can do?" Chris asked Connor.

"Just make sure nobody blows up the building before we get this figured out," the man replied.

"Count on it," Larabee told him.

Wednesday 0804 Hours

"Mr. Larabee, agents, please, take a seat," a doctor said, motioning to the large conference table nearly filling the meeting room at the lab. Walking around to an overhead projector positioned at one end of the oval table, she turned on the motor and the light, waiting for the agents to get settled before she continued.

Chris studied the woman as he waited for his men, Connor, and another younger man he hadn't met before to take their seats. Dr. Natalie Durant was petite, with long, dark-blonde hair and caring eyes. She was also efficient and somewhat clipped in her speech.

Opening a file folder, Durant pulled out a plastic sheet and laid it on the glass plate, casting the image onto the screen behind her. "This is the primary organism we're dealing with," she began. "I've never seen anything like it before, and neither has anyone at the NIH or the CDC. Our initial analysis was correct; it's a genetically constructed organism."

"What kind of organism?" Chris asked, knowing he wasn't up to a long-winded presentation that was full of medical or scientific jargon.

"That's the interesting part," she replied. "It appears to be a tri-hybrid, exhibiting properties of three other engineered organisms. However, we have managed to nail down some of the details. It's a virus, on the outside, anyway. But the genetic makeup on the inside looks more like yersinia pestis. However, there's enough viral RNA present as well to make me nervous."

"But I thought you said earlier that the preliminary tests you ran pointed to an engineered staphylococcus," Nathan said, suddenly confused.

"I know," Durant replied, pulling the overhead off and replacing it with another. "Our work supports that as well. That's what tipped us off to this being a recombined organism." She switched the plates. "This is the results of one electrophoresis we ran."

"It matches what we'd expect to see for a staff organism," Dr. Connor confirmed.

Durant pulled that overhead off and slid on a third. "But this is the same sample fifteen hours later."

"But that's impossible, right?" Nathan asked, shaking his head and wondering if he was remembering his classes correctly.

Larabee gave Jackson an appraising look. "Why? I don't understand."

"Because that's what we expect to see if it was a gram-negative rod bacteria," Dr. Connor explained.

"Exactly." Durant put another overhead on. "And this indicates the presence of a retrovirus..." Another overhead. "... and this one yersinia pestis, but all of these results came from the same sample." Dr. Durant leaned forward, resting her palms on the smooth, blond wood tabletop. "The only difference is time."

"If the genetic structure's an unstable recombination, that might explain the results," the young man sitting next to Dr. Connor said.

"Gentlemen," Connor said, realizing that the agents hadn't met the man before now, "this is Dr. Miles McCabe, another member of my team."

"This thing is completely unpredictable," Miles added. "Every sample we've run - from each of the patients we have - progresses at a different rate of recombination, and every sample is uniquely sensitive to changes in the external environmental chemistry. There's only one common feature."

"I don't think I want to hear this," Nathan said, frowning and shaking his head.

"What?" Chris prompted.

"None of the samples are susceptible to standard antibiotic regimes of treatment," Dr. McCabe concluded.

Jackson slumped back in his chair. "That's just great."

"What does this all mean?" Chris asked, trying not to sound angry, but he could remember what Vin had looked like when he'd seen him less than an hour ago, Tanner's face damp with sweat, the man wheezing slightly with each breath. "Where do we go from here?"

"It means that we don't have an effective method of treatment at this time," Dr. Durant explained.

"How many people are going to get sick?" JD asked, looking at the doctors.

"We don't know. There's still one mouse unaccounted for," Dr. Durant said.

"Although it's probably dead by now," Connor added.

"We've found fourteen active cases, so far," Connor told them.

"Seventeen," Dr. McCabe corrected him, adding, "and of that group, we've already seen a mortality rate of a third."

"People have already died?" Buck asked, looking more than a little worried.

McCabe nodded.

"Pneumonia is the official cause of death that's being listed on the death certificates," Dr. Durant said, "but the autopsies are turning up organisms that are related to these." She tapped the overhead.

"Will more people get sick?" Nathan asked.

"We don't think so," Connor replied. "All of the cases so far were exposed in Tolson's Café Monday evening."

"So what do we do?" Chris demanded again.

"As I see it, there are two possible approaches," Durant said, turning off the overhead light and taking a seat at the table. "We can try to find something that will target the external biology of the organism - something we might be able to use as an inhibitor, or a vaccine - or we look for specific drugs to attack each of the variants we find."

"Which approach do you think would be best overall?" Larabee asked, wishing he understood more of what the scientists were saying.

"Targeting the external molecular structure," McCabe said. "That would give us the best chance at finding a way to inoculate people against this, or treat it. And the external structure is the only constant we've seen across the samples."

Durant nodded. It was what she had concluded, too, but she felt compelled to toss out as many possibilities as she could. "If this spreads, or the mutations continue at the same rate we've been seeing, God only knows what we could be dealing with several weeks down the road. We have to stop this thing, now, before it has a chance to mutate to the extent that we see an external structural shift, or it starts to spread human to human, which is something we haven't seen so far."

Connor gave a curt nod. "Then that's the way we'll proceed."

"Wait," Nathan interrupted. "I agree that you have to develop this line of research, immediately, but what about those who are already infected, don't you have to take it case by case, too? I mean, it sounds like it's the organism, not the individual infected, that's critical in determining mortality."

"Translation?" Larabee requested curtly.

"It doesn't matter what kind of shape the victim's in," Connor supplied. "If the organism mutates in a particularly deleterious direction, they'll die."

Durant nodded. "Of the seventeen cases we've identified, five have already died." She glanced down at an open file folder. "Seven have relatively mild symptoms. The mutations they're dealing with are not particularly dangerous; they essentially have a nasty case of the flu. Not fun, but not deadly. But we're looking at five cases where I suspect we're going to see some deaths if we can't find something to target the specific mutations."

"Vin?" Chris asked.

"In that last category," Dr. McCabe replied, "just like our team member, and the seventeen-year-old waitress from the café."

"My God," Josiah breathed, running his hand over his graying hair. "Can it be done in time?"

"I hope so," Dr. Durant replied. "We're working around the clock on the individual cases we think are the most critical."

"The problem is, we don't really know what the side-effects are going to be," McCabe added, deciding that these men needed to know what their friend was facing. "We can't treat these people in hopes of heading off something, because we have no idea where the mutations will eventually lead. We have to wait and treat what comes up, and, in a couple of cases, these things are churning out toxins we haven't been able to identify yet. We have no way of predicting what the results of exposure will be until it manifests in the patients, and by then it could be too late."

"I'm sure you understand, but the emphasis has to be on finding a way to combat this thing across the population," Dr. Connor said.

"But we don't want to sacrifice those people who've already been exposed," Durant put in. "There haven't been any new cases reported in the past twelve hours, although there are still two patrons unaccounted for, so we're hoping there won't be any additional cases beyond those two missing men."

One of the security guards stepped into the room, saying, "Agent Larabee, we have a report of a suspicious vehicle outside, sir."

The ATF agents rose from the table, following the man out, Larabee already issuing orders as he went. The three members of the NIH team watched them go.

Wednesday noon

"Doctor," Larabee said, stepping into the small office Connor had been given to use.

"Building still secure?" the man asked, looking up from the lab results he had been reviewing.

"Yeah, it was a couple of local activists who'd decided the lab was recruiting illegal aliens for experiments."

Connor shook his head. "I seriously doubt it. That's probably a result of the fact that three of the sick are illegal."

"How's Vin," the blond asked.

The doctor looked up and sighed softly. "The organism is producing a toxin that we still haven't been able to identify... It could trigger any kind of unexpected reaction... We're keeping a close eye on him, and on the others."

Larabee's jaw twitched in frustration. "I heard we lost two more?"

Connor nodded. "One of my team was able to locate the last two patrons - two long-haul truck drivers. They both died late last night."

"Do you think you can come up with something to fight this thing?"

"We'll do our best," Connor promised. "Frank Powell is one of my best friends... I know what you're feeling."

Unable to think of a single thing to say, Chris looked away, nodding. These people would do everything they could for Vin and the others. All he could do now was wait... and pray.

Thursday 0815 Hours

Vin sat in the small private room that he'd been given, reviewing some of the evidence and data other members of the team had collected. He'd moved the single chair over next to the window earlier - away from the small hospital bed - then maneuvered the rolling tray that had been positioned next to the bed over as well. That gave him the surface space he needed to open the file folders Josiah had dropped off. He doubted he would find anything the others had missed, but he refused to take chances with the team's security. Besides, it helped keep him busy and passed the time.

Rubbing absently at his ever-tightening chest, he closed one file and opened another.

When he reached the end of the small stack, still having not seen anything worth mentioning, he leaned back in the chair and sighed. At this rate they might never determine who had tried to bomb the laboratory Monday morning. Looking back now, it felt like that had been months ago, but it had only been days.

He glanced at the dark television sitting in the corner of the room, but didn't feel like watching the news anymore. That just left...

He sighed heavily, reached for the pad of paper and the pen he'd asked Dr. Connor for when the doctor had dropped in to check on him earlier, then began to write. He'd only trust the overall safety of Team Seven to someone he knew and respected. If Benny Ray or Alex weren't available... well, Travis would just have to pull a few strings and get one of the two men reassigned to the ATF. No one else would do.

He coughed, the shock sending a sharp, tearing pain slicing through his chest and shoulders. It was getting worse, just like the doc had warned him it would.

Dr. Connor hadn't pulled any punches when he'd talked to Vin privately that morning. The damn bug he'd caught was churning out some kind of toxin and, sooner or later, it would kill him if they couldn't find a way to destroy the damn thing.

And things weren't going all that well for the NIH team - something about mutations and a bunch of other scientific gobbledygook he couldn't follow, but he'd gotten the meaning clear enough: In all likelihood, he was going to die.

He read over what he'd written and then signed the bottom of the page. Everything he could do to ensure the survival and continued smooth operation of Team Seven had been accomplished. That just left the personal...

He folded the first page back and starting writing again. It took him the better part of an hour before he was finished, but then he leaned back and sighed softly. He'd still have to have a few talks before he got too sick and the doctors forced him into the bed, probably for good.

He took a sip from the cup of juice setting next to him on the rolling table and then re-read his words, making a few changes here and there and then signing it at the end, too.

Laying the pen aside, a sudden chill wrapped around Vin's shoulders. He wasn't a superstitious man, but completing a will did give you a sense of your mortality, and the old saying about ghosts walking over graves echoed in the back of his mind.

Except for the... human elements, he was ready now, just in case... And once that was taken care of... He huffed out a breath and shook his head, then leaned back in his chair and let his eyes drop closed. Damn, but this was going to be hard and he was tired, more tired than he let on around the others. But he knew he had to say goodbye to them - to each one of them. They were his friends, his brothers... his family. But that didn't mean he was looking forward to it, not in the slightest. All in all, he figured the conversations might just be among the hardest things he'd ever had to do in his life.

The door cracked open and the sniper's eyes opened and he sat forward again to meet whatever was coming next.

"Mr. Tanner?" Dr. Connor called as he entered, drawing the door shut behind him but not closing it completely. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, just tired."

"I've have some news."

Vin studied the man for a moment. "Don't look like it's good news, Doc."

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

Chris paused outside the door to Vin's room when he heard the sniper say, "Don't look like it's good news, Doc."

He swallowed hard, his body refusing to move as he continued to listen.

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

The NIH doctor walked over and leaned back against the wall. "No, I'm afraid it isn't. We've finally got a handle on the toxin."

"Isn't that good?"

"Yes and no. We still don't know how to stop the virus... The toxin..." Connor sighed heavily and Vin realized that this wasn't easy for the man. Like Chris, he was probably used to winning most the fights he ended up in, and this one looked to be one that was going to defeat him. "Well, to cut to the chase, eventually the part of your brain that controls your autonomic breathing is going to fail."

Vin's eyebrows climbed slightly. "Y' mean it won't be like pneumonia then, with fluid buildin' up in m' lungs?"

"No," Connor said. "There will be some fluid buildup, but it'll gradually become harder and harder to breathe as the connection between the brain and the lungs is blocked or broken down - we're unsure which it is right now - you'll pass out from the lack of oxygen and—"

"Die," Vin finished for him, glancing down at his handwritten will. "Funny," he said quietly.

"What's that?"

"Sounds more peaceful than the majority 'a ways I imagined I'd go out." He gave the doctor a thin smile. "Sorry. Guess I'm still not used t' the idea."

"It's not easy," Connor agreed, his expression sympathetic. "I understand. And we're not giving up. One of my best friends is lying in the room next door, and he's facing the same thing you are. We're going to do everything we can to make sure you both survive this. I give you my word on that."

"I know y' are," Vin said with a nod. "What kind 'a time are we lookin' at?"

Connor sighed again and folded his arms across his chest. He didn't want to explain the details, but he knew he didn't really have a choice. Vin, like Frank, deserved to know the truth of what he was facing, which was why he'd decided to break the bad news to Tanner first. Because, quite honestly, he wasn't sure he could do the same for Frank. But this was his job, and by telling Vin he was being forced to face Frank's future prognosis as well, but that didn't sit well with him. He ground his teeth together and steeled himself before he said, "At the current rate of replication, we're looking at the toxin reaching a critical level in seventy-two hours or so. If we can come up with something that retards that rate, we'll be able to buy a little more time."

"When do I need t' get my goodbyes said by?"

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

That simple question struck Chris like a blow from a baseball bat. He couldn't be hearing this. Vin couldn't die. But the doctor's next words told him it was an all-too-real possibility.

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

"My best guess," Connor replied, adding quickly, "and that's all it is at this point, would be that you'll need to begin supplemental oxygen sometime in the next twenty-four hours. It'll get progressively worse from that point on."

Vin nodded. "Guess I'll need to get things wrapped up today then."

Connor nodded. He was sure Frank would tell him basically the same thing. "I'm, uh, going to get back to the lab. Don't give away the family fortune just yet, though, okay? We've got a handle on the toxin now, and you can count that as a win for our side. All we need is a way to inhibit it, or its action."

The smile was genuine as Vin stood and accompanied Connor to the door. "Hell, Doc, I don't own anything worth givin' away, but I'll keep what I've got - for a little while, anyway. Oh, and tell Dr. McCabe and that pretty lady doctor if they don't get some rest pretty soon they aren't gonna be able t' help anyone. You, either."

That prompted a small smile from Connor. "We'll rest when we get this thing figured out. Right now, I want you to get some rest, okay?"

Vin chuffed out a weak laugh. "Hell, Doc, I'll rest when I'm dead."

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

When I'm dead... Chris opened his mouth, ready to tell Vin he was wrong, that he wasn't going to die, that he needed to get his goddamn ass into that goddamn bed and do whatever the doctors told him to do, but he couldn't.

He couldn't speak. He could barely breathe.

His eyes were beginning to sting, and he turned and hurried away as the door began to open.

He couldn't do this again... he just couldn't.

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

Connor winced at the words.

"Sorry," Vin apologized, wondering why he didn't feel more afraid than he did. It wasn't like he thought they would find a way to fight this thing in time, he didn't. But he also knew he wouldn't be dying alone. Chris and the others would be there for him, and that gave him more courage than he'd ever expected.

A short while later

Watching the elevator doors slide closed, Dr. Stephen Connor let his building frustration bubble up and he slammed the edge of his fist against the wall of the car. It wasn't fair. He'd watched Natalie and Miles working like maniacs the past three days. Not to mention Larabee, who was wearing a rut into the floor between his borrowed command center and the lab. And despite the brave masks they were all wearing, they all knew the truth: their friends were dying faster than they could stop it.

Reaching the basement, Stephen exited and headed back to Lab 3 where Natalie still sat hunched over her microscope. Miles tapped away on a borrowed computer that was connected to the NIH's machines via a secure line.

Miles looked up as Connor entered. "Stephen, great. I'm going to go check in on the patients while this all downloads."

Connor nodded and watched as the younger man brushed past him, disappearing out the door.

When McCabe was gone, he walked up behind Natalie and rested his hands on her shoulders. He could feel the tension knotting her muscles and gently worked his fingers into the hard cords.

She sat up straighter and let her eyes drop closed. "That feels good," she said softly. "I'm so tired."

"I know, and I'm glad it feels good," he replied with a small smile. He was still surprised by how quickly they had become friends. Natalie Durant was bright, caring, dedicated... He reached around and gave her a hug, feeling her press back against him, her head cocking to the side so she could rest it against his shoulder. "I talked with Frank and Agent Tanner," he said softly.

"And?" she whispered.

"They understood... said they'd get things wrapped up today, just in case. They're both so damn practical that I wanted to..." He let her go and stepped around to take a seat on the stool next to hers. "How's it going?" he asked, needing to change the subject.

Straightening, she rubbed her eyes and shook her head. "The same. I haven't found anything that effectively inhibits the toxin, and the overall growth-rates are still erratic."

"We'll find something," he reassured her, hoping it came out as positive as he'd wanted it to. Both men's chances were slim, and they both knew it, but they had to believe there was a reason to keep going like this. "Is the NIH group making any progress on deciphering the organism's genetic components?"

"I don't think it's going to come soon enough," Durant said, her eyes filling with tears. "Stephen, what are we going to do? Frank..." She trailed off, shaking her head slightly.

"I don't know," Stephen replied softly, reaching out to take her hands in his. "We just keep working, and hope... Hope we can force a breakthrough in time."

"Agent Jackson was down here a few minutes ago... The ATF team, they're all... close, it seems."

"Like us," Dr. Connor replied with a nod.

"I don't want either of us to lose them. Not now. Not like this."

Connor nodded. "Then it's time for us to get back to work." He stood. "But Agent Tanner told me to tell you and Miles not to overdo it. That it wasn't going to help Frank, or him."

She nodded. "He's very sweet. I'll try and get a nap after I've finished this series."

"All right," Connor said, heading for his own workspace. "I'm going to hold you to that."

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

When Dr. Conner left, Vin slumped back in his chair, but he knew he was too tired to stay there. Grabbing his half-finished juice, he pushed the rolling table back over to the bed and lay down, using the controls to raise the head so he could sit up. Leaning over, he pulled the rolling table closer, then picked up his pen and jotted down a list of the people he needed to talk to or call.

He snorted to himself at the action. Like he didn't know who he needed to talk to? Hell, they were almost all right here... somewhere.

Maybe he ought to start with the phone calls...

"No time like the present," he muttered to himself as he picked up his cell phone off the nightstand next to the bed and punched in the number to the ATF offices. "Hi, Lynn," he said when their admin answered, "it's Vin. I have some paperwork that needs t' be picked up and processed ASAP."

"I'll send someone right over," she replied. "And... Well, we're all praying for you, Vin."

"Thanks, I appreciate it, but these docs are pretty smart, they'll come up with something."

"We all hope so. And I'll send someone over right away."

"Thanks," Vin said again. He ended the call and sagged back against his pillows, his strength failing him.

He glanced at the clock on the wall, watching as the seconds ticked off, marveling at how fast they sped past. Then he really noticed the time. Where were the others? Where was Chris? He'd said he would stop in this morning...

But then again, maybe he ought to be glad no one was there with him. He knew it bugged the others to see him like this, and he couldn't blame them. It bothered him, too.

God, but he hated just laying here, waiting to die.

This wasn't at all how he'd imagined it would be. Going out in a burst of gunfire? Sure. Caught in an explosion? Maybe. Car accident? Probable, given the way people were driving these days.

Hell, even in a neighborhood drive by, or a robbery, but not from some damn engineered plague that his own government had let get out to kill him. That just wasn't right... Not right at all.

Thursday 1257 Hours

Buck walked into the lab's cafeteria and headed directly for the coffee pots. After a cup was corralled, he perused the offerings and settled on cereal. Even the government couldn't botch Fruit Loops. Locating a bowl, a spoon, and two cartons of milk, he took three boxes of the cereal, piled it all on a tray, and headed over to where Chris sat, staring dejectedly into his half-full coffee cup.

"Hey, stud, this where you've been hiding?"

Chris looked up, started by the interruption. "Something wrong?"

Buck shook his head as he arranged his food on the table and slid the empty tray onto an empty table next to them.

Larabee's expression hardened as he watched the man's actions.

"Chris, what's wrong?"


"Well, I gotta tell ya, that's the most serious 'nothing' I've seen in a long, long time." He poured the first small box of cereal into the bowl and added some milk.

Green eyes shifted from the bowl to his friend. Buck could always pull him out of the pits of self-pity Chris built for himself. "Sorry," he said. "I just wish there was something, anything, I could do to help Vin... I hate feeling useless."

Munching on the breakfast cereal, Buck argued, "You're not useless, Chris. This is just a... specialized problem. Not like any of us can do anything for Vin. But at least we're keeping the facility safe, making sure the docs can concentrate on what they need to do, right?"

"Yeah, I know," Larabee replied tiredly. "But Christ, Buck, it just isn't right, you know? Vin brought down by a damn mouse?"

"You been in to see him this morning?"

Larabee pushed his cup away. "I stopped by but he was... busy."

Finishing off the last of the cereal from the first box, Buck took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. It wasn't even close to what could reasonably be called tolerable. "Oh?"

Chris shrugged. "I could've stayed, but..."

"He wanted to be alone?"

"I- I don't know..." Larabee shook his head. "It hurt, Buck," he said, his eyes searching the ladies' man's for understanding. "It hurt to be there, listening to it get harder and harder for him to breathe..." He trailed off, reaching out and taking the cup again, spinning it around several times. "Am I being selfish?"

Buck's lips compressed as he thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so. It's not easy for any of us, Chris. Guess we've all gotten attached to that... scruffy Texan." He slid his coffee over next to Larabee's once again abandoned cup. "It's not the way any of us expected him to die."

"And we're writing him off, too, aren't we?"

"No... Maybe... Come on, Chris, it's just natural. It hurts, and no one likes pain, but I know we're all busting our backsides to make sure those NIH guys can find a cure in time. We're not letting him go without a fight, I can promise you that much. And you better not either. He needs you; you know he does."

"Yeah... And you're right," Larabee said, his voice cut with determination. "We're not gonna give up on him." He pushed his chair back and stood. "I'm going to go talk with Vin."

Buck nodded, a small, sad smile on his lips as he watched Larabee leave.

At the same time

Vin looked up when a knock sounded on his closed door. "Yeah," he called.

Nathan stepped in, closing the door behind him. "You have some paperwork to send back to the office?"

Vin nodded to the file folders and the few sheets of paper lying on top, folded in half to conceal the contents.

Nathan reached out and took them. "How're you feelin'?" he asked.

"To tell you the truth... lousy."

The man eased uncomfortably into the empty chair. "Something wrong, Vin?"

Tanner managed a small grin. "You know damn well what's wrong."

Jackson nodded sadly. Oh, yeah, he knew.

"Look, I don't know how t' explain this—"

"It's bad, isn't it." It wasn't a question.

Vin nodded once. "Looks like m' luck's finally run out."

Nathan glanced away, absently rubbing one thumb under his watchband. "Never thought it'd happen... Not to you, anyway."

Vin snorted. "Thought y' said I was the one Ezra had at even money t' be the first t' check out."

Nathan looked back, meeting his friend's gaze. "You know I hate that stupid pool."

"Yeah, I know, but it helps... pass the time."

"Bullshit," Jackson replied, his gaze returning to the floor. "Hell, Vin, it isn't any easier for me to think about one of you getting killed out there."

"I know... Damn it," Vin said, pushing himself up a little farther in his bed. "Guess that's the point, though, ain't it? It was supposed to be out there. It was supposed to mean something."

Nathan looked up at the man, the friend, he'd known for five years now. He'd watched Tanner grow into one of the best agents he'd ever known. And Vin was right, a man like him was supposed to go out in the middle of a firefight, saving his team... The Black man's head bobbed slightly. "Yeah, guess I'd have to say we all feel like that. But you can't give up yet," he added quietly, afraid if he spoke any louder his voice might catch on the lump in his throat.

"Ain't givin' up," Vin said, his conviction clear in his voice. "Ain't never gave up, and I sure as hell ain't gonna start now."

Tanner stuck out his hand and Nathan stood to take it in his. They shook, and the former medic took a step back. "You're gonna kick this thing, y'hear me?"

Vin grinned slightly. "Yeah, I hear y'... but if I can't..."

"Then I guess this is goodbye," Nathan finished for him.

"Thanks," Vin said, his eyes getting a little watery. "Really enjoyed workin' with y', Nate."

"Same here, Vin," Nathan replied, then he leaned forward, giving the man a brief hug before he took the files and headed for the door, exiting without looking back and closing it behind him.