To the Last Breath by The Neon Gang

Thursday 1410 Hours

The next knock he heard was unexpected, and Vin looked up from where he was leaning over on the rolling table, resting his head on his folded arms. He'd made his peace with dying and decided on what he wanted when it came to his funeral, which he'd written down and then gave to Josiah, who he knew would see to it his wishes were carried out. That had also given him a chance to make his peace with the big man. Josiah had ended the conversation with a big, heartfelt hug that had left him feeling better than he had in a day.

In fact, he'd felt good enough to walk out and talked briefly to the NIH scientists, to thank them for all they were doing to try and save him.

But now he was tired, aching, and his friends were hurting, but there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it.

It was also getting harder and harder to breathe. "Who is it?" he called as best he could.

"It's me, Vin."

"Come on in," he replied, wishing he could put off this talk with Chris, but there was little reason to postpone it. He'd have to talk to the rest of them, and soon, too. Still, this one would be particularly difficult since he had to exact a promise from the man he'd come to call his best friend, and his brother. One he knew the man wasn't going to want to make.

Larabee entered the room and closed the door behind him. Taking the chair, he moved it closer to Vin's bed and sat down. "You look terrible," he said, trying to smile.

"Feel terrible," Vin replied honestly, not finding any reason to keep up the front any longer.

"Maybe you should rest then," Chris suggested, feeling the palms of his hands getting moist. He forced the fear back as he waited for the sniper's reply, part of him wanting the man to spare him this.

Tanner nodded. "Seems like a waste 'a the time I got left, y' know?"

Chris pressed back against the chair, suddenly cold all over. If Vin was talking like this he was faring much worse than he looked, and that was bad. "Vin..." he said, trailing off.

"Hell, Chris, I know this ain't easy on any 'a ya."

Larabee shook his head, unable to speak.

"'M sorry 'bout that, but I got t' ask y'... when m' replacement gets here, give the man a chance, okay?"

Larabee folded his arms across his chest and scowled. Then he snorted and shook his head. "Vin, we don't need a replacement. You'll—"

"Chris, y' know as well as I do that 'm most likely gonna die." There, it was said. And neither man could deny it.

Chris clamped his mouth shut, his jaw grinding. Vin was right; he was probably going to lie right there in that bed and die. "I'll do my best," he promised, but he knew it was a lie. If Vin died, so did Team Seven. None of them would have the heart to go on without him. He knew for a fact he couldn't. In fact, he didn't honestly think he could lose Vin and survive... It was too much. God, or fate, or whatever it was out there pulling the puppet strings had taken too much from him; he just didn't have anymore to give.

"Thanks," Tanner said, his mouth tipping into a grin. "Don't know who I feel sorriest for, though, t' tell y' the truth."

The jolt of annoyance forced Chris back into the moment. His eyes twinkled slightly and a thin grin forced its way onto his face, but it faded just as swiftly when the sniper grew serious again.

"Chris, have t' ask y' another favor..."

"Name it," he replied softly, hoping the growing lump in his throat didn't choke him to death where he sat. He watched as Vin fought for a breath and stood. He reached out, his hand closing over Tanner's.

"When it gets... t' the point where there's... no hope—"


"Let me finish, damn it," Vin said, blue eyes locking on Larabee's green, the intensity of the man's stare silencing the blond. "When that happens... I want y' t' take me outside... Take me someplace away from... labs 'n' hospitals 'n' cities 'n' cars... I don't want t' die... stuck in a damn... sickroom."

Chris hesitated, wondering if he could actually carry out the request. To take the man out of the hospital meant he'd have to accept the fact that Vin Tanner was dying, that they couldn't help him, that he'd lost someone else he cared about...

"I'll try," he whispered, then drew a deep breath and said more forcefully, "but not until we've exhausted every possible option. I know we can beat this. We have to."

"'Kay," Vin said with a nod, knowing he was asking a hell of a lot from the man, and he'd gotten what he needed. "I'll know when... 'n'... so will you."

A knock interrupted the two men and Vin called, "Come."

A nurse opened the door, noting the angry, frustrated look on the blond's face as he stood at Vin's bedside. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes," she said, ducking back out.

Chris sighed, all the words he'd managed to claw together in his mind scattered once again. He looked back at Vin and all he could think to say was, "Dr. Durant wanted me to tell you she'd be coming for more blood samples. Guess that's what the nurse is here for."

"Great," Vin growled. "Already feels like... I been... chewed on by vampires."

Larabee reached out and patted Tanner's shoulder sympathetically. "Could be worse."


"She could be asking for—"

"Don't even say it," Vin managed, a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. It was quickly replaced with relief, and Chris realized they had returned to "normal" for a moment. But it was just for a moment. The nurse knocked and entered this time, pushing a cart in front of her.

"Can y' stay?" Vin asked quietly, a touch of fear creeping into his eyes.

"Yeah, I can stay," Chris replied. And he stood there, keeping his hold on Vin's hand while the woman took her samples.

Thursday 1616 Hours

With a sigh Vin pressed the button on the television remote, scanning through the cable stations for a third time, then cut the power and slid the control onto the bedside table. He hated inactivity. He hated hospitals. He hated needles, and being poked, prodded, pricked, palpated, and pressed for information about how he felt.

He felt lousy, and anyone with eyes could see that just fine, all by themselves. He was wheezing, his chest hurt, his body ached, and he was feverish when he wasn't enjoying a nasty case of the chills. To top it all off, a persistent nausea made it impossible for him to drink anything hot, which seemed to be the only thing anyone had found that helped the constriction in his chest.

JD had come by earlier to cheer him up, and they had ended up talking for three hours. It was the younger man's way of saying goodbye, and Vin appreciated the casual but heartfelt approach. Buck had finally called, asking JD to come down to the command center to look at some data they had on their latest round of suspects.

They shook hands, and JD started out, saying, "Hang in there, Vin. If anyone can work miracles, it's this team."

That had been over two hours ago. He expected somebody to drop by and give him an update on what was happening, but they were no doubt too busy. Still, despite his best efforts, he was annoyed. He didn't want to be alone.

And that was a new feeling... And it scared him. He pulled the blanket up farther, sensing a chill begin. Closing his eyes, he tried to ignore the trembling, cold and ache that squeezed through his bones. The whisk of the door opening cracked his eyes back open.

Dr. McCabe gave him an assessing once over and headed straight for the bed. "Vin?"

"I'm... o-okay," he said through chattering teeth. "J-just... c-c-chills... c-c-cold."

Reaching to the foot of the bed, the doctor pulled up a second blanket, tucking it in around him.


"No problem," he said, reaching out and pressing his hand to Tanner's cheek. "Your fever's still up."

Vin nodded.

"Does it feel like it's getting worse?"

"Yeah," was the blunt, but honest, reply.

McCabe looked away, his lips pressing together in frustration. "They told you we've isolated the toxin, right?"

Vin nodded again.

"Well, Dr. Durant has come up with several possible inhibitors that we're trying out, but nothing's working well enough to test it on you."


McCabe stopped, shaking his head in frustration. "We don't know, especially since the toxin only varies slightly as the organism mutates."

"You're l-losin' me here, Doc."

"We have to be careful, the inhibitors are also toxic in high dosages."

Vin gave him a wan smile. "Rock 'n' a h-hard spot, huh?"

McCabe nodded. "We'll figure it out. Dr. Durant is an amazing scientist, and the people at the NIH are working around the clock."

"'M countin' on it."

"The team working on the capsid thinks—" He stopped, knowing he wasn't making sense to the man.

"How's everybody doin'?" Vin asked him.

"We lost the two students," he admitted. "The woman who works for UPS is hanging in there..."

"That's g-good. And your f-friend?"

The doctor's expression grew taut. "He's hanging in there, but it doesn't look good. We're doing everything we can..."

"I know that... 'n' so does he."

He looked down at his watch. "I have to go, okay?"

Vin nodded reluctantly.

"Besides, Agent Larabee's waiting outside." He reached out and patted Vin's shoulder. "We're going to beat this."

"Then y' better get back t' w-work."

He nodded. "Hang in there with us."

"I'll try," was the whispered reply.

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

With Chris there with him the time passed a little quicker, but the constant deep ache in his muscles and joints, coupled with an increasing difficulty in breathing chewed away at his strength and his will. He was grateful for the company, more grateful than he could explain.

It was hard, waiting for death, especially after having fought against it so often in the past. The shadow of death, of his own mortality, had clung to the corners of his life, always present, always visible, if just from the corner of his eye.

He'd expected it to descend upon him quickly. A shot, an explosion... an instant of pain and regret, and then the welcoming light he'd heard his grandfather describe. Not this.

Not slow.

Not helpless.

He could sense his body shutting down, and more pieces of machinery were being added to the collection around his bed, picking up the functions his body was being stripped of. Oxygen was added, taking the harsh edge off his labored breathing, but it was only a matter of time, and he knew it.

He glanced over at Chris, who had dropped off to sleep sometime earlier. The man's dark blond hair was disheveled, and black smudges filled the hollows beneath his eyes. It hurt to see the man looking like that, but there was nothing he could do about it.

A soft knock sounded in the room, barely discernable over the din of the equipment, but he'd been waiting for it. "Chris," he called softly.

"Huh?" Larabee asked, jerking slightly as he catapulted awkwardly into consciousness.

"Ezra's here," Vin wheezed. "Get the door, would ya?" Chris nodded and pushed himself to his feet. And, after running his fingers through his hair, he started for the door. "Hey, Chris?"

"Yeah?" Larabee asked, pausing.

"Like some time alone with 'im, okay?"

Larabee nodded, then reached for the knob and pulled. Ezra waited outside, looking scared and uncertain. "Vin's waiting for you."

Ezra tried to smile, but he was afraid, and the attempt failed about halfway through. Chris stepped out, letting the undercover man enter.

Stepping into the hall, Chris let the door fall closed behind him as he pressed back against the wall. Rubbing the moisture from his eyes, he shook his head. It just wasn't fair... Why the hell couldn't the doctors do something?

Hell, they had already managed to locate the man responsible for the pipe-bombing on Monday, and several people had told them it would be impossible. They had pulled off the impossible, did it on a regular basis, so why couldn't the NIH team do the same?

He huffed out a deep sigh, knowing he was being unreasonable, but he couldn't help himself. He wanted them to find a fix for this. He wanted them to put an end to his nightmare, but they weren't cooperating.

And there wasn't a goddamn thing he could do to help; none of them could. They were just stuck acting like high-priced security guards while they waited... and waited... and waited some more.

He was sick of waiting. He was sick of seeing Vin hurt. He was just sick of the whole damn thing.

Sick and tired... And maybe it would be better if-

He stopped the thought before it really formed.

Pushing away from the wall he stalked off, angry and not knowing who to take it out on.

Thursday 1731 Hours

"Hi," Ezra said quietly, his gaze roving over the various pieces of equipment Josiah had warned him would be there now.

"Hi yourself," Vin whispered, motioning him closer to the bed with a weak flick of his wrist.

"Dr. Connor has said I cannot stay long."

"Hell with that," Vin said with a wheeze. "I'll... spend what... time I got... how I want," he told his friend with a conspiratorial wink, then he patted the mattress. "Have a seat."

Ezra eased into the chair sitting beside the bed, careful not to disturb any of the various wires or tubes. He folded his hands in his lap and stared down at them, picking absently at a cuticle.

Vin waited for a moment, wondering if Ezra was going to say anything, and when it appeared he wasn't, he reached out his hand and Standish caught it in his.

"How are you doing?" the undercover man asked, then immediately shook his head. "Undoubtedly the stupidest question I have ever posed."

Vin nodded his agreement.

"Yes, well, you still had no need to agree with me."

Vin squeezed his hand. "Thinkin' I might not get better."

"You mean you're surrendering the fight?" was the brutal rebuttal.

Vin shook his head and said quietly, "Just runnin' out 'a fight."

Ezra looked away, chewing his bottom lip, his eyes filling. "I do not want you to die... For purely selfish reasons, I might add."

"Don't want to... either... but we don't usually... get a choice... 'bout these... kinds 'a things."

"I am well aware—"

"What?" Vin asked, honestly curious what it was the man had almost said.

Ezra shook his head and reached up with his free hand to wipe a tear off his cheek. "It was nothing, just a rail against the fates..."

Pushing himself farther up in the bed, Vin said, "I wanted t' tell you... 'M gonna miss all 'a ya... a lot."

Ezra sucked in a breath and nodded again. "And I will miss you, too, Mr. Tanner," he said, holding tighter to the man's hand. "I... I—"


"I wish I could exchange places," he choked out, looking away from the dying man.

That took Vin completely by surprise, although, when he thought about it, he wasn't sure why it should. They all felt like that, and if situations were different, and it was one of the others lying in this bed, he knew he'd wish the very same thing.

"Ain't gone yet," Vin said, trying to smile.

"No," Ezra agreed. "But I- I want to thank you... Vin."


"You were the first one on the team who truly accepted me," Ezra said. "Your... friendship made the transition... bearable, and, I think, made it easier for the others to give me the benefit of the doubt."

Vin grinned. "Hell, Ezra... y' weren't all that bad."

That sparked a grin from the man. "Yes, well, of course I wasn't," he complained.

"Says you."

Ezra shot him a glare.

"Don't give me that... look. You're... pickin' up Larabee's bad habits."

Ezra nodded, but he could feel the tears building again. "I should go, let you rest..." he said, starting to stand.

"Just wanted... all 'a ya t' know," Vin said as he did. "I love y' all... like family..."

Ezra nodded, his throat suddenly too tight to permit him to speak. He beat a hasty retreat from the room, silently praying for what was looking more and more like a necessary miracle.

Thursday 0512 Hours

"Damn it."

"What?" Connor asked, looking up from his microscope. He blinked, trying to force his eyes to focus.

Natalie Durant tossed her clipboard down on the table and rubbed savagely at the back of her neck. "I can't keep up with the mutations. Every time I think we've got a handle on it, the damn thing changes, and the graphs are getting less and less predictable the longer we keep going!"

Connor stood and joined the woman.

She took a deep breath and looked up at him. "Sorry," she said almost shyly. "I shouldn't be taking this out on you."

Reaching out, he pulled her into a hug. "You've been putting up with me, it's the least I can do."

She stood, resting in the shared embrace. Then she stepped back, her expression lighting up for the first time in days. "That's it!"


"The patterns are breaking down because the organism's started breaking down! We've known all along that the recombination isn't stable." At Connor's blank look she said, "It's dying, Stephen. If we can just keep Frank and the others going, that damn thing will die off on its own!"

Connor's arms snaked around her waist more tightly and he swung her around with a whoop. "You're right!" He huffed out a breath and said, "We need to find out what the deterioration rate of this monster is."

She nodded, feeling a little hope for the first time in days.

Friday 0813 Hours

Chris watched the second hand of the large wall-clock rotate steadily. Time had lost any particular association with the shift of shadows or the coming and going of the nurses. Seconds were measured in the forced, ragged gasps that passed for breathing, and were amplified to an eternity when the labored hiss caught, Vin's diaphragm going into spasm. When the stalled breath would tumble out in a coughing wheeze, Larabee would allow himself to breathe again and time plodded along once more, carrying them all closer to tragedy.

The full mask over Vin's face now made little difference in his constant fight to move air in and out of his lungs. The blond ground his teeth together, noting the slightly blue pallor around the sniper's lips. The last nurse who had come in had told him they would be putting Vin on a ventilator soon... But he knew the man would never allow that. They'd have to sedate him; he'd end up lying in that bed and dying... He was dying, right now, right in front of his eyes.

Vin was sitting upright in the bed, his hands pressed tightly against his thighs, his fingers turned inward, pointing toward each other the way the nurse had shown him earlier. His shoulders were hunched forward to provide as much room as possible for his lungs to work, and he concentrated on breathing. Nothing else mattered.

The muscles in his neck, shoulders, and arms were corded with the continuing effort and sweat ran down his face to drip off his chin.

As it had before, the fight eventually grew easier for a time and the blue eyes blinked open, blearily searching the room until he spotted Chris, who had retreated away from the painful wheezing that threatened to drive him mad with frustration.

Vin met his eyes and held his gaze. Chris could read the truth he saw there as easily as he did a newspaper. Vin was glad he was close by, glad he had a friend with him in this hell he'd found himself caught in. Vin was afraid, and he didn't want to be alone.

So simple what it all came down to in the end...

The tightening in Vin's chest had increased, the spasms coming closer and closer now. And Larabee knew part of that look was gratitude for the promise Vin still thought Chris could carry out...

"Chris..." Tanner rasped.

"Easy, Vin," Larabee said, pushing out of his chair and walking to the foot of the bed, afraid if he got any closer it would somehow make Vin worse... or he might have to watch the light leave the man's eyes... He swallowed thickly and forced himself to stay put as he said, "It's fine, Vin. I'm here. Just keep breathing, okay?"

"It's... time," Tanner said weakly. "Get me... outta here."

Chris felt the cold steel arrows of fear shoot through his bones, immobilizing him. No! It wasn't time! It couldn't be. Connor and Durant had to find a cure, they had-

"Chris... y' gave... your word..."

Squeezing his jaw tight, Larabee forced himself to take the three steps that brought him to Vin's side.

Frightened, pleading blue eyes looked up at him, begging him to make good on that damn promise. "Please..."

"I'll - I'll get a wheelchair," was the only thing Chris could think to say. "I'll be right back.

Vin nodded, the gratitude in his eyes almost enough to make Larabee sick to his stomach. He watched the man go, knowing he was going to need a lot of help when this was over. Yesterday, when he'd finally been able to talk to Buck, it had been Chris that they had talked about.

About how he was going to be hurting...

About how he was going to want to leave the team...

About how close he'd come to killing himself with alcohol when Sarah and Adam had died, and how he'd probably retreat to the bottle again...

But like before, Buck would be there for the man. Buck and the others this time, too. They would have to keep a close eye on Larabee...

But he knew they would. He knew Buck would do everything in his power to make sure the man came though this...

God. He'd never thought that he'd mean that much to anybody, never guessed that his death might actually cause that much pain in somebody else's soul. And here he was, hurting four men, and coming close to destroying a fifth... Who the hell would have thought?


He didn't want to die. He didn't want to hurt them like that, especially not Chris, but he couldn't stop it. He'd fought. He fought hard, and for longer than he'd thought he could.

But every time he'd considered giving up, surrendering to the beckoning darkness that crowded his vision, he saw the look on Chris' face and he'd found the strength to keep fighting for one more breath, and one more, and one more...

But it was getting harder and harder now, and he knew that, before long, no matter how hard he fought, no matter how much he wanted to live, he wasn't going to be able to draw another breath. His body was going to betray him, regardless of his willingness to keep up the fight.

And then he'd die.

Please, Lord, he thought, watch over 'em... Watch over Chris. Please. He's gonna need Ya, Lord. Just help him though this... We need him here, doing what he does best, but he ain't gonna make it without Ya...

A short while later

"Vin, Chris, we—" Dr. Connor pulled up short, his gaze sweeping over the empty room. "What the-?"

"They're gone?" Dr. Durant asked, confused.

McCabe passed the doorway, just avoiding Stephen and Natalie as they stampeded past him and into the hall.

"Nathan!" Durant called out, catching sight of the former medic who was standing at the end of the hallway, talking with Josiah Sanchez.

Jackson turned to look at her, he and Josiah hurrying down to join them when they realized the doctors were gathered at the door to Vin's room.

"Something wrong?" Nathan asked as they reached the NIH team.

"Agent Larabee and Vin are missing," Durant said. "Have you seen them?"

Josiah shifted uncomfortably, chewing on his lower lip. "Yes, ma'am, I've seen them..." he admitted reluctantly.

"Josiah," Nathan growled, "what's going on?"

"We have to find them - now," Connor said.

"I'm sorry, Doctor," Josiah apologized. "But I gave Vin my word, I—"

"Agent," Dr. Durant snapped, "we think we have a way to save Vin's life, if we can get to him in time. Where is he?"

"What?" Josiah said, his face going pale.

"Goddamn it!" Nathan swore, dragging his damp palm over his mouth. "They left, didn't they?"

"Left?" Dr. McCabe asked, his eyes rounding with surprise and worry.

Josiah was nodding. "They left the lab," he acknowledged, grabbing the cell phone at his belt and speed dialing a number. "Buck, get JD, we have to find Chris and Vin A-S-A-P. They left here in the Ram about three minutes ago, headed west." An acknowledgement echoed over the phone as he turned back to the threesome. "Vin didn't want to die in a hospital. He made an arrangement with Chris—"

"Do you know where they went?" Dr. Connor demanded.

"No," the big man said sadly. "I helped Chris get him into the Ram and they left." The man's face pinched slightly. "From the way Vin looked, they won't have gotten far."

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

Chris pulled onto the dirt shoulder of the road and cut the motor. Bolting out of his seat, he rounded the front of the truck and jerked the passenger door open. Vin was leaning back against the seat, trying to suck in another breath.

Slipping his arm behind the younger man's back, Larabee pulled Vin to the edge of the seat, supporting him as Tanner's feet dropped to the ground and he stood on shaking legs. Together they stumbled slowly down a small incline to a clump of pine trees.

Easing Vin down to the ground, Chris collapsed next to him, fear causing his body to tremble uncontrollably. The ring of blue around Vin's mouth was darker now, and spreading down his chin.

Vin's eyes opened, and he looked up through the boughs of the trees into the blue, cloudless sky beyond. "Thank... ya."

Chris reached out and gripped his friend's shoulder. "Damn it, Vin, it's not supposed to work like this," he choked out.

A small, crooked smile lifted the sniper's lips. "Tell me... 'bout it." He fought through another breath, then added. "Y' will... survive this... Chris... trust me. I'll... be there... with ya."

Larabee's eyes slid closed, the tears he'd denied himself earlier finally falling. Without thinking, he pulled Vin into his lap, supporting the younger man against his chest. The struggle for breath eased slightly, and Chris could feel Tanner relax a little.

"Thank y'... m' friend... m' brother..." Vin whispered.

"Shh," Chris said, unable to speak.

"Y'all... 'r m' family... love y'... all... gave me... more 'n... ever... thought... I'd have..."

"Vin, please," Chris managed to choke out.

"I'll be... watchin' out... for ya... Chris..."

Larabee squeezed his eyes closed, willing this all to be a dream, but he knew it wasn't... He knew his best friend was dying in his arms...

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

"There!" Buck barked, his hand reaching automatically for Josiah's arm.

"I see it," Sanchez replied, pulling off the road and parking behind the Ram.

"We've got them!" Buck snapped into his cell phone as he and Josiah climbed out of the Chevy Suburban. "Two miles west, on Esperanza."

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

In Ezra's Jag, JD and the undercover man exchanged glances. "Well?" Standish asked.

"We're close," JD replied. "Can't hurt..."

"My feelings, exactly," Ezra concurred, turning around and flooring the accelerator.

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

After a quick check of the truck, Buck and Josiah scanned the surrounding area, the ladies' man spotting the two men first. "There," he said and pointed.

Josiah started forward.

"Wait," Buck whispered, reaching out to stop the man.

Chris rocked Vin slowly from side to side, the tears on his face telling them more than they wanted to know.

"Goddamn it," Buck swore under his breath, and Josiah placed his hand on his shoulder to try and comfort him, but he knew it would do no good. There was no comfort for a loss like this.

They heard the Jag pull up and, a moment later, Ezra and JD joined them, their faces all expressionless masks as Chris tipped his head back and an inarticulate cry tore free of his throat, and echoing over the still landscape.

Josiah nodded and the four men walked silently back to their vehicles, giving Chris and Vin their privacy.

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

Vin felt his struggle begin to ease, the pain slipping away as the desperate need for air disappeared. A velvet swirl of colors enveloped him, blocking out his view of the pine boughs and the sky.

From a distance he could hear Chris' voice, but the words were lost in a rising euphoria he couldn't explain. He welcomed the sensations, embraced them, feeling whole and well for the first time in days.

How long the warm, silky rainbow cradled him like that, Vin wasn't sure, but when he found himself floating near the top of a pine tree, he sucked in a breath of surprise. At least, he thought he did.

What in the world...?

He glanced around, disorientated by the unusual aerial perspective, and felt a tug on some part of his awareness that he couldn't quite identify. He looked down.

Chris was holding him, cradling him in his arms as tears flowed freely down the blond's cheeks.

What the hell's going on? he wondered, trying to reach out and touch the man. If he could just explain to him that he was fine, that he could breathe now, he-

I'm not breathing.

Vin studied himself more closely. His head was resting limply against Chris' shoulder, his chest still. He'd seen death often enough to recognize it, even in himself.

I'm... dead. The thought wasn't as frightening as he'd imagined it would be. But this floatin' around is gonna take some gettin' used to.

Forcing his attention away from Chris, Vin caught sight of the others at the top of the hill. They were all looking miserable and crying, too.

Ah hell, y' weren't all supposed t' be here. It was supposed t' be me and Chris. Y' didn't have to see this. Although, he realized, that they were all there made him pulse with a warmth he could never describe in words.


Nathan was missing...

Where was he?

He tried to move closer to the gathered men, but the activity did nothing more than tip him forward somehow.

His arms flailing, he righted himself and wondered if it was true that angels had to earn their wings. That would sure make getting around a lot easier.

Then he grinned to himself. Of course, he was making some really big assumptions now...

He glanced back at the men. Still no Nathan.

Glancing down, he found Larabee staring up at him. Chris? he called.

But instead of an answer, Vin saw the man's mouth open and a single sharp cry of pain lanced out from Larabee, slicing straight through Vin. He winced, feeling Chris' emotional anguish as it passed though him.

Chris, it's okay, he called. I'm okay, now. Let go, it's okay.

More movement interrupted Vin's efforts to communicate with his friend, and he searched the hillside, finding Ezra now seated on the ground next to his car, knees drawn up to his chest, arms hugging his legs, his face buried against his knees. He knew the man was crying.

Feeling Ezra's pain joining Chris', Vin pulled back. Then he saw that they were all crying, and he could feel them all, too - different shades of loss, grief and hurt.

I don't want t' hurt y'all. I can't help this.

An odd sound caught his attention, the first he'd actually "heard" since the colors had surrounded him, and he spun around, but there was nothing here except the trees and the sky. Then, at the edges of his vision, a fine white mist started closing in.

He tried to back-peddle back away from the fog, but the swirling colors returned, wrapping themselves around him, buoying him along like a leaf on a slow-moving river.

No, wait! he cried silently. I want to-

In the distance a light appeared, bright and pulsing. A comforting sound rose slowly in pitch as he moved closer to the light and the fear and worry fell away, shed like a second skin he no longer needed.

Moving faster now, Vin surrendered to the indescribable feelings that surged through him, opening his arms wide to embrace the light as it engulfed him.

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

Wiping at his eyes, Josiah started down the hill. Breaking away from the others, Buck followed him.

Chris looked up at the two men, then down at Vin. "He's gone," he whispered.

"I'll take him, Chris," Josiah said quietly, extending his hands.

Chris started to protest, but then allowed the older man to gather up Vin's body and carry it up to the Ram.

Buck helped his friend climb to his feet, the two of them stumbling up the hill after Josiah. At the top, JD reached out, catching Chris' hand in his own and giving it a hard squeeze.

Chris pulled free and climbed into the back of the Ram, sitting down next to the body. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he tossed Buck the keys to the truck.

"I don't think I can drive," he said simply.

The others waited until the Ram pulled away before walking over to the other vehicles. Josiah reached out and pulled Ezra to his feet.

Wiping his face, Standish said, "I- I don't think I can drive either."

"Come on," Josiah said with a sympathetic nod and a short hug. "Climb in. JD can drive you back."

JD nodded. "Yeah, sure, no problem." He met Josiah's eyes. "I'll, uh, follow you, okay?"

Josiah nodded, then headed to the Suburban and climbed in. A few moments later he was pulling back onto the road. JD followed him as he said he would.

Ezra watched the younger man as he drove, his gaze fixed determinedly on the road, but they were bright with tears.

"Vin Tanner, dead..." Standish said quietly.

JD nodded. "Never thought I'd see the day."

"None of us did," Standish replied.

JD nodded, his own tears starting all over again. "When we were talking... He- He said he'd watch out for us," he whispered. "Do you think he will? That he might be... right now?" A warm hand settled on his shoulder and JD nodded. He knew Ezra understood.

"I certainly wouldn't put it past him," the undercover man told him, his voice strained. "Would you?"

JD shook his head, a small smile lifting the corners of his lips. "No... I wouldn't."

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

Emerging from the loving embrace of the light, Vin found himself momentarily blinded. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, wondering where he had been taken.

"It takes a moment to adjust."


A reassuring hand gripped his shoulder, and Vin squinted and peered into a young woman's blue eyes. She looked exactly the same as Vin remembered her.

"Mama, it is you!"

"Yes," Katherine Olivia Tanner replied with a sly smile.

Vin's gaze shifted from his mother's face to the dirt trail they were standing on. It was running alongside a wide, slow-moving river. Glancing across to the far bank, he thought he could make out the face of his grandfather standing in the foggy mists. And other faces faded in and out of the swirling grey mist as well.

"I'm really dead, aren't I?" Vin asked quietly.

"No, Vin. Not yet."

His gaze shifted back to his mother, both eyebrows arching toward his hairline. "But—"

"You can't stay here, baby."

"Why?" Vin reached out, his hand closing on the very real arm of the woman.

"It's a mistake that you're here, sweetie. It's not your time - not yet."

Vin's mouth tipped into a grin. "That sounds like a line from a bad late-night movie, Mama."

"But it's true." With a hand on her son's arm, she led them to a felled snarled tree trunk next to the water and sat down, Vin opting to pace along the riverbank. "Ya have t' go back, Vin. There's too much you've left unfinished."

"Unfinished?" he asked, his hands sliding up to rest on his hips.

"Your family needs you."

"I- I know they do," he mumbled, looking down at his feet. "I didn't want t' hurt 'em."

She stood and walked over to him, soothing him with her hand pressed to his cheek. "I know y' didn't, sweetie. But you're needed there. They all need ya to be with them longer."

She pointed across the river and out of the swirling mists Vin could see the vague outlines of other people he thought he ought to recognize. He shivered.

"But I don't want to lose you again, Mama," Vin breathed quietly.

She smiled at him and stroked his face. "Ya have so many who love you... Ya felt their pain, didn't ya?"

Vin nodded and swayed slightly, a wave of dizziness washing over him as he recalled the disconcerting sensations emanating from Chris and all the others. "I don't want to die, Mama. But—"

"I know, sweetie, I know. Here there's no pain, no frustration or hopelessness. But ya wouldn't be happy here. You'd worry and watch the riverbank for those you've come t' love, and when they came, you'd feel ashamed and guilty."

Vin nodded. "Yeah, I guess I would." In the distance he thought he might hear voices, orders being barked. "Guess I don't belong here, do I."

She shook her head. "No, not yet." She leaned in and kissed his cheek. "I've missed you, baby, but I've been watching you... You're a good man, Vin Tanner. A strong man. You're a Tanner, and a Tanner never gives up."

He nodded. "I'm not givin' up, Mama..."

"You have a good family, a real good family, Vin. And you love them."

He nodded, meeting her eyes. God, but she was beautiful. "I want t' go back, Mama. Please?"

Smiling and leaning forward to kiss him on the cheek again, she said, "This way."

As they walked along the trail he thought he could hear the voices getting louder. And there were other noises, mechanical ones, beeping sounds... He looked over at his mother. "Are you happy here?" he asked her.

She nodded and smiled. "I'm with your daddy, and my mama, Grandpa..."

"My daddy?" Vin asked. "You never told me who—" He felt a sharp tug and he reached out, grabbing on to his mother's hand. "Mama?"

"It's all right, baby, we'll all be here when ya come t' stay, I promise."

He felt the solid ground beneath his feet give away, sending him tumbling into the swirling colors. The fall didn't really frighten him until the first soft caress of cold and pain reached out and touched him.

"Mama!" he cried.

"You'll be fine, baby. I'll be with you... always..."

The colors evaporated in the blink of an eye, pain and blackness encircling him, constricting his chest. And then, with a blinding flash of agony, he sucked in a breath and mentally scrambled frantically for the beckoning blackness that now lay just beyond his reach.

Chris! he cried, hoping the man could hear him and could help him.

Friday 0910 Hours

Chris kept his gaze carefully averted from the too-still form lying next to him in the truck bed. Not since Sarah and Adam had died had he felt so utterly cold and numb inside. He reached up, pulling his jacket tighter around his shoulders, knowing at the same time that it would do nothing to cut the chill.

In the cab of the truck, Buck saw the laboratory come into view and noted Nathan and some other nurses were waiting at the doors. "Chris, looks like something's up!" he yelled back at the man.

But Larabee didn't hear a word the ladies' man said. Buck's comment was lost when Vin sucked in a deep breath, causing Larabee to jump.

"Vin?" Chris gasped, scooting closer to Tanner's body, his hands reaching out to test for a pulse. There was nothing... except...

Larabee felt the Ram turn into the secured parking lot. "He's breathing!" he yelled at Buck.

The ladies' man accelerated, driving straight to the door and breaking to a squealing stop. Nathan and the nurses swarmed to the side of the Ram before he could cut the engine. The NIH doctors arrived, Dr. McCabe pushing a gurney.

"Hurry!" Connor bellowed.

The tailgate was pulled down, people pushing in past Larabee to hastily remove Vin.

"Easy with him!" Chris snapped. "He's—"

"Hurry!" Connor barked again.

"What's going on?" Buck demanded, watching as Vin was transferred onto the gurney and wheeled inside, Connor and the other NIH doctors trailing behind, everyone moving at a run.

"No time," Nathan said, grabbing Chris' sleeve and hurrying him out of the truck bed. "They have to get him on life support."

"Nathan, he's dead!" Buck snapped.

"Not yet he isn't!" Nathan said, herding the two men into the facility.

"Nathan," Chris said, coming to a stop. "He was dead," he said bluntly. "But I think he- I think he took a breath."

"Bodies do that," Buck said, his tone sympathetic. He looked to Jackson for conformation.

Nathan took a deep breath and said in a rush, "Frank Powell died too, but they got him back."

Chris' eyes rounded. "Can they-?"

"I don't know," Nathan said. "They were right on top of things when he... died."

Chris' expression shifted from shocked hope to utter devastation. "You mean-? If we'd stayed-? I killed him?"

"Chris, no," Buck said, his arm going around the man's shoulders as he saw Larabee begin to sag. He looked over, meeting Nathan's eyes. "Help me get him into a chair."

Jackson nodded and reached out, the two men maneuvering Larabee down the hallway and into a chair in their command and control. Chris leaned over the table and buried his face in his arms, his shoulders jerking with the silent sobs that shook his body.

Buck looked to Nathan. "Did we kill-?"

The Black man shrugged, shaking his head. "I'll go see what I can find out."

The ladies' man nodded, his gaze falling to Chris' back. Jesus, he thought, if taking him out there killed him... He squeezed his eyes closed, begging the Divine not to put his oldest friend through that kind of hell.

Friday 0917 Hours

Nathan stared in disbelief at the clearly registering brain activity. And, while he watched, Dr. Connor administered a mild stimulus to Vin's heart, sending the ECG back into a normal, rhythmic pulse.

"Respirator has him now," Dr. McCabe said.

"BP is coming up," Dr. Durant echoed.

"How?" Ezra whispered. "We saw him... die out there."

Nathan and the others looked over at the doorway to the room, finding Ezra, JD and Josiah standing there.

"He didn't die," Dr. Durant replied. "He just stopped breathing. Come on, let's go to the conference room so they can work and I'll explain."

Exiting, she and Nathan found several of the laboratory personnel waiting anxiously for news in the hallway.

"He's alive," Dr. Durant told them, the scientists and technicians whooping in unison. "This way," she said to the agents, smiling slightly at the display of enthusiasm. Nathan, Josiah, Ezra and JD trailed after her, peppering her with questions as they went.

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

"Find a spot," Dr. Durant told them waving her hand and heading for the coffee pot carefully ensconced in a corner of the room. She poured four cups and carried them over to the table, distributing them as she explained. "Okay, this is how I think it worked. The mutation that Agent Tanner, and our friend were infected with was particularly unstable, and the recombination kept breaking down, which was why we were having so much trouble keeping up with the shifts. But it wasn't breaking down fast enough to stall the effects of the toxins it was also producing as it lived and carried out its basic metabolic functions. In fact, I think the production of the toxins actually played a large role in the speeding up of its genetic breakdown."

"And the toxins are what... killed him?" Josiah asked, then amended, "or whatever that was out there that looked like dead?"

"The toxins built up to the point where Agent Tanner lost autonomic respiratory control, but, at the same time, they were making the recombination break down. We figured that out just before Agent Larabee managed to- Anyway, that's why we came looking for Vin. Frank went critical first, and we thought that if we could get Vin on a respirator, like we did Frank, we could keep him going until the bacteria broke down on its own, since we couldn't isolate anything to use against it.

"But we didn't have all the data on the deterioration rates. Dr. McCabe got that after the agents had left," she told them. "The bacteria had actually been breaking down for about twelve hours..." She paused to take a breath, realizing that they weren't really following what she was saying, nor did they really care about the details. "The organism was at the end of its life cycle," she summed up. "The peak of the toxin build-up was just slightly ahead. When the toxin peaked, and Vin stopped breathing, the organism had already finished breaking down, it had self-destructed. Eventually Vin's own system caught up and the level of the toxin began to fall off, and that freed up his autonomic system, but the timing was such that he went into respiratory arrest and ventricular fibrillation."

"So he was never really dead?" JD asked her.

"I don't know. Technically he'd stopped breathing and his heart had stopped pumping like it normally does when he arrived here."

"That's dead in my book," JD supplied with a nervous laugh.

"What now, Doctor?" Ezra asked, leaning forward.

"We'll keep him on the respirator until he's a little stronger, and the levels of the toxin falls off more," she said, then looked nervously away.

"What?" Nathan asked.

She met his eyes. "We don't know what the reaction is going to be to the decomposition of the toxin."

"You mean he's still in danger?" Josiah questioned.

Dr. Durant nodded. "I'm sorry, but we're back to a wait-and-see. I'm optimistic, but I can't make any promises. If it helps, Frank is making good progress so far."

The men nodded, but the grim expressions had returned. She offered them a small, reassuring smile that had no affect, then left.

"I better go find Buck and Chris," Nathan said quietly.

Josiah shook his head. "I don't think Chris needs to hear about this just yet."

The former medic started to protest, but then he nodded, bowing to the profiler's better understanding of Larabee's psychological state.

Ezra forced himself to his feet. "I just want to state for the record that I am getting damn tired of waiting for good news without any strings attached."

"Amen, brother, amen," Josiah replied.

Saturday 0653 Hours

Larabee paced into Vin's room. Checking his watch, he was surprised to find it was nearly seven o'clock. He'd have to get some sleep, soon, or he was going to pass out where he stood.

Shoving the hair off his forehead, Chris walked over to the window and pulled back the curtains to let the early morning light fill the room. He cracked the pane open, allowing in the morning air as well. Behind him, Vin lay quietly sleeping.

A cold chill snaked down Larabee's back. It had been nearly twenty hours since they had returned to the laboratory. Vin had regained consciousness Friday afternoon, only to be assaulted with body-racking spasms as his system fought the toxins as they broke down. Nothing they had tried had eased the man's suffering, and once he'd thought he'd lost Vin for a second time. Finally they had taken him off the respirator when Vin was conscious enough to start to fight the thing.

Chris closed his eyes, trying to push the images away, but they refused to budge. He'd been sitting behind Vin, letting the younger man lean back against him and rest while he rubbed the sniper's tired and tense shoulder muscles. They had tried to keep Tanner awake throughout the ordeal, afraid that if he slept they wouldn't be able to monitor the process closely enough to intervene if there was trouble.

They had been talking about Vin's experience after he'd almost died the first time when he fell silent and slumped forward. Chris' trembling fingers had missed the pulse still beating in his neck. Dr. McCabe had found them twenty minutes later, Chris a complete wreck, sure that he'd really lost the man for good this time. But it was only exhaustion that had forced Vin into a deep sleep and, together, they had managed to rouse him.

Three hours later Dr. Durant had arrived to tell them that the toxins had dropped to a low enough level that they were no longer a threat. Vin had smiled weakly, slipping immediately into sleep once more...

The memories sent a surge of raw panic coursing through Larabee's already-frazzled nerves and he shook like a quake-rattled windowpane. It had been so close. So very, very close...

But Vin had hung on, fighting the pain and the cramping muscles, refusing to give up even when Chris had reached the point where he wanted Tanner to succumb - if simply to spare himself the continuing agony.

They had all sat with the man, urging him not to give up, but, after several hours of it, Chris could no longer utter those words. It wasn't fair. Vin had suffered enough. If death was his only escape, then he deserved it. After all, he'd been so happy to see his mother...

But how could he have wished the man dead? Vin was his friend, his best friend.

Vin hadn't given up, but he had...

Guilt weighed heavily on Larabee's shoulders, and he forced himself back to the edge of the bed.

A wild, incomprehensible maelstrom of emotions spiraled through the blond, increasing his anxiety. He wanted to reach out and rest his hand on the man's lightly-rising and falling chest - to assure himself that what he was seeing was real - but, at the same time, he wanted to wring Tanner's neck for putting him through this ordeal.

He wanted to stand inside the circle of Vin's arms and cry like a child, like he had when Sarah and Adam had been killed. And he wanted to shove him away, as far away as possible, so he couldn't be hurt like that again.

So many people in his life had died - his parents, Sarah, Adam - and he'd wished the same on Vin... What kind of friend did that make him?

With a whispered curse, Chris spun and fled the room.

Saturday 0747 Hours

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra said strictly, "the doctors said quite clearly that you have to eat if you want to get your strength back."

Vin leveled his best no-nonsense glower, sure to stop anything short of a rampaging bull elephant, or an irate Chris Larabee, on the man.

Standish folded his arms over his chest and tilted his head slightly to one side. "You're not eating, Mr. Tanner."

Vowing to work on the glower until it included stubborn undercover agents, Vin eyed his tray. On it, what he hoped was oatmeal, floated in a plastic bowl. If it wasn't oatmeal, he'd have to file a complaint for illegal disposal of toxic waste, because it really looked like some experiment they might be working on, not food.

Picking up his spoon, he poked tentatively at the substance. "Uh..."

"Oh, come now, it can't be that bad. I believe I had some of that... well, whatever it is, when I was in the hospital once, a long time ago."

"Probably the same batch," Tanner muttered. "They just kept sendin' it out t' different institutional cafeterias 'til someone's stupid enough t' actually eat it."

The door swinging open spared the recovering man actually sampling the gruesome mixture. "Larabee, where's m' pants?"

"Don't you think you'd better tackle breakfast before you storm the nurses' station?" Chris asked him, the edge to his voice making the joke more pointed than was called for.

"He's grouchy," Buck summed up, following the blond into the room.

"I am not grouchy," Larabee argued, realizing too late that he had sounded incredibly grouchy while doing so.

"Oh, yes, you are," the ladies' man countered.

"When am I gettin' out 'a here?" Vin asked the men. "I feel fine now, and I'm gonna starve t' death if I'm stuck here much longer. Where's Connor?"

"Soon. Glad to hear it. I doubt that. And I don't know," Buck rattled off, then grinned.

Blue eyes narrowed and the sniper's lips disappeared into a thin line.

"Try the toast, Mr. Tanner," Ezra suggested, sparing Wilmington's life. "I believe it was Mr. Dunne who pointed out that, if you fold it in half, it springs back to its original shape... like rubber."

"Great," Vin grumbled, while Buck moved in closer for a better view of the experiment.

Vin glared up at the big man again.

But Buck just grinned and said to Chris, "Hell, stud, he sure can give the ol' Larabee glare a run for its money, can't he?"

"He's just being a goddamn stubborn fool," Larabee replied. "The doctors said eat, so eat, goddamn it."

Vin blinked and transferred his increasingly-annoyed glower to his boss. "I will, when I c'n find some real food on my plate!"

"Ah," Ezra said, his eyes closing, his expression like that of a man who had just sampled a fine wine. "The sounds of normalcy at long last..."

Friday May 28th
1010 Hours

"It's about time!" Vin enthused when Josiah entered his hospital room carrying a small gym bag. "Those my clothes?" he asked hopefully. He'd thought that his transfer from the lab to a regular hospital would mean that he'd be sent home soon, but that hadn't proven to be the case.

"Yes, they are, but you're not going to need them just yet."

"Damn it, J'siah, what more do they want? I've been bled dry! I'm fine. I want t' go home."

"This won't hurt a bit, Vin," he reassured the man as the door opened and a nurse entered, pushing a wheelchair.

"I've heard that from everyone for three days now, J'siah, 'n' they've been wrong every damn time."

"Agent Tanner, you are the worst patient I've ever had to deal with, and I've dealt with some real brutes!" the nurse said, pointing to the chair. "Insert rump here - now."

With all the dignity he could muster in the thin hospital gown, Vin took his seat. "What is it this time?"

"Last set of chest x-rays," the nurse supplied as she wheeled him out the door. "Then a trip to neurology, and then I'm hoping we finally get rid of you."

"Well... good," the sniper grouched, not sure if he should be hurt or not by her words.

Josiah chuckled softly. "Look at the bright side, brother," he said.

"There is one?" Vin asked him.

"You could have been sent back to DC to the NIH to recuperate with Frank Powell... have doctors Connor, Durant and McCabe hovering over you all this time..."

Vin raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "All right, J'siah, y' made your point." He flashed the man a grin as they headed for the elevators. "Poor guy."

Josiah nodded his agreement.

Vin's expression turned more serious as they entered the elevator car and the nurse pressed the button that would take them to Radiology. "Ain't seen Chris in a day 'r so... He busy?"

Josiah sighed softly, but not so softly that Tanner didn't hear it. "He's... dealing with some issues of his own right now."

Vin frowned. "'Bout me?"

Josiah nodded. "It's not your fault, Vin, and it's nothing you've done... He's just revisiting some old ghosts. Give him a little time; he'll be all right."

Vin nodded, but he slumped back in his wheelchair, worried nonetheless.

A week later

"Vin, you resting?"

Tanner winced slightly. "Yeah, JD, I'm restin'." He laid his pen aside and looked up from his paperwork.

"Looks to me like you're working. Chris says you should be resting. You just got home."

Vin contemplated what he might do if he heard the phrase 'Chris says' one more time, but he decided that everything he could come up with was a federal offense.

"I'm just gettin' started on all this damn paperwork," he explained, waving his hand over the stack of file folders cluttering up one corner of Larabee's coffee table.

JD crossed the room and slid into the leather recliner. "Ever remind you of homework?"

"Hell yes," Vin said, "and I hated that, too."

"Homework's work," JD pronounced. "You better wait 'til tomorrow... at least."

Fighting back a smile, he decided to humor the request. "I guess it can't hurt t' let this sit for another day... or two."

"Cool, we can watch Total Recall on HBO!"

Vin nodded his agreement. "Now, that sounds more like restin' than paperwork does."

"Yep." JD bounced out of the recliner. "You want some breakfast? Josiah's in there making his flapjacks."

"Sure," Vin replied, watching the younger man leave the room. He'd been out from the hospital for a week, each day spent out at the ranch, and he was chafing to return to his regular routine, even if no one else was ready to let him do it.

He was fine.

Dr. Chandler had pronounced him bacteria- and toxin-free. Oh sure, he was still a little sore and achy, but that was fading, and his strength was almost back to... well, something starting to approach normal. It would have been normal if he could just get back to his regular runs and exercise. But every time he tried to do anything that was... well, normal, one of the others would appear to distract him, or con him into waiting, or tell him he couldn't, shouldn't, or wouldn't want to do it... Well, enough was enough!

He was fine, and it was high time he got on with his life. It wasn't going to wait for him forever after all.

With a deep breath, he pushed himself up and left the living room, heading for the kitchen, and breakfast. Even his appetite had returned, which was no small feat after all the lab and hospital swill he'd been forced to endure.

He was fine, and it was time the others stopped treating him like he was still an invalid.

Now, all he had to do was convince them of that...

"Morning, Vin," Josiah greeted as he entered and took a seat at the breakfast bar.

"Mornin'," he replied, noting Larabee's absence. "Anythin' going on?"

"Nada," Buck said with a smile. "We're still all on vacation for another two days."

Vin nodded. "Good, that'll give me two days t' get back into a routine." He waited for someone to voice an objection, but there were none. "That's not a problem?"

"Should it be?" Josiah asked him.

Tanner's eyes narrowed slightly. "For the last week y'all 've been watchin' me like I was an only-chick. I was expectin' some kind of objection, yeah."

Buck shrugged. "Nathan figured a week was enough rest. A week's up today. You're free."

"Why didn't anyone tell me this?" Vin demanded.

"What, and ruin all our fun?" Buck asked him, then added sincerely, "Welcome back, Junior."

JD grinned at Vin from across the space. "So, does that mean you'd rather go horseback riding?"

"You bet," Vin said with a smile. "Excellent way t' start the day, in my opinion."

"After you have some breakfast," Josiah said, transferring three of the large golden-brown discs onto a plate which he slid in front of Vin.

Tanner grinned down at the pancakes. "Of course," he said, reaching for the butter and the syrup, slathering on the first and drowning the stack in the later before digging in.

Buck and Josiah exchanged grins, JD just rolling his eyes. "It's a good thing Nathan isn't here to see that!" he added.

"Where is everybody else?" Vin asked.

"Nathan's out helping Chris feed the horses," Buck told him. "And Ezra's... Well, he's wherever he is."

"Said he was 'tracking down some loose threads,' whatever the hell that means," JD supplied. "Said he'd be back for lunch, and insisted that it be something other than barbecue."

"Heathen," Buck replied, shaking his head.

Vin nodded, his mouth too full to speak.

Monday, June 14th
0803 hours

He heard them outside the door, talking and laughing as they entered the office. "'Bout time," he called.

They came to stumbling halts, their eyebrows climbing. Josiah, Nathan, Buck, JD and Ezra all glanced around at their office space, taking in the abundant party decorations that covered the walls, desks, windows and whatever other surface would be put to use. A handmade banner that hung from the ceiling read "I'm Back!"

"You're late," Vin told them, settling back in his chair and grinning at their confused, dazed looks.

"Uh, Vin," JD said, "aren't you still on sick-leave?"

Vin's grin broadened into a genuine smile. "Nope. Dr. Chandler gave me the 'you're all better now' speech on Friday, so I'm officially back as of today."

"I see," was Nathan's cool reply. Taking a deep breath, and hoping he could keep a straight face, he stalked over to Tanner and peered down at him. It didn't take long for Vin's expression to falter slightly under the former medic's intense scrutiny. A moment later a smile broke out on Jackson's face. "Good to have you back, Vin," he said, reaching out and slapping the sniper on the back. "You're looking good - damn good."

The others all laughed at Tanner's relieved expression and headed to their desks, most of them still gawking at the decorations as they went.

"What's all this for?" Buck asked, waving his hands at the riot of color and designs. "You do realize that we're supposed to throw you a welcome back party, right?"

"Well, that might be true, but I figured I'd throw you guys a party, too," Vin said, blue eyes alight with warmth and friendship. "T' say thank you, for all y' done for me... Don't think I would've made it through that mess if it hadn't been for you guys." The grin returned as the five men blushed at the compliment.

"Still," Ezra said, schooling his expression into one of his best haughty, condescending looks, "this is a terrible breach of protocol, Mr. Tanner, simply dreadful. I'm afraid we're going to have to insist that you take this all down and allow us to enact our rightful roles of celebrators upon the conclusion of this most unfortunate recent drama."

They watched as Vin's eyes widened slightly as he tried to quickly translate the man's words.

"Well," Tanner said and cleared his throat, "reckon if y'all feel that way, I could take it down..."

"We did have some pretty audacious plans," Josiah agreed, looking at Ezra. But his eyes were twinkling.

"Y' did?"

"Oh, yeah," Buck jumped in. "Food, cake... belly-dancing girls..."

"Belly-dancing girls?" JD echoed. "Since when?"

The ladies' man rolled his eyes and Vin fought back a smile.

"Wow... well then, reckon I'll just have t' let y' rock the house... another day," he concluded, watching the men's lips twitching into smiles. "'Cause I've already got us reservations at Chops for tonight, and I picked up one of them extra special cakes from Celestial Bake—"

"Oh my God," Josiah gasped. "Don't tell me... the white cake one with fruit filling and the butter rum frosting?"

"The very same," Vin replied, nodding. "Only the best... for the best bunch of friends, no, brothers, a guy could ever hope to find."

"Well, then, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, his eyes a little bright, "we might be willing to forgive your faux pau after all."

"You bet we are," Nathan added, the others nodding.

"Glad to hear it," Vin replied, looking and sounding more than a little smug. "And where's Larabee?"

Buck frowned. "He's not here? He didn't help you put all this stuff up?"

Tanner shook his head. "Expected he'd turn up with the rest of ya."

"He wasn't at breakfast, either," Nathan offered. "We thought he was running late—"

"Because of me," Vin finished for him, frowning now as well. "He helped me get all my shit back home on Saturday, but I didn't hear from him Sunday."

"I'll give him a call," Buck said, starting to reach for his cell phone.

"What in the hell is this crap?"

The six men looked to find Larabee stalking into the office. The blond was frowning as he took in the decorations. He stopped for a moment, then just shook his head and headed into his office, closing the door behind him.

"Something happen between you two?" Buck asked the sniper.

"Not that I knew of," Vin replied, still staring at the closed door to Chris' office.

"Yes, well, whatever Mr. Larabee's issues might be," Ezra said, "I, for one, am just glad that we, once again, have beaten the odds." He grinned at Vin adding, "I always knew that you were simply too stubborn to die, Mr. Tanner."

The men laughed and slowly began to actually turn their attention to their work.

"Chops, huh?" JD called. "That's gonna cost you a month's pay."

"It'll be worth it," Vin said sincerely, but he was still worried about what was happening with Chris. Had he done or said something to upset the man? He couldn't remember anything, but...

Thursday, June 17th
1202 hours

Vin stepped off the path and stretched. It was a beautiful, clear morning, perfect for a run in the park - his preferred way of spending lunch. God but it felt good to be back at work, back to "normal," or whatever passed for it.


Vin glanced over his shoulder and smiled when he saw Chris walking up to join him. "Hey, y' finally gonna run with me?" he asked, beginning his warm-up exercises.

"What the hell are you doing?"

The sniper frowned. "Gettin' ready for my run, just like normal."

"But you just got out of the hospital."

Vin glanced over at the blond, sensing something was wrong, but finding no clue in the man's closed expression. Chris had been distant ever since he'd... lived. At first Vin had chalked it up to the aftermath of a good scare, but it wasn't getting any better. "It's been almost three weeks, Chris. Dr. Chandler said I was fine, that I should go back t' all my normal routines weeks ago, remember?"

"I'm sure he didn't mean you should be out here running a damned marathon," Larabee snapped.

Vin felt himself bristle and forced himself to take a deep breath before he replied. "I'm not runnin' a marathon, Chris. I'm just taking a little run around the park."

"You're not Superman, you know."

"Yeah," Vin said, more confused than ever, "I know."

"Then why the hell do you always act like you are?" Chris demanded.

"That's out 'a line, Larabee," Vin snapped, his own anger finally bubbling to the surface. He knew if he wasn't careful, he was going to say something he'd regret, but that was out of line. He hadn't been doing a damn thing out of the ordinary. He was just doing what he usually did.

"No, you're out of line," was the reply. "Why can't you just admit you're human, like the rest of us?"

"Just a goddamned minute—" But before he could get started, Larabee turned and stalked away.

What the hell was that? Vin wondered, watching Chris getting farther away. He didn't know, but he did know he had to find out, and soon, before the friendship he and Chris had shared for so long was destroyed. And he wasn't about to let that happen.

He sighed, knowing he wouldn't be running today. Instead he started after Larabee, picking up speed until he finally caught up with the man. "Hey, Chris, hold on."

The blond stopped and Vin heard him sigh heavily. Chris' shoulders also sagged as he turned to face him. "What?" he snapped.

"Something goin' on y' want t' talk about?" he asked the older man.

Chris shook his head, but said at the same time, "Look- It's not your problem, Vin. It's mine."

"Seems like you've made it mine, too."

Larabee nodded, his jaw muscle jumping with frustration.

Vin glanced around at the park, relatively quiet for the time of day. "Y' want t' take a walk?" he asked, knowing the jogging trail would give them some privacy.

It was clear from the look on the man's face he didn't want to, but Chris sighed again and nodded, obviously resigned to his fate.

The first several minutes passed in silence, but then Chris said softly, "Just having a hard time facing the fact that... that I... that it hurt... Hell, I don't know what the hell I'm trying to say here."

"That y' found out your heart isn't as dead as you thought it was?" Vin asked quietly.

Larabee's eyes rounded. "Yeah... I guess that's close enough."

Vin offered him a small smile. "Hell, Chris, any time y' think you're going t' lose something that means something t' ya, it hurts... But I've gotta tell y'... Having somebody who'll stick it out with ya, t' the last breath... That's a gift, a treasure nobody can put a price on... If it'd been you..." He shook his head. "Reckon I would've felt what you're feelin'... But it wasn't you." He looked over at the man, his eyes full of hope and sympathy and sadness. "Y' can live dead, or y' can live life... It ain't easy, but y' know I think it's worth it."

That brought a small smile to Chris' lips, too. "Sometimes I think it is, too. Other times..." He shook his head. "It hurts, Vin... Too much, maybe..."

"But isn't the alternative worse?"

Larabee had to nod after a few moments passed. "Yeah... I guess so."

They walked on in silence for a while, then Larabee asked, "How the hell did you get so wise anyway?"

Vin flashed him a grin. "Hell if I know."

"I do."

Vin looked at him, waiting for him to continue, but Chris changed the topic. "Guess I've been acting like a damn fool, haven't I?"

Vin nodded. "Reckon y' have... Well, a pain in the ass, anyway."

"Fuck you, Tanner."

"Not in this life," the man replied with a snort.

Larabee shook his head. Then stopped and rested his hands on his hips. "You know, only you could find the one place in Purgatory an escaped, plague-infected rodent would go to die."

"How the hell was I supposed to know it'd get caught in Pop's new air conditioning unit?"

Chris started walking again, this time heading them back toward their building. "I'm just saying you're a freakin' trouble magnet."

"I am not."

"The hell you aren't."

"Hey, anybody could've been there at the wrong time. It was just... poor timing."

"Trouble magnet."

Tanner rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. It wasn't over, but at least he knew Chris was trying to put it behind him. And any friend who'd ride the river with you to the last breath was worth waiting for, worth helping. And he knew he'd do whatever it took... to his last breath.