Acceptable Risk

by JIN

Disclaimer: I gain nothing from this venture except the pleasure of spending time with the boys (and it was a pleasure - I had so much fun writing Chris this time around).

Comments: This story takes place entirely from one man's POV (Chris), so some things will be left to the imagination. Please excuse any medical inaccuracies and my technical ignorance - the focus here is on communication and friendship. I wanted to write a fic where Chris could talk to Vin (and he does a lot of talking in this fic), but not get to him. Also, I'm not making a political statement, so please don't take offense. It's just fiction.

Warnings: The usual cursing, violence, and over-abundance of angst and h/c.

"Yes, it's a risk, Chris - but an acceptable one."

"Acceptable? I hate that term and you know it. Tell me, Sir, would you do it? If it was your life at stake, how acceptable would this be to you?"

"I would do it. Indeed, I have done it," Assistant Director Travis replied. "You should know better than to use me as an example. I've never asked any man to do something I wouldn't do myself."

It was true, damn it. Chris didn't have a leg to stand on and Travis knew it.

The older man cleared his throat, loosened his tie, and looked generally uncomfortable when he next spoke. "Is it the operation that bothers you? Or the man I've tagged to perform it?"

It was suddenly ten degrees warmer in the room. Chris wiped the perspiration from his brow as he stood up and paced to the window. He kept his gaze peeled to the sky scraper across the street when he replied, "I don't know why you'd think that."

"Come on, Chris," Travis said on the heels of an exasperated sigh. "I've been doing this a long time. I'm not a fool."

"Are you implying I am?" Chris responded hotly, turning to face his supervisor.

"Of course not. But I am suggesting that you've lost a certain amount of objectivity where your agent is concerned."

"I'm always concerned about my agents," Chris argued.

"But some more than others. One in particular."

Now that was just a bald-faced lie. But perhaps it was fortunate that he didn't get the chance to express that sentiment as Travis effectively moved on. "The decision has been made. Tanner goes in tomorrow."

Conversation over. Dismissed. Chris stormed out of the office, ignoring the curious looks of the outer office staff as he passed by.

Travis was wrong. About the operation. About the risks involved. About his protectiveness towards his agents. About Tanner.

Of course every assignment carried a certain amount of risk. It came with the job. But this was different. His gut gnawed at him - had since the whole thing started - and he didn't want any of his men involved. And Vin was one of his men. It could have been Nathan or Josiah or Buck or Ezra or JD, and he'd feel no different.

Travis was wrong.

As he approached the door to Team Seven's office, he had to grit his teeth against the urge to rip the damn thing from its hinges. The draft of cool air as the door swung open did nothing to dissipate the heat from his face - or his tone apparently - judging by the looks the other men gave him when he demanded, "Where is he?"

JD glued his gaze to his computer, Ezra busied himself with an imaginary speck of lint on his jacket, Nathan headed for the bathroom, and Josiah suddenly had "an important call to make." Only Buck had the nerve to look him in the eye and answer, "With the tech guys. Gettin' set up."

"Set up, hell," Chris muttered. "He's gonna be in the goddamn wilderness. How the fuck they think they're gonna keep track of him up there?"

"Well-" Buck started.

But Chris was already in his office, the door slamming shut behind him. He sat down at his desk, got up, paced the width of the room three times, then sat down again. His hand shook as he ran it through his hair, and he found himself craving a drink in a way he hadn't in a very long time.

It was going to be bad, he just knew it. A radical environmental group had set up camp high in the Rockies, stockpiling an arsenal of heavy duty weaponry. Homeland Security had made the connection, and the FBI task force on terrorism had done the footwork, so why the hell they needed an ATF man undercover was beyond his understanding. Sure, Vin had the training, the background, the skill, the look. But he wasn't one of them - Vin belonged on his own team with men he knew and trusted watching his back. It was bad enough that Travis agreed to send Tanner to the middle of bum-fuck Egypt to join a cult of screwed-up, drugged up, hippy terrorists, but they were sending his agent - his friend - in with no back-up. Or at least, no back-up that could be trusted.

Chris had visions of long-haired, bearded men - ala Charles Manson - and wide-eyed, naïve young girls in tie-dyed dresses blowing up some nuclear power plant in a misguided effort to "protect" the planet before downing cyanide cocktails in a ritualistic suicide pact. Whether all that happened before or after they discovered Vin was a plant and beat him to death in the name of "Love, Peace, and Mother Earth" remained to be seen. They'd dispose of Tanner's body somewhere amidst the rocky slopes, towering pines, and carnivorous wildlife. And his teammates would never find him; never know for sure how or when he died, or what kind of torture he'd endured before he'd finally taken that last breath alone.

Alone. Vin had lived eighty percent of his life alone, and he deserved better than to leave this life without his friends by his side. His stomach rolling, Chris swallowed and stood up to pace again. Travis was crazy asking - no, ordering - Vin to do this. The AD was even crazier for insinuating that there was any kind of partiality or favoritism involved on his part. Maybe Orin would prefer it if he just merrily shipped his men off to any and every willy-nilly group with a bone to pick. Half the country was already being wire-tapped for "suspicious behavior" - Travis could keep every agent on his team occupied for months on end - hell, make that years.

But they were ATF, for God's sake, not HS, not FBI, and he had a right to be angry. And worried. And maybe a little scared - maybe a lot scared. And alright, maybe the "F" stood for firearms, so maybe there was a need for their involvement, but then give his team the case, damn it. Give him some control.

He went back to his desk, sat down, put his head in his hands, and groaned. What was wrong with him? Vin had done worse and come out alright in the end. Well, maybe not alright exactly, but he'd survived mostly intact. This might be a welcome retreat for him - a few weeks away in a wilderness filled with inspiring sunsets, clear mountain air, and all of that other outdoor shit Tanner loved so much. A vacation of sorts.

Uh-huh. Yeah.

Vin was gonna die.

"I don't favor him," Chris whispered. "I don't. It's just . . ."

Just what?

Just that he looked forward to coming to work in the morning, knowing Vin would be there ahead of him with the lights on and the coffee brewing. Made no difference that the coffee was undrinkable, it was the thought that counted. Generally, Vin would have both of their computers turned on and warmed up, the gold fish on Josiah's desk fed, Nathan's plant watered, and JD's radio blaring by the time Chris had his coat off and hung up on a hook.

Just that Friday nights at the bar wouldn't be the same without Vin baiting Ezra, teasing JD, outsmarting Josiah, and collecting more unsolicited female advances than Buck. Toss in Nathan fretting over Vin's latest bruise, sprain, or sniffle, and a better time couldn't be had.

Just that half of Vin's stuff was at his ranch: his unruly horse and that scraggly stray cat he'd rescued from a dumpster down the street from his apartment; the cds he loved and the training manuals he despised; the old, slouch hat he'd bought at a yard sale, his U2 T-shirt, his camping gear, his favorite pair of boots, his fishing pole - which was really nothing more than a long stick with a string tied on one end.

Just that Vin had a way of knowing when to shut up and when to speak up. And a way of hearing what Chris didn't - or couldn't - say.

"What the hell am I supposed to do if he doesn't come back?" Chris asked in a low voice, ignoring the disturbing fact that he had resorted to talking to himself.

Well, what could he do? Except come to work an hour later - Nathan would be in by then and he could do all that stuff Vin did. Friday's would have to be marked off the calendar, there was no way around that. Vin's stuff? Tanner would probably want the kids in his neighborhood to have it, except for the horse and the cat - they'd have to stay at the ranch. Maybe the cd's, too, just for old time's sake. He couldn't imagine anyone else wearing Vin's hat or his T-shirt or his boots, so no, he'd just have to keep those. Of course, there'd be no use for camping equipment or fishing poles in the city, so he reckoned he'd just have to hold on to those things, as well.

And if no one else understood him quite like Vin, well, there was no getting around that, either. Life would go on.

"No, damn it. Just no," he growled under his breath. "If those ass holes are gonna use my man for their business, then I'm part of the package. I get the say in how this goes down."

"No, you don't, Cowboy."

Vin's soft voice caught him off-guard, and he stumbled to his feet awkwardly. "What? I didn't hear you come in."

"Yeah. I noticed." Vin made a show of slowly perusing the room for any hidden lurkers. "You hidin' someone in here or did we finally drive you crazy?"

"You're not going," Chris replied. Which probably revealed more about the current state of his sanity than he'd intended - thereby answering Vin's question.

"I am. I have to. You know it. I know it. So let's not be botherin' with any more talk about it."

"You could refuse," Chris said quietly, as he toyed absently with the glass paperweight on his desk. It had a cowboy riding a horse etched on it; a gift from Vin, of course.

"Yeah? I hadn't thought of that. Well, let's just give Travis a call, why don't we? Say I'm - what? Too scared? Too tired? Or maybe I'm just not in the mood?"

"Vin . . ."

Vin moved directly in front of him, and Chris reluctantly raised his eyes to meet his friend's.

"I know you're worried, Chris, but it'll be alright. I'll be alright."

"Like hell. You'll be miles away from civilization, from back-up."

"From you."

"Yeah. From me."

"I won't be cut-off. I'll be able to communicate any time I need to."

"With what? Smoke signals?"

To his credit, Vin maintained a straight face. "Those security guys got some things that are a little more advanced."

With a huff, Chris replied, "I hate to tell you, Pard, but there's no reception where you're going."

"Hell, Larabee, they ain't sendin' me up there with a couple of double A's and walkie-talkie. Trust me, I could transmit from the moon with what these guys got now."


"Yeah. JD's head might explode once he gets a look at the fancy gear they're riggin' up for me."

"Tell me, Vin, what's that fancy gear gonna do for you if you get in a bind? Is it gonna zap you some help? They got a fighter jet on hold to swing by and pick you up?"

"It's reconnaissance, Chris. That's all. I go in and get the lay of things - try to figure out what they're up to, their target, their timetable - and then I'm back out. Let the big guns do their thing."

Shaking his head, Chris muttered, "You know it won't happen like that. You get in and you'll never get out. At least, not standing up."

"I appreciate your confidence in me, Pard."

Chris ignored the remark and asked the question he'd yet to get a satisfactory answer to. "Why you?"

"You know why."

"I know what they said - that they got wind this group was lookin' for a long-range sniper. You telling me you're the only sniper working for the US government?"

"No. But I'm one of the few that knows that area and understands what it takes to survive in that climate. Plus, I got experience going undercover. And if that ain't enough, I got the look."

The paperweight hit the desk with a solid thump, and Chris paced to the window. "I knew I should have made you cut your hair."

This time, Vin did laugh. "Lighten up, Chris. It's just another job. No big deal. A few weeks from now-"

"Oh come on, Vin. Don't patronize me. It will take you a month to even get in the door. Probably another month before you get a hint at what's really going on. In the meantime, we work short a man."

"Yeah," Vin replied softly, "that's what all this is about. You're worried about the team working a little harder."

Chris finally turned towards his friend as he admitted, "I don't want anything to go wrong. It's hard enough when I know what's going on, when I have some control."

"You don't have control, Chris. Not ever. None of us do."

"You know what I mean. They're gambling with your life, and I don't like it."

"Every day on the job is a gamble for us. This ain't all that different. It's a risk, but -"

"Don't you dare say it's acceptable. It's not, damn it. Losing you isn't acceptable." There, he'd said it; laid it all out in the open.

But either Vin already knew how he felt, or he didn't want to talk about it, because he only sighed and said, "I have a lot t' do before I take off tomorrow morning. I need t' come out to your place tonight and get a few things. That alright with you?"

No, Chris thought, nothing was alright at all. But what he said was, "Sure. Whatever."

+ + + + + + +

Chris could see that Vin's jeep was already loaded by the time he'd made it to the ranch. He wanted to ask him what the hell was the hurry, but he figured he'd already upset his friend enough earlier in the day by expressing his concerns. It probably wasn't fair, adding extra pressure to Vin at a time when he needed a clear head, but he wasn't sorry he'd said what he had. It was just so clear to him that Vin was heading for trouble - and he'd have no one to help him get out of it.

As he stood at the window, watching his friend climb out of his car and head for the barn, he resisted the urge to put his fist through the glass. He'd done that once, after Sarah and Adam had died, and felt like an idiot afterward. What had the action accomplished except a trip to the ER for ten stitches in his hand?

And this would be no different, nothing he did would reverse the course of the events to follow. Why this assignment should incite such rage in him was the true question. It wasn't like Vin hadn't tackled dangerous situations before. But something was wrong this time around, and he was powerless to change it. His friend would ride away in the morning to face this danger alone, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Vin approached the house then, having apparently given his horse an unusually quick farewell. Tension radiated in his lean frame, and Chris suspected he was the cause of it. No easy slouch this evening; Vin was anticipating a battle.

Opening the door to his home, Chris offered a clipped, "Come in." But he extended the olive branch by quickly adding, "You wanna stay the night?"

"Reckon I might," Vin replied, the tension easing a bit. "Cut my drive down some if I leave from here."

Chris snorted. "Yeah, that was my intention. Get you there thirty minutes sooner."

Spine stiffening, Vin bit back, "I'll just go on now if we're gonna fight about this."

"No, we're not gonna fight," Chris answered, pulling his hand through his hair in exasperation. "I want you to stay."

Might be the last time, he thought, though he had sense enough not to say it.

Vin looked at him warily before nodding. "Alright."

"Wanna beer?"

"Reckon one wouldn't hurt."

Wouldn't help, either, but Chris held back the words as he grabbed the bottles from his refrigerator and joined Vin on the deck.

The setting sun was even more beautiful than usual, as if Mother Nature was putting on one last spectacular performance in Vin's honor. Pure pleasure gleamed in the blue eyes as Vin took in the rainbow of pinks and purples, and Chris swallowed a lump in his throat.

"When . . . ? How . . .? Will I be able to talk to you?" Chris choked, hating the way his voice betrayed his unstable emotions.

Vin took a long draw of beer before turning towards him. "Yeah. I had to argue that. The frequency is scrambled, of course, so you'll have t' go t' their place - use their equipment. Took some doin', but Travis got you access."

It felt like his head was being squeezed in a vice. Travis had to pull strings to allow him to talk to his own agent? What kind of a fucked up operation was this? "Thought we were all on the same side," he muttered.

"We are, Chris. They're good men - just doin' their jobs, same as us. They won't let nothin' happen t' me if they can help it."

He wanted to believe that, and he supposed he did, to some extent. But those guys had no idea what they had in Vin. They couldn't know how important he was, how valuable. In addition to the acceptable risk factor, there was the common good law: sacrificing one to save many. Vin's life would be a small price to pay if necessary to stop a terrorist threat.

But it was a huge price to Chris; he'd become too dependent on his friend, too attached. Vin was the first man he went to for advice, for acceptance, for companionship.

Travis was right - the thought lodging in his throat as he gagged on his beer. He'd lost his objectivity, which was not only unfair to Vin and the rest of this team, but unacceptable and inexcusable in light of his responsibilities.

"I'm sorry," he breathed.

Vin knew, of course, exactly what he hadn't said. "It's okay. I get it. If it were you goin' up there, I'd probably be takin' a leave of absence so I could trail along behind you."

"I could do that," Chris said hopefully. "No one would have to know."

"Yep," Vin smiled. "I'm sure you could pull that off without anyone givin' it a second thought." He paused and added, "Face it, Chris, I've got to do this one on my own. It's gonna be hard enough gettin' them to trust one man - two would be impossible. But I'll come back. I've got my horse to think of."

"And that damn cat. You know I don't even like cats."

Nothing more was said about it after that. They'd said all they needed to about their friendship. Chris took comfort in the fact that the feelings between them were mutual - Vin had no objectivity, either.

They talked long into the night about one thing or another: Vin was looking to buy a new saddle, Chris might tile the kitchen floor; Buck's new girlfriend had two kids, and Nathan sure had strange ideas when it came to naming the baby on the way; the look on Ezra's face when Josiah let slip that he'd been emailing Maude for months, and JD's expression when he'd spotted a bridal magazine on Casey's desk; the chances for the Broncos and the Rockies; global warming and Iraq and the resurgence of gangs in Purgatorio; plain chocolate ice cream was still the best flavor and any kind of beer would do in a pinch.

They finally said goodnight with a firm grip to each other's forearm, and in the morning, they said goodbye the same way.

Chris stood in the drive and watched his friend drive off, then went back inside his house and threw up.

+ + + + + + +

"You goin' over there?"

"Yeah. Vin's supposed to check in this afternoon."

Buck's mustache twitched, but he didn't say anything more, though it was clear something was bothering him.

"What is it?" Chris pressed.

Licking his lips, Buck finally spit it out. "You're putting too much pressure on the Kid. It's not fair, Chris. You can't expect him to do this."

"He offered." Well, sort of, Chris guiltily admitted to himself. He probably had made JD feel a bit obligated; laid it on a little heavy that Vin's life could hang in the balance.

"His job could be at stake if they find out what you got him doing."

"What have I got him doing, Buck? All I want is to be able to talk to Vin myself. One-on-one with no government bureaucrats hanging on our every word."

"You don't trust them," Buck said succinctly, stating the obvious.

"Of course I don't. They don't care about Vin. All they care about is getting enough evidence to move in. Vin's well-being is the last thing on their minds. Now I can go over there and listen in on his report, but you know as well as I do that if something isn't right with this mess, he won't have a way to let us know. I just need JD to find a frequency, a sound wave, a satellite, a signal, something so that Vin can talk to us if he needs to."

"That's all, huh? Piece of cake."

"JD likes a challenge." That part was true, the kid was chomping at the bit to get in on the latest technology they'd supplied Vin with. Might be going in the back door this way, but it gave the young man a chance to get involved and made him feel important.

"If anything comes down," Buck warned, "he'll not take the fall."

"What are you so worried about, Buck? You keep telling me we're all on the same side. If you're so sure Vin is in good hands, why all the concern for JD?"

Buck shook his head and walked away, but he turned back to add, "I know you're worried about him, Chris. We all are. But you gotta step away from this one. Trust Vin, if you can't trust no one else. He'll come back."

I'll come back . . . Vin's soft assurance echoed in his head. If only it could be that simple. If only saying it made it so. But he knew better.

An hour later, he was seated in the communications room, waiting for Vin's transmission. And when it came, when he heard Vin's voice as sure and solid as if he were sitting next door rather than high on a mountain top, his heart beat normally for the first time in three days. Maybe it would be alright.

Vin's report was short and to the point. He had pitched his tent about a mile outside the compound and had already made contact at the small camp store where members of the rogue group replenished their supplies every few days. Everything was going well, as nearly as he could tell this early in the operation. Vin was well-prepared, thorough, and professional. But Chris couldn't help thinking that if it were his men on the receiving end, the interaction on both sides would be interspersed with a funny tale or two, some good-natured ribbing, a few jokes of questionable taste - all framed in genuine care and concern. The conversation he'd just witnessed was factual, precise, and about as personal as the stock market report.

Vin was about to end the transmission when Chris could hold his tongue no longer.

"Watch your back, Tanner," he said, failing miserably to disguise the hitch in his voice.

It was the first indication Chris had given that he was even in the room, and he could sense Vin's surprise at the revelation. There was a long pause before Vin softly replied, "You, too, Larabee."

Even though he couldn't see his face, he knew Vin wore a soft smile that matched his own. There was so much more to be said; he wanted to tell Vin that his ornery horse had kicked three boards loose in his stall, that Ezra nearly cried when JD spilled a chocolate milkshake on the seat of his Jaguar, that the case they were working on was progressing at a maddeningly slow pace . . . that he missed him. But he'd have to settle for this small reassurance for now.

He left the room then, more determined than ever to prod JD in his efforts to find a way for him to talk to Vin privately.

+ + + + + + +

The relief was short-lived. Three days later, Chris sat stiffly in a folding chair listening intently to Vin's brief report while Agent Harrington, the FBI agent in charge of the operation, paced about the small, cramped room where the transmission equipment was housed. The man seemed disappointed that Vin hadn't managed to finagle an invitation to the compound yet, but all Chris could think about was the fact that an unseasonable cold front had moved in, dumping icy rain in the mountains for forty-eight solid hours. It had to be miserable being stuck inside a cold, damp tent for hours on end - not to mention boring and lonely.

Vin's voice betrayed all of those things - to Chris, anyway - plus one thing more. "You're getting sick, Tanner," he said coolly, hoping he sounded more annoyed than concerned.

"I'm alright," Vin replied, seconds before contradicting his statement with a loud sneeze.

Chris turned his gaze to Harrington and demanded, "Pull him."

"What? Why?"

"He's sick."

"I'm not sick, Chris. It's cold and damp - anybody would be sneezin' out in this mess."

"You're not anybody, Vin." Chris got to his feet and moved in front of Harrington. "He'll have pneumonia before the week's out. Pull him."

The older agent looked incredulous. "That's ridiculous, Agent Larabee. He's almost in the door and I'm not going to pull him for a damn head cold."

"Chill out, Larabee," Vin's voice sounded again from across the miles. "I'll take some cold medicine tonight - Nathan's got me well-supplied. Quit yer worryin'."

"Vin . . . Please . . ." Chris pleaded softly.

"I promise I'll be alright, Chris."

"This is quite touching, Gentlemen, but we have work to do, " Harrington interrupted. "Have you made your history known, Tanner? Do they understand what you have to offer their organization?"

Chris huffed. "He's a professional, for God's sake. He knows what the hell he's doing."

"Yeah, they know I'm a bitter ex-sniper from the good old US Marshalls," Vin replied, ignoring Chris's outburst. "Although I'm not sure they have much of an organization. They seem pretty loose and easy t' me."

"Of course they do - that's their cover. Have they expressed an interest in your shooting skills?"

"Not hardly. And it's not like I can impress them by takin' 'em huntin' with me - they're all vegetarians."

Chris tuned out the rest of the conversation that consisted of Harrington telling Vin how to do his job. He was only slightly mollified when the FBI agent ended his portion of the call by stating, "Get some rest, Tanner. Once you get in - and this thing breaks - it's likely to move quickly."

"He's right, Vin - take care of yourself," Chris added, though his words felt flat and futile. Vin would do what he had to to see this through, his own well-being be damned.

Vin mumbled a quick, "Will do," before signing off with a poorly disguised cough.

With a muttered curse, Chris stalked out of the room and down the hall. He was still fuming, still muttering, and still cursing when he entered the ATF office a short time later. But he paused at the expectant look on his teammates' faces when he entered the room.

"Well?" Nathan spoke first. "How is he?"

"Yeah, how's it going?" Buck asked.

"Did he find anything?" Josiah added.

"Has he managed to infiltrate their establishment?" Ezra queried.

"He's not well," Chris answered pointedly. "It's going about how you'd expect, considering it's been raining for two damn days. Not yet. And no. Now where the hell is JD?"

Leave it to Nathan to pick out the highlight of his brief communication. "What do you mean he's not well? What's wrong with him?"

"Sneezing, coughing - his usual prelude to bronchitis, pneumonia, the plague . . ."

"Not this time," Nathan quickly argued. "He's set. I gave him the latest and greatest-"

"The latest and greatest!" Buck groaned. "You gave Vin something new? Damn, Nathan, you know how he reacts to medication. What the hell were you thinking'?"

"Now Buck . . ."

Chris ignored the ensuing discussion after deciding he was already upset enough, and turned to Josiah. "JD?"

"In the tech room. He said he and Jimmy are close."

Close wasn't good enough, but he had no choice - he sure as hell couldn't figure it out, considering he'd barely mastered his Blackberry. He knew JD had enlisted help from the resident ATF tech guru, a kid not much older than JD himself. Chris didn't like it, didn't trust Jimmy anymore than he did anyone else, but he'd reluctantly admitted that even JD couldn't be an expert at everything. And as long as he got to talk to Vin privately, he didn't care who arranged it or how.

He marched back into his office then and quickly swallowed two antacids and three Tylenol, chased a Mountain Dew loaded with caffeine and sugar.

And he waited for the sky to fall . . .

+ + + + + + +

The following week went as he knew it would - the shit rolling downhill and picking up speed with each day that passed. A dozen times a day, he reached for the phone with the intention of telling his boss where he could stick his "acceptable risk", while simultaneously surfing the net for a quick flight north. The only problem was, he didn't have the exact coordinates where Vin was - and Harrington wasn't about to tell him. Vin might, except that JD and Jimmy still hadn't found the right frequency to communicate with him in secret.

And so Chris was left with the nauseating feeling that Vin was being drawn deeper into trouble. The real problem was, though, he was no longer sure who posed the greatest threat to his friend.

"I think he's been compromised," Harrington's gruff voice announced shortly after Vin had ended his latest transmission. "He doesn't sound right. They're probably drugging him."

Chris rolled his eyes and reminded himself that it was probably politically incorrect - not to mention career suicide - to wrap his hands around the man's throat. Harrington wasn't listening - or rather, wasn't hearing.

Over the last six days, Vin had been welcomed into the compound - although, Tanner had started calling it a 'commune'. He'd started saying a few other things, too, like noting that there were people of all ages there, including old women and children. And that there was no talk of violence, no sign of high powered weapons or bomb-making apparatus, no radical anti-government talk. In fact, the one time Vin let objectivity slip was when he said that he felt like he'd gone back in time four decades to a place where peace and love reigned and everything was just groovy.

But the damn head cold had taken root, prompting Vin - Chris suspected - to load up on cold medicine. Vin and medication never did mix well, hence the rather spaced-out, dreamy quality in Tanner's voice that Harrington was apt to blame on recreational drugs. Or maybe that was just the agent's way of explaining away the fact that Vin said nothing that he wanted to hear.

"Maybe your sources are wrong," Chris finally replied. He probably could have gotten away with that, but his lips kept moving even though his head shouted at him to shut up. "It wouldn't be the first time."

Harrington's brows drew together as he snarled, "You're here as a favor to Assistant Director Travis. You want to keep tabs on your man, that's fine. But you have no say in this, and if you can't keep your opinions to yourself, I'll have you removed from the situation entirely."

"And why is that, Agent Harrington? Why is the ATF being left out of the loop on this one?"

He knew why, or thought he did. Harrington was due to retire at the end of the year, and he needed one last feather in his cap to end his career on a high note.

"Those decisions are made at much higher levels than you and me," the other man replied. He softened his tone then as he added, "Look, I don't like the idea of attacking a group that includes women and children, either, but it's when we let our guard down that shit happens. By all indications, this group intends to do some major harm and soon. Tanner just hasn't gotten to the core of it yet. Or he's been compromised. We can't believe otherwise at this point. That's not a risk we can take."

Chris heard only one word in Harrington's statement that mattered. "Attacking? When? How?"

"I'll let you know when I know," was the clipped reply.

"To hell with letting me know!" Chris roared. "Just when do you intend to let Vin know?"

The look on the older man's face said it all. If he truly believed Vin could no longer be trusted, how could he tell him anything? But the agent hadn't gotten where he was without learning a thing or two about diplomacy. "We're jumping the gun here, Larabee," he offered. "We'll give Tanner a few more days. See what he comes up with."

Not trusting himself to speak, Chris once more left the office in a simmering fit of rage. It was just as he thought - Vin was expendable. Acceptable risk, hell - it was more like acceptable loss. They probably had it planned that way all along. Send in an insider to make it look good, make it appear that they'd covered all the bases, then make sure he didn't live to tell about it.

But why? For political gain? Not hardly. Chris didn't put much faith in either side of the political fence, but he didn't think anyone was corrupt enough to destroy a group of misguided hippies without just cause. And as much as he hated to admit it, Harrington had a solid record. He wasn't the type to rush into anything without sound judgment, and this wasn't the time in his life to make rash decisions.

No, the man truly believed what he said; he honestly thought those people were a threat to the nation. So maybe Vin was wrong or maybe he just hadn't caught on yet; maybe there was more there than met the eye.

Or maybe he was compromised. Chris stopped in his tracks at that thought. He couldn't deny that Vin didn't sound like himself, but he'd chalked it up to a combination of anti-histamines and lack of sleep. But how could he really know? Maybe those Manson-wanna-be's already knew that Vin was a government spy, they could be drugging Vin's water or his food at that very moment . . .

His stomach cramped up, forcing him to make an unscheduled detour to the men's room. A splash of cold water on his face kept him from losing his lunch, but it did little to ease the burn that originated in his gut and traveled up into his throat. It was the not-knowing that did him in. He'd puked up his coffee that morning when Vin left because his stomach never could separate from his head - and his head knew that something bad lay in wait for his friend. Just how bad - and how permanent - remained to be seen. Certainly nothing had happened since then to prove him wrong.

He'd give his life for just two minutes with Vin; that was all it would take for him to determine exactly how compromised Vin was - or wasn't. Hell, make that two seconds. If he could only look Vin in the eyes, he'd know exactly how doped up his friend was . . . how tired, how sick, how uncertain or how determined. He'd know how accurate Vin's continued declarations that he was "just fine" really were and maybe, just maybe, he could get Harrington off of Vin's back.

But he couldn't do that. Even if he called in some favors and managed to pinpoint Vin's location, he couldn't go there. That would not only endanger the entire operation, but Vin's life. And if he warned Vin about the FBI's intentions to swarm the compound without Harrington's approval, he'd be banned from the room - totally cut off from Vin.

He had no choice but to sit at the sidelines and wait - while he hounded the hell out of JD and Jimmy.

+ + + + + + +

"I'm tellin' y', there's nothin' here." Vin pleaded his case, the Texan drawl providing further evidence of his exhaustion.

Five more days had passed, and Harrington was applying the pressure. "There has to be. We have photos, Tanner. We know their leaders, Yager and Harmon, have been stockpiling for months," he argued.

"There's one main building up here, and five smaller units. I've been in them all and I haven't seen anything but a few rifles here and there. And Yager's a little strange, but Harmon is harmless. Hell, just last night the guy carried a snake from the kitchen back t' the woods."

"Why would a peace-loving community need a few rifles?"

"Wolves, mountain lions, bears - take yer pick."

Harrington sighed deeply and looked at Chris when he next spoke. "We've received threats to the nuclear power plant at Palo Verde. We believe they're viable - and imminent."

Vin snorted. "You think these people are goin' down t' Arizona t' take down a power plant with half a dozen rifles?"

"No. I think you've only managed to scratch the surface. I think you've only seen what they've allowed you to see. Our sources tell us that the compound is the command post for several rogue groups that plan to join together in the next few days. And I think," here the man paused and met Chris's eyes once more, "I think we're running out of time."

"Get out, Vin. Come home," Chris said. And this time he didn't bother to hide the desperation in his voice.

He knew Vin so well that he didn't have to see him to visualize the turmoil on his friend's face when he lowered his voice to a near whisper. "There's kids here, Chris. Don't let 'em do this."

"I don't have any say, Vin. You know that."

"When?" Vin breathed.

Chris noticed that Harrington could no longer look him in the eye. "I don't know for sure. But if they're really as innocent as you claim, they can surrender peacefully. The SWAT team can conduct a search and leave them alone. No one has to get hurt."

"They don't trust the government. They don't trust anybody. Hell, that's why they're livin' up here. They'll panic and do somethin' stupid and it'll get out of hand."

Harrington merely swallowed and looked away. Chris suspected the agent had said more than he'd planned, considering he still didn't trust Vin's judgment, but it didn't change anything. Vin would still be in the middle - and in the dark - if and when something came down.

"Come home, Vin," he repeated. "You've done your part."

"I've done nothin'," Vin spat. But his voice was low and hoarse when he asked, "Just give me a few more days."

With a shake of his head, Harrington growled, "You're not getting us what we need. And besides, you sound like hell, Tanner."

For the first time, Chris almost smiled. In spite of the gruffness of his tone, the older agent obviously cared more about Vin than he'd let on.

"I'm alright," Vin argued.

"We'll talk again in twenty-four hours," Harrington replied - offering nothing, promising nothing.

"Vin-" Chris started.

"I know, Chris."

You don't know, Chris thought, you don't have any idea.

Vin didn't even know what he didn't know. The problem was, Chris wasn't so sure he knew, either.

+ + + + + + +

"Chris? I think we got him!"

Chris was in the barn, bedding down the horses for the night, when he got the call on his cell phone. "JD? It's after nine. You still there?" he asked.

He knew he'd pressed the kid pretty hard earlier in the day, laid it on the line that time was running out, but he hadn't meant to imply that the younger man should spend the night working. But his guilt was quickly forgotten when the implication of JD's statement finally hit home.

"Wait a minute - did you say you got him?"

"Yeah. I think so. He came on for just a second - said he'd get back on in an hour. You coming?"

"Hell, yes."

An hour and fifteen minutes later, he was waiting impatiently at JD's side when he finally heard Vin rasp, "God damn, JD, you scared me t' death earlier. You there? How the hell did you rig this up ?"

JD's grin was infectious. "Me and Jimmy been working on this for weeks now, Vin. Sure is good to hear your voice."

"Your's, too, Kid. Is Larabee with you?"

"Yeah, he's right here."

But instead of talking to Vin, Chris turned to JD and said, "You can go home now, JD."

"But - but Vin just got on."

"I know. And I can't thank you enough. You've done a great job."

"Oh. Okay," JD looked puzzled for a moment, but he caught on quickly and bid farewell to their absent friend. "Good luck, Vin."

"Thanks, Kid. For everything."

Chris waited until JD was gone before he softly stated, "God, Tanner, you're making me old before my time."

Vin laughed lightly. "I'm feelin' a little worse for the wear myself, Cowboy."

"How bad is it? The truth."

"We're alone, right?"


The sigh came through loud and clear, as if amplified by the mountain ranges that stood between them. "Can't get rid of this damn cold," Vin admitted. "That stuff Nathan gave me made me loopy, so I quit takin' it. Ain't gettin' much sleep. I don't wanna miss anything. But that ain't the worst of it."

"Go on."

"I just don't think they got it right this time, Chris. I mean - hell, these people just don't seem the type, y' know?"

"Vin, you know as well as I do that you can't always identify a threat by their appearance. Think Ted Bundy, Jim Jones . . ."

"I know, I know. But - I don't know. I mean - they don't seem like - I'm just havin' trouble with - I mean, for example, there's these twins, Sunlight and Moondance-"

Okay, he'd never tease Nathan again about his poor choice in names, Chris thought with a shudder.

"- and they're only five," Vin went on. "Well, they took a liken' t' me for some reason. Follow me around all the time. Now a couple of the other kids have joined in. I can't hardly get away from 'em."

Chris smiled, picturing Vin as the Pied Piper with a trail of little ones tagging along behind him.

"And the women. Hell, Chris, they're fussin' over me all the time."

That wasn't a new phenomenon, though Vin was clueless about that, as usual.

"It's just - remember Waco? I can't quit thinkin' about it. And don't want anything t' happen to them," Vin continued.

"I don't want anything to happen to you. Come home while you still can."

Vin abruptly changed the subject. "How's things there? What's goin' on?"

"Not much. We're all thinking about you."

"I know. But give me something else t' think about, Chris. We might not get a chance t' talk like this for awhile. Tell me about Buck's newest girlfriend or Josiah's latest mission. What's Ezra riled up about this week?"

So Chris did just that. He told Vin about the day JD convinced Buck that the latest thing was for men to wear eye shadow, and the night Nathan had an argument with Rain, got uncharacteristically hammered, and ended up serenading Ezra at the bar. Josiah was driving them nuts counting 'points' for his latest diet, but he'd managed to lose five pounds in spite of the persistent harassment he endured. Ezra - still smarting over his loss to Nettie in last week's poker game - had scheduled a rematch for the coming weekend. Travis seemed to be in a perpetual bad mood lately, the budget was a bitch, and a kid from Purgatorio allegedly took off with ten thousand dollars worth of coke. He ignored Vin's chuff of laughter when he told him that the stupid stray cat was growing fatter by the day, and just what the hell were they going to do if it was pregnant? And he laughed along with Vin when he confessed that he'd been so tired one morning, he'd poured Cat Chow in the horses' trough.

But he didn't mention his rebellious stomach or the fact that he hadn't slept in longer than two-hour increments since Vin had left. He didn't tell him that Harrington was concerned he was being drugged - and that he had considered that possibility himself.

They talked for hours, Chris leaning back in the chair and propping his feet up on the desk. He pictured Vin sitting in the woods, back up against a tree trunk, knees bent, and head tilted towards the sky. He found, to his utter amazement, that he couldn't shut up. Normally, he and Vin didn't need many words, but all he had now was Vin's voice. An ultra-sensitive piece of equipment that was far beyond his understanding provided the only link to his friend, and he was reluctant to sever that connection.

As always, Vin did a whole lot more listening than talking, though he did take time to wax poetic about the beauty of the night, the "gazillion stars", the pure air. "But," he finally admitted, "I'd like t' come home."

"Then do it. Pack it up right now. Hell, I'll come get you if you're too tired to drive."

"It ain't finished," Vin breathed. "You know I don't work that way."

He did know that, and he knew there was nothing he could do or say to change it. It was called integrity, and it was what made all of his teammates the men they were.

But he wanted so badly to tell Vin that he had to come back, that he had a bad feeling - that he'd been sick at heart and sick to his stomach since the day Vin drove away.

"Chris? You still there? Did I lose you?"

"No," he sighed. "I'm here. I just- I'm worried about you, Vin. You don't sound good, and I don't trust Harrington."

"I'll be fine, once I get a decent cup of coffee and a full night's sleep. And it's not a matter of trust, Chris. Harrington and his men are just tryin' to do their jobs. I just think they might be wrong this time - and I don't want these people hurt because of it. I can't walk out on them now. I have t' see it through."

"Alright. Go get some rest. We'll talk again tomorrow night," Chris promised.

"Same time? Same channel?" Vin teased.

"It's a date, Pard."

He should have felt better, having had his first real conversation with Vin in weeks. But he only felt empty when he reached over to turn off the radio equipment. Empty - and sick.

+ + + + + + +

It was late the next afternoon when it happened; his life collapsed around him like a flimsy house of cards. It started as Buck rushed in to his office with an urgency bordering on panic. "Chris, Harrington called. He couldn't get through to you because you were on that conference call with Travis. He said - he said he's on his way there."

"What? What do you mean?"

"I mean it's going down today. Like now."

He felt like someone had punched the air out of his lungs as he jumped to his feet. "Vin?"

Buck shook his head. "That's the thing - he said they can't get a hold of Vin. He's not responding."

"Shit!" Storming out of the office, Chris barked orders as he headed for the door. "Ezra - see if you can figure out exactly where the hell Vin and this crazy compound are located. JD, Buck - let's see if we can get him on the line."

"Chris, wait," Josiah spoke up. "I know where Vin is. He gave me the coordinates before he left."

"What? Why the hell didn't you tell me that before?"

"You didn't ask," Josiah responded a bit sheepishly. But he added, "Vin wanted someone to know, just in case of an emergency. But he didn't want you barging up there if it wasn't necessary."

"Well, let's see, Josiah, the FBI is getting ready to invade the compound - in other words, the shit is hitting the proverbial fan - and Vin has no fucking idea. Not to mention the fact that he's apparently unreachable for some goddamn reason. Does that qualify as an emergency? Do you think it's necessary to tell me now?"

It was wrong to be angry with Josiah, this wasn't his fault. But someone was doomed to suffer his wrath, and it might as well be Sanchez.

Josiah kept his cool and stated calmly, "I think Nathan, Ezra, and I can be there in four hours - three, if we push it."

"Push it," Chris demanded.

Ten minutes later, he was hovering over JD's shoulder as the younger man tried to reach their missing partner. "Vin? Can you hear me? Vin?"

"Damn it, Tanner, answer us!"

When there was no response, Chris turned to Buck and snapped, "Get me a helicopter. I'm going-"

"Chris?" Vin's hoarse voice suddenly came through. "Chris? What the hell is goin' on?"

His knees went weak with relief, and Chris collapsed into the chair. "Shit, Vin. I thought . . . Listen to me, you have to get out. Now. That's an order."

But it was too late. Chris could hear shouting in the background, the screams of children, the bark of gunfire, the disturbing sounds of chaos erupting.

"Why? Why didn't he tell me?" There was more sorrow than bitterness in Vin's tone.

"Harrington tried to contact you, Vin," Buck cut in. "But he couldn't reach you."

"He didn't try!" Vin cried.

Chris glanced at JD and saw the color drain from his face when the younger man softly spoke. "What if we messed something up? Maybe it's our fault - maybe we screwed up the frequency."

"It doesn't matter now. Just get out, Vin."

"Shit! Chris - they're - God - wait! Wait! Don't shoot at 'em!" It was clear then that Vin was no longer speaking to them. "Just let 'em do what they have to. They won't hurt you if you cooperate."

A voice Chris didn't recognize called back, "Look what they've already done!"

"They won't listen to us!" Someone else cried out.

More voices began shouting in the background, and Chris got the sickening impression of Vin going up against an increasingly violent mob. Harmony and brotherhood became distant ideations when loved ones were threatened. And Vin hadn't been there long enough to be considered anything more than an outsider.

He panicked for a moment, thinking they would see the transmitter Vin used to communicate with them and immediately target him as a traitor. But Vin had said it was smaller than a cell phone, and surely he had it well-hidden.

It didn't matter in the end. Chris listened as the muffled sounds of shouting and explosions in the background intensified, as Vin's pleas to both sides fell on deaf ears, as one voice rose above the others . . . "You brought this on us! I told you he couldn't be trusted!"

"No - no - I can help you if you just listen-"

And then there was a loud pop - the distinct sound of a gunshot at close range - followed by a grunt of pain.

Chris flinched, and it took everything he had to keep silent.

"Put him in the cellar."

"This isn't our way, Brother."

"It is now."

"Oh God. I think they - they shot him," JD whispered.

The tell-tale creak of a door opening was quickly followed by the thump, thump, thump of something rolling down a flight of stairs.

Buck's hand was on his shoulder, but Chris jerked away. "Have you got me the goddamn helicopter?" he yelled.

"You can't get there in time, Chris," Buck replied gently. "I think you can help him more right here."

"How? My God, Buck, you heard it! They shot him!"


He heard it then - a gasp of breath, a low moan.

"Vin? Vin, can you hear me?"

"Ch - ris?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm here. Just - just talk to me, Pard, okay? Tell me where you are so I can send someone in for you."

And from that moment on, it all narrowed down to two things only: Vin's voice and Vin's breath. The rest of the world fell away as he focused on the sounds coming from the sophisticated radio equipment in front of him. It was as if Vin's very life depended solely on this invisible, long distance thread. And maybe it did.

The groan was louder, longer, and Chris fought to maintain his composure. "Come on, Vin. Talk t' me," he pleaded desperately.

"A- a basement, I think. I don't know . . . It's- it's dark." He hissed, "I can't see."

Chris took a deep breath. "Buck - get on the horn to Harrington or one of those other FBI bastards. Tell 'em those nuts have got Vin locked in a basement or cellar under one of the buildings."

Buck nodded and quickly left the room.

"Where you hurt?"

"My - my leg is killin' me. I think - did he shoot me? God. What the hell - happened, Chris?"

"I don't know, Vin. But you've gotta hang on until we can get you out, alright? Now I need you to tell me - how bad is it?"

"I don't know. It's so dark." The reply was accentuated with another grunt of pain.

"Can you tell how much you're bleeding? Can you wrap something around the wound?"

"I - shit - it hurts like hell. I think it's broke. And - wait - what's that noise? It sounds like - like -"

"Like what?" His heart hammered in his throat as he absorbed what could only be the sound of more explosions in the background.

"They're blowing the place up, Chris," Vin said so softly that Chris had to strain to hear him. "The gas tanks - the propane - God, Chris - they won't have a chance."

Buck walked in the door at that moment and nodded solemnly. "I told 'em, but . . ."

"But what?" Chris snapped.

"All hell is breaking loose up there. They're not sure how - when - they'll get to him."

Chris paced across the narrow space, trying and failing to keep his voice calm and even. "Vin, you gotta get out now. You hear me? You gotta make it on your own."

"My leg - really hurts - I don't think - I can," Vin grunted.

"You've done a lot harder things than this, Tanner. Get your ass up those stairs."

Vin moaned something unintelligible, but his slow progress was easily detectable. Every movement brought a corresponding gasp or groan, and all three listeners agonized with Vin as he made what seemed to be an endless journey up the cellar stairs.

Finally, Vin gasped, "I'm at the door."

"Alright. Good. What do you hear?"

"Screamin'. Gunshots. Oh no, Chris - the - the kids-"

"I know, I know. But you gotta stay with me, Vin - do what I tell you. Is the door locked? Can you get out?"

"I don't know. There's - there's - smoke."

"Smoke? You can smell smoke?"

"Yeah. Can feel it, too, comin' from under the door. The door's hot-"

"No! Damn it, no!" Chris hollered. He turned away and cursed, "Shit! Now what?"

He looked first at JD, then Buck, but both men turned away. They had no answers either, he quickly realized. Because there were none. Taking a deep breath, he turned back and stated clearly, "Get away from it, Vin. Go back down."

"What? I don't wanna, Chris. My leg's killin' me. And it's dark and - and I can't breathe down there - you know how it is. You know I can't - I can't - stand bein' closed in."

"I know. But you can't get out that way. Not yet. You have to go back down."

"Stay low, Vin," Buck cut in. "Get yourself in a corner and stay low to the ground."

Vin's response was a deep, hoarse, seemingly endless cough.

JD turned a frantic gaze to Buck. "Is he doin' it? Is he goin' back down?"

Buck shook his head. "I don't know. I think so. It's hard t' tell."

"He will," Chris replied woodenly. He held Buck's gaze and whispered, "And what the hell difference will it make?"

Buck studied the floor and said nothing.

Chris had always wondered what it was like on 9 -11, not so much for the ones who died, but for the ones on the other end of the line when those last calls were made, those last words were spoken. Would it have been better, he wondered, if Sarah had had the chance to tell him good-bye? Would hearing her voice for the last time - and knowing it - have been a comfort or a curse? He suspected the latter, though he supposed not everyone felt that way.

He had the horrible feeling that he was about to find out. All he could do now was hold onto Vin's voice until the last excruciatingly painful moment; that one last aching memory would be all he'd have left of his friend.

The words stuck in a throat swollen to twice its normal size. "Where you at, Vin? I can't hear you."

"It's - hard t' talk. Havin' trouble - catchin' my breath. Don't worry - it's just this - damn cold."

It wasn't the cold. Chris knew it, and he knew Vin knew it, but it was just like his friend to try and ease his mind.

"You back on the ground? You tucked up good and tight in a corner like Buck said?"

"I think so." A soft sigh and then, "I hate this, Chris. I wanna come home."

"I know. Soon."

"Not feelin' so good."

"Yeah, I know. But you'll be alright." It was a pathetic lie and everybody knew it. Vin certainly knew it.

There was another round of ragged coughing, and when Vin spoke again, it was apparent he was struggling to catch his breath. "I - I don't think - I'm gonna make it home this time, Chris. I'm sorry. I shoulda - come when you asked me to."

Chris's chest hurt so bad he thought he might die from the pain of it. It seemed impossible that he could breathe, let alone speak, but somehow he did. "You will make it home. I won't leave you behind. I swear it, Vin."

And then he did what he'd always done in the past - when he had no where else to go and no one to turn to - he relied on Buck. "Buck? Do something."

Tears ran freely down Buck's face, but he only shook his head.

Vin spoke again. "Chris? It's so hot. It's like - I'm suffocatin' - I can't breathe - you know - you know- I can't stand it. I gotta get out."

"Damn it, Buck! I have to get there! I have to get to him!"

But Buck, always the voice of reason in his screwed up existence, sadly reminded him, "You can't leave him now, Chris. You need to be here. You need t' talk him through this."

They both knew that the this he referred to was very likely Vin's death.

And as much as he hated to admit it, as much as it killed him to admit it, Buck was right. He couldn't spare Vin his fate, but his friend wouldn't have to die alone. "It's not what you think, Vin," he said, his voice low. "You've got plenty of space and plenty of air. And you're not alone. I'm here."

"I - I - wish I was there - with you." Vin was wheezing now, each breath a struggle in a battle he was slowly losing.

"You are here, Vin. At my ranch. Close your eyes and you'll see."

"Yeah," Vin rasped, "yeah. That's where I wanna be."

"The sun is warm on our backs and the air is cool on our faces. We're riding in the far meadow, and that damn Peso is nipping at Pony's tail again."

A soft breath of laughter followed a weak cough. "Ain't Peso's fault your - damn mule - pokes along - all day."

Chris swallowed. He didn't want to do this - he couldn't do this. But he had to, for Vin, so he closed his eyes and pretended it was true - that he and Vin were riding and the sky was clear and life was still worth living. "Pony just knows how to enjoy the good things in life - he ain't in such an all fired hurry all the time. We can smell the wildflowers and the tall grass and the pines-"

"And lilacs," Vin mumbled weakly. "I like those."

"I know you do." His voice cracked, but Chris went on. "We stop by the lake and you pull out that old thermos you dragged all the way from Texas, and we share a cup of that sludge you call coffee. And we talk. We make plans for fixing the fence on the south side and for inviting the guys over for burgers. You tell me about that time you got sent to juvie for stealing a loaf of bread, and I tell you about the day Adam was born. We wonder what it would have been like to live a hundred years ago and depend on our horses to get around. We laugh about Ezra's two-hundred dollar haircut, Josiah's lousy taste in cigars, and the romance novel Buck thinks he writing in secret. We talk about the price of gas, the unfairness of the judicial system, the new secretary in Travis' office - our hopes, our dreams. Everything that matters. Do you - do you see it, Vin?" Tears were soaking the collar of his shirt now, but he was determined, for Vin's sake, to kept the sorrow from his voice.

"Yeah, I see it. It's - it's good." Vin's voice was barely there, hardly heard over the rattle in his lungs. But he managed to add, "Don't cry, Chris. You - you're the best friend I ever had. I got no regrets."

"Vin . . ."

He couldn't say it. His last chance, and he couldn't say the damn words.

But then it didn't matter, because Vin was choking on smoke and congestion, and probably bleeding out from the hole in his leg. The coughing ceased and the labored breaths became more sparse, with long moments of silence filling the spaces in between.

And when ten, then twenty seconds passed with no sound at all, JD suddenly announced, "I'm gonna be sick," and fled the room.

Buck stayed with him; stood behind him with both hands on his shoulders until five minutes of silence had passed. And then Buck reached over and flicked off the switch - and severed the connection.

+ + + + + + +

Chris let himself in to Vin's apartment with his key, though he couldn't remember how he'd gotten there. He didn't question the why of it, though. There was no where else he could go.

He couldn't say what happened after JD left the room. He didn't know where Buck had gone. He didn't know if he'd screamed or cried or reacted in any way at all. Nothing stuck in his brain for long, only Vin's last words . . . "I got no regrets."

"I have enough for both of us," he whispered as he climbed onto Vin's bed. It was early evening, but a storm was moving in, casting the room in dark shadows. And it was easy, lying there in the dark where Vin lived, where Vin slept, to pretend he was with him.

"I remember the first time I saw this place," he said softly, "I thought you'd lost your mind - renting an apartment in the slums of Denver." He thought there was probably something seriously wrong with him that he took comfort in talking out loud to his dead friend, but he couldn't think of a reason to care. "Almost made me rethink my offer to have you on my team. It was the first - and last - time I questioned your judgment."

The tears were burning just behind his eyes, but he forged on. "When I saw some of the stunts you pulled - leaping across beams and rooftops like you were one foot off the ground instead of a hundred - I decided you were either the bravest man I'd ever met, or the stupidest." He paused and smiled tremulously. "And when you took to me like you did, well then I knew for certain you were both brave and stupid."

The pressure in his chest was building again, so he rolled onto his side and pulled Vin's pillow tight against him. "I'm sorry, Vin. I should never have let you go up there. I knew this was going to happen. I don't know how or why I knew, but I did. So yeah, I have regrets. Maybe I couldn't have stopped you, I don't know. Maybe I didn't try hard enough. But at least, at the very least, I should have told you what you mean to me. I should have told you . . ."

It was impossible then to go on. He pushed his face against the pillow, trying in vain to stem the tide. He didn't know how long he stayed like that, it could have been five minutes or five hours. He might have stayed five days, had he not heard someone call his name.


Buck's voice originated from the living room; apparently he'd forgotten to lock Vin's door. It didn't matter. He didn't care that Buck was there, but he had no intention of talking to him, so he didn't answer.

"Chris?" Buck called again, more softly this time as he moved through the small apartment. He must have seen him then, lying on Vin's bed, because he came into the bedroom and said sadly, "Aw, Chris."

Normally he hated anyone feeling sorry for him, but it would take far more energy than he could possibly drum up to care at that point.

"I need to talk to you. It's important. You have to listen to me, okay?"

Chris looked at him blankly, thinking there couldn't possibly be anything important to discuss. Not today.

Buck sighed and sat down at the foot of the bed. "They got him out," he said - apparently deciding to go for the blunt approach. "They got his heart beating again, Chris."

He might have sat up at that; might have jumped up in joy and relief. Might have uttered a prayer of thanks to a God he no longer believed in, even made promises he couldn't keep, had there been an ounce of happiness in Buck's eyes. But there wasn't.

So he waited for the rest of it.

"But he - they don't know how long he was without oxygen - and - well, they're flying him to Cheyenne because it's closer and - he's real bad. But - they need you to talk to them, Chris. Tell them what Vin would want. You're his next of kin."

And now he did sit up. "You're saying he's alive?"

"Barely, but yeah. Travis has a plane standing by for us, soon as we get-"

"Buck! What? Is this real? How can that be possible?"

"I guess some kid from the FBI team went in for him. Got his hands and arms burned pretty bad for his trouble. But Chris, Vin's not breathin' on his own - and there could be - we know it was a long time."

"We don't know. We weren't there. I have to - God, Buck - he's alive? How can that be? Are you sure you heard right? I mean - shit - he - he - I thought - I was so sure. I have to - I have to get there. Can we get an escort to the airport?"

"Yeah, but Chris? Just - don't get your hopes up, okay? They don't give Vin much of a chance."

But at least now he had a chance - didn't Buck get it? Even if it was one in a million, it was better than the nothing he'd had just minutes ago. One chance was all he needed to turn it around.

"I got a number," Buck went on. "You didn't have your cell so Travis called me. They need you to call -"

"On the way," Chris clipped. "I'll tell them on the way that I expect them to do everything they can to keep Vin alive."

"Alright, but you need to hear them out," Buck said in a rush as he followed Chris down the stairs. "They said the risk of brain damage-"

"To hell with the risks," Chris tossed back as he ran towards Buck's car. He was sick and tired of that word. Vin was only in this condition because someone somewhere decided his life could be gambled with.

The call to the hospital in Cheyenne was brief. There hadn't been time to make any real determinations about Vin's condition - just that he was unstable, critical, and required a machine to keep him breathing. Chris didn't care if it took an entire goddamn army to keep him breathing, just so long as his lungs kept moving air and his heart kept pumping blood.

Josiah called as they approached the airport. He, Ezra, and Nathan had just reached the compound, and he wondered if they should head for Cheyenne, instead.

"No," Chris replied. "Find out what happened. I want to be able to explain it all to Vin when he wakes up."

There was dead silence on Josiah's end for several moments. "But Chris -"

"Check on two kids, in particular - Sundance and Moonlight, or something ridiculous like that. Make sure they're okay. Vin will want to know."


"And see about his jeep. He'll need that when he comes home."

"Okay, we'll take care of it." Josiah paused before adding, "You tell him - well, you know what to say."

Yeah, he knew what to say. And he was goddamn going to say it this time. Vin wasn't the only one being given a second chance.

+ + + + + + +

Chris didn't like Dr. Michael Morton much. For one thing, the man had a lousy bedside manner. And for another, he just oozed negativity. Didn't the good doctor understand that just hours ago Vin was dead? And now - now he wasn't? How much more incentive for hope did the man require?

It didn't matter he supposed; he could carry the weight in that department. Although he'd had a few moments of doubt since their arrival at the hospital. Buck just looked so devastated, and Orin's voice had dripped pity. And then there was the EMTs' report, which Dr. Morton had insisted on sharing - twice.

"Agent Larabee?" The doc was speaking to him now. "Were you aware that your agent had pneumonia? That his respiratory system was already compromised prior to this incident?"

"I suspected it."

"And you allowed him to remain untreated? I certainly hope this isn't indicative of how you care for all your agents."

He snorted. He couldn't help it. Wouldn't Travis get a kick out of this? Him being accused of treating Vin with less concern than everyone else?

"Now hold on!" Buck, who up until now had remained silent in the background, rose to his feet. "Vin was undercover. We didn't know anything for sure. All we had was - was his voice. You got any idea what that was like? T' sit on the receiving end and listen to our friend take his last breaths when there was absolutely nothin' we could do to help him?"

Apparently untouched by Buck's emotional outburst, Morton continued, "Let me put this as simply as I can. Between the smoke inhalation and the pneumonia, your agent's - your friend's - lungs are a mess. He was oxygen-deprived for an indeterminate amount of time. At this time, we're unable to determine not if - but how much - brain damage has occurred. Fortunately, he suffered only minor burns, but he lost a good deal of blood from the bullet in his thigh, which fractured his femur. He's not stable enough for us to take him to surgery, and he's certainly not strong enough to fight off the infection that will inevitably develop if we don't remove the bullet and stabilize the limb."

He paused, and his voiced softened a touch when he continued. "I understand you want us to do everything we can. And we will. But his family needs to be notified immediately."

"He has no family," Chris muttered.

"None? No aunts? Cousins? No one?"

"No one he knows - or that knows him - so it's irrelevant, isn't it? His team is his family."

The doctor nodded. "Then I suggest you call them."

The doctor turned and left the room, and Buck sunk into the closest chair. He put his head in his hands and groaned, "Oh God, Chris, this is a nightmare. I just keep hearing him - I can't quit thinking about it."

"He didn't die, Buck. And he's not going to. Focus on that."

Easy words to say, not so easily done. Harder still when ten minutes later, he was led to the room where Vin was being cared for. He'd depended on Vin's voice for so long to gauge how his friend was feeling, that actually seeing him was a jolt to his system.

Or that's what he told himself, anyway. He denied that it was Vin's pale face - what he could see of it - and obscenely still body that made his stomach roll. It wasn't the hiss of machines or the bags of dark, red blood or the smell of antiseptics that nauseated him. He could get past the cool, clammy feel of Vin's skin and the bulky, blood-stained dressing that swallowed his thigh.

It was the silence that did him in. Because even when he closed his eyes and concentrated with all his might, he couldn't hear his friend. Vin had been more vocal - and more present - when Chris had lay in his bed and mourned his death.

He might have lost it then; might have broken down and wept in acceptance of the dire prognosis that Vin had been given. But just then a small voice sounded from behind him.

"You should try talking to him. They say hearing is the last thing to go."

It was a nurse, a pretty little thing with a tender smile and warm eyes. "It's true," she continued. "I can't tell you how many times our patients have woken up and repeated the things that were said here."

Chris swallowed and cleared his throat, but he remained silent until she'd finished her tasks and left the room. Strange how it had been so much easier to talk to Vin when he wasn't technically with him.

But this was his second chance - maybe his only chance. "I'm here, Vin," he started out. "Really here." He brushed a lock of hair from Vin's forehead and, reluctant to break the contact, let his hand rest on his damp head. "Do you feel that, Vin? Do you know I'm here?"

He strained to hear something, to feel something. But he couldn't concentrate, couldn't keep his eyes off the tube that channeled air into Vin's lungs. "Morton's right, you know," he said, "I should have taken better care of you. I'm sorry I didn't. And I'm sorry I didn't tell you -" His voice broke, and he turned away from the bedside, running his hands through his hair. "Hell. This is crazy. He can't hear me. I'm talking to myself again."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee, but you'll have to leave now," the nurse said as she re-entered the room.

"What? Why? I just got here."

"I'm sorry. We'll let you know as soon as you can return."

He wanted to argue, but he figured they had work to do to keep Vin alive, and he wasn't about to interfere.

He hit the hallway just in time to see Harrington turn the corner. His first instinct was to put his fist in the man's face, or maybe throw him up against the wall. But he settled for asking, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Harrington had the grace to blush, but he didn't back down when he met his gaze. "How is he?"

"Depends who you ask," Chris replied testily.

"From what I've seen, you know him better than anyone, so I'm asking you."

Chris swallowed and looked away. "He's a lot tougher than anyone wants to give him credit for."

"Actually, I'd give him a hell of lot of credit. He stood his ground back there - did everything he could do to diffuse a difficult situation."

"Yeah. And look what it got him."

After several awkward moments, Harrington spoke again. "The man who got him out is here. He was burned carrying Tanner through the rubble. He's a good man, a good agent. I thought you might like to know."

Chris looked up sharply. "I would. Can he have visitors?"

With a nod, the older agent replied. "I think he'd appreciate hearing how Tanner is doing. He's just down the hall, third room on the left."

Harrington turned to leave, but Chris stopped him by asking, "Was anyone else hurt out there? Anyone killed?"

There was a long pause. "Four dead - none of ours. Several more injured, but they should recover."

"Was it worth it? Did you get what you wanted?"

He knew the man was uncomfortable when he used his first name. "It's under investigation, Chris. You know I can't say anything more."

"Yeah. Right. Vin's lying in there - having air pumped into his lungs and blood poured into his veins - and you can't tell me if it was worth it. Well, I guess it was an acceptable risk, right?"

He walked away then, his blood boiling. He knew not to trust them. They all had tunnel vision coupled with delusions of grandeur and extreme paranoia. Damn them all, he thought. But he quickly revised his attitude when he remembered that he was about to enter the room of an FBI agent who had clearly gone above and beyond in an effort to save his friend.

The dark-haired agent, a young man named William Barnes, looked about JD's age, though Chris suspected he was actually several years older. He appeared to be asleep when Chris hesitantly stepped through the door of his room, but he roused quickly.

"Can I help you?" Barnes asked as he stifled a yawn.

Chris noted the bandaged hands, and cringed at the memory of how much it hurt when he had burned two fingers on his grill a few months before. "I'm Agent Larabee. Vin Tanner is my - my teammate. I, uh, I just wanted to thank you for what you did."

"No problem, Sir. I'm just sorry I didn't get to him sooner."

"You did your best. How, uh, how did you burn your hands?"

"There was a beam blocking the entrance to the basement. I had to move it to get to the door."

"You moved a burning beam with your hands to get to Vin?"

The young man looked puzzled. "Yes, Sir."



"You don't even know Vin."

"With all due respect, Sir, I don't have to know him. He's one of us. I couldn't just let him burn up in that basement. How's he doing anyway? No one will tell me anything."

"He's holding on."

The young man shook his head. "I thought I got him out in time. I couldn't believe it when they said he wasn't breathing. I mean, I heard him."

"What do you mean, you heard him?"

"Well, I mean, he was coughing-"

"Hold on. Are you certain? You heard him?"

"Yes, Sir. That's how I knew he was there, in the corner. I heard him coughing. I picked him up and carried him out, but by the time I got him to some help, they said he wasn't breathing."

Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath as he absorbed what he'd just been told. This changed everything.

"Agent Larabee? Are you alright?"

Chris smiled. "Yeah. I'm good. Listen, if you need anything, anything at all, you let me know."

"I'm fine. I don't need anything, but thank you."

"No, thank you. You have no idea . . ."

His knees nearly gave out when he made it into the hallway; only the necessity of getting to Dr. Morton kept him from sinking to his butt right then and there.

But he didn't get ten feet before he was stopped by Harrington once more. "I know you don't think much of me right now, Larabee. But my men - they're all like that young man in there. You want to be angry at someone, focus on me. Only me. My men did their jobs."

Chris looked at him - really looked at him - and thought the man had aged ten years in the last twenty-four hours. The anger melted away as he realized that nothing was black and white anymore. He didn't know who was really guilty, who was at fault, but he suspected there was a margin for error on both sides. How many times had his own team walked the line to bring about justice? How many times had he made the conscious decision that the end justified the means? Fighting Harrison was a waste of time and energy - and he needed every ounce of strength he could muster to fight for Vin.

He gave Harrington a quick nod, but he said nothing more as he continued on his mission to find Morton.

But Buck found him first. "Chris? Where have you been? How's Vin?"

There wasn't a good response to the last question, so he left it unanswered. "I went to see the agent who found him. You won't believe what he told me."

Buck frowned. "What?"

"That he heard Vin."

"Uh-huh. Okay."

"Listen to me, Buck. He heard Vin."

Now Buck just looked worried - like maybe he'd finally lost it completely. "I don't follow you."

"Vin was coughing. That's how Barnes knew where to find him in that dark, smoky basement." When it was obvious that Buck was still clueless, he spelled it out for him. "He found Vin after we had already signed off, otherwise we would have heard him take Vin out of there. Don't you get it? We thought Vin had stopped breathing before they got him out but it wasn't so. They're basing his prognosis on the mistaken assumption that he went without oxygen long before Barnes rescued him."

"But Chris, you and I heard -"

"We heard nothing. We heard nothing because Vin cut off the signal on his end. He didn't want us to - to hear him die, Buck. Think about it. You know it's true. It's the only thing that makes sense."

"JD would have known if Vin killed the signal."

"JD wasn't in the room, remember? It was just you and me at the end."

Buck put his hand on his shoulder and said very softly, "I know you want to find some hope in this, Chris, but it doesn't really change anything."

It did; it changed everything. But he couldn't really blame Buck for doubting. Hell, he'd doubted himself when he'd gotten his first look at Vin. He turned to walk away, but Buck's hand on his arm stopped him. "I called the guys, Chris. They're all on their way."

That was fine. He didn't care one way or another. Especially when Dr. Morton stepped out of the ICU at just that moment. It took Chris all of thirty seconds to tell the physician what the young FBI agent had shared. But like Buck, the man remained skeptical. Instead of grabbing on to the anchor of hope Barnes' testimony offered, Morton proceeded to tell him - for a third time - about the rescuers' attempts to resuscitate Vin, including the long trudge up the rocky slope to the medi-vac helicopter as they manually bagged their victim, and the long, rough ride to the hospital where Vin had finally received the medical care he needed - almost an hour too late.

"Can I see him?" he asked, giving up on the conversation. Vin would prove them wrong in his own time.

The doctor would only agree to five minutes, but that was long enough.

Once again, Chris let his hand rest on Vin's head as he spoke to him. "I haven't got much time, Pard, but you need to know something. You ever pull another stunt like you did in that basement again, and I'll kick your scrawny ass to hell myself. How many times have we promised to watch each other's backs, huh? And when the going gets tough, you shut me out? What the hell is that about? Yeah, it would have been rough on me, hearing you take your last breath - hell, I thought I had heard you take your last breath. But nothing - nothing, you hear me? - would be worse than thinking of you dying alone. You're not alone anymore. In fact, I hate to tell you this, but you're never gonna be alone again. We're a package deal. Get used to it."

Through the window into the hall outside, he saw the nurse heading his way - probably to throw him out again. "I gotta go. But I'll be here waiting for you. You can take all the time you need to rest up - but you are coming home. You got a crazy horse and a pregnant cat to take care of."

And it might have been wishful thinking, but in his head, he was sure he heard a soft, "Aw hell," as he left the room.

+ + + + + + +

"It was the worst thing I've ever experienced, Josiah. I can't get it out of my head."

Chris didn't mean to eavesdrop, but as he turned the corner, he caught a fragment of the conversation JD was having with Josiah. His men had arrived early that morning, and most of them were now sacked out on the couches of the waiting room. But apparently JD couldn't sleep. Chris wondered which awful experience JD was reliving - God knew the poor kid had had more than his fair share in his young life - until he heard Josiah's reply.

"It wasn't your fault, JD. You did what you were asked to do. And look at it this way, if you hadn't figured out a way for Chris and Vin to talk, Vin would have spent those terrible moments completely alone."

"But you don't know - you just can't imagine how horrible it was. Vin was - he couldn't breathe, you know? And we knew the place was on fire and he'd never get out in time. He was dying, Josiah. And we couldn't do a damn thing to help him."

"I understand, JD. Although I can't pretend to know how terrible it was for the three of you."

"But that's not even the worst of it. It was how Chris - the things he said. He made Vin think he was back on the ranch with him."

"Is that so wrong, JD? If it gave Vin comfort in his final moments?"

"It's just - I don't know. If you could have seen Chris's face and heard his voice. It just hurt so bad to hear him talk like that. Him and Vin - they're really close. I never even thought about how they talk about things when they're together. I mean, they're both so quiet all the time. But I don't think they're that way when they're alone. And if Vin dies, I don't think Chris will ever - ever get over it."

Sagging against the wall, Chris let JD's words wash over him. He hadn't really taken time to think about how difficult it must have been for the young agent to hear what he had. That gut-wrenching sense of helplessness was not his burden alone.

He was still deciding whether to interrupt the conversation when he saw Dr. Morton heading down the hall towards them, his face grim. Chris bit his lip and sucked in a breath. They hadn't let him in to see Vin all night, and by the physician's somber expression, he was about to find out why.

Morton wanted to talk to him privately, but he waved that right, knowing Vin would have done the same. It was hard to follow the conversation at first, and he was grateful that Nathan was there to interpret for him, but it wasn't all that necessary when it came down to it. The bottom line was that they couldn't control the bleeding from the gunshot wound, and consequently, they couldn't stabilize Vin's blood pressure. His temperature was climbing, too, which basically meant they were out of time.

It was the first time Chris had seen true compassion in the doctor's eyes as he told him that Vin likely wouldn't survive the surgery necessary to repair his leg, and wouldn't live another twenty-four hours without it.

He sensed the other men's eyes on him, but he didn't look at them, and he kept his voice even when he spoke. "And the third option?"

Dr. Morton narrowed his eyes. "The third?"

"The acceptable risk version - the one where Vin comes out of this alive."

Nathan got to his feet and moved in front of him. "Chris-"

"I need him alive, Nathan."

A heavy, uncomfortable silence descended in the room at his words, and he couldn't figure out why. It was a simple enough statement.

"I understand, Mr. Larabee," Dr. Morton said softly. "I'll get the consent forms for you to sign. We'll do everything we possibly can."

"Can we see him first?" Buck asked the doctor. "None of us have had a chance . . ."

They were given ten minutes total, so they broke up in two groups, with the exception of Chris, who would go in last by himself. He hadn't spoken much since the men had arrived, but he never needed a lot of words to get his point across. In this case, it took only two: "No goodbyes," he said as his friends prepared to enter Vin's room. He was certain Vin could hear them now, and he didn't want anyone giving their friend the mistaken impression that he had permission to die.

No one argued; no one said anything, in fact. They just went in and came out with pale, sober faces and moist eyes. And then, for a third time, Chris found himself at Vin's bedside. He panicked for a moment, wondering how he could possibly put into words all the feelings in his heart. But as he laid his palm against Vin's cheek, he suddenly realized it didn't matter. It never had mattered because Vin already knew. So he left the room as he'd come in - in silence, knowing that saying nothing at all, said it best.

+ + + + + + +

Vin came through the surgery with far less fanfare and drama than he'd gone in with. But the characteristically pessimistic Dr. Morton was quick to point out that although the battle was won, the war was far from over. Point taken when Vin failed to wake up as first one day passed and then another. There was a lot of shaking of heads and wringing of hands, along with the usual reminder that Vin's brain had been oxygen-starved.

Chris didn't buy it, but he kept his thoughts to himself -- well, except for sharing with Vin. "I know you're here, Vin, and I know you'll be fine," he told his friend shortly after the surgery. "Don't let all this negative talk get to you. You know how they can be, and you know they mean well. Josiah's out there praying for miracles, and Nathan's making calls to every specialist he can think of. Ezra offered to pay for some new age quack his mother knows to fly over here from England; don't worry - I put a stop to that real quick. JD - well, he's just sad. I think he thinks he screwed up somehow by messing with the frequency so I could talk to you. He thinks if Harrington had gotten through to you, things might be different. I tried to tell him that that night we talked - and even that horrible time when you were - when you were trapped - it was all worth it. For both of us. Ah hell, that's not completely true. I mean, I did try to tell him - but I just couldn't seem to get the words out. But don't worry, I told Buck and he'll set JD straight. Of course Buck's not really himself, either. Guess none of us are sleeping too well. It's hard to close our eyes and not hear . . . Well, never mind. We'll talk about that later."

He kept up the litany whenever he was allowed to see Vin, and with each visit, he was more certain that Vin not only heard him, but understood everything he said. He tried to keep the conversations light for the most part, focusing on simple things: Ezra's reaction to his first Egg McMuffin, Nathan's blossoming guy-crush on the crotchety Dr. Morton, Josiah bemoaning the fact that he couldn't eat fast food on his diet - though it didn't stop him from scarfing down JD's leftover fries, and how serious Buck must be about his new girl because he didn't even notice the cute, little ICU nurse that cared for Vin on the evening shift.

And he took hope in the small things. That first day after surgery, it was enough that Vin had survived. And the next day, it was enough that Vin moved two fingers. By the third day, Vin was fighting the vent, and Chris had no problem boasting, "I told you so."

But the others weren't convinced. Even though Vin continued to make slow, steady physical improvements, there seemed to be very little faith that he would recover all of his mental faculties. Vin was still in some sort of "semi-comatose state", and if Chris heard one more word about oxygen deprivation, he wouldn't put his fist through glass - he'd put one of his teammates through glass.

Fortunately, he was spared the trouble of finding a reason to send them all packing because Travis reluctantly told the team they were needed back in Denver. If there was anything the least bit positive about Vin's precarious condition, it was that Travis couldn't even consider asking Chris to return, as well. As Vin's only legal next of kin, there was no question he was needed right where he was.

It seemed further proof of his team's lack of good sense that they assigned Ezra - Ezra - to pick up "a few essentials" for him before they left. Only in Ezra's world could expensive cologne, cashmere socks, and a fancy electric toothbrush qualify as essential.

But Vin got a kick out of it, of course - Chris swore he could hear Tanner snickering every time he walked in the room wearing the cologne.

"Well, since he went to the trouble of buying it, I thought I should use it, Vin," he explained to his friend during his usual evening visit. "No, I did not wear it because of the cute nurse. Although, if you paid attention, you'd agree she might be worth impressing . . .Yeah, right. She's fifteen years younger than me. Trust me, she is not making eyes at me. And she's probably nice to everybody . . . Yes, I ate before I came, and I am not skinny - I'm lean. I've always been lean . . . Alright, alright, I promise to find you the biggest, fattest, greasiest burger this town has to offer the minute you can eat . . . There is nothing wrong with this music. I like Michael Bublé . He is not boring . . . I know Buck brought the cd player in for you and I promise to let you pick the music when you wake up . . . No, you are technically not awake. . . Yes, I'm reading the paper. Yes, I'll read you the sports page, but only if you promise not to let your blood pressure go up again. They kicked me out the last time that happened. None of us can help the fact that you choose to support lousy teams . . . Here's a hint, Pard, that glare doesn't have quite the same effect with your eyes closed . . . Fair enough, when you're back home, you get the sports page first . . . There's nothing about that in the paper, Vin. I promise I'd tell you if there was. And when you're stronger, I'll tell you everything I know, but I assure you that Sunshine and Moonshadow are fine . . . Yes, I know I still don't have it right, but really, how could anyone name their kids something like that? . . . I know I'm old-fashioned, but-"

"Uh, Chris?"

He hadn't heard Buck come in, but he wasn't really surprised. It had been three full days since the boys had returned to Denver, and in spite of numerous phone calls with repeated declarations that he was fine, he figured Buck would eventually have to make the trip and see for himself.

"Hey, Buck," Chris replied.

"Hey. Thought I'd stop by and see if you, uh, needed anything." Buck said it as if Cheyenne was on his way home from the office.

"No," Chris answered. "Ezra got me more than enough stuff. I'm good."

Buck moved to the bedside and softly said, "Hey Vin. We sure miss you," before pulling up a chair next to Chris. "You sure you're okay, Chris? You been eating enough?"

"Yes, Mom. In fact, I've been eating two meals a day, which is better than I average when I'm home."

"How about sleep? I know they kick you out at night, but do you actually rest at the hotel?"

"Now that I know Vin is going to recover, I'm sleeping fine."

Buck swallowed and dipped his head. "Yeah, Chris, about that . . ."

Chris sighed. He was sick and tired of this discussion. "Don't say it."

"Now look, I'm not suggesting you give up on Vin. I know he's breathin' on his own now, and that's a good sign. We're all hopeful that he'll come out of this - eventually. But Chris - the nurses, well, they're a little worried about you, Stud."

"Me? Why the hell would they be worried about me?"

"They say that you - uh. Well, y' see, it's like when I first came in here . . . You were talkin' to Vin."


"He's not - he's still in a coma, Chris. Or mostly. Morton says he opened his eyes a few times, and that's real good. But . . ."

"Now hold on. It was the nurse here who told me to talk to Vin. Now they're complaining because I'm doing it?"

"No. Yes. Kind of." Buck sighed and pulled on his mustache. Chris had come to recognize the gesture as a sign that his old friend was having trouble choosing his words. But after several moments, he continued, "It's just that you act like he's answering you. That's where the trouble comes in, y' see?"


He did see. But he didn't figure there was any kind of explanation he could offer that Buck would buy. Besides, it was entertaining watching Buck squirm. Vin was enjoying it, too.

"Chris, Vin's in a coma. Or a semi-coma. Whatever. He's not really capable of having a conversation right now. Now it's fine if you want to talk to him. They said that just might help. But it's you answering him that's a bit . . . worrisome."

"How do you know he's not capable? Just because you can't hear him doesn't mean I can't."

"Chris - it was hell what you went through. What we all went through. Hearing Vin's voice when he was - well, it was just hell, that's all. And Morton thinks-"

"Morton? You talked to him about this?"

"I didn't have to. Everyone here knows. Anyway, he thinks you just need that connection, y' know? That you need to hear his voice so bad that you can't quite accept that Vin-"

"That's enough, Buck. I don't expect you or anyone else to understand, but I can ease your mind a bit. I don't hear Vin's voice. But I know he hears mine, and I know what he's thinking, how he'd respond if he could. That's all."

"Yeah? What's he thinkin' now?"

Chris groaned. "Hell, Vin, that's hardly fair. It's not like you can carry your share of the load right now."

"What? What did he say?" Buck asked.

"He wants me to tell you that I've used up my allotment of three words per day for the rest of my life."

Buck frowned as he got to his feet and moved to Vin's bedside. "That true, Vin? He talkin' your leg off?"

Vin's eyes fluttered open a moment before slowly closing again.

And Buck chuckled lightly as he stated, "I know what you mean, Vin. Don't worry. I won't tell him."

Now it was Chris who frowned. "Tell me what?"

"Well now, that's between me and Vin. But I'll give you a hint," Buck offered. "Once Vin's up and around again, you might want t' hide that cd."

+ + + + + + +

It wasn't like in the movies - there was no dramatic re-awakening scene. Vin just started opening his eyes more, then following simple commands. After a few days, he mumbled several words that included "scrawny ass" and "hell" - but fortunately, only Chris really understood him.

They were the sweetest words Chris had ever heard, though he acted cool about it. He called Buck and simply said, "Vin just said a few words - 'hell' was one of 'em, so it sounds like he's back in form." Buck laughed uproariously and immediately shared the news with the other guys in the office; Chris had to pull the phone from his ear at the whooping and hollering that followed. He went back into Vin's room then to sit awhile longer. And when he left, Vin managed a weak, "See y' . . . later." It was stupid how his eyes teared up at that, stupider still how he cried like a baby when he hit his hotel room that night.

Vin continued to make slow steady progress over the next several days, though Chris didn't delude himself that his friend had anything less than a long way to go. He knew the leg gave Tanner hell; knew the wracking cough and the subsequent breathing treatments were even worse. But Vin knew where he was, who he was, and how he'd come to be in his current condition, which was far more than anyone - other than Chris - had believed possible.

They soon settled in to a comfortable routine. Chris came every morning to share coffee and the newspaper. If Vin had had a good night, he'd read the paper himself, but most times, Chris still read it to him. Every morning Vin would ask if he knew anything more about what had happened on the mountain, and every morning he'd reply, "No more than I already told you." Even though it was true, Chris had no illusions that it was a temporary hold. Eventually, Vin would be clear enough and strong enough to ask questions that there were still no real answers for.

Chris would go make his calls then while Vin got cleaned up and shipped off for more tests and therapy. The therapy was grueling, and Vin nearly always fell asleep in the afternoon while Chris sat nearby and worked on his lap top. He'd tried working in the hotel room once, but he couldn't concentrate, so he ended up back at the hospital. It might have been the white noise from the oxygen concentrator that helped him focus, but he suspected it was the security of Vin's breathing that really kept him on target. Either way, he got more done during those hours than he'd often accomplished in a full day back at the office.

It was the evenings that he most looked forward to, however. The nurses pretty much left them alone, so they had all the privacy they needed to talk. Vin was exhausted by then, and he had to work harder to get his words out - not to mention to breathe - so he mostly just listened. Which suited Chris fine. They left the TV off and didn't bother to turn on a lamp; the sunlight just gradually fading from the room exactly like it was meant to.

He told Vin about growing up in Indiana: how his grandfather had convinced him that a penny for every apple he picked was a fair wage, how he'd tried for four years to get Mary Ann Miller to go out with him and when she finally agreed, he'd had the worst time of his life, how it was always wet and gray and cold from November through March. But there was nothing more beautiful than fields of corn in the summer, nothing sweeter than an Indiana tomato, and no sport more deserving of ardor than IU basketball.

Vin smiled wistfully as he listened, and Chris worried at first that his happy memories only served as painful reminders of his friend's own miserable childhood. But the look of contentment on Vin's face convinced him otherwise. It wasn't until later that he realized how much the reminiscing had helped him, too. For years, his past had been part of another life, almost another person. Somehow, he'd let the tragedy of his loss define who he'd become. Sharing with Vin made him realize that there was still more to Chris Larabee than hard-nosed agent, lonesome widower, and bitter father.

A week had passed since Vin first spoke when Chris got a call from AD Travis. His boss wanted to know when he planned to return home.

"When Vin does," Chris replied. He was prepared to argue the case; he was convinced Vin was only doing as well as he was because of his continued support and encouragement. Let Travis cry "favoritism" all he liked - he wasn't leaving Vin on his own again - ever.

But his concerns were unfounded because Travis only replied, "Well then, let's get him home as soon as we can, alright?"

They talked a few more minutes, and when Chris disconnected the call, he wasn't surprised to see Vin looking at him thoughtfully.

"You should go back," Vin rasped.

"No, I shouldn't."

"I'll be okay."

"Maybe. But I'm not leaving you here alone."


"Forget it, Tanner."

"We can still talk. They have these new things out now called cell phones."

He couldn't decide what he heard in Vin's voice, but it wasn't humor or even sarcasm. More like dread - or even fear. Vin didn't want to be alone anymore than Chris wanted to leave him - he was just saying what he thought was expected of him.

"No." Just the thought of only being connected to Vin by his voice was unbearable. He swallowed and continued, "Vin, you just don't know-"

But he stopped himself from saying anything more. Vin didn't need to know how horrible it was when he'd felt so helpless, when all he could do was listen . . .

"Maybe - maybe they could transfer me to Denver?" Vin suggested.

Chris knew it was a testament to how crappy his friend still felt that he didn't angle for a discharge. But it was still a bad idea. Vin couldn't handle a trip to the bathroom - how the hell was he going to make it to Denver?

Besides, if he were honest with himself - which he tried hard not to be - he'd have to admit that he was reluctant to go back home. Everything would change. He'd have to start going to the office to work. Vin would have to face what happened at the compound. And there would be a constant revolving door of visitors with endless commotion and no opportunity for just the two of them to just . . . talk.

"I'll look into it," he promised Vin - though he didn't add that it would be another week before he got around to it.

But unfortunately, Vin ended up broaching the subject to Morton the following day. And to Chris's utter dismay, the normally disagreeable doctor agreed. In fact, Morton spouted all kinds of bullshit about how good it would be for Vin to be around his family and how well he'd progressed in just over two weeks. He might have been a bit paranoid, but Chris was convinced that Morton was trying to get rid of them.

Chris regretfully agreed to the transfer with the stipulation that Vin be taken by fully loaded helicopter - complete with an accompanying physician, nurse, and maybe two or three EMTs standing by, just in case. But what he got was one EMT and an ambulance.

Unconvinced that Vin could handle the long ride, his next demand was that he ride along. He acknowledged that it probably wasn't his winning personality that coerced Morton into agreeing; more than likely he'd just worn out the man's patience. But he didn't care; all that mattered was that Vin arrived still breathing on his own. That seemingly simple act was something Chris knew he'd never take for granted again.

They'd been traveling towards Denver for about an hour when he heard Vin grumble something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like, "I created a monster."

Chris had no idea what his friend was complaining about. True, he and the EMT had been having an animated discussion about breeding horses since they'd left Cheyenne, but it really had nothing to do with Vin so he couldn't understand what the problem was.

"You okay, Vin? You hurting?"

"I'm fine," Vin replied unconvincingly.

Chris had thought Vin was ready for the transfer, looking forward to it even, but in retrospect, Tanner had been moody and sullen pretty much since leaving Cheyenne.

"I don't buy that. Something's up with you. What is it? What's wrong?"

"Alright, I'll tell you. You never shut up anymore! What the hell happened to Chris Larabee, the strong, silent type?"

He was about to make a joke, but when he looked at Vin's weary expression, he suddenly caught on. Vin wasn't upset that he was talking - he was upset that he wasn't talking to him. Vin being needy just didn't fit - and Chris had the uncomfortable feeling that the subject he'd been successfully avoiding for weeks was about to rear its ugly head. But then again, maybe it was time.

After checking Vin's vital signs and IV's, the medic must have taken the hint because he quickly moved aside.

"You're right, Vin. I've been doing all the talking for weeks now. It's your turn."

"My throat still hurts."

"I know. But something's bothering you, so spit it out." At Vin's obvious hesitation, he continued, "You know the boys will be all over you once we hit town, so let's do this now."

"You made a boat load of promises," Vin rasped. His voice was still hoarse, and Chris knew that between the smoke damage, the endless coughing, and the tube he'd had forced down his throat for several days, his throat really did hurt. But he selfishly craved every sound Vin made.

"I know. Haven't I given you the sports page first since the day you were able to focus well enough to read it?"


"And I let you listen to that god-awful crap you call music, right?"


"Now I know you haven't gotten the burger - but hell, Vin, you can hardly handle jello."

"I don't care about that."

"Then what have I missed?"

"You know."

He did know - but unfortunately, he also didn't know. "I would tell you if I knew more, Vin. I swear I'm not holding anything back. Yager and Harmon died, just like I told you. Also a woman named Daisy and a child named Robert."

"There wasn't no Robert, I told you that."

"And I explained to you that was probably the child's given name before his parents joined the cult."

"It wasn't no cult. They were peace-loving nature freaks. That's all."

Yeah, and one of them shot you and stuffed you in a burning basement, Chris thought. But what he said was, "Alright. Can we not talk about this now? Let's get you settled-"

"Do you believe me?"

They'd had this discussion before, but he'd tell Vin a million more times if he had to. "You know I do."

"They don't. They think - they're gonna say that I - that I'm - confused."

Yeah, that was exactly what they were going to say, Chris thought - that Vin had suffered from oxygen deprivation and didn't have an accurate recollection of what had happened during his time at the compound. Hell, Harrington was saying that already. He'd spent exactly thirty minutes debriefing Vin and then conveniently forgotten about him.

"I'll vouch for you," Chris promised.

"They'll say I was drugged," Vin said, his face pinched and pale.

"I don't think it will matter. They either have enough evidence to make it stick or they don't. There's nothing you can do or say to change that."

"I don't think I wanna do this job anymore." Vin's breathing was becoming more labored as he spoke, and a fine sheen of sweat covered his face.

Chris tossed a meaningful look at the EMT before turning back to Vin. "This isn't the time for that kind of a decision, Vin. When you're up and around, feeling stronger -"

"Ain't gonna make a difference. I betrayed those people. And they died."

"That's not true. You did your job. And more of them probably lived because of you. It could have been so much worse."

The medic gently pushed him aside then and said, "Let's take a look at you here, Mr. Tanner - see if we can make you more comfortable."

Vin slid a troubled gaze to Chris before closing his eyes in resignation, and the rest of the trip proceeded in strained silence.

Of course, there was absolutely no silence in the hours that followed their arrival in Denver. Vin's hospital room was already decked out in flowers, balloons, and wall-to-wall cards. Add in six good-sized visitors, and there was barely room to breathe.

Fortunately - or perhaps not - their team was well-known in this facility, so they were left pretty much on their own. Chris was glad to see that Vin seemed a little more relaxed since their arrival, but he still had some homework to do if he was going to ease his friend's mind and get him off the "I'm quitting my job" train.

AD Travis' timely visit later that afternoon provided just the window of opportunity he needed. After the older man had properly greeted Vin, Chris pulled Orin aside with an urgent request to speak with him. Once they were in a private lounge, he asked, "Do you know what really happened up there? Was the raid justified?"

"I don't know for sure. And before you say anything, I'm not putting you off. I'm just not in the loop on this one. That said, from what I can discern, there was some cause for suspicion, but perhaps they could have taken more time and used more caution."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Yeah, a little caution would have been nice, considering one of our men was inside at the time."

"Now Chris, you know that no one purposely endangered Vin's life."

"I'm not going to argue with you, Sir," he snapped. After all, what would be the point? Nothing could be undone, and at least Vin was finally home. "I just want to know what will happen to those people. I have to give Vin something."

"The adults will be arraigned and probably stand trial. Those children who had no relatives come forward have been placed in foster care."

That did it. His stomach had pretty much stayed where it belonged once Vin started breathing on his own, but now it did a double flip. Vin would be beside himself.

Foster care? Shit.

"Chris? What's troubling you?"

"Vin - he got attached to some of those kids."

"They're being taken care of, you can assure him of that."

"You know his past. How much comfort do you think he'll find in the fact that those kids are in foster care?"

Travis sighed. "I hadn't thought of that. I suspect he - he won't take it well."

"No. I suspect he won't," Chris replied sarcastically.

Chris figured he was left with two choices: he could tell Vin now, while he was still too sick to do anything about it, or he could tell him later . . . much later. Like maybe never.

He spent the next few hours trying to find out where Sundial and Moonwalk had ended up; if he could give Vin some information regarding those two, maybe it would soften the blow a bit about the others. It took some doing, but Nettie finally came through for him - or more likely for Vin. She wouldn't tell him who had the twins, but she assured him they were in good hands with highly respected foster parents, so it would have to do.

It was early evening by the time he made it back to Vin's room, and he knew immediately that something was wrong. Nathan paced outside the closed door of Vin's room, and he blatantly avoided Chris's eyes as he approached.

"Nathan? What's going on? Why are you in the hall? Is a nurse with Vin?"

"Un, not exactly," Nathan stammered.

"What is it? What's happened?" His heart jumped into his throat so forcefully, that he was certain Nathan could count his pulse just by looking at him.

Nathan finally stood still and looked him in the eye. "Now, Chris - just calm down. Vin had a - a spell earlier, but the Dr.-"

"A spell?" he asked as he pushed Nathan aside and reached for the door. "What kind of spell?"

But Nathan latched onto his arm and held firm. "Let the Doc do his job. Vin had some trouble catching his breath. That's all."

"That's all? That's all! Why? He was fine. What happened?"

"I don't know. I mean - I could see he was getting tired but - all of the sudden - damn, Chris, to tell you the truth, it scared the shit out of me. He couldn't breathe and all I could think about was him being hooked up to that vent for so long."

Yeah, that was exactly what Chris was thinking about, too.

"I thought JD was gonna lose it right then and there - poor kid literally ran from the room, with Buck followin' along behind. Ezra panicked and screamed for a doctor - never heard him yell so loud. Josiah and me - well, we tried t' talk him through it but . . ." Nathan finally took a breath and added, "They did some x-rays, gave him some breathing treatments . . . Maybe he's just exhausted. He's had a long day."

"Damn right he has. And Morton's gonna hear about this, damn it! I told him that Vin needed a flight - or hell, to just stay where he was."

"He needed to come home, Chris. You're not the only one who wants - who needs to spend time with him. JD's still shook up - Buck says him and the kid both been havin' nightmares. We're all Vin's family, you know that."

Chris flinched as if he'd been hit; Nathan was right about that. He pulled back a minute to compose himself before finally nodding. "I know. But I can't - he's come so far . . . And I don't know if he can do this again."

"I know, I know. But I think he'll be fine. We all knew that this was going to take some time. We're just blessed that he's here at all."

Knowing what Vin had endured over the last several weeks, Chris had a hard time attaching the word "blessing" to the situation, but then he recalled lying in Vin's bed, believing he'd never see him again. Blessed? On second thought, that sounded about right.

The doctor came out of the room then, and Chris was relieved to see that it was a physician he knew - and more importantly, one that knew Vin.

"Mr. Larabee," the doc said as he offered his hand, "it's good to see-"

"Yeah. How's Vin?" Chris asked, as he rocked on his heels impatiently.

"I'm optimistic that he'll recover - this is just a bit of a setback," the doctor said. "I've changed his medications and increased his respiratory treatments. He's been medicated pretty heavily, so I suggest you let him rest and come back in the morning."

"Yeah, well that's not gonna happen," Chris replied as he stepped through the door. He heard Nathan stammering an apology behind him - presumably for his rude behavior - but he didn't much care. He wasn't going anywhere until he saw Vin for himself.

"Vin? What's going on, Pard?" he asked softly as he entered the room.


"That's not what I heard. Seems like you gave the boys quite a scare earlier. Nathan actually looks pale."

"I'm fine. You can go on home."

"You don't look fine or sound fine." In fact, Vin looked about as washed out as he had when he'd come out of surgery. And Chris could hear him wheezing from across the room.

"Well, I'll be better tomorrow. Now go on." Vin took a second to catch his breath before adding, "You haven't slept in your own bed since - since - when?"

Chris had no idea; he didn't think he'd actually made it to his bed since Vin had pulled out of his driveway. He didn't figure Vin needed to know that, however. "I'll go home when you tell me what brought this on."

"Oh yeah, I brought this on. Didn't want . . . y' to get bored."

"Vin - don't mess with me. You haven't been yourself since we left Cheyenne." Tanner wasn't the only one who was worn out, and the knot in his stomach just made him more cross.

"I don't feel good, Chris."

Well, that was surprisingly honest, and Chris immediately softened. "I know. But I don't think you're going to feel much better until you get whatever is bothering you off your chest." He paused to allow Vin to slowly absorb his words. "You've gone undercover lots of times, Vin. And this isn't the first time things haven't gone down like we'd hoped. It's not even the first time an innocent life was lost. Why is this one so different?"

Tears filled Vin's eyes. "I remember now. Robert - they called him Beanpole cause he was tall and skinny. He was only ten."

"Alright. That's tough. I'll give you that. But SunnyDelight and Moonbeam are still alive, as are a whole slew of other kids."

Vin shook his head. "Now you're tryin' t' be funny, right?"

"Is it working?"

"No." But Vin smiled a little. He stifled a yawn then, and Chris could see that his friend was working hard to keep his eyes open. "Where are they?"

Chris tried unsuccessfully to hide a wince. "In foster care. But Nettie says it's a good home."

"Sure she does."

"They're not all bad, Vin. A lot of very good people -"

"I know that speech by heart, Cowboy. Save yerself the trouble."

Chris was about to joke that Tanner was synonymous for the word trouble, but Vin had already drifted off to sleep, so he pulled up a chair and settled in for the night. Obviously he needed to stick close by to keep Vin on track, considering what had happened the few hours he'd been gone. He shuddered at the thought of Vin once again gasping for air, and guiltily admitted that he was glad he wasn't there to witness it. Hearing it was bad enough; the memory of those horrible moments while Vin struggled to breathe would undoubtedly haunt him for the rest of his life.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sighed as he turned on the road that led to his ranch. It had taken another week and another change in medications, but Vin was finally well enough to be discharged from the hospital. Unfortunately, instead of the celebratory mood that the occasion deserved, he'd been arguing with Tanner since they'd left the parking lot.

"For the last time, you can't see them. For God's sake, Vin, you're a witness for the prosecution, remember? You work for the government."

"You said it probably won't come t' trial. Harmon and Yager are dead, and they got nothin' on the others."

"Well, yeah. I mean they say those two were definitely the leaders-"

"Harmon couldn't have led his way out of a paper bag." Vin snorted derisively.

"Alright. Whatever. The point it - well, there is no point. It's over. Hopefully the kids will all be returned to their mothers soon."

"Not all. Not Robert. And what about Daisy's kids? They lost their mom."

"You can't change that, Vin - let it go. Besides, I'm not sure they'd be real keen on seeing you right now."

"No, I reckon not," Vin replied sadly.

"Seems like you forgot the number one rule in going undercover, Pard - don't get personally involved," Chris reminded his friend gently.

"That ain't so hard when you're lookin' at drug dealin' scum or the lizards who sell automatic rifles t' messed up teens. But this was different; these people - they were - they were moms and dads and kids . . . Family."

Family - the one thing in Vin's life that he'd never had and most wanted. No wonder he couldn't quite get his head around this one.

Chris pulled into the driveway then and turned off his truck. But he didn't immediately climb out. Instead he turned to Vin and offered his last word of advice on the subject. "You did the best you could with what you had, Vin. So did the other guys. Maybe they were wrong, maybe they weren't. But we live in an imperfect world, and sometimes in our efforts to do the right thing, we do the wrong thing unintentionally. It took me a long time to make my peace with what happened to you, but I finally realized that as long as you were alright in the end, I could live with anything. Call it an acceptable outcome. Do what you have to to make peace with yourself, Tanner, because I'm not letting you go anywhere, and neither will five other men I know."

Vin ducked his head, and his voice was rough with emotion when he replied, "Package deal, huh?"

"Yep. Now do you need help gettin' out of the car?"

With a roll of his eyes, Vin snapped, "Hell, no. Damn psychotic therapist had me hobblin' up stairs all week, so I can damn well get out of your truck. And by the way, you're not stayin' home from work anymore t' take care of me, either."

Chris opened the door without comment and bit his lip as Vin struggled to manipulate his crutches from the high seat of the truck. But he chuckled softly when he heard Vin mutter, "Now that you've learned t' talk, I'm gonna need some peace and quiet for a change."

+ + + + + + +

"How many?"

"Now Chris, does it really matter? Look how cute they are."

"Vin - how many?"

"Well, let me take a closer look here . . ."

"Tanner!" Chris growled.

"Alright, alright. Looks like, uh, six."

"Six! That can't be right. I just looked it up and the average cat has two to four kittens."

"She ain't the average cat, obviously. I been tryin' t' tell you that for some time now."

"What the hell are we going to do with them?"

"That's easy - there's one for each of us - 'cept you, of course, since you got the Mama. 'Course, mine will have to stay here. Can't have it in my apartment. Not sure if Buck and JD are allowed to keep animals at their place . . . Nathan has the new baby on the way, that might be a problem . . . Josiah's place is on that busy road, I'm not sure I like the idea of a kitten bein' so close to that traffic . . . Ezra-"

"Oh hell, forget it. You know as well as I do that I've got them all."

"I'll get the Mama taken care of, Chris, so this won't happen again. I promise. The little ones, too, once they're old enough."

"You bet you will."

"Is that offer for a beer still on the table?" Vin effectively changed the subject.

"Yeah. Long as you don't tell Nathan."

As they left the barn and headed for the deck, Vin casually asked, "So, have you called that cute nurse yet?"

"No," Chris replied. But he knew the color of his face revealed that he'd given it more thought than he cared to admit.

"Why not? It was obvious she liked you."

"Obvious to who? Besides you, I mean. And may I remind you that you were comatose at the time?"

"Doesn't mean I wasn't aware of what was goin' on around me. She was clearly makin' eyes at you, Stud."

Shaking his head, Chris reached into the cooler and handed Vin a bottle. He should have let the subject drop, but he couldn't resist asking, "So now you can see with your eyes closed? I mean, I figured out pretty quick that you could hear what we said, but that ain't quite the same thing as seeing people's expressions."

"No, you're right about that. But I could feel it. She was crazy about you."

It was Chris's turn to change the subject. "How much did you really hear? How much do you remember?"

As Vin eased himself onto the deck chair, tucking the crutches on the floor underneath, the teasing smile vanished.

"I'm sorry, Vin, I shouldn't have brought it up," Chris quickly back-pedaled.

"No, it's alright. I reckon we should talk about it. I want to talk about it."

Chris waited several moments before he impatiently egged Vin on, "So talk."

"I have t' tell y', Cowboy - I didn't think you had it in you. Lord God, but you can talk when you want to! I was layin' there and I kept thinking, 'Chris can't keep this up for long - he'll run out any time now'. But y' didn't. You just kept on and on and-"

"Alright. Enough already! I get it - I talked too much," Chris snapped. But he was grinning when he said it.

"I didn't say that," Vin replied seriously. "I hung on your every word, Chris. You didn't waste a single syllable on me. You never do."

Chris nodded and met Vin's eyes. This was one of those times when words were unnecessary.

They remained silent for several minutes before Chris gathered up the courage to ask, "And the basement? Do you remember that?"

He hoped not. It was bad enough that he and Buck and JD still couldn't forget it.

Vin looked off into the distance. "I remember thinking I was gonna die. And I hated that you - that you had t' hear it."

"Vin - you know -"

"I know, Chris. But I just kept thinking if it were you sittin' there fightin' for every breath, and I was on the other end, I couldn't stand it. But then you started talkin' about the ranch, and I guess I was gettin' sort of confused because it felt real, y' know? It felt like I was really here."

"I'm glad it helped you, Vin." It seemed a small favor at the time - a hopelessly inadequate response to the terrible situation his friend was experiencing. But if it worked for Vin, that was all that mattered.

"I don't remember anything after that. Not until you said something about kicking my ass t' hell."

"Your scrawny ass," Chris clarified.

"Look who's talkin', Mr. 'I'm not skinny, I'm lean'."

"Well, I am. But speaking of talkin', did I tell you what JD said to Ezra when Nettie beat him at poker - again?" Chris asked. "I have t' tell you, Vin, just when I think that kid is learning something, he goes and says something stupid. Wouldn't you think he'd know enough by now to leave it alone? Of course, it was funny as hell watching Ezra turn all shades of red while he sputtered a mouthful of bullshit, but if Buck hadn't physically tossed JD out of the room, well, I'm not sure what would have happened. Especially since Ezra still wasn't over the milkshake incident. I told you about that right? I didn't? Well, it happened while you were gone. You see, Ezra picked up JD at . . ."