Deep Breath by The Neon Gang

Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #12, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace, Michelle Fortado and Erica Michaels were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Art by Shiloh

Authors' Note: a slash version of this story was posted to a Mag 7 list. It was a December 2006 birthday fic for Judy. An edited version of that slash version appears in the Mag 7 novella Breathe. The gen version of the story is presented here for your pleasure. It is a sequel for "To the Last Breath," which appeared in Let's Ride #11.

Late July, 2004
Vin Tanner leaned back in his chair, his fingers drumming on the armrests as he glanced around the almost-empty office. Across from him, Josiah sat, waiting patiently.

"Vin, I need to hear you describe what's going on."

Vin drew in a long breath, held it, then let it rush out like a bellows, too tired to continue. He folded his arms over his chest, praying silently he'd done the right thing, asking the profiler for his help.

"Guess I really noticed it startin' about four days after I left the hospital," Vin explained. "I was finally gettin' back on my feet, but no one wanted t' believe it…" He huffed out a breath, remembering back to a couple of weeks earlier, when Chris had confronted him in the park…

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

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


Vin glanced over his shoulder, surprised to see Chris walking up to join him. "Y' gonna run with me?" he asked, beginning his warm-up exercises, and hoping that was all there was to it. But his heart began to race as he steeled himself for the worst.

"What the hell are you doing?" Larabee demanded.

The sniper frowned. "Uh… gettin' ready for my run, just like usual."

"You just got out of the hospital."

Vin glanced up at the blond, sensing something was wrong, but finding no clue in the man's closed expression to tell him what it was. "Uh, it's been almost three weeks, Chris. Dr. Chandler said I was fine, said I should go back t' all my normal routines, remember?"

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

Vin felt himself bristle and forced himself to take a deep breath before he replied. "Not runnin' a marathon, Chris, just taking a jog around the park."

The man's hands come up to rest on his hips. "You're not Superman, you know."

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell…? Vin wondered, watching Chris getting farther away. He didn't know what was wrong, but he did know he had to find out what the hell was going through Larabee's mind, and soon, before whatever was left of their friendship was destroyed for good.

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

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

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

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

"Seems like y' made it mine, too."

Larabee's jaw muscle jumped with frustration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Alternative's worse."

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

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

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

"I do."

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

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

"Fuck you, Tanner."

"Not in this life," the man replied.

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

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

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

"Am not."

"The hell you aren't."

"Hey, anybody could've been there. It was just poor timing."

"Trouble magnet…"

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

Vin leaned forward in his chair, concluding, "I thought that'd be the end of it, but you've seen how he is…"

Josiah sighed softly and nodded. Chris had gotten rather protective of Vin since he'd gotten out of the hospital, and the younger man had been chaffing under it. But it was true, they had all noticed it. And he knew something needed to be done before Vin landed on Larabee and exploded.

"I have a friend… Let me give her a call and see what she recommends," the profiler said.

"I'd appreciate it," Vin replied. "It's gettin' t' the point I don't want t' come in t' work…"

That forced Josiah's eyebrows to climb. He'd never heard Vin say anything like that. He'd make that call – today.

Vin nodded, his expression one of gratitude. Something had to change, and soon, or he was going to kill Larabee himself. He simply couldn't do his job like this.

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

Dr. Pamela Christopher-Welch, Pam to everyone who knew her longer than five minutes, leaned back in her swivel recliner and rocked slightly as she considered the incident Vin had described to her. Rubbing distractedly at an itch on her small, dimpled chin, she chewed her lower lip. "Given his history, I'm not surprised. In fact, I'd say no matter what you did, it would've been wrong in his opinion." She ran her fingers through her shoulder-length, strawberry blonde hair and asked, "What did you do?"

Vin pressed back into his chair and folded his arms over his chest. "I went for my run after we talked it over," he stated matter-of-factly, challenging her to respond.

Pam took a deep breath and fought back a grin. He really didn't have to get defensive. She wasn't into taking sides, just mediating conflicts. Her brown eyes twinkled. Besides, she already liked this man, even if he was a little stiff at times. "I could have guessed that, Agent Tanner, all by myself. What was Chris' response?"

The blue eyes flickered up to meet hers, then returned to an intense scrutiny of the carpet patterns. "He… He wasn't too happy about it."

That must be an understatement, she thought. "Vin," Pam prodded, "I need more than that. Give me some other incidents, the details. I need to get a feeling for the overall dynamics of the situation if I'm going to really understand it."

He nodded and sighed.

"So, what happened next?"

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

Vin pounded to a stop on the track. Bending over, he rested his hands on his thighs and sucked in a deep breath. The move made his chest pinch, but at least he wasn't light-headed. Still, he'd definitely lost his edge after the illness and recuperation. It was going to take a few weeks of intensive work to get it back – painful work.

He let his eyes drop closed. It wasn't like he hadn't done it in the past, several times, but with each one he'd hoped it would be the last.

"Vin? How do you feel?"

Old, damn it. I feel old. His eyebrows arched, plucking his eyes open, and he lifted his chin just far enough to meet Nathan's worried eyes. The expression shifted from concern to amusement and Jackson fought back a smile.

Vin felt the short hairs on the back of his neck bristle. "Fine, Nate. I feel fine. In fact, I feel better 'n fine." He forced himself to stand up straight and forced a smile onto his face. It did not impress the former medic.

Nathan folded his arms over his chest, his head tilting the same way it did when anyone told him something he didn't believe. "Oh? Then that explains why you're standing there, trying to catch your breath after a…" He glanced down at his watch. "…fifteen-minute run?"

"Fifteen?" Vin echoed, straightening further. He looked skeptical. "Really? Fifteen?" Well, shit. It's worse 'n I thought…

Nathan smiled and shook his head. "Vin, you're impossible."

Tanner let his shoulders sag slightly as he made his way to the bench opposite Jackson and dropped onto it. "No, just a little out 'a shape. But I can take care 'a that."

"I wish I was…" Nathan said softly, trailing off as he reached for his bottle of water and took a sip.

"Was… what?" Vin asked.

"As out of shape as you are," he replied, lifting the bottle in a salute and bestowing a wry smile on the man.

Tanner snorted and pushed himself up. "I'm gonna go get a shower. Meetcha at breakfast."

Vin headed inside, sidestepping to avoid Buck and Josiah on their way out to join Nathan.

"Mornin', Junior," the ladies' man greeted him. "How ya feelin'?" he asked as Vin passed.

Tanner stopped dead in his tracks and then turned, his hands coming up to rest defensively on his hips. "What is with you people? Haven't y' heard? I'm fine. The doctor's satisfied, I'm satisfied. I'm cured. I couldn't be better. I'm fine, just fine."

Buck's eyes widened slightly and he grinned. "No problem, Junior. You're okay, I'm okay," he said, then added, "Or I will be, once I get this damn run over with."

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

"So they're… overprotective of you?" Pam asked. "That's to be expected. They care about you, and you did go die on them, you know."

Vin winced slightly. He hadn't had it summed up quite that bluntly before. "I realize that," he acknowledged. "And I guess I understand it. The whole situation's been gettin' better with most of 'em. And once they came around, I figured Chris would fall in line too and it'd die down on its own, eventually, but we got this new assignment and…"

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

"There's at least nine scattered 'round the building perimeter. I can't get a good count on the number inside, but it looks like at least another twelve," Vin reported as he crouched behind a shale outcropping.

He scanned the hilly terrain. The cigarette runners had carefully picked the old mill to avoid any surprises. There wasn't a single approach to the weather-beaten structure that didn't cross a good-sized open area. Their only hope of taking the men by surprise would be to wait until after dark to move in.

The other option, creating a diversion – or rather, several – and then hitting them from all sides at once, in daylight, would hopefully spread them too thin to be a serious threat to the better-trained agents.

He waited for Larabee to make a decision.

"Okay," Chris said, "we go with the diversions. On my signal we'll blow the Jeep and the van." There was a pause, then he added, "And that small shed close to the tree line, might as well take that out, too. Then we move in, together. Buck, JD, you're with me to clear the building. Josiah, you and Nathan secure the perimeter. Ezra, make sure they don't get to the vehicles."

"And me?" Vin asked as nonchalantly as he could.

"You stay put and help Ezra watch the vehicles. In five, people."

Vin switched to a private channel and radioed Chris.

"Y' don't need me out here," he said. "Let me go in with ya."

"I made the assignments," Larabee hissed into the sniper's ear.

Blue eyes narrowed. "Damn it, Chris, I've—"

"You heard me. Stay in position."

Vin pounded the earth with a curled fist. "Damn it, Chris. I've got a job t' do, 'n' I can't do it from here."

There was a pause, then… "Fine, get yourself killed," Larabee growled.

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

Pam leaned forward and Vin noticed for the first time how petite she was.

"And did anything out of the ordinary happen?" she asked him.

Vin shook his head. "Not really. Everything went real smooth. We infiltrated the building, got the bad guys; no injuries on our side."

"Agent Larabee should've relaxed after that," she said, leaning back in her chair and resting her moccasin-clad feet on the edge of her desk. "But from what you've already told me, he hasn't. Why do you think that is?"

Vin looked up at her, his blue eyes troubled. "I'm not sure. I thought he'd let it go once we were back t' regular activity. There was one problem on that case… well, two, and I guess that might 'a had something t' do with it…"

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

"Damn it," Vin hissed, sliding up against the side of the sawmill as a series of shots perforated the air behind him. The weather-cracked wood creaked and splintered under the assault of his collision, a fragment snapping free and grazing his forehead. Reaching up, he brushed the blood away and scrambled to his feet, dodging behind the far wall as a second volley of shots plowed through the wooden wall.

Inching along the building, Vin heard and felt the twin explosions marking the destruction of the vehicles. The force rattled the structure to its foundation and covered the gunfire that echoed inside the building.

He dropped into a crouch, then entered the building through a paneless window.

"Christ, Vin, you're bleeding."

The sniper swung, only his highly trained reflexes keeping him from shooting Larabee on the spot.

Buck slid in to join them, looking angry. "Chris—"

"Keep him here," the blond snapped, already moving forward again.

Vin and Buck exchanged looks, then headed out after the man…

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

"So he saw a little blood and overreacted, coming to the rescue, shall we say?"

Vin nodded. "I get he was concerned. T' be honest, he has a history 'a doin' that. But he's treatin' me like I'm made out 'a bone china, and that just won't work. The team can't operate like that. We each have a job t' do, and we can't get in each other's way. That's why I talked t' Josiah. This has got t' get resolved, and the sooner the better."

Standing, Pam walked over to the window of her office. "And Josiah called me." Taking a deep breath, she blew it out. "He and I talked, Vin, for over an hour actually, and I think I can help you, but I have to tell you, it's probably not going to be easy."

Vin snorted. "Nothing with any of us is ever easy, Doc." He sighed, his mouth tilting into a grin. "But that ain't the end of it. After we cleared the building…"

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

Buck and JD exited the old sawmill, their weapons still ready, but they were more relaxed now. They had put a stop to this bunch, once and for all.

Nathan went in to examine the men who had survived the encounter. Josiah and Chris were sweeping the various nooks and crannies in the mill to ensure all of the men had been found.

Josiah trailed Larabee out as they headed for the last corner, until the brush of shuffling feet froze him.

A brief, weird sound echoed through the building, followed by a burst of gunfire. The two men sprang for cover. A moment later, a pale Vin Tanner emerged from the shadows, moving painfully slow.

"Vin," Josiah said, taking three steps to meet the sniper. "Do you need—?"

Vin sucked in a deep breath and closed his eyes. "I'll be fine in a minute."

"Okay," Josiah said, stepping back to join Larabee, who pointedly ignored Tanner.

Josiah watched Vin carefully, but decided against pressing the issue. The sniper walked over and leaned against a wall while the others finished their cleanup. When they were done, Josiah and Chris rejoined the sniper.

"Looks like we got 'em all, and the cargo. Pack it all up, we'll take a look at it back at the office," Chris directed Sanchez, still oblivious to the shocky man who swayed slightly in front of him. Turning, Chris marched away, leaving Josiah to catch the sniper as he collapsed.

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

"What was it?" Pam asked.

"Last guy I found tried t' use a Taser on me… Took the jolt," he explained. "It wore off, but I know it gave 'em all a scare when they saw me…" He trailed off, then looked at the woman and gave her a wry grin. "Me, too, t' be honest."

She leaned back against her desk. "But you weren't seriously hurt."

Vin shook his head. "No. But that jolt was a lot more dangerous 'n that splinter rakin' me."

Pam clicked her tongue. "True enough. And, let me guess, afterward, when he had time to really think about it, Chris felt guilty about ignoring you prior to your collapse?"

Vin nodded and grinned. "You're good, Doc."

"This is going to be tricky."

"Whatever it takes, Doc. I mean it. Right now, we aren't ready for another mission. I have t' be able t' act without worryin' Chris is gonna get himself killed just 'cause he thinks I might be hurt, or I'll get killed 'cause he won't act when I need him to."

She nodded. "Okay, I'll set something up and then contact AD Travis." Walking around to Vin, she extended her hand. "We will get this worked out."

He shook her hand, saying softly, "I hope so. I think 'a these guys like family. I don't want t' lose that, but, as it stands, things have t' change or I'll be forced t' leave."

She smiled thinly. "Family always makes it a little harder," she said, watching his reaction closely.

He nodded curtly and marched stiffly to the door. Stopping, he turned to face her. "I have a job t' do, Doc. Nothin' can interfere with that, not even family. I fail, one of them might end up dead."

"I understand." She watched the door close. It wouldn't be easy on Vin if she couldn't figure out a way to get through to Chris, not easy at all. She shook her head. Men…

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

"A vacation?" Ezra repeated, trying to read beneath the innocent expression on AD Travis' face. The man's unexpected arrival in the Team Seven's office had them all expecting the worst, certainly not this.

Orin Travis' smile widened as he leaned back in the comfortable chair he'd appropriated, casually stretching out his legs and crossing them at the ankles. "Yes, gentlemen, a vacation – you deserve it, and the government is springing for it. So, pack your bags." He reached into his pocket, pulling out seven airplane tickets and waving them at the team. "You'll be leaving tomorrow afternoon."

Buck pushed himself out of his chair and retrieved the tickets, reading the destination. "Flagstaff, Arizona?" he questioned.

"It's beautiful down there this time of year – warm during the day, crisp and cool at night…"

Ezra eyed the older man suspiciously. "And what, exactly, will we be doing in Flagstaff, Arizona, in all that wonderful April weather?"

"Whitewater rafting," Travis informed them, then added wistfully, "I almost wish I was going along."

JD's eyes widened. "Whitewater rafting?"

"Yes, down the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. I've already talked to your guide; the trip should be relaxing and enjoyable," Travis reassured them.

"Sir, we were just about to start on the Gladson case," Nathan said.

Larabee, who had remained silent at the far end of the desks, leaned forward, his green eyes narrowing suspiciously. "And just whose idea was this, anyway?" His icy gaze flickered to Tanner.

Travis cleared his throat, saying, "Mine, Chris, which is why I tried to come up with something I thought all of you would enjoy…" He shot a quick look at Ezra, making it clear he understood the undercover man might be the exception. "It's outdoors, the scenery is magnificent, and the trip will be challenging and exciting – not to mention it's relatively close by."

"We've got plenty of work to keep us busy here," Larabee argued halfheartedly.

"I think it sounds wonderful," Josiah countered.

"Me, too," Nathan seconded. "It's been a while since we've had a real vacation."

"We could use the time off to recharge," JD agreed, nodding.

"Yep, sounds real good to me," Buck added. "Always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, just hadn't gotten around to it."

"It's all right by me," Vin added.

"I… agree," Ezra put in quietly, making it a unanimous front united against Larabee.

"You're going, Chris," Travis said, his voice friendly but stern. "You need the time off to stay fresh. Otherwise, you'll miss details."

"Man's right, stud," Buck said, walking over and handing the blond the tickets. "We've been going nonstop for almost eighteen months now."

Larabee stared at his men for a moment, then sighed. "All right," he said grudgingly.

Josiah breathed a silent sigh of relief. He had hoped Travis would only send Chris and Vin, but Pam must have thought it would be easier to get through to Larabee if they all came along. He hoped she was right.

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

There is an owl, flying from the south,
heading north from the Superstition Mountains.
Like the shadow of a life,
fading in the dark surroundings.

Team Seven exited the elevator and headed for the lobby of the resort hotel to meet their rafting guide. Travis had been right: Flagstaff was cool, crisp and clean, air pure and lightly scented with pine. The sun, climbing into the early morning sky, was just strong enough to warm things up, but it didn't reach the point of getting too hot, even in the late afternoon.

The day and a half the team members had spent lounging around the hotel had been relaxing, but they were all ready to get on with the rest of their vacation – each for different reasons.

Ezra was just glad to be away from the day-to-day toll the job extracted from him. It had been heavenly to sleep in, spend the evening in the Jacuzzi, enjoy the various restaurants, and even do a little shopping, something he wasn't usually too keen about.

Nathan, on the other hand, knew how important it was for them to de-stress, and any time Uncle Sam wanted to pay him for it, he was all for it.

In contrast, JD was already getting bored. He was looking forward to the challenge of actually whitewater rafting for the first time on the Colorado.

Buck, however, was hoping they might meet some rafters of the female persuasion while out on the trip. He'd already collected an impressive list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses from the women he'd met at the hotel, but he knew he could never have too many entries in his little black book.

Vin was desperately hoping the trip would help him mend the fences between himself and Larabee. If they could just go home afterward and have things return to "normal," he'd be thrilled. But, so far, it wasn't looking so good for such a simple and positive outcome. Chris had remained distant and cold, even a little cruel at times.

At the same time he was pushing Vin away, he was also making sure Tanner didn't do anything that was even remotely dangerous, or exhausting. But when Vin resisted, Chris exploded, accusing him of trying to "play Superman" and acting like a "fairytale hero."

Something had to give, and soon, before the sniper was pushed too far and he said something that would make it impossible to rebuild at least a working relationship between them.

Chris, for his part, just wanted to get through the damn raft trip and back to Denver. He had a strong hunch the whole thing had been staged, and he wasn't interested in playing any games Travis, or Josiah, or Vin, or all three of them might have dreamed up.

And Josiah, who knew far more than he was letting on, was his usual calm, steady self, refusing to give anything away.

The seven men entered the lobby, drawing looks from the staff behind the desk. Seeing them, Pam pushed up and out of the comfortable, plush chair she'd been sitting in and made her way over to join them.

"Hi," she greeted, extending her hand, first to Nathan, and then to each of the others in turn. "My name's Pamela Christopher-Welch, but, please, call me Pam. I'll be your guide for your trip downriver."

Vin looked surprised, but he didn't say anything. After all, there was no reason why a counselor couldn't be a whitewater raft guide, too. He knew she wouldn't be doing this if she couldn't handle it. Still, he shot a quick look at Josiah, who gave him a single nod in reply.

"Well, well, this trip is suddenly looking up," Buck said, wagging his eyebrows slightly. Larabee just shook his head.

Pam grinned and wiggled her wedding band back at the ladies' man, prompting a disappointed sigh from the handsome man. "Come on, gentlemen, why don't we grab some breakfast and I'll tell you what you can expect over the next seven days." She motioned them back toward the hotel's restaurant, and they headed off, everyone asking her questions except Chris, who trailed behind the others, silently glaring at Vin and Josiah. He knew the two men had had something to do with all this, he just wasn't sure what. When he found out, though, he silently vowed, he'd make them pay.

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

"This is incredible," Nathan breathed quietly, the echo of his voice reverberating quietly along the river.

The others were equally impressed with the rugged canyon walls that towered above them, narrowing the sky to a strip of bright blue overhead. And here and there, clinging to the cliff walls and along the short ledges and in the sandy sections of riverbank, cacti and various plants defied expectations, making the canyon rich with flora.

"I'll say," JD agreed. He pointed to a hawk as it winged its way down the canyon, ignoring the eight humans. "Look at that," he said quietly, his voice carrying clearly in the natural amphitheater.

"You'll see a lot of wildlife down here, if you pay attention," Pam said, her tone revealing the affection she had for river and canyon.

Not far from their launch location, the Colorado River rolled along slowly, cutting a wide and relatively shallow path through the multiple layers of earth that towered above them. Rich reds and browns chased each other up the sides of the canyon, mingling in artistic patterns and ancient dance. The team members each craned their necks, trying to take in as much as they could, completely ignoring the direction the raft was taking.

"Hey, guys, I need a couple of you actually paddling," Pam said from her position at the rear of the large, inflatable raft. She would steer, making sure they didn't get hung up on any submerged rocks, or sucked into the faster-flowing currents until the men grew acquainted with paddling and the motion of the river. "Just watch downriver and you'll see all this lady has to offer."

"Lady?" Buck questioned.

Pam chuckled. "Don't ask me why, but the canyon's always struck me as a wise old woman. So, Buck, JD, since you're in the front, if you'd set a slow, even pace, we'll get this show on the rapids."

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

The day passed in quiet peacefulness, each of the agents mastering the various paddling styles Pam showed them. Once that was accomplished, she graduated them with a test, guiding the raft into faster-moving water and introducing them to the roller coaster-like feel of whitewater rafting.

The faster rapids required that they act in concert to ensure the raft remained right-side up and unswamped. At first Chris had been sluggish and reluctant, but, by the end of the day, the grandeur and the excitement of the ride had brought even the reluctant team leader into the fold.

Well, that was the easy part, Pam thought to herself as she and the others climbed out of the raft, dragging it up onto the sandy edge of the river for their first night of camping out under the stars. Now comes the harder part

Chris and Nathan unloaded the gear from the raft, handing it off to the others, who carried it to the camp.

"I'm starving," JD announced to no one in particular.

"First the tents, then the food," Pam instructed. "It'll get dark down here pretty early. After food, then we'll have some fun."

"Fun?" Buck echoed, sounding hopeful.

She shook her head and waited, watching in silence until the camp was set up, including a fire in a well-used, rock-ringed shallow pit. Buck, having pulled the first "kitchen duty," worked to nestle foil-wrapped potatoes in the embers while Vin prepared the meat they would enjoy.

While they waited for the food to cook, Pam spent some time with Chris, pointing out and asking about various stars and constellations they could make out in the clean, clear sky overhead.

Chris finished explaining how she could track down Arcturas, then paused, adding, "You're more than just a guide, Ms. Welsh. What are you, exactly?"

Pam grinned. "You do realize you've left yourself open to any number of possible responses to that question," she warned gently. "But, since I know what you mean, I happen to be a counselor and a whitewater raft guide, which is how I put myself through school for my undergrad and graduate degrees, so I'm fully qualified on both fronts. So, Mr. Larabee, I guess you can think of me as your guide, or your therapist, or your boss, or even your spiritual adviser for the next six days, because, in truth, I'm all of those things."

Larabee was surprised by her honesty, but he turned away, snorting softly. "I knew it."

"Knew what?"

"That Travis was up to something. Who put him up to this, Josiah? Vin?"

Pam walked around to stand in front of the man. "No one's up to anything, Chris."

"Oh?" he replied, his hands coming up to rest defiantly on his hips. "Why else force us to come all the way out here? It was Vin, wasn't it?"

Pam drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Mr. Larabee, are you and Vin having problems?"

Chris hesitated, pacing off several yeards and standing, staring out at the river. "No." It was flat and unconvincing. "We don't have a problem," he amended. "He does."

"And what's Vin's problem?" Pam asked, opting to stay where she was, standing behind the man.

"He thinks he's Superman."

Pam sat down on the still-warm dirt. "Explain that to me, would you?"

Chris turned around to face her. "I can't, that's the problem. I can't understand why he refuses to act like he's– he's a normal man; a member of the human race."

Pam leaned back on her elbows. "How does a normal man act?"

Larabee wandered down the river a few yards, then returned and sat down near the woman. "He admits he's hurting; that he's not indestructible. And he doesn't have to go shoving his way through every situation like he's a one-man army. There are other people who can do some of that. He doesn't have to take all the risks all the time."

Sitting up, Pam wrapped her arms around her legs and turned her head so she could watch him. "Do you think he feels like he needs to be out front because he doesn't want any of you to get hurt or killed, or is it a glory thing?"

Chris thought for a moment, the corners of his mouth tugging down into a small frown. "No, it's not a glory thing," he admitted reluctantly. "I know Vin cares about all of us… We're his family…" Larabee's head came up, his green eyes flashing. "But that's no excuse for putting himself on the line every time we go out in the field."

Pam paused, hoping she wasn't pushing too far, too fast. "Isn't that what he's supposed to do? I mean, he's a former soldier, a federal agent, and soldiers and agents go out and fight, right? They put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us."

Larabee's head snapped around and he glared at her. "He's not expendable, no matter what stupid idea of 'mission' he lives with. He thinks he's Superman," the blond reiterated.

"Okay," Pam said, standing and dusting off the seat of her shorts. "Let's go get some supper and we'll work on that Superman complex this trip."

"Well, I hope you can do something with him," Chris said. "He's going to get himself killed if he keeps this up."

Pam watched Larabee as he made his way through the semidarkness toward the fire. You're hurting, she thought, and you're blaming Vin, but it's not his fault. So, how do I get you to see that, and tell Vin the real reason why you're being such a pain in the ass…?

She shook her head, deciding she'd stick to the plans she'd made before they had left the hotel. First, reestablish some trust between the men as a whole, then, guide them through a rehash of the grieving process. It wasn't just Vin and Chris she was worried about. Tanner's brush with death had forced each of the men to face his own mortality.

And I have to do it all without getting caught, she thought. Her eyes dropped closed for a moment. I've gotta ask for a raise, she concluded, brushing the sand off her elbows before following after Chris.

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

While we who travel on the rim,
seeking love and finding understanding
Go safely on our way,
like the river, running in the canyon.

Pam watched the seven members of Team Seven. Josiah and Nathan were leaning over the front of the raft, their paddles dipping rhythmically into the frothy water. Behind them, Chris and Vin followed their lead, their movements timed to coincide with the tempo Josiah and Nathan had set.

Buck and JD sat just to the rear of the center of the raft, holding their paddles in the water, creating a drag that helped slow their headlong rush downriver. Ezra was at the rear of the raft with her, guiding them. Each man called out warnings when he spotted rocks or suspicious swirls, the others responding immediately to guide the raft away from the potential danger.

It had taken three days, but the seven men were now a perfectly honed rafting unit. They were, Pam knew, "in sync" – anticipating each other, moving automatically to compensate for individual weaknesses, and relying on each person's strengths.

And, having to do that on the river each day had washed over into the nightly exercises she had been putting them through. Subtle things they tended to overlook in their day-to-day battle against the "bad guys" had suddenly become clearer and more important: Ezra's dry humor and quick thinking; Buck's calmness, fast reflexes and self-assuredness; Nathan's determination and precision; Chris' ability to anticipate trouble; JD's fast reactions and easygoing manner; Vin's uncanny ability to spot pockets of remarkable beauty along the way; and Josiah's storytelling ability.

The last seventy-two hours hadn't been nonstop thrills and heavy psychological work, though. They had spent plenty of time just playing, too. Pam grinned, the memory of Buck tossing JD off the raft and into a deep pool flooding her thoughts. Things were definitely going the way she wanted them to – for everyone except Chris Larabee. But that impromptu water fight had cracked even his rapidly rusting emotional armor.

They had maneuvered into quiet water to rest about noon, the buzz from the rapids they'd just shot still fresh. It was inevitable that something would happen; in fact, Pam had been counting on it, and she wasn't disappointed…

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

JD stood, carefully making his way to the front of the raft where he straddled the tubular lip, one foot dangling in the cool water. He wiggled his toes. "That was something," he said, reaching down to dip a handful of the cool water into his palm, then pressing it to his forehead. "Ahhh," he sighed. "Really amazing."

Vin glanced over at Buck, two pairs of eyebrows exchanging silent, arching messages.

Buck stood, stepped forward nonchalantly, then, in a blur of motion, scooped JD up and tossed him over the side before the younger man even realized he was in danger.

JD yelped as he hit the water and came up splashing. Vin dove for cover, colliding with the side of the raft and upsetting Ezra, who was in the process of maneuvering himself into the rear seat, away from the upcoming battle.

Standish grabbed frantically for one of the nylon straps along the slick rubber sides, but he was already off balance and missed. He slipped headlong into the water. He bobbed up nearby, a huge smile on his face. "This, gentlemen, is war!"

Vin poked his head over the edge of the raft, unaware of Pam, who was rummaging casually through some of her gear.

"Hey, that was just a joint maneuver, Ez," Vin argued. "You're just a casualty 'a battle – collateral damage."

"It doesn't matter," JD bubbled. "You're both dead meat," he said, looking from Vin to Buck and back again. He swam around for a clear shot, then shoved a wave toward Vin, who ducked down in time to avoid being soaked. Nathan, however, was not so fortunate.

When the former medic made a grab for Vin, the sniper used a clever move and upended him right into the river.

Across the raft, Larabee fought hard to keep from smiling.

Pam noticed the crack in the man's usually distant manner and grinned. Finally they were getting somewhere with the man.

Ezra reached the edge of the raft and wrapped his fingers tightly around one of the straps, then began scooping handfuls of cold water over the edge, raining them down on Vin.

"Hey, that's cold!" Tanner bellowed, rising to his knees and glaring down at the undercover man.

Pam paused for a moment to admire the sniper. Clad in blue shorts, white T-shirt, and a red baseball cap, he was undeniably cute. He was also about to get very, very wet.

But, before she could act, Josiah silently sucked in a deep breath and charged the sniper, catching him in the back with his shoulder. The force was just enough to send him flying past Ezra and into the river. He came up splashing, but JD and Ezra, seeing that Tanner's advantage had been undercut, began a rain of waves back, drenching him.

Vin dipped under the water's surface, his legs kicking out to rapidly propel him out of range before he surfaced again.

Pam took the opportunity to lower the object of her earlier search into the water, and when Tanner surfaced a second time, she directed a powerful stream from the three-foot-long water tube in his direction, the stream catching Vin squarely in the chest.

"Hey, that's not fair!" he sputtered. "Y' didn't tell us we had t' come armed!"

"All's fair in love and war, Junior," Buck called out, watching as Pam lowered the tube to fill it for a second assault. "And I think I'm in love!" The others in the raft applauded.

The water war raged for nearly half an hour, Pam, Buck, and Josiah defending the raft while Vin, JD, Ezra and Nathan tried to drag them out, or soak them.

Chris, unable to resist the play, lowered one of the buckets into the water and poured the contents over Nathan's head when the Black man reached out for Buck's ankle.

Nathan looked up in surprise, but then his eyes narrowed and a devilish smile spread across his face. "New fodder, boys," he announced.

Larabee chuckled, but stopped when he realized all four men were staring at him. His grin faded. Vin and JD swam steadily toward the raft, like sharks circling for the kill.

Pam leveled the full water tube in Larabee's direction.

"No." He shook his head, his voice climbing rapidly in pitch and volume. "Hey! No… No!"


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

The water war lasted another half hour before the combatants retired to the rocky edge of the pool to eat lunch. The playfulness remained, their meal accompanied by an ongoing repartee of one-liners.

Pam glanced up, silently imploring whatever powers that be to deliver her after a particularly bad pun from JD, and noted the building thunderheads. "Uh-oh," she said, "looks like we'd better get moving. We're going to get wet this afternoon if we don't."

The team members looked up at the dark clouds that had put a damper on their fun. "You sure?" JD asked skeptically.

"Yep," Pam said, reaching for her small cooler. "Those are rain clouds. We need to get downriver to a cave that'll keep us out of the wet they're just aching to drop on us. The river can get nasty after an early monsoon."

Vin stood, the serious sniper once more. "Y' heard the lady, let's move."

"Ooh, yes, sir," Buck said, snapping up a sloppy salute. He grinned and Vin shook his head.

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

Into this world everything is born,
all colors come together.
On the sacred hoop we take our place,
and when we go we fly forever.

Large but scattered raindrops pelted the group as they reached a wide, sandy strip of riverbank. Pam slid out of the raft, sloshing through the shallow water and up the sandy bank, disappearing into a large pocket that had been carved out of the canyon wall.

"That's some cave," Josiah said.

"Drag the raft right on in her," Pam called back to them. "Looks like we have the place to ourselves."

The men half-carried, half-dragged the inflatable into the shelter, their necks craning when they realized it was a near-perfect sphere, bigger than they had first thought, the top several feet above their heads. It was like a huge bubble had formed inside the rock, and the river, shearing off a section, had opened it to the air.

A brilliant flash of lightning, and an immediate crack of thunder, accompanied them into the cave.

"Wow," JD said. "That was close!"

"I didn't think you'd get lightning in the canyon," Nathan said worriedly as he watched a fierce downpour start to fall just beyond the mouth of their shelter.

"Oh, yeah," Pam said. "This is one of my favorite spots for waiting out a storm, but there's an even better cave farther downriver. We'll stop over there, too. Oh, there should be some wood piled up along the back. The state park rangers leave it for folks who get caught out in the rain."

"I'll go check," Vin volunteered, walking into the shadows. "Yep, got plenty," he called back, returning a few moments later with an armload of the dry wood.

Pam pointed to a waiting fire pit near the wall of the cave and Tanner dumped the wood to the ground and began building a fire.

The rain chilled the air enough to force them to unpack their jackets, and Josiah and Nathan continued unpacking, laying out their bedrolls while Buck and Chris started digging through the food coolers for supper. Vin kept watch on the fire, and JD and Ezra settled back, enjoying the fact that they weren't doing any work for once.

In half an hour, they were all bundled up, sitting around the large fire and watching the storm while they sipped on coffee that had been brewed over the flames. Their suppers were cooking slowly, filling the cave with wonderful aromas.

Pam tugged a small dulcimer she'd wrapped securely in oil cloth out of her gear bag and started playing. The melodic music integrated well with the rain, and while she moved through several songs she covertly watched the relaxing men. They all wore easy smiles, their camaraderie filling the cave with another kind of warmth.

Even when they were forced to return to their regular lives, she was sure things would be back, more or less, to normal once again. Except for Vin and Chris… She sighed. Although much of the earlier tension between the two men was gone now, there was still an invisible barrier separating the two.

She moved on to a merrier tune, still thinking about this latest assignment.

The others had quickly come to realize Vin was fine – healthy and more than capable of taking care of himself. His brush with death hadn't left him feeble, or in need of extra protection. Death was a fact in all their lives, and they'd accepted it.

Well, everyone but Larabee had. And Chris wasn't protecting Vin, Pam knew, he was protecting himself, probably much like he had after his wife and son died.

Watching Vin "die" had triggered the same responses that had helped the husband survive the loss of his wife and son. But Chris wasn't a husband anymore.

He was, however, still trying to protect himself from more emotional pain, which was sure to come if his best friend ended up dead.

She just needed to get the two men to a place where they could open up a little, talk about what it was they were feeling and find a way to help them deal with it.

Mmm, she thought, maybe if they took a couple of days and stayed here, she could work on breaking through the protective barriers Larabee had managed to build; those necessary defense mechanisms needed to be knocked down a notch or two.

"Food's ready," Buck called, interrupting Pam's thoughts about how, exactly, she might lower Larabee's barriers.

"Sounds good," she said, setting the instrument aside.

"So did that," Ezra said, nodding at her dulcimer.

"Thank you," Pam said with a smile. "My sanity maintenance." Buck passed her a plate, and she accepted it with a grateful smile. "If we're lucky, the storm should pass before midnight."

"Great, we can sit around the campfire and tell ghost stories," JD suggested.

Ezra groaned.

"It's not nice to tease the Spirits," Josiah said seriously. "You never know what they might decide to do for revenge."

JD's mouth opened, but a response stalled on his tongue. His forehead wrinkled. "You're kidding, right?"

Twinkling blue-gray eyes gave away the older man's ruse.

"Can't be too careful when it comes to Spirits, JD," Vin added, which had the younger agent looked uncertain again.

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

While we who travel on the rim,
seeking love and finding understanding
Go safely on our way,
like the river running in the canyon.

Pam stretched and yawned inside her sleeping bag, then stuck her head out to confirm what she already knew: It was still raining.

She had listened to the storm start and stop in riotous tumult all night long. It wasn't a good sign.

Blinking owlishly, she watched the heavy downpour beyond the mouth of the cave. No, not a good sign at all. The river would be up, the rapids becoming more dangerous as the storm runoff drained into the Colorado. Not that she didn't think they could handle it – they could – but it wouldn't be the restful experience she'd hoped for.

Pulling on her outer layer of clothes within the warmth of the closed sleeping bag, Pam crawled out and joined the others, who were also emerging from their nightly cocoons.

"Can we raft in this?" Chris asked, when she reached the low-burning fire and sat down, waiting for coffee.

"It'll be a little more challenging, but we'll be fine. Just listen to everyone and don't ask questions if someone yells for an immediate course correction. We'll get some floating debris, too, so it'll be bumpy; we'll need to tie everything down. And make sure you're wearing your life preservers."

"It's not a vacation…" Buck grinned, pouring a cup of coffee for Pam and handing it to her. "…it's an adventure."

"No," Nathan corrected, looking out at the writhing river. "It's going to be one very wet roller coaster ride."

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

"Coming up behind!" Pam yelled over the roar of the swift-moving water.

Vin, who sat at the front of the raft with Chris, couldn't look away to see what was bearing down on them. He was too busy trying to make sure they stayed in deep water, away from stationary rocks and large pieces of floating debris. None of those activities were easy with the frothing surface obscuring the majority of the submerged obstacles.

"Hi! Hi!"

The shouted welcome distracted the sniper for a moment and his gaze flickered up as two smaller rafts passed by them at a heady clip. The greeting had come from a young girl, dwarfed by the neon-orange life preserver she wore.

The six-year-old waved enthusiastically as she passed them and Vin heard Buck calling a greeting back.

"To the right," Larabee yelled, and the rest responded, maneuvering the raft slightly in that direction to avoid an outcropping of jagged rocks to their left.

"They're going awfully fast, aren't they?" Nathan commented.

"Too fast," Pam acknowledged. "They can't spot trouble quick enough like that."

"How long are we going to be out here?" Ezra asked, his arms and shoulders already aching after only a few hours of fighting the storm-angry waters.

"'Bout two more hours. There's another cave we're aiming for," Pam told him. "We'll need it. It's going to rain again tonight."

Ezra nodded, wondering if he'd be able to hold out that long, and what the river would be like after two nights of heavy rain. Their relaxing vacation was quickly becoming something more. He glanced over, catching Nathan's eye, the echoing expression on the former medic's face telling Ezra he was thinking similar thoughts.

"To the left!" Vin called, and the others complied.


The sniper smiled at the girl as they passed the child's raft and its companion, the two rafts having been swept into a slower-moving part of the wide river.

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

Like the shadow of a life
We are formed by the rising sun.
And with the owl our spirit flies
To say good-bye when our day is done.

The five weary rafters sat close to the snapping campfire, waiting for the chill that clung to their shoulders like wet cowls to lift.

"Brrr," JD said, chafing his hands over his jean-covered thighs.

"No kidding," Buck said, checking the pot to see if the coffee was ready. It wasn't. He glanced over at Pam. "You think we'll get some company tonight?"

She shrugged. "Most people familiar with the river know about these caves. And they'll certainly be a lot more comfortable if they make it here, or to one of the other ones along the way."

Josiah fought back a smile as he added, "I think that little girl would enjoy a story or two from Vin and Ezra."

Tanner's head came up, his eyebrows arched, as did Standish's.

"Oh, don't look so surprised, Ezra," Buck scolded the man. "It's not a crime to like children, you know."

Ezra's brows pitched forward. "I do not like children," he argued, then amended, "just some children."

"Coffee's ready," Nathan said, interrupting the debate before it started.

"Is it dangerous, running rafts as fast as they were today?" Chris asked, accepting his steaming cup and cradling it in his hands to warm them up.

Pam nodded. "Yeah, you can't see what you're heading into, but it looked like they got it back under control, or they would've passed us up again."

"Well, I don't know about you," JD said, scooting closer to the fire, "but all I want is something to eat, a heavier jacket, and a long date with my sleeping bag. I'm exhausted."

Buck chuckled. "Maybe we should swap back rubs before we turn in," he suggested, massaging his own shoulder. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to be stiff as hell tomorrow."

Pam watched the demonstration of agony the ladies' man treated them all to. "Can I rub something to make it feel better?" she asked when his eyes squeezed shut and he grimaced.

There was a slight pause and then everyone burst out laughing.

"That, my dear," Josiah told her, "was a loaded question."

Again the pause struck before another wave of laughter.

"I didn't mean it that way!" the profiler grouched, still smiling.

"Well, neither did I!" Pam exclaimed. "But it's actually not a bad idea," she added, noting that Larabee was blushing – an endearing expression for the man. "Why don't I get started on Buck while you guys get supper ready. Then we'll sort out the rest of the massages after we get dinner cleaned up."

Buck's eyebrows waggled. "Me first? Well, rub on!"

"You're incorrigible," Ezra scolded the man as he reached out and grabbed Pam's hand, pulling her to her feet. "Watch out for him, he's a notorious Lothario."

Pam grinned. "Why'd you think I picked him?"

Buck looked like a strutting rooster as he headed off to find a good spot for his massage.

Chris grinned and shook his head as he watched, then his gaze cut to Vin.

There. Something inside Larabee had definitely cracked. She shook her head. The wall had been breached and she hadn't done anything specific… The mind was an amazing thing, especially when it was so closely tied to the heart.

She watched Chris a moment longer. It was going to be an interesting evening, and she wondered if the two men were going to be ready for where it might take them.

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

Two hours later, Chris and Vin sat slightly away from the others. Supper had passed with witty repartee and now Pam had them doing "therapeutic" shoulder rubs before they turned in for the night, although Larabee was sure it was really just another ploy to try and get him to open up to Vin. Regardless, his aching shoulders and upper arms had appreciated the attention.

Besides, he was afraid he was getting closer to understanding his recent behavior, and he wasn't at all sure he wanted to think about it, let alone talk about it, with anyone. But he did owe Vin an apology, and he might as well get that over with…


"Hmm?" Tanner responded, leaning forward slightly and rolling his neck in circles.

Chris, sitting behind him, continued to work on the tight muscles in the younger man's shoulders. "I… uh…"

Vin's head came up. "Yeah?"

"I… think we might need to talk."

Okay, now Vin had a dilemma. Should he turn around and face Chris, or stay the way he was? He didn't want to do anything that might discourage the blond from continuing. He stayed put. "About?"

"You… Me… Uh, us, I guess."

Vin chuckled quietly.

"What?" Chris snapped, but there was no real edge of annoyance to the word.

"Nothin'," Vin said, shaking his head. "Just kind 'a sounded like somethin' out 'a an old B movie."

Chris laughed. "Yeah, I suppose it did… Just before the guy tells the girl he's leaving her."

"For his horse," Vin added, both of them dissolving into laughter. When that passed, he turned slightly, glancing over his shoulder to meet Larabee's eyes. "What's wrong, Chris?"

Larabee's head dipped slightly. "Hell, Vin, I don't know… But I do know I've been acting like an ass."

"Like t' disagree with ya, Cowboy, but I can't."

"I was afraid you'd say that."

Vin edged around to face the blond. "Chris, I know what happened with that lab wasn't easy on any of us, but I swear t' ya, I don't do anything I don't have t' in order t' keep y'all safe and breathin'."

Chris nodded once. "I know. I really do know that, Vin, but lately… it's been harder to accept." Green eyes met blue. "I know you don't think you're indestructible, but, damn it, sometimes it seems like you do."

"I know," Vin said quietly. "Sometimes I have t' pretend I am t' get the job done, but I've never believed it, especially not after what happened with those damn mice."

Chris scooted a little farther away from Vin and drew his knees up, wrapping his arms around his legs. "When you died…" he started, but his voice caught and he had to try again. "When I took you out of the hospital…" He took a deep breath. "I guess I kind of believed it. I thought you were indestructible, just like I thought my parents were… or Sarah and Adam. When you made me promise to take you out… to die… I wanted to be the perfect friend. I wanted to honor your last request, but, in order to do it, I had to turn away from all the… lies I'd been living. I had to admit you were human, just like the rest of us… Just like my wife and son had been. And… And I was mad at you, just like I was mad at them."

"Ain't your fault," Vin said softly.

"Then whose is it?"

"No one's; just the way it is. We're all part of the screwed-up human race."

"I know I've put you through hell, and don't tell me I haven't, because we wouldn't be here otherwise."

Vin shrugged noncommittally. It was the truth, he wouldn't say it wasn't.

"The whole situation was fucked from the beginning. And taking you out of the hospital was the last straw, and then when you…"

"Had the balls t' come back from the dead?"

Larabee smiled thinly. "Something like that, yeah," he admitted. "I realized my… hero was just a man. I didn't know what to hold on to any more."

"Me, your hero?"

Chris offered him a small grin. "Yeah… But if you repeat that, I'll deny it to my dying breath."

Vin grinned back, then grew more serious. "And now?"

Chris met Vin's intense gaze. "Being here, watching… I think our strength is in ourselves – the team."

Vin smiled. Chris was going to be okay. Their friendship was going to be okay. He was going to be okay. "Brothers-in-arms," he said softly. "An', Chris?"


"I'd sure as hell rather have an imperfect brother than a perfect friend."

Chris smiled. "I'll hold you to that. Believe it."

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

While we who travel on the rim
Seeking love and finding understanding
Go safely on our way
Like the river running in the canyon.

"Ready?" Pam asked as she and the agents prepared to carry the raft out to the river.

"Always, darlin'," Buck replied, grinning at her.

"All right, mush, you husky people. On three," she said around an answering smile.

"One – ruff-ruff!" Buck replied.

"Two – yap-yap-yap," added JD.

"Three – a'hrouuu!" Vin concluded.

The seven men lifted the raft and jogged to the water, then set it down, the bow just edging into the current.

"Very good, an extra biscuit for all of you," Pam proclaimed.

"Thank you, but no," Ezra stated.

"Better be careful," Pam cautioned him, "one of these guys might decide to, huh…"

"Lift a leg?" Josiah asked.

"Mr. Sanchez, I—"

"It's going to be just about like it was yesterday," Pam said, handing out life jackets and avoiding the incipient argument, "maybe a little worse, so put these on and add your safety ropes, too."

The seven shrugged into their neon-orange vests, pausing when a cry echoed down from upriver.

"Look out!"

"Watch it!"

They turned. It was one of the two rafts from the day before, barreling headlong toward them. The little girl squealed when they hit a particularly rough section of water or rocks, the raft bouncing free of the rapids, then diving back down.


Pam and the agents watched numbly as the little girl bounced out of the raft with a shriek, disappearing into the frothing water.

Snapping the catch shut on his life jacket, Vin took three running strides to the river's edge and plunged in.

"Vin!" Larabee bellowed, starting after the sniper.

"Chris! No!" Buck said, intercepting the blond.

"We'll take the raft," Pam said, already climbing in.


"There's no other way to follow him; the water's too fast," she snapped.

"Come on," Buck added, his hand coming up to rest on Larabee's shoulder.

"Let's go!" JD urged.

Chris cursed softly, his heart beating far too fast as he followed suit, pushing the raft into the current and climbing in. Josiah, with a paddle already in hand, shoved it at Chris. He took it, silently praying they could reach Vin in time.

Why, he wondered. Why the hell does he do it? But he already knew the answer. It was exactly what every one of them would do; Vin's reactions were just faster than the rest of them. It wasn't for glory, or because he had some kind of a death wish. Vin Tanner simply did what had to be done. Damn him, anyway…

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

Vin swam toward the bobbing flash of orange that appeared sporadically through the spray that broke free from the river's surface. The current was stronger than he'd anticipated and that, coupled with the necessity of watching for floating debris, made it difficult for him to reach the girl quickly.

He ducked under the froth as a large tree branch swept by, one jagged protrusion gouging out a furrow along the back of his neck. Surfacing, he tried swimming to catch up to the girl, but it was nearly impossible in the roiling froth. So, rolling over onto his back, he pointed his feet at his target and used his arms like fins to direct his course, closing the gap between them.

"Kari!" someone shrieked.

The raft was gaining on them, too, but Vin couldn't chance looking back to see how close it actually was. He was almost to the girl, now, close enough to see the fear in her eyes and hear her choking on the water.

"Look out!" someone yelled.

"Rocks!" a woman's voice screamed.

Vin heard the inflatable lift out of the water, a great sucking sound drowning out the rapids' roar for a split second. The splash that followed was like a giant's hand slapping against the rough surface of the river.


Vin felt a sharp flash of pain as something hit him, and a fine red mist immediately stung his eyes. He was bleeding, but the girl was almost in reach. Ignoring the rush in his ears and the bright spots exploding around his peripheral vision, he shifted position, reaching out, his fingers brushing the girl's life jacket until a sudden rise in the water drew her away. He kicked and tried again, this time his fingers finding and curling around a nylon strap on her vest.

The girl squealed and coughed.

"Easy, honey, easy," Vin said. "It's okay."

He pulled her closer, holding her tightly against his chest as she struggled for a moment, then quickly tired, her fear of the river overriding her fear of the bleeding stranger who was clutching her. Together they were swept along, farther and farther away from the raft.

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

"Look!" JD yelled as the raft they were rapidly gaining on shot free of the rapids, fell back, and nearly capsized.

The four adults inside grabbed for the safety ropes, leaning away from the fall, just barely keeping the raft from turning over. Several of their paddles were swept away, and the inflatable was swung into a quiet eddy by the current.

"They're okay!" Pam called out. "Watch for the rocks, that's what they hit!"

"To the right! The right!" Nathan yelled and the others responded, edging them around the obstruction.

"The river widens out around the next turn, then narrows into some nasty white water. We have to catch them before they get to that!" Pam called.

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


"Shhh," Vin said, trying to calm the girl. He could feel the current slowing, but the water was still too deep and too fast for him to stand up in it. "You'll be fine, sweetheart, your daddy, too."

"I'm c-cold," she said, her teeth beginning to chatter. "I wanna g-go home."

Vin was cold, too. The water was rapidly chilling them both, and he knew he needed to get the girl out as quickly as possible.

Kari squealed, and Vin backpeddled, trying to see what had scared her. A sudden wave of blackness swept over his vision as another thick piece of wood rose up out of the water and slammed into his shoulder and then his head.

The girl screamed as he slipped under the water, pulling her under with him, but he forced himself to kick, propelling them to the surface again.

Something felt different; the water was definitely slowing down.

"Lookit!" Kari cried.

Vin followed the child's pointing finger to a large outcrop of rocks, and his eyes widened with the surge of adrenaline the sight prompted. The river split around the formation, rushing past and then rejoining in a narrow turn that churned with whitecaps.

"Hang on," Vin told her. They had plenty of room to maneuver in, if he could just keep them lined up with the rocks…

"Okay," she replied, her trembling fingers digging into his shirt sleeves. "Is that 'n island?"

"Something like that, sweetheart," Vin replied, swallowing several times to settle his churning stomach. Damn, he was drifting – mentally and literally. He adjusted course, lining them up with the rocks again. "Honey, I want ya t' wrap yer legs 'round me, 'n' hold on tight, okay? I'm gonna roll over on m' back 'n' swim for the island, okay?"


With his head and shoulder throbbing, the swim to the formation was agonizing, but he was able to reach the rocks and grab hold of the slippery surface.

"Quick, climb up t' the top 'a the island, sweetheart," Vin directed as calmly as he could; the current was slowly eroding his grip, and he wasn't sure how long he'd be able to hang on.

Kari scrambled onto the rocks, hugging a sharp spire near the top while Vin tried to pull himself up out of the water.

"Hang on tight, sweetie," he told her. "Help's on the way. What's your name?"

"K-Kari," she stammered through chattering teeth.

"You're a real brave girl, Kari," he told her, sucking in a deep breath and reaching out to fit his hand into a narrow crevice, then, he pulled. Agony flared through his shoulder and he gasped sharply.

"Y-you okay?" she asked, starting to move closer.

"No, Kari, stay there," he told her firmly. He saw her grip tighten again. "Good girl. Okay, here we go…"

"Vin! Hang on!"

Chris. Vin's eyes dropped closed for a moment. The cavalry had arrived, just like in the movies. And thank God, too… He knew there was a reason he loved the man…

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

"There!" Chris yelled, spotting Vin and the girl on the rock formation. He lowered his paddle.

"No," Pam called. "We can't do anything for them on the water. To the right! We'll beach it."

Larabee glanced in the indicated direction, catching sight of a narrow stretch of sand and rocks at the foot of a steep cliff face.

"Hurry," Nathan told them, watching Vin try to pull himself up out of the river. It looked like he was favoring his right shoulder…

Leaning heavily against the rudder paddle, Pam helped Buck steer the boat to the edge of the river.

The others paddled furiously, moving the raft at almost a straight right angle to the current.

"Hang on, Vin!" Chris called. "Hang on!"

Pam and Buck timed their landing perfectly, and as the raft bumped the bottom along the edge of the river, Nathan and Josiah leaped out, dragging the inflatable up onto the sand even as the others were scrambling out of it.

"Vin, we're going to throw you a line!" Buck called, handing the rope to Larabee.

"Okay!" Tanner called back. "Hurry!"

"Not gonna work," Nathan said. "His shoulder's hurt. If he reaches for the rope, he could lose his grip."

"And we'd lose him in the rapids," Pam added.

"Then what do we do?" Chris demanded, his gaze locked on Tanner and the girl.

"JD, throw me two of the safety lines," Pam said, jogging back to the raft.

Dunne, who was the closest to the raft, hefted out the nylon ropes. "Here."

Pam fashioned a quick loop, the others converging around her as she did. Her gaze swept over the men as she worked. "Who's the best swimmer?"

"Me," JD said without hesitation.

She nodded and fitted one of the lines around his back and under his arms, then she tied the other to the end of it. "Go upriver as far as you can, then swim out and let the current carry you down to them. We'll move Vin over first, then the little girl with you."

JD nodded.

"Be careful, kid," Buck said, blue eyes worried.

"I will," JD replied as Josiah reached out and gave his back a slap.

Pam handed the end of the now-joined lines to Josiah, who would act as the anchor, in case JD missed the rocks.

JD started up the short shoreline at a fast jog. When he reached the end, he waded out as far as he could, then dropped into the cold water, the current immediately sucking him along.

Kicking powerfully, he was able to maneuver into the middle of the river, and hold himself there until he reached the formation.

"Watch out!" he yelled, trying to slow his arrival, but he couldn't keep from slamming into Vin, who cried out sharply, but thankfully didn't let go.

JD inched around the rocks and climbed out, perching above the sniper and slipping the rope off his body. He maneuvered to tie it around Vin's chest.

"No, get Kari out of here first," Vin argued.

"Can't," JD said, working the rope around the sniper and tying it off. "You're hurt, she's not. Besides, we'll be fine right here." Moving farther up on the rocks, he smiled at the girl and patted her shoulder. "Right, kid?"

Kari nodded.

"Okay, Vin, let go and they'll pull you in." He waved to the others and yelled, "Reel 'im in!"

Vin forced his fingers to uncurl and felt the current try to sweep him around the formation, but the tension on the rope stopped his forward movement and, after a moment, he could feel the slow tug toward the edge of the river. He kicked hard, the effort helping to drive him closer to the others, but the pain in his shoulder flared with each additional movement, so he stopped and satisfied himself with fluttering his feet just enough to keep his head above water while he let them pull him to the rocky lip of land.

"Vin?" Larabee demanded, wading out to slip his hands under the sniper's arms.

"Chris, no—" Before Vin could stop him, Larabee lifted. The sniper gasped and vomited.

"Jesus. Vin?" the blond asked, his voice sounding more panicked as Tanner's stomach continued to empty his breakfast into the river water.

"'Round… m' waist," Vin gasped.

"Oh, shit," Larabee hissed, remembering the injured shoulder.

The others had joined the pair and Nathan quickly wrapped his arm around Vin's midsection, helping him to stand. Together the threesome made their way back to the beach, where Nathan lowered Vin down next to the raft and leaned him back against it.

"Get Kari and JD," Vin breathed airily.

"You stay here," Chris commanded before he turned and joined the others on the beach with the rope, although it wasn't clear if he was speaking to Vin or to Nathan. In either case, the former medic stayed with Tanner, already getting to work on his shoulder.

Buck rolled up the rope at one end to weight it and waded out into the water as far as he could and hurled the line at the outcropping. JD grabbed it as it hit the rocks and bounced.

"Okay," he told the little girl, smiling as cheerily as he could. "Here's what we're going to do, okay? We're going to play pony. You ever done that before?"

"Pony?" Kari asked, her big blue eyes still wide and frightened.

"Yep, you're going to get on my back, just like I was a pony, and then I'm going to swim over there to where my friends are, and they're going to help us by pulling on my rope, okay?"

Kari nodded, but she didn't look too convinced about going back into the water.

JD squatted down, letting the girl climb onto his back before he tied the rope around both of them. Once he was sure Kari was secured, he edged back down to the river and lowered them in.

"Okay, Kari, here we go," he said, pushing off with his legs and swimming toward the shore. The constant pull on the rope made it easier for him to fight the current and, when his belly brushed the river bed, he stood, his arms wrapped tightly around the girl's legs.

"Here," Pam said, reaching for the knot to untie them, "I'll get that."

JD stood while the psychologist untied the rope and Josiah lifted Kari from his back. "That was some ride, huh?" the profiler asked the girl.

Kari nodded, wrapping her arms around Josiah's neck. "'M c-cold."

"Okay," Pam said, "let's get everyone into some dry clothes."

"There's some driftwood over there," Buck said, pointing to the edge of the cliff. "We can make a fire."

"Good idea," Pam agreed. Walking over to a blanket-draped Vin with JD, she watched as Dunne dropped down to the ground, accepting another blanket from Nathan, which he drew around his shoulders. "How are you?" she asked the sniper.

Vin nodded and gave her a half-shrug. "Not bad; shoulder's beat up some, 'n' I got a few scratches."

"Dislocated shoulder, and this cut on his scalp needs stitches," Nathan corrected the sniper.

"Ouch," Pam said, her forehead wrinkling in concern. "I don't know how to fix that shoulder."

"I do," the former medic said. "It's already done."

"Vin, are you okay?" Chris asked, dropping down alongside the sniper.

"Fine," Tanner said automatically, then amended, "well, more or less."

"Really? You're bleeding," Larabee said, reaching out to accept the first aid kit from Nathan. "In several places, from the looks of it. Damn it, Tanner, that was a stupid stunt," he snapped.

Blue eyes locked on green and Vin wondered if anything Chris had said the night before was true. Tempt fate and she'll test ya, he thought silently. I hope y' pass, Cowboy.

Larabee looked away, took a deep breath and then turned back with a serious expression on his face. "But, it had to be done," he finished. "I'm just glad you got to her in time."

Vin felt himself relax. "Me, too." Guess y' passed, Cowboy. Done good. He smiled.

"Now, let's get you fixed up," Nathan said.

Vin's eyebrows rose slightly. "Y' sure it ain't just a scratch?"

"Yeah, I'm sure." Nathan looked at Larabee. "Dislocated shoulder and the cut on his head are the worst of it."

"Then I guess you'll have to put it back and stitch him up," Larabee said matter-of-factly, digging into the kit for the Betadine and some gauze pads, then handing them to Nathan, who put them to use.

"Ouch! Damn it, that stings!"

"Yes, Vin, I know," Nathan said and added another soaked pad.

"The hell y' do! Damn it—"

"Don't forget our guest," Chris interrupted, nodding in the direction of the little girl Pam and Josiah were taking care of. Buck and Ezra were helping JD.

"Then leave me alone, I can—"

"Just sit there and let me do what needs to be done," Nathan finished for him.

Vin glared, but the slight sparkle in Larabee's eyes made it impossible for him to really get mad. After all, they were just trying to take care of him… He sighed heavily and suppressed a grin. Thank ya, Lord.

Pam grinned at the sniper over Larabee's back, giving Vin a thumbs-up.

Tanner nodded. They were finally all back to normal.

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

There is an owl, flying from the south
As the shadows lengthen in the canyon.

The rafters and Kari sat huddled around a blazing fire, sipping on hot chocolate. They were dry, warm and a little giddy. Chris glanced over at Vin, who was massaging his shoulder. But before he could ask if he was hurting too much, the little girl interrupted.

"Are you an Indian?" Kari asked Tanner, her blue eyes wide.

The man grinned, guessing it was his longer-than-normal hair and healthy tan that had prompted the question. "Uh, well, kind of. I'm part Kiowa on my mother's side."

"Wow," she breathed, twisting the hem of one of Pam's T-shirts that she now wore like it was a dress. "Do you ride horses?"

Vin's ears reddened slightly. "Huh, well, yeah…"

"Yes, he does, Kari, very well, in fact," Ezra said smoothly. "He even rides them bareback sometimes," he added with a smile.

"And he's got a tomahawk and a big ol' knife, too," Buck added, earning himself a stop-'em-in-their-tracks replica of the Larabee glare from the sniper.

"A scalping knife?" she whispered, her fingers coming up to tuck her long hair behind her ears.

"No, sweetheart," Vin replied before anyone could "help" him out, "it's not a scalping knife. It's just a huntin' knife."

"Oh," the six-year-old said. "What do you hunt with it?"

Before Tanner could answer that one, a hail from the river interrupted them. "Kari!"

The girl jumped up. "Mommy! Daddy!" She waved furiously as the four adults carefully maneuvered their raft over and beached it.

Running to the raft, Kari launched herself into her father's arms.

"Kari, are you okay, pumpkin?" he asked, hugging her close and then holding her out at arm's length to get a better look at her.

"Uh-huh, I'm okay. A real Indian saved me!"

Team Seven and Pam joined the new arrivals, exchanging introductions and heartfelt thank-yous.

"We're still new to this," Kari's mother explained. "We didn't realize it would get so bad after the rain, not that bad, anyway."

"Next time, sit down with an experienced guide before a trip, let them tell you about the idiosyncrasies of the river you're going to travel, even if you don't need a guide," Pam suggested. "It'll take about an hour, but it'll save you a lot of time and scares later on. And most of them won't charge you for advice, either."

"We will – definitely," the girl's father said, reaching out to awkwardly shake Vin's left hand for the fourth time. "And thank you again, Agent Tanner, I don't know what we would've done if anything had happened to Kari."

Vin nodded. "'M just glad it all worked out okay." He squatted down to get to Kari's eye-level. "Y' have a safe ride, now, young lady," he told her, shaking hands with her. "And be careful."

She wrapped her arms around him, giving him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Okay, you, too."

"I will," he said with a smile.

They watched as Kari's parents eased the raft back into the river. Pam and the others smiled as they all attached their safety lines, then waved as they started off toward the next section of white water.

"'Bye! 'Bye!"

"'Bye!" Vin called back, waving.

Josiah rested his hand on Vin's good shoulder, smiling broadly. "That's my boy – strong, determined… and a sensitive, real Indian. You're still my hero, Vin."

Vin's gaze met the twinkling blue of the profiler's eyes. "You're just weird, J'siah."

"I just have one question for you," Pam said, looking seriously at Vin.

"What's that?" he questioned, feeling like he was about to be set up, and he was.

"Did you ever want to be a superhero when you were growing up?"

All the men except Vin burst out laughing, including Chris. Tanner just huffed out a breath and tried to look affronted, but it was obvious he wasn't really upset. But, damn, it wasn't like he tried to get into situations like this! "Hell, yeah," he finally replied, his gaze sweeping over the other men, "didn't we all?"

"Well, I will admit that I always wanted to be Batman," Ezra said. "The Wayne Estate would have been a most enjoyable place in which to live, not to mention all those lovely gadgets, the car…"

"Aquaman," JD interrupted, shaking his head.

"Space Ghost," was Buck's contribution. "What?" he asked when they all looked at him. "He got the best lookin' women!"

"How about you?" JD asked, looking at Nathan to save them from anything more from Buck.

Jackson dipped his head slightly and said, "Kind of thought it would be fun to be Batman, myself, but not because of his digs, or his toys," he added quickly, shooting a look at Ezra. "He was always helping people, just a regular guy who was smarter than most about how to use technology to make a difference."

"And you?" Pam asked, meeting Josiah's eyes.

"Me? Well, I was always torn…"

"Between?" Buck asked him, already knowing he was going to enjoy the older man's answer.

"Superman and Kwai Chang Caine," the big man replied.

The men burst into laughter again.

"Definitely Kwai Chang!" JD hooted. "That's too perfect, Josiah!"

The big profiler harrumphed. "I'll have you know, a Shaolin priest is no one to trifle with…"

The men then looked at Larabee.

"What?" the blond asked.

"C'mon, stud, who was it?" Buck wheedled.

Chris huffed out his breath and looked away from the group, knowing he was letting himself in for a rash of shit if he told them.

"Oh, come on," the ladies' man cajoled.

Larabee huffed out another breath, then looked back at them and said, "The Lone Ranger. Happy now?" he snapped, then glared at all of them, daring them to comment.

No one laughed out loud, but it was very obvious they were all chuckling on the inside.

Larabee shifted his glare to Tanner. "You started this," he accused the man, adding, "so you damn well better 'fess up."

Vin blushed and said, "Well, guess if I have t' pick one, it'd be… Robin Hood. 'Cause he got to hang out with his friends in the forest and save the world."

The others smiled, but Buck shook his head. "Naw, I don't see it… You, in tights? Think you'd be better as… Tonto!"

Both Chris and Vin shot him a glare.

"Well, come on, Tonto, time for me to check that shoulder," Nathan said, taking hold of Tanner's arm and leading him away.

"Whatever y' say, Bruce," Vin drawled.

"I knew I was going to regret that," Nathan muttered in reply.

The others broke apart, all of them going about getting things set up for the night. Chris watched Nathan and Vin from a distance, and when the medic finished, he walked over to where Vin was sitting, watching the others do all the work, and sat down next to him.

"You really doing okay?" he asked Tanner.

The younger man nodded. "Just hurtin' some, is all."

"That was a brave thing you did."

"Just did what I had to," Vin replied, glancing over at the man and hoping things weren't about to go to hell in a handbasket again.

Larabee nodded. "I know you did." He breathed out a long sigh. "I'm not slipping back, Vin," he reassured the man. "I just wanted you to know that you're family now. My heart… losing that… well, it hurts – more than I can find words to tell you. I'd just appreciate it if you'd do your best to help me avoid that kind of pain, okay?"

Vin grinned. "Yeah, I'll try."

Chris nodded and reached out, gripping Tanner's leg and giving it a tender squeeze. "I'd appreciate it."

"Ain't makin' no promises, y' understand," Vin added. "Except that I ain't got a death wish."

Larabee nodded. That was fair.

Above them, the sky began to shift into shades of orange and purple, while beside them the river continued to roll past, the sound soothing now, rather than menacing. Chris stayed right where he was, content to let the others take care of setting up their camp and getting supper cooked. He was happy right there, sitting next to his best friend, basking in the man's presence and knowing he had a real hero in the family.

He was still scared, knowing if he ever did lose Vin, he'd lose something vital to his existence, but he also knew he couldn't change the man. And if he tried, he just lose him anyway. Better to let Vin be Vin and pray he came out of the next scrap as well as he had this one.

He glanced across the camp at Pam. Maybe talking some more with the woman might help him, too. He didn't really like the idea much, but he knew he owed it to Vin, and to the others. They had stuck by him, and he'd do his damnest to be his best for them. It was what family did for one another, and if he'd learned anything through all this, it was that they were a family – a big, strange, crazy, macho family… and he loved them. God help him, he loved them all.

But most of all, he loved the man he was sitting next to.

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

Vin climbed into bed and eased himself down. He was sore from head to foot. It felt so good, he sighed – loudly – and heard an answering chuckle from the second bed. "What?" he growled.

"Nothing," Larabee replied in the darkness.

Vin grumbled. As much as he had enjoyed the rafting trip, he was glad it was over. He was still bruised, his cuts and scrapes had all scabbed over, his shoulder was still sore as hell, and the deep scratch on the back of his neck was beginning to itch. The others had taken over, allowing him to spend the last two days on the river just resting in the raft, but he was more than ready to spend the next couple of them in bed, sleeping.

And Larabee had seen to it he would, too, seeing the others off this morning, but then coming back with new tickets for them – two days from now. Until then, Larabee announced, he was confined to his bed.

"Like hell I am," he'd argued, but then he'd grinned. "Well, maybe for a day, day and a half…"

"Now that's more like it," Larabee had replied.

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

While we who travel on the rim
Seeking love and finding understanding
Go safely on our way
Like the river, running in the canyon...

Four days later, Chris was feeling the fear closing in on him again. The last thing Pam had said to him was he'd need to watch Vin, because his adventure in the river might result in a fever and a nasty cough. She had been right.

They had gotten back to Denver yesterday afternoon, both of them worn out and ready for a couple more days at home to rest and recuperate from the trip. He took Vin out to the ranch, so he could keep an eye on him, and put him to bed.

Vin had woken a little after eight the following morning, coughing. The man sounded terrible and he was most definitely running a fever.

"I'm going to call the doctor," Chris said, "see if we can get you in there this morning."

Vin sighed and nodded. He was already taking the antibiotics the doctor in Arizona had given him when he'd been seen at the end of the raft trip. Wasn't that supposed to stop this from happening?

Chris watched the man for a moment longer, then hurried off to make the call. Dr. Chandler's office agreed to work Vin in before lunch, so Larabee hurried back to shower and dress, leaving Vin to rest in bed. When he came out to help the man dress, it was only to find him with the small trash can that usually sat next to his bed now in his lap, and a chagrined expression on his face.

"Sorry," Vin said. "Didn't think I had enough in m' belly t' throw up."

"It's all right," Chris said, taking the container from him. "You think you can get dressed while I take care of this?"

Vin nodded, climbing weakly from the bed.

Larabee hurried to clean the container, then returned to the bedroom to find Vin dressed and sitting at the foot of the bed.

"Thought the antibiotics the doc gave me were supposed to stop this," the sniper grumbled.

"Yeah, I was kind of hoping that, too," Chris told him as he set the garbage can back in place and reached out to help Vin stand. He could feel the man's fever through the layers of his clothing and it sent a jolt of adrenaline coursing through his veins. "Come on," he said, "they're going to work us in before lunch."

Vin nodded and let Chris help him to his feet. He felt terrible – hot and achy and lethargic. He was coughing, too, but at least it wasn't too productive, which meant, he hoped, he wouldn't end up triggering another round of heaves because it felt like he was strangling.

Together they made it out to the Ram, Chris helping him in before hurrying around to the driver's side and climbing behind the wheel. Moments later, they were on their way into town.

The drive passed in silence, Vin leaning back with his eyes closed. Chris turned the radio on low, letting the music give Vin as much comfort and distraction as possible.

When they arrived at the doctor's office, Chris pulled in and parked, Vin's eyes opening for the first time. "You manage to sleep?" he asked Vin.

"Naw, but I think m' stomach's settlin' down."

Chris nodded and they headed inside.

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

Three hours later, they were back at the ranch, Vin ensconced on the sofa in the living room, buried under a thick blanket and sipping on a hot cup of tea. Dr. Chandler had decided the fever was more than likely viral, and, with luck, it would run its course in another twelve to twenty-four hours. He made suggestions for over-the-counter medicines, but, really, other than time, there was little anyone could do. The best bet, he told them, was to stay as comfortable as possible and weather it out.

Knowing how most over-the-counter products left him feeling, Vin had opted for more homegrown remedies – a soft couch, a favorite old movie, and plenty of tender loving care from Chris.

And Larabee did not disappoint. He kept him warm when he got cold, cooled him with damp cloths when his fever spiked, and provided a nonstop stream of drinks, soups, and various other kinds of goodies to keep his energy up.

They watched two movies, then switched over to cartoons for a while, finally settling on Animal Planet, which was now playing softly in the background, Vin really just watching the images while Chris gently massaged his aching muscles.

"You're awful good t' me," Vin said quietly.

Chris smiled affectionately. "I try."

Vin offered a tired smile in reply. "Feels good…" he mumbled, "havin' someone t' watch out for ya."

"Yeah, it does," Chris replied, his voice soft. "You think it's about time you tried getting some sleep?"

"'M sleepin' fine right here," was the slurred reply.

"In bed," Chris remarked.

Vin whined softly and Larabee shook his head. "Anybody ever tell you you're pretty pathetic sometimes?"

Vin grinned slightly, but he didn't open his eyes. "It's gettin' cold again," he said. "Maybe y' c'n start a fire?"

Chris sighed and rolled his eyes, knowing full well he was being taken advantage of. But if that was what Vin wanted, that was what he'd give him…

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

And Vin slept right there on the sofa, all night, Chris dozing in his recliner or seated on the floor, leaning back against the couch where Vin was stretched out.

But, most of the time, Chris just sat and watched the man, remembering back to how they'd met, how they'd become best friends…

He marveled at how easily Vin forgave him for all the slights and cruel words, all the stupid arguments and uncontrolled fears that sometimes turned him into a real bastard. Not that Vin didn't have his own issues and faults, but it seemed to Chris that Vin handled them much better than he did.

Or maybe it was just that they were both human and flawed, each of them scarred by life in ways that could never be fully repaired. But he wasn't looking for perfection, and neither was Vin. They were just looking for what they'd found in each other – love, acceptance, and a brother you knew would be there, no matter what.

Sometime after two in the morning, Vin's fever peaked and finally broke. Chris worked hard, wiping him down, massaging cramping muscles, or lightly scratching when anything more was too painful. After an hour or so, Vin fell back to sleep and hadn't really woken since.

As he waited for the dawn, Chris sat and allowed himself to finally doze.

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

It was almost nine in the morning before Vin blinked awake and glanced around the empty living room. He frowned slightly, but after checking the clock on the wall, he decided Chris had probably gone out to take care of the horses.

He stretched slightly, testing his sore muscles to see if they would cramp or not. When it didn't feel like they would, he allowed himself to stretch and twist, easing the discomfort of a night spent on the sofa.

Across from him, the fire still burned, the flames low. The television was off, the silence telling him Chris was definitely outside.

He could tell his fever had broken, and he reached up to scrub his fingers over his scalp, which was itchy from the dried sweat. Chris had wiped him down good, so his skin didn't feel too sticky, but he knew he still needed a shower.

Tossing back the blanket, he sat up slowly and looked around the room, which had been converted into his sickroom. There were boxes of tissue, medicines, empty cups and bowls, and half-empty bags of chips, crackers and candy. He reached out and picked up a half-eaten bar of chocolate and finished it off.

His stomach didn't give him the slightest hint of an argument, so he helped himself to another. Feeling a little energized now, he pushed himself to his feet and made his way to the bathroom.

Checking his reflection in the mirror, he winced. The worst might be over, but he looked like something the cat had hacked up. He turned on the heater, then started the shower running so the water would get hot. He had just climbed in when he heard Chris push open the door and call, "Vin, you in here?"

"Naw," he replied, "just some pervy cat burglar who decided t' take a shower before he robs the place."

"Very funny," Larabee replied. "You want to eat something when you got out?"

"Some Cream of Wheat?" Vin asked hopefully.

"Okay, I'll get it started," Chris called.

"Thanks," Vin replied.

"Can't ask a cat burglar to rob the place on an empty stomach," Larabee said before he pulled the door closed.

Grinning, Vin finished his shower, then toweled off and padded naked into the guest bedroom to find some clothes. When he emerged a few minutes later, Chris was already stirring the cereal into boiling water.

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

Chris went back to work on schedule, leaving Vin at the ranch to continue his recuperation, which, after three days, had started to chafe him enough for him to come back without official authorization from the doctor.

As soon as Chris saw Tanner walk into the bullpen, he stalked out of his office, his hands on his hips. "What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded.

Vin blinked. "Thought I'd come in and start gettin' caught up on the paperwork that's been breedin' on m' desk. Knew it must be close t' a foot high by now."

Chris didn't break a smile. "Tanner, the doctor said you were supposed to rest. What part of 'rest' don't you understand?"


"Now, turn around and get your skinny ass back to the ranch and rest – that's an order."

Vin stared at him for a moment, but then he caught the glimmer in Larabee's green eyes and he heaved out a huge sigh, saying, "Fine…" He looked around at the others, who were all watching to see if World War III was about to break out, and added, "Guess I'll see y'all as soon as the doc signs my get-outta-jail-free card."

"Rest is the best thing for you right now," Nathan told him.

"That's right. You have the time, you might as well enjoy it," Buck added. "You want me to call those pretty little fillies at In Our Hands and see if they can work you in for a massage?"

Vin grinned. "Naw, but thanks," he told the ladies' man.

"Believe me," Buck replied, "those girls can cure whatever ails you."

"It appears your shoulder is doing considerably better," Ezra commented and Vin nodded. "Well, then, I suppose it won't be too difficult for you to drive yourself back out to the ranch…"

"You drove here by yourself?" Chris growled.

"Y' see a pair 'a wings sproutin' outta m' back?" Tanner shot back.

JD snickered, but he sobered in an instant when Chris turned his glare on him. "Hope you're feeling better soon, Vin," he said.

"Guess we'll find out tomorrow if the doc thinks I'm ready t' come back," Vin told him. "I feel fine."

"And until the doctor confirms it, that's all it is, too," Chris told him, "a feeling."

Tanner rolled his eyes.

Josiah stood and walked over to Chris. "I think you'd better take him home, Chris," he said innocently. "I think he might be under the influence of some of that medication you gave him."

"Hell, J'siah, I c'n drive," Vin said. "That medicine I took this mornin' must be damn near worn off by now."

Larabee jumped at the opening, wondering if it wasn't more set-up than serendipity. In either case, he was grateful for the opportunity to leave a few hours early. "You heard the man," Chris grumbled at Tanner, giving Josiah a nod, then collecting Vin and herding him out the door.

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

The pair arrived back at the ranch in the early afternoon. It was cool out, so Vin headed inside while Chris made a detour to change clothes and take care of the horses a little early.

When he returned to the house, he found Tanner in the living room, sacked out on the sofa, looking like he was asleep.

"Vin?" Chris called softly.

Blue eyes cracked open. "Took y' long enough," he complained.

Larabee sighed and looked down at the man. "Anybody ever tell ya you were a pain in the ass?"

"Oh, reckon I've heard that a few times."

"Well, they were right."

Vin grinned up at him. "Think that's why y' like me."

"Come again?"

"I keep y' on your toes, Larabee."

Chris snorted. "What do you want for supper?"

"Pizza," Vin replied without hesitation.


Vin nodded. "And can y' hand me that bag of jelly beans?"

Larabee rolled his eyes. Hell, maybe he was living with a superhero after all… Junk Food Man.