Burning Bright 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 Michelle Fortado was the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-17-2008. Art by Shiloh

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night.
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

"There it is!" Billy squealed inside the Ram as he pointed excitedly.

Chris Larabee fought back a grin and nodded. "Yep, that's it all right." He glanced over at his companion, Vin Tanner, and added, "Looks kinda… slipshod, don't you think?"

"Looks okay t' me," Tanner replied, looking almost as excited as Billy.

It would, Larabee thought, shaking his head. But excitement hides a multitude of safety violations.

Larabee took the next exit off the highway and turned right, heading back down the rural access road until they reached the large, empty field that now doubled as a make-shift parking lot. Across the road a traveling carnival sprawled across another empty field with rides, a midway, food booths, and a line of port-O-pots. The agglomeration was ringed with an old chain link fence, propped up here and there by wooden poles and held in place with sandbags.

Billy had spotted the traveling fair when he and his mother had driven back to Denver from a two-day trip to spend some "quality time" with his grandparents up in Estes Park. After begging his mother to take him, non-stop, all the rest of the way home, she'd decided to ask Chris if he might have the time to take the boy. She needed to work on her latest investigative piece for the paper, and she just couldn't take time off again so soon after her long weekend with her in-laws.

Chris, who thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the seven-year-old bundle of energy, had happily agreed to take the boy. He'd quickly drafted Vin as well, getting the man to agree to tag along with them. Larabee knew from experience just how hard it would be for one person to keep track of a small child at a fair like that. Two sets of eyes were a requirement.

"Thank you," Mary had said. "Just remember, sometimes my little angel can be a royal pain in the butt. Make sure he minds his manners."

"I'll do that," Chris had replied, but he knew Billy would be on his best behavior with him – he always was.

And, here they were…

Larabee parked the Ram and climbed out, then followed Vin and Billy across the access road to the carnival entrance, which was no more than an open section in the fence with a tiny booth sitting off to one side.

Chris checked the faded prices on the chalkboard that hung from the top of the booth, then fished out his wallet and handed over a twenty. The old man behind the tiny chicken-wire window grinned and handed him back three dollars. "Have yourselves a good time," he said, adding, "Give me your hands."

Billy stuck out his hand and the old man stamped the back of it, leaving behind a grinning black clown-face.


With an inaudible sigh Chris extended his hand and let it be stamped as well, hoping the ink would wash off easily. He didn't need to give the others any ammunition. Vin was next, grinning at Larabee as his hand was stamped as well.

"Come on, Chris," Billy said, grabbing his arm and dragging him into the sparse crowd. The boy stopped several yards past the entrance and looked around.

"I want to go on all the rides!" he announced.

"All of them?" Chris asked, staring at one he was sure have been the brainchild of somebody named de Sade.

"All of them," Billy stated with finality. "You promised."

"He's got y' there, Cowboy," Vin said, tossing in his two-cents' worth.

"Yeah, I guess I did," Chris said, silently hoping he didn't end up turning green somewhere along the way – or worse. Although it was Tanner he was really worried about. The man would never let him forget about it if he did.

Billy smiled up at him. "Thanks for bringing me, Chris."

He smiled back at the boy. "No problem," he said smoothly, then took a deep breath and asked, "So, where do you want to start?"

"The carousel!" Billy announced, starting off for it at a trot.

"The carousel?" Chris echoed, his stomach doing a little drop when he saw Tanner grinning at him. "Carousel?" he called after the boy. "I thought you said rides."

"We always start on the carousel," he called back. "Come on!"

"Yeah, he always starts there. What's wrong with the carousel?" Vin asked innocently.

The blond shot him one of his patented Larabee glares.


"You plannin' to ride?" Chris asked him.

Vin blinked innocently. "Naw, can't… might make me sick – all that up and down and up and down… Guess you'll have to do this one alone, Cowboy."

The glare returned and Chris wondered briefly if bringing Vin along might not have been a mistake.

He also wondered if Tanner had brought along his camera phone…

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

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thy eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

After nearly two hours of riding contraptions that went up and down, back and forth, around and around, or all of the above, Larabee was more than ready to take a break – a long break.

He walked away from the Astro Whirl convinced that all special forces operatives and federal field agents should be forced to endure a day at an amusement park as part of their final evaluation… And God help them.

But what really annoyed him was the fact that the damn rides hadn't seemed to bother Vin at all, and he knew the sniper had a touchy stomach.

"Guess all that's left is the Ferris wheel," Billy said, his disappointment clear in his voice.

Larabee eyed the Ferris wheel suspiciously. Besides the carousel, he was sure that every other damned ride scattered across the field had originally been developed for use in the Inquisition, and he found it hard to believe that the big, slowly spinning wheel could be any different. It must do something besides just gently going around, and around, and around in a circle.

"Amazing," he muttered.

"What?" Vin asked, his enthusiasm untarnished after one-hundred and eleven minutes of almost continuous torture.

"It looks… tame."

Billy nodded, making a face. "I know, but it's the only one we haven't been on, and I want to ride all the rides."

"Yes, I know," Chris replied. "And this one is the last one." Thank you, Lord!

They stood in line for a few minutes, Billy glancing back regularly to watch three boys who were probably in junior high school. Chris had noticed them shadowing a girl over to the ride, watching her, making faces and occasional comments, and generally being a nuisance.

Pubescent boys are pests, Larabee thought. And I should know, I work with several of them.

He grinned when he saw the girl in question, just ahead of them in line, sigh and roll her eyes at them. The boys rotated their hips and mimed being girls. The girl looked away, shaking her head.

"You know those guys, sweetheart?" the girl's mother asked her.

"Yeah," she said on a sigh. "They're in my classes at school. They're stupid."

"Ah," Mom said, nodding slowly.

Yep, stupid, Chris agreed mentally, watching the boys from the corner of his eye. Typical, he thought, trying to decide which one of them had the crush on the girl.

The wheel turned slightly and the girl and her mother climbed on. It rotated again slightly and he and Billy slipped into a seat and pulled the safety-bar down across their laps. The wheel shifted just far enough to pick up Vin. Very quickly, they were at the top of the circle, then they dropped back to the bottom again as the wheel was finally refilled. Once that had been accomplished, the ride turned smooth, circling at a leisurely pace that gave Chris plenty of time to admire the countryside, the mountains in the distance, and the rest of the carnival.

"Can we go see the midway next?" Billy asked, studying the array of stuffed animals being offered as prizes at the different booths.

"Sure," Chris agreed quickly. "Sounds like a great idea."


He looked down at the boy. "Yes?"

"I really am glad you brought me," Billy said, sparking a warm feeling in Larabee's chest. "Mom won't go on any of the real rides with me – except the carousel and the Ferris wheel."

The warm feeling evaporated. "She won't, huh?" he half-growled. "Why am I not surprised…"

"She says they makes her sick."

The ride came to an end a couple of minutes later and they stepped out of their seat, a teenaged couple taking their place. They waited for Vin to climb out, then Billy led the way to the midway, prowling past the booths until he spotted a huge stuffed raccoon. He pointed. "Can you win me that, Chris?"

Larabee walked up to the booth and studied the layout – a basketball and a metal basket, with an angled backboard. If the ball didn't fall straight down through the hoop it would bounce off the back, or the rim, and no toy.

He picked up one of the basketballs. It felt slightly strange. "Mind if I take a practice shot?" he asked the carny who lounged against the booth.

The young man shrugged and yawned. "Go ahead, but you've gotta pay for the ones that count."

Chris nodded, sending the ball in a free throw arc that wobbled at the last moment and bounced off the rim.

"Ahhhh rats," Billy grouched.

"Let me try," Vin said, taking a ball and trying the same thing. He missed just like Chris had.

"Ahhh," Billy opined again.

The sharpshooter smiled slightly and handed over two dollars for three balls. They had weighted the basketballs somehow; he'd have to compensate…

Vin tossed the first ball. It arced gracefully and passed through the metal rim without touching.

"Yeah!" Billy called, clapping and jumping up and down.

The second ball wobbled slightly, hitting the rim and bouncing on it like a trapped pin-ball, but then, surprisingly, it dropped through. Tanner let out the breath he'd been holding in a relieved sigh.

"Yes!" Billy said, whooping and pumping his fist.

Vin met Chris' eyes, the two men each enjoying the boy's enthusiasm. Then, Vin hefted the last ball, his eyes rounding slightly. He tossed the ball up and caught it a couple of times. It was normal. Tryin' t' catch me off guard, huh? he silently asked the booth attendant. Well, nice try, asshole, but…

Vin looked over at Chris and grinned, handing him the ball. "I don't know, reckon m' luck's 'bout run dry, why don't you try this one?"

Chris took the ball, got it comfortable in his hands, then flicked itl off his fingertips. It sailed up and fell through the rim without even a whisper.

"You did it! You did it!" Billy squealed.

The young man at the booth grinned. "Nice," he admitted. "Which one d'ya want?"

"That one!" Billy said, pointing at the big raccoon.

The boy took the critter down and handed it to Billy. The toy was almost as tall as the boy was and he had to wrap both arms around it to keep it off the ground.

"Getting hungry, champ?" Chris asked, putting his hand on Billy's back to guide him down the midway. "We could take a lunch break."

"Yeah, I guess so. But can we play some more games after?"

"Tell you what," Chris said. "Why don't I take your friend here out to the Ram, you and Vin go order some food, and after we eat, we can check out the rest of the midway."

"Okay," Billy agreed. "What do you want?"

"Cheeseburger, fries, and an orange soda."

"You drink orange soda?" Billy asked, looking surprised.

Chris grinned, unsure who looked more surprised, Billy or Vin. "I haven't in a long time, but it sounded like it might be fun." He dug out his wallet and pulled out a twenty. He traded, handing Billy the money and taking the raccoon from him. "I'll be right back," he told Vin.

"Meet us at the food shack by the carousel," Tanner told him.

"Fine," Chris replied, heading off, the critter tucked under his arm. He couldn't keep the smile off his face as he walked along. It had been a long time since he'd had a day like today. A year or two ago, he wouldn't have been able to do it – the pain of loss making it impossible for him to enjoy himself. But now…

He still missed Adam, every day, but the sharp pain of the past had faded to a dull ache that could be ignored, or swamped by the excitement in another child's eyes.

And then there was Vin. Tanner's arrival in his life had gone a long way toward chasing the shadows away, or at least holding them at bay. Eight months and he still wasn't sure how that had happened, but he was profoundly grateful that it had.

He just wished he could return the favor, but Tanner hadn't opened up to him about his past yet, and Chris wasn't pushing – not yet, at least.

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

Standing in line, Billy watched as one of the boys from earlier jerked the blonde girl's ponytail and ducked away. The girl turned, expecting her mother, he guessed, and finding the three boys instead. She clicked her tongue at them and frowned. "Stop it," she told them.

A dark-haired boy looked around, trying to pretend like he wasn't with the other two boys. His gaze lit on Billy. "Where's your dads?"

"Chris and Vin aren't my dads," Billy replied. "They're agents."

"Oooh," another one of the boys said, shoving his too-long blond hair out of his eyes and shrugging his thin shoulders under his black leather jacket. "I'm sooo scared – agents."

"Agents of what?" the dark-haired boy asked, grinning and looking at his friends.

"ATF agents," Billy said, adding, "stupid."

"Stupid," the third, blue-haired boy said, shoving his dark-haired companion. "Shut-up, Stupid."

"You shut-up, Robby," the boy replied.

"So, they're like Batman and Robin?" the blond asked.

"No," Billy said, stepping closer to the window and glancing around for Vin, who had gone to grab them a table.

"They look gay to me," the dark-haired boy said, he and his friends snickering.

Billy leveled the boys with a murderous glare.

"Knock it off, Stevie," the blond said, his voice going a little softer when he saw Vin was looking in their direction.

"Vin's a sniper," Billy said. "And Chris is the boss."

Stevie rolled his eyes and shook his head, but he kept his mouth shut.

Billy stepped up to the window. "Three cheeseburgers, three fries, and three orange sodas," he announced.

The woman pressed the prices into an old fashioned cash register. "That'll be eighteen dollars, young man. Your name?"

"Billy Travis," he replied, handing the woman the twenty and sticking his hand out for the two dollars in change. Pocketing the bills, he moved to the end of the line waiting at the pick-up window.

The boys ordered, then walked over to stand behind Billy.

Robby hummed the theme song from the television version of Batman, picking at the ends of his blue hair. His two friends grinned and snickered.

Billy ignored them, but he was glad when Chris came back and sat down next to Vin, talking to him.

"You guys are losers," Billy muttered under his breath just as someone called, "Billy!"

He stepped up to the window and a tray was slid out with the order. He reached for it, being carefully he got a good grip on it. But then one of the boys lifted it out of his hands, and Robby snatch one of the French fries.

"Hey, stop it!" Billy said.

Stevie took advantage of the opening and dropped three sugar cubes into one of the orange drinks.

"Trouble, Billy?"

The three boys glanced up, finding a stern-looking Chris Larabee staring at them.

"No," Billy said.

"We, uh, just didn't want him to drop it," Robbie said. "He's kind 'a little."

"Well, I'll take it now, boys," Chris said.

The boys drifted away, Robby and Stevie giggling when Matt turned and waved at Billy.

"Were they bothering you?" Chris asked the boy, sitting down next to Billy and grabbing a burger, fries, and drink from off the try. He set them out in front of Billy while Vin helped himself. Chris took what was left and leaned over, sliding the try onto a stack setting on top of a garbage can.

"No," Billy said with a heavy sigh. "They're just stupid."

Chris and Vin exchanged grins before taking bites out of their cheeseburgers.

"Mmm, not bad," Vin announced after a sip of his soda.

Billy watched the three boys round the far side of the carousel, then attacked his own food. After all, there were lots of other toys waiting to be won when they were finished!

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

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when that heart began to beat,
What dread hand, and what dread feet?

They finished, Billy announcing, "Mom says you have to give food time to settle. It can do that while we play on the midway, right?"

"Smart lady, your mother," Chris agreed, not wanting to face any of the around-and-around rides on a full stomach. Given the smirk on Tanner's face, it was a good bet he'd figured that out, too.

They stood and headed out, Larabee noticing that Vin was pressing his hand against his mid-section as he trailed after Billy, and he didn't look a hundred percent, either. Maybe those rides had taken a toll on the man after all.

Billy bolted away, heading for a ring toss game where one of the grand prizes appeared to be a large red fire engine.

Oh boy, Chrise thought, hoping he or Vin could pull it off. He did.

Billy squealed with delight and hugged the engine. "Thank you, Chris! You're the greatest!"

"You're welcome," Larabee replied.

They hit several more of the game booths, the two men doing their best to add to the boy's stash of toys, but their luck seemed to have run out.

Chris glanced over at Vin, who looked like he might have a headache developing. "Uh, Billy, it's getting kind of late…"

"Oh, Chris! I want to ride some of the rides again before we go. Please?" Billy pleaded.

Chris looked over at Vin, who nodded that he was okay.

Chris looked back to Billy. "Just a couple," he said. Vin could just watch if he wanted to this time.

"Why don't I take that fire engine out to the truck?" Vin offered.

"Okay," Billy said, handing it to the man. Then he looked up at Chris, asking, "Can we go on the Astro Whirl again?"

"Astro Whirl?" Larabee echoed, praying his stomach was up to it.

Vin managed a grin. "I'll meet ya there," he said, shaking his head as he headed off. Kids, they were definitely battery-powered, and equipped with a cast iron stomachs, too.

He carried the toy out to the Ram and put it in the back seat next to Mr. Raccoon. He shook his head when the furry face of the toy took on a more sinister expression and slammed the door shut. Damn, maybe he was getting the flu or something.

He started to turn, then reached out, leaning heavily against the Ram as the parking lot suddenly undulated under his feet.

Earthquake? he wondered as the lot began to spin. What the hell's goin' on?

Vin shook his head, then stumbled back toward the entrance to the fair, swallowing convulsively to force a sudden nausea away. He could feel his heart racing, each beat sending a sledgehammer slamming up against his temples.

The old man sitting in the ticket booth grunted when Vin passed, lifting his hand to reveal the stamp.

"Damned long-hairs," he muttered to himself. "Nothin' but a bunch o' druggies."

Druggies? Vin thought. What the hell's he talkin' about?

He paused, closing his eyes to let the vertigo settle, then started off toward the Astro Whirl. Billy waved to him. He and Chris were almost at the head of the line. If he walked slowly they'd be on the ride before he got there and was forced to join them.

It was a good plan, since he was sure his stomach wasn't going to handling hurtling backward and spinning around and around at the same time…

A glint of sunlight reflecting off the chain link fence encircling the carnival made him flinch. He looked again, then squinted. That's impossible…

Vin took a step closer to the fence and stared; just beyond the metal barrier he could see shadowy figures moving, stalking him. He felt his pulse quicken and he began to pant. Dread flooded through his chest, making it hard for him to breathe.

Who are they? What's happenin'?


He looked. Billy and Chris were just getting ready to enter the ride. "Chris!" he called.

Larabee frowned, but he climbed onto the ride with Billy, his gaze never leaving the sniper. The blond knew something was wrong. He could feel it, but he didn't know what.

Vin took a few staggering steps forward, bumping into another man.

"Hey!" the stranger snapped. "Watch where you're goin', man."

"Sorry," Vin slurred, watching as Billy sat down and Chris snapped the seatbelt into place.

The ride took off and Chris and Billy were swept away, the boy immediately caught up in the excitement.

No! Vin cried silently. He was supposed to protect them. He was supposed to watch their backs.

God, I'm thirsty. Really thirsty, he realized. Glancing around, Tanner spotted one of the water shacks.

With concentration and effort he took a step forward… then another… then another, until his legs were moving without conscious thought, carrying him toward his goal.

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

When Chris and Billy climbed off the Astro Whirl, they spotted Vin staggering toward a water booth. Just beyond it, a pickup truck parked near the fence started up, a backfire cracking across the field. Vin dove for cover.

Tanner looked up from behind one of the barrels that had been set out on the site for trash collection, his eyes going wide. He turned and bolted.

"Vin?" Chris called.

Tanner didn't turn or pause.

Chris hesitated for a moment, wondering what was wrong, then he reached for his cell phone.

"Yo," Buck said on the other end.

"Something's wrong with Vin," Chris said. "He's acting strange."

"What's unusual about that?"

"Buck, get JD and the others and get the hell out here – now."

"Okay, consider us on our way," the ladies' man replied, recognizing the concern in Larabee's voice.

Chris slipped the phone back into his pocket, then looked down at Billy. "Son, I'm going to take you to the truck, and I want you to stay there until I come get you, understand?"

Billy nodded, looking worried. "Is Vin okay?"

"I don't know," Chris said, hurrying to get the boy to a safe place. Once he had him inside the cab of the truck, he said, "Promise me you'll stay right here. And don't open for anyone, unless it's me or one of the team, understand?"

"I promise," Billy replied, starting to feel a little scared himself.

"Good, boy. Now, I'm going to go see if I can find Vin."

Billy nodded, watching as Chris closed the door and the locks engaged. He felt safe in the big black truck, even if he was a little scared, too. He scooted over behind the wheel and pretended to be driving while he waited for Chris to return.

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

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

Buck and the others headed straight for the entrance of the fair. It was nearing evening, and the crowd was getting thick. They stopped behind a large family, waiting, then stepping up to the ticket booth.

"Can you page someone?" the ladies' man asked, flashing the man his badge and ID.

The old man nodded. "You lose someone?"

"I need to find my friend," Buck told him.

"What's his name?"

"Chris Larabee."

The man announced the name over the PA system and, a few minutes later, they spotted Chris hurrying toward them. The old man grunted. "He's the one who's here with a kid and that drugged-up hippy."

"Drugged up?" Nathan echoed. "Do you know where Vin is?"

The older man shrugged. "Ain't seen him in a while."

"Over here!" Chris called, walking the others off far enough so the man couldn't overhear them.

"Where's Vin?" JD asked.

"I don't know," Chris replied. "He was acting… weird."

"Describe 'weird,'" Nathan instructed.

"He was holding his stomach, looked confused, and he was sweating. He couldn't walk right. A truck backfired, and he bolted. I haven't been able to find him." He stopped when he spotted the three teenaged boys standing together not far away, looking worried. He strode over to them. "Have you see the man I was with?"

"Uh, no…" they muttered.

Buck's eyes narrowed. "What did you boys do to Vin?" he questioned, making sure they got a good look at his badge and ID as well.

"Hey, man, we didn't do anything," Stevie said.

Robby laughed, but it was clear he was nervous.

Matt shot both of them a hard look. "Tell 'em the truth, assholes."

"And what would that be, gentlemen?" Ezra demanded.

Matt took a deep breath and said, "Stevie put some sas in one of your drinks. The long-haired guy must've drunk it."

"Sas?" Chris echoed, looking to Nathan. "Then he's having some kind of a trip?"

Jackson nodded. "Probably. I saw a memo on the stuff a month or so ago. It's a new hallucinogen. Is he armed?"

Chris shook his head.

"How about his backup knife?" JD asked.

"I don't think so," Chris said.

"Well, at least he probably isn't armed," Nathan said.

Chris looked back at the boys. "Look, you guys go look for our friend. If you find him, have Chris paged to wherever you find him, understand?"

The three teens nodded and ran off, Stevie growling something at Matt, who slugged him in the shoulder – hard.

Chris watched them go, seething. "I'm gonna—"

"Help me look for Vin," Josiah said, placing his hand on Larabee's shoulder and steering him into the crowd.

"Me and JD will try along the fence," Buck called after them.

"We'll check the midway," Nathan added, he and Ezra heading off as well. He didn't feel particularly hopeful. If Vin didn't want them to find him, he doubted they could.

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

Vin watched Chris frown as he climbed onto the ride with Billy, the blond's gaze never leaving his. Something was wrong. He didn't know what, but something…

He reached for his sidearm, but it was gone, lost somewhere. He checked for his knife, but that was gone, too. He'd lost his weapons.

He trembled and staggered forward several more steps. Reaching up, he wiped his face on the sleeve of his flannel shirt. Damn it was hot…

His stomach lurched, but he kept his lunch down. Hot and humid…

Billy sat down and Chris snapped the seatbelt into place.

No! he wanted to scream, but it was too late. The ride was carrying them away. He'd lost them…

The bad guys had them. He stood, frozen to the spot, not knowing what to do.

The driving need for water drove him off and he stumbled toward the water booth. A young man standing in the shade skittered away when Vin stepped into the booth.

Reaching out, Tanner grabbed a small plastic cup, then bent over, pressing the button on the large plastic container and watching a thin trickle of cold water fill the paper cup.

An explosion nearby caused him to drop the cup, the water spilling across one of his worn hiking boots. He dove for cover.

Incoming! Someone was walking mortars in on them!

He bolted out of the shack and slid in behind cover. Then, looking up from behind one of the trash barrels, his eyes went wide.

The enemy was sweeping through the city, looking for him, moving in on his position. They hadn't spotted him yet, but they were there, moving closer and closer…

He turned and bolted again.

Stopping behind a port-O-pot, he tried to catch his breath, but it was impossible. His heart was pounding like he'd run a marathon, and he felt weak and shaky. They were getting closer, though – the enemy. Running him determinedly to ground…

He had to find a weapon, something he could use to fight with.

His blurred vision turned the nearby chain link fence into a giant spider's web and he yelped as he shuddered and moved off, watching for the enemy.

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

"Wait!" Chris said, grabbing Josiah's arm to halt the man's forward momentum.


Chris pointed at the Ferris wheel. "We can look from there. You can see the whole carnival, and the parking lot."

"Good idea," Sanchez said with a smile.

The pair hurried back to the wheel, using their badges to get on immediately.

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

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who makes the lamb make thee?

Vin prowled through the carnival, seeing nothing but the streets of Bosnia, and shadowy snipers lurking in the twilight shadows. The dispossessed stood near their barrels, waiting to steal whatever they could find from the bodies of the dead.

He crouched in the shadows, less afraid of the locals than the snipers. But he needed a weapon, something to protect himself with. How had he lost his rifle, his sidearm, and his knife?

Using the small buildings and the vendors' booths as cover, he went on the prowl, his gaze constantly searching for danger, and something he could use as a weapon. No one seemed to notice him, no one asked about his quest. It was just as well. He'd have to kill them if they did.

He paused, something apprehending his attention. He blinked, trying to clear his vision. Josiah? Chris? What're they doin' here?

His heart pounded again as he watched the pair slide onto the narrow seat of a cart. His eyes narrowed. They were in danger.

Vin bolted from the back of the rickety shack, running to one of the open barrels. He slid in behind that, oblivious to everything except the two men, and the local leaning over them.

He was locking them into a cage… bait for the snipers hiding in the shadows…

The man stepped back, waving…

Vin looked up, the drugs transforming the Ferris wheel into a huge chopper dropping closer to the ground.

Chris and Josiah were being taken away!

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

Chris ignored the lurch as the wheel carried them upward, studying the crowds, looking for any sign of Vin.

"There he is," Josiah said, pointing. Vin was kneeling behind one of the trash barrels. "He looks like he's hiding."

"From what?" Chris asked, but there was no answer.

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

Vin rose slightly, trying to see where Chris and Josiah were being taken, but a bloody hand curled up and over the edge of the barrel.

The sniper jumped back, his gaze shifting from the barrel to the chopper where the two men hung suspended.

He had to act, and act now.

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

Chris watched the small boy skip by, thrusting the ketchup-covered wrapper into the trash can. Vin scrambled back, standing. He looked up, seeing them.

He waved and called, "Vin!"

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

He bolted with Chris' cry. His friends were in danger. He had to get to them, now, before it was too late.

Vin charged the man who had locked the pair into their cage, a single blow sending him flying into the dust.

Tanner jumped, grabbing the landing strut of the chopper, rising with Chris and Josiah.

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

Ezra heard Chris, too, he and Nathan charging to the Ferris wheel in time to see Vin hit the operator and grab an outside support strut only to be whisked upward, dangling from the outside frame of the ride.

The operator scrambled to his feet, yelling, "Hey! What the hell's wrong with you!"

Nathan stopped behind the man. "Some kids put drugs in his drink," the former medic explained.

The operator turned. "What?"

"Kids; they gave him a hallucinogen."

"Jesus-fucking-Christ," the man breathed. "We have to get him off there before he gets himself killed."

"I agree," Ezra replied, trying to look and sound calm. "Can you stop the wheel?"

The man nodded, gently pulling back on the break. The wheel slowed and finally came to a stop. Chris and Josiah were just past the apex of the circle and starting back down. Vin was almost directly opposite them, his feet dangling in the air. Some of the people on the ride yelled at him, while others sat in silence, unsure what was going on.

"Move the wheel so he's closer to the ground," Ezra directed, his gaze never leaving Vin.

The man pressed some levers and pulled some handles and the wheel started to rotate in the opposite direction, carrying Tanner closer to the ground.

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

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night.
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Vin inched his way along the strut, moving closer to Chris and Josiah. The chopper stopped its upward flight, hovering instead. Did the pilot know he was there?

He glanced down, trying to make out what was happening on the ground. Must be the Serbs, he decided.

He set his grip and looked back at the pair. They looked scared. "Stay there!" he yelled. "I'll work m' way over t' ya!"

"Vin, no!" Chris called back. "We're all right!"

Maybe they could see the Serbs moving in on them better than he could…

Maybe they were right behind him…

Maybe they were getting ready to shoot him…

The wheel rotated backward, carrying him farther away from the pair.

The pilot did know! He was wagging, trying to dislodge him.

"Get the hell off! Are you crazy!" someone screamed at him.

"Stay away from me!" Vin snarled as he swung his legs up, hooking his ankles over another strut and using that for the leverage he needed to move up, climbing against the rotation of the wheel.

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

"Stop," Ezra said and the operator brought the wheel to a halt again. He studied the ride a moment, then asked, "Can you rotate the seats, but not the wheel?"

"Sure, but—" the man started.

Ezra stepped forward and addressed the young couple sitting in the bottom seat. "Excuse me, but could you trade places with us? It's an emergency."

The pair scrambled out of the seat and Ezra and Nathan slid in. "All right, my good man," he said to the operator, "send us up level with him."

"That guy's nuts!"

"Now!" Nathan bellowed.

"Here goes…" the man said.

The two agents took several deep breaths as they moved closer to Tanner. It was clear from the sniper's expression he was seeing things neither of them could, unpleasant things, if his curled lip and wide eyes were any indication.

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

Vin glanced anxiously around at the faces watching him. Serbs, hanging out of the chopper. They were looking at him, trying to decide what they were going to do, how they were going to kill him…

He couldn't let them stop him. He had to reach Chris and Josiah. He had to get them safely back to the base…

Why're they here?

"Vin?" Ezra called as he and Nathan came even with the dangling man.

Vin grunted and jumped, his eyes going wide. Ezra! And Nathan! They were winching up the two men!

Or had they gone over?

"It's all right, Vin," the Black man said. "It's me, Nathan."

"Get away from me!"

"Vin, I don't know what you think you're seeing, but whatever it is, I assure you, it is not real. You have been drugged," Ezra said, trying to reason with the man.

"Stay away from me," Vin growled, climbing up out of reach, but he was trapped. At the edge of the strut there was nowhere else to go – except down.

Ezra waved at the wheel operator and the man moved him up even with Tanner again. "Vin, listen to me. You're perfectly safe. You came to the carnival with Chris and Billy—"

"Chris, I have t' get Chris and Billy back t' the base. They're sittin' ducks out here."

"I know, I know," Ezra replied. "But so are you."

"We're surrounded," Vin whispered hotly. "Can't y' see 'em? Fuckin' Serbs took over the whole freakin' area. They're movin' in on us."

"Vin, listen to me," Nathan said. "Climb in and we'll follow Chris and Billy."

Vin met the man's gaze, considering the offer.

But it was clear from the look on his face he didn't trust the two men enough to take them up on it.

"Please," Ezra added.

Vin shook his head, climbing up farther until he was at the top of the wheel. Chris and Josiah rocked in their seat not too far below.

Ezra and Nathan drew even to him at the top, Chris and Josiah moving closer to the ground. "See, we can help you get them to the base, Vin. That's why we're here. Let us help you, please," Ezra tried again.

"Vin, look," Nathan said, pointing to the ground. "See? Buck and JD are down there, waiting for Chris and Josiah. They'll keep 'em safe 'til we can get down there with them, okay?"

Vin paused, his lips pressed into a thin line, but then he nodded. Whatever it took, he had to be sure Chris and Josiah were safe. Besides, his vision was getting worse, his heart was pounding, and his arms had started shaking…

"Good," Ezra said, "that's good. Why don't you get in with us so we can catch up to them? We haven't got much time."

Vin hesitated again, but he shifted closer to the basket. Then, reaching up, he pressed the palm of his hand against his forehead and groaned.

"Come on, Vin, climb in," Nathan urged, disliking the sudden pallor in the man's face. "I need to look you over, see if you're hurt."

Vin inched closer. "M' head…" he slurred, the world around him starting to spin. He was going to fall. He was going to fall, and the Serbs were waiting for him. They'd catch him, torture him, kill him…

"You've been wounded, Vin," Nathan said. "We'll have someone fix you up back at the base… Come on, now, get in."

Vin inched closer to the basket, paused, then closed the distance and lowered himself into the seat, sitting on top of Nathan and Ezra's laps.

They each had a strong grip on the man, Nathan giving Vin a reassuring smile as he silently prayed Tanner didn't kill them where they sat when the basket moved.

"Good, real good, Vin, now we'll go catch up with Chris and Josiah," Jackson said, waving at the operator to bring them down.

The wheel stopped so Chris and Josiah could climb off. They waited with Buck and JD until Ezra and Nathan's seat swung down and stopped. Chris hurried forward helping the pale, trembling sniper crawl out of the basket. Vin's knees hit the wooden platform with his first step.

"Easy, pard," Buck said, helping Chris get the man back on his feet.

Vin tried to walk, but his legs were shaking too badly. It forced him to his knees a second time.

Chris and Buck positioned themselves on either side of Vin, helping him to his feet and supporting his weight between them.

"We've got to get out of here," Chris said softly. "Before the police show up."

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

In the parking lot, Chris reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys to the Ram. He opened the driver's side door, looking into the back seat. Billy was sound asleep, lying half-on and half-off his raccoon. "Better put Vin in the Suburban," he said.

Nathan and Buck half-carried, half-dragged Vin to Josiah's vehicle while Sanchez unlocked the doors.

Ezra climbed across the rear seat. "Okay," he called.

Opening the door, Nathan helped Vin to sit, then Ezra guided his shoulders back so he could lay on the seat while Nathan lifted his knees and arranged his legs inside.

Josiah climbed in behind the wheel.

"Take him straight to St. Joseph's, it's the closest," Nathan instructed.

"Here," Ezra called, tossing his keys out the door to Buck. "And be careful!"

The ladies' man grinned. "Always," he said as he palmed the keys to the Jag.

"We'll follow you. Something goes wrong, pull over," Jackson said.

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

Once they had Vin at the hospital, a technician took a blood sample, a doctor coming out to see them when they had the test results back.

"You were right," the middle-aged man said. "It was sas."

"How's he doing?" Buck asked the doctor.

"Sleeping," he replied. "He'll probably wake up in eight to twelve hours. I think you should just let him rest until then."

"Can we sit with him if we don't wake him up?"

The man nodded. "Sure, I don't see why not."

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

A low groan from the bed woke Chris. He sat up straight, then stretched and yawned widely.

"What happened?" Vin mumbled.

Larabee stood and smiled down at him. "Good morning."

Another groan. "That's up fer debate… What the hell happened t' me?"

"Some kids at the carnival dropped some sas into your orange soda."


"It's some kind of a new street drug – hallucinogen."

"The little—"

"It's already taken care of," Chris replied. "Buck stayed and got their names from some of the other kids there. Then he personally called their mothers and told them about what had happened."

Tanner's blue eyes widened. "Buck called their mothers?"

Larabee nodded. "You couldn't pay me enough to be one of those boys when they got home last night."

"Billy okay?" Vin asked.

"Yep. Said he had a great time."

A grin lifted the shadows off Vin's face.

"I think he was feeling a little protective of you, though. He wouldn't leave until his mother let him come see for himself that you were okay." Chris nodded to a chair in the corner. "Even left that for you." It was the stuffed raccoon.

"That kid can watch m' back any day," Vin replied around another yawn.

"Yeah, well, don't tell him that, okay? He'll want to take you up on it." On a more serious note Chris added, "Damn, Vin, you gave us one helluva scare. Thank God you didn't go armed."

"Yeah," he agreed a little sheepishly.

Chris leaned forward slightly. "What were you seeing out there? You looked terrified."

"I was," Vin admitted. "Thought I was back in Bosnia, Serbs all over… Did I hurt anybody?"

Chris frowned. "No, you didn't hurt anyone."

"Thank God," Vin said softly.

"I better let the others know you're awake."

Vin reached up to stop him. "C'n we wait? M' head feels like there's an elephant in there doin' a stomp dance. They come in askin' me lots 'a questions I will have t' kill 'em."

Chris grinned. "Okay, I'll tell you what, I'll tell 'em you woke up, but went back to sleep, if you agree to try and get some more rest."

"Done," Vin agreed.

"I'll come back and check in on you in a few hours," Chris added.

Vin nodded and watched him turn to go. "Hey, Chris…"

"Yeah?" Larabee replied, looking back.

"Next time, why don't y' take Ezra with y' instead, okay?"

"Sure," Chris said, grinning. "Bet he'd just love the Astro Whirl, don't you?"

Vin grinned. "Reckon his face might match that green-colored suit 'a his…"

Chris grimaced. "Probably."

Vin's eyes dropped closed. "Tell 'em all thanks…"

"I will," Chris promised, but he knew Vin hadn't heard him, he already asleep again. But that was okay. Serbia, huh? That would have been during Tanner's time in the Army…

Chris shook his head. There were just too damn many things he didn't know about the man, but he was going to fix that, one way or the other. He smiled down at the younger man. Yep, he was going to start peeling the layers back, one by one and, in the process, he figured he might just share a few secrets of his own with the man. After all, fair was fair.