Catch Your Breath by the Neon Gang


Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #13, 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 are the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-29-2008. Art by Shiloh

Early December, 2004
It was like running on marbles while somebody kept shooting a cap gun next to his ear, and it was the first sensation to cut through the sniper's battle-focused attention; the second being the overwhelming shock of cold water as it wrapped around his legs, sucking him down and squeezing the air out of his lungs.

Fighting to stop the gasp that choked his throat, Vin kicked out, watching helplessly as the ice closed over his head. Driving his hand into the glistening crystal trap, he found it gave easily under the assault.

Popcorn ice. Shit!

He kicked out a second time, forcing himself into the floating mass of broken water, his lungs already burning, demanding he find oxygen, and quickly.

His fingers led the way, clawing through the nickel-sized frozen nuggets as he forced himself to the surface. His face pressed into the cold air, huge involuntary breaths sucking into his desperate lungs while his hands frantically sought for a section of ice that could support his weight.

He found the edge of the circle he had pierced into the surface of the frozen pond and tried to pull himself free of the numbing cold, but the ice crumbled like dry pie crust, dropping him right back into the icy water. He paused, treading water and concentrating on slowing his rapid pants to forestall hyperventilation.

He scanned the tree line nearby, wondering if he'd seen movement.

He kicked sluggishly, the cold water already weakening his arms and legs as he worked his way around the ice shelf only to have it disintegrate under every touch.

Damn, damn, damn… He was in trouble – serious trouble. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes was all it would take…

His legs locked in a viselike cramp and he slipped back into the loose ice for a moment, then fumbled for the surface yet again. Righting himself in the water, he paddled with his arms, pistoning his legs as best he could, the last twinges of the inevitable cramps still sparking through his calves.

Breathing deeply and slowly, he eased forward again, reaching out and pounding on the ice with closed fists until it refused to crumble. Then, easing his arms out onto the denser surface, he pressed down as hard as he could. Several sharp cracks echoed over the pond, but the ice held.


Tanner's head snapped up. "Stay back!" he yelled as best he could.

Chris fumbled to a halt in the knee-deep snow. "Hold on, I'll—"

"Stay there!" Vin snapped at his boss and best friend.


"Chris, listen t' me. I can't see where the edge is. This is popcorn ice." He pressed again and the section fractured, bubbling and tumbling like ice chips in a glass of Pepsi. "Move back t' the trees. Y' might be standin' on the water."

"Damn it, Vin, you're going to freeze to death!" Larabee argued, but he wisely eased back toward the tall snow-weighted pines that were close by.

"Not if I c'n help it," Vin breathed, moving forward again, testing. It was getting downright difficult – not to mention painful – to keep kicking, but he didn't have a choice. He'd be helpless in a few more minutes; the cramps were already getting worse.

He tested the surface again, the ice creaking but holding. Vin allowed himself to sink slightly, testing for a bottom. He heard the yell as he resurfaced.


"Stay back, damn it!"

He watched Larabee back up again, then reached out, extending his arms forward onto the stronger ice. He kicked to bring his body almost parallel to the surface, glad that the large pockets on the black uniform he wore helped buoy him up some. Then, taking a deep breath, he kicked out again with all the strength he had left, driving his body forward onto the surface of the ice.

Wiggling as quickly as he could toward the trees, he rolled away as the ice began to fracture and splinter under him. He felt Larabee's hands grabbing his jacket sleeve, pulling him off the ice as it fell away from under him with a low growl.

In a few moments, the muted silence of the snow-blanketed mountains returned.

"Damn it, Vin, you're soaking wet," Chris scolded as he helped Tanner to his feet.

The younger man swayed, beginning to shiver as he checked his Glock. The flash of hunter's orange in the trees stalled the activity and he reached out clumsily, grabbing Larabee's shoulder and shoving him into the cover offered by the trees.

Chris didn't ask what Vin was doing as they stumbled forward into the shadows; he already knew. They crouched inside the ring of low-hanging, snow-coated pine boughs.

"Saw one 'a 'em."

Larabee swore softly, his gaze sweeping the forest as best he could from their hiding place. Damn these idiots, anyway. Team Seven had tracked a small band of militia to an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere. The men were among a larger group who wanted to blow up the capitol building on the upcoming Fourth of July, but the ATF had been warned about the plot back in February. A good deal of careful work had led them up here into the mountains, but a series of three late-season snowstorms had turned their raid into a royal yak fuck.

Vin watched as Chris pulled out his radio and tried to contact the other members of Team Seven, but he got nothing.

"Waterlogged?" Tanner teased in a whisper.

Larabee shook his head. "Waterproof, but this storm's causing—" He broke off, his hand rising, commanding Vin to silence.

Moments later four militiamen passed by the trees where the two agents huddled. Vin gripped his Glock tightly in one trembling hand and ground his teeth together to keep them from chattering, but his body continued to shake from the seeping cold that was slowly melting into his muscles and bones like acid. With a silent prayer, he stifled a moan as a wave of pain rattled beneath his ribs. Three more militiamen passed by on the other side of the trees, each one carrying a small wooden crate, and apparently following the others.

Were they looking for them, or were they just carrying out orders they'd been given, Larabee wondered.

When the men were gone, Chris stood and pulled Vin to his feet, the sniper fumbling with the pocket on his jacket.

"Can I help?" Larabee offered.

"N-need the c-compass," Vin said, allowing the blond to reach into the bulky pocket and pull out the device for him.

Handing it to the sniper, Chris scrutinized the man's floundering actions for a moment before he took stock of the whole picture. Vin was flushed, shivering, breathing hard, and his coordination was obviously impaired. Not good signs. How long could he stay in those wet clothes, and where could they find shelter?

Vin pressed the lid on the compass closed and shoved it back into his pocket.

Chris pulled off one of his gloves and reached out, his fingers searching for a pulse at Tanner's neck.

"W-what're y-y' d-d-doin'?"

"Vin, you're—"

"Not n-now. We gotta p-put some distance b-between us 'n' t-t-those g-guys. See if we c'n f-find th' others, or some k-kind 'a shelter."

"Damn it, Vin. I—"

"I know," Vin said, then gave the blond a thin smile. "Y' w-worry more 'n m-m-mother hen. Now, l-let's g-g-et the hell outta D-D-Dodge." He faded into the trees, and Larabee had no choice but to follow him.

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

"No sign of Team Seven," Charlie Reed panted as he slogged through the snow to join Neal Chaves and the rest of Team Three near their landing zone.

"Damn it," the middle-aged Chaves hissed. Reaching out, he grabbed the field phone from Michael Stein's waiting hand. "Sir, we can't find them. All sweeps are negative. Over."

On the other end to the call, AD Orin Travis cursed softly. "Affirmative, Neal, Team Seven is out of contact. Saddle up and bring 'em home. There's another storm coming in and you're already pushing your luck. Over."

"We can't just leave them out here, sir," Chaves argued, knowing what the men faced if they did.

"We don't have a choice at this point…" Travis replied, trailing off. There were procedures, but that didn't mean he had to be happy about them. "I don't like this any more than you do, but I won't risk two teams up there on that mountain."


"You have your orders, Neal," the older man sighed.

Chaves' gaze locked on Reed's as he replied, "Affirmative, we're pulling out. Team Three out."

"You did your best, boss," Reed said softly.

"It wasn't enough," Chaves replied as he handed the radio back to Stein, who headed off to add it to the rest of their equipment.

"I don't think they've been captured," Reed insisted softly.

Chaves' eyes flashed. "We don't know that." He looked away. Reed was probably right. He couldn't see Larabee letting the militia take him, or his team, not after what they'd done to the FBI agent who had infiltrated their group. And there hadn't been any reports of gunfire. "I just hope you're right, Charlie. I don't want to find Larabee and his men looking like Rory Cotton…"

Stein stomped his way back through the knee-deep snow to join the two men. "Boss, Franklin says we have to go – now. The storm's almost on top of us."

Chaves nodded. "All right, let's move, people."

"They'll be fine," Reed told him as they headed for the waiting chopper. "They know what to do out there."

"I know they do," Chaves said, but he was still worried. The militia hadn't just killed the undercover man, they'd tortured him, forcing him to expose the entire operation the FBI had been conducting, which was why it had been dropped into the ATF's lap. Still, the sight of that man, the majority of his skin peeled off, had left a lasting impression on the ATF veteran. The militiamen were still out here, and so were the members of Team Seven, and the weather reports were calling for blizzard conditions that could last for the next several days…

He shook his head. When things went to hell, they sank straight to the friggin' bottom…

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

Chris pushed himself to stay even with Vin, the exertion causing his chest to burn. Occasionally he reached out, steadying the younger man whenever Tanner tripped over some unseen obstacle in the snow. How Vin managed the pace in his condition was a complete mystery to the blond.

Hypothermia was the real danger, Larabee knew. And frostbite. How long do we have? What if—

Chris squinted through the snow falling around them, refusing to pursue the rapidly depressing train of thought.

More and more of the thick, wet precipitation pummeled them, soaking through their clothes and obscuring their direction of travel. It just wasn't natural. It was a spring snow, not the usual champagne powder they'd normally be getting this time of the year.

Vin stopped and checked their progress with the compass and trembling hands. Larabee knew it would be impossible to continue before long. They wouldn't be able to see where the hell they were going, or negotiate through the deepening snow.

Then what am I going to do? he wondered. Build a snow cave and hope for the best, I guess…

He looked at his best friend. Tanner's stumbling gait was growing more and more uncoordinated, and that frightened the blond right down to his toes.

Even if we find shelter, we don't have supplies. A snow cave might be their last resort, but Vin was already wet…

"This way," Tanner said thickly, heading off again.

Larabee jogged through the calf-deep snow to catch the sniper. "Vin, where are we going?"

"There were s-s-some r-rock outcrops along the western edge 'a this depression. There should be c-c-crags or c-c-caves there. Some kind 'a s-s-s-shelter."

Larabee nodded, then came to a stop, his hand reaching out to snare Tanner's arm. "Vin," he whispered, nodding.

Tanner peered through the snow; more of the militiamen. They were moving steadily, probably trying to reach shelter as well.

"Come on," Chris said, pulling Vin to the cover offered by a small stand of thick pines. They pushed into the boughs, disappearing from sight a second time while they waited for the men to clear out.

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

"We can't just leave them out there," Orin Travis argued, his hands coming up to rest defiantly on his hips.

The head of the Search & Rescue unit shifted uncomfortably under his dark glare – it bore an uncanny resemblance to Chris Larabee's when he was severely pissed. "I'm sorry, Director Travis, but we can't fly in this weather and I can't risk putting men on the ground. You said yourself there are unfriendlies in the area—"

"You aren't going back to look for them?"

Nick Davis' chin came up. "Yes, sir, we are. Just as soon as I can get someone safely back out there." His gaze dropped to the ground, then rose slowly again to meet Travis'. "We won't abandon them, sir. Those men are my friends, too."

Travis felt his anger slip away. From the look on the man's face, Davis was as frustrated as he was about the situation. "I know, Nick. I'm sorry." He took a deep breath. "How long before we can get back out there?"

"At least six hours, according to our meteorologist, and that's if the front stalls in Kansas like the models are showing. If it doesn't…"

"What then?"

"Then we wait for the storm to break," Davis concluded.

Travis nodded and Davis turned, heading out of the ATF office with a stiff, clipped stalk. Travis sank back in his chair and shivered, wishing the warmth would penetrate and melt the icy grip of fear wrapped around his heart. This was bad, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do to help his people.

"Would you like some coffee?" his admin, Mrs. Pennyworth, asked from the doorway.

Travis nodded, wondering how long the older woman had been standing there. But he couldn't fault her. She liked "the boys," as she called Team Seven. Why did the drought have to end this season? Why couldn't it have held off until next year? Damn it, he'd have to call Nettie Wells, too.


He looked up, meeting Neal Chaves' concerned gaze. "Yes?"

"Anything we can do, sir?"

Travis sighed and shook his head. "Not at the moment. You and your team stay on the other militia members here in the city."

"Yes, sir," Chaves said. He started to leave, but stopped in the doorway, turning back to add, "Don't worry, sir. They're the best; Larabee and his men always bounce back."

A thin smile parted the shadows in the older man's eyes, but it couldn't lift them. "I know. But sometimes I wonder how long their luck can hold…"

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

"Think they're looking for us?" Chris whispered next to Vin's ear.

"D-don't know," was the succinct reply. "C-can't tell."

But that didn't sound like Vin at all. Tanner would normally have a smartass reply to a question like that. Larabee frowned, fighting the urge to ask the man what was wrong. He already knew.

Several minutes passed before the militiamen all disappeared, and they waited several more before easing out from under the trees and continuing on, the snow swirling around them like blown cotton.

How Tanner knew they were still headed toward the western edge of the area, Larabee wasn't sure, but he trusted the man. Still, he pulled his own compass out and double-checked, just to be sure. The others ought to be waiting for them there.

As they continued, Vin's steps grew increasingly stiff and uncoordinated.

"How much farther?" Chris asked.

"N-not much… I th-think," was the slurred, laborious reply.

"Good," he muttered to himself, watching as the sniper strode right into the snow-coated boughs of a large pine. Vin stumbled back and dropped to his knees.

"Vin?" he said, moving to the man's side to help him up. "What's wrong?"

"D-didn't… s-s-see it."

"Easy, let's keep going." He hooked his arm under Vin's and pulled him to his feet.

Tanner yanked his captured arm away. "Leave m-me 'lone," he slurred. "'M f-fine."

Chris watched with growing concern as Vin's eyelids dropped closed, his chin bobbing toward his chest. "Vin? Vin, wake up!" He reached out and gave the sniper a quick but gentle shake.

"Huh?" Tanner reacted, his hand dropping for his Glock. "Where are they?"


"Militia," he said, looking around, confused. "W-where… W-where's the m-mine?"

Larabee grabbed hold of the man's soaked parka and started off, dragging Vin along with him. "We're not at the mine, Vin. We're headed to the fallback position. The others should be waiting for us there."

"Fallback position?" Tanner murmured. "We're not at the m-mine? We should be at the m-mine…" The words stalled when a severe shiver rattled through his body, forcing him back to his knees in the snow.

"Vin, come on, get up." Chris pulled the younger man to his feet again. "Come on, the bad guys are out here. We have to find shelter. Show me where to go," he said, hoping the request for help would force Vin to focus.

Another shiver passed through the man before he could respond. "'M tired, C-Chris."

Vin tried to fall back into the snow, but Larabee caught him, giving him another shake. "Vin, we have to keep moving, find shelter – now."

"Cranky ol' man," Vin replied, pulling free and stumbling off several steps.

Chris knew the man's actions and reactions were a result of hypothermia, and he fell into step at Tanner's side. "Vin, where's the fallback position?"

Tanner stopped, groping for his compass. He checked it, squinting at the face for several seconds before closing the cover and returning it to his pocket. "This way," he said and started again.

"I'm right behind you," Chris said softly, a small smile on his lips.

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

Crowding into the large field office, Team Three and the men from the Search & Rescue unit tried to ignore the anxious aura that clung to all of them.

"Let's get this in gear," Nick Davis called. "Norah?"

"Everyone's present, cleared and in position to move as soon as the storm breaks," Norah Coleman reported for the Search & Rescue personnel.


"Systems are up and checked out. Everything's A-okay," Alex Vaughn reported.

"All right, people, listen up," Davis said, and both groups crowded in closer. Off to the side, Orin Travis watched and listened.

"Carson, Mayhew, I want a search grid laid out for a thorough 360 sweep from Team Seven's last known position. Riddle, get on the horn with the weather bureau. I want to know when this storm's gonna break, and when the next one's due in."

"Right," Cory Riddle said, moving off, Carson and Mayhew behind him, already deep in discussion.

"Alverez, you and Goode get a complete cold weather aid station ready to go."

"Got it," the pair chorused.

"The rest of you load up all the cold weather gear for the unit. We're goin' back up there and we're stayin' until we find 'em."

The men and women nodded, moving off to prepare their equipment.

Davis sighed heavily, leaning back against the long table. "Agent Chaves," he said, "what's the closest town to Team Seven's fallback position?"

"Pinecone. It's small, but there's a medical chopper pad at the community clinic we can use if we can get up there. There's also a small hotel across the street from the clinic. We're cleared to take control of that as a command post. I'll get it started as soon as we can get the first bird up."


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

The snow hung in the air like thick, white drapes, closing off their vision and soaking both men. Vin stumbled along next to Chris, his gait stiff and mechanical, his eyes focused on some vision that was playing itself out a few inches in front of his nose. Larabee kept him moving. He was cold and miserable, and he knew Vin must be feeling it more with his soaked clothing. They hadn't seen any more of the militiamen, but he was sure they were out there, perhaps watching them, waiting until they succumbed.

They weren't going to make it this time… Their luck had finally run out… They were going to freeze to death, or the bad guys were finally going to find them and—

No! Stop it. He looked at Vin. The sniper had stopped shivering, and that frightened Larabee more than his mental flights of disaster. The cold must be getting to him, too.

"Vin?" he called. "Vin, you all right?"

"'M too tired," Vin said, slowing. He sank down on a large rock sticking halfway out of the snow. "I'll wait here, y' go 'n' find the others…"

"Vin, you'll f-freeze to death out here," Chris argued, his teeth chattering noisily. "C-come on, we have to k-keep m-m-moving."

"Damn cranky pain-in-the-ass, can't hear a damn thing—"

"D-damn it, Vin, get on your f-feet," Larabee demanded, grabbing hold of Tanner's jacket and yanking him up.

"Hey!" Vin grunted, brushing Chris' hand away.

"M-move, damn it, or I'll k-kick your b-butt all the way down this m-m-m-mountain."

Vin chuckled. "Now, that's… sounds… normal."

Chris smiled thinly, trying to force back the sudden wave of fear. He couldn't give in. He couldn't let either of them just sit down and die. "You're a pain in the ass, you know that?"

Vin nodded with a lop-sided grin. But he stood and started off again, Chris falling into step alongside him for several agonizing yards before Vin pulled up and stopped.

"W-what?" Chris asked.

"Seein' somethin'… militia?" he slurred.

Larabee peered through the snow in the direction that held Tanner's attention.

"Got t' find cover," the sniper whispered.

Relief flooded through Chris like a hot shower. "That's n-not militia. It's the rest of the boys!"

"Our guys?"

"Come on." Chris grabbed the sniper's arm and dragged him toward the men.

Vin went rigid, his weight acting like an anchor, stopping the blond's forward march. "Y' sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

Vin thought for a moment, then nodded and the pair stumbled forward together.

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

"Nathan, come here, quick!" JD yelped.

The former medic looked up from where he was checking the bandage on Ezra's arm. "What is it?"

"I think someone's out there."

"What?" Nathan's eyes flew open wide, and he maneuvered over to join the younger man in the trees where he was hidden. "Where?"

"That way," JD said and nodded, pushing his hair out of his eyes. "There!"

"I see 'em, I just don't believe it," Nathan said, starting to grin. He walked out and gave a sharp whistle, then waved. The two men in the distance stopped, one hesitating, then waving back at him. The pair started forward, slogging onward until they joined Nathan. "Where were you?"

"Got cut off when Hinkle's guys showed up," Buck said, grinning. "Everybody here?"

JD and Ezra joined them. "Chris and Vin are still out there," Dunne told them.

Josiah and Buck both frowned. "Snow's getting worse," the profiler stated.

"I tried calling Team Three, but I have a feeling they were pulled out when this storm blew in," Jackson added.

"Chris and Vin know this is the fallback point," Buck said, trying to sound positive. "We just have to wait. They'll be here."

"Can't wait too long," Nathan said, his gaze shifting to the injured man.

Ezra pulled himself up. "I'm fine, Mr. Jackson," he stated confidently. "You said yourself that it's just a flesh wound."

"Come on," Buck said, leading the others into the cover of the trees. "We saw some more of Hinkle's guys not too far from here."

"Surely they cannot be carrying forward with their plans, not in this storm," Ezra said.

"Hell if I know what they're thinking," was the ladies' man's reply.

Nathan pulled Josiah aside, saying quietly, "We need to locate one of those cabins up here; Ezra's not going to be able to take these falling temperatures for much longer."

Josiah nodded, pulling a map from his pocket and checking the locations of the cabins he had marked down earlier. He pointed to one, saying, "This looks like the closest." His head came up and he met the man's eyes. "Chris and Vin?"

Nathan sighed heavily. "I don't know. We lost contact with them when the snow started to fall."

Josiah shot a glance at Ezra. "Let's give Chris and Vin a few more minutes, then we'll get Ezra to the cabin. Two of us can come back out here to wait for our lost lambs."

Nathan nodded his agreement.

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

"Nathan!" Buck shouted.

The medic stepped over to the ladies' man.

Buck nodded. "There they are."

Jackson turned, seeing Chris and Vin headed toward them. Tanner looked like he was soaked and suffering from exposure; Chris was apparently in better shape.

"What happened?" JD asked as the two men joined them.

"Not now," Chris said. "We need to get him—"

"This way," Josiah interrupted. "Closest cabin is less than a quarter mile away."

Vin heard the words, but he wasn't sure he could make it, even just a quarter mile. Not that he had an option, really… He felt two arms slipping under his and he looked from left to right. Chris and Josiah were now beside him, helping to support him and keeping him on his feet. He tried to offer the two men a small smile of thanks, but he couldn't quite manage it.

"Hang in there," he heard Chris say.

He nodded, more grateful than he could say for their support.

They started forward, Vin catching sight of Nathan helping Ezra along.

"Ez… okay?" he gasped.

"Have to wait to find out," Josiah replied.

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

Vin wasn't sure how long they had been walking, or if he was actually walking under his own power, but he saw the large A-frame cabin in the near distance and felt a surge of relief. Buck and JD went up to the door, pounding on it and standing off to the sides, just in case. No one answered, and the big ladies' man kicked the door open.

Once they were all inside, Josiah slammed the door shut.

Nathan helped Ezra over to the sofa, easing him down, then stepped over to get a closer look at Vin, who was starting to sag against Chris.

Larabee gave him a small smile. "Damn Texan here decided to take a swim," he said.

"Didn't wanna…" Vin argued weakly.

"Get him into the bedroom," Nathan interrupted. "Both of you need to get out of those wet clothes – right now." Then he looked around at the others. "Anyone else who's wet or shivering, get out of those clothes and get warm – pronto."

"I'll find some blankets," Josiah said, heading off.

"I'll start a fire," Buck offered, heading to the large hearth, and the equally tall stack of wood next to it.

"JD, start some coffee or tea if you can find it," Nathan called, herding Chris and Vin toward the back of the cabin.

Relieved that someone had taken control of the situation, Chris allowed Vin and himself to be guided into a large, rustic bedroom, complete with a fireplace and an attached patio deck that was enclosed with glass. A good-sized Jacuzzi had been built into the deck as well.

Nathan immediately started opening doors.

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

Chris stood, shivering, as he helped Vin out of his sodden parka, which he tossed onto the wooden deck that surrounded the Jacuzzi. He'd thought earlier Vin had stopped shivering, but now he could see the sniper hadn't; the trembling had just gotten weaker, lost in the layers of clothing.

Nathan stepped up and said, "I'll get Vin out of these clothes." He pointed to one of the doors, saying, "Bathroom's in there. Get out of your own and get in the shower. Make it nice and hot, and soak for a few minutes."

Chris hesitated, but another chill shook him hard enough to send water droplets flying all over the floor.

"Don't worry," Nathan said. "I'll take good care of him."

"You always do," the blond said, then disappeared into the bathroom.

Nathan inserted a thermometer into Vin's mouth before he started to unbutton his field jacket. That roused the sniper.

"Wha—?" Tanner sputtered around the obstacle, his hands coming up to fend the medic off, a cold grip of fear clamping down on his heart. He swayed.

Nathan stepped closer. "Whoa, easy, Vin, it's just me."

Tanner blinked and peered at the medic, his mind working furiously to identify the man's familiar face. "Nate?"

"Yeah, it's me. You and Chris got to the fallback point. We're borrowing a cabin to get everybody warmed up."

"Borrowin'?" Vin asked around the thermometer.

Nathan offered him a slightly devious grin. "Well, the Bureau's gonna owe somebody a new door lock… C'mon, now, we've gotta get you out of these wet clothes and get you warmed up, okay?"

Vin nodded. "'M c-cold…"

"Don't talk," Nathan scolded him, reaching out to unbutton the field jacket and draw it down Tanner's arms. Kevlar vest and uniform shirt followed. Then Jackson went to work on unlacing the man's boots, the wet leather laces refusing to cooperate immediately. Vin reached out, using Nathan's shoulder for balance.

When he was finished with the laces, Nathan stood and reached out, unhooking Vin's belt and unfastening his uniform pants, easing them down over his hips.

"Sit down," Jackson directed, guiding Tanner around so he could sit on the end of the bed.

The sniper sank down with a grateful sigh and Nathan bent to pull off his shoes, socks, and pants, leaving only a wet T-shirt and briefs clinging to Vin's pale skin. He removed the thermometer and laid it on the bedspread when Vin began to lean dangerously. He braced him with a shoulder.

"C-cold…" Tanner mumbled again, his blue eyes slipping closed.

"Vin?" Nathan called, resisting the urge to give the man a shake.

Tanner's eyes popped open and he sucked in a gasp as a shot of tingling fire rocketed through his arms. "Chris?"

"He's in taking a shower," Nathan explained as Josiah stepped into the room, his arms full of blankets and towels. The big profiler headed straight to the bed, dropping his load onto it and then handing Nathan one of the thick bath towels.

"Hypo-therma…" Vin slurred. "Maybe… frostbite."

"You feel like ice," Nathan said, pulling off the man's T-shirt and holding him in place as he began to dry the man's skin. He met Josiah's eyes and asked, "What's his temperature?"

The big man turned and picked up the thermometer. "Ninety-three point two," he read. "What next?"

But Jackson had reached out and was taking the sniper's pulse. "Heartbeat's a little slow… Pull the covers back; let's get him under."

Josiah pulled the extra pillow off the bed, dumping it onto the floor, then reached up and pulled the covers down as Nathan helped Vin to stand, stripping him of the wet briefs and toweling his legs dry.

"C'mon, Vin," Nathan urged gently, helping Tanner to the side of the bed and easing him onto the mattress.

"How's he doing?" Chris asked, padding out from the bathroom wrapped in a dark blue terry robe.

"You should've soaked in that hot water longer," Nathan admonished, but he looked grateful. "Come get in with him. You're warm and it'll help him."

Larabee didn't hesitate, walking over and climbing in, robe and all. But once he was lying next to Vin, Nathan and Josiah both drawing the covers up and over them, he reached down and untied the robe, pulling it open and pressing himself along Vin's cold body. He yelped as his shower-warmed skin came into contact with Vin's icy skin. "Christ," he hissed, "you're a freakin' ice cube, Tanner!"

Vin managed a small grin at that. "Serves y' right," he said, his voice slightly slurred. "Y' prob'ly used up all the hot water."

Nathan added two extra blankets to the bed, then used a third to create a nest around Vin's head. "Josiah, see if JD's got that coffee or tea ready, will ya?"

The big man nodded and left.

"And make sure Ezra's doing okay," Nathan called after him. "I'll be out to look at him in a couple of minutes."

"Consider it done," was the reply from the hallway.

With Vin in bed and snuggled up close to Chris, Nathan turned his attention to the dresser in the room, rummaging through it until he found what he wanted. He returned to the bed, lifting the covers at the bottom so he could reach in and work two pairs of thick socks onto Vin's feet. Fleece gloves were added to the man's hands, and a fleece scarf was wrapped around his neck.

Nathan stood back, holding a pair of thick sweatpants, but he didn't think he was going to be able to get those on the sniper. Besides, Vin looked like he was doing okay so far. But he did take a smaller, thick fleece throw and tucked that around Vin's legs under the covers.

"Much appreciated," Chris said.

Jackson grinned. "I'm going to go see if I can find some hot water bottles, or a heating pad," he added. "Then I'll get a fire started in here."

"Okay, I've got him," Chris replied, feeling Vin curl slightly so he could press more of himself against the blond's warmer skin.

Nathan nodded and headed out, pulling the door shut behind him.

Chris shifted slightly, getting his arm under Vin so he could hold the man tighter against him. He could feel him beginning to shiver harder. "Hang in there," he said quietly.

Vin's eyes opened and he slipped his arm over Chris' chest. "Mmm… y' feel warm," he managed through his chattering teeth.

Chris gave a soft snort of laughter. "Not for long."

"Mmm…" Vin managed. "'Least it'll… be good while… it lasts."

Chris heard a humming noise, and felt the air stir as the heater came on. A moment later, the door to the bedroom opened and Josiah came back in, carrying two cups of steaming liquid.

When he reached the bed, he said, "Can you two sit up a little?"

Chris moved first, he and Josiah rearranging the pillows and blankets so Vin could sit up, leaning back against Chris' chest, still bundled in the covers, including one that was draped over his head and shoulders.

"JD found something I think you'll appreciate," Josiah said as he handed Vin one of the two steaming mugs.

Tanner took a sniff, a smile curving his lips even as his teeth continued to chatter. He used both hands to raise the cup to his lips and take a sip. He sighed and closed his eyes as the hot liquid slid down his throat and into his belly.

"What is it?" Chris asked.

"Hot chocolate," Josiah supplied as he handed Larabee a cup of coffee.

"How's Ezra?" the blond asked.

"Nathan says he'll be fine. Just a flesh wound, but that and the cold have him pretty sapped at the moment.

Larabee nodded, feeling the muscles in Vin's back beginning to quiver as another shiver began. He reached around the man and helped him hold the mug as he waited for the shaking to stop so he could take another sip of the hot, sweet drink.

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

Two cups of hot chocolate and a PowerBar later, Nathan took Tanner's temperature again. "Ninety-five point seven," he announced, looking pleased with the man's progress. He glanced over at the Jacuzzi, eyes narrowed slightly in concentration. He knew a warm bath was an acceptable treatment for mild hypothermia, which meant body temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius or… ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit, he translated mentally.

The former medic turned. "Hey, Josiah, that hot tub have any water in it?"

The big profiler walked over and opened the sliding glass door that led out onto the wooden deck. Stepping over Vin's sodden parka, he lifted the plastic cover and nodded. "Yep, it's full."

"See if you can get it working," Nathan said, then turned back to Chris and Vin. "You feel up to a dip?" he asked the younger man.

Tanner nodded.

They waited while Josiah fiddled with the controls, finally getting the water to begin heating. When it was ready, Nathan removed Tanner's socks, gloves and scarf, then helped Chris maneuver him so he was sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Think someone had better get in there with him," Chris said, noting Vin seemed a little lethargic.

"Vin, can you walk?" Nathan asked the sniper.

"Think so," was the uncertain-sounding reply.

Chris stood first, then turned and slipped one hand under Tanner's arm and helped him up. Vin moaned softly.

"What hurts?" Nathan immediately asked.

"Prickles… feels hot," Tanner replied as they staggered toward the enclosed porch. "But parts 'a me still feel numb…"

"Just take it easy. This ought to warm you up," Josiah soothed as he eased the sniper into the oversized tub with Nathan's help. Contact with the warm water was painful, and Vin was suddenly reluctant. He took a step back and tried to pull free.

"Come on, Vin," Chris coaxed, remembering the burning, pricking sensation he'd experienced in the shower. "It'll feel a whole lot better in a little while."

Tanner gasped as he sank deeper into the hot water, tears welling up in his eyes, but not falling. "Shit," he hissed, but while it hurt, it felt good, too. "Ahhh…"

"Josiah, turn the circulation on," Nathan instructed, hoping that might make it a little easier on the man.

Sanchez clicked the pump on, a froth of bubbles immediately churning to the placid surface.

Chris pulled off his robe and waded in next to Vin.

Vin sank down into the water, then shivered violently and groaned.

"Do you have him?" Nathan asked the blond.

Larabee nodded.

Nathan gave them a small smile. "Keep his head above water; I'm gonna go get something else for him to drink."

Larabee nodded, but those words hit him hard. It had been close. How many times had Vin skirted death? How many times could he keep doing it before it was one too many?

Vin groaned, then whimpered softly, his eyes grinding shut.

Chris moved closer to him, slipping his arm around the man's shoulders to help support him. The position felt familiar to the blond, and Chris fought back a wave of nausea. It was just like when Vin had died out there under the trees…

How could he do that? Larabee wondered. How could he ask me to just sit there and watch him die like that? What if he does it again?

I'll kill him! Larabee concluded.

Josiah sank down to sit on the smooth wooden deck, breaking through Larabee's mental ranting when he asked, "You all right, Chris?"

"Yeah," the blond replied, chasing the fear away. Damn it, he'd dealt with this, put it to rest. He didn't need to revisit it now.

Nathan returned, looking down at the soaking pair. "Twenty or thirty minutes should help a lot," he said. "I want to see some color in his skin… Vin, you let me know when the sensation returns to your fingers and toes, okay?"

Tanner sucked in a hissing breath. "Hurtin' l-like h-h-h-hell r-r-right now," he managed through chattering teeth. "T-t-t-hat c-c-ccount?"

"Nope, afraid not," the medic said. "It'll start getting better real soon."

It wasn't really that bad, Tanner knew. It hurt, but it felt good to feel warm, too. Vin allowed himself to relax slightly as the water did its work, unknotting his muscles and starting to force some warmth back into his bones. Sure, it hurt, but he'd faced worse – much worse. He just wished there was some way to get his mind off the red-hot needle pricks that seemed to be attacking his skin. "Where's the r-r-rest 'a the b-b-boys?" he asked.

"Ezra's taking a nap in front of the fire in the living room," Nathan told him. "Buck and JD are in the kitchen, fixing something for the rest of us to eat."

Vin moaned as another wave of shivering made speech impossible. Chris pulled him closer, one hand rubbing up and down his arm under the water. Larabee noticed the development of several reddish blotches across Vin's neck and face and frowned. "Easy, Vin, it won't be much longer."

"That's normal," Nathan said, nodding at the discoloration when he saw Larabee's concern. "His skin might look mottled or discolored as it warms up."

Vin moaned. "Burns," he panted.

"I know, and you must be ten times worse than I was," Chris said. "Just try and relax, okay? Let the water do the work."

"C-c-cold… b-b-burns… 's weird." Vin's eyes slid closed.

"Yeah, I know," the blond said, helping the sniper ease back farther into the water. Nathan handed him a washcloth and Chris let it warm in the water, then draped it over Tanner's head.

"Hey," the younger man sputtered, trying to rise.

"Be still," Chris said, pushing him back into the water.

"Y' tryin' t' drown me, Lar'bee?"

That prompted a grin from the blond. "Guess this would be the perfect opportunity, wouldn't it?"

Vin briefly considered sticking his tongue out at the man, but instead, he grunted and ground his teeth as another bout of shivering took over.

"Josiah, why don't you go in and warm the bed up," Nathan suggested. "When Vin's color is back, and he can feel his fingers and toes again, we'll get him back under the covers."

"Will do," the big man said.

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

A few minutes later, Buck walked into the bedroom, sliding a tray with a coffee carafe and four mugs onto the nightstand. "Taking a nap?" he asked Josiah, who was buried under the blankets.

"Nope, just warming up the bed," the profiler explained.

Buck grinned. "Hell, Josiah, you'd need a pretty lady in there with ya to do that right."

Sanchez sighed and rolled his eyes.

JD came in as well, saying, "Hey, I found some heavy pajamas in the dryer. I thought they might help Vin."

"Good thinking," Buck said, heading for the Jacuzzi. "How's it going?" he asked the men there.

"Fine," Nathan replied. "I think his shivering has eased up some."

"I have some coffee out here for ya," Buck replied.

Nathan nodded. "Thanks. A few more minutes and I think we can get him back in bed."

Since everybody was talking about him like he wasn't there, Vin closed his eyes and relaxed back against Chris' chest, finally beginning to enjoy the warmth that bubbled all around him.

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

Twenty-five minutes after he was first submerged, Nathan helped Vin climb out of the Jacuzzi so Chris could hurriedly dry him off. Then they coaxed him into the thick flannel pajamas JD had found before Chris dried himself off.

The sniper made no efforts to object to the ministrations, and that worried Chris a little, but, for the moment, it made the situation easier so he let it slide.

A chill shook Vin as he staggered toward the bed. Half-collapsing there, he rolled into the waiting warmth Josiah had left behind, but before he could get comfortable under the covers, Nathan reached out and worked the two pairs of socks back onto his feet.

Buck draped a colorful blanket around Tanner's shoulders while Jackson worked. Then the ladies' man tugged a knitted cap he'd found on a peg by the back door over Vin's head and ears. He stepped back to survey his work, then moved forward to rearrange the quilt, covering Tanner's head with that as well.

The sniper grunted in annoyance, having reached the end of his patience.

Satisfied the socks would stay on, Nathan looked pointedly at Larabee. "Get yourself some coffee, with sugar, and get over there by the fireplace. And take a couple of blankets you can wrap up with. Buck, find Chris some socks and another one of those caps if you can."

"Gotcha," Wilmington said, handing Larabee two pairs of socks he'd found in the dresser drawers as the blond sank down on the warm stone hearth with his sweetened coffee.

Nathan poured another cup, dumping several teaspoons of sugar into it before stirring it and handing it to Vin, who looked like an unhappy Eskimo at the moment.

"Th-Thanks," Tanner said, cupping his hands – the only exposed skin besides his face – around the mug. He took a sip and made a face.

"Drink it," Nathan ordered. "It can't be much worse than the way you usually take it."

"Hey, look what I found," JD said, returning to the room, carrying three hot packs.

"Great!" Nathan said, launching into action.

It only took a moment to rearrange the pillows so Vin was cradled in a seated position by them. Then Jackson slid one of the microwave-warmed packs behind the sniper's neck, and a second under the blankets covering his chest. He paused, still holding the third.

"One more, Vin," he said, "but I'm going to let you do it." He took Tanner's coffee from him and held out the pack.

"Where?" Tanner asked him.


The warm blush that colored the sniper's cheeks was visible even to Larabee, and the blond chuckled.

"Looks like his circulation's definitely coming back," Buck observed. "Better do what he says," the ladies' man added, "wouldn't want to devalue the family jewels."

Vin sighed heavily and accepted the hot pack, shoving it under the covers and positioning it where he'd been directed. He remembered enough of his cold weather first aid to know why it was supposed to go there, but it did little to relieve his embarrassment. When he was done, Nathan handed him back the coffee mug.

"Thanks," he mumbled, deciding that freezing to death might have been easier.

"You're welcome," Jackson replied with a smile.

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

"I hate waiting," Chaves grouched, pacing the length of the room twice before sinking into one of the chairs.

Across from him, Travis nodded sympathetically. The man turned to one of the Search & Rescue people and asked, "When is this snow going to stop?"

"You've got me," the man replied. "The weather service is as confused as we are. They're saying this'll definitely break the drought, though."

"Great," Chaves sighed.

"I know the feeling," was Travis' sardonic reply.

"At this rate, it could be days before we can get out there," Chaves complained.

"They'll be fine," Travis countered.

"If they're stuck out in the woods with this weather? There's no way they can survive."

"You said yourself there are cabins up there, little towns. They all had maps and compasses. And they know how to survive in cold weather, if they have to."

"I know they do, sir, but there are a lot of things that can go wrong. And if those militiamen are looking for them…" Chaves shook his head. "I owe Larabee and his boys my life, a couple times over. I—"

"I guess we're all just going to have to have some faith," Travis concluded.

"I'm trying," was the agent's reply.

Nick Davis stalked into the room, his gaze sweeping across the command center, maps and equipment scattered across the furniture.

"Anything?" Travis asked the man.

"Nothing," he said. "Weather service says this is gonna sit on top of us for at least another eight to ten hours."

"Well, shit," Chaves sighed. "Ol' Mother Nature isn't takin' too kindly to us. What do we do now?"

"We wait," Davis sighed. "We wait until she lets us go out and play."

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

Vin wasn't exactly sure when he'd fallen asleep, but he was definitely awake now. He was also sore, and stiff, and tired, but he was awake, and buried under a heavy pile of blankets. He pushed off enough so he could reconnoiter the room.

Nice place, he concluded, taking in the wood walls, thick carpet, and tasteful oil paintings. The bookshelves and the entertainment center looked nice, too. Definitely not a winter or summer cabin; this was somebody's home.

A light snore captured his attention. Chris was sleeping soundly, buried under a similar mound of blankets next to him in the king-sized bed.

Unable to resist, Tanner reached out and tickled the hair just above the sleeping man's ear.

A soft groan escaped Larabee as he reached up and swatted at Tanner's finger, but he didn't wake.

The door softly creaked open and Josiah came in.

Vin watched the man as he banked the fire in the fireplace, then added more wood. "Mornin'," he said softly when the big man was through.

Josiah turned, a smile lighting his face. "Well, it's good to see you awake again. How do you feel?"

"Pretty good… Little stiff 'n' sore, but at least I'm warm, which is a real improvement, let me tell ya. What happened?"

"You fell through some ice. It was looking pretty bad there for a while. Nathan was getting worried. Glad we found this place when we did."

Vin jerked his chin in Larabee's direction. "How's Chris?"

"He's just fine," came a muffled voice. Larabee yawned inside his burrow, then stretched and pushed himself up. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," Josiah said. "JD got the radio working. That last storm shut the roads down for at least a day, maybe two if the next front passes through like they're predicting. The electricity's off, but whoever owns this place has a generator, so we're doing fine. The pipes nearly froze before we got it up and running, though. Nasty weather. Oh, and the phones are down."

"Great," Larabee muttered. "So we don't have any way of contacting the world."

"Smoke signals would be about the only way right now, and nothing's dry enough for that, either," Josiah replied. "I'm afraid we're just stuck here until this storm breaks."

Larabee sighed heavily.

"What's the forecast?" Vin asked, a cough breaking free deep in his chest. He grimaced, settling back against his pillows and basking in the pleasant warmth.

"More of the same," Buck said, coming in with an armload of clean clothes. "I thought I heard voices. Here ya go," he said, setting the stacks down on the bed.

"Any sign of our friends?" Chris asked, digging his way out from under the covers and reaching for the nearer of the two piles.

"Nope, and I don't think we'll need to worry," Buck told him. "Another front's supposed to be here by noon, and there's another one lined up right on the heels of that one, but they're saying it'll be late evening before that one hits. They're also saying we might get three to five feet of snow up here."

"C'mon," Josiah said, slapping Buck's shoulder. "We'll let you two get dressed."

Buck looked back at the pair when he and Josiah reached the door. "I have breakfast cookin', so come on out when you're done."

The two men left, pulling the door closed behind them, and Larabee reluctantly slipped from the warm bed. "You really feeling okay?"

Vin flashed him a small grin. "Good enough."


Tanner nodded. "So far so good," he said as he pushed the covers back, coughing again.

"Yeah, right. Sounds like you're getting a nasty cold, if you ask me."

"Didn't hear me askin', did ya?" Vin grumbled as he disentangled himself from the blankets, hot packs and extra clothing. First things first, he thought, heading straight for the bathroom.

When he returned, he pulled on the too-large jeans, thermal shirt, long-sleeved T-shirt and a heavy flannel shirt before following Chris into the living room, where a small, square, folding table had been set up next to the large, blazing hearth.

"Vin, you sit closest to the fire," Nathan directed as soon as he saw the man.

Tanner sighed, but he did as instructed, enjoying the added warmth from the blaze. He glanced over at Ezra, who was already seated at the small table, his bandaged arm now held in a makeshift sling. "Y' okay, Ez?"

The undercover man nodded. "Just a flesh wound," he assured. "And you, Mr. Tanner?"

"Reckon I'll live," Vin drawled, his gaze landing on the coffeepot JD was carrying over to them. "Nice place y' found here, boys."

"Well-stocked, too," Buck added from where he was working at the stove.

"Not for long," JD commented. "I just wish their satellite dish was working."

"A few days without television won't kill ya," Nathan told the younger man as he walked over to check on Vin.

"Says you," was Dunne's reply. He met Vin's eyes, adding, "Can you believe they don't have a computer up here? Don't even have a radio!"

Tanner grinned. "No computers, no television, no radio… sounds like paradise t' me."

JD just set the coffeepot down on the table, shaking his head. "You know, you guys have really got to join the twenty-first century, or at least the twentieth!"

"There are an abundance of books on the shelves," Ezra commented, gesturing with his good hand to the two walls lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves.

JD sighed heavily as he went to fetch some coffee cups for them all. "Yeah, yeah, yeah… Still, I mean, what do they do up here without a computer or a television or a radio?" he asked.

Vin grinned. "Hell, JD, reckon they find somethin' to keep 'em busy."

"Yes, well, it appears from the clothing we've found that it is two men who share this cabin," Ezra added meaningfully.

Vin grin got wider. "Like I said, they find somethin' t' keep 'em busy…"

JD blushed and Buck laughed and slapped the younger man's back.

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

"Any change?" Travis asked, leaning over the Search & Rescue meteorologist's shoulder and staring at her computer terminal. The sweeping patterns of white clouds made little sense to him. Straightening, he rubbed his eyes and yawned.

"Nada," she replied. "Looks like there's another low developing off the coast that's gonna keep the snow machine turned on high."

Travis sighed heavily.

Chaves, sitting not far away, said, "Sir, we got into the County Recorder's computer, and we have the information on all the cabins in that area. Stein is plotting them onto a map for Search and Rescue."

Travis smiled tiredly. "Well, that's something. Can we call the cabins? Maybe they–"

"No go," Chaves interrupted him. "Phone and power lines all over the Front Range are down, especially in the high country. And the phone and power companies don't plan on sending crews out until the blizzard conditions lift."

"Makes sense," Travis admitted with another frustrated sigh.

"We're just going to have to wait a little longer," the meteorologist said.

Travis could hear the doubt creeping into her voice. "Yeah, it seems so."

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

Two days of watching it snow… and snow… and snow some more wasn't high on Larabee's list of entertaining activities, especially when he knew what must be going on back at the ATF. Travis would be doing everything he could to reach them, but there was simply nothing anyone could do until the storm ended. He glanced around and smiled thinly. At least the company was interesting.

A deep cough forced him to turn around, and he watched as Vin took a seat on the flagstone hearth, his shoulders hunched.

"Feeling okay?" he asked Tanner.

Vin looked up, giving Chris a clear view of his face. It was drawn and slightly gray, with dark circles starting to form under his eyes. The younger man shrugged and said, "Hangin' in there."

Pushing off the couch, Chris walked over and sat down next to the sniper. "Vin, what's wrong?"

He knew there was no use lying to Larabee… "Nathan thinks it's probably pneumonia."

"What?" Larabee asked, surprised by the way his voice squeaked.

Nathan walked in on the question. "Something wrong?"

Vin looked up at the former medic. He didn't want to worry Chris, but he knew he didn't feel well, and if Nathan was right… "I'm not sure, but—"

"He says you think he's getting pneumonia," Chris finished.

Nathan nodded as he walked over to stand next to the two men. Reaching out, he pressed his palm to Tanner's cheek. "He's warm—"

"That could be the fire," Larabee said.

Vin coughed, his face pinching.

"And then there's that," Nathan finished. He shook his head. "Wish I had some antibiotics."

"We've got to get him out of here, get him to a doctor before—"

"Chris, you know as well as I do that we're not going anywhere until this storm's over, and even then it might be impossible," Josiah said, walking in to hear the last exchange. He met Larabee's worried green eyes. "I was just coming in to tell you, Buck thought he might have seen something moving around out there. He and JD are checking it out now."

Larabee was moving, crossing the space and checking the landscape from a position concealed by the drapes.

"Ezra's keeping an eye on the back," Josiah added, heading for another window to do the same as Larabee.

Vin started to rise, but Nathan stopped him with a hand on his shoulder and a shake of his head.

"Chaves and his boys will target all the cabins up here," Josiah said from where he was peering out into the falling snow. "When they can get up here to start a search, they'll sweep these cabins first – they're closest to the fallback position. Our best bet is to stay right here until they come get us."

"If this is pneumonia, we're not going to be able to wait too long," Nathan cautioned.

"We don't have an option," Chris said, even if he hated it. "Anybody check the medicine cabinet to see if they have any antibiotics?"

Nathan headed out, returning quickly. "Found some erythromycin. It's old, but it hasn't expired yet."

Vin nodded, reaching out to take the bottle from the medic. "This'll help?" he asked the man.

"Might," Nathan told him, then walked over to get him some water to wash the first pill down with.

A few moments later, Buck walked in to join them, his jacket crusted with snow. "Couldn't find anything – no tracks, no more movement – but I know I saw something out there."

"Maybe it was an animal," Jackson offered.

"Maybe," Buck admitted. "Better safe than sorry."

Larabee nodded. "We'll set up a rotation; everybody stands watch except for Vin and Ezra."

"I'm fine, Mr. Larabee," drifted out from the bedroom.

"Me, too… for now," Vin added.

Chris' lips disappeared into a thin line, but he nodded. If the militiamen were out there, they would be able to tell the cabin was occupied easily enough. They might need all the eyes they had to spot an attack. "All right," he said, looking at Vin and adding, "but when Nathan says no more, you're done."

Tanner nodded his agreement.

Chris flashed him a small smile. Things were better between them now. He wasn't overreacting and Vin was taking a few precautions; made his life a whole lot easier.

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

Nick Davis strode purposefully into the command and control room. "We've got our window."

Travis and Team Three were following him even as he turned to leave. "How long?" the AD asked.

"Four to six hours, if we're lucky," Davis said as they headed outside and climbed into a waiting SUV. "You'll have to wait at the hotel with the rest of us."

"Good enough," Travis said. "Are you going to check the cabins?"

"First thing," the Search & Rescue man replied.

Travis nodded and leaned back. Finally, they were actually doing something instead of just waiting.

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

Larabee watched the snow falling, huge cotton ball-sized flakes splattering across the window, their delicate beauty crushed and smeared just before the heat from the house melted what remained. The storm had let up for four hours, but now appeared intent on making up for the lost time.

From next to the fireplace, another cough ripped through Vin's chest, and the blond winced. He turned and tried to casually study the sniper as he traveled around the warm, wood-paneled room, pausing at the numerous bookshelves to peruse them.

Vin looked sick, his face ashen and drawn, and rattling, labored breaths beat out an over-fast cadence, punctuated from time to time by the rending coughs. Chris watched a chill shake the younger man – that was new – and Vin edged closer to the fireplace. With a weak grip, Tanner took the poker and resettled the nearly consumed logs, then wrestled in another. When he was done, another cough echoed through the room, and he reached up to rub at his chest.

"Vin?" Chris called softly as he stalked over and sat down next to him. Closer, it was clear the man was almost panting in an effort to draw in enough air. "This isn't a cold."

Vin shook his head.

"No, it isn't," Nathan added, coming in from the kitchen.

"Pneumonia?" Larabee asked the former medic.

"I think so," the man replied, looking more than a little worried.

Chris felt the cold, black fear he'd been holding at bay uncoil in his gut, sweeping up to strangle his heart. "What can we do?"

Nathan shrugged slightly. "Not much. He's taking the antibiotics I found…"

"I'm fine," Tanner wheezed.

Chris' jaw ground slightly and he fought the impulse to accuse Tanner of running from the truth, or of acting like Superman, but he knew better. It wasn't like Vin had intended to catch pneumonia. The fall into the pond was probably the cause, that and the prolonged exposure afterward… It was all in the line of duty, and he knew it. He also recognized the old feelings, and decided then and there that he'd be damned if he gave into them again. "There has to be something we can do," he said, the comment directed to Nathan.

Josiah glanced over from where he was working on their supper, hoping, like Larabee, that Nathan had an answer.

"There are a few things," Jackson replied, nodding.

"Let's hear 'em, Nate," Buck said, turning slightly on the sofa to look at the Black man.

"You're taking the erythromycin like it says?" Nathan asked Vin.

Tanner nodded.

"Good. Okay, you're going to have to force down as many hot liquids as you can handle. And I'm going to put some moist-heat on your chest to help break up the congestion."

"When do we start?" Chris asked.

"Not so fast," Vin interrupted. "I'm doin' okay right now. Can't we see if the storm lets up, if the antibiotics do the trick?"

"Not likely as far as the storm goes," Josiah said. "Last report on the radio was this one was expected to drop three more feet of snow, and the next front will hit late tomorrow morning."

Vin paused, contemplating the news. It was slowly getting harder and harder to breathe. The medication might slow the progress of the infection, but he knew he really needed professional medical help to get the condition under control. He glanced up, really noting the steep ceilings for the first time. I'm slipping, he thought.

"This an A-frame?" he asked.

Chris nodded. "Why?"

"The roof staying snow-free?"

"Yeah, now that we've got the heat cranked on," Buck supplied.

"There any paint 'round here?" Vin asked. "Something kind 'a bright?"

"Vin, what're you thinking?" Chris asked him.

"I saw some red paint out in a shed out back," Buck said, looking curious. "Looks like it might be pretty bright."

A smile curled the corners of Vin's mouth up. "That'll get their attention," he mumbled.

Chris grinned as he realized what the younger man was thinking. "I'll take care of it. Nathan, you get that moist-heat started."

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

"Riddle!" Davis snapped.

The Search & Rescue medic snatched up the paper he was working on and trotted across the room to join his team leader. "Yeah, Nick?"

"You ready?"

He handed the paper over. "Just heard from the first chopper. No signs of them near their last-seen position. Here are the cabins closest to Team Seven's fallback position."

"Thanks." Davis handed the list to Franklin, their second chopper pilot. "Don, start here and work out as far as you can."

The Black man nodded, studying the locations.

"If you see anything, drop in a team and try to stick close," Davis instructed.

"Got it, boss." Turning, Franklin slapped Cory Riddle's shoulder. "Let's go, Doc," he said and they headed for the chopper pad.

Chaves slipped past the two men, joined Davis at the coffee machine, Travis stepping up to join them as well. "Anything?" the AD asked.

"Our guys made it to the mine site with the Search and Rescue ground team," Chaves stated. "They were there, but it's been abandoned."

"Damn it," the older man sighed. "Anything from the field unit?"

Davis shook his head. "Nothing at the last-seen; they're extracting now. The second chopper is on the way to the cabins closest to the fallback position you gave us."

"When's the next front due in?" Chaves asked Davis.

"We've got about four hours, if we're lucky," was his reply. "It should give us time to check the area around the fallback position, and the cabins that fall within a few miles of that."

Travis nodded. It was the best they could do – for now.

"We're going to shift this operation a little closer to the area they're in," Davis added. "So, if you're ready?"

Travis and Chaves nodded, both ready to go.

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

Chaves held the door open, allowing Travis to advance into the hotel ahead of him. The drive and then the short chopper flight to the new location had taken them about an hour in the heavily overcast weather. When they had reached the hotel, they had eaten while they had the chance.

"Gentlemen," Davis greeted them, "follow me, we have our command center set up in the banquet room. The choppers just left again." He led them into a large room and over to a map that covered more than half of a long table.

"Any word?" Travis asked him.

Davis shook his head. "No signs of 'em anywhere on the ground so far. We've got teams in the field right now, doing a search of the terrain in case they're holed up in snow caves, and the choppers are continuing the sweep of the closest cabins."

Travis' gaze swept over the map, noting the large amount of ground that had already been covered. Davis must be stretching every rule in the book, he realized, to get that much terrain covered in so little time.

"Heard there's another storm coming in?" Chaves questioned.

Davis nodded. "Weather service says we've got about four hours."

"That's not much time," Travis said quietly.

"No, sir, it isn't," Davis agreed.

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

"Chris, I need your help."

Larabee jumped, his attention severed from the dancing flames he'd been staring at. "What?"

Nathan reached out and squeezed the blond's shoulder. "It's Vin. He's getting worse."

Chris scrambled to his feet and followed Jackson back to the bedroom. He blinked, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, but he could hear the sound, the labored, almost grunting breaths coming so closely together. He trembled and felt his knees give slightly as he forced himself closer to the bed. Oh God, not again

Tanner was gray, his cheeks sunken, black smudges under his eyes deepening the hollows to depthless pits. He hunched into the quilt that was wrapped around his shoulders, shaking with a chill that left his teeth chattering. His hand came up, rubbing weakly at his chest.

"Vin?" Chris called, moving closer to the bed and finally dropping down to sit on the edge.

The door opened and Josiah came in with a tray. "Here's the tea, Nathan. I hope this'll help a little."

"Thanks, 'Siah," Vin replied. He already felt like he was burning up, but he knew he had to do whatever it took to keep the phlegm from getting too thick. He accepted the steaming cup from the profiler and sipped.

Nathan exited the bathroom carrying a towel, gray wisps of steam curling off of it. "Okay, let's get this on your chest," he said, walking to the far side of the bed.

With Chris' help, they were able to get the covers down and deposit the hot cloth on Vin's upper chest. The younger man sucked in a hissing breath and groaned.

Handing Vin back his tea, Chris could tell the sniper was in more pain than he was letting on. He watched Vin snug his right arm in closer to his chest, bracing his ribs as he coughed again. And then, panting, he leaned back and continued to work on the tea.

With a jerk of his head, Josiah let Nathan know it was time to leave the pair alone. They headed out of the room, pulling the door closed behind them.

Nathan caught Josiah's eyes. "Think he's doing better this time?"

The older man grinned. "I think Chris is doing better than expected."

Jackson nodded. "He's lost a lot, I can see why he gets a little anxious about Vin."

"Me, too. That boy is a trouble magnet."

"Oh, like this team isn't?" Nathan asked.

Josiah chuckled. "Point taken."

Nathan checked his watch. "Looks like it's about time for you and Ezra to get ready to change places with those two."

Josiah nodded. He didn't look forward to the patrol, but he knew as well as anyone that they had to keep an eye out for the militiamen. Still, it was damn cold outside, and it looked like the snow was picking up again.

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

Chris could hear the muffled voices in the hallway, but he wasn't paying any attention to what Nathan and Josiah might be discussing. He was too busy, worrying about the man he now called a brother.

"Damn it, Lar'bee," Vin half-growled.


"Quit starin' at me like that. I ain't gonna disappear."

A thin, wry smile lifted Chris' lips. "You sure?"


He took the empty cup from Vin and started to rise, to get some more.

"Not right now," Vin said, stopping him. "I'm a little sick t' my belly."

Chris set the cup on the nightstand and walked over to sit down on the hearth so he wouldn't be hovering over the man. "Vin, we have to try to find help; we have to get you to a hospital."

"There's no way. Y' heard 'Siah. There's another storm on the way."

"Damn it, you can't ask me to sit here and watch you die again."

"I'm not gonna die."

Larabee pushed himself up and paced across the room. "Don't say that," he snapped. "You can't breathe, you sound like—" He broke off, stopping in the center of the room. "You sound like…"

"Like when I died before?" Vin asked quietly.

Chris nodded, his eyes slipping closed. "Yeah."

"Ain't that sick," Vin argued softly.

The green eyes sprang open. "Yet."

"They'll find us before it gets that bad. Sounds worse 'n it is."

The blond stalked over to the edge of the bed, peering down at the sick man. "How can you be so sure?"

"Hell, Chris, y' know what they'll do well as I do. I trust 'em."

Swinging away, Larabee stalked back to the fireplace, added more wood and sank down onto the warm stones. Vin was right, he did know. But it wasn't just anyone whose life was at risk here, it was Vin's life.

A knock at the door stalled any further conversation. Ezra leaned in. "Nathan asked me to let you know when it was time to change that towel again. That time has arrived."

Chris nodded.

"And you are to keep drinking more tea," Standish told Vin.

"I'm floatin' already," was the man's immediate complaint.

Ezra smiled. "I believe that was Mr. Jackson's intent," he said, "to ensure the congestion cannot become unmanageable."

Vin nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I know." He just hoped he could keep the hot liquid down. His stomach was starting to do some unpleasant gymnastics.

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

Chaves stomped several times before he stepped through the door, scattering snow across the wooden floor in the entryway of the hotel. Travis and Davis followed.

Two of the Search & Rescue men met them just past the door.

"Anything?" Davis asked them.

"Not a damned thing," the pilot said, shaking his head in disgust. "We flew over all but four of the cabins. As soon as this breaks we can hit those and then we'll start on the ones farther out."

Chaves sighed heavily. The longer it took, the less chance there was they'd find the missing men alive. They all knew it, but the Search & Rescue people weren't going to give up, and neither was he.

"Get some coffee and something to eat," Davis told his men. "Alverez has got the latest weather update – looks like we'll have another window in five hours or so."

The pilot nodded. "I'll be ready."

They watched them go, Davis finally turning to the ATF men. "Try not to worry."

"Easier said than done," Chaves said dryly.

"Tell me about it," Travis drawled. "It feels like I've spent half my career worryin' about Team Seven."

Chaves smiled thinly. "Just be glad it only feels like it."

Travis chuffed out a laugh at that.

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

"Is that towel ready?" Nathan called.

"Almost," Josiah answered from the bathroom.

Sitting on the bed, Chris watched as another body-shaking cough left Vin exhausted. Curled up on his side in the large bed, the sniper hugged his arm close to his ribs, helping to splint his chest. Even in the limited light offered by the snapping fireplace, Larabee could see the bluish cast circling Vin's lips.

"Vin, can you sit up?" Nathan asked, resting his hand gently on the man's shoulder.

Tanner nodded and turned over onto his back, too busy working on breathing to answer him.

Nathan nodded to Chris and together they managed to get Vin sitting up in the center of the bed. Settling in behind him, Nathan began a steady pound on Tanner's back with his fists.

Vin coughed, curling inward and hugging his sides.

Chris handed him a pillow to use as a brace and Vin nodded his thanks, hoping the blond could hold it together.

"This… sucks," Vin wheezed.

"Tell me about it," Chris replied, their eyes catching for a moment, a small smile passing between them. But it was enough. Vin knew Chris wasn't going to go off on him again. He might be scared, but he was dealing with it.

Watching it play out over Tanner's shoulder, Nathan said a quick, silent prayer that they would be able to get Vin some help – soon.

Josiah came out of the bathroom with another steaming towel Chris maneuvered onto Vin's chest. The heat from the cloth and the pounding on his back helped a little, and his blue eyes dropped closed. The noisy breaths filled the room while the three men waited for the next coughing fit.

It came, doubling the sniper over. Nathan alternated between rubbing and pounding while Chris made do with squeezing one of Vin's hands.

As the coughing eased, Vin was able to sit up again. His breath caught.

"What?" Chris asked, scooting closer and gripping the man's shoulder.

"Chopper," Vin said, a tired smile playing across his lips. "Told y'… they'd… find us."

Larabee's head tilted up and he looked out the glass-enclosed deck. He couldn't see or hear a damned thing, except for Vin's breathing. Sliding off the bed, he bolted into the living room, where the faint thud of chopper blades echoed in the distance.

"About damn time!" he yelled and headed for the door.

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

Travis leaned against the table where Davis sat, monitoring the radio. Folding his arms across his chest, he reached up and rubbed at his tired eyes. Their time was running out. The meteorologist had already called and warned them that the search would have to be called off in another eight hours, when another low was expected to hit them – one that promised an additional two to three feet of snow.

Where the hell were they?

"Skybird to Homebase, do you read? Over."

Davis keyed the mike. "Homebase. We read you, Skybird. You're a little faint. Over."

"We're coming up on the last of the cabins we missed. We–"

Travis straightened and turned, his hands gripping the edge of the table while he stared at the radio.

Davis glanced up at the older man. "Sounds like they found something…"

"Ee-haaa!" echoed through the small room.

Davis keyed the mike. "Skybird, what–?"

"We got 'em! We got 'em! They left us a big ol' number seven on the roof of one of the cabins! It's location thirteen. Repeat, lucky thirteen."

One of Davis' people echoed the cowboy cry and bolted from the room to spread the good news.

"I'm coming up on it now… ATF says we've got Agent Larabee in sight… He's wavin' us in."

"Tell them to be careful," Travis ordered. "There might be militia in the area as well."

Davis nodded. "Skybird, keep an eye open. There might be bogeys in the area, over."

"Will do. ATF guys up here have their guns ready. We're winching down, now."

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

Larabee burst through the front door, his gaze searching out the chopper in the overcast sky. Once he spotted it, he began to wave. "Over here! C'mon!"

The craft moved in closer to the cabin, the rotors sweeping up the snow and splattering the blond with the cold wetness. Chris half turned away, using his arm to protect his face as he watched two Search & Rescue men lower themselves on cables, dropping into the snow and then jogging toward the cabin. He could also see Buck, JD and Ezra, keeping an eye out for trouble from the militia.

When the men reached him, Chris clasped the nearest one's shoulder. "Glad to see you. One of my men is sick. We need to get him out of here – now!"

"I'll get my gear," the other said, turning and running back to the hovering chopper, already talking into his radio unit.

Entering the cabin, Chris led the other man back to the bedroom, where the medic did a quick check of Vin, talking to Nathan as he did, then reached for his own radio unit. "Have one vic inside. Find out what the closest medical facility is. It looks like pneumonia."

"Will do," was the pilot's reply.

"How fast can we get out of here?" Chris asked the man. "The chopper might bring our militia friends out of hiding."

"We'll make it as quick as we can," the Search & Rescue man promised him.

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

Travis and Chaves pressed in behind Davis.

"What's wrong?" the AD demanded.

"Looks like one of your guys might have pneumonia," he replied, turning to another of his own people. "I need the location of the closest medical facility, ASAP."

A young woman moved over to the large map on the table, her finger sweeping along the paper before stopping abruptly and tapping. "Closest hospital's in Piñon. That's about thirty miles northwest of that location. I'll get the coordinates."

Davis keyed the mike. "Skybird, you've got a roost in Piñon, thirty miles northwest. We're getting the coordinates now."

"Roger, Homebase, waiting on directions."

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

The second medic lugged his medical kit into the warm cabin and followed Larabee straight back to the bedroom. "'Morning," he said to Vin as he pulled out a BP cuff and a stethoscope. The eyebrows rising slightly and the small smile told the medic he was a welcome sight. "Don't talk," he instructed, setting to work, Nathan filling him in as he had with his partner.

After a quick examination, the second medic pulled the radio off his belt. "Relay to Homebase – definitely pneumonia. I'm going to start treatment. Do we have a location?"

"Affirmative. We're taking him to Piñon. I'm ready when you are," the pilot replied.

"We'll need a cage to get these men up."

"Roger. Send Tim out and we'll be ready."

Nathan and Josiah watched from a distance as the medic worked. "He'll be okay now," Jackson breathed.

Josiah nodded. "Thank God."

The medic looked at the agents. "You all did a great job; probably saved his life."

Josiah smiled. "It was our pleasure."

The medic turned back to Vin. "Just don't join the Polar Bear Society, okay?"

Larabee laughed, but Vin looked confused.

"People who go swimming in subfreezing weather," Chris explained.

Vin rolled his eyes.

"We'll see to it," Nathan said, carefully avoiding the blue glare coming from his friend.

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

"Homebase, this is Skybird. It's pneumonia. They're starting on him now. Next stop Piñon, over."

"Roger, Skybird, they're expecting you," Davis said, then looked up at the two worried agents. "Don't worry, if it was bad, they would have said so," he reassured them.

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

The medic reached into his kit and removed a small cylinder of oxygen, settling a mask onto Vin's face and attaching it to the container. "I'm going to give you a shot of penicillin, sir," the medic said, prepping the syringe. "Do you need anything for the pain?"

Vin shook his head.

The medic nodded, then glanced around at the other men who were watching. "Uh, could I get you to clear the room?"

"Why?" Larabee asked, stepping closer.

Nathan reached out and rested his hand on the blond's arm. "I think what the man's trying not to say is he needs to deliver that injection in a… private setting."

Chris' eyes widened slightly and he grinned at the scowl that settled on the sniper's lips.

Josiah gave Vin a thumbs-up. "Good luck, brother."

"Thanks," Vin replied.

Nathan led the way out, the others following behind him.

The medic turned his attention back to his patient. "Roll over, sir."

Vin groaned.

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

"Can we get to Piñon?" Travis asked, watching Davis peer at the large map.

"Let's find out," he said determinedly. "Stein, you're in charge here."

The radio operator nodded, watching as Davis, Chaves and Travis headed for a waiting jeep.

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

The first two shots struck the chopper.

"Bogeys!" Buck yelled unnecessarily, since he and JD were already returning fire. At the rear of the cabin, he could hear Ezra's weapon bark as well.

Chris cursed softly under his breath. He and one of the Search & Rescue medics had just gotten Vin into the basket, the winch just starting to pull him up to the hovering helicopter. The rotors were kicking up a lot of snow, making it impossible for the blond to see where the attack was coming from, but he knew who was behind it. The militiamen had been attracted to them by the chopper, and now they were trying to take them and the bird down.

"Give me m' rifle!" Vin yelled.

Larabee's first thought was, Is he crazy? But he was carrying the weapon, planning to take it up with him on the next retrieval. He tossed it up, Vin catching it. Then Chris was moving, pulling the medic along with him.

The chopper was moving as well – up, trying to get out of the reach of the gunfire, Vin dangling below the craft, exposed and vulnerable.

Chris saw four men rise up out of the snow, two of them lifting HKs to fire on the chopper or Vin. The other two men were keeping Buck and JD from stopping their friends.

He heard, rather than saw, the door to the cabin burst open, and, a moment later, Josiah was firing, taking out one of the two men firing on Buck and JD. Nathan was right behind him.

Chris pushed the medic down into the snow behind a doghouse that could house a mastiff and still give the animal room to turn around. He watched the men from Team Three firing out the open door of the chopper, but they had to be careful: Vin and his basket were swinging into their arc of fire.

More of the militiamen came out of the woods and Larabee cursed, his hands itching to be filled with a weapon. That itch was scratched a moment later when Nathan dove in next to him and then handed him his MP. He jerked the weapon up and fired, sending the reinforcements diving for cover.

In the basket, Vin sat, his feet braced against the sides, his rifle snapping up to his shoulder. He sighted and fired, one of the men firing on the chopper falling into the snow.

The other one, however, shifted his attention from the aircraft to the occupant of the rescue basket.

Buck scrambled from cover, firing at that man and diving for a protective boulder as soon as he did. JD was right behind him, but moving in the opposite direction. He brought one of the reinforcements down before diving for cover himself.

Larabee watched it all unfold, knowing the men had them bracketed.

Josiah and Nathan worked their way forward, trying to get past the men moving in on their left so they could get behind them.

Vin's rifle barked again and another man went down.

Chris heard at least three bullets strike the basket, but his concentration was on one of the militiamen, and he brought the man down with a careful shot. Then he looked up, half-expecting to see Tanner dangling over the edge of the basket, dead, but Vin was still sitting there, the rifle in his hands as he worked to find another clear shot.

The sound of gunfire broke out behind the men on the right, followed by a pain-filled cry.

Someone yelled for a retreat and Josiah was able to bring another of the men down when they bolted from cover.

"Freeze! ATF!" Larabee bellowed when two men broke cover near him. One turned and tried to fire, the blond dropping him. The other stopped, his hands shooting up above his head.

Nearby, Buck and a man exchanged fire, JD shooting the big man a grateful smile since the militiaman had nearly gotten the drop on him.

Ezra staggered out from behind the militiamen, helping to cover them as they surrendered.

Chris looked down at the medic. "You okay?"

"So far," he replied.

"Tell 'em to get the hell out of here!"

The man nodded, fumbling for his radio with shaking hands.

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

"They're what?!" Davis barked into his cell phone.

Travis looked at the man, waiting for him to explain.

"Are they all right?" Davis demanded and then listened for a moment. "Right… Okay… Yeah, send in the backup chopper, we're flirting with this next front and I want those men off that mountain before it gets here." He was shaking his head as he folded his phone and slipped it back into his pocket. He looked at Travis and Chaves, saying, "The chopper came under fire. Your boys put an end to it and they're transporting the wounded to the hospital now."

"Wounded?" Chaves asked, reaching for his own cell phone.

"That's all I know," Davis said. "The backup chopper's going in for the rest of Team Seven."

Travis nodded, then waited. Chaves exchanged a few words with his second-in-command, Charlie Reed, then grinned. "Yeah, well, you tell Larabee he can kiss my ass the next time he sees me." The man chuckled and ended the call.

"Well?" Travis asked him.

"ATF personnel are all fine, well, besides Tanner. Looks like Standish was grazed, too, but he'll be fine," Chaves reported. "One of the Search and Rescue guys was grazed as well, but he's fine, too. Five militiamen are dead, four wounded and three under arrest."

Travis nodded, a smile curving up the corners of his mouth. "And Chris?"

Chaves grinned. "Personal matter, sir."

The older man nodded again, deciding it was probably better if he didn't know.

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

Travis led the way into the hospital's emergency room to find Larabee pacing in front of a nurses' station. Chris stopped when he saw the older man, breaking into a smile. The two men shook hands.

"Had us a little worried," Travis said, managing to make it sound like a reprimand.

"I know, sir," Chris said softly. "I'd say I was sorry, but I hate to lie to you."

Travis shook his head.

"What happened?" Chaves asked him.

"Goddamn bastards—" Chris started, then, catching sight of the listening nurse, he nodded at the waiting room, leading the way there. "Vin fell through some ice."

Chaves grinned. "What, he can't swim?"

Larabee grinned back. "Looked like a damn cat somebody tried to drown… We found the cabin and took shelter."

"Good thing for him you did, too," Davis said, sticking out his hand and introducing himself to Larabee.

"Appreciate you guys coming in for us."

Davis nodded. "Glad we could help. I appreciate you keeping my chopper from getting shot to hell."

"Is there a Mr. Larabee here?"

The men turned to find a white-haired Santa Claus look-alike, complete with neatly trimmed white beard and roly-poly belly, waddling up to join them. Nathan was trailing him, looking pleased.

"I'm Larabee," the blond replied.

The man smiled and shook Chris' hand. "I didn't find any lasting problems due to the exposure, but Mr. Tanner is working on a nasty case of pneumonia. It's a darn good thing you got him in here when you did."

"Will he be all right?" Travis asked.

The doctor nodded. "I think so. We've got him on antibiotics, oxygen and a mild painkiller now so he can rest. He's a little dehydrated and he's running a fever, but we'll keep a close eye on him."

"Thank you, Doctor…?" Chris said.

"Kringle, Chris Kringle, and please, no Santa jokes, I've heard them all before," the older man said with a rueful shake of his head.

"When will he be able to leave?" Chris asked.

"Depending on how well he responds to the antibiotics, I'd say a day or two. Now, if you'll excuse me," the doctor said, "I've got a date with a cup of cocoa and a foot massager."

"Thank you, Doctor," Chris said. "Oh, can we see him?"

"Whenever you'd like, just ask the nurses for the room number once he's settled," the man replied, then turned and headed off.

Chris looked at Nathan. "Well?"

The man smiled. "He'll be fine."

Larabee let out a long sigh. "Ezra?"

"Milking his wound for all the sympathy and fetch-and-carry he can," was the former medic's half-annoyed reply.

Chris and Chaves both grinned.

"I'm going to go see what the damage is to my chopper," Davis said. He shook hands with the men and left.

Team Three and Team Seven congregated in the cafeteria, drinking coffee and congratulating themselves on a job well done.

Travis, Larabee and Chaves joined them, and, about an hour later, Ezra turned up, a new bandage on his arm and Vin's room number on a piece of paper.

Teams Three and Seven parted company, Chris leading his men, and Travis, to Tanner's room.

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

Vin looked up and grinned as the seven men crowded into his small room.

"Agent Tanner," Travis greeted him, "I hear you've been auditioning as a piñata…"

Vin snorted slightly and shook his head. "Well, sir, I c'n tell y', I didn't care much for it."

"Glad to hear that," Travis replied, giving the man's shoulder a light pat. "Nice shooting, son."

Tanner's cheeks colored slightly and he looked away, his gaze settling on Ezra. "Y' really okay?" he asked the man.

"Well, it is a rather painful wound," the man said, trying to look as pathetic as possible.

"Which means we'll be fetching his coffee and doing his photocopying for the next couple of weeks," Buck interjected.

Travis fought the smile off his face and said, "Well, since this little adventure has reached its conclusion, I'm going to see if I can't find a ride back to Denver. Chris, I'll want a report on my desk… by the end of the week."

"Yes, sir," he said.

Travis nodded. "Until then, I think Team Seven can do with a little R-and-R."

"That we could, sir," Buck said, already thinking about the cute little brunette he'd met in the gift shop.

Travis looked at Vin, adding, "Take care of yourself, son," before he took his leave.

With their boss gone, the rest of the men settled in around Vin's room.

Buck fished into the plastic bag he was holding, pulling out a silly-looking stuffed blue dog with flowers on his sides instead of spots. "Here y' go, Junior," he said, handing it to Vin. "Figured he can keep you company."

"Gee, thanks, Buck," Vin said, staring down at the child's toy. It was kind of cute.

Buck wagged his eyebrows, saying, "Now, I'm off to see if that cute little thing down in the gift shop is available…" The ladies' man slipped from the room.

Josiah chuckled softly as he pushed off the wall where he was leaning, adding, "Vin, you get some rest. I'll get some rooms at the hotel down the street."

"I'll come with you," Nathan offered.

"Thanks," Larabee said, watching as Josiah and Nathan left.

Ezra stayed where he was, seated in the only chair in the room, JD standing beside him.

"What's y' thinkin'?" Vin asked the undercover man, trying not to smile.

Standish blinked innocently. "Well, I was contemplating the appropriate amount of leave a man who has been wounded in the line of duty might, reasonably, have coming to him…"

"Ezra," Larabee growled.

"We better go see if we can help Josiah and Nathan," JD interrupted, pulling Ezra to his feet and escorting him out of the room.

Chris watched them go, then shook his head, chuckling. Turning to Vin he asked, "You think you're going to make this kind of thing a habit from here on out?"

"I sure as hell hope not," Vin replied sincerely.

"Me either. You keep this up, I'll have to buy stock in the company that makes Tylenol."

Vin grinned up at him. "Yeah, well, there's times y' make my hair hurt, too, Larabee."

"Your hair?"

"Y' heard me."

The green eyes narrowed. "You goddamn pain in the ass, I'll show you pain…"

Tanner rolled his eyes. "Damn, Larabee, y' sure know how t' make a sick feller feel better, don't ya?"

Chris sighed heavily.

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

Vin stretched out on the floor, inching his feet closer to the brightly blazing fireplace. It felt good to be home. Three days in the hospital were three days too many, as far as he was concerned. He still had a cough, and less energy than a dead battery, but at least it didn't feel like someone was jerking his lungs out every time he coughed.

He and Chris had been lucky, very lucky. No frostbite, nothing permanent… He closed his eyes and relaxed.

Nothing permanent except that mother hen expression in Larabee's eyes, Vin thought ruefully. But that's been there since the beginnin'. At least he hasn't blown up and accused me of thinkin' I'm some kind 'a superhero, but I know I scared him.

He coughed softly and sniffled. At least their attempts to discover what it was the militiamen were doing up there in the mountains had kept Chris busy and away from the recovering sniper. Good thing, too. If Chris had told him to "drink more fluids" one more time, Vin wasn't sure he'd have been responsible for his actions.

The blue eyes cracked open and he stared into the flames. Oh, who was he kidding, anyway? It felt good, damn good, to have these people care about him the way they did. They were a family, if you could call a group of eclectic pains in the ass family, and Vin decided he could – easily.


"I wondered how long it was gonna take."

"For?" Chris asked, walking into the living room and taking a seat on the sofa Tanner was leaning against.

"For y' t' come in."

"You were waiting for me?"

Vin nodded. He motioned to the second cup of coffee that was resting on the hearth.

Chris scooped it up cautiously, gaze fixed on the man. "Vin, what's wrong?"

"Nothing… just wanted t' talk – alone."

Chris took a long swallow. "Oh?"

The blue eyes pinned Chris. "Let it go, now. It's over."

Larabee's gaze dropped to the cup he was holding. "I know, but…"

"Y' keep thinkin' about what it felt like when I died."

Chris' head rose. "Yeah… And don't tell me this is all part of the job, because I'm well aware of that. And how the hell did you know, anyway? I've been damn careful not to—"

"Just thought about how I'd feel, if things had been reversed…" Vin said, trailing off.

Chris leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and holding the cup in his hands. "No need to sugarcoat this," he said quietly. "The dreams started coming back…"

"Psychologist said they might."

"I know. Doesn't make dealing with them any easier…"

"Hell, figure you're doin' pretty damn good, all things considered."

That brought a smile to the blond's lips. "You know, there was a time I would've said any of us were expendable – given the right reasons – but I'm not sure any of us are, anymore."

Vin nodded. "I hear ya."

"And we keep pushing the odds," Larabee added. "You more than most, I'll have you know."

"Just lucky, I guess," Vin replied lightly, but he knew it was true. And he knew why, too. Oh, some of it was just bad luck – wrong place, wrong time, like with that damn plague – but the rest? He took a deep breath and said, "Guess it's 'cause I've got the most to lose."

"Like hell, you do," Chris half-growled in reply.

"Now, hear me out," Vin said, his voice soft and full of emotion. "Y' know I lost m' mama when I was just a little fella… Don't really have any vivid memories of her, just dreams that are more feelin' than seein'… 'Bout the same for m' grandpa, too…"


"Let me say m' piece, Larabee."


"M' life's kind 'a been one nightmare after another – some worse 'n others – 'til I ended up in that warehouse where I met you… For the first time in m' life, I had the kind 'a friends and family I'd only dreamed about… Everything good in m' life is wrapped up with you and the others. Everything, Chris. And I ain't sayin' what happened t' Sarah and Adam wasn't the worst thing that could happen t' a man, but y' gotta understand, I've had everything stripped away from me – m' family, m' innocence, m' pride… But being here, being a part of the team, it gives some 'a that back t' me.

"When I'm with y'all, it's like I've got everything every man's supposed t' have. Y' can't ask me not t' protect that; I can't not do it. I can't not try t' keep y'all safe. Guess that makes me a greedy bastard, but it's the way it is. I just ain't willin' t' risk what I got – ain't gonna give nobody a shot at takin' any of it away. And y' can't ask me to. It ain't fair, Chris. It just ain't."

Larabee felt the sting of tears in his eyes. He'd known, deep down, Vin's life before Team Seven had been ugly, but he'd never really let himself consider just how ugly. Losing Sarah and Adam had damn near killed him, and he'd had a good life – loving parents, good friends, good jobs. Vin had nothing, just them, and the memories, the lives, the family they had created.

Vin was right, he couldn't ask him not to fight to protect that. It wouldn't be fair. And he knew he was only asking in the first place to protect himself from the pain of loss.

But if Vin lost them, lost him? He didn't even want to think about it.

Chris' head came up slightly, and Vin could see the seriousness of the man's expression. Larabee had come to the same conclusions he had, and that was good, real good. He'd always known the man would understand if he could just find the right words to explain it, but those kinds of words were damn hard for him to find. But it looked like, this time, he'd managed it.

"Just so you understand it works both ways, Vin. We're all committed to this damn ragtag family. We don't have any other options – none of us."

Vin nodded. "I know, but it means, sooner or later, our luck's goin' t' run out."

Chris nodded. Vin was right. "Sooner or later one of us might get killed, or injured badly enough he'll have to leave the team."


Larabee paused, taking another sip of the warm coffee. "And when that happens, Team Seven is—"

"Gonna go on," Vin interrupted. He sat up, scooting around and sitting cross-legged on the floor. "Chris, when you're fightin' for what's right, it don't matter who gets killed, the enemy doesn't stop comin'. The only way t' honor a soldier is t' finish the fight."

The green eyes shifted to the dancing flames. "I don't know if I could do that, Vin."

"Y' been doing it all your life. When your parents died, y' didn't quit. When y' got hurt and had to leave the SEALs, y' didn't give up, y' became a cop. Losin' Sarah 'n' Adam… Y' shouldered your grief and y' went on. Why d' ya think I'm so different?"

Chris settled back against the sofa, his hands occupied turning the coffee mug in steady circles while he continued to stare at the fire. "I don't know, exactly… I guess knowing what it'd feel like…" He shook his head. "That kind of pain… losing family… it's not something a man wants to feel more than once."

Vin nodded. "Fair enough."

"'These voices, these quiet words,'" Chris quoted, "'recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed.'"

"Yeah, but if it happens, just remember this, okay?" Vin asked, then smiled, picking up with his own paraphrase of the classic Larabee had been quoting. "'They are more t' me than life… and more than fear, they are the strongest, most comfortin' thing there is anywhere… they are the voices of my comrades.'"

Chris nodded. "Way I look at it, the only thing left is to do what we have to, and try like hell to make sure everyone comes home. The rest will sort itself out."

Vin nodded. "I c'n live with that."

They locked gazes.

"Just be careful," Chris said.

"As careful as you are."

"I'm the boss, I get to take more risks."

"I'm the sniper, I get to take more 'n you."

"Says who? Not the boss."

Vin grinned. "Ain't sure, but I'm sure I saw that someplace."

"Be serious."

"I am," Vin replied indignantly, eyes beginning to sparkle.

Chris couldn't help but smile, too. Well, one thing was for sure… life wasn't going to get boring with Tanner around.

Vin coughed and Chris stiffened slightly. "You okay? You take your medicine?"

"Yes, I took m' freakin' medicine, Mother. And I'm fine."

Chris thought back to their conversation. It had been a good one, for both of them. He understood where Vin was coming from. It probably wouldn't make it any easier to watch the man take chances, or get hurt, but he knew he'd never let his own fears get that out of control again; it just wasn't worth it. He had too much to lose. Love and family were great gifts, the greatest, but it came with an equal helping of fear – fear of loss, fear of inadequacy, fear of hurting, fear of… hell, whatever. But it was worth it. Both were worth facing your fears for.

"You hungry?" he asked.

Vin thought for a moment, the nodded. "I could eat."

Chris smiled. Oh, yeah, things were definitely getting back to normal…