Magnificent Seven ATF Universe

A Rare Friendship by The Neon Gang

Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #15, 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 Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Sierra Chaves and Lorin Zane were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Art by Shiloh (

He had to admit, it was a beautiful day, even if he didn't really want to be out sharing it with the other members of his team. He needed some time alone, or at least he thought he did.

The weekend trip had been Buck and JD's idea, and it had come on the heels of a long, tedious assignment that had left all seven of the men short-tempered and snappish by the time they had finally wrapped it up, which was probably why Buck and JD had thought the trip might give them all a chance to relax and unwind a little – in neutral territory.

It wasn't the sort of thing he would have chosen to do himself, and he wasn't sure what had prompted Buck and JD to pick this particular venue, but they had. And he was willing to admit that it was pretty up here in the high mountain meadow, the sky blue and cloudless, the temperatures cool. The grass was green, too, thanks to all the recent rains, and the larkspur was in bloom.

He watched three young women walk past, his gaze following them. Some of the human scenery wasn't too bad, either…

But he'd really rather be back at the ranch, working on the roof of the barn, or maybe fixing that sagging fence out in the west pasture. But the others had all surprised him, accepting the tickets the two men had bought for them and agreeing to come with Buck and JD. With everyone else agreeing to go, he hadn't felt he could say no.

Besides, they really did need some time to chill out and let their friendships heal after all the heated, rash words that had escaped their lips over the past three weeks. Hell, even his relatively new relationship with Vin had been strained to the breaking point by the case.

But, damn it, he'd been more than justified in chewing Tanner's ass for the stupid chances the sniper had taken on the bust. And it didn't make a damn bit of difference if those same stupid chances had probably saved his and Ezra's skins, they were still stupid. And, goddamn it, he wasn't going to lose someone else he loved just because he was being stupid.

Okay, so Josiah had called the maneuver heroic – and he was probably right – but it had looked damn stupid when it was happening, and right afterwards, when he'd jumped down Vin's throat for it…

He hadn't found an opening since then to apologize, either. Hell, he wasn't completely convinced he should apologize.

Five days later, and he still wasn't sure… Why was that? He usually didn't have a problem knowing if his gut-kick reactions in the field called for an apology or not, but not this time.

And as a result, Vin had been spending all his time at his apartment in Purgatory since the bust, not out at the ranch like he had been for the two months before.

It was all a mess, and he just wasn't sure who was to blame. But at least the conversation on the drive out here had been friendly, even if it had been a little subdued for the two of them.

He sighed and glanced around, wondering where the others had all disappeared to.

They had left Denver early, stopping for breakfast on the road and arriving just before the place opened. As soon as they had turned in their tickets and entered the… whatever the hell they called this place, Buck and JD had given them a rapid description of the attractions, then headed off to indulge their own personal interests, their friendship apparently none the worse for the recent wear.

The rest of them had all stood there in a group, looking a little lost and uncomfortable, but then they too had drifted off to explore the unique locale.

That had been several hours ago.

He'd found a quiet bench under a large tree and had dozed off for a little over three hours, but then the laughter of several children racing past had woken him and he'd climbed to his feet, brushed off his jeans, and headed out to find the others. But they hadn't been easy to find.

For a brief moment he wondered if they had left him there alone, but his was one of the vehicles they'd come in, so he knew at least one of the other men remained, since, with Casey and Raine along, they couldn't get everybody into Josiah's and Nathan's SUVs. So someone was definitely still here.

Hell, they were probably all still here, but they seemed to be hiding from him.

With another sigh, he started down the dusty street, trying to look inconspicuous, but it was hard. He just didn't fit in here. He wasn't as young as many of the visitors, he didn't have a wife or a girlfriend hanging on his arm, and he wasn't herding children…

He looked just like what he was, a single man out of place. He didn't even have Vin at his side, which would have allowed him to blend in with the smattering of gay couples he'd seen so far.

As Chris proceeded along the road, he caught the sound of Buck's laughter and veered off to see if he could find the ladies' man. And, sure enough, he did find him, right in the middle of the… He squinted slightly to read the sign: The Naughty, Bawdy, Singing Tavern Wenches.

He shook his head. It looked like "Iris" and "Rose" had Wilmington's complete attention – and, given their low-cut, well-filled outfits, they'd be keeping it for the foreseeable future, too.

He kept going.

A little farther down the road, he skirted a small crowd of men near the "Washing Well Wenches" and headed toward the sound of bells which drew him across an open plaza to a small outdoor theater. He spotted Nathan and Raine in the audience, watching as a carillon was expertly manipulated to create beautiful music. He stood and listened for a while, then wandered off.

He didn't want to spoil the couple's time together. If they saw him, they'd feel compelled to invite him over to join them. They needed time like this together, without him acting as a third wheel.

A pair of glass-blowers were working out in front of a booth where their furnace burned fiercely. He stopped to watch them as they created unique works of art while the on-lookers oohed and ahhed, but they couldn't hold his attention for long.

As he continued along the dusty main street, side-stepping kids, shoppers, and costumed employees, until he spotted Josiah, who was leaning up against a large tree, finishing off an ice cream cone while he watched a pair of jugglers performing nearby. He changed course and walked over to join the man.

Sanchez nodded and smiled. "Enjoying yourself, brother?"

He frowned, unsure how he should answer that.

The big man's smile grew a little wider. "Well, I'll admit, it was an… unusual choice for a weekend adventure, but so far it's been rather… interesting. Food's good, too."

"What are you waiting for?"

Josiah nodded at a nearby building. There was a sign on the front announcing: Royal Ale Festival! And, under that: Ode to Ale Toasting Contest 1, 3 and 5 p.m.

That brought a smile to Chris' lips. "I see."

Sanchez offered him a half-shrug. "I couldn't resist." He nodded at the two men who were now juggling bowling balls. "They aren't bad, either, but if Vin sees them I'm afraid they might give him some dangerous ideas."

He chuffed out a soft laugh at that. Vin was their resident juggler, and had instigated a few near-disasters with his choices of objects to attempt. "Have you seen Ezra, JD, or Vin?"

"The last time I saw JD, he and Casey were headed off to watch the jousting tournament. Ezra said he was planning to go see Puke and Snot."

"Excuse me?"

Josiah chuckled. "They're, um, stand-up comics, I guess you'd say. I sat in on their first show – very funny, too. But Ezra's going to be a more formidable heckler than they usually get, if what I saw earlier was typical for the crowds."

He nodded. The idea of heading over to see how well Ezra was doing was tempting, but he wasn't sure he was up to watching anybody who called themselves "Puke" and "Snot."

"Find anything… interesting I should see?"

Josiah nodded. "Down the road here a ways; blacksmith has some real talent. Said he does some freelancing, too. You might want to talk to him about repairing that second gate out by the access road."

Now that piqued his interest. He'd wanted to get that second iron gate fixed for years, but he never seemed to have the time to hunt down a blacksmith who could do the work. If there was someone here… Well, maybe this wasn't such a waste of time after all.

"Think I'll check that out," he said. "Thanks."

"Oh, you might want to drop by the leather shop that's next to the smithy, too – some nice stuff in there."

"I'll do that," he said, starting to go. Then he paused and turned back to the older man. "Josiah, I—"

The profiler held up his hand. "Chris, I don't need an apology. We were all bone-tired, and we all said things we regret. It's over and done with as far as I'm concerned."

"Appreciate that," Chris said, feeling a little better. He still needed to find the others, offer them his personal apologies, including Vin, but at least he'd finally gotten started.

He wished Josiah well with the ale toasting contest, then headed out to find the blacksmith, wincing as he passed the jugglers, who had moved on to tossing power tools around.

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

An hour later and Chris was feeling much better about the day. He had set up a time for "Tiny" to come by and look at his gate, purchased a new wallet at the leather shop, and managed to pass his apologies on to Nathan and JD when he'd run into them at the birds of prey show. Casey and Raine were off getting fitted for… something or other, so they could have their pictures taken, and both men had responded much the same as Josiah had, not so subtly suggesting that they weren't the ones who really needed his apology.

He knew who they thought did: Vin. But he still wasn't sure about that.

He'd tried to clear the air with Buck, too, but the ladies' man was too busy trailing the washing wenches around – Iris and Rise having, apparently, grown tired of him. Chris shook his head, wondering for the millionth time if any woman would ever capture the rogue's heart.

But he crossed Buck off his mental list as well. Wilmington had known him too long, and too well, to need an apology; and he knew it. Besides, the rakish grin Buck had tossed his way had said all that was necessary.

Which meant Ezra and Vin were the only ones left.

He'd seen Ezra for a moment while he had been talking to Tiny, but hadn't been able to find him again after he'd left the booth. And, if he wasn't absolutely sure Tanner was there, someplace, he would've sworn the man hadn't come with them at all. He hadn't seen a trace of the sniper since they'd all split up that first time, and no one else had seen him recently, either.

Maybe Vin and Ezra were taking in one of the shows?

He glanced around.

Or maybe they were on the rides?

He immediately dismissed the thought. Vin might be, but Ezra would never lower himself to climb into one of the small cars, or strap himself into one of the harnesses. It might do damage to his dapper appearance, or some such bullshit.

He snorted softly and kept walking until he spotted an ice cream booth.

Changing direction, he headed over and checked out the options. A few moments later he was sitting on a bench under the boughs of a large pine, enjoying his hot fudge sundae.

"Mmm, now that looks like an enjoyable way to pass the time."

He glanced up, his tongue licking the mixture of warm chocolate and cold ice cream from his lips. Ezra sat down next to him, grinning.

"You missed a spot," Standish offered helpfully.

Chris ignored him. "So, how'd it go with, uh, 'Snot' and 'Vomit'?"

"'Puke' and 'Snot,'" Ezra corrected helpfully. "And it was some of the most fun I've had in months."

That caused Larabee's eyebrows to climb. "We've been that busy?"

Ezra chuckled, but his eyes held a serious expression as he said, "Yes, we have been."

Chris nodded, his expression turning serious as well. "Yeah… Look, about the Collier case…"

Standish held up his hand to stop him. "If you think you have a need to apologize, I can assure you… you do not – not to me, at least."

"Meaning?" he asked, already knowing where the man was headed. It was a damn conspiracy, and they were all in on it.

"I believe it is Mr. Tanner who deserves an apology," Ezra said, meeting his eyes unwaveringly. "His actions – regardless of what you might think of them – undoubtedly saved both of our lives."

He sighed softly, but Ezra still heard him. Before Standish could continue, he said quickly, "I agree, but it was still a—"

"It was the only way he could be sure that you were not killed."

"We weren't killed," he corrected.

Ezra flashed his gold tooth. "Yes, well, it was fortunate that saving your life also saved mine, but I have no doubt that Mr. Tanner's thoughts were on your safety at the time of the incident."

That sent a blush racing to his cheeks and he ducked his head and stared down at his nearly empty cup. "Ezra…"

"There is no need to try and convince me otherwise," the undercover man continued, his tone decidedly upbeat. "The power of love is… a rare gift when one is allowed to see it in action. And I have no doubt that was exactly what I saw that day, which is all the more reason why you and Mr. Tanner need to… bury the hatchet, as they say. Yours is a friendship too deep to be lost over something so trivial. Yes, it appears that our Mr. Tanner has finally come around to understanding that we are his family."

Chris choked on the last bite of his sundae, coughing and sputtering.

Standish laughed. "What's wrong, Mr. Larabee?"

"Nothing, damn it," he managed to gasp out, then coughed again, trying to spear the man with a glare, but it had lost too much of its usual force to be effective. "I just hope you're right."

"I'm guessing that the two of you have been avoiding each other since we took down Mr. Collier?"

"Something like that," he growled at the man.

"Well then, I would say that an apology is long overdue," Ezra stated as he pushed to his feet. "As for me, I'm going to go get one of those delicious-looking sundaes."

Chris watched him go, then leaned over and tossed his empty cup into one of the many trash cans scattered throughout the park and waited for Ezra to return with his treat, sitting down in the same spot as before.

"I expected you to be off, looking for Mr. Tanner," the undercover man said before he began to dig into the sundae with obvious relish.

"I have been looking for him, but I can't seem to find him," Chris replied grumpily.

"The last time I saw him, Mr. Tanner was admiring a collection of knives, swords, and other sharp and pointy weapons being sold by a very large man in what looks like medieval peasant garb. He's located near the jousting field, between the silversmith's and the tarot reader's booths." He pointed in the general direction, then turned his attention back to his ice cream.

When Chris still didn't leave, the undercover man added, "He and the weapons dealer were engaged in what sounded like a complicated conversation on the merits of… well, something or another. I'm quite sure he's still there."

With a huffed sigh, Larabee stood and started off. He might as well get this over with, even if it had been a stupid move.

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

He found the silversmith's booth first, one of the many necklaces hanging from a series of wooden pegs catching his eye as he approached. The necklace piece was a small, impossibly intricate, silver butterfly – just the sort of thing Sarah would have found irresistible.

He stopped to admire the piece, a shadow of the old pain washing over him. The loss still hurt, but it had faded into a familiar ache now, a feeling that was more comforting than wounding, really. For a while he'd felt guilty about the change, but he knew it was a natural consequence of time.

Time and the sense of family he now had in his life.

Hell, ever since the day he'd first put Team Seven together the pain had started to subside and, after Vin had joined them, somewhere along the way, he'd learned to live again – had learned to feel… care… love. It wasn't something he'd expected, but he was grateful for it. Or at least he had been until that day at Collier's bust.

But seeing Vin risk his life like that…

Seeing that had brought back all the old fear and pain. What if he lost Vin or one of the others like he'd lost Sarah?

He didn't think he could face that, which probably went a long way toward explaining why it was that fear and pain had combined that day to create an overwhelming anger he just couldn't control.

He'd jumped down Tanner's throat right there in front of the perps, the team… hell, right in front of Team Two and the DPD officers who had been there to help. He'd dressed him down like a drill sergeant with a new recruit…

It must have been humiliating. Shit, no wonder the man hadn't said more than a few words to him since that afternoon.

Chris huffed out a breath and took a step back, his gaze still on the necklace. He'd seen the anger spring into Vin's eyes in response to his words, too. But that anger had quickly been replaced by pain, and more than a little confusion. Then Tanner had told him exactly what he could do with his opinion, and had stalked off.

And Vin had stayed as far away from him as he could get after that.

Not that I blame him, he thought, guilt weighing his shoulder and causing them to slump. Shit… I fucked up. Badly.

But he really didn't want to see the man risk his life for him. Not like that.

He'd been through hell once, he didn't want to try and endure it again; didn't feel that he ought to have to. And, boy, didn't that sound arrogant? As if he could dictate his future to the Fates, or God, or whoever/whatever might be out there, the grand puppeteer.

When it came right down to it, he'd been scared – terrified. He simply didn't want to lose Vin. He couldn't. He really wasn't sure he'd survive it, and he knew for a fact that he sure as hell wouldn't want to survive it.

But, given his luck, he would. He'd live to feel every fuckin' feeling that would come…

He shook his head to interrupt the depressing train of thought. Didn't matter; none of it. What he'd done was wrong, and he owed Vin an apology.

And maybe, just maybe, Vin might see clear to forgive him.

If he was lucky.

He sucked in a deep breath and held it, becoming aware of just how hard his heart was pounding. He was scared again.

What if Vin told him to fuck off?

What if Vin decided he wasn't worth the effort?

Sun glinted off the butterfly necklace and he could just imagine what Sarah would say to him: He loves you, Chris, you're family. He won't walk away; how could he?

But he wasn't so sure. A frown creased his forehead. And just how long had Sarah been talking to him like that?

I never stopped…

He shivered violently as a chill snaked down his back and he swallowed thickly, wondering what the hell was going on.

Find Vin, Chris. Talk to him…

He hadn't heard her voice like this before…

Now, Chris. Go find Vin, please.

Something was wrong. He looked away from the glinting jewelry, gaze searching for Tanner. He saw the tops of a couple of pikes and a bardiche and knew it must be the weapons dealer Ezra had mentioned.

He started over, already rehearsing what he was going to say when he found Tanner.

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

His steps faltered as soon as he saw Tanner. The younger man was standing close to the middle of a long, wooden bench covered with knives of all shapes and sizes. A few other people were also standing in front of the bench, admiring the various blades, while others milled at the ends of the bench, looking at the pole-weapons and swords that stood or hung from hooks on the wooden flats that had been erected behind the bench. A tall, heavy-set man dressed in period costume was chatting with a small group of people, who were handling some of the swords like they might actually know what they were doing.

His attention returned to Tanner and, for a moment, all he could see was Vin, back in that old condemned hotel, diving through the window, coming up onto one knee in the middle of the room, his rifle coming up at the same time, firing…

Josiah had been right. It had been a heroic move, something you'd see in a movie, but this had been real life. Collier and his followers had started to question their loyalty, his and Ezra's. He'd felt it all starting to crumble, felt that belly-dropping panic as he'd realized they were going to have to fight their way out. The odds had not been in their favor, at least not until Tanner had crashed the party.

Hell, they still weren't in their favor, but the others had heard it happening as well, and they were right behind Vin. The surprise factor had served them well.

In the end, he and Ezra had walked away with nothing more than a few bruises and a couple of scrapes. Some of the other teams were already calling it a "damn miracle," and he had to agree. It was a damn miracle Vin hadn't gotten himself killed.

He huffed out a breath, the distant echo of Sarah's voice urging him to imagine it from the other side. If it had been Vin and Ezra in that meeting, if he'd known it was all falling apart…

Shit. He didn't want to admit it, he really didn't, but he already knew the truth. Turn the tables and he would have done exactly what Vin had done, or something like it.

And that was what he needed to tell Tanner.

He took a step forward, but stopped again when he heard an angry male voice tear through the conversations swirling around him.

"You fuckin' bitch! You just had to rub my nose it in, didn't you!"

Larabee looked for the source of the rage-filled bellow. The man was young, probably in his early twenties, and he was tall – well over six feet – but soft-looking and a little flabby around the middle. However, the fact that the guy was out of shape did absolutely nothing to lift the waterfall of fear that began to rain down upon Chris, brought about by the presence of the decorative knife the man was clutching tightly in his hand.

Time slowed and motion tunneled in Larabee's perception.

He glanced to the left of the man, his gaze raking over Tanner, who still had his back turned to the man, and stopping on a woman. She was around the same age as the man, small and petite. Her blue eyes were rounded so wide with fear that she looked almost cartoon-like. She hugged a small child to her side. Beside her, another man pulled himself up to his full height, which still fell several inches short of the other man's.

"I told you not to!" the angry man bellowed.

People were scurrying away from the confrontation. A woman squealed as she tripped on something and fell to her hands and knees. Someone helped her up and away…

"I told you what'd I do!"

Chris' attention returned to the red-faced man. He could see the intent in his eyes, and automatically reached for the weapon he wasn't carrying.

Oh, God, he thought, seeing the man lunge forward, seeing Vin finally move.

Tanner was going to intercept him. He was going to take him down as easily as he had Collier's men, as easily as he had so many others. Heroic, as always…

But the man who had been standing beside the woman was moving as well, shoving her and the kid back, taking an off-balanced, lunging stride forward. He collided with Tanner's shoulder, and Vin was also thrown off-balance, his foot jerking out to the side to keep him from falling, and altering his path as the knife the man was holding began to thrust forward.

Chris felt his breath catch in his chest. He wanted to reach out and stop what he knew was going to happen, but he couldn't. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't even call out a warning in time, and yet he could see it all playing out so clearly…

His perception narrowed further, focused on the long, slightly curved blade of the knife. It was a beautiful piece of work, and it was going to kill his best friend.

No! he cried silently as he saw the blade bite into Tanner's leather jacket, saw Vin's expression of surprise as it pierced his body, sinking into him. For an eternal, fleeting moment their gazes locked and Chris could read all the emotions there in the man's blue eyes: apology, fear, and… sorrow.

But he understood. Somehow it all made perfect sense. Vin loved him like a brother, and he was sorry he had to say goodbye…

"No!" he yelled, the sound strangled, begging.

A stranger entered the picture – a big man, Black and muscular. He grabbed the attacker from behind, had him down on the ground a moment later, subdued.

Chris felt himself moving forward, trying to get to Vin before he fell, but it felt like he was trying to run through water.

For a moment Tanner was on his feet, although partially bent over, his hands up, his fingers splayed open on either side of the knife hilt like he was afraid to touch it, and maybe he was. His gaze was locked on the blade where it disappeared through his clothes and into his body.

"Vin!" Chris shouted.

Tanner's chin came up, his head turned, and blue eyes full of regret met his. He saw Vin's body jerk slightly as numbness gave way to pain and he started to fall.

The lump that jumped into Larabee's throat nearly choked him. He stumbled forward, watching as someone else caught his friend. The expression on the man's face might have been amusing under different circumstances. It was so obvious he didn't know what to do, didn't want to be touching Vin…

Chris reached them, sliding to a stop, time and motion snapping back to their normal, chaotic pace. "Call an ambulance!" he barked. His gaze snapped to the weapons dealer. "Is there security here?"

The man nodded, and a teenaged girl bolted away, presumably to find them.

Chris was already moving on, looking down at Vin's attacker, then up at the man who had stopped him. "You have him?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," the man called back.

"Everybody stay put," Larabee yelled, but he needn't have bothered. No one was going anywhere. They were all staring at Vin…


He turned. It was Ezra. "Get the others – now!" But Standish was already turning away, running. Standish never ran… When he swung back, his eyes caught those of the man who was holding Vin.

"I need some help," the guy croaked, staggering under Tanner's weight. He started to lower the injured man to the ground.

"No!" Larabee scolded. He didn't know why, but he didn't want Vin lying on the ground. He stepped forward, shoving the weapons off the bench and turning back. He bent over and took hold of Tanner's feet, lifting them carefully. He winced when he heard Vin groan, but a moment later the sniper was lying on top of the wooden bench, his hands still held on either side of the knife hilt.

Chris shouldered the other man aside and leaned over Vin, catching the man's eyes. "Vin, hang on, okay? Help's on the way." He could see the panic in Tanner's eyes, the pain… His stomach roiled and he felt the sundae climbing up the back of his throat, but he swallowed several times, forcing it back down.


His head jerked around and he was looking over his shoulder. Nathan. Thank God.

Jackson was running toward them, Josiah right behind him. The onlookers scrambled to get out of the two men's way.

When Nathan reached the bench, he stopped, his gaze sweeping up Vin's body and catching on the protruding knife. Reaching out with one hand, the one-time medic swept Larabee back out of his way, then stepped up next to the injured man, asking, "Vin, are you okay?" He knew the question sounded crazy, but he needed to know if Tanner's airway was patent.

"Been better," Vin managed. "Can y' get it out?"

Jackson shook his head, thoughts already evaluating – breathing intact, cerebral circulation adequate for the time being… His gaze shifted to the hilt and Tanner's hands. "Best we leave it alone," he said, his tone one of apology. "The doctors will take it out at the hospital, okay?"

"Hurts." One word, soft, almost whimpered… wrong. Vin never let on how much he hurt.

"Yeah, I'll bet it does," Nathan replied, shifting down slightly. He reached for one of Vin's hands, but the man jerked it away.

"No! Don't touch it!" Tanner yelped.

"I'm not going to touch it, Vin. I just want to see how badly you're bleeding."

Somehow, Josiah had gotten around behind the bench. He looked at the dealer and asked, "You know what kind of knife that is?"

The man nodded.

"You have another one?" Sanchez questioned.

He nodded again.

"Get it," the big profiler instructed.

The man looked utterly confused.

"The doctors will need to know the shape and the length of the blade they're dealing with," he explained.

"Oh. Right… Yeah, all right… It's a seventeen-inch blade… Here." He bent down, searching through the stock Larabee had swept off the top of the bench. He picked up a twin from the ground and handed it to Josiah, hilt first.

"Thank you." Sanchez laid the weapon on the bench a foot or so above Vin's head, then leaned over the injured man and smiled reassuringly. "You ready to go home already?"

Vin chuffed out a laugh, wincing as his abdominal muscles moved. "Yeah, guess so."

"Well, all right, but I was really hoping to try my hand again at the ale toasting contest at three…" As he spoke, he reached out, covering one of Tanner's shaking hands with his, his fingers fitting in carefully between Vin's. He curled them into his palm and gently pulled Vin's hand away from the knife hilt. "That's right… Easy, Vin, let Nathan take a look, all right?"

Tanner's fingers curled down tightly on top of Josiah's, his hand continuing to shake.

On the other side of the bench, Chris also reached out, sliding his palm into Tanner's other hand and holding on, moving it out of Jackson's way.

Nathan was immediately at work, carefully unbuttoning Vin's flannel shirt and lifting it back as best he could to get a look at the area around the wound. Tanner's white T-shirt was soaked with blood where it was drawn into the entrance of the wound, but the seep hadn't spread too far.

"Okay, looks like it's not bleeding too badly," he said, adding silently, On the outside, anyway.

The first distant wails of an approaching siren reached them just as JD, Raine, and Casey hurried up, Ezra shepherding them along.

"Oh my God," Casey gasped, her hand flying to her mouth as soon as she saw Vin and realized what had happened.

Raine's hand was at her throat as she looked from Vin to Nathan and back again. Nathan offered her a reassuring smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, which really frightened her.

JD pulled Casey into a hug, holding her as they waited.

"Where's Buck?" Chris asked Standish, still cradling Vin's hand in his.

"At the entrance to show the paramedics where to go," Ezra explained.

He nodded. "See if that guy needs any help with the man who did this," Larabee told the undercover man, jerking his chin in the direction of the Black man who was still keeping the attacker on the ground.

Ezra nodded and walked over, looking down at the subdued man. "What in God's name were you thinking?" he hissed softly.

"Wasn't thinking," the Black man replied.

"No, I don't suppose he was. Thank you for your help."

He nodded.

"Ezra Standish, ATF," he said. "The wounded man is Vin Tanner, also ATF."

"Ben Lowell, Colorado Springs PD," the man replied.

"Ah," Standish said. That explained a lot.

A few moments later they saw an ambulance rolling down the dusty dirt road toward them. It pulled to a stop next to the booth, two paramedics climbing out and heading straight for Vin. A Douglas County Sheriff's vehicle was following the ambulance and it parked on the other side of the booth, the deputy getting out and going over to where Ben and Ezra were pulling the young man to his feet.

Buck jogged up to join the others, asking, "What the hell happened?" But Chris was hovering near Vin as the medics moved in to work on him, and he didn't offer an explanation.

"Mr. Tanner has been stabbed," was all Ezra could tell him, leaving the prisoner in the hands of the officers.

With the paramedics there, Nathan walked over to join Buck and Ezra, JD, Raine, and Casey joining them. Josiah stayed behind the bench, continuing to hold Vin's hand while the paramedics worked.

Nathan kept up a steady stream of softly spoken commentary on what the medics were doing, and why.

Having been forced to move, Chris remained just beyond the medics, watching as they went about getting Vin ready to transport. The flannel shirt and T-shirt under it were cut off Tanner's body and the injured man was given oxygen. A cardiac monitor was attached to his chest and two IVs started. As they worked, one of the two men asked Vin questions about allergies, medications, his health, and alcohol and drug use. The man's vital signs were checked and rechecked as they stabilized the knife before moving Vin from the bench to a waiting gurney on which there was a short back board. Once Tanner was secured, they moved him into the waiting ambulance.

Nathan knew Vin was probably bleeding on the inside, and his worry climbed when he heard one of the paramedics say, "BP's falling…"

The other was nodding, speaking into the mike he was wearing. "…occult hemorrhage…"

Chris started to climb into the ambulance as well, but the deputy reached out and stopped him. A brief but heated argument ensued, and Larabee gestured to Josiah to go with Vin. The big profiler climbed into the back and, a moment later, the ambulance was heading back out of the park.

When it became clear that Larabee was the only one of the agents who had seen the incident, the others were told they could go. Chris ordered them to the hospital, although Buck stayed behind so he could drive Larabee to join them later. There was no way he was letting Chris drive by himself right now.

The deputy spoke at length to Chris, Ben, the woman and her new boyfriend. While he did, her former boyfriend sat in the back of a squad car, cuffed and withdrawn. When more deputies arrived, the man was taken away and the rest of the witnesses interviewed as quickly as possible.

Larabee paced restlessly, wanting to leave, but knowing he was stuck there until the deputies cut him loose.

"Agent Larabee," one of the deputies greeted as he walked up to Chris. Buck quickly joined them, tucking the phone number of one of the washing wenches into his pocket as he did. "I'm going to let you go, but I'll need you to review your statement within twenty-four hours."

The blond nodded. "I'll be at whichever hospital they took my agent to," he said. "Send someone over with it and I'll do it there."

The deputy nodded just as Wilmington's cell phone rang. He fished it from his pocket and opened it, pressing it to his ear. "Yeah?"

"We're at the Summit Trauma Center, in Colorado Springs," JD informed him.

"Okay, we're on the way," Buck replied, ending the call. He asked the deputy for directions, which the man supplied.

Minutes later the two agents were on the road, heading south toward Colorado Springs.

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

When Chris and Buck arrived at the hospital, they found Josiah and Ezra seated in the ER waiting room. Larabee frowned.

"JD took Casey home," the profiler explained. "Needless to say, she was pretty upset. And Raine got a page from the shelter; Nathan's driving her back. They both said they'll be back as soon as they can."

Chris nodded. "Any news?"

Josiah's expression turned worried and brooding and it was left to Ezra to say, "They took Mr. Tanner straight to surgery as soon as we arrived."

Buck dropped into a chair with a long sigh and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "Damn… Goddamn…"

"That was…" Standish checked his watch. "…almost an hour ago. However, now that you're here, we can go up to the surgical waiting room. They said someone should be around, and that we could ask for updates."

"Let's go," Larabee replied.

Buck waved them on, saying, "I'll wait here until JD and Nathan get back; let 'em know where we are."

"They'll know," Josiah said softly as he stood and offered his hand to help the ladies' man to his feet. "They both know Vin went straight to the OR."

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

The four men made their way to the second waiting room in silence. It was more comfortable than the space just off the ER, with softer furniture and more subdued lighting. There was also a coffee machine that brewed individual cups from small plastic packets available for free. They each helped themselves to one, then found someplace to settle in and wait.

Twenty minutes later, an elderly woman wearing a volunteer's smock approached them. "Are you all waiting for someone in surgery?" she asked them, her blue eyes clear in her heavily-wrinkled face.

"Yes, ma'am, we're all waiting for news on our friend, Vin Tanner," Josiah replied.

"I'll see what I can find out for you," she said, smiling reassuringly and then walking over to a door with a small plaque that read: "No Admittance." Ignoring the sign, she went inside, the door softly clicking closed behind her.

"What the hell happened, anyway?" Buck finally asked.

Josiah and Ezra both looked at Chris, equally curious.

Larabee sighed, then shook his head and shrugged. "I'm not exactly sure. It all happened so fast. Some guy started yelling at a woman – his ex-girlfriend, from what I overheard the deputies saying – then he grabbed a knife and lunged at her and her kid—" He stopped, struggling to push the image of the blade, sinking into Vin's body, out of his mind. He had to, or he knew he'd be revisiting the coffee he'd just finished. Another sigh and a few moments later, and he continued, "Vin was just standing there, caught between the two of them. You know how he is, it's like he's invisible. When the man started to move, so did Vin…" He trailed off as he shivered. "He could've stopped him, but the woman's new boyfriend decided he had to play hero. He bumped into Vin, threw him off-balance…" He trailed off again and shook his head, the images rushing back once more. He swallowed convulsively several times, willing his stomach to settle.

Josiah shook his head. "What is it these days? Why can't men seem to let go anymore?"

Ezra nodded his agreement. "He should have just moved on, found himself another girlfriend."

"Well, he didn't," Larabee snapped, then reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose, mumbling, "I'm sorry…"

"No need to apologize, Mr. Larabee."

"We're all worried, stud," Buck added.

Their conversation died when the door opened and the old woman stepped back out into the waiting room. She offered them another, smaller, smile. "Mr. Tanner is still in surgery, but the nurse I spoke to said everything was going pretty well. They're not sure how long it will be."

"Thank you," Chris said.

"My pleasure. I'll check back in a half-hour or so; see if I can't find out more for you then."

"We'd appreciate it," Josiah told her.

She nodded. "There's a chapel just down the hall on the right, if you'd like to visit," she offered. "And the cafeteria's on the third floor. Unlike most hospitals, the food here is actually very delicious."

"Thank you, madam," Ezra replied.

She nodded again and left them.

Josiah hesitated for a moment, but then pushed to his feet, saying, "Think I'll see what the chapel looks like… If anything—?"

"I'll come get you," Buck promised him.

Sanchez nodded and started off. The others watched him go, none of them quite ready to abandon their vigil just yet.

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

The old woman returned every thirty or forty minutes, bringing back more of the same news each time she disappeared behind the closed door. By the time four hours had passed, Nathan and JD had both returned and Ezra and Buck had both made visits to the chapel – to keep Josiah company, they said.

By the time five hours had passed, Josiah had taken Nathan and gone to the cafeteria to bring back some light snacks for everyone. Chris didn't touch the food they brought back, or the coffee after that first cup. He just sat, staring at the closed door, waiting. In his mind, he watched the incident playing out, again and again.

There hadn't been a single thing he could have done to change the course of events; he knew that. He wasn't a complete ego-maniac who thought he could control the forces of the universe, although there were times he wished he could – like now.

He realized one thing, sitting there, though: if he hadn't lost his temper like he had, if everything had been fine between the two of them, then Vin would have been with him at the park. He wouldn't have been at that table, alone. Therefore, what had happened to Vin had been his fault.

He should've apologized to Vin sooner.

Hell, he shouldn't have even said what he had in the first place. But it was too late now, too late to call back the words, too late to make the apology… just too damn late.

A young woman walked by wearing a pink T-shirt. On the front was a multi-colored butterfly and it caught his eye, reminding him of the silver one he'd seen at the park. The one that had reminded him of Sarah…

He's not going to die.

He blinked and shook his head as a cold chill snaked down his back. He could swear that sounded just like Sarah's voice, but that was impossible.

What if I lose him before I can tell him I'm sorry?

The beckoning, crippling depression was held off only by the arrival of a deputy. "Sorry to bother you, but you asked us to bring this by." He handed Chris a typed version of the statement he'd given the officers at the park earlier.

"Yeah, thanks," the blond replied. He read it over, made a few corrections and additions, then signed it and handed it back to the waiting man.

"How's he doing?" the deputy asked.

"As well as can be expected," Ezra said for the blond, who had immediately returned to his silent vigil as soon as the paper had left his hand.

The deputy nodded, his expression sympathetic, then left.

The others exchanged worried glances, but they knew there was nothing they could do for Chris. The only thing that was going to help him now was hearing Vin was out of surgery, and everything was going to be fine.

Josiah stood and returned to the chapel. The others continued to wait.

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

Josiah had just returned to the waiting room when a man pulled the door open and stepped out to join them. He looked like he was getting close to forty, with thick, wavy brown hair that was just beginning to show a few streaks of grey. Tall and trim, he had that outdoorsy look so many residents of Colorado cultivated. He was dressed in faded jeans and a brick red T-shirt under his green surgical lab coat. Socks that matched the color of his shirt were visible with the Birkenstock sandals he was wearing.

After a brief glance at the six men, he asked, "Are all of you waiting for Vin Tanner?"

Chris shot to his feet. "Yes, we are. How is he?"

The man couldn't quite suppress the small grin that tucked in the corners of his mouth. "Mr. Tanner is holding his own." He glanced around at the men again, then said, "Why don't you come with me." He turned and started off, the others all climbing to their feet and following him.

A short while later they were all seated around a smallish conference table. The man laid a folder and a cloth-wrapped item on the table and began. "I'm Dr. Seth Gillam. I did the surgery on Mr. Tanner. When he arrived, his vital signs were unstable and he in shock, because his liver had been lacerated, and he was bleeding internally. His intestines and stomach were not penetrated, so I feel the risk for peritonitis is minimal. In other words, Mr. Tanner was a very lucky man. The only injury he sustained was to his liver."

"How bad was the damage?" Nathan asked, knowing any solid organ injury could be serious.

"Not nearly as bad as it might have been." Chandler reached out and folded back an edge of the cloth to reveal the knife that had wounded Vin. It had been placed in a plastic bag and would be on its way to the police. "As you can see, this barb on the upper edge of the blade could have given us some real trouble, but it only penetrated to just below the first layer of muscle tissue. The tip of the blade lacerated one lobe of Mr. Tanner's liver, involving about twenty-five to thirty percent, what we call a mild to moderate liver injury."

Nathan let out the breath he was holding and settled back in his chair, feeling better about the whole situation. His own training told him that Vin's injury would probably resolve within three or four months, a whole lot better than what he'd expected. His reaction cued the others to relax as well – all except Chris, who was peering steadily at the doctor like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"We'll be keeping Mr. Tanner for a few days to be sure we've gotten the internal bleeding under control, and watch for any complications due to infection."

"But he's going to be fine, right?" JD asked the surgeon.

"I think Mr. Tanner should recover completely in a few months' time, barring any unforeseen complications, of course."

"When can we see him?" Larabee asked, still looking nervous.

Dr. Gillam smiled. "If someone wants to sit with him in recovery, that would be fine. We'll get him moved onto the post-surgical ward in a little while."

Chris stood, making it clear that he would be the one sitting with Vin.

The doctor stood and picked up the file, then looked down at the knife. He folded the cloth back over it and picked that up as well. "If you'll follow me, Mister…?"

"Larabee, Chris Larabee."

"Well, if you'll come with me, we'll go drop in on Mr. Tanner." He glanced around at the others. "As soon as Mr. Tanner's in his room, you're all welcome to visit, just keep it to a dull roar and let him sleep as much as he can. He's not going to be very comfortable the next few days…"

"We will," Nathan assured him. "Thank you, Doctor."

"Call me Seth," the man replied with a genuinely warm smile. "And you're very welcome. Oh, there's a nice hotel across the street, if you want to get some sleep yourselves. He should be awake and ready for visitors in the morning."

"What are the visiting hours?" JD asked.

Chandler smiled again. "All day, every day; nothing specific, the nurses will ask you to step out into the hall if they need to but, other than that, you're welcome to visit or stay as long as you'd like. There's a small sofa that doubles as a bed in each room, so if someone wants to stay with him overnight, that's fine, too."

"I'll be staying," Larabee said, looking at the others. "Why don't the rest of you go get something to eat and get some sleep?"

"All right, but we'll be back in the morning," Buck assured him.

Chris nodded.

"Very good, then," Gillam said, then shifted his attention to Chris. "I'll be around to check on him after they've moved him into his room, but if you have any questions or concerns, just ask someone to page me. Now, let's get you in there…"

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

"He's really all right?" Chris asked as he walked with Gillam.

"Yes, I think so. It really could've been much worse." He paused at the door leading into the recovery area. "He's going to look a little worse for wear at the moment, but the swelling will go down, and the drain is there to remove any seepage. It'll look worse than it really is, okay?"

Larabee nodded. He'd heard much the same from several other doctors over the years, all of his men having the annoying knack for getting hurt.

And isn't that the pot calling the kettle black…

He shook off the chill and snorted silently. He wasn't sure why he was hearing Sarah's voice in his head, but it made him feel… comforted, like he wasn't in this alone and, right now, he was feeling awfully alone.

Gillam pushed the door open and led the way in and over to a gurney where Vin lay. He was one of a handful of patients in the recovery room, each separated from the others by a moveable curtain that encircled the space around them on three sides. The doctor introduced him to the nurse who was with Vin, who responded, "I'm Nan, pleased to meet you, Mr. Larabee."

"Chris," he corrected her.

"Chris it is," she replied, still efficiently going about her duties as she explained what all the various medical equipment attached to Vin's body was for.

He let her words wash over him, having heard most of it before.

"Remember, if you see something that concerns you, talk to Nan, or have me paged," Gillam told him, then patted Chris on the shoulder and headed off.

Chris stood for a moment, unsure what to do next. The nurse was still working, readjusting the oxygen mask on Vin's face, so he stayed where he was at foot of the gurney. He stared at the younger man. Why the hell had he acted like such a fool?

But he knew the answer: Fear. The fear of losing someone else he loved. He'd done similar things with Buck as well, but the big-hearted man knew where it was coming from, and he'd called him on it.

And what had it gotten him? He'd nearly lost Vin, and for what? For fear? Fear wasn't worth it.

He was aware of Nan as she checked Vin's pulse oximeter, then his blood pressure. An electrocardiogram kept track of each beat of the man's heart and, for once, the soft repeating sound was a comfort to Chris. As long as it continued, he knew Vin was alive, and there was still a chance he could make things right again. At least, he hoped he could.

The nurse moved on, checking bandages, drain, and IVs. Vin was getting blood to replace what he'd lost. In his mind, he recalled the look on Vin's face just after he'd been stabbed…

Christ. Even hurt Tanner had been thinking about him, about how he was going to feel…

Chris sighed softly and shook his head. And how the hell had he ever deserved that? He really was a fool. And, looking down at the unconscious man, he marveled at just how young and vulnerable he looked.

God, he'd fucked up, really fucked up.

Being scared was no excuse for what he'd said to Vin in that house, in front of those people, and as soon as Vin was able to hear it, he was making his apology. By God, he wasn't going to let fear come between them, not ever again. Life was too short, and love too precious to waste on fear.

He snorted softly. Nice words, Larabee, but can you actually pull it off? He knew himself well enough to know it would be a struggle, but Vin was worth it.


He blinked and glanced over at the nurse. "Excuse me?"

She smiled understandingly and said, "You can have a seat on the stool, if you'd like. He should start coming around anytime now."

"He always gets nauseous," Chris warned her.

She nodded and smiled, then reached out, cupping her hands over Vin's stomach and just standing there, breathing deeply, her expression one of peace, and… loving-kindness.

"What… What are you doing?" he finally had to ask.

"A little Reiki; it might help," she replied. As another nurse walked by she called softly, "Tina, can you grab me some of the barf chips?" Larabee's eyebrows climbed and Nan grinned at him. "Sorry about that, it's what we call the ice chips that are laced with an anti-nausea medication."

The other woman returned with a cup full of ice chips, setting them on a small stand that was within easy reach.

Nan continued to stand there, her hands cupped above Vin's stomach for a couple more minutes, then she went back to checking the various monitoring devices and his vital signs.

A few minutes later, Tanner moaned softly and his head rolled slightly to the side. Chris watched as his eyebrows drew together above the bridge of his nose as he frowned.

"Mr. Tanner?" Nan called softly as she lightly rubbed his arm. "Hi, are you awake?"

Chris watched Vin's frown deepen slightly.

"Mr. Tanner, can you open your eyes for me?" the nurse encouraged. "You're in the recovery room," she told him as she removed the oxygen mask. "Everything is going great. Your friend Chris is here."

That brought an immediate response from the groggy man. "Chris…?"

Larabee felt his heart lurch. That single word had sounded so hopeful. He moved closer and looked down at Vin, who looked all of ten or eleven years old at that moment. "Hey, Cowboy," he greeted, "how are you feeling?"

Vin considered the question for a moment, then blinked owlishly and replied, "'M cold… 'n' thirsty."

Nan rubbed his arm again and asked, "Any nausea?"

Again it took a moment before Vin replied, and the expression on his face was one of surprise when he said, "No."

She handed Chris the cup of ice chips and a plastic spoon. "Just a couple," she warned him. "Let's see how he's going to do first."

Larabee nodded, fishing one chip out onto the spoon and transferring it to Vin's mouth.

"Mmm," Tanner managed as he sucked on it, his relief so evident on his face it made Chris smile.

As Vin sucked on the ice chip, Nan picked up a phone on the wall and spoke briefly into it. A few moments later, an orderly arrived with three smallish items tucked into cloth covers. The nurse placed one under each of Vin's knees and the third behind his shoulders.

Vin frowned, then a pleased, almost blissful expression crossed his face. "'S warm," he whispered.

"Heating pads," she told Larabee softly.

He nodded his appreciation.

"Vin, can you take a deep breath for me?" Nan asked him.

Tanner did as asked, wincing slightly.

"That's good, Vin, really good. I want you to keep taking nice, deep breaths, okay?"

He nodded, but he didn't look too happy about it.

"Does that hurt?" she asked him.

"Some," he replied, which surprised Chris, who usually only got "I'm fine" from the man when it came to questions about how he was feeling.

"Do you want me to give you something for it?" the nurse asked. She was holding her hands out over his stomach again.

Vin thought for a moment, then said, "No… ain't that bad."

"All right, but if it gets worse, I want you to tell me, okay?"

He nodded. "Mouth's dry," he complained softly.

"Here," Chris said, passing another ice chip to him.

Nan went back to checking the monitors, then smiled at Chris, saying, "He's doing just great. I'm going to call and have them get his room ready. He should be ready to be moved in twenty minutes or so."

Chris nodded. He continued to stand there, feeding Vin ice chips every few minutes while the activity took place around him. An anesthesiologist checked Vin and, several minutes later, another nurse arrived with two orderlies.

Nan finished filling out a page on the chart she had been using to record her findings, then handed it over to the new nurse, who took it and looked down at Vin. "It's time to get you moved into your room, all right?"

"Okay," he replied.

Nan patted his shoulder. "You did real good, Vin."

He offered her a slightly besotted smile and Chris grinned, wondering if he'd have a date arranged before he was discharged. She was a pretty young woman, after all, with smiling brown eyes, flawless pale skin and auburn hair cut short in a flattering style.

"Hi, Vin," the other nurse said, "I'm Teresa. We're going to take you to your room and get you into a more comfortable bed, okay?"

Tanner nodded. "Okay."

And now he was looking and sounding closer to five. And if that wasn't a giggle he'd just heard… He shook his head, too glad things were going well to worry about it now.

Chris stood back and the orderlies took over.

A few moments later they were heading down a hallway to an elevator, then up a floor. Before long they were in a private room, Vin efficiently transferred to the bed. Teresa checked all his monitors, his drain, bandages, and IVs. She even had the gel packs heated again in a microwave, and replaced them so Vin stayed warm.

Chris waited silently while she asked Vin if he was hurting any, and then explained to him how he could use the pump on his IV to self-administer medication for pain. Like that was necessary. They could all give the same speech, Vin better than she could. But Tanner just nodded and then she was gone, the two men finally alone.

Shit. What was he supposed to do now?

"You, uh, remember what happened?" he asked Vin. He was standing at the side of the bed, reaching over the rail to gently rub the younger man's arm without really being conscious of it.

"Some," Vin replied, his eyes already getting droopy, "got stabbed…"

"That you did," Chris replied.

"What happened?" Vin asked, his voice slurring. Blue eyes blinked sluggishly, trying to clear away the fog that must be settling over his vision.

"You stopped him."

"The hard way…"

"Yeah, the hard way," Larabee agreed softly, knowing the image of the knife sinking into Vin's body was going to haunt his dreams for a while to come. "He's in custody. The woman's fine, and so is her son – thanks to you."

"Somebody bumped me," Vin managed as his eyes finally dipped closed.

"That was the new boyfriend. He didn't know she already had her very own white knight riding to the rescue."

"Fuck you, Larabee," was the mumbled response, but he saw the slight blush that colored Vin's otherwise too-pale cheeks.

"Not my type, Tanner," was his quiet reply.

Vin snorted softly in reply, the ghost of a smile lifting the man's lips.

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

Chris snorted and jerked awake. He blinked, frantically rubbing the sleep from his eyes only to have his efforts reveal a grinning Buck Wilmington staring down at him. "What?" he grunted peevishly.

"You're such a ball of sunshine in the morning; anyone ever tell you that?" the amused ladies' man asked.

"Fuck you, Buck."

"No, not me," the man replied, wagging his eyes brows. "But have you seen his nurse?"

"Don't even start," Larabee growled, sitting up and swinging his legs off the edge of the small sofa. He really should have taken the nurse's suggestion and pulled out the folding bed.

Once on his feet, he quickly realized that the others were there as well. Josiah pressed a cup of coffee into his hands, and Nathan handed him a power bar. God, but it was good to have friends like these.

"How'd his night go?" Jackson asked, already digging into Vin's chart to see for himself.

"Good, I think," Chris replied around his first bite of the energy bar. "Slept straight through."

Nathan's eyes rounded with surprise. "No nausea?"

Larabee shook his head, then gulped some of the coffee down. "Nurse in recovery did something to him; seemed to help."

"Did something?" Ezra echoed, his arms folded across his chest as he leaned back against the window sill. "That's sounds… ominous."

The others grinned.

Chris scowled at the man, but he explained, "I don't know what it was… Ree… Ree… Ree-something."

"Reiki?" Josiah questioned.

"Yeah, I think that was it," Larabee said, nodding.

The older man looked a little smug. "I've wondered if that might not help, but I didn't know anyone to ask."

"What is it?" JD asked, completely at a loss and looking like it.

"I believe it's what Mr. Wilmington would refer to as… 'some of that ooga-booga stuff,'" Standish offered.

"Crap, ooga-booga crap," Buck corrected the man. "Some Boulder bullshit."

"What's a man gotta do t' get some peace 'n' quiet 'round here?"

They all turned to look at the man lying in the bed. Vin was grinning up at them a little dopily.

"Think that's a hint?" Buck asked, but he was already walking over to the bedside. "How you feelin', Junior?"

Vin grinned again, his eyes slightly glassy. "'M feelin' good, Bucklin… real good."

"Ah, the wonders of a modern pharmacopoeia," Ezra said, walking over to stand beside Wilmington. "It appears our Mr. Tanner is well-medicated."

"Huh?" Vin replied, trying to follow the conversation, but having little luck.

"He said he's glad you're feeling better," Josiah replied, reaching out to push a wayward lock of hair out of Vin's eyes.

"Yep, 'm feelin' better," Tanner agreed, his eyelids already getting heavy again. "C'n I go home now?" And, a few moments later, he was asleep.

Chris gestured for the men to follow him and then led the way out into the hall. He started to say something, but realized they were taking up a lot of room, so he walked down to the small lounge at the end of the hallway, the others trailing after him. Once there, he finished off the power bar and tossed the wrapper into a waste basket. He sipped on his coffee, then said, "The doctor stopped in last night and said it's looking good. He's supposed to be back sometime this morning."

"He must be hurting some if he's willing to self-medicate," Nathan said, "but that's to be expected."

Chris nodded. "I'm just glad he's taking the medicine." Glancing around at the men, he added, "You guys can head for home. JD, can you drive Vin's Jeep up and leave it at the ranch?"

"Sure, Chris," the younger man replied. "Buck can follow me and give me a ride home."

The ladies' man nodded. "After we check on the horses and feed the dogs. Oh, and you be darn sure you call Nettie and Casey today," he added. "That old woman'll kick your ass from here to Sunday if she don't hear how Vin's doing before this morning's over."

Larabee nodded. "I'll call her as soon as we're done."

"Are we done?" Josiah asked, looking from Chris to the others.

"I called Travis. I'm going to stay down here until they release him," Chris said. "The doctor said it'd probably be four, maybe five days."

The others nodded. It wasn't like any of them hadn't been expecting that.

"I'll bring you some clothes, and your kit, when we come down this evening," Buck told him.

Larabee shook his head. "I've got the emergency bag out in the truck, I'll be fine."

"All right, then," Josiah said, "call us if you need anything."

"And we want regular updates," Nathan added.

"You want me to grab Vin's emergency bag out of the Jeep and leave it in the Ram?" JD asked.

Larabee nodded. He fished his keys out his pocket and tossed them to Dunne, who left to do that.

The others talked a little longer, then, as soon as JD was back, they headed out. Chris returned to Vin's room and, finding him still asleep, decided to try the cafeteria to get himself a real meal and some more coffee. Then he would call Nettie.

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

Much to his delight, Chris discovered that the old woman the day before had been right – the food was considerably better than other hospital food he'd been forced to endure.

Chris arrived back at Vin's room just as Dr. Gillam was leaving.

"Ah, there you are," the doctor said.

"How's he doing?" Chris asked.

"Very good," was the immediate reply, "I couldn't be happier with his progress so far."

Larabee let out the breath he had unconsciously been holding. Was it possible? No complications, no infections, no weirdness of any sort? "You're sure?" he asked, looking worried and unconvinced.

Seth grinned. "Yeah, pretty sure… How are you doing?"

"Me?" Larabee questioned, surprised now. "I'm fine. I didn't get hurt."

"If you stay, try using the bed portion of the sofa," the doctor replied, still looking amused.

That brought the blond up short. He hissed softly and shook his head. "That obvious, huh?"

Gillam shrugged. "After a few years, yeah."

"I'll be fine," Chris assured the physician, adding, "Once I clear the air between us."

"Well, he's all yours until this afternoon, then I want to borrow him to run a few tests."

But, as it turned out, over the next few days, Larabee just couldn't find what he felt was the "right moment" to talk to Vin. Over that time various tubes and monitors were slowly removed, and Tanner was finally gotten up onto his feet and encouraged to walk, slowly, down the hallways. He was tested and retested, pricked, poked, prodded, and otherwise persecuted – in his opinion, anyway – until he was surly and uncommunicative.

Chris stayed out of the way as much as he could, helping as often as he thought he could get away with it, and backing off whenever Tanner turned that piercing blue glare on him. And the others had the gall to complain about him?

He wandered through the hospital, actually bought two novels to read, and even managed to "borrow" a few DVDs from the pediatric ward so they had something reasonable to watch besides the horrendous soap operas, news programs, and game shows that were on television during the day.

Usually, though, he just sat in the room, quietly watching TV or the DVDs right along with Vin, who dozed through much of the material.

He even drove home twice to check on the ranch, and make sure the horses and dogs were being taken care of properly. Not that he had needed to worry. Between the team and his neighbors, everything was running smoothly at work, and at home.

After a long shower, and a good night's sleep in his own bed, he repacked his overnight bag and headed back down to Colorado Springs for more of the same. But he knew on the second drive back that it would be his last. The day after tomorrow Gillam was cutting Vin loose, and he'd be driving Tanner back to the ranch.

At least, he hoped that Vin would agree to stay out at the ranch for the rest of his recuperation. And, if he refused, well, then he'd just drive the man's sorry ass out there anyway, and Tanner could just fucking deal with it. Because, one way or the other, he was going to take care of the man, whether he wanted him to or not. And, one way or the other, he was going to say his piece and be done with it.

Yep, that was exactly what he was going to do…

Pulling into the parking lot at the hospital, Larabee cruised up and down the rows until he found a spot and eased into it. He climbed out, grabbed his bag, and locked the truck. Turning, he headed inside.

When he reached Tanner's room he found it empty.

He frowned. As far as he knew, there had been no major tests scheduled for today, so Vin ought to be right there, in bed. He set his bag down and headed out to the nurses' station to ask where Vin was, but, halfway there, he stopped, spotting Tanner shuffling in his direction.

Vin was slowly making his way down the hall, close enough to the wall so his hand rested comfortably on the railing.

One of the nursing assistants was walking beside him. She was a pretty blonde, petite, with large blue eyes and a heart-shaped face. And Chris could tell from the way she was smiling at Vin that she liked him.

He'll find love one day, and so will you.

He huffed silently, a little annoyed that the voice of his dead wife had somehow become familiar, over the past few days. It wasn't normal. It would never be normal.

And why did he get the distinct impression that that comment amused her?

He was too normal. Or at least he'd always thought he was. But now, well, now he wasn't so sure. Now he was hearing the voice of a dead woman inside his head.

Shit. Maybe he needed to check himself in on the third floor. He'd heard Summit had some top-rated psychologists and psychiatrists working up there. It was obvious to him, at least, that he needed to see one of them, and as soon as possible.

That's not true and you know it, Chris Larabee.

Ah, hell. It was bad enough that he was hearing his dead wife's voice inside his head, but now she was taking Tanner's side? That just wasn't fair! And if that was laugher he was hearing, he was going to—

"Hey, looks like you're doing better," he said when Vin reached him, grateful to have a way to escape his thoughts.

Vin looked up at him and pouted. "Yep, beat the triple bypass guy t' the end of the hall, but he left me in the dust comin' back," Vin replied, looking less than pleased about his progress.

Chris laughed softly, trying not to wonder how many times they could all tempt fate before one of them finally ended up dead. "Yeah, well, you'll do better in the rematch."

"Ain't gonna be no rematch," Tanner said, letting the young woman guide him into his room and over to his bed. She even helped him into it. "I'm goin' home tomorrow, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember, but I was thinking we could set something up for after dinner. I'm sure Ezra would be happy to handicap the race for anyone who wanted to place a little wager on the outcome."

Tanner snorted softly, his hand coming up to press against his abdomen. "Yeah, right."

"Seriously," Larabee replied. "He's already made a fortune up at the nursery."

Vin frowned slightly, not sure if Larabee was yanking his chain or not. "What's he bettin' on up there?"

"Which newborn's going to cry next," Chris replied, deadpan.

Vin blinked, then scowled and grumbled, "Fuck you, Larabee."

The man grinned at the young woman as she headed out, shaking her head and grinning. When she was gone, he said, "We need to talk."

"What, m' poor language in front 'a her? Hell, she's heard a lot worse, believe me."

"No, not about her," Chris said, walking over and sitting down in the chair that was pulled up next to the bed. "Us."

Vin frowned again, looking a little leery. He'd known this talk was coming, but he'd been hoping to put it off until he got out of the hospital. There was just something wrong about getting yelled at when you were lying flat on your back in a hospital bed.

But, before Larabee could continue, Buck and JD came in. Vin saw the annoyance that flashed across Chris' face, and he was grateful for the interruption. He wasn't ready to face another chewing out just yet, but he knew he could only put it off for so long.

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

The following day Vin spent the entire morning being tested for this, that, the other thing, and whatever else the staff could come up with, just for fun. But, in the end, it all proved to be worth it, because Dr. Gillam was pleased with all the results, and he dropped by just after lunch to let Vin and Chris know that he was signing Tanner's release papers. Tanner would be going home in a couple of hours.

Vin raked his teeth over his bottom lip, worrying about how he was going to ask Chris where he'd be staying during his recuperation. If things had been normal, he knew he'd be staying out at the ranch, but things hadn't been normal for a while now. And then there was that comment of Chris' the day before.

It was pretty obvious that Larabee was still pissed at him, even if he'd done a good job of hiding it at the hospital.

If he wasn't so damn tired all the time maybe he could have talked it out earlier, but he was always dropping off to sleep, and Larabee hadn't seemed inclined to talk, so he hadn't pushed it. But now… Now he just wanted to get it over with.

And he needed to know where he was going – back to Purgatory, or out to the ranch?

Vin sighed and glanced over to where Larabee was packing up all the things the staff wanted him to take home with him. Chris had already returned all the DVDs, and donated the assorted paperbacks that had been scattered around his room to the lending library in the gift shop, as well as rounding up all of his personal belongings. In fact, once Chris was done, and he was dressed, they'd be ready to go.

He glanced down at the sweatpants, T-shirt, and hooded sweatshirt that were waiting for him, hoping he had enough energy to actually get them all on.

Knowing there was no way to find out except to try, Vin sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He reached for the sweatpants first, getting them on and then standing to pull them up. He left the drawstring loose, not wanting to put any unnecessary pressure on his still-healing wound. At least he wasn't feeling like his belly might pop open at any moment anymore.

He paused, knowing he couldn't reach the tie that held his hospital gown closed at the back of his neck without pulling on the wound.

"Uh, Chris, can y' help me?"

"Huh?" Larabee replied, looking up from his packing.

"Tryin' t' get dressed," he said, pointing up at the gown's neck.

"Oh. Yeah, sure," the blond said, walking over.

Vin turned his back to the man and waited. A moment later he felt the bow being pulled loose. He tossed the gown onto the bed and reached for the T-shirt.

"I'll help," Chris said, helping him into the loose shirt, and then the sweatshirt.

"My timing is perfect," a voice stated from the doorway.

The two men turned to see Katia, one of the nurses, standing there with a clipboard. She walked in and handed it to Vin, saying, "I just need you to sign there where it's indicated." She handed him a pen, then looked at Chris and added, "The pharmacy has Vin's medications all ready to go. You can swing by and pick them up on the way out."

Vin handed back the forms.

"Wait here and I'll get your ride," she said, stepping out and coming back a few moments later with a wheelchair. He didn't even bother to argue, just took a seat.

Katia pushed the chair, Chris following along beside them, carrying the rest of their stuff. They stopped at the pharmacy, Larabee tucking a bag of pills into his gym bag.

When they reached the outside, Katia waited with Vin while Chris went to get the Ram, pulling it up to the curb so Vin could just shift from the wheelchair to the passenger seat. He didn't touch the seatbelt, and Chris didn't comment on it.

A few moments and a good-bye later, they were heading across the parking lot and pulling out onto the street. Then they were on I-25, heading north.

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

Chris knew something was bothering Vin, but he wasn't sure what it was. Normally, Tanner would have been chomping at the bit to get out of the hospital, but he had looked less than enthusiastic about leaving. And now he was leaning back in his seat, his eyes closed. He didn't think Vin was actually sleeping, but it was hard to be sure.

"Vin?" he called softly.


No, definitely not sleeping. "You okay?"

"I'm fine."

The blond sighed silently.

Talk to him, Chris.

Like he needed to be reminded? He knew he needed to talk to him. He just wasn't sure this was the right time, or the right place.

"You, uh… You mind if I take you out to the ranch?"

Vin opened his eyes and shot Larabee a wary glance, forehead wrinkling with confusion. "The ranch?"

Chris nodded, trying to watch the road and Tanner at the same time.

"But— Uh, yeah, sure…"

Damn, what had Vin been going to say? Didn't he want to go to the ranch? "You sure?"

"Up t' you," Tanner replied.

Damn it, this wasn't going the way he'd wanted it to go.

Christopher Adam Larabee, you tell him you're not mad at him. Tell him you love him, right this instant!

Larabee yelped and jerked like he'd been stung by a bee – or someone had kicked him in the seat of his pants.

"Chris?" Vin was asking, leaning over, looking worried. "You okay?"

"Yeah," he breathed, "I'm fine." Give me a damn minute! He huffed out a breath, feeling like he was being ganged up on.

Vin settled back in his seat, his gaze seemingly locked on his feet. "Look, y' don't gotta take me out t' the ranch if y' don't want me there. I can do just fine at m' own place."

"What do you mean, if I don't want you there? Of course I want you there, Vin." He glanced over at the younger man and saw the sadness, the confusion in his eyes. "Ah shit…" With another long sigh he signaled and maneuvered his way over a lane, then took the next off-ramp. Pulling into the parking lot of a Perkins restaurant, he cut the engine.

"Ain't hungry," Vin said softly.

Chris frowned, but he didn't say anything. He took a deep breath as he waited to calm down. He could feel Sarah hovering somewhere close by, ready to clobber him, and he wasn't sure what scared him the most – this new relationship he seemed to have developed with his wife, or the fact he was afraid she just might clobber him if he didn't get this mess with Vin sorted out.

Letting out the breath, he reached out and rested his hand lightly on Tanner's shoulder. "Vin, listen to me, okay?"

The man's head nodded, but he didn't look at Larabee.

"Look, I know— Hell… I fucked this up good, didn't I?" he said, more to Sarah than to Vin.

You most certainly did.

"Ain't rightly sure what you're talkin' about."

Chris leaned back, sighed, and ran his hands over his hair. "Vin, I'm sorry."

That caught Tanner's attention and he turned his head slightly so he could look at Chris, but the blond was staring out the windshield. "Sorry about what?"

"What?" Larabee asked, looking at the man.

Vin glanced back down at his feet as he said, "Look, I know I don't always do things the way y' want me t'—"


"–so, if y' want me t' transfer t' another team—"

"What? Vin, no. Look… I— I was trying to apologize for what happened on the bust, for blowing up at you like that, and for not saying I was sorry before now. Christ, I'm not very good at this, am I?"



"Well, at least we all agree on something," he muttered.


"Nothing." Unhooking his seatbelt, Chris turned in his seat so he could look straight at the younger man. "I am sorry, Vin. I shouldn't have reacted like that, but I was scared…" His head dipped. "I was afraid I was going to lose someone else I loved. Watching you come through that window that day, all I could see was what might have happened. And I just couldn't stand the thought of you dying for me."

"Y' can't ask me t' stand there and watch ya get yourself killed, either, not if I can stop it. Ain't fair. You or any 'a the others."

Chris gave an amused half-snort. "No, I guess it wouldn't be."

"I knew why y' landed on me like a bomb. Knew you'd come around, too, sooner or later… Least I hoped y' would."

Larabee looked up, not sure if he should be grateful or annoyed that the man knew him that well already. "I guess I'm just not used to having family again…"

"Yeah, well, join the club, Cowboy."

That made Chris smile. "So why didn't you just call me on it?"

"'Cause ya owed me an apology, damn it, and I wanted ya t' see what y' did, and realize y' were wrong."

"I do know that, Vin."

Vin offered him a slight grin. "Well, good, 'cause it's probably gonna happen again. Can't a one 'a ya stay out 'a trouble."

Chris' shoulders shook with a swallowed snort of amusement, then he laughed. "Damn, Vin, you're the one to talk. Only man I know who can go to a damn Renaissance faire and end up in emergency surgery!"

"And what happened the last time you took a vacation?" Vin challenged. "Yer the only man I know who c'n run int' a crazy man at ten thousand feet!"

Larabee shook his head, then drew another deep breath and let it out, feeling some of the tension that had been thrumming between them fade away. "If this is heading to a battle of the scars, let's just stop now."

Vin's eyes twinkled as he nodded. "Good idea, 'cause y' got me beat."

"The hell I do."

"Being so much older an' all—"

"Fine! I guess I won't tell you how I was on my way to apologize when you got hurt."


Larabee nodded. "Yeah, really."

"What were y' gonna say?" Vin asked innocently.

The blond's eyes rounded. "What?"

"How were y' gonna apologize?"

"I— How the hell should I know?"

"But y' just said you were goin' t' apologize."

"I was!"


"I— I was going to say I was sorry!"

"Y'mean fer being such a hard-headed pain in the ass?"


Vin blinked, looking innocent.

Larabee's eyes narrowed. "You're callin' me a hard-headed pain in the ass?"


If the shoe fits…

"He doesn't need any help!"



Vin blinked, then grinned. "She been talkin' t' you, too?"

That rounded Larabee's eyes with surprise. "She's talking to you?" Sarah!

I'm taking the 5th

Vin shrugged. "Sometimes," he admitted a little sheepishly. "Said y' loved me, that I's family… Said y' needed me, and the others, an' I needed y'all, too… Reckon she's right – on both counts." He looked away.

"Yeah," he said softly, feeling a rush of love wash over him, "reckon she's right… on both counts."

That brought Vin's head back around and he looked at Chris. "Guess whoever said it was hard, havin' family, was right."

"Yeah, but it sure beats the alternative," Chris added.

"Yep," Vin agreed.

Finally… men!

"Hey!" they chorused.

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

By the time they arrived at the ranch, Vin was dozing in the passenger seat. They had said little on the remainder of the drive, Chris just reassuring Vin that he wanted him out at the ranch, and that they could go pick up whatever he needed from his apartment in a day or two – after Tanner had rested and regained some more of his strength.

Vin had agreed, the relief and gratitude in the younger man's eyes making Chris both angry (that Vin hadn't had an easier life) and ashamed (that he'd ever given Vin a reason to doubt how he felt about him), but he'd held his tongue and kept driving, knowing now that they had started talking, things would sort themselves out. After all, it appeared that they were getting additional help from unexpected places.

He wasn't sure what to think about Sarah, other than he was absolutely certain that it was her. Ghost or guardian angel, he wasn't sure and, for once in his life, he decided he didn't need to know, or to find out. It was enough for him to know she was there, loving him, watching over him, over all of them…

He pulled up in front of the house and climbed out, walking around to the passenger side door.

I'm glad he's here for you, Chris. I'm glad they're all here. Love them with all your heart. They're your family, and they'll take good care of you.

He swallowed thickly. "I love you, Sarah," he managed in a whisper.

I know. I love you, too. And one day we'll be together again. Until then, you let them take care of you for me, okay?

I will.

And it wouldn't hurt if you went out a little more. I'm sure Buck could spare a few numbers from that little black book of his…

I'll… consider it.

Stopping at the side of the truck, he reached up and rapped lightly on the window. Vin's eyes blinked open and he peered through the glass, momentarily confused by seeing Chris standing there and not at the wheel. Then he realized where they were and he straightened in his seat.

Larabee opened the door and helped Vin out, escorting him into the house.

"Where to?" he asked.

"Kind 'a tired," the younger man admitted.

"Bed it is," Chris replied, making sure Vin made it to the spare bedroom.

After a brief stop in the bathroom, Tanner came out, undressed, and climbed into the bed. The sigh that escaped his lips when he was lying down drew an empathetic nod from Chris. "You get some sleep, okay? I'm going to go get your stuff and then fix us something to eat."

"Okay," was the soft reply as Tanner's eyes closed.

Chris stood by the bed, staring down at the man, and finally let the fear go. Vin was right, there were no guarantees, but if he let his fear take control, there would be no future, either. Their job was a dangerous one, and the best he could hope for was that they all watched each others' backs.

Reaching out, he ran his hand over Vin's hair in a show of affection. The corners of Vin's mouth pulled up slightly, leaving him smiling slightly as Chris turned to go get the stuff out of the truck.

Sarah, he called silently and felt her presence as clearly as if she had answered him. Is he—?

He'll be fine. And so will you. Just remember to let them take care of you the way you take care of them, okay?

He could feel the tug that was calling her away and he wanted to reach out and hold her there with him, but he knew he couldn't.

I'll try, he promised her.

We'll be waiting for you, but, please, live this life, Chris…

His breath caught as he felt the feather-light kiss on his lips, and then she was gone. He was sure he'd seen a flash of silver at the same moment, but it too was gone.

God, but it had felt so real…

He walked to the front door and pulled it open, stepping out onto the front porch. And, as he was stepping off the last step he hesitated, watching as a colorful butterfly danced across the front yard, disappearing into the trees. He shivered and hurried to the truck, grabbing his and Vin's stuff and carrying it back inside.

The next several minutes were filled as he unpacked everything, started some laundry, arranged Vin's medications in the kitchen, and then set some soup to warm on the stove. When that was done, he headed back to the spare bedroom.

Vin was sleeping soundly, so Chris took the time to grab a quick shower, changing into a pair of sweats and a T-shirt, then went to check on the soup, which was ready to eat. He poured it into bowls, then grabbed a sleeve of crackers and carried everything out to the living room. Leaving the soup to cool a little, he padded back to the bedroom.

"Vin," he called. "Hey, pard, time for some food."

Tanner drew a deep breath and opened his eyes. "Food?"

"Yep, come on, I have it waiting for you in the living room."

Vin let Chris help him up, then trailed along behind Larabee as they headed for the living room. Once he was situated on the sofa, the soup bowl in his lap, he glanced over at Chris and asked, "Why?"

"Why what?" Chris replied, clueless.

"Why do y' think she talked t' me?" Vin asked, looking back at his soup, a little afraid Larabee might be angry about it.

"I don't know, Vin," he replied softly. "I guess because she knows how you feel about me…"

"I told her you and the guys were the first family I've had since Mama and Grandpa died."

Chris grinned a little. "You're going to have to tell me about these conversations," he said lightly, but he turned serious immediately afterward, adding, "if you want to."

"Maybe… someday," Vin said. "Got kind 'a personal…"

That brought another smile to Larabee's lips. "It did, huh?"

Vin nodded. "Probably ain't right for me t' say so, but it kind 'a feels like she's m' sister… That make any sense?"

"Yeah," Chris replied softly, nodding. "Yeah, it does."


"Don't apologize, Vin. I like the idea."

"You do?"

"Well, you might as well be my brother," he acknowledged truthfully, "so she's your sister-in-law, at the very least."

Vin stared at him, eyes bright, as he nodded. "She stayed with me, after he stabbed me… She wouldn't let me give up."

"She was like that."

Tanner turned his attention back to his soup, taking several bites before he informed his friend, "She said I ought t' kick yer sorry ass more often, keep y' in line."

Chris sputtered, choking on his last bite of cracker. "Like hell she did!"

"Yep, I heard it clear as a bell."

"Cracked, cheap Texas bell."

"Fuck you."

Chris grinned. God, but it felt good to be normal again… good to be home with family.

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


Chris stopped on his way to the Ram, turning back to watch as Vin stepped out of the house and pulled the door shut behind him. It was Tanner's first day back to operational status at work. Almost four months since he'd been stabbed and he was back in shape and ready to go.

It was over; Vin was fine. And so was their friendship. In fact, it was better than it had ever been.

Some of the old fear was still there, but Chris figured it was just something he was going to have to live with. But he knew he wouldn't allow it control him ever again. He was going to do exactly what Sarah had told him to do; he was going to appreciate the fact he had a family, and do his best to keep it intact.

Turning back to the Ram, he walked over to the truck and unlocked the doors. Glancing back at Vin, he laughed as he saw the man pull up short, a butterfly fluttering right up to the sniper's face before landing on the tip of his nose.

Tanner's blue eyes crossed as he stared at the colorful insect. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it lifted off and fluttered away.

You couldn't give me a kiss? Chris asked silently, watching was the butterfly rose over the fence and disappeared into the meadow beyond. A soft giggle echoed through his mind.

Vin walked over to him, paused, and then leaned close, kissing Larabee on the cheek. "She asked me t' pass it on."

A chill raced down Chris' back as he sputtered and turned bright red. "Damn, Tanner, you've been watching too damn much Oprah!"

Vin flashed him a grin as he climbed into the truck and pulled his seatbelt into place. "Come on, old man. We're gonna be late."

"Who you callin' old?" Larabee grumbled as he climbed into the cab and pulled his door shut.

Vin continued to grin. "Callin' you old… old man."

"Fuck you," the blond replied.

"Buy me lunch at Chad's t'day."

"Buy you lunch?"

Vin nodded.

"Why the hell would I buy you lunch? Your finger broke, can't use the ATM?"

"What? Don't y' want t' celebrate me comin' back t' work?"

That brought a blush of embarrassment to the blond's cheeks. "Of course I do. I guess I'll buy ya lunch," he mumbled.

"At Chad's?"

Chris sighed. "Yes, goddamn it, at Chad's."

Vin grinned.

Why me? Larabee lamented silently, his gaze shooting heavenward, but he was smiling, and he knew he wouldn't trade the long-haired pain in the ass for anything. "Bastard."

And, in the meadow, a single butterfly rested on a flower, content with the world.

blue butterfly on yellow flower
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