Magnificent Seven ATF Universe
Death Strikes Twice

by The Neon Gang

Follows Reports of My Death

Art by Shiloh!

Sunday, November 6, 1999

2:25 p.m.

Vin lay underneath his beloved Jeep, staring up at the cracked axel – a memento of their last case, and the off-road chase he had been forced to engage in. He sighed heavily as he affectionately patted the vehicle. "Well ol' girl, looks like you're gonna spend some time with Roberto. This is worse 'n I thought…"

Deciding he might as well surrender to the inevitable, he reached for one of the numerous tools that lay scattered around him to secure the new oil pan, but stopped short at the sound of another vehicle puling into the parking lot. Hope that's Chris 'n' Buck with some lunch, he thought as he checked his watch. 'Bout damn time. No wonder 'm layin' here starvin'. The men were almost a half-hour late.

It hadn't been all that long ago he'd found it impossible to eat. But now, with Chris back from the dead and healed sufficiently to return to work, Vin was hungry all the time, it seemed.

He shut the thoughts off. It was still too painful to think about that time. Thinking first that he had killed Chris, and then realizing that, because he had thought so, he hadn't been looking for the man while he had been tortured by a complete nut-job who thought he could bring a dead woman back to life by slowly killing Larabee. The guilt had nearly killed him, twice.

Rolling out from under the Jeep, Vin climbed to his feet, his gaze sweeping the parking lot for the Black Ram or Wilmington's red Trans Am. But the only vehicle he didn't recognize was a dark sedan that had parked nearby. He frowned, brushing what dirt he could off his jeans and long-sleeve T-shirt before pulling on his jean jacket and running his fingers through his shoulder-length chestnut hair. It was getting chilly, the bite in the breeze telling him there was a chance of some snow overnight. He turned and started gathering up his tools, dropping them haphazardly into his open toolbox to be sorted later. As he worked, two men exited his apartment building and started for the car, both wearing dark suits and sunglasses that clearly labeled them "feds." As soon as they spotted him, they veered off course and headed his way.

Tanner frowned. It wasn't often he saw federal agents in his Purgatory neighborhood unless, of course, they were the members of his own ATF team.

As the two men approached Vin, one of them extracted his identification and flashed it at Tanner before he reached out to shake his hand. "John Lyons, FBI," he said. "This is my partner, Tom McMillian."

"Vin Tanner, ATF," the agent responded, his forehead furrowing with anxiety. "Something wrong, boys?"

"No, nothing's wrong. We're working on the Seiler case," Lyons explained as he glanced at Tanner's old Jeep. "Now that's a classic."

Tanner grinned thinly and nodded. "You making some headway on the case?" he asked. The case had been handed off to the FBI once they had gotten Chris back, but… "Thought Angelo Vargus was working that case," he added casually.

The two men exchanged glances. "Yeah, there's been a break. Vargus asked for some help," Lyons told him.

Tanner nodded. "Appreciate the good news," he said, "but why come see me?"

"We were trying to locate Agent Larabee, actually. Vargus said you were the man to ask," Lyons explained.

Was, Vin thought to himself. He and Larabee seemed to have drifted apart since Seiler had abducted and tortured Chris. And Vin couldn't help but think the man held him responsible, just like he did himself. "He was supposed t' be here at two; didn't show. Not really sure where he might be. Guess y' could look for him at Wilmington's place."

Lyons nodded. "Okay, guess we'll do that then. Sorry to have wasted your time. If he shows up, have him give Vargus a call, will you?" He extended his hand for a second time.

"Sure," Vin said, reaching out and taking it without hesitation. He realized his mistake a moment too late.

Lyons grabbed his hand and stepped to the side and back, snapping his wrist over into a locked position and prompting a grunt of pain from the startled ATF agent. At the same time, the second man, McMillan, withdrew a gun from his shoulder holster and fired.

Feeling the sting of a dart rather than a bullet entering his thigh, Vin struggled, trying frantically to break free, but it was already too late. He felt his muscles begin to stiffen, and then the parking lot of his apartment building began to dissolve into a thick grey fog that sucked away his awareness.

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

A little earlier

2:05 p.m.

"Hey, Buck, you ready?" Chris called up the stairs in his long-time friend's living room. "It's already after two."

"Yeah, just a sec. I just have to grab some stuff I bagged up for Mindy," came the man's response.

"What?" Chris asked, then shook his head. God only knew what Buck Wilmington might be bagging up for a woman; he certainly didn't need to know.

A burst of laughter drifted down the stairs, followed closely by the ladies' man, who was obviously pleased with himself.

"Dare I ask?" Chris questioned him, an almost pained expression on his face. The Lothario's exploits were legendary.

"Of course you dare!" Buck replied with a broad grin on his face. "Mindy's just helpin' out with her church's effort to collect some coats for the homeless. Figured JD and me could get rid of a few we don't wear any more." Buck wagged his eyebrows. "She thinks it's sweet that I agreed to help her out with a few more men's coats."

"Sweet, huh?" Chris replied, shaking his head. "If she only knew…"

Wilmington tried to look hurt by Larabee's comment, but he couldn't quite pull it off. "What, you don't think I'm sweet?"

Chris shook his head again, refusing to answer. "Come on, Romeo, Vin's gonna think we forgot all about him." And the truth was, he had forgotten, lost in his own thoughts about his faltering friendship with the man.

Buck's gaze drifted to the clock on the wall. "Damn, stud, why didn't you give me a holler earlier?" he asked. "By the time we grab some food and get over there it's going to be almost three."

Larabee dipped his head slightly. He didn't have a good answer for that one either. He knew they should have left a half-hour ago, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it.

It was frustrating, too. From the first moment he and Tanner met, he'd felt comfortable around the man, like he'd known Vin his entire life, but now… Hell, now he was looking for any excuse he could find to avoid being around Tanner.

And Vin knew it, too.

But what really bothered him was the fact he didn't understand why he couldn't seem to stand being around Vin any more. It made no sense. Vin was his friend, his best friend, when all was said and done, and the closest thing to a brother he'd ever had.

"Come on," Buck said, interrupting Larabee's thoughts, "we better get movin'. You know how Vin gets right now if he doesn't eat."

Chris nodded, feeling another wave of guilt wash over him. Oh, yeah, he knew. It was exactly what happened to him if he didn't eat something every couple of hours right now. Tanner had let himself get run down while Chris had been held hostage by Robert Seiler, and he hadn't quite recovered fully. Neither of them had really.

And Chris wasn't at all sure their friendship ever could.

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

2:50 p.m.

"Hey, Vin!" Chris called as he climbed out of his Ram and started over to the Jeep. He stepped over a couple of tools thinking, Something's wrong. Vin would never leave his stuff out here like this. Where the hell is he?

"Maybe he had to go pick up a part," Buck volunteered as if he'd heard Chris's unspoken question. There was a Pep Boys just a couple of blocks away.

"Maybe," was the blond's reply, but it sounded less than convinced.

Chris circled the Jeep, looking for something to stop the alarm ringing deep in his mind.

"I'll go check his apartment," Wilmington volunteered.

Larabee nodded, but he wasn't looking at Buck.

After checking around the vehicle twice, Chris leaned over and finished picking up the tools, tossing them into the toolbox and putting that back into the rear cargo space of the Jeep. He checked the ignition, but found no keys.

"Nobody's home," Buck announced when he returned a few minutes later. When Larabee reached into his pocket to take out his cell phone, the ladies' man added, "Don't bother. His cell phone's lying on the coffee table. So, what now?"

"Now we wait."

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

6:10 p.m.

The two agents sat in the Ram until it got dark, Chris's mood deteriorating steadily with the fading light.

"He damn well better not be at the Saloon, having himself a beer," Chris mumbled as he shivered in the cool evening air. He reached for his jacket and pulled it on, trying not to think about what might have kept Vin away for nearly three hours.

"It's not like Vin," Buck added needlessly. "He wouldn't go to Inez's without us. He knew we were supposed to pick him up."

Chris only grunted in reply. But they hadn't picked him up, at least not when they'd promised to. They'd been late, almost an hour late. Damn it, he thought. What was wrong with him? It was like he was purposefully trying to hurt Vin, to punish him, and for what? Thinking he'd killed him? For being there every step of the way during his recovery?

He had no answers.

You're in trouble, Vin. I can feel that much. And I can't do a damn thing except sit here. He sighed heavily. "Come on, let's go to the office and get to work."

"Work?" Buck questioned, clearly confused. They had just wrapped up their first case since Chris and Vin had both been back to work. There wasn't anything to work on just yet, although he expected Travis to change that on Monday morning.

"Start looking for Vin," Larabee clarified.

The ladies' man nodded. "Oh… Don't you think we should call whoever's still in town, see if he's with one of them?"

Chris already knew Vin wasn't, but he nodded and let Buck make the calls. When they turned up nothing, they headed for the federal building.

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

The first thing that penetrated the thick fog of confusion in his mind was a sense of the darkness surrounding him. It was pitch black. Vin tried to open his eyes, finally realizing several moments later a blindfold precluded the possibility.

More awareness began to filter in slowly. There were ropes cutting into his wrists and ankles… He was lying on his side, on cement floor, which was icy-cold beneath his bare skin… He was naked… His thigh ached.

He tested the ropes and found them tight and securely knotted.

Unable to see anything, he listened carefully, trying to determine where he might be, but the only things he could hear were the sounds of his own heart beating and his breathing.

Ah hell, what've I gotten into this time? The boys are gonna wonder where the hell I am… How long have I been out?

Hope to hell they figure this out–

The piercing cry of rusted hinges cut through Vin's thoughts, silencing them. A door was being pushed open somewhere close by.

Footsteps announced someone entering the room.

A soft, almost girlish giggle filled the air around him, the sound lifting goosepimples across Vin's skin.

"So, this is to be my sacrifice," came a man's voice. "Sacrifice, yes. He looks… comfortable. Yes, comfort. He gave comfort to the Chosen One."

"Better 'n a Holiday Inn," Vin mumbled sarcastically. The speaker was definitely a man, but his voice was pitched slightly high and with an unusual rhythm to it, like he wanted to sing-song the words, but hadn't. The effect sent a chill racing down Tanner's spine.

"Ah, a man with spirit," the voice countered. "This is good, very good… Spirit is what separates us from the animals; makes us powerful… So very, very powerful… But for how long, Vincent? How long will your power last? Do you know? I know… Your spirit, your power belongs to another, and He is coming… Coming soon, to feed upon you… upon your pain. He will devour you… slowly, slowly, carefully… It will be a moment of pure… beauty. And I shall capture it… in color… in emotion… in blood…"

Vin heard the man give a barked call for "Tio" and, moments later, a pair of hands roughly rolled him over onto his back. He struggled weakly, but his muscles were cold and sluggish. Then the familiar sting of an injection bit into his upper arm.

"Hey," Vin protested as the drug entered his system, but the hands were gone.

"Powerful spirit… yes, yes, powerful indeed. Pure and beautiful. A worthy sacrifice to bring the Chosen One. He will be pleased… yes, pleased. Beautiful spirit… He will relish the sacrifice, and I will paint perfection… The walls of fire shall separate, and the Chosen One will pay with his life. She will return, Beauty, but first… a sacrifice. Tio, bring me my paints, and the razors…"

As the drug entered his system, Vin was slowly disconnected from conscious control of his body, and his thoughts, sinking swiftly into a twisted, burning darkness constructed from the words the voice spoke. He struggled, but it was wasted effort, and he quickly found himself lost in a new reality, a reality defined by pain.

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

Monday, November 7th, 1999

5:20 a.m.

It was still dark outside, the clouds thickening along the foothills with the threat of snow. The men in the office gathered at one desk, watching the computer screen. It beeped and came up empty.

JD slumped back in his chair and scowled at the machine. "I'm sorry, Chris," he said to the man sitting next to him, still staring at the blank screen. "That's all there is."

"At least we know he's not in the hospital," Buck said. He was sitting next to Larabee. He rubbed his eyes, which were red and sore from staring at computer screens all night.

"Or in the morgue," JD added in a soft whisper.

"Or in jail," Buck offered, prompting a thin, humorless smile from Chris. "Speaking of which," he added, "shouldn't Kenny be here by now?"

"He said he'd stop by before his shift started," Chris explained. Lieutenant Kenny Adams was an old friend of Larabee's, the two men having worked together for a couple of years while Chris had been with the Denver Police Department. Buck had known him too, just not as well as Chris, Larabee and Adams having been partnered while Chris was still a uniformed patrol officer.

JD opened his mouth to comment, but the sound of the elevator arriving on their floor stopped him.

"Vin?" Buck asked, pushing to his feet, but Larabee was already half-way out the door.

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

Josiah was surprised to see Larabee stepping out of the office. "How's Vin doing?" he asked, picking up the pace, wondering why Chris wasn't at the hospital.

"How Vin's doing?" Chris echoed, confused.

"I heard about the accident," the big profiler said as he reached Larabee. "He's all right, isn't he?"

"What accident?" Chris demanded, his patience long since gone.

Josiah gave the blond an equally confused look as they reached the office. "Vin wasn't hurt?" he asked as they entered.

"Vin was hurt?" JD asked the older man, suddenly looking confused as well. He glanced at Buck.

"Wait a damn minute–" Chris started, his hands coming up to stop the comments before he exploded on someone.

"Vin's missing," Buck cut in, speaking to Josiah. "What's this about him being hurt?"

Josiah sat down at his desk. "You remember Ernesto Chavez?"

"Uh, the older guy who runs the coffee shop across from Vin's building?" Buck asked, thinking he recognized the name.

"Yeah, that's him. I saw him last night, after I got back from Boulder, at the church. He said he saw two men helping Vin yesterday afternoon," he explained and, noting their blank expressions, added, "After the accident."

"What accident? What men?" Chris snapped, frustration and confusion adding an angry edge to his voice.

The tone surprised Josiah, but all three men looked tired and haggard, so he just continued, saying, "Chavez said he saw two white men he didn't know helping Vin into their car. He asked them if he could help, since he knew Vin, and they said no. One of them told him Vin had hit his head while he was working on his Jeep, and they were taking him to the hospital to be checked out. I tried calling you last night," he said, speaking directly to Larabee, "but I couldn't reach you – or Buck, or JD."

"Because we've been here all night," the ladies' man explained. He held up his cell phone. "Battery went dead."

"Didn't bring mine," JD added, looking more than a little chagrined.

"And Ezra and Nathan are both out of town for the weekend," Buck said and sighed. "Sorry, Josiah, we should've called you, but I thought that shindig up in Boulder was supposed to run through Sunday evening."

"I decided to skip the last lecture. They were doing the homeless requiem at St. Philips last night so I decided to drive back for that. That's where I ran into Mr. Chavez."

Before they could continue, the elevator dinged again and Lt. Adams joined them. He flashed Chris and Buck a smile. "What's this about you losing one of your agents?" he asked Larabee.

Chris cut him off with a glare. "This is serious, Kenny."

"Hey, sorry," the man apologized, noting the grave looks and the anxious air that clung to the four men in the office.

"It's like this," JD began, his voice picking up speed with each word. "Vin's missing, and there were two men who put him in a car to take him to a hospital, but there's no one in any of the local hospitals that fits Vin's description, and–"

Adams held up his hand to stop the younger man. "Whoa, easy, son," he said. "Now, tell me again what's going on – slowly…"

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

A sudden blinding light assaulted his eyes, blinding him and stabbing into his skull like glass daggers. He cried out, trying to turn his head away, but there was no escape.

Hands had rudely jerked his blindfold off, exposing him to the attack.

Tanner ground his watering eyes shut, trying to block out the unaccustomed brightness of the spotlights trained on him.

The same hands hauled him roughly to his feet, and he stood, swaying unsteadily from the drugs still coursing through his system. They left him hyper-sensitive to sensations – light was brighter, sounds louder, a touch closer to a punch.

A moment later, he felt the air rushing from his lungs after fists pounded violently into his midsection. The unexpected blow, and the resulting explosion of pain in his midsection, dropped him to his knees, where the contact of his skin with the cold cement floor sent a new wave of blistering pain shooting up through his body.

He tried to hold back the scream, but it tore past his tight throat and broke free.

"You are a most spirited sacrifice, Vincent… Most spirited indeed… I can see him, you know. I can see him. He's there… living under your skin. I can see him… watching me… I have to destroy him, Vincent… I have to. If I don't, I'll never free her, and I must free her. I must… Beauty, my pure, perfect Beauty…"

Someone grabbed him, jerking him to his feet again. Vin tried to jerk out of their hold, but he was too weak, too disorientated.

The fists struck once more, and he went down for a second time. His eyes cracked open slightly, but the light was too bright. It cut his eyeballs and all he could see were vague dark shapes moving around him.

Struggling to his feet on his own this time, Vin attempted to fight back, lowering his head and charging, but the lights, the drugs, and the continuing attacks kept him ineffective.

Anger and frustration mounted as he went down, again and again, wrapped in a cocoon of searing agony.

"What th' hell d' y' want?" he yelled.

"I want to destroy him," came the answer. "I want to free her… free her. And I will free her, Vincent. I will free her. She will be mine… I must make her mine…"

The attack continued until Tanner lay on the cold cement floor, barely conscious, the man's voice filtering past the drug-induced pain.

"This is only the beginning, Vincent… yes, just the beginning. He is strong there, under your skin. He fights me. But he cannot protect her… He cannot protect her forever. I will kill him, and then I shall have her. You are the doorway, Vincent… You will show me the path to the Chosen One, and then He will come and bring her to me."

"Go t' hell," he wheezed.

"My sweet, sweet Sarah… It has been so long. But Beauty is perfect now, is it not? One touch is a blow… one thin cut, a stab… This is only the beginning, Vincent… only the beginning…"

And it was the beginning, of days spent in a fog of gripping cold and agony. Vin was kept under control by the drug, and the occasional use of a tazer whenever the voice needed him to scream and scream. The blindfold remained on unless he was held under the spotlights, the brightness cutting into his eyes and skull like lasers and forcing him to beg for it to stop.

In the silence and the dark between what felt like hours of unending pain, the room began to close in on him, wearing on his already frazzled nerves. He hated enclosed spaces, hated being confined. It made it almost impossible for him to breathe.

He could not stop some part of himself from withdrawing from the pain, the horror. He fled inward to hide, to gather his resources in an effort to survive the next session. And, in the process, his hope he might be rescued began to fade.

He wondered how close to breaking the next encounter with the voice would carry him.

A part of him knew it must be Seiler who had him, knew this was what Chris must have endured at the man's hands, but knowing did nothing to help him escape. There was no escape.

Pain was the only sure thing in his existence now, and it came in many forms. But it came, again and again.

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

"I'm an artist, you know…" came the voice; Seiler's voice.

Vin decided he hated the man's voice, hated the crazy sing-song tone, hated the way the words seldom made any sense; hated everything about them.

"I am an artist, Vincent… I use pain like lesser men use paint… You, Vincent, you shall lead me to the Chosen One… to Christopher. I must have him. I must. Only then can I can free her… Oh, my sweet, sweet Sarah. Without the Chosen One I cannot summon Him… He shall bring my sweet Sarah back to me… She is Beauty, perfection… she is my life, Vincent…"

"Sarah's dead," he managed to croak out.

"But I am the Gatekeeper! I shall open the gates of Death, and He shall bring her back to me! He will give her to me… Oh, Sarah, sweet, sweet Sarah… She knew. She did. She saw the Truth. He shall come and give her back to me, and I shall make her His goddess. Truth and Beauty, united… But you fight me, Vincent, you delay my plans. Why are you fighting me? I cannot take Christopher from under your skin until you are broken!"

"Go t' hell," Vin rasped, trying not to listen to the raving madman. It hurt to listen, and the words made no sense. He gasped as the voice cut him again. It felt as if the blade bit all the way through his flesh to scrape along his bones. He could feel the warm rush of blood flowing over his skin. Did he still have skin?

"Why, Vincent? Why do you still fight me? Surely you don't believe they're coming for you, do you? Oh no, Vincent. No. They will not come. Only He will come. He will come with Sarah, my sweet, sweet Sarah."

The names swirled inside Vin's drugged mind… Vincent… Sarah… Christopher…

Chris… But he had killed Chris, hadn't he?

Maybe he had, maybe he hadn't; it was hard to remember now.

Hadn't there been a funeral? They had seen a lawyer… Chris had given him the ranch. But he hadn't wanted it, hadn't deserved it. He'd killed Chris, shot him…

But hadn't Chris come back?

He'd come back from the dead…

But he hated him now, couldn't stand to be around him. Why?

He blames you, a voice inside his head told him. You killed him…

No! He hadn't meant to hurt Chris! Chris was his friend, his best friend. Chris was his family…

He won't look for you, Vincent… He hates you. You killed him…

Some of Vin's carefully built defenses began to crumble. "Chris?" he moaned hoarsely. "Chris… didn't mean t'… didn't want t' hurt ya…"

He had killed Chris, hadn't he? He could remember shooting, remember Chris falling off a boat, remember the face of death in the living room…

"Chris… no… no… didn't mean t' hurt ya… didn't mean t'… please… Chris…"

A smile spread slowly over Seiler's lips and he whispered excitedly, "Yes! Yes, of course! Of course! It's beautiful, absolutely beautiful… artistic, so artistic… Yes, Vincent, yes, tell me what to do. Tell me how to reach Christopher… Soon, Sarah, soon I will hold you in my arms… Soon, my sweet, sweet Sarah…"

Seiler touched the tazer to Vin's nude shoulder and the agent screamed. The madman closed his eyes, an expression of pure bliss on his face.

"Chris!" Vin cried. "No! No! I didn't mean t' kill ya… Please, Chris… please…"

Seiler stood, rocking from side to side, his mouth open, basking in the sound of Vin begging for forgiveness. Oh yes, Christopher was living under Vincent's skin. Christopher was moving closer to the surface. Soon, it would all be over soon. He knew he had to hurry. He had to finish the paintings this time.

"Yes… Yes, I see… I see…"

He opened his eyes and picked up his paints, continuing his work on the hideous demonic face that took up an entire wall of the room Vin was being held in.

Vin curled up into a ball, rocking slightly and moaning, begging Chris to forgive him.

Someone pulled the blindfold off and he whimpered, squeezing his eyes shut, but no light attacked his eyes. He opened them a crack, but the only thing he could see in the dimly lit room was a demon staring down at him, staring down at him with the face of his one-time friend. Chris's face… The face of the man he had killed…

"No… Chris, 'm sorry… 'm sorry, 'm sorry, 'm sorry…" The litany continued as he felt the knife sink into his flesh again. He whimpered, but didn't cry out. The pain no longer mattered. He had killed Chris, and that hurt worse than anything the voice could do to him.

Or so he thought until he felt the cold liquid being poured over the cut. A moment later his flesh was on fire. The pain swelled in a flash of blinding intensity and he screamed. Chris was punishing him. He could look up at the face of the man and knew that he was punishing him. And he deserved it.

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

Wednesday, November 9th, 1999

6:10 p.m.

Chris paced in his living room, the pressure of his barely-held-in-check emotions fighting for release. Three days… No word, no sign… Where the hell are you, Vin? I feel so goddamn helpless!

The others sat, scattered around the room, watching Larabee pace and wishing there was something they could do or say to help ease the pain their friend was going through. They could all clearly remember a time, not so very long ago, when it had been Vin who had paced these same floors, lost in deep self-recrimination over Chris's supposed death.

The doorbell rang, bringing Larabee to an abrupt stop.

Realizing that his friend couldn't force himself to the front door, Buck stood and walked over to answer it. He checked the peep hole. Outside, a young girl stood, dressed in the uniform of a local delivery service, waiting in the cold.

"Hi," she said when he opened the door. "Are you Mr. Larabee?"

"I'm Larabee," Chris called, coming up to stand behind Buck.

"I have a package for you, Mr. Larabee, but you'll have to sign for it," she said, holding up a small, flat box wrapped in brown paper.

Chris stepped around Buck and accepted the clipboard and a pen from the girl, signing where she indicated. When he was done she handed over the box with a winning smile and took back the clipboard and pen. "Thank you."

Fishing a couple of dollars out of his wallet, Buck handed them to her.

"Thanks," she responded. "Have a nice evening."

Chris didn't even bother to smile as he turned away and walked back to the living room. Buck wished her a good night and then closed the door and locked it before rejoining the others in the living room.

The others moved closer as Larabee sat down on the sofa to examine the package. It was addressed to "Christopher Larabee," on a typed label. There was no return address included, but the delivery slip indicated that Denver was the package's place of origin.

"Might want to have that x-rayed before you open it," Nathan suggested, looking worried.

"I agree," Ezra added. "Seiler is still out there, and he might make another attempt to kill you."

"Seiler only kills up close and personal," Larabee replied softly, staring at the label. No one called him Christopher except his parents – who did not live in Denver – and Robert Seiler…

Chris frowned as he carefully unwrapped the package to find a small white gift box inside.

They all watched with avid curiosity as Chris slowly lifted the box lid. The blood immediately drained from the blond's face and his hands began to shake.

Inside the box was a zip-lock baggie holding a wallet Chris had seen before, many times before. Vin's wallet.

"Wait," Nathan said when Chris reached out to remove the plastic bag. He hurried to the first aid kit in the kitchen and returned a moment later carrying a pair of latex gloves, which Larabee pulled on before he gingerly lifted the baggie out of the box and laid it on the coffee table.

Holding the baggie by one corner, he studied the worn leather wallet as if he expected it to speak. A thin film of moisture coated the inside of the plastic as well.

"Hand me a pen," Chris said, his voice nothing more than a scratchy whisper.

Ezra reached in and removed one from the inside pocket of his suit coat, handing it over.

Using the point of the pen, Chris carefully opened the plastic bag, the malodorous odor of picante wafting out as he did.

Larabee was immediately transported back to the time he had spent as Seiler's prisoner: the razor blade, the picante juice, the pain, and Seiler, dabbing his paintbrush into the resulting blood… The painting, the demon who was supposed to turn pain to beauty, death to life…

Robert Seiler had Vin. He had Vin and he was torturing him.

Chris's ears began to roar, and bright white and yellow spots exploded in front of his eyes. The baggie slipped from his suddenly-numb fingers, the contents spilling out onto the top of the coffee table: the wallet, the juice, and a single blood-stained razor.

Larabee lunged off the sofa and bolted down the hallway for his bathroom. He dropped to his knees, just beating the remains of his meager dinner as they raced up his throat. He slumped over the bowl limply, his stomach contracting until it was empty, and after, scenes of pain and fear swimming through his mind.

Some time later, the touch of a reassuring hand on his back told him someone had followed him into the bathroom. Then he felt a damp washcloth being pressed to his forehead, and another draped over the back of his neck. When his empty stomach finally stopped trying to climb up his throat he opened his eyes. Nathan was there with him.

"You okay?" the black man asked, his expression a mix of worry and sorrow.

Larabee shook his head, his entire body beginning to shake uncontrollably. God, he knew exactly what Vin was going through, but why? Seiler couldn't possibly think he could bring Sarah back using Vin, could he?

He snorted and shook his head again. Hell, maybe he could. He could think anything he wanted to. The man was a fucking lunatic.

"Think you can stand up?" Nathan asked him.

Chris had his doubts, but he still nodded. His first attempt was a complete failure. But, a moment later, Buck was there with Nathan and they were helping him to his feet, guiding him to his bedroom.

"No…" he managed, struggling weakly in their grasps. "…have to find Vin."

"Chris, you're not in any condition to go anywhere," Nathan told him sternly. "You need to get some rest – right now – or you're going to end up back in the hospital."

"We'll keep looking," Buck assured him. "You know we will, stud."

"Seiler," Larabee managed, a wave of lightheadedness making it hard to concentrate, to think. "Seiler has Vin… God, Buck… he has Vin…"

Buck and Nathan exchanged worried glances as they felt Larabee begin to shake like he might just come apart.

Shock, Jackson mouthed silently to the ladies' man.

Buck nodded, understanding.

Together they got Chris into his bed and covered him up. "I'll stay here with Chris," Nathan said softly. "You and the others get that stuff over to Forensics."

Buck nodded, but it was obvious he didn't want to go, too worried about his friend.

"He'll be okay," Nathan promised. "If I have to, I've got an IV in my big kit. I'm hoping he'll sleep an hour or so and then I can get some juice and some food into him."

"He hasn't been eating much," Buck said on a sigh.

"Yeah, just like Vin," Nathan commented, shaking his head. "You cut one, the other one bleeds."

"We've gotta find him," Buck said, the words no more than a whisper. "If that maniac kills Vin… It'll kill Chris, too."

Nathan nodded. He understood the reality of the situation as well as Buck did. After all, they had just watched Vin slowly killing himself when he'd thought he'd killed Chris. It would be no different with Larabee. "Go on. The sooner they get that stuff, the sooner we might be able to find Vin."

Buck pulled his shoulders back and nodded, determination in his dark blue eyes. He glanced once at Chris, saying, "You take good care of him."

"Do my best," was Jackson's reply.

"Ya always do, Nathan," Buck told him.

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

The knock was soft, but Seiler heard it. He stopped painting and crossed the small room, halting in front of the door. He turned and looked back down at Vin, who lay curled up in a nearby corner. "Vincent," he called softly, "time to wake up now… Christopher is here…"

"Chris…?" Tanner mewed softly. "Chris…"

Seiler smiled and turned back to the door, opening it. Outside stood a tall, well-built blond man around thirty-five years old. He smiled a little nervously, green eyes meeting Seiler's.

"Yes, you're the one," the madman said quietly. "Most definitely the one. He sent you to me. I knew He would… My almost Christopher… Almost…"

"Chris…" Tanner whimpered, rocking a little faster.

The blond man's smile faded and his expression turned wary as he got a good look at the inside of the room, and the naked man lying curled up on the floor, covered with small cuts and other injuries he couldn't identify. He had been warned about Seiler when he'd approached his usual dealer, asking if he could get hold of some Beauty for him. Up Dog had told him the guy selling Beauty was crazy, but Gatekeeper was the only one who knew how to make the shit, and it was the most popular club drug out there at the moment. He needed to stock up if he was going to keep his rich customers happy.

It had taken him some time, but he'd finally scored some of the pills from Tio, Gatekeeper's lackey. And it had been Tio who had called him earlier that day, promising him a thousand pills, if he'd come pretend to be some guy named Christopher.

Whatever. He just wanted the damn drugs, and the sooner the better. He had big plans for the upcoming weekend.

"Come in, Christopher, come in. Let me introduce you to Vincent…"

Don Humphries glanced over at the huddled form in the corner again. It was hard to tell much about the guy beyond the fact that he was filthy, cut and covered with dried blood. His longish brown hair was limp and matted and he was naked, still lying curled up on his side, his arms wrapped around his knees, which were drawn up as close to his chest as the man could get them. And he was rocking with short, jerky movements, his eyes open, but unseeing.

"Tio promised me a thousand pops of Beauty," he said.

"Yes, I know. But first I need your help. Vincent needs Christopher to purge him…"

"Purge?" the club owner repeated, glancing around at the weird paintings on the walls. The Gatekeeper was as crazy as he'd heard, maybe worse.

"Oh yes… You shall give Vincent a tour… A tour of his very own living Hell…" Seiler laughed.

Humphries couldn't stop the shudder that sound evoked. He wanted to leave, right now. But he needed those pills. He could sell them for a hundred dollars apiece, easy – maybe more. He couldn't walk away from that kind of money. "What do you want me to do?"

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

Thursday, November 10th, 1999

7:10 a.m.

Josiah sat down across from Chris at Larabee's kitchen table, watching as the blond continued to stare into his empty coffee cup. He could see the man's muscles were corded with tension, trembling beneath his T-shirt.

He stood and moved his chair quietly, shifting it closer to his friend. He sat down again and slipped his arm around Chris's shoulders, feeling him flinch away slightly from the touch. But he didn't move, didn't look away from the empty coffee cup. He just whispered, "Leave me alone, Josiah."

"I can't do that, Chris." Sanchez knew his friend wasn't the demonstrative sort, but right now it was perfectly clear to the profiler Larabee needed a hug, and by God he was going to give the man one whether he wanted it or not.

They sat like that, Josiah with his arm around Chris, neither man speaking for several minutes. Then, finally, Larabee turned tear-filled eyes to the profiler and moaned softly, "I know what he's doing to him, Josiah. I know. Seiler's going to kill him. To get to me, he's going to kill him. He'll see it all as part of his twisted fantasy to bring Sar–" He nearly choked on his wife's name. "He thinks he can bring her back… to life." All the pent-up emotions from the past few days, from the time since he had woken in the hospital really, finally overwhelmed him, and once the tears began to fall, he couldn't call them back, or stop them.

Josiah gathered his friend into his arms and held him like he would a frightened child, offering words of encouragement and holding him while he cried himself out.

Later, they went out to the living room where they sat together, Larabee finally talking to the profiler, telling him what he'd endured at Seiler's hands while the others continued their hunt for any signs of Seiler or Vin.

JD drove himself relentlessly, checking and double-checking any computer he had access to, or could find access to, legally or not. Ezra worked the streets, calling in favors from everyone he could think of. Nathan followed up on the drug angle, meeting with DEA, DPD, clinic doctors, community groups and others, trying to find the source of Beauty. Buck split his time between the ranch and Larabee and his own contacts, which were more numerous than anyone had suspected.

But no leads surfaced over the course of the day.

Now that Larabee had started to talk, Josiah had remained with Chris, listening, consoling, and making sure the blond stayed away from both alcohol and firearms as the gruesome story emerged over the course of the day.

Josiah also tried to get the man to eat, but he had little success. What few bites Larabee did manage at breakfast, lunch and dinner weren't enough to sustain him, but he knew they would have to do until they located Vin.

If they located Vin, Sanchez thought. Having heard the story now, he was afraid Larabee's initial reaction might be correct. Seiler might have already killed Vin because, somehow, he knew by doing so he would kill Chris. And if he couldn't kill Larabee himself, this was the next best thing. But he couldn't tell Chris that. He couldn't allow the man to give up any more than he had been able to let Vin give up.

Not that any of them would be able to stop Chris from doing just that if they found Tanner's body.

He sighed softly, watching Larabee as he napped on one of the sofas. He wished there was something more he could do to help Chris, or to help find Vin, but there wasn't. The others were doing everything possible.

He shivered despite the warmth the heater and fireplace spilled into the room. Robert Seiler was insane, and there was no way to predict what he might do to Vin, what he might have already done.

Josiah suspected Tanner had survived an abusive childhood, but he couldn't be sure. Vin never talked about himself. Well, except for a few comments about his time in the Army, or chasing bounties before he'd joined the Marshal's Service, and even those were generally vague.

He couldn't help but wonder if they managed to find Vin, whether they would find the same man who had come to mean so much to all of them, especially Chris. He didn't really understand the relationship between Chris and Vin, but it didn't matter. Vin had become special to all of them, cementing them together as a team, and as a family.

Vin was their heart, their spirit, and he wasn't at all sure they could survive losing him. He knew for a fact Larabee couldn't.

Somehow, Vin had given Chris back his life, his will to live again. Not just to exist or survive, day to day, but to really live again – to care, to laugh, to feel again. It was a very special gift, from a very special soul, one both ages older than his years, and yet somehow still touched by a child-like innocence the rest of them had lost, even JD, who was certainly the most innocent of them all.

He had tried to put the realization into words before, while he had watched Vin slowly killing himself when he'd thought Chris was dead, but he hadn't been able to manage it. Now he wasn't sure he would ever be able to manage it.

There was just something special about Vin, something that seemed to touch everyone he met in a slightly different way. But it meant the same to all of them.

He has a pure heart, Josiah decided. His spirit's pure. As if it couldn't be touched or tainted by all the bad I know that boy's seen. It's a miracle, our miracle, and by God we'd better get him back…

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

Thursday, November 10th, 1999

11:10 p.m.

When Larabee fell silent, Josiah pushed himself off the sofa and stretched before walking over to where Larabee now sat in his recliner. He reached out, resting his hand on Larabee's shoulder and saying, "Come on, Chris, let's get some sleep, okay? We're both worthless to Vin like this."

Larabee shook his head.

"Chris, you've been at this on and off all day. You need to rest."

"I can't. Not 'til we find him, Josiah," he whispered. "He's dying… I can– I can feel it."

Sanchez wanted to ask how he knew that, but he didn't. He did, however, believe him. "Chris, please, just a few hours. I'll wake you up if anyone calls or comes over."

"Can't," Larabee said. "The dreams… I can't see that. I don't want to see what Seiler's doing to him…"

"Chris, you're exhausted. The dreams won't come back tonight," Josiah told him, praying he was right. He needed to see if Chris kept any sleep aids in the house. That should help ensure the dreams stayed away. "Chris, do you want to help Vin?"

Chris nodded, his eyes hollow and haunted

"Then you need to get some sleep. We'll start again in the morning, fresh."

That seemed to get through to the man and he stood, allowing himself to be put to bed by the older man.

Josiah left Larabee lying in his bed and went to the bathroom, finding some Unisom in the bathroom medicine cabinet. He poked two through the foil, then went to the kitchen for a glass of water. He carried it and the pills back to the bedroom. Larabee was already out.

He set the water and the pills on the nightstand and left the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Pausing in the hallway, he scrubbed his hands over his face and sighed heavily.

Lord, keep Your eye on these two, will You? They're going to need whatever help You can give them. We all are. But, please, Lord, don't let this madman take Vin from us. We need him, we all need him, but You know how much Chris needs him… Please, Lord, hold Vin in Your hand until we can find him… for Chris.

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

Grey… The world had become a foggy grey veil. He couldn't see past it, but he tried, especially when a man who looked like Chris entered his cell and stood, staring down at him.

It was hard to make out the man's features through his one eye that was half-swollen, but his other eye was puffed completely closed.

"See Vincent, Christopher is here… but what has he done to you?" the voice asked him.

"Chris," he managed to gasp, the movement of his lips breaking open one of the crusted splits once again. He could taste the resulting blood, but ignored it, trying to figure out how Chris had gotten here. And what was he saying?

"…worthless piece of shit…"

Why wasn't Chris helping him?

Oh, yeah. He'd killed him. He couldn't help him. But the voice had brought him back… and he was mad…

Mad at him for killing him. The walls of the small room seemed to close in on Vin as the voice continued to speak, and Chris continued to hurt him.

He shook his head, unwilling to believe what he thought the voice was saying. Chris had given him to Seiler? Why?

"No," he managed to spit out, "don't believe ya."

"Why?" the voice asked him. "Vincent, see what he has let me do to you? He was going to help me… Help me bring Sarah back, but you stopped him…"

"No…" Vin moaned. He hadn't stopped him, had he? He'd killed Chris.

No, he'd couldn't have killed Chris. Chris was mad at him…

Because he'd killed him?

It was too confusing, and it hurt too much to try and decipher the truth.

But what followed became a living hell for Vin. Unable to accept that Chris could ever hurt him like this, he could not deny the pain that wracked his body. The situation threatened to overwhelm him, and the island that had been his refuge shrank as he lost both hope, and the desire to live with the pain and the confusion.

But some part of him could not surrender, and that part fought ferociously to survive. It walled itself up somewhere deep inside Vin's mind, watching, waiting for a chance to escape.

And, slowly, the room and the voice and Chris dissolved into a peaceful grey void that transported him to a place of rest. The pain could not touch him here.

He recognized the place. He had been here before, when he was a child, and it felt familiar, good even. He was safe here, he knew he was. Nothing could touch him now, no one could hurt him. He was safe, at last. All he had to do was stay here and wait, although for what, he wasn't quite sure.

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

"Strong, so strong, my Vincent," Seiler said, rocking back and forth as he stood over Tanner's body. "He is worthy of her… truly, he is. Christopher has no idea what he has in you, Vincent. You, Vincent, walk in Beauty…"

He dabbed his paintbrush into the blood pooling in the hollow of Vin's throat, then turned to the paintings that covered all the walls now. He put the finishing touches on the demon's face and then moved to the next wall, studying it for a moment.

The painting there was almost as hideous as the demon, but it was a portrait of Chris Larabee, his arms outstretched, his head flung back in what looked like a primal scream. His legs appeared to have been broken, and he was falling to the ground, which was made up of row upon row of sharp, shark-like teeth. From the center of Larabee's chest a human arm had broken through his flesh and was grasping for… something.

The expression on the painted Larabee's face was one of raw, overwhelming pain.

Seiler paused, turned, dabbed his brush into the blood again and then turned back to add a few last strokes to the suffering Larabee. He stepped back, admiring his work, which was stunning, if deeply disturbing. If you looked closely, you could see something moving under the painted Larabee's skin, something alive., something that was trying to escape.

Seiler smiled rapturously and moved on to the third wall. Here the demon from the first wall was descending from a black pit in a storm-roiling sky. In his arms he carried a nude woman. It was Sarah, his sweet, sweet Sarah. She appeared to be sleeping, her thick, reddish-blond hair falling over the demon's arm. Her eyes were closed, her face showing nothing but peace. She was perfection.

She was Beauty.

Seiler knew there was nothing he could add to that painting. It was complete, perfect.

The madman moved to stand over Vin's unconscious body. "So strong, Vincent… But He will break you, my master. He can break anyone, even if He has to kill you… He shall kill you, slowly, perfectly…"

He turned then, looking at the fourth wall, the painting there just beginning to be filled in. Sarah was standing, her arms flung out as if she wanted to rush out of the surface of the wall and embrace him. Behind her was Chris Larabee, or at least his skin, looking as if it had been shed by some human-shaped snake. He was being blown away from her by some unseen wind that was carrying him toward the waiting demon's open mouth. Christopher would be devoured, the final sacrifice to give his beautiful, perfect Sarah life once more.

And then she would open her eyes. She would step out of the painting and into the room. His sweet, sweet Sarah would finally be his. Perfect Beauty would be his.

But only if Larabee suffered and died… Yes, only then. And to kill Larabee he knew he had to destroy the bond that existed between Christopher and Vincent.

"Read about this, man," Tio said. He was standing next to Tanner, nudging him with the toe of his shoe like he was checking a road kill to see if it was alive or not. "In 'Nam and places where they torture prisoners; some guys'll die before they break. This one guys said he saw it happen. Another guy flipped out and flopped around like some kinda fish… then he died. But he never broke."

"Oh, yes, Tio, he will die. When He says it is time…" Seiler said, turning to look at Tanner once more. "But Vincent is only a tool… He will bring about the death of the Chosen One. My master must have the Chosen One. Only then will He give me my Beauty… My beautiful, sweet Sarah… perfection…"

"Whatever you say, man," the young man replied, shaking his head. Seiler was a bigger fruit loop than he'd ever guessed. The man talked crazy, walked crazy, was crazy, but his drugs were real enough. And the packets of Beauty he was getting from Seiler sold like candy on the streets. "Think he might be dead already, man."

"No, not dead," Seiler said, leaning over and beginning to paint on the floor. "Vincent is hiding…" He continued to work, occasionally stopping to add strokes of Tanner's blood to the images taking shape around the unconscious man. "Vincent… come out, come out… wherever you are," he chanted. "Come out, come out… wherever you are… We see you… You can't hide from us… I paint Truth! I paint Beauty! I paint your future! You will live, Vincent, oh yes, you will live. You will live long enough for Christopher to find you… The poisoned pill… He will see you and swallow you through his eyes. The eyes are only portals, you know," he said, looking up at Tio. "Portals to the soul."

"Yeah, whatever, man."

"So blind, so blind," Seiler said, shaking his head sadly. "But no matter, I paint your future as well. Leave me!" he snapped.

"Yeah, whatever you want, but I need some more Beauty. Humphries and a couple 'a other guys are asking for more."

Seiler shook his head, disgusted with the young man's greed. "Tell Humphries to come back tomorrow. He must finish preparing Vincent. I will make you more of the Beauty today."

"You work him over again and he's gonna be dead," Tio said.

"You want my Beauty, you'll tell him to be here!"

"Yeah, fine, man, no problem." Tio looked down at Vin, giving the man a swift kick in the ribs before turning to leave. "Fuckin' fruit bar," he muttered on his way out.

Seiler went back to his painting, filling the floor around Tanner with the images from inside his head, mumbling the entire time. From time to time he tried to rouse Tanner, but Vin remained hidden in whatever world he had built for himself, safe from the pain and the confusion.

It didn't matter to Seiler. He blew more Beauty up Tanner's nose and danced over the still drying images, laughing and clapping his hands…

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

Vin stayed in his safe place, listening to the distant sounds of the demon who prowled the edges of his sanctuary, trying to find a way in. But he knew the creature wouldn't find a way. Others had tried, and they had all failed. He was safe.

But there was another, someone Vin thought he might know, who also prowled the edges as well.

"Do you hate me, Vin? You left me here! You left me here to die! Now it's your time to die!" the shadow screamed at him.

Seiler flipped a switch, sending current into Tanner's body at several well-chosen sites.

The only answer the shadow received was a strangled scream. But Vin didn't know he was making the sound. He was crouched in his safe place.

Why was the shadow hurting him? Did he know him? It didn't make any sense, but then little had for a long, long time it seemed.

He must have done something to the shadow, he must have hurt him.

Vin could make out other shadows as well, shadows of… things moving around the edges of his safe place –the demon, the blond man, and the beautiful woman.

This was all happening because of her, her and the blond man. But he wasn't sure who they were, or why they were important any more. He couldn't really think at all, although he thought maybe he might have known how at one time. But whenever he tried to remember, his brain started to hurt so bad he had to take it out and throw it away.

But that seemed to attract the monster and the demon, like sharks coming to the scent of chum. It was better if he didn't think, then he wouldn't have to take his brains out and toss them away again…

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

Friday, November 12th, 1999

9:37 a.m.

Vin lay in the back of a car, his teeth chattering, his body shaking. Seiler had finally decided Vincent was properly "prepared." The time had come to return him to the Chosen One. Vin only knew he was being moved somehow. He lay on his side, watching, waiting, unable to remember who he was, where he was, or what had happened to him. All he knew was he was in terrible danger and he had to escape – now – before the monster or the demon or something worse found him again.

The driver slowed as they approached a red light.

Now or never, Vin thought as he slowly drew both knees up to his chest. He thrust his feet savagely into a man's side, grabbing for the door handle at the same time.

"Grab him!" Seiler screamed at Tio.

Vin fumbled, the handle slipping out of his damp grasp on his first try to open it.

The young Hispanic reached for Vin, gasping as the agent kicked him again, then managed to fumble the door open.

Crawling out of the car and onto the street, Vin tried to stand, using the car stopped alongside them as a support. The driver yelled at him, but Vin ignored the man, managing to pull himself upright. He started away in a weaving half-run.

Tio exited the car and started to draw the revolver he carried in his waistband.

"Stop!" Seiler hissed at him. "Let Vincent go. We cannot afford the attention."

"What if the cops pick him up, man?"

"Then Christopher will have him, and he will come after me, just as I planned. I will be waiting for the Chosen One… He is the key now, the key to getting my sweet, sweet Sarah back… He will come to me… come to me… come to me…" he said, chanting the phrase over and over as Tio climbed back into the car, the people behind them honking their horns as the light turned green and they hadn't moved yet.

Seiler drove away, smiling. His poisoned pill would be delivered, he had no doubt of that.

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

A short while later

Vin staggered drunkenly down the sidewalk, disoriented and confused. People quickly moved to clear a path for him, shooting furtive glances at the battered, filthy man as he passed by them.

Exhausted, Tanner finally stopped, leaning up against the front of a building, his eyes closed as he fought to catch his breath. Where the hell was he? Where the hell was he supposed to go?

A hand closed on Vin's shoulder and the man's eyes flew open. Panicked, he started to bolt, but his body refused to follow the mental command to flee and he collapsed at a policeman's feet. The officer stood over him, a questioning look on his face.

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

10:41 a.m.

Chris was obsessed. Once he knew Seiler had Vin, he had risen each day before dawn, scouring the city for any signs of the madman. The others had spent the same time in equally unproductive searches.

And, with each day the haunted look that shadowed Chris's eyes grew deeper, darker, and the others grew more and more concerned for him. If Vin died, they knew they would have to follow all of the same precautions they had employed when Seiler had held Chris and Vin had nearly given up. It wasn't something they were looking forward to.

"Anything?" Chris asked, and Buck looked up, surprised he hadn't heard the man enter the office. He shook his head.

"Me, neither," Chris sighed, disgusted with himself.

The phone rang and both men jumped. Two worried gazes fastened on the instrument. Chris finally answered it on the fourth ring.

"Chris?" It was Ezra.

"Yeah, Ezra, what do you have?" was the man's tired response.

"You'd better get over to Summit Hospital," Standish said, his voice completely serious. "And, Chris?"

"Yeah?" Larabee asked in a whisper.

"Make it fast. There might not be much time."

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

11:39 a.m.

"No!" Vin screamed, fighting with what strength he could find. "No! Stop! Chris! Stop! Don't hurt–" The sentence was cut short by a half-stifled growling scream that twisted out of Vin's tortured body.

Several orderlies were trying to hold the man down on a stretcher while two nurses secured him with restraints, but it wasn't easy. Tanner fought like a wild thing, kicking, clawing, and biting. Two of the orderlies were sporting bloodied lips and one a bloody nose. One of the nurses had been bitten.

When he was at last safely subdued, the orderlies quickly moved away.

Vin stopped fighting, but his body continued to jerk and shudder uncontrollably. "Why?" he moaned, over and over. "Why, Chris? Why?"

He threw his ample strength against the restraints, fighting to break free until, finally, it seemed that unconsciousness stilled him.

Through most of it Chris had stood outside the emergency room, watching the horrendous spectacle, unable to force himself to walk away or go in to try and help. Buck, on the other hand, had taken one look at Vin's battered body and listened to one scream, then fled to the blessed quiet of the waiting room.

Chris knew he should go with the man, that he should be there for Buck and the others, who had been his support throughout the days of waiting, but he couldn't force his feet to move. He looked down at his fists, which were clenched into tight balls at his sides. He really should do something.

Vin began to move again, weakly at first, but quickly picking up steam, fighting harder and harder within the restraints. And then he screamed again. It was like nothing Larabee had ever heard before – raw, wild, primal. There was little that one could call human to the terrible sound.

And this time, unable to stand the noise any longer, Chris started for Tanner.

Two pairs of hands caught him. "No, Mr. Larabee, please," came a soft yet forceful feminine voice, wrapped in an Irish accent.

"Come on, Chris, let's go talk," Ezra said. He was holding Chris by the shoulders, blocking his way until he felt the man relax. Then, resting his hand lightly on Chris's back, he gently directed him away from Vin.

The consoling tone of Standish's voice surprised Chris, but he accepted it gratefully, allowing Ezra and the woman to lead him down the corridor of the hospital, past the waiting room, and into an office.

The petite woman in her mid- to late-50s walked around to sit at a large desk that occupied the center of the room. She nodded, and Ezra patted Chris on the shoulder, saying, "We'll be waiting for you when you're finished," and leaving quickly before Chris could respond.

"Mr. Larabee, I'm Fiona O'Neill," the woman said, her accented voice comforting and reassuring somehow. She motioned to the two leather chairs in front of her desk, saying, "Please, sit down."

Chris did as she had asked.

Dr. O'Neill peered intently at him and, sensing his discomfort, stood and moved around the desk to lean against it in front of him.

"How is he?" he asked quietly, his mouth suddenly gone dry.

"Not very good right now, I'm afraid," she replied truthfully. "He has been heavily drugged, beaten, tortured. Mr. Standish tells me that Vin has been missing for the better part of a week?"

Larabee nodded and looked up, meeting her eyes. "What he was saying in there–" he began, but couldn't finish.

"We'll have to wait for the drugs to clear from his system before we know anything for sure, Mr. Larabee. Then we'll move forward from there."

"What can I do?" Chris asked in a whisper, his gaze shifting to the thick teal and tan carpet that covered the floor.

"Right now," she told him gently, "I'm afraid all we can do is wait for the drugs to leave his system. The lab is trying to determine what, exactly, he was given." She waited until Chris's chin rose and he was looking at her again. "We'll do everything we can to help him, I promise you. The road may appear long right now, but if we go slowly, and have patience, we might be able to get the same man back."

Chris nodded, tears filling his eyes. Dr. O'Neill stepped forward and sat down on the arm of the chair. She slipped her arm around his shoulder. "I spoke at great length to Mr. Standish," she told him. "He cares very much about you, and about Vin, although I do believe he would face wolves rather than admit it."

"Yeah… we all know he's a fraud," Chris said softly.

"He told me you had your own…" She paused, looking for the right word. "…encounter with the man who did this to Vin?" She felt Chris shiver in response, but he nodded. "Perhaps we could talk about that? It might help me to understand what Vin's been through, so I can help him."

Chris looked up at the woman again and nodded. "I'd… I think I'd like to talk to someone. I haven't been able to… to talk about it… not even Vin… just Josiah. I – I know what happened to him…"

She nodded, sensing that Larabee was ready to talk now. "Do you have some time now? The nurses will come tell us if anything changes with Mr. Tanner."

Chris hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded. He would rather talk with O'Neill than face his friends at the moment. Besides, there was something about the doctor that set him at ease, and it had been a hell of a long time since he had felt at ease.

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

Tuesday, November 16th, 1999

Three days passed while they waited for the drugs to finally clear Vin's system. The lab technicians had been able to determine that Tanner had been given a particularly pure form of the new street drug Beauty, but they had no way to counteract it. All they could do was wait for the drug to break down and be flushed from the man's body on its own timetable.

Chris remained at the hospital the entire time. He sat with Vin, talked to O'Neill in her office, or paced in the waiting room. The others came at regular intervals to wait with him, getting Chris to eat something or to nap, and spending the rest of their time in the continuing hunt for Seiler.

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

Fear… He was afraid, confused… Where was he? What was happening to him?

He could feel the restraints holding him were padded, but they still held him firmly to the bed. The soft mattress, however, was a relief to his still-aching body, but it still felt strange, foreign. And that made him afraid. Were the monsters still out there, waiting for him?

He wasn't sure, so he stayed in his safe place and waited… and waited… and waited. But then he heard a voice, a familiar voice, and he couldn't resist it when it begged him to wake up.

So Vin began the long journey back to consciousness, still unsure what he might face when he got there, but he knew he could trust that voice, the soft southern accents familiar and comforting.

That voice was telling him about… names… names he thought he might remember, but he wasn't sure. They felt… familiar… safe… Josiah… Nathan… Buck… JD… and Chris…

Why did that name frighten him? And, at the same time, fill him with… longing. He wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he couldn't help himself. He clung to the southern voice and followed it toward… Chris…

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

Wednesday, November 17th, 1999

12:56 a.m.

He awoke sometime after midnight by his own estimate, and immediately recognized he was in a hospital. His thoughts were still a twisted nest of confusion and… loneliness. The southern voice was gone, and none had replaced it.

He glanced around the dark room, but it didn't appear anyone was there with him, and that struck him as odd somehow, but he wasn't sure why. He had been alone most of his life, he ought to be used to it, shouldn't he?

A name whispered through his mind… Chris…

He frowned slightly, memories beginning to edge into his awareness. Wasn't Chris dead?

No… No, Chris wasn't dead… He was alive. He had been a prisoner… A prisoner of Seiler's… Like he had been!

Yes, he had been a prisoner, like Chris.

Vin knew then the drugs the madman had given him must finally be gone from his bloodstream, but their absence brought an unsettling edge to the reality he had to endure. He wouldn't be able to return to his safe place.

Other thoughts and images crowded in from the edges of his awareness, but he fought them back, unable to face the horror they carried with them right now. He felt too fragile to try, like he was a pane of shattered glass and the slightest of breezes might send the pieces tumbling.

He wished someone was there. Why was he alone? When one of them was hurt, the others came together, they sat vigil until the injured man awoke, so he didn't have to wake up alone… But he was alone. Had they abandoned him? Had Seiler killed them?

He started to tremble, and jerked at the restraints. Where were they? Why weren't they here?

But they weren't there. He was alone. Maybe they had given up on him. Maybe they didn't know he was here. Maybe they did, but they didn't care any more.

But he could remember a voice… Ezra's voice. Ezra had been there, talking to him, telling him he had to come back to them, that they all needed him… especially Chris. Had they been lies?

But he didn't think Ezra would lie to him. He didn't think any of them would lie to him. He trusted them. But they weren't here. They'd left him alone.

God, he didn't want to be alone again. He was so tired of being alone.

But he was alone.

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

9 a.m.

Chris entered the too-familiar waiting room and headed straight for the complementary coffee waiting in one corner of the room. He had just poured himself a cup when he heard Dr. O'Neill say, "He's awake."

He turned to face her, the coffee sloshing over his hand, but he didn't even feel it. He set the cup down, the coffee instantly forgotten. "How is he?"

"I'm going to go see now," she said, turning and heading off down the hall.

Chris fell into step beside her. "When?"

"He woke last night. Ezra had stepped out to get some coffee. Dr. Kramer went in to check on him and sent Mr. Standish home, to give Vin a chance to get his bearings."

Larabee frowned. "You mean he was alone when he woke up?"

She nodded. "Dr. Kramer wanted to give Vin some time to let his thoughts settle."

"But we never let someone wake up alone."

She stopped, her eyes meeting his. "Oh dear. That may have been a mistake, then."

Chris swallowed hard. "Vin–"

"We'll make it right," she promised him.

But Chris wondered if they could.

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

The sound of the door to his room opening startled Vin and he tried to lift his hand in order to wipe away his tears, but the restraints effectively held him back.

Dr. O'Neill smiled as she reached the bedside and saw him. If he could cry, it wasn't nearly as bad as she'd first feared. "Hello, Vin. I am Doctor Fiona O'Neill."

Vin nodded, his embarrassment peaking as she took a tissue from the box sitting on the bedside stand and wiped away his tears for him.

Through a large one-way observation window Chris watched as Dr. O'Neill released Vin from the restraints, saying, "I don't think we'll need these any more, will we?"

Tanner shook his head. "Must've really been out of it," he replied quietly, his voice raspier than usual.

"Yes, I'm afraid you were," she agreed as she began to examine him. "But that's all over now; the drugs are gone from your system."

Chris winced when he saw Vin begin to tremble under the doctor's gentle touch. Knowing he needed to tell the others Vin was awake, Larabee fished his cell phone out of his pocket and speed-dialed the office. Josiah picked up on the first ring.


"He's awake."

"We're on the way."

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

9:37 a.m.

The others hurried up to join Chris at the observation window, their expressions excited and happy.

Buck slapped Chris on the back, asking "He's really awake?"

Larabee nodded.

"That's great, just great," JD said, grinning. "Can we see him?"

"I don't know," Chris said, but he was unable to stop the small smile lifting the corners of his mouth. "Fiona told me to wait here." He glanced back at Vin, who looked like nothing more than a frightened boy at the moment.

Seeing the worry in Larabee's expression, Josiah told him softly, "We'll get him back, Chris, just like we got you back."

The blond nodded, but he said softly, "I'm just… scared, I guess."

"Scared?" Nathan repeated. "Why, did the doctor say something?"

"No, it's nothing she said."

"Then why?" Josiah asked him.

"I– I don't know," Larabee replied, watching as Dr. O'Neill continued her examination. "Something's changed between Vin and I… before this… and I don't know if I can fix it."

"You can," Buck told him. "Stud, the two of you are cut from the same cloth."

"I hope you're right," Chris replied softly.

"Hell, I'm always right, haven't you figured that out by now?" Buck asked him.

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

9:58 a.m.

"Sorry," Vin whispered as he jerked away from Dr. O'Neill's probing once again.

She smiled and stopped, giving him a break from all the poking and prodding. Taking his hand in hers she told him, "Don't be sorry, Vin. You're doing fine. It's going to take time, but we have it. You should be ready to go home in five, maybe six days from the looks of things."

He liked the sound of her voice, and the feel of her touch, which was gentle and sure. And, suddenly, Vin was flooded with the need to be close, to know that something other than pain could come from the touch of another's hand. But he didn't know this woman. Where were his friends? Where was Chris?

Tears filled his eyes again, but he held them in check. What the hell was wrong with him? Why was he acting like this? It was like his emotions were completely out of control, and he hated feeling out of control.

"I know there's someone here who would like to see you, several of them by now, I'd imagine; are you feeling up to it?"

Vin felt the twin surges of fear and hope pounding through his heart. He nodded and whispered, "Yeah, 'm up t' it."

She rose and started for the door.


She stopped and turned. "Yes, Vin?"

He shook his head. He was a little afraid to face his friends, but he wasn't at all sure why, and he didn't really want to tell her that.

"They'll be in shortly. You just rest for a few minutes."

He nodded, trying once again to corral his emotions, which felt like a herd of wild mustangs in his chest right now.

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

10:00 a.m.

"I can't go in there. Not yet," Chris said when he heard the doctor's final comment to Vin before she left the room.

JD shot Buck a confused look, but the ladies' man just shook his head.

"Whenever you're ready, Chris," Josiah said, his gaze sweeping over the others to let them know they had better not argue with him.

Dr. O'Neill opened the door. "Fifteen minutes total," she told them. "Go in as pairs, all right?"

Nathan and Josiah agreed to go first, for five minutes. Buck and JD would follow them, and Chris and Ezra would be last.

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

"Hey, Vin, how are you doing?" Jackson asked as they stepped into the room.

"Good to see you, son," Josiah added as they reached the side of Vin's bed.

Vin studied them as if he wasn't quite sure he remembered them, but then he seemed to recall their faces and a small smile appeared on his lips. "Have a seat, boys. I won't bite y', I promise."

"We know that," Nathan said, a little embarrassed. He sat down in the chair that was already sitting next to the bed.

Josiah remained standing, but he reached out and rested his hand lightly on Vin's blanket-covered leg. "You had us all worried, you know that, don't you? How do you feel?"

Vin gave them a small smile, whispering, "I've felt better… But don't tell the doc, okay? She might extend m' sentence."

Nathan and Josiah both grinned, relief flooding through them at the sound of the Vin Tanner they knew so well. But the words seemed… forced to both men, and they exchanged questioning glances, each trying to decide if Tanner was really okay or not.

"The others want to come see you, too," Nathan told him. "Will that be okay?"

Vin nodded. "Sure."

"We don’t want to tire you out," Jackson told him. "So if it gets to be too much, you just say so, okay?"

Vin nodded. "Y' find Seiler?"

"Not yet," Josiah told him. "But we're still working on it. How did you escape?"

"Didn't," Vin replied, then frowned slightly. "Maybe I did… Was in a car… I got out… I– I don't really remember."

"That's all right," Josiah assured him. "Don't worry about it, Vin. The important thing is that you're back, and you're going to be fine."

The two men promised to return later, then left, Buck and JD almost immediately replacing them.

Buck walked right over and patted Vin's shoulder, asking, "How are ya doing, Junior?"

"Reckon I'll live," Tanner replied. "Y' think y' can find the controls on this bed 'n' raise me up? 'M gettin' tired 'a starin' at the ceiling."

"Sure," Wilmington said, grateful to have something to do. He quickly located the necessary buttons and soon had Vin raised up to a nearly seated position. "How's that?"

"Good, thanks," Vin responded, watching as the nervousness began to set in again. "Guess I had y'all pretty worried, huh? Sorry."

"It wasn't your fault," JD told him.

"But, we were worried… especially Chris," Buck added. "I guess I was just sort of… numb."

"Yeah," Vin said softly as he studied the ladies' man. "Reckon y' done this more 'n enough, huh?"

Wilmington nodded. "Between the two of you…"

Vin watched him. Never meant t' hurt ya, Bucklin… Never meant t' take your place with Chris, neither, but it just… Hell, I don't even know what Chris 'n' I are now… friends or "something else."

"Sorry, I missed that," Buck said, looking at JD, who shrugged, not having been able to make out the comment either.

"Ain't nothin'," Vin replied, smiling weakly at his friends.

JD grinned. "Hey, think we should try smuggling in a pizza for you? I don't know about you, but I hate hospital food."

"Yeah, me too," Vin said, although they all knew he hated hospital food. They all did.

"Good idea," Buck said, feeling a little anxious. Vin wasn't acting quite like Vin. "Maybe we could–"

"Uh, Buck," JD interrupted, nodding toward the door.

The ladies' man looked. Ezra was standing there, tapping his watch. He turned back to Vin. "Okay, look, we'll go come up with a plan, okay?"

Vin nodded, wishing this was over. The two men left – fled, really – and Ezra came in to take their place. Tanner sighed softly when the first thing out of the undercover man's mouth was: "So, how are you feeling?"

How was it that he'd wanted someone here just a few minutes ago, and now he just wanted to be left alone? "Feel fine," he replied tiredly.

"Vin, can you tell me how they got hold of you?"

Tanner blinked. How had Seiler gotten him? He wasn't sure he remembered…

"What's the last thing you remember before Seiler?" Ezra asked him.

Vin thought for a moment. "I was checkin' out the Jeep… Two men, said they's FBI showed, lookin' for Chris… One of 'em shot me… with a dart…"

"Do you remember what they look like? What they were driving?"

Tanner looked up and met Standish's eyes. He smiled slightly and nodded. "Yeah, I think I do."

"Good, Vin, that's very good."

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

"He's a strong one," Dr. O'Neill said as she looked away from Vin and Ezra.

Chris was watching the pair as well, a concerned look on his face. "But he's acting like nothing's happened to him. How can he do that? That's not normal, is it?"

"Didn't you tell me you did the same thing?" she asked him.

Larabee shot a glare at the woman, but then he huffed out his breath and nodded. "Yeah," he admitted tightly, "I guess I did."

"You should go in," Dr. O'Neill told him, catching the fleeting expression of fear that crossed Chris's face in reaction to the comment.

"Are you sure? I mean, after what he was saying when they brought him in…" He trailed off.

"Given the history you told me, no matter what happened, I think he would want to see you, don't you? It might hurt him more if you didn't."

"But–" He stopped and shoved his fingers through his hair, then sighed tiredly. "What do I say to him?"

"What would you normally say?"

Larabee shot her a chagrined look. "Probably the same thing the rest of them did: I'd ask him how he's doing."

"Well, that's a place to start," she told him.

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

"Well," Ezra said reluctantly, "the doctor has set a limit on how long we can stay I'm afraid."

"Thanks for comin'," Vin said.

Standish frowned. "Of course I came. You don't honestly think we wouldn't come to see you, do you?"

Vin wasn't sure how to answer that. Right now he didn't feel like he knew much of anything. "Uh, yeah… sure, I know."

"And we'll all come by again to see you later today," the well-dressed man said as he stood. "I want to see what we can do with what you've told me."

"'Kay," Vin replied, his voice sounding very much like a lost child's.

Not knowing what else to say, Ezra leaned over and gave the healing man a quick hug.

Vin grimaced slightly when he felt the pressure on his bruised back, but he reciprocated the action willingly.

"It is very good to have you back, Vin," Ezra said softly.

"Good t' be back," Vin responded, his voice nearly breaking. He didn't want to let go, but he knew he had to.

Ezra released him and left quickly so the tears that had finally escaped his eyes could not be seen.

Vin watched him go, then closed his own eyes and drew a deep breath. He heard the door open and, expecting Dr. O'Neill, he didn't bother to open them.

"Vin?" Chris's voice was a soft whisper, testing to see if his friend slept or not.

Vin's eyes flew open and he looked up at his best friend – relieved and frightened at the same time. He looked away, not knowing what to say or to do. He was confused, his emotions erupting into chaos.

Come on, Vin, Chris urged him silently, say something… He reached out, intending to rest his hand on Tanner's shoulder.

Instinct took over, Vin blocking Larabee's hand away, some part of his mind remembering the treatment he had endured at the hands of Chris's look-alike. A flash of nearly uncontrollable rage followed, frightening Vin with its intensity.

Chris took a step back when he saw the brief wave of hatred that passed through Vin's eyes. God, Vin, he thought, what did they do to you? What did I do?

Regret and embarrassment instantly registered on Tanner's face. "Chris, I'm sorry," he mumbled, shrugging weakly and looking away again. Aw hell…

"It's okay," Chris told him flatly, but he didn't repeat the action. Instead, he sat down on the chair.

"The others were just here," Vin commented idly, at a loss as to what to say or do.

"Yeah, I know," Chris replied, effectively ending the conversation.

What's wrong with me? Vin wondered. Why'd I do that? Chris is m' friend… Isn't he? But there was a part of Vin that had no answer to that question, and that scared him – badly.

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

Dr. O'Neill and the others watched the uncomfortable exchange between Chris and Vin. It was painfully obvious that both men were hesitant around one another, neither knowing what, if any, lines had been drawn by the other. And neither seemed willing to take the initiative to find out.

She frowned and shook her head.

"Someone ought to go rescue them," Josiah said softly.

Dr. O'Neill nodded and headed for the room, her entrance freeing the pair from the uncomfortable silence that had settled between them.

Chris immediately pushed to his feet upon seeing her. "Oh, sorry, Doctor. Let me get out of your way," he told her, quickly heading for the door. "I'll see you tomorrow, Vin. Uh, get some rest, okay?" he finished as he fled the room.

Vin watched him go with an expression approaching anguish on his face.

"You both just need some time," Dr. O'Neill said softly.

"Y' think seein' me brought back some bad memories?" Vin asked her in a near whisper.

"Perhaps, but right now we have to worry about you, all right? Chris will come around. Now, would you tell me what you remember?"

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

11:43 a.m.

"I can't believe I was so… stupid," Chris muttered while a silent Buck Wilmington sat, watching him.

Chris continued to pace in his office, softly lambasting himself until the ladies' man couldn't take any more. "Damn it, Chris, would you listen to yourself!" he said determinedly.

The man's tone stopped Chris in mid-stride. When the blond turned to look disbelievingly at Buck, the ladies' man continued. "Yeah, you screwed up. It happens. But Vin's our friend; he needs our help. We've got to forget about everything else and deal with that."

Chris hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded, feeling a little ashamed of himself. "You're right," he admitted. "But I have no idea what to do. I get around him and I… freeze up. Seems like everything I do is wrong."

"You don't have to do anything, Chris. Just be there for him, like he was for you."

Larabee nodded, more than a little ashamed of himself. Vin had been there for him. He was there every day at the hospital, even when Chris started pushing him away. Vin had never complained, and never got short with him, even when Chris had deserved it. And he'd tried his best to get Chris to talk about what had happened to him, but Chris had stubbornly refused.

Now he wished he had talked to Vin about it. Maybe that would have better prepared him to deal with Seiler and his ideas about raising people from the dead.

But the whole thing had hit just a little too close to the carefully buried pain he'd nursed since Sarah and Adam had died. The pain of their loss, the emptiness it had created in his heart was never that far from the surface. Or at least it hadn't been, until he'd met Tanner.

Something about the friendship he shared with Vin had healed a part of him – a part he had never believed could be healed. Chris still wasn't sure how or why it had happened, he just knew that it had. And, in a way he didn't quite understand, he resented Vin for that. He resented the fact he couldn't mourn like he had before he knew the man.

And how crazy was that? He wanted to hold on to pain?

But he did… because that pain had kept Sarah and Adam closer to him.

But did it? What if he was wrong? What if letting go and sharing them, sharing his pain with Vin would actually bring them closer than the grief had?

He'd thought about that before. Even considered opening up to Vin, but he'd never done it. Why?

Because Vin had never opened up with him? But had he really given the man a chance? He wasn't sure.

They seemed so comfortable in the silence, like just being there for each other was enough. But now he wasn't sure it really was.

And then Seiler had returned, ranting about bringing Sarah back from the dead, and Chris had retreated back into that dark place he'd occupied before Tanner had entered his life. And he'd been trying to push Vin away ever since.

God, he was such a fool.

"I'm not sure I'm the one who can help him," he finally said out loud.

"Chris, you're the only one who understands what he's been through," Buck told him.

"But I fucked this up so bad already… After my abduction, I never let Vin back in… I was trying to hold on to the pain, like it would bring them back…"

Wilmington nodded. "Yeah, I know."

It was the sad tone of the man's voice that caught Chris's attention and he looked up, meeting Buck's eyes. "What?"

The ladies' man shrugged. "Nothing."

"Tell me," Chris said, hoping it hadn't sounded too much like he was snapping at the man. "I really want to know. I–"

"I just recognized it, that's all. What you were doing to Vin…"

It took Chris a moment, but the pieces fell into place. "Because that's how I treated you… after Sarah and Adam were killed."

Wilmington nodded. "Don't figure either of us deserved it, but I can understand why it happened. And I'd be willing to bet he can too."

That colored Larabee's cheeks with shame. "Buck, I–"

"I know you didn't mean to, Chris. If I hadn't known that, I wouldn't have hung around to get abused."

"I was that bad?"

Buck thought for a moment, then shrugged and nodded at the same time. "Yeah…"

Chris looked down at the floor and shook his head. "And I've been just as bad to Vin…"

"Can't really say," Buck commented softly. "I just know that boy was hurting – bad – when we all thought you were dead. To be honest? I didn't think we'd be able to keep him from eating his gun…"

That brought Chris's head up. "What?"

Buck leaned back on the small sofa in the room and folded his arms over his chest. "He was in a bad way, Chris. You weren't in any condition to see it while you were in the hospital, but he'd damn near killed himself, would have, if you hadn't showed up."

"Why?" Larabee asked, completely dumbfounded.

That prompted a snort of laughter from the ladies' man. "Why?"

Chris wanted to argue with the man. After all, he and Vin had only known each other for nine months when Landry Whitesides had grabbed him for Seiler. But he couldn't. He'd felt the same instant, deep connection with Tanner that Vin had with him. He looked away. "All right, so I guess I understand why…"

"Yeah, you do," Buck scolded him.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Figured you had enough on your plate," Buck told him. "Once we had you back, Vin straightened right up. He started eating, sleeping; he was taking care of himself again… So he could take care of you."

"But I wouldn't let him."

Wilmington nodded. "The Larabee stubborn streak makes that damn near impossible, but that boy's got a helluva lot more patience than I did. And I'm guessing he figured you out a little quicker than I did, too."

"Figured me out?"

Buck offered his friend a wry smile, not sure he was going to appreciate hearing the truth. "I think he knew you were pushing him away because you were afraid you might lose him, too."

That took Larabee by surprise, but he couldn't deny it. It was true. Instead, he leaned back against his desk and ran his hands over his hair, sighing loudly. "How do I fix this?"

"I don't know for sure. He's gonna have to deal with whatever happened to him… But you know what that was, or at least you have a better idea than the rest of us. Just… be there for him when he's ready to talk. Show him you care."

"Sounds easy."

"Yeah, I know. And I also know – from experience – it's the hardest damn thing in the world to do. You care about somebody, you want to make it easier for 'em, you want to help them, but they're gonna go at their own pace… And all you can do is just be there, and pray it all works out…"

Chris met Buck's eyes. "Guess this is coming a little late, but… thanks."

That brought an honest smile to Wilmington's face. "You're welcome."

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

Monday, November 22nd, 1999

10 a.m.

"I want you to open up to him," Dr. O'Neill told Vin on the day of his release.

The past several days in the hospital had left Vin more than ready to leave, as he had reminded Dr. O'Neill again and again over the last three days. And aside from the emotional scars, which they couldn't treat with drugs or physical therapy, Vin was ready to be released. And she was sure home would be the best medicine for him now, and she wanted him there as soon as possible.

The faster the seven men all returned to their regular lives, the faster they would all heal emotionally.

"I'll try," he said. "Ain't so easy. Chris is kinda… unsociable, y' know?"

"Yes, but I have talked to him, and he wants to help you, but I think he will need you to make the first move," she concluded as the door burst open and several of the ATF agents charged in, closely followed by a nurse.

Buck was carrying a large, steaming pizza box, JD a huge soda, and Josiah an armload of clothes. Nathan and Ezra each had a couple of plastic shopping bags that they used to empty the various drawers in the room, gathering up all of Tanner's belongings. Chris hung back, just watching.

"Doctor?" the nurse asked as she stared pointedly at the pizza box.

"It's all right," Dr. O'Neill said, walking over to Wilmington and lifting the lid to look inside. "Mr. Tanner's leaving, and he'll be eating his lunch on the way home," she said, tapping the lid for emphasis.

The nurse smiled as the agents assumed chastised looks. Once the nurse left, Dr. O'Neill lifted the lid again and helped herself to a slice of the pizza. The men watched with smiles as she ate it with obvious relish, licking her fingers when she finished.

"I have some forms that need to be signed, and a prescription to be picked up," she said. "If one of you will come with me, we will get Vin out of here before the rest of the pizza gets cold."

"I'll go," Nathan volunteered as Josiah tossed the clothes onto the bed.

"And I'll go pull the Ram around to the curb," the profiler added.

"We can go get the prescription," JD volunteered, setting the soda on the bedside table and grabbing Buck by the arm.

"Yeah, sure," the ladies' man agreed, sliding the pizza down next to the soda.

"And I shall hunt down a wheelchair," Ezra announced.

"All right, gentlemen, follow me," Dr. O'Neill directed, helping herself to a second slice of pizza on her way out.

Vin watched them go, shaking his head. Reaching down, he threw back the covers and carefully swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Faded bruises were still obvious on his exposed thighs and he moved with a slow deliberation. Grabbing the jeans from the pile, he pulled them on and stood. Socks followed, then he sat back down to rest and pull on his tennis shoes.

"Need any help?" Chris asked when Vin winced as he stood again.

"Naw, thanks, I've got it," he said, turning around to grab the long-sleeve T-shirt off the bed. Anxiety about returning to "normal" ate at the sniper as he pulled his hospital gown off.

Chris couldn't help but look. Tanner's back was covered with bruises and thin cut marks in various stages of healing. The same small burn marks that had covered his own back and chest now stood out on Vin's tanned skin as well. He swallowed rapidly and sat down, a distant roar assaulting his ears.

God, that's worse than what Seiler did to me, he thought. Christ, why can't I talk to you? Why can't I tell you what I'm feeling? I love you like you were my brother, Vin, but I can't seem to say it. And I don't know why.

Vin wrestled the T-shirt over his head, the nagging feeling he and Chris had lost the comfortable familiarity they'd shared since they'd met tugging at him. Turning around as he gingerly pulled the shirt down, he looked at Chris, finding him sitting down and looking very pale.

Aw hell, I forgot what m' back must look like, he thought. Not t' mention m' chest, he added, looking down at what was still uncovered, only to find it in a similar condition. Damn it! When am I gonna stop hurtin' him? Stupid, stupid, stupid. No wonder he don't want t' be 'round me no more.

Not sure what to do or to say, Vin reached for the thick flannel shirt Josiah had brought for him and pulled that on, too. That just left a hooded sweatshirt, but he decided not to pull that on just yet.

"Chris?" he called softly.

"Huh?" Larabee asked, blinking and shaking his head as if to clear it.

"Y' okay?" Vin asked. "Didn't mean t'–"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Larabee interrupted, pushing to his feet. "Let's just get the hell out of here."

"Uh, sure," Vin said, watching as his friend hurried out of the room. He grabbed the sweatshirt and followed after him, pizza and soda forgotten.

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

Ezra and Dr. O'Neill were standing at the nurses' station when Chris and Vin left the room.

"Please, have a seat," Dr. O'Neill said to Vin, motioning to the wheelchair that waited at the station.

"I will even drive," Ezra volunteered.

Vin swallowed his protests and sat down.

"Be careful," Dr. O'Neill called after them as they started off down the hall.

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

The drive back to Larabee's ranch was made in silence, Vin's mood sinking lower than Chris's before they had reached the house. But as he climbed out of the truck, Vin's mood lightened slightly. Chris headed straight inside, muttering about a headache as he left Vin standing on the deck.

Vin spent several long minutes standing out there on the deck, basking in the beauty of the scenery. He had missed the sight of the mountains and the open land that ran right up to the base of the foothills. Larabee's place was perfectly situated to take advantage of location and view.

And it was good to know it was no longer his responsibility. He could come out now and visit just like the others, enjoying the beauty and the quiet without needing to worry about all the details.

At least he hoped he could. The way the man had been acting, he wasn't sure Chris would want him coming around any more than was absolutely necessary.

Well, he could live with that, so long as he could come out to take Peso for a ride whenever he wanted. If not, he'd have to move the horse to a boarding stable someplace. That would eat into his paycheck, but he could make adjustments.

"Vin?" Josiah called softly when he found the man leaning against the deck rail, staring out at the mountains.

"Hey, J'siah?" he responded without looking at the man.

"Any idea what's wrong with Chris?" he asked. "He was excited about you coming home earlier…"

Vin turned to face the profiler. "I don't know… Guess it's m' fault. Think maybe he's tryin' t' forget, 'n' I keep remindin' him 'bout his own time with Seiler." He turned away again, adding in a whisper, "Afraid 'm gonna lose the best friend I ever had, J'siah, 'n' I can't seem t' do nothin' t' stop it."

The big profiler stepped up alongside Vin, who shifted slightly so he was leaning up against the man. A moment later, Josiah's arm wrapped around Vin's shoulders.

"You're both still healing, Vin, that's all. Just give it time."

Tanner nodded, but he was already pretty sure time had run out for him and Chris. But then good things rarely lasted for very long in his experience. Why had he ever thought this would be any different?

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

4 p.m.

After the others had left, both Chris and Vin had retreated to their bedrooms, each man napping for several hours. Then they had gotten up, showered and dressed, meeting the others for an early dinner at a local steakhouse not far from Larabee's ranch.

As they waited for their meals, they each brought Chris and Vin up to date on the state of the search for Seiler.

"So, allow me to sum this all up, gentlemen," Ezra said. "Nothing, we have nothing that can lead us to Robert Seiler. How is that possible? This man isn't a master criminal."

"No, he's just insane," Josiah told him. "And he's got the formula for a drug everybody wants inside his head."

"So the dealers must be protecting him," JD concluded.

"They might be," Standish replied, "if they are making enough from the Beauty to justify the danger."

Chris was unusually quiet throughout the meal, and the conversation, offering little direction to their ongoing investigation. Afterward, the men walked out to the parking lot, each enjoying the quiet, cool evening. A small sense of the closeness they usually shared crept back as they moved slowly toward the end of the lot where they had all parked, the pace accommodating Vin's still-healing, stiff muscles.

It was dark, and Vin cleared his throat as they reached the vehicles, saying, "Just wanted t' tell y'all… It's good t' be home." When no one responded, he continued, his hands in his pockets, his gaze fixed on the ground. "Never realized how much all this meant t' me. How much y'all mean." He paused, collecting his thoughts. "'M not real good at sayin' what I feel… Aw hell, just wanted y'all t' know–"

Gunfire interrupted.

The seven men broke apart, each diving for the nearest available cover.

"Vin!" Chris called without thinking as he peered around the front grill of the Ram.

"Yeah," Vin called back, his head rising slightly above the large wooden sign boasting the best steaks in Colorado.

"Buck?" Chris called.

"Me and JD are over here," came Wilmington's voice from the rear doorway of the restaurant.


"Nathan and I are fine," came the profiler's voice. It sounded like he and Jackson were crouched down between the Ram and Buck's Trans Am.

"Gentlemen, I do believe someone's trying to kill us," Standish commented dryly.

"What was your first clue?" Nathan asked him.

Chris bolted across the intervening space to join Vin, two shots following him. He slid in behind the sign and Vin grabbed hold of him to keep him from sliding back out into the open.

"Must be usin' night scopes," Vin commented. He had seen one muzzle flash. "One of 'em over by the road, maybe in a car."

"Seiler?" Chris asked him.

"Pissed off anyone else recently?" Vin growled in reply.

The sound of an approaching siren echoed along the quiet road, followed closely by the sound of squealing tires as their assailants fled. The seven men waited until the sheriff's unit pulled into the parking lot before they ventured out from their cover, each taking stock of the others to be sure everyone was all right.

Vin felt a rush of anger sweep over him and his blue eyes flashed.

"Lighten up," Chris said, reaching out to rest his hand on the man's shoulder only to have Tanner flinch away.

"I'll lighten up when I have that sonuvabitch in m' sights," Vin snapped angrily.

"Only if you beat me to it," Chris countered.

"He's mine," Vin snarled, turning on his friend, his finger tapping against the blond's chest, blue eyes hard and cold. "Don't get in m' way, Larabee." With that he spun and stalked away into the darkness.

"Hey, just a minute!" called one of the deputies who had walked up in time to witness the heated exchange.

"Let him go," Chris told the deputy, pulling out his ID and letting the man get a good look at it. "I'll make sure Agent Tanner gives you a full statement in the morning."

The deputy studied Chris for a moment, then nodded. "I suppose that'll be all right since I can get all of yours now. What the hell happened?"

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

8:17 p.m.

Once the ATF agents had given their statements, they climbed into their vehicles and headed back to the ranch. Chris was alone in the Ram. He had asked the others to go home, but after the attack they were convinced Seiler was after him and Vin and they insisted on staying at the ranch, to provide security for the two of them.

Damn it, Vin, why can't we get this together? I know what you're going through, but you won't let me help you.

I want this bastard as much as you do – more. Why can't we do this together?

*Why can't you tell him you love him? It's not wrong.*

The voice irritated him, and he tried to ignore it, but he couldn't.

*Are you afraid people won't understand, so you'll hide your feelings the rest of your life?*

Vin means more to me than anyone in my life since Sarah. I'd die for the man, he argued with himself.

* But you can't say that to save your life… or his.*

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

8:23 p.m.

The house was dark when they returned, but they found Vin inside, already asleep on the bed in the guest room. He hadn't even bothered to take off his clothes and shoes, or crawl under the covers.

Chris grabbed a spare comforter from the hall closet and spread it over Vin while the others whispered their goodnights and headed to various spots to sleep on tiptoes.

With a sigh, Chris headed for his own room, climbing out of his clothes and crawling into his bed. He lay, listening to the silence for a while before finally slipping off to sleep himself.

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

Tuesday, November 23rd, 1999

2:23 a.m.

The voice was laughing, the sound echoing in the background as Vin struggled against the ropes holding him suspended off the cold cement floor. His shoulders and arms were burning from the strain of supporting his weight.

Chris circled slowly around him, a malicious grin on his face. In his hand he held a revolver, the hammer pulled back.

"Just one bullet, Vin," he said, the smile spreading wider. "But which chamber is it in?" He raised the gun, pointed it at Vin's abdomen, and pulled the trigger.

Vin jumped involuntarily, pain clawing through his shoulders in response.

Chris laughed. "Guess it's not that one. How about this one?" he asked, pointing the weapon at Vin's chest and pulling the trigger again…

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

"No!" Vin screamed, sitting up in the bed. "Chris, no!"

Larabee heard the cry where he lay sleeping in the next room. Without thinking he lunged out of bed to see what was wrong. He entered the guest room, heading straight for the bed.

As soon as he saw Larabee enter, Vin pushed off the bed to meet him. He slammed Chris back into the closet door with a vicious force, jarring the blond to the root of his toenails.

Seeing the hate and panic in Vin's eyes, Larabee froze. But when Vin's hands began to close around his throat, he reached up, grabbing Tanner's wrists and choking out, "Vin, it's me. Come on, it's me."

Chris watched as the expression of desperation was replaced by one of recognition, and then shame.

Vin released his throat like he was a hot iron, jerking his hands away and turning away. "'M sorry. I–" He broke off, heading for the door.

"Vin, wait!" Chris called after him.

"Back off, Larabee!" Vin replied as he stepped into the hallway. "Leave me th' hell alone!"

Unable to decide if he should follow Vin and stop him from leaving, Chris dropped down onto the guest bed and sighed. "Damn it," he breathed as Buck stepped into the room.

"Are you all right?" the ladies' man asked him.

Chris nodded.

"Is Vin?"

"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "I just don't know."

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

Vin found himself standing outside, looking at the parked vehicles. His Jeep wasn't among them. But then, he hadn't been able to get it over to Roberto. He huffed out a sigh and turned, walking to the barn. He ended up in Peso's stall, standing next to the confused horse, stroking his neck.

"You want to tell me what happened just now?"

Vin had heard Josiah approaching, but he wasn't sure he could talk to the man. He shook his head.

"Vin… You have to talk to someone, son."

Tanner hesitated, but then the words started to tumble out before he could stop them. "I could've killed him, J'siah! M' best friend, 'n' I almost killed him! What the hell's wrong with me?"

"Vin," Josiah said, coming into the stall and standing behind the younger man, his hands resting on Tanner's tension-knotted shoulders, "there's nothing wrong with you. You experienced something no one ever should. It leaves a–"

"I can't do this, J'siah. I can't do this any more…"

"Do what?"

"Can't be 'round him… What if I hurt him?"

"Vin, I don't believe you'd ever hurt Chris, and neither does he."

"I did! J'siah, I–"

"He's fine."

Vin fell silent, his chin dropping to his chest. And no matter how hard Josiah tried, he couldn't get the man talking again. But he was able to talk Vin into going back to the house where he curled up in the guest bed again, exhausted, and immediately fell into a dreamless sleep.

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

7:15 a.m.

"The dreams might very well continue for some time," Dr. O'Neill told Josiah over the phone. "You should all encourage him to talk about them, but don't press too hard. And, Josiah?"


"Do be careful," she added in a serious tone. "Vin might not have the control you would normally expect. He is capable of hurting Chris, or you – any of you."

"I'll remember that," he told her, hanging up just as Vin staggered into the kitchen, looking tired and haggard despite several hours of sleep.

"You all right, Junior?" Buck asked the man.

"Fine," was the only answer Vin was willing to give and Wilmington let it suffice.

JD and Ezra returned a few minutes later carrying bagles and other pastries. Coffee was brewing, and as soon as it was finished, Nathan walked over to fill cups.

"Hey!" JD called from the Larabee's home office. "I think we found a lead on Seiler!"

Heads snapped up and the men pushed out of their seats.

"Well?" Chris prompted when they were crowded in behind Dunne.

"Okay," JD said, "after Vin told Ezra about the two men who grabbed him, I've been trying to find them. Last night while we were waiting to give our statements to the deputies, Ezra suggested I check and see if any cars like the one they were driving were returned to a rental agency on or about the day Vin disappeared. When I got back, I started a search. There were ten cars that matched the description Vin gave returned on the day of his abduction." JD paused, looking pleased with himself.

"What's the point, JD?" Vin demanded, rubbing his tired, red-rimmed eyes.

"One of the cars returned was rented on a company account – White Futures Industries, and guess who's on the board of directors?"

"Who?" Chris asked. "Don't tell me it's Seiler."

"Oh no," Ezra said, already digesting the information on the computer screen. "Otto Blitzer." He looked up at the other men. "That name ring any bells?"

"One of Benton Whitesides' business associates," Nathan identified.

"That's right," Ezra said.

"I did some checking, and the address given by the men who rented the car doesn't exist," JD said. "But I do have an address for the company, and it's here in Denver."

"Figures," Vin muttered, slumping into a chair.

"Why would Blitzer be involved with Seiler?" Buck asked. "I thought he and Whitesides were buddies."

"They are," Ezra told him. "But it appears from this that Blitzer might have an interest in Seiler as well, although I have no idea why. He's never sold drugs."

"What do we do now?" Buck asked, ready for action.

"I suppose we should–" Chris began, but Vin cut him off.

"Pay a call on White Futures Industries."

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

9 a.m.

A twelve-story glass-fronted building rose above them. Chris, Vin and Ezra stood just outside the main entrance, each dressed in business suits, Standish carrying a briefcase.

"Are you sure you're up to this, Vin?" Ezra asked, noting the fatigued look on the man's face.

"'M fine," was the short-tempered reply. "I'll be better when we nail the bastards who gave me t' Seiler."

"Let's get this over with," Chris said, giving up trying to break through the wall Vin had built between them.

They entered the building, asked for directions to public relations, and then headed for the elevator and the fifth floor. The three strode into the office and converged on the secretary's desk. Standish sat his briefcase down with a thud, nearly spilling the coffee that sat on the woman's desk in an oriental mug.

"May I help you?" the young lady sitting behind the desk asked, clearly annoyed.

"I am Mr. Styles, with the firm of Styles, Lawson and Tucker," Standish told her. When she registered no response, he continued, "These are my associates, Mr Lawson…"

Chris nodded.

"…and Mr. Tucker."

Vin stared at her coldly.

"We've been retained by a local Enterprise Car Rental Service to obtain a reimbursement for damages two White Futures employees inflicted on a vehicle they rented using their company credit card."

"I see," was the uninterested reply.

"If we are not given full cooperation here today, we'll begin proceedings against this company," Chris added, his voice like ice.

"You'll need to speak to Mr. Dallaport," the secretary said. "Let me see if he's left for his meeting yet."

She reached for the phone on her desk and dialed. He was in, and once she repeated Ezra's story they were on their way up to the twelfth floor.

Mr. Dallaport did not look pleased to see them, but he invited them into his office and had them sit. "Now," he said, "what's the problem, gentlemen?"

"The problem, Mr. Dallaport," Chris said in a friendly yet business-like tone, "is that two employees from this company rented a car from our client and then returned it without reporting the damage they inflicted on the vehicle."

"And just who are we talking about here?" asked Dallaport, leaning back in his chair.

"That's what we'd like to know," Ezra told him, taking over from Chris. "The men used a company credit card to rent the vehicle."

"We'll need their names for the reports, and to press charges, if that becomes necessary," Chris added.

Ezra handed the man a piece of paper with the credit card number penciled on it, then settled back into his chair, pleased with their performance thus far.

Dallaport scanned the number, then pressed the intercom button on his desk saying, "Candy, come in here and get a company credit card number. Find out who it belongs to, and who he was with when he rented a car…"

"On November sixth," Ezra supplied.

"On the sixth of this month."

"Yes, sir," came the crisp response. A few moments later the woman stepped in to take the number.

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

Otto Blitzer swung around in his padded chair to face the speaker box over which the three agents' voices drifted. He smiled. So, you've made some connections, have you? Well, I guess you were smarter than I expected.

He glanced over at a young man saying, "Notify Seiler that they are getting closer. He needs to take care of this now."

The young man nodded and left.

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

There was a knock on the door, immediately followed by the entrance of the same beautiful young woman who had come in to take the credit card number. She proceeded past the three agents and handed two folders to Dallaport.

"Here are the files you requested, sir," she said with an air of polished efficiency.

"Thank you, Candy," he told her and was rewarded with a perfect smile from the woman.

Candy then turned on her heel and exited, never once looking at the three men.

Dallaport flipped the files open. "Robert Lyons and Tom McMillan," he read out loud. "They're consultants we use to review local development sites."

Ezra wrote the names down in a small notebook, saying, "And can you tell us where we might locate Misters Lyons and McMillan so we can take their statements?"

"I'm afraid that they're both out of the state at this time – Thanksgiving holiday," Dallaport said, closing the files.

"How convenient," Vin said sarcastically.

"If you'll submit a report detailing the damages to my secretary, I'll see to it the accounting office reimburses your client."

"Well, thank you for your cooperation," Ezra said, standing. "We'll do that."

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

Blitzer waited until Dallaport sat down across from him before he spoke. "Charming little performance, don't you agree?"

"Do you think they bought my story that Lyons and McMillan are out of state for the holiday?"

"Unlikely," Blitzer answered. "Not that it matters. I've already sent word to Seiler to eliminate this distraction. I'm hoping Mr. McMillan will hurry him along; he's running an errand Seiler asked be done as we speak." He looked pointedly at Dallaport, his eyes shining. "And if Seiler doesn't take care of it, make sure Whitesides knows where he can find Seiler. Benton will be more than happy to eliminate the man responsible for the death of his son for us."

"And the ATF agents?"

"If they continue to pry into our business, we will have to deal with them ourselves."

"To be honest, sir, I think that might be the safer course of action. Seiler is…"

"Insane. Yes, I am aware of that, Dallaport. But Seiler will serve a greater purpose, provided we can keep him on track long enough to get the formula from him. Mr. Lyons has given what he was able to glean from the man's ravings to our chemists, but they tell me there are some pieces missing."

"But our plans are still on track?"

Blitzer nodded. "Oh, yes. Project Millennium will proceed, without or without this madman's drug. I am just hoping it will be with it, as I believe it will give us an overwhelming advantage."

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

The three ATF agents exited the elevator in step. From the corner of his eye Chris saw Vin stiffen and then bolt toward a closing door marked "Parking Garage."

"What the–?" he started to say. "Vin! Come on," he snapped at Standish.

In the garage, Vin caught up to a man, jerking him around and using the lapels of his designer business suit to toss him roughly onto the hood of the nearest car.

"All right, asshole," Tanner growled ominously, "where's your friend with the handshake?"

Chris and Ezra reached the pair in time to hear the man reply, "I don't know what the hell you're talking about!"

"Vin–" Chris started.

"It's one 'a the bastards who popped me in the parkin' lot," he said angrily. "Wouldn't forget his face, or his buddy's."

"All right," Chris said reassuringly, "but we're drawing attention here." He nodded in the direction of the elevator, and a small group that had exited and were now standing, gaping at them.

A security guard brushed past the group and stalked toward them.

Vin jerked Lyons off the hood of the car and haphazardly brushed him off as the guard joined them.

"Some trouble here, Mr. Lyons?"

"No, Hank," the man said, glancing at Vin, "just a case of mistaken identity."

"I don't think so," Chris growled, extracting his ID and showing it to the security guard. "Mr. Lyons will be coming with us."

"Why?" the man demanded.

"We'll be more than happy to explain it to you – at the federal building," Ezra told him.

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

9:15 a.m.

Hands fumbled with a prescription bottle, finally getting the lid off and pouring the contents into a black-gloved palm. The loose pills were placed in the jacket pocket of Vin's "friend with the handshake."

From that same pocket McMillan removed an envelope, pouring the contents into the now-empty prescription bottle.

Carefully replacing the bottle in the same spot where he had found it, McMillan left the bathroom and began a search of the house. He found what he was looking for in the guest bedroom.

After inserting a tracking device into a worn gym bag sitting in one corner of the room, he left the house just as he had come – unnoticed.

And, after resetting the alarm system to cover his entry, he went to his motorcycle and climbed on, heading straight back to Denver.

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

6:15 p.m.

Tanner stumbled, catching himself on the back of the plaid sofa.

"Vin, you all right?" Josiah asked as he entered the comfortable mountain cabin. The younger man was pale and still trying to regain his equilibrium.

"Yeah," Vin replied, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Reckon 'm just beat. Think I'll call it a day."

"Don't forget these," Chris reminded him, tossing his friend the prescription bottle they had picked up from the ranch house, along with the rest of their gear. Tanner had left the drugs sitting on the counter in the bathroom, but Larabee had seen them and slipped them into his pocket on his way out.

"Thanks," Vin grumbled as he caught the bottle. He turned and headed down the hallway to one of the three bedrooms in the safe house.

Reaching the bed, he sat down and stared at the bottle in his hand. He contemplated skipping the medication, but forced himself to get up and walk to the bathroom. He shook out two of the capsules and swallowed them with a gulp of water from the tap. He returned to the bedroom, changed, and climbed into the bed, falling almost immediately into a restless sleep.

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

6:40 p.m.

In the small kitchen, Josiah fixed a pot of coffee, he and Chris each pouring a cup and carrying it back to the living room.

Larabee sat down on the sofa, staring into the fire he had started earlier and sipping on his coffee.

"You think Lyons was telling us the truth?" Sanchez asked into the silence.

Chris thought for a moment and then nodded. "I don't see why he'd lie at this point. Mr. Chavez and Vin both identified him…"

"So Seiler was looking for you…" Josiah said, trailing off in the hopes of getting Larabee talking.

Chris's head dipped. "Yeah… But he found Vin instead."

"It doesn't sound like he's going to stop until he finds you."

"Which is exactly why I should be back in Denver, looking for the bastard, not hiding up here."

That prompted a small smile from Josiah. He knew that was exactly where Chris would have been, too, if AD Travis hadn't insisted that he join Vin in the safe house until Seiler could be found. The others would be following up on the leads Lyons had provided them. Hopefully, they would be able to run Seiler to ground and put an end to this in short order.

"To be honest," the profiler said, staring into his cup, "I think you did need to be here. I don't think Vin could survive you turning up dead a second time."

Chris sighed softly. "What makes a man snap like that?" he asked softly. "Seiler, I mean."

Sanchez considered the question for a moment, then replied, "Lots of theories, Chris, but we can't say for sure. Trauma, chemical imbalance, brain tumor, there's just no way to know for sure."

"He honestly thinks he can bring Sarah back…" Larabee shook his head, a soft derisive snort accompanying the gesture. "Hell… I guess there's a part of me that wants him to."

"That's understandable," Sanchez replied. "You loved her."

Larabee nodded. "Yeah, I did… Still do, I guess…" He frowned, thinking for a moment, then glanced over at Josiah, asking, "Does it make a damn bit of sense if I say I was mad at Vin because Seiler used him to help… bring her back?"

"Yes, it does."

Larabee looked back at the flames. "Makes me feel like a real bastard."

"Chris, you and Sarah obviously shared a very special kind of love, and when she died… It's natural for you to feel the way you're feeling. It's also natural for you to feel that anger, and to have pushed Vin away after Seiler had you. But you know as well as I do that it's better to have loved, and lost, than never to have loved at all."

"There are days I'd argue that with you, but… yeah… I guess it is. I can't imagine not doing it all again, even if I knew how it was going to turn out… But that's different than what's been going on with Vin and I."

"True. You let that boy inside your defenses," Josiah told him. "And then he almost got himself killed… Like Sarah. It pissed you off. But we both know it wasn't his fault."

"Never said it was."

"No, but love isn't always rational…"

"And I acted like I blamed him?"

"Chris, right now neither one of you is acting… normal. And that's okay. Just give it a little time, and, when the time's right, talk to each other. I know that's easier said than done, but it's got to be done. So when the time's right, talk."

Larabee nodded. "Sounds simple enough…"

"Yeah, well, sounding and doing are two very different things, my friend."

"Tell me about it," Larabee muttered. "I promised myself I wouldn't set myself up again… I wasn't going to let myself care about someone else enough to hurt like that if they–"

"Lot of us make that promise, Chris, and damn few can ever keep it. We're not supposed to. We're supposed to care."

Larabee cocked his head just far enough to meet the profiler's eye and grinned. "And with friends like these…"

"You're shit out of luck if you think you can keep from caring."

Chris nodded.

"Day after tomorrow… It's Thanksgiving."

"Been thinking about that."

"Me, too. Been thinking we all have a helluva lot to be thankful for."

That sparked an honest smile from Larabee. "Amen to that, Josiah."

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

9 p.m.

Chris entered the dark bedroom to check on Vin, who appeared to be sleeping. But he was tossing restlessly, and his breathing was erratic.

I hope the worst of your nightmares are over, Vin. God knows I still have them… But she was my wife… Losing her hurt me worse than what Seiler did to me.

I wonder if you know that. There've been times when I wanted to talk to you about the nightmares… when I was healing up and you were there like some Uber-mother hen… but I couldn't. I don’t know why.

I hope you can talk to me, Vin. Maybe then I'll be able to talk about mine… put the damn things behind me once and for all

As Chris stood, lost in his thoughts, Vin moaned and twisted sharply, shoving back the blankets.

Stepping closer to the bed, Chris could make out the film of sweat covering Tanner's bare chest. You running a fever?

Reaching out, Larabee rested his hand on Tanner's forehead only to find the man's skin cold and clammy. A look of concern crossed his face.

Vin came up off the bed with a strangled scream, Chris catching his friend and easing him back down onto the bed.

Vin sat there, staring into space, his entire body shaking furiously.

Hearing Tanner choke back a sob, Chris sat down beside him and asked quietly, "Hey, you all right? Vin?"

Tanner didn't look at him, but he did shake his head, then, without warning, he broke into tears. Worried and confused, Chris's instincts took over and he gathered the trembling man into his arms, pulling Vin's head into his shoulder and rocking him as if he were a child.

The tears continued to fall and Chris rested his chin on Vin's head, whispering whatever words of comfort he could think of. In response, Vin's arms encircled him and he clung to Larabee for strength and reassurance.

After a while Vin managed to choke out, "I's seein' it all again… Back when I thought I'd killed y'…"

"Easy," Chris told him. "It'll get better, Vin, I promise."

"I saw y'… Y' were with Seiler… Y'–" He stopped, unable to tell the man that, in his dreams, it was Chris who tortured him.

"Talk to me, Vin, please," Chris urged him. "Maybe it'll help… If nothing else, we can face it together."

The sniper took a deep breath and pulled away from Chris, who stayed seated on the bed, but he respected the space Vin had placed between them.

"When Seiler had me," Tanner began hesitantly, "all I could think about was what you 'n' the others must be goin' through. I knew I had t' be strong; I had t' live or I'd let y'all down… I remembered what happened before, with you, 'n'…" He trailed off and Chris nodded his understanding.

"Kept me drugged up most the time, 'n' there was this guy… He looked like you… Or maybe it was just the paintin'… It's hard t' know… But he… he hurt me."

Chris looked away and shuddered, well aware of the kind of pain Seiler could inflict. And it didn't really matter if Seiler had found someone who looked like him to do it, or if it was just the god-awful paintings.

"Reckon some part 'a me thought it was you… 'n' I hate that… I just couldn't help it."

"It's not your fault, Vin," Chris said, trying to convince him. "It was the drugs, and Seiler's an expert at pain."

"The weird thing was, part 'a me kept waitin' for y' t' help me… waitin' for y' t' come get me," Vin added, his voice breaking.

"We tried to find you, Vin. We were out there looking every damn day," Chris told him, feeling like he had let Tanner down.

"I know. I know y' were… I know what it's like from that side too – been there, did that, 'n' it was hell… Just want these damn dreams t' stop…"

Chris cleared his throat, willing the tightness to lessen enough so he could talk. "I don't know if they'll ever go away completely… mine sure as hell haven't. I don't think you can go through something like that without a few scars to show for it," he told him, reaching out to rest his hand on Vin's shoulder. "Sometimes I still dream I'm back there…"

Vin nodded, looking up at his best friend, tears shining in his eyes. "Could y' just hold me for a sec?" he whispered softly.

And Chris did.

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

Wednesday, November 24th, 1999

7:30 a.m.

The next morning Chris watched as Vin stumbled into the kitchen, his eyes unfocused and slightly glazed.

Being closer, Josiah stood and helped Tanner over to the table, saying, "Here, brother, sit down before you fall down."

"You look terrible," Chris said.

"Good mornin' t' you, too, Lar'bee," was the mumbled reply.

"He's right, Vin," Sanchez confirmed, winning a sour look from the sniper for his effort. "I think we ought to call Dr. O'Neill."

"Don't need no doctor," Vin protested, his anger mounting for no apparent reason. "She'll wanna see me… I'll be fine after I've had some coffee."

Josiah left them at the table, returning a few moments later with Vin's prescription bottle. He poured Tanner a glass of juice and handed it to him, then handed over the prescription bottle.

"I really think we should call," Josiah pressed.

Vin's head came up sharply and he exploded, "I said no, damn it! An' I mean it, J'siah. Don't need you two nursemaidin' me!"

"We're just trying to help," Chris said in a consoling tone that only made Vin more angry.

Tanner opened the bottle and placed one of the capsules on his tongue, washing it down with a gulp of the orange juice. "Ain't askin' fer it, so lay off," he snapped, his accent getting thicker – a sure sign he was either mad, or tired, or both.

Josiah reached out and gently rested his hand on Vin's arm, squeezing slightly. "All right, son, but we're just worried about you. We only want to help, that's all."

"Then just leave me alone," Vin snapped, jerking away from Sanchez and standing. "Don't need yer help."

Chris watched Vin leave, his concern sliding toward worry. He looked over at Josiah, who just shrugged and shook his head. "Some days will be harder than others."

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

7:40 a.m.

Vin stormed out of the cabin, stomping along the trail that wound up into the trees. He could feel the fear and anger building inside him, but he had no clue where it was coming from. Chris and Josiah weren't to blame. They had only been worried about him.

Y' blew it, Tanner, he scolded himself. Yer gonna push too far one 'a these days 'n' yer gonna lose the best friends y' ever had.

He slowed, but continued walking for several more minutes, then forced himself to a stop. Normally he would have enjoyed the scenery, but the beauty was lost on him today. He turned around and started back to the cabin, determined to apologize, and yet growing madder with each passing step.

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

Three men watched Vin's hasty departure from the cover of the trees across the narrow dirt road leading up to the cabin.

"Yes, oh, yes, He is helping us… He will make sure I have the Chosen One this day," Seiler said.

"You want me to go take care of him?" Tio asked the man.

"No," Seiler responded quickly. "He will guide Vincent back to us… Vincent has a part to play in the dance… He will help Christopher… help him to surrender…"

"Can we just get this over with?" McMillan asked. He wanted to get back to his office. Why he had gotten picked to help this psycho, he wasn't sure. But the sooner the ATF agents were dead, the sooner he would be done with Seiler, and that suited him just fine.

Once Vin was out of sight, Seiler led the way to the cabin.

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

A cell phone chirped.

"I'll get that," Josiah said to a sullen, withdrawn Chris Larabee. He reached out and picked up the ringing phone. "Sanchez."

"We found the place," came Buck's voice. "No sign of Seiler."

"They found where Seiler held Vin," Josiah relayed.

That interested Chris enough to prompt him to hold out his hand for the phone and Josiah handed it over.

"Talk to me," Larabee said.

"Lyons' info was good. We found the location where Seiler held Vin," Buck told him.


"Nothing so far. JD's running down the owner of the building. It's down in Littleton. How's Junior?"

"Pissed off."

"And you?"

"Pissed off."

He heard Buck laugh mirthlessly. "Yeah, well, you'll both get over it."

"I want that madman found," Chris stated, his tone leaving no room for argument.

"We're doing our best. I'll let you know when something turns up."

"You damn well better," Chris mumbled as he rose and headed for the coffee pot, his empty cup in his free hand.

"Hang in there, stud."

And with that the call ended. Chris closed the cell phone and slipped it into his pocket, then poured himself a second cup, emptying the pot.

"I'll make some more," Josiah offered.

Chris nodded. "Appreciate it," he replied.

"You all right?" Josiah asked him.

"I don't know. Vin broke down last night… I thought–" Chris started, but before he could continue the rear door of the cabin burst open and three men entered, two of them holding guns.

Seeing the man who had very nearly tortured him to death, Larabee froze for an instant, but it was long enough for the intruders to get the upper hand.

"Inside," Tio directed, jerking his revolver in the direction he wanted them to take.

Seiler smiled. "Hello, Christopher… my Chosen One… It is almost time…"

"Move!" McMillan snapped, wanting to hurry things along.

Chris and Josiah started for the living room, which was the largest room in the cabin, Larabee making sure he stayed between his friend and Seiler.

"Stop," Seiler commanded them.

Josiah and Chris came to a halt.

"Tio," Seiler said, "take the stranger to one of the bedrooms and secure him."

"You want me to kill him?"

"Secure him, Tio," Seiler said, his gaze sweeping over the big profiler. "I may have need of him later."

Tio nodded, shifting his aim to Josiah, who stepped away from Chris and led the way to the first of the small bedrooms.

"In the chair," Tio said after he got a look at the room.

Josiah sat and waited until the younger man started to grab one of the pillowcases to tie him up. He charged, but the street smart youth was quicker. He sidestepped the profiler and brought the butt of his gun down on Sanchez's skull.

Josiah collapsed to the floor.

"Josiah!" came Chris's shouted call.

Tio stepped out of the bedroom, dragging the chair from the room with him. He closed the door and wedged the chair-back under the knob. That chore done, he looked at Seiler and grinned. "He gave me some trouble. He'll be out for a while, but he's still kickin', just like you wanted, boss."

"Good, Tio, very good."

Tio directed Larabee into the living room, shoving him down onto the sofa. He positioned himself so he could keep a watchful eye on the blond while McMillan hung back, content to just watch until Seiler said, "Find the prescription bottle."

The man rolled his eyes but left to carry out the man's wishes.

Seiler walked calmly around the room, fingering various items and smiling to himself. Chris finally broke the silence. "So, what's the plan, Seiler?"

"Plan?" Seiler echoed, shaking his head. "No, Christopher, not a plan… These things are predestined. He shall come, and I shall have her… My sweet, sweet Sarah… I have waited so long for this day… so long… Beauty shall walk among us once more… perfection… She shall be a goddess, Christopher… my sweet Sarah, my goddess."

"Why Vin?" Chris asked. "Why take him when you really wanted me?"

Seiler smiled. "Yes, Christopher, you are the Chosen One… Oh, yes," he said, moving over to stand in front of Larabee, "but you were fighting me… He told me. He told me to look for a key… Yes, a key, to your soul… an opening… The eyes are portals to the soul. Did you know that? Your eyes told me Vincent was the key. And once the key returns we shall begin."

Chris shuddered imperceptibly, his imagination all too eager to interpret what might "begin" when Vin returned. He hoped Tanner wouldn't quit walking until he reached Denver, but he doubted he would get that lucky.

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

8 a.m.

Vin paced back and forth on the trail, watching the cabin and trying to suppress the rage that boiled inside of him.

I could hate him so easy, he realized. I don't get it. Chris is m' best friend. How c'n I hate 'im? What the hell's wrong with me?

He took a deep breath and forced himself to stop. He was as antsy as Peso before a storm. Why? Maybe he ought to let Josiah call Dr. O'Neill. Maybe she would know what was wrong with him.

He started for the cabin. Maybe that crazy bastard scrambled m' brains more 'n I thought. I got t' apologize t' Chris 'n' let Josiah call the Doc if he ain't already.

Ain't gonna let some psycho like Seiler destroy m' life. M' family. Chris means more t' me 'n a brother ever could… Ain't gonna let that bastard take that away from me; lost too damn much already. Ain't gonna lose no more.

He continued on, still trying to sort out the confused emotions in his mind when he grabbed the front door knob a couple of minutes later. He twisted it and pushed the door open.

The first thing he saw was Chris, sitting on the sofa and wearing a concerned, almost panicked expression.

"Chris–" Vin began as he started to step inside. He stopped, hearing the familiar sound of an automatic being cocked.

"Please, come in and join us, Vincent," Seiler said softly, stepping out of the shadows in a corner of the room. "You are my key, Vincent. It is time for the Chosen One to shed his skin so Beauty can walk among us."

Vin couldn't move. He felt his body begin to shake and it was suddenly impossible to breath. But the hate and the anger that had been directed at Chris earlier now shifted its focus. Y' fuckin' bastard…

"You heard the man," McMillan snapped, walking farther into the room, his 9mm aimed at Larabee. "Get in here, and close the fuckin' door."

Vin's gaze shifted to the man. "Tom," he greeted him. "Y' seen Robert lately?"

"Get in here, smartass," the man snarled. He knew Lyons had been grabbed by the feds, and that they were looking for him, too. But Blitzer had promised him they would get him out of the country if he helped Seiler finish whatever it was the nut-case had planned for the two men.

Tanner forced himself through the doorway, his muscles knotting with barely-held-in-check rage. "Where's J'siah?" he asked Chris.

"One of the bedrooms," Chris told him, adding, "He's all right."

"You?" Vin asked.

"So far," Chris acknowledged.

"Ain't that touching?" Tio drawled sarcastically, then chuckled, flashing a grin at McMillan and Seiler. "Lot 'a concern for each other, huh?" He looked at Vin, his eyes narrowing. "You his butt boy or something?"

"Enough, Tio!" Seiler snapped.

"Ain't a damn thing y' c'n do t' bring her back," Vin told the madman.

"You're wrong, Vincent, so very, very wrong. I can summon Him, and He will bring her back to me. He has the power to do anything He chooses."

Chris opened his mouth to reply, but Vin cut him off. "Don't waste yer breath. He's so fuckin' crazy he can't understand dead's dead."

Seiler ignored the remark, asking McMillan, "Did you find it?

The man reached inside his coat pocket and removed the prescription bottle he had found sitting on the kitchen table. He tossed it to Seiler, who caught it and tossed it to Vin.

"Time for your medication, Vincent… Take two."

Vin caught the bottle and looked up at the man, confused.

"Obey me, Vincent, or I will send Tio to kill your friend in the bedroom."

Vin looked from the bottle to Seiler, and back. He removed the cap, tapping two of the capsules into his hand.

"Vin?" Chris asked.

"What else c'n I do?" Tanner asked in reply. "Y' know he'd do it."

Chris's gaze fell away. "Yeah, I know," he replied, but he also knew he didn't want Vin taking anything Seiler wanted him to take.

Vin took the pills and swallowed them dry. When the drugs hit his system, he felt his anger rise again, his control beginning to slip even as the colors in the room became sharper. "They switched m' medication fer that Beauty shit," he half-growled.

"Long-hair's got a brain after all," McMillan sneered.

"Yes, Vincent, I did," Seiler replied, ignoring McMillan.

Vin lunged for Seiler, but Tio grabbed him and held him back, his revolver pressed against the sniper's side. McMillan kept his 9mm trained on Larabee, forcing his cooperation, as well as Tanner's.

"No way, asshole," Tio hissed at Tanner. "You just do what you're told."

"Vincent, you are the key…" Seiler said, making his way over to Larabee. "With you I shall unlock the Chosen One… He will come for the Chosen One… He will bring my Sarah… My sweet, sweet Sarah…"

The madman reached into his pocket and withdrew an electric prod, thrusting it at Larabee's chest. The sound of a single scream echoed in the room as Chris shook from the jolt the device delivered.

What'd I do t' Chris? he thought. Have t' stay in control. Have t' fight this or I'll get us all killed.

Seiler motioned to Tio, who forced Vin over to one of the chairs, pushing him down to sit on it. "Do you feel Him, Vincent? He's getting closer… Soon He will be among us – hungry, demanding… Demanding the Chosen One…"

Seiler walked around the back of the sofa, resting his hand on Larabee's shoulder as he watched the drugs Tanner had taken begin their work.

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

Sights… sounds… feelings… all flooded back. Time seemed to dissolve and Vin found himself back in the small cement room where pain was his only reality. Pain that came in so many forms – some expected, some unimaginable.

And the man responsible for it… looked just like his best friend.

No, that was wrong.

Seiler didn't look like Chris. Seiler had done this to him. Hadn't he?

It couldn't have been Chris. Chris had been holding him… Hadn't he?

He moaned softly, trying to remember, but the memories jumbled up, twisted, and he couldn't sort them out. It made his head hurt.

He remembered having to take his brain out and throw it away… But that wasn't possible, was it?

He felt himself starting to shake. Why was he shaking? His gaze caught Larabee's and held. What was Chris doing to him? Why was Chris doing this?

Was Chris doing this? His gaze jumped. Seiler… Seiler was back… Was he still in his cell? Why wasn't Chris helping him?

His expression folded into a mask of desperation. "Chris…" he moaned, beginning to rock back and forth on the chair. His eyes closed, his arms locking protectively around his chest.

Chris stood and moved to Vin's side, kneeling down next to him. Reaching out, he gently touched Vin's arm, watching the man's dark eyelashes flutter against his pale cheeks as Tanner flinched away, gasping in pain.

He turned to look at Seiler, demanding, "What the hell did you do to him?"

"He walks with Beauty," Seiler replied calmly. "Strong, so strong… He is strong. He is worthy of her, but she chose another. The Chosen One…"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Larabee demanded, his eyes blazing with raw hatred, but McMillan's automatic, still pointed at his chest, kept him from lunging across the room and wrapping his fingers around the man's neck.

"Outside," Seiler commanded, standing. "It is time. Tom, bring the other one as well."

Tio grabbed Vin's arm, the roughness of the move causing the sniper to cry out. Under the influence of the drug it felt as if the man were trying to twist his arm off.

"Get up," the youth snarled, "or it'll hurt a helluva lot more than that."

Tanner lurched to his feet, blue eyes glazed and unseeing. The pain was coming again, and he couldn't stop it.

Chris wrapped his arm around Vin's waist, holding the man on his feet. "Come on," he encouraged Tanner in a whisper. "I've got you. Hang in there, Cowboy."

Vin didn't seem to hear the words, but he did manage to make it out into the bright morning sunlight. He squinted and turned his face away, growling deep in his throat. The light was slicing into his skull, trying to cut him into pieces…

McMillan followed Seiler out a few moments later, pushing a staggering Josiah roughly to the ground. He stood behind the injured man, his 9mm pressed to the back of the profiler's skull. Chris was unable to help his friend, afraid if he released his grip on Vin, the sniper would fall.

Seiler moved to stand beside Josiah, fishing into his pocket for the electric prod.

"Hit him, Christopher," Seiler directed coldly, gesturing at Vin.

"No," Chris flatly refused.

"Very well," Seiler replied. He pressed the prod to the back of Josiah's shoulder. The big man fell into the dirt, jerking and grunting as the current assailed his body.

Vin blinked several times, the gist of what was happening beginning to sink in. He stared intently at Josiah, knowing the older man couldn't take too many jolts like that without one of them killing him.

"Do it," he hissed at Chris.

"I can't," Chris snarled, more to Seiler than to Vin.

"He'll kill J'siah."

"No," Larabee snapped.

"Now, Christopher, or I shall allow Tio to practice all I've taught him on your friend here," Seiler threatened.

"Do it," Vin hissed through clenched teeth.

Chris yelled in frustration, but he spun Vin around and planted his fist in his best friend's abdomen. The blow lacked his usual intensity, but Vin still went down on one knee, sucking in air to refill his nearly depleted lungs.

Some part of Vin's mind went blind with rage, but another knew that it was the man standing next to Josiah he should hate.

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

Seiler watched Tanner's face and knew Vin was winning this round. He hissed softly to himself.

Vincent had to believe it was the Chosen One who had tortured him.

Vincent had to kill the Chosen One. Only then would He be able to come; to come through Vincent's body to this world.

Reaching into the inner pocket of his coat, Seiler removed a small blue case and tossed it to Tio. "Open it."

The youth did, finding a syringe that was already filled.

"Give it to him," Seiler stated evenly.

"Why don't you just kill me?" Chris yelled angrily. "That's what this is all about, isn't it?"

"Back off," Tio snarled, shoving Larabee away. He injected Tanner.

Can't lose it… can't lose it… can't lose it, Vin chanted to himself. Can't let 'em down. Can't. God, please, don't let me fail 'em. Don't let me…

Vin felt the drugs surge through his bloodstream like a wave of molten fire, the fog thickening in his mind. He felt the blows begin to fall, the pain overwhelming him…

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

"Hit him again, Christopher!"

Chris threw a half-pulled punch, catching Vin on the jaw and snapping his head back.

Vin staggered back a few steps, clearly more disoriented by the drugs than the blow.

McMillan had had enough. He stepped in, delivering a vicious blow to Vin's ribs that dropped the man to the ground where he squinted up at Chris.

Larabee took a step back, looking for an opening to get to Tio or McMillan. If he could get one of their weapons…

"Use the prod," Seiler said to Tio, handing it over.

The younger man grinned maliciously as he moved in on Vin, shoving it against the sniper's shoulder. The resulting shock prompted a strangled cry from Tanner. But this time Vin lurched up off the ground and charged.

McMillan thrust Chris into the path of the oncoming agent.

Tio touched the prod to Tanner's neck.

Vin screamed, wrapping his arms around Chris, slamming him back into the wooden porch railing. Chris tried to push Vin away, but the pain and the drugs made the sniper too strong.

Tanner wrestled him to the ground, scrambling to straddle Chris's thighs, one palm thrust under the blond's chin, forcing his head back as far as it would go. He raised the other hand to smash Chris's face, but hesitated.

"Vin!" Chris called as best he could. "It's me! It's Chris!"

No! a part of Vin's mind shouted as his hand started down with brutal force.

The fog cleared just enough for Vin to pull the blow, his fist pounding into the dirt instead. "No!" he bellowed.

"You know me," Chris said as the man released his chin. "Stay with me, Vin."

Tio stepped in again, pressing the prod to Vin's back.

Tanner squealed, scrambling off of his best friend and away. He stopped, crouching on his hands and knees. "Gonna kill you!" he screamed as he pushed up off the ground.

Tio wasn't the only one surprised by the power and the speed of Tanner's attack. Slipping one arm around the man's neck, Vin pinned his tormentor in a choke hold. He heaved with the added strength generated by the drugs, lifting the youth up and slamming him to the ground. The sound of the man's vertebrae breaking sounded clearly.

McMillan leveled his gun on Chris, yelling harshly, "Stop! Now!"

Vin froze, chest heaving, hands on his thighs. "Yer gonna die," he spat at the man. "Y' can't stop me. Y' might kill me, but the other two's gonna kill ya. Yer gonna die."

"On the ground!" McMillan shouted, planning to shoot the man as soon as he was no longer a threat.

Chris made no move toward Vin, whose gaze had fallen on Tio's dropped gun.

Blue eyes flickered from the weapon to Larabee and the instant he saw Vin's eyes he knew the sniper was going for the revolver.

"Vincent!" Seiler snapped. "You cannot fight Him. He demands the blood of the Choose One!"

"I choose!" Vin howled. "I choose. You die!" He dove for the revolver.

McMillan reacted, taking aim as Vin's hand closed on the butt of the gun, his thumb pulling back the hammer.

"Vin!" Chris yelled as McMillan pulled the trigger.

Vin jerked as the bullet traced a furrow along his side, but he still lifted the revolver, aiming it not at the man who was shooting at him, but at Seiler.

McMillan fired again, this time hitting the sniper in the upper shoulder. The impact forced Vin back into the dirt as he began to pull the trigger.

Two rounds caught Seiler, the man's body jerking wildly before he crumpled to the ground.

Roused by the sounds of gunfire, Josiah pushed himself up off the ground, tacking McMillan from behind and dragging him down.

Chris lunged, fighting with the man for control of the 9mm as Vin continued to fire at the spot where Seiler had stood, the revolver finally responding with a click when the hammer fell on an empty chamber.

McMillan tried to twist his gun around and fire at Josiah, but Chris grabbed his wrist, snapping it, the resulting spasm of pain making the man's muscles contract. He shot himself, his eyes widening for a brief moment as he realized he'd just killed himself.

Josiah grabbed the man and tossed him aside. "Vin!" he roared.

Chris scrambled across the ground on all fours to Vin's side. Josiah checked to see if the three men were dead.

Chris maneuvered Vin up, leaning him back against his thighs, his head resting on Larabee's shoulder. Checking Vin's wounds, he called to Josiah, "Never mind them! Get me some towels; I've got to stop this bleeding!"

Vin stared up at the pine covered hillside, his eyes glassy. "I knew, Chris."

"Knew what?" Chris asked, still panting as he checked Vin's side. The bullet had traced a quarter-inch furrow along one rib and it was bleeding, but it didn't appear dangerous, but it could be. If the shot had also broken Tanner's rib, it might have driven one end into the man's lung.

"Knew… couldn't… be y'… doin' this… t' me," Vin explained, his voice thick and slurred as shock began to take its toll.

"Josiah!" Chris yelled, and then looked back down at Vin. "I would've died before I did this to you."

"I know," Vin said softly, a slight smile on his lips. "Was… drugs… but I knew…" He trailed off, shaking his head as if to clear it. "'M tired…" he said, his voice getting weaker.

"No, don't sleep," Chris said, shaking Vin slightly. "Come on, Vin, stay with me. Talk to me." He could feel Tanner beginning to relax against him. "Josiah!"

The big man bolted out of the cabin with a handful of towels. Chris grabbed one, pressing it against Tanner's shoulder wound.

The pressure drew a moan from Vin, and he tried to pull away from the ministrations.

"Easy," Chris told him. "I've gotta stop the bleeding."

"Seiler?" Vin asked airily.

"You got him, Vin," Josiah said, stooping over his friend.

"Fuckin'… psycho…" Vin slurred, his voice fading.

Josiah could see the concern in Chris's eyes as Larabee said, "Help me get him in the truck. Call the sheriff, have an ambulance waiting at the highway."

Josiah nodded, helping Larabee lift Vin and carry him to the Ram. They put Vin in the bed so Chris would have room to keep the pressure on the bleeding wound.

Josiah ran back inside the cabin, grabbing the keys and his cell phone. He raced back out and climbed in behind the wheel.

"Go! Go! Go!" Larabee yelled at him.

The older man pulled away from the cabin, already dialing 911 as he did.

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

In the back of the truck, Chris held his friend. "Vin, can you hear me?"

Blue eyes fluttered opened, but they remained glazed and unfocused. "Chris?" he slurred. Not seeing the man, he began to struggle weakly.

"Easy, Vin, easy. I'm right here."

Vin's eyes dropped closed again. "Thought I's… gonna kill ya."

"You didn't. You saved our lives."

"Almost killed y'… couldn't stop… shot y'… shot y', Chris…"

"No. You didn't hurt me, Vin. It's the drugs. You couldn't hurt me. Understand?"

"Y' were… the wall… hurt me… Did y' hurt me?"

"Shh, easy, Vin, save your strength. We'll get this sorted out, I promise."

"Y' think… she'll come back… if'n I die?"

"Vin, shh, don't talk."

"Be worth it…"

"Easy… That's right… Shh… I have you…"

Vin grimaced as the truck rocked over a rough spot. "Hurts," he yelped.

"I know… Easy…" Chris changed the sodden towel, pressing another against Vin's shoulder. He held it down with as much pressure as he could apply, saying a silent prayer that the bleeding stopped soon.

"Never meant… t' hurt ya…"

"Vin, you didn't hurt me, okay?"


"I'm right here, Vin," he said, wishing Josiah would pick up the speed.

"I'd… give her… back t' y'… if'n I could…"

"Damn it, Vin, stop talking," Chris said as sternly as he could, tears tracing down his cheeks. "Sarah's dead. I know that, even if Seiler didn't. There's nothing anybody can do to change that."

"Wish I could…"

"I wish I could, too," Chris admitted.

"…need family…"

"I know."

Vin reached up, his fingers curling around Chris's arm. "Like a brother t' me… like blood… closer."

"Yeah, I know. So are you," the blond whispered back.

Vin coughed softly. "Ain't good, is it?"

Chris shook his head, but he didn't trust his voice not to break if he tried to speak.

"If I… don't… make it…"

"Don't talk like that," Chris snapped, cutting him off. "You are gonna make it, you hear me? We've been through too much for you to give up now, so you damn well better keep fighting. You hear me, Tanner? You fight, goddamn it!"

"What I kept… tellin' m'self… knew… let y' down… if I gave up…"

"So help me, Tanner, if you don't shut the hell up I'm gonna shove a sock in your mouth! Damn Texan won't string two words together most days. Gets shot and he won't shut the fuck up."

"Fuck you… Lar'bee…" Vin wheezed. "Ain't easy… t' tell… yer best friend… how much… means–" He broke off as they hit another rough spot and gasped.

Chris held Vin tighter. "I know, Vin, I know, okay?"

"Only family… I got… mean… more…"

"I know, I know."

"Don't think… could… live… without it."

Chris closed his eyes and shook his head. "Stubborn sonuvabitch, you're not going to shut up, are you?"

Vin tried to speak again, but this time he couldn't find the strength. He settled for shaking his head and felt Chris's arms tighten around him. He rested his head against the blond man's shoulder as he heard him say, "Hang in there, pardner, we're almost home."

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

5 p.m.

Dr. O'Neill smiled down at Vin and asked, "You again?"

Vin smiled sleepily. 'M alive…

"Some people never learn, or is it the fine food and accommodations that keeps bringing you back?"

"The comp'ny," he whispered, voice slightly slurred.

She chuckled, shaking her head. "And they told me Wilmington was the charmer."

Vin chuckled airily at that.

"Vin, I have six worried men cluttering my waiting room. Do you think you can take them off my hands for a few minutes?"

He nodded. How was he supposed to know for sure he wasn't dead?

A few moments later, he heard Nathan deluging the doctor with questions as they entered the room. Seeing Vin with various tubes and wires attached to his body silenced him, however.

"Ain't as bad as it looks," Vin managed, his voice dry and rough.

"Not for someone who spent five hours in surgery," Dr. O'Neill said, patting Nathan's shoulder. "Don't worry, he is out of danger. We'll move him out of ICU later today."

"Now that's good news," Buck said, looking relieved.

Chris made it to the bedside and reached out, gently squeezing Vin's shoulder. "See, I told you you'd make it."

"Yeah," Vin whispered, feeling tears of relief and love escaping from the corners of his eyes.

"Anytime, Cowboy," Chris replied, knowing exactly what the man was feeling.

"But, please, not any time soon, all right?" Ezra admonished.

Vin nodded his agreement.

Josiah moved over to stand on the other side of the bed.

"Y' okay, J'siah?" Vin asked him.

"Stiff and sore, but I'll be fine… Thanks to you."

"All right," Dr. O'Neill said in an authoritative tone, "let's let Vin get some more rest, all right? You can see him later today, once he's moved into a room."

"Hang in there," Chris said softly. "We'll see you later."

Vin nodded, then called, "Chris?"


"Don't forget the pizza."

"No way," Chris told him with a grin. "You rest. Maybe they'll let you have some of the good stuff tomorrow."

Tanner's forehead wrinkled in confusion.

"It's Thanksgiving," JD told him.

"And we all have plenty to be thankful for," Nathan added.

"Amen to that, brother," Josiah replied.

It was true, Vin knew. He did have plenty to be thankful for. And all six of them were standing crowded around his bed. His eyes dropped closed as he felt Chris squeeze his shoulder again. "Chris…"

"I'll stay," came the reply he wanted to hear. "I'll be right here."

"'Kay…" He felt himself slipping toward sleep, and felt himself passing his safe place. But he knew he was safe now, he had family who would watch his back and take care of him. He didn't need to hide any more. He had come home at last…

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Sunday, November 28th, 1999

2:30 p.m.

Vin fought back a grin as he watched and listened to Buck and JD arguing over… something. He was stretched out on Larabee's sofa, his belly full. Dr. O'Neill had released him Saturday afternoon, so the Thanksgiving that had been postponed while he'd been recovering was finally celebrated earlier today, complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, which was all of the huge spread he'd been able to tolerate.

But the three pieces of pie had definitely left him pleasantly full for the first time in a while.

The others were still eating, going back and forth to the dining room to fill their plates before returning to the living room and the football games they were watching.

Nathan stopped to check on him every half-hour or so, and Vin had given up trying to convince the man he was all right. JD was making sure he always had something at hand to drink, and it was Buck who had smuggled in the extra pieces of pie.

Josiah, who was still moving a little stiffly himself, had provided a pillow and a blanket, so Vin was warm and comfortable on the sofa. Across from him the gas fireplace burned. He wished it was a real wood fire burning on the hearth, but that had been forbidden in an effort to improve the air quality. He still enjoyed the way the flames danced.

Ezra interrupted his thoughts, bringing him up to date on the scores from various gridiron match-ups, and ending with, "Is there anything I can bring you?"

"Nope," Vin replied, basking in the peace he felt. He really had found a home here, with these men. It was something he had thought impossible less than a year ago.

"Then I shall leave you to rest," Standish said, starting to turn away.

"Ezra?" Vin called softly.

"Yes?" the man replied, looking back down at Tanner.

"It was you, wasn't it?"

"Me?" Standish questioned. "I assure you, I'm not responsible–"

"When y'all found me, after Seiler… I remember a voice…"

Standish's cheeks flushed a rosy shade of red. "Uh, well, yes, but we all sat with you… And I would assume we all spoke to you…"

Vin grinned slightly. "I heard ya," he said softly.

Ezra's mouth snapped shut with a click. He blinked rapidly, trying to come up with something to say.

"Just wanted t' let y' know I heard… An' it helped me find m' way back."

The undercover man's cheeks turned a deeper shade of red. "Uh…"

"Thanks, Ez," Vin said. "Reckon I'd say 'bout the same t' you, if things had been reversed."

"You would?" the man asked, his voice slightly higher in pitch than usual.

Vin nodded.

Standish looked quickly away. "I– I appreciate that, Vin. More than you know."

"Ain't so sure 'bout that," Tanner replied.

"Yes, well, I– I think I'll see if there's any more of that wonderful dressing left," he said, hurrying away.

Vin smiled as he watched him go. He wasn't the only one who had trouble trusting, or building bonds. But if he could do it, so could Standish, whether he wanted to or not.

Chris walked in, his serious expression enough to quell the argument that Buck and JD were still engaged in.

"What is it?" Buck asked the blond.

"Travis called. Lyons is dead."

"What?" JD asked. "How? He's–"

"Whoever he's really working for didn't want him talking any more," Larabee said.

"You mean Mr. Blitzer," Ezra commented.

Larabee shrugged. "Travis wants us to see what we can find out about good ol' Otto tomorrow," he said, his gaze settling on Vin as he added, "but he said today's a day for giving thanks… for everything we have."

"Amen to that," Josiah replied.

"Hear, hear," Ezra added, the others all nodding their agreement.

Chris walked over to the fireplace and sat down in front of it. Meeting Vin's eyes he asked, "How are you doing?"

"Never better," Tanner replied.

Chris nodded. "I was thinking about throwing all these troublemakers out of here in an hour or so," he said. "Thought maybe you and I could talk…"

Vin nodded. He was ready and, so it seemed, was Larabee. "Sounds good."

That brought a smile to the blond's lips, and it only grew wider when Tanner added, "'Sides, that leaves more 'a Nettie's pumpkin pie for us."

Call on me, Brother, if you need a hand.

We all need somebody to lean on.

I just might have a problem that you'd understand.

We all need somebody to lean on.

Lean on me, when you're not strong,

And I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on.

Boy, it won't be long, 'til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on.

Lean on me, when you're not strong,

And I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on…[2]

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[2] Lean on Me, by Bill Withers.