Magnificent Seven ATF Universe
Reports of My Death

by The Neon Gang

This story is based on an amazing piece of Riptide fan fiction. In fact, it was that original Riptide fic that inspired me to write my very first piece of fan fiction, which just happened to be the sequel to that very amazing Riptide story. Long, long, long ago I knew I wanted to try this story, and my sequel to it, out as a Mag 7 story. The original writer was gracious enough to let me do the Riptide sequel, and play with the idea to see what they looked like in the AFT Denver AU of Mag7. Enjoy.

Art by Shiloh!

Monday, August 1, 1999

10 a.m.

"Still don't like it," Vin grumbled as Larabee piloted the small boat across Lake Granby to the GSP coordinates they had been given the day before.

Standing next to the anxious sniper, undercover operative Ezra Standish leaned back against the railing, enjoying the scenery. "What's not to like, Mr. Tanner? A beautiful day, beautiful location, public space, it's perfect," he said as Larabee eased off the throttle, letting the boat glide to a stop at the designated location.

"This is the spot," Larabee announced, his piercing gaze sweeping over the water, looking for the Flaming Arrow , Benton Whitesides' boat.

Whitesides was a rapidly up and coming militia leader who was using the Internet to gather a larger and larger following of individuals disaffected from local, state and federal government. But more troubling to the ATF was Whitesides' slow accumulation of an impressive arsenal of weapons as well as the various ingredients necessary for homemade explosives.

"We're sittin' ducks out here," Tanner complained, his own gaze searching the boats closest to them.

Chris and Ezra exchanged small grins. Vin was their sniper, had been for eight months, and as such he preferred the advantage of the high ground, but there was none available out on the lake.

"Whitesides won't be stupid enough to start a firefight out here," Larabee said. "Besides, the offer we made is too good to pass up."

"He might if he's been tipped off," Tanner returned.

"Thanks to the Kroger incident, Whitesides might know that the ATF's Team Seven is investigating him, but I can assure you that he is completely unaware that we are Team Seven," Standish said, then stepped over and took a seat in one of the well-padded deck chairs. He settled back and sighed contentedly before adding, "He will, of course, be fashionably late."

"Nothin' fashionable 'bout bein' late," Tanner grumbled, gaze sweeping over the water and boats again. The buzz in his gut was telling him loud and clear that trouble was coming, and he'd learned a long time ago to listen. But there was nothing he could do out on the water, nothing except wait.

Still, he had to admit that Standish was right about it being a beautiful, late summer day, the sun shining down above them in a cloudless blue sky. Boats of various shapes and sizes were on the lake, each filled with people out to enjoy the recent run of perfect weather before the school year began again. The "crowded" conditions, however, made the sniper a little nervous. If they did start trading shots, it was entirely possible some innocent vacationers could end up getting killed – not to mention them.

Larabee walked over to the cooler, opened it and pulled out an icy cold soda. He popped the tab and took a long drink. "As long as he's not too late," he said to Ezra. "I have better things to do than sit around, pretending to fish." He turned, gaze picking through the boats closest to them until he spotted the Jolly Codger , the second small fishing boat where the other four members of his team would be monitoring the meeting with some of the sophisticated surveillance equipment that everyone but JD hated.

The three agents lapsed into a comfortable silence as they continued to wait.

A little less than twenty minutes later, Tanner nodded and said, "Off t' the right; boat comin' right at us."

"That's starboard, Mr. Tanner," Standish said dryly.

Chris stood, watching the approaching boat and noting that if they had to chase the craft, there was no way their fishing boat was going to be able to match the maneuverability of Whitesides' expensive pleasure craft, even with the powerful engine hidden under the run-down exterior of the boat.

Tanner headed for the bow, the breeze blowing over the water lifting his shoulder-length chestnut hair off his shoulders. Standish remained at the stern.

"Yo, Wild and Woolly , permission to come alongside?" a voice cracked over the radio which had been set to a pre-agreed upon frequency.

"Yo?" Ezra echoed, frowning. "The quality of Benton's lackeys is evidentially declining."

Larabee stepped back into the wheelhouse and picked up the mike, depressing the key and saying, "You're late, Whitesides. Let's get this over with." Tossing the mike down, he stepped back out and waved them in.

"Chris," Vin called softly, "they've got somethin' under a tarp up front, might be some kind 'a weapon. Watch yer back, Cowboy."

The blond nodded, waving again as the Flaming Arrow glided up next to the stationary fishing boat. As it did, a tall, auburn-haired man stepped out onto the deck.

"Ah, Landry," Ezra called in greeting, recognizing Benton's youngest son. "We were beginning to wonder if your father actually planned to attend this little meeting."

The young man, just barely twenty-one, flashed the undercover agent a smile, saying, "Vic, you should know my father better than that. He goes wherever the best deals are."

Standish moved closer to Larabee. "I take it your father's ready to get down to business then?"

Landry Whitesides' smile widened. "Business? Yeah, absolutely. I definitely think it's time we got down to business, Vic. Now, boys!"

Two young men standing at the rail of the Flaming Arrow lifted H&Ks, squeezing off short bursts that ripped through the wheelhouse windows on the Wild and Woolly . Sounds of splintering wood and shattering glass drown out the few screams from vacationers who were close enough to hear the gunfire. Boats immediately began to pull away from the firefight, except one.

"Get your hands up!" one of the shooters yelled at the three agents.

"What the hell is going on here, Landry?" Standish demanded. "We—"

One of the other young men raked the side of the boat with another burst of fire.

"All right!" Larabee bellowed, lifting his hands. He couldn't allow his people to get killed. Besides, he needed to buy some time for Buck and the others to get over to them. Still, he didn't like the looks of this, not at all.

Standish and Tanner followed his lead.

"Now, come down to the railing," Landry Whitesides ordered, looking excited and nervous at the same time. "Nice and slow."

The three agents moved slowly toward the railing at the starboard side of the boat. But as Larabee and Tanner drew closer, Chris dived to the side and rounded the edge of the wheelhouse, out of sight of Whitesides and his two shooters. Vin ducked into the wheelhouse, drawing his Glock and dropping one of the men holding a H&K, the other firing a burst of cover fire and yelling for reinforcements.

Four more kids scrambled up onto the deck of the other boat, one of them pulling the tarp back to reveal a Vietnam-era M-60 that he trained on the Wild and Woolly . He opened fire.

Whitesides and the other shooter ran forward, leaping for the bow of the Wild and Woolly , others heading for the side at the stern.

Vin killed one of the pair boarding at the stern, then ducked down when the man with the H&K opened up. He heard the sound of Larabee's Colt 1911 as Chris dropped the shooter with Whitesides, Ezra's SIG barked, sending the second boarder at the back toppling overboard into the lake.

Vin slipped out of the wheelhouse, grabbing a quick look toward the front of the boat where he saw Chris wrestling with one of Whitesides' boys, who was holding a large knife and had at least twenty-five pounds of advantage on Larabee.

"Come on, son," the blond said, "you don't want to do this."

The man behind the M60 caught sight of Tanner and swung the gun around and squeezed off a burst, forcing Vin back into the cover of the wheelhouse.

Vin could hear that Chris was losing ground and risked a peek around the door only to see the big man grinning evilly as he slashed at Larabee's throat with the knife.

Noise from the stern told the sniper Standish was busy with Landry.

Ignoring the danger to himself from the M60 on the Flaming Arrow , Vin bolted from the wheelhouse, stood, and took quick aim at the kid trying to kill Larabee, certain he could pick him off without endangering Chris. He squeezed the trigger.

It would have been an easy shot for the sniper, but just as his finger tightened on the trigger he was hit from behind by Whitesides.

Tanner's aim shifted slightly as the Glock fired.

Vin barely had time to register the way Chris jerked convulsively and then began to crumble before he himself was fighting desperately for his life.

It was a short, pitched battle and it ended abruptly when Tanner managed to snake his arm around the attacking man's neck. Landry reached for a knife in a sheath on his belt and the ATF agent's Army training took over. Vin lifted and dropped the young man, his neck snapping with an audible popping sound.

Fire from the Jolly Codger dropped the man behind the M60 and, suddenly, the Flaming Arrow's engines went from a muted rumble to a full throated roar as it pulled swiftly away from the Wild and Woolly . The Jolly Codger swung away after them.

Still slightly dazed from the hard blow he had taken in the fight with Landry, Vin staggered forward, calling "Chris?"

There was no immediate reply and Tanner stumbled his way forward, his voice growing more anxious as he continued to call for the man. When he reached the bow and still hadn't seen or heard anything from Chris yet, the anxiety turned to panic.

Dropping to his belly, Vin leaned over the edge of the hull, searching the water for some sign of the missing man and calling, "Larabee! Chris!"

There was still no answer, only the sloshing sound of the lake against the hull and the various sounds of other boats.

Tanner's mind shifted back, playing out the last few seconds he'd seen Chris again in awful detail. He clearly remembered the way Larabee had moved as if he'd been struck, his expression of shock and pain, then how he'd gone limp, starting to fall while still locked in hand-to-hand combat with the knife-wielding teen.

"Oh God no," Vin moaned softly, unwilling to accept the implications of the memory. "Chris! Answer me, damn it!"

He forced himself to his feet, making a quick search of the Wild and Woolly and finding Ezra just coming to, dazed but otherwise unharmed. He called for Larabee again, but there was still no reply.

Finally, not knowing what else he could do, he dove over the side of the boat, searching underwater for the missing man. He surfaced, gasping for air, then dove again, refusing to stop even after the Jolly Codger returned, Ezra and the others all trying to coax him back into the boat.

Again and again he surfaced, gulped more air and dove again, spots finally swimming into his vision, exploding in front of his eyes. And then nothing.

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

10:35 a.m.

Ezra came to with a low groan. He heard Vin calling for Larabee, but it sounded like he had cotton stuffed into his ears. Still, the desperation in the man's voice seeped into his consciousness and forced him onto his hands and knees. He paused there, trying to clear his head.

The undercover man was vaguely aware of the fact that Tanner stopped to check on him, but Ezra was still trying to remember how to breathe and was unable to say anything.

Then he heard Tanner calling for Chris again, and then the sound of a splash.

A splash?

Struggling to his feet, Standish staggered over to the railing and peered down. His vision was still a little blurry, but he could see Tanner in the water, diving, surfacing, and diving again.

And then the reality of what was happening slowly sunk in. Oh my God. Not that.

"Vin!" he called, but the sniper didn't seem to hear him.

The sound of another boat approaching cut through Standish's rising fear and he looked up to see the Jolly Codger pulling up alongside them. Buck and Nathan were the first to board, both men hurrying over to him.

"What happened?" Wilmington demanded.

"Whitesides must have known who we were, although I cannot see how," Ezra said. "They opened fire on us."

"We know that! Where's Chris and Vin?" the ladies' man demanded.

Standish shook his head, looking out at the sniper as he surfaced.

"Oh, Christ!" Wilmington yelped, when he saw Tanner suck in a gulp of air and dive under the water again. Moments later he was in the water beside the man. "Vin!" he yelled, but Tanner was already underwater again.

Buck grabbed the younger man when he surfaced again. "Vin!"

Tanner struggled in the grip, grief-glazed blue eyes wide and unseeing. "Lemme go!"

"Vin!" Buck snapped, giving the man a hard shake. "Where's Chris?"

"Chris," Vin said, the name coming out as a painful moan. "We've gotta find 'im, Buck!"

"Chris fell overboard?" Wilmington questioned.

Tanner nodded, his face screwing up into a mask of agonized horror. "I shot 'im, Buck. Oh God. God, I— I killed 'im." And then he jerked out of Wilmington's hands and dove again, and again, and again.

Buck let him go, his own heart constricting painfully in his chest. He looked back at the boat and could tell by their shocked expressions that the others had heard Tanner's remarks.

"Buck!" Nathan barked several minutes later. "Y'got to get him out of there," the medic called. He could see Tanner struggling to breathe and knew a few more dives and he was going to drown.

Wilmington caught Vin the next time he surfaced, slipping an arm around his chest and dragging him back to the Wild and Woolly . Tanner didn't want to go and he fought wildly, but Buck's grip was tight and the sniper exhausted.

Josiah helped drag Tanner back up onto the deck. "Lemme go!" Vin mewed. "Lemme go."

"Take it easy, son," Josiah said, trying to soothe the man, but Tanner was having none of it.

"Lemme go! Gotta find Chris," he gasped. "I gotta find Chris!"

Nathan grabbed him, snapping, "Y'gotta let me get a look at ya! You're gonna drown you go back in that water!"

Vin looked up at the black man, eyes full of unshed tears, begging. "Nate, please… I shot 'im. God, oh God… I shot 'im. I killed Chris. Oh, God. What am I gonna do, Nate? I killed 'im."

"Easy, Vin," Nathan said, "easy, we'll figure this out, I promise you."

"I killed 'im."

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

11:10 a.m.

A few minutes later, Tanner was seated on the end of one of the deck chairs, a blanket draped over his shoulders. He trembled visibly, and his eyes were vacant and glazed.

Wilmington walked over and sat down behind the miserable man. Reaching out, he rested his hand on the younger man's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Vin, tell us what happened," he instructed gently. "What happened to Chris?"

"I shot 'im, Buck. God help me, I shot 'im. Christ."

The comment made no sense to the ladies' man. Vin and Chris were friends, close friends, had been from the moment they met. He didn't understand it, but he appreciated it, more than he could say, because Chris's friendship with Vin had brought back the Larabee Buck knew and loved. There was no way Tanner would ever hurt Chris, not on purpose, anyway. "Tell me the whole story, Junior," he urged kindly.

Vin did, slowly, haltingly, his throat so tight he nearly choked on each word. And, as he spoke, the looks on the others' faces went from mild worry to bewildered shock. It was plain that they couldn't believe what they were hearing, but they had no choice. Larabee wasn't there.

"How the hell did this happen?" JD asked softly when Vin's words finally came to an end.

It was the same question Tanner had been asking himself. "I don't know!" he cried. "I's aimin' fer the bastard who's gonna slit his throat," he managed, his accent growing thicker than usual. "I got hit from behind at the same time I fired! I looked fer 'im, JD. I tried! I swear t' God I tried!" he told them all, looking from one face to another. "God, I shot Chris!" he said, his voice cracking again as his control slipped away.

"We know you tried, son," Josiah said, reaching out to rest his hand on the younger man's shoulder.

"He was gone, J'siah!" Tanner cried. "He was already gone!" Then, catching himself abruptly, he closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, and finished the story. "When I couldn't find 'im, I— I dove in. I kept lookin', but, but—"

"I'll call the local authorities, get a search started," Nathan said quietly and left.

Stunned by the suddenness of the disaster, Buck just shook his head, too staggered to say anything more.

The silence stretched, the only sounds Vin's uneven breathing and the normal sounds of boats on the lake.

Finally, Buck whispered, "Are you sure, Vin?"

Tanner's only answer was to turn, lift his head, and stare at the man, letting the horror in his eyes speak for him.

Responding instinctively, Buck reached out and slipped his hand around the back of Vin's neck. He could feel the muscles, knotted with tension. Tanner was strung so tightly Wilmington could feel the vibration that passed through the sniper's body when he touched him.

"Look, Whitesides' boat got away. Maybe Chris was on the Flaming Arrow ," the ladies' man offered.

Vin looked up again. "Y' don't believe that anymore 'n I do."

Buck hesitated, feeling the tears as they began to sting his eyes. "Hell, Vin, I don't know what to believe." But I sure as hell don't want to think he's gone .

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

10:30 p.m.

The next several hours passed in a fog for Vin and the other members of Team Seven. Police, State Park Rangers, Colorado Search and Rescue, and a parade of other law enforcement personnel arrived, asked their questions and moved on. The Search and Rescue people put divers in the water until it started to get dark. They located two of the attackers, but failed to find Larabee's body.

Finally, Team Seven, was allowed to go. They headed back to Denver, all of them congregating at Larabee's ranch as if they expected the man to be there, waiting for them. But the house was dark and silent when they arrived.

Once inside, they forced themselves to eat the burgers they had stopped and picked up on the way, then scattered to grab some much-needed sleep. Josiah took one of the sofas, Nathan one of the recliners, and JD the other. Still a little unsteady, Ezra had been put in the guest bedroom – generally referred to as "Vin's room" since he spent more time in it than anyone else.

Buck guided Vin into the master bedroom, putting the sniper to bed in Larabee's room.

"Get some rest, Junior," he said softly. "It's been a long, bad day. We'll start fresh in the morning, get this figured out."

Tanner nodded, but he doubted he'd be able to sleep, no matter how badly his body craved it.

Buck sighed softly. Vin already looked like one of the walking dead. He was pale and drawn, his eyes ringed and haunted, and when he looked up from the pillow and whispered, "C'n y' stay? Please?" Wilmington simply nodded, turned off the light, and climbed into bed next to the trembling man, pulling him into an embrace like he might a frightened child who had woken from a bad dream, holding him close until exhaustion finally forced Vin to sleep.

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

Tuesday, August 2, 1999

3 a.m.

Vin woke in the darkness. He could remember Buck climbing into bed and lying down beside him, holding him, he thought, but that was all. Now the ladies' man was gone and he was alone, more alone than he'd ever felt.

He stared up at the ceiling, enough moonlight filtering in past the open windows to make the wooden beams clearly visible. He could smell Larabee's scent on the sheets and pillow and shivered, knowing he would never see the man again, and it was his fault. The silence in the room had a vacant feeling to it that he couldn't define, but it was different from the times when he'd been there in the house alone, Chris somewhere else in the house, or out on the property.

Empty , he decided. And this was the way it was going to be from now on.

He knew Larabee had left him the ranch in his will, Chris had told him when he made the change, so it was his place now, whether or not he wanted it – his place, his home, his responsibility. It now fell to him to see to it that the property and the horses were taken care of, but he'd never felt so alone in his entire life, so utterly place-less. He wanted to scream and fight and cry, but he felt too numb, too dead inside, to even bother.

It took a while, but exhaustion inevitably caught up with him again and he slipped into a restless sleep.

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

5 a.m.

Vin was wide awake again, his own cry of terror ringing in his ears as he sat bolt upright in the bed, heart pounding wildly from the dreams that had tormented him.

"Mr. Tanner? Vin, are you all right?" Ezra asked from outside the closed bedroom door. Then he knocked softly and cautiously opened the door. "Vin? I heard you call. Is something the matter?"

"I killed 'im, I killed 'im," Tanner muttered softly, his voice dripping with self-loathing. He drew his knees up and rested his forehead against them, his arms wrapped around his shins. Huddled in a ball of utter misery, he moaned quietly, "I killed m' best friend, Ezra. I killed Chris. How 'm I gonna live with that? How?"

"You don't know that, Vin," Ezra protested, coming closer and then sitting down on the bed beside the man. "One of Whitesides' men might have shot him. There's no way to prove that it was your fault."

"Not 'til they find the body 'n' do a ballistics check," he snapped, almost getting sick to his stomach when an image of Larabee's water-bloated body flashed through his mind.

Having seen the special bond between Vin and Chris begin, grow, and flourish, Ezra understood at least something of what the two men shared and he just couldn't accept that it could be lost so tragically. "Vin—"

"Go back t' bed, Ezra," he said, beginning to rock slightly, unable to contain his anguish. "Leave me be… jist leave me be."

Ezra was afraid to leave Vin alone right now, but he couldn't find a reasonable excuse to stay, so he stood. "Vin," he said softly, "please, don't do this to yourself. Wait. Let us get the facts first, and—"

"An' if it turns out it was m' bullet?" Tanner asked him, anger flashing in his bloodshot blue eyes.

Ezra squared his shoulders. "Even if that does prove to be the case, it was an accident, Vin. We all know that you would never intentionally harm Chris."

"What y'all know don't mean shit," Vin hissed nastily. "He's dead, Ezra. Y' get that? He's dead! An' I killed 'im!"

Vin's voice was so full of pain, of rampant anguish, that Ezra's eyes filled with tears and his throat tightened as the reality of Chris's death forced its way past the subconscious barrier of disbelief he had managed to erect. It had simply been too difficult to imagine what day-to-day life would be like without Chris Larabee to entertain the possibility – until now. And this was one loss no degree of comfort from another friend could assuage, so Ezra did the only thing he could. He sat back down again and silently reached out to hold Vin, rocking with him and letting him know that he didn't mourn alone.

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

5:45 a.m.

Later, when Vin finally slipped back into an exhausted sleep, Ezra eased him down, covered him, and silently left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Not feeling sleepy himself, he returned to the guest bedroom, closed the door, and turned on the light, determined to sit down and write out the events as he remembered them, hoping it might trigger some useful memory he was unaware of.

He took a seat at the small writing desk in the corner of the guest room and opened the thin drawer under the tabletop, hoping to find paper and a pen. But what he found instead was a small, black leather journal.

Curiosity getting the better of him, he pulled the journal out, turning it over in his hands and taking some small measure of comfort in the feel of the soft leather under his fingertips. He could remember seeing Vin with the book once. He had been sitting, writing in it while out on the deck. Chris had been standing close by, keeping an eye on the steaks cooking on the barbeque.

The fact that he might never see that particular scene again was too much to bear and Ezra opened the journal at random to escape his own thoughts, scanning the writing in search of something that might take his mind away from the unfolding tragedy.

Beneath the sky, blurred by mist and wind,

I am reborn, watching violet heads

of crocuses, erupting past stiff earth after

dying for a season.

I have watched my own dark soul

Re-appear each morning after

entering the next world

only to return to this one,



Yes, Vin was feeling very much alone, even though there were five men who wanted to stand with him, to comfort him. Ezra felt a flare of anger at the sniper, but it was quickly extinguished by sympathy. Vin was lost in a morass of grief and guilt. How 'm I supposed t' live with that?

Standish sighed heavily, worried about their poet.

Vin Tanner wasn't alone, no matter what he thought at the moment. And he was a survivor, if anyone could truly be called such. But Ezra had a feeling that it was due, in large part, to the stability he had found as part of Team Seven. And that, they all knew, was itself rooted in the deep friendship Vin shared with Chris Larabee. With Larabee gone, it was doubtful that Vin would cling to the same optimistic outlook they had all come to depend upon. And, if he couldn't, they all were going to have a real fight on their hands.

They couldn't really be sure what Vin was capable of right now. Not when he was being driven by grief and guilt. They were simply going to have to take some steps to protect Vin from himself until he was over this initial shock. And there was no time like the present to get started.

He stood, closed the journal, and slid it back into the drawer. He would go wake Buck and Josiah, tell them what he was thinking first and see if they agreed with him. If so, they could wake the others and do what had to be done.

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

Monday, August 1, 1999

8 p.m.

Chris Larabee came to with a pounding headache. He groaned and tried to lick his chapped lips, but the inside of his mouth felt like it had been stuffed with clods of dirt. He choked slightly and coughed, sludge breaking free from the back of his throat. He spat it out and fought back the urge to throw up.

What the hell is going on?

He lifted his chin and tried to concentrate, but his thoughts were muddy and sluggish and they slipped away from him. He concentrated on breathing for a while, hawked out a few more wads of foul-tasting mucus, and then forced his eyes open.

He was sitting in a small, bare concrete room. He was also tied to a wooden chair, which definitely ruled out the really bad hangover theory he was just beginning to create from the disjointed images in his head. But he hadn't had a hangover like that since—

He killed the thought. The last thing he remembered clearly was setting out on the Wild and Woolly to meet with Benton Whitesides.

Yeah, he'd been out on the boat, with Vin and Ezra.

He glanced around the room, but the other two men were not there with him. Where the hell are they?

Think , he snapped at himself. He'd been on the boat… and… and then it had all gone to hell.

He tried to focus on the events as they had unfolded, but his memories were fractured, gaps making it impossible to recreate a timeline, or to come up with an understanding of how he'd gotten from the lake to where he was now. Wherever the hell this was.

Whitesides had showed up… No, that wasn't right, it wasn't the old man, it was one of his kids… and there was gunfire… and a big kid with a knife.

Christ, they'd been attacked by a boatload of kids!

Then he remembered a sharp pain in his side.

He must have gotten shot, or stabbed. But given that he'd been standing on the deck, engaged in a pitched hand-to-hand battle with a knife-wielding thug, bullets flying all around him, that wasn't a wholly unexpected result.

He glanced down at his side with a fatalistic curiosity about the possible damage he'd sustained. His eyes widened slightly when he saw a small, circular blood stain on his shirt. Definitely not enough for a bullet wound.

He frowned, nausea churning in his belly as his vision began to constrict. He fought to hold on to consciousness, panting slightly. Shit . What the hell's going on?

He glanced around the room again. He was alone in a… cell, he decided. Where's Vin? Ezra? Had they survived? Had the others arrived in time?

The wail of dry hinges heralded the arrival of a man.

Chris stared at him as he entered, followed by three others, all young men, maybe teenagers, like the ones on the boat. The boys looked like any of the nameless street rats who lived in the abandoned buildings in Vin's neighborhood of Purgatory. He frowned.

There was something familiar about the older man, something he knew he should remember. Frustration tugged at the edges of his memory, but he couldn't concentrate well enough to pull up a name, or a location where he'd seen the man before, but he was sure he had seen him, known him, or known about him at some point in the past.

Larabee's green eyes narrowed as he took in the man's slightly stooped posture and his thinning gray-brown hair that looked as if he'd pulled out handfuls here and there. He looked up, meeting the dark eyes, narrowed and burning with a fire the ATF agent could only call "inhuman."

"Who are you?" Chris demanded, his voice sounding weaker than he'd hoped.

"Is that really what you want to know?" the man asked, the question followed by a high-pitched titter that set Larabee's nerves on edge. "You want to know who I am?" The man laughed again, the high-pitched trill sending a cold chill snaking down Larabee's back. The man was crazy.

"I know you," Chris said, his eyes narrowing as he tried again to remember, but his thoughts were still too scattered. Drugged , he realized. He'd been drugged somehow.

"I heard, you know… I heard what you did to her," the man said softly, almost seductively as he began to circle slowly around the bound ATF agent. "I heard how you killed her."

"What?" Larabee snapped. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Oh, yes, I heard. I heard, and I listened. Listened well. I listened and I learned… about pain. Yes, pain. I learned about the magic of pain while I was gone." He stopped in front of Larabee, asking, "Do you know anything about pain? Do you know that pain can heal?" But he didn't wait for an answer, beginning to circle again. "No, no, you don't understand… you never understood. Why did you kill her? She— She was the most beautiful thing I ever saw… most beautiful."

"Look, I don't know who you think I am, but—"

"Larabee, Christopher Michael. Born 21 March 1960," the man intoned, pulling a scalpel from the pocket of his baggy field jacket and removing the plastic guard over the blade as he walked. He stopped, holding the instrument next to the corner of Larabee's eye. "Blond hair, green eyes, 165 pounds, six foot tall, 39 years old, this year."

Chris froze as soon as he saw the scalpel, willing himself to remain absolutely still. He knew if he moved, even a little, the blade could blind him. "What else do you know?" he asked softly, watching two of the boys as they held onto each other, giggling madly. They were definitely high on something, and enjoying the way he was being made to sweat.

"Christopher Michael Larabee…" the man sing-songed. "Entered the Navy right out of high school… ten years of service, promoted… four years in the Teams… then college for two years, to finish your degree… in Criminal Justice."

"You've done your homework," Chris said, wishing the man would move the damn blade or cut him and be done with it.

"College man, yes, a college man… then you joined the Denver PD, rising swiftly through the ranks to become a detective… in Homicide. Your time in the SEALs stood you in good stead among your brothers in blue."

"There a point to all this?" Chris snapped.

"Point? A point?" the man screeched, then nearly choked on his own wild laughter. "Oh, Christopher… Christopher, Christopher, Christopher… the point, my dear Christopher, will become clear. Oh, yes, definitely clear, Detective Larabee."

"Special Agent Larabee," Chris corrected. "I left the force, joined the ATF."

"Yes, yes, of course you did," the man said, clearly annoyed at having Chris tell any of his own story. He jerked the blade away from Larabee's eye and ran the safe, blunted edge over the agent's short hair, then reached up, grabbed a lock and sliced it off. He let the shorn hairs fall like sand from between his fingers, tittering again.

Larabee knew the man was insane, but he wasn't sure what he wanted from him, or how and why he'd been abducted. Still, he could sense that the man enjoyed pain, and he could make a reasonable assumption that he'd probably practiced inflicting it on animals, children, or the weak.

"Have you ever watched the light dancing on the edge of a blade, Christopher?" he asked, slowly waving the scalpel in front of Larabee's face. "See how it skates across the surface, twisting, turning, seeking blood…"

The two teens started giggling again, their bodies undulating like the scalpel in the madman's hand.

"I listened. I opened my heart to them, to all of them, but they didn't understand. They couldn't, you see. No, no, they couldn't see the beauty I saw. Beauty like nothing you can imagine, Christopher. Beauty as pure as God, hiding under their skins. But I saw it. I saw God there, and when I revealed Him, He spoke the truth to me."

A shot of bitter fear rocketed through Chris's veins, leaving him short of breath and trembling. Now he knew why the man looked familiar. He was "The Artist," the name the press had given a serial killer who had stalked young, beautiful women in Denver during Larabee's year as a beat cop before he'd been transferred to Homicide. He had been part of a detail protecting two people who had escaped the serial killer, one of them the future Mrs. Larabee, Sarah Connelly.

This was Robert Seiler.

But Seiler had been captured, convicted, and sentenced to life in a mental institution. How the hell had he gotten out?

"Ah, I see you do remember me!" Seiler said, smiling, his eyes alight with the same madness Chris could now remember catching a glimpse of when he'd seen Seiler being brought in to be booked. "Good, that's good, Christopher. I'm so glad you remember me. We have so much to look forward to, you and I." He leaned over, whispering into Larabee's ear, "Her beauty still lives, you know. It lives, oh yes, it lives. It lives… under your skin."

Chris trembled again, knowing Seiler was talking about Sarah, his only target to escape unharmed. Then the scalpel flashed back into view, slicing into his flesh, and Larabee yelped. The next time, he screamed.

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

Tuesday, August 2, 1999

8:30 a.m.

The morning passed in a slow-moving fog for the remaining members of Team Seven. Travis stopped by the office, intending to offer his condolences and support, but the apathetic, red-eyed stares that greeted him told him more than anything else could about what these men were going through and he knew no platitudes could help them, so he settled on the truth.

"Gentlemen," he greeted and the six agents looked up, Tanner unable to meet his eyes. "The lake has been searched. The divers found two bodies, both of them Landry's men. As of now, Agent Larabee is officially listed as 'missing' and an investigation will move forward."

"We want in," Buck stated firmly.

Travis nodded. "I expected as much. I've asked for Angelo Vargus to head up the FBI's side of the investigation. He'll be here tomorrow. He'll need to interview each of you," he added, bracing for their reactions.

"Us?" Standish snapped. "Surely you don't suspect any of us—"

"No, Agent Standish, I do not," Travis interrupted gruffly. "But I do expect you to give the man your full cooperation. And, please, bear in mind that he's just trying to do his job in order to help you – all of you." He paused, trying to gauge the team's mood and whether they might cooperate, but it was really impossible to tell. They had closed ranks, just like he had expected them to.

With a soft sigh, Travis turned and left the men to grieve.

A cell phone rang, and they each started slightly. Ezra fished into his jacket pocket and removed the phone he used as his undercover persona. "Styles," he answered.

"Vic, we need to talk."

"Benton, what the hell was that—"

"Not over the phone," Whitesides interrupted.

The others all watched as Ezra said, "Fine, meet me at the deli at the Museum of Nature and Science. Two hours."

"I'll be there."

Ezra snapped the cell phone closed. "Benton sounds rather anxious to speak to me."

"You're not going without backup," Buck said, leaning forward with a long sigh. He ran his fingers through his hair, wondering how in the world this had happened.

"I should think not," Ezra replied.

"Nathan, you and Josiah go with Ezra," Wilmington said.

The two agents nodded.

"I hate to bring this up," Ezra said softly into the silence that followed, "but does Mr. Larabee have any family that needs to be notified?"

Buck looked up, startled that he'd forgotten. He nodded. "Sarah's brother needs to be called. I'll do that," he said, sliding a glance at Vin, who sat hunched over in his chair like he'd just been gut shot.

"I should do it," Tanner said softly. "It's m' fault; I ought t' tell his family."

"No," Buck said. "Damn it, Vin, we don't know whose fault it was. You got hit, hard, from behind, it rattled you. You don't know you–"

"I know," Tanner interrupted, his voice tight, quiet, shaking almost as much as the man himself.

"Buck, do you know Chris's brother-in-law?" Josiah asked the ladies' man.

Wilmington nodded, saying, "Yeah."

Sanchez looked over at Vin. "Seems to me that kind of news should come from a friend, Vin, not a stranger."

Tanner's jaw muscles twitched wildly and he looked like he might argue for a moment, but then he nodded, his body appearing to deflate right before their eyes.

Buck shot the profiler a grateful look, then stood and headed for Larabee's office to place the call. And Vin watched him go, a desperate, haunted expression on his face the rest knew they'd never forget.

"Well, it appears that we are left to launch the investigation," Ezra said, green eyes meeting Josiah's blue in a silent request for support.

"Investigation?" JD asked the undercover man.

"Of course," Standish replied. "This was our case. No one knows the details better than we do. It stands to reason that we should continue and bring Benton Whitesides to the justice he so richly deserves. He and that entire nest of vipers!"

Josiah nodded. "I concur, brother."

Nathan and JD nodded as well.

"I'm in," the medic replied.

"Me, too," JD added, then he looked at Tanner. "Vin?"

Tanner nodded, but his eyes remained dull and lifeless.

"The boat," JD said. "We should start with the boat that attacked us."

"The Flaming Arrow ," Vin said softly.

Dunne turned to his computer and started to work. Josiah clapped Nathan on the back, saying, "Why don't we get over to the Museum and have a look around. We'll stop by and see what the coroner can tell us about the men with Landry after the meet."

"Sounds good to me," Nathan said, standing. "You'll be all right?" he asked Ezra, who had silently assumed the mantel of Vin's guardian for the time being.

Standish inclined his head to the side, letting the medic know he would, at least, do his best.

The two agents nodded and left.

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

Less than an hour later JD had unearthed the registration records for the Flaming Arrow and had them up on the computer screen. "Here it is, guys," he called.

Buck and Ezra walked over, Vin joining them a few moments later.

"Curious," the undercover man said. "Why would a boat owned by a corporation in Singapore, with a U.S. subsidiary in San Francisco, be in a lake in Colorado?"

"Maybe someone was vacationing up here," Buck suggested.

"Monterey, Big Sur, yes, even Mazatlán or Acapulco," Ezra replied, "but not Colorado."

"Maybe it's just a tax write-off," JD offered.

"Who owns the San Francisco subsidiary?" Standish questioned.

JD shrugged. "Don't know yet, the computer's still searching."

Ezra checked the clock. "I'd better be off."

"Be careful," Buck told him as Standish grabbed his tailored jacket and pulled it on.

"I am always careful, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra replied and headed out for his meeting with Whitesides.

The other three men settled back to wait again, each of them hoping the computer might give them some answers.

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

Tuesday, 10 a.m.

Museum of Science and Nature

Ezra purchased a cup of coffee and took a seat at one of the round tables in the large open space in front of the deli and waited. He was almost half finished when Whitesides walked up and sat down across from him.

"I hope you have a satisfactory explanation for what occurred yesterday at the lake," he said testily.

Whitesides glanced around a little nervously, then looked back at Ezra and said, "I have no idea what Landry was thinking yesterday."

Standish snorted derisively. "Surely you don't expect me to believe that, do you, Benton?"

"I'm telling you the truth, Styles," the older man said. Benton Whitesides was a tall, broad-shouldered man in his early sixties. His strong features and salt and pepper gray hair gave him an air of authority that he used to full advantage. But it was his background, a life of privilege, money, and education that made him dangerous as a growing militia leader. The older man huffed out a breath and said quietly, "I have lost my son, Mr. Styles, and not to your bullets."

Ezra frowned slightly. "I don't understand."

"Landry had fallen into a coarse crowd. He met them in the clubs he frequented. He began taking drugs there, I'm sure of it. I tried to rectify the situation, but the boy was always more than a handful. He began to associate with, well, with street trash – immigrant rabble and the worst of the lowlife in Purgatory. I have no doubt that he intended to steal the arms you had for me in order to raise money for his drug habit."

"Oh, please, Benton, you can do better than that," Ezra sneered. "Landry has his own—"

"No, he doesn't. I cut him off when I saw who he was associating with. He was sleeping with a black whore, for God's sake!" He reined in his temper and glanced around, only a few of the closest patrons having noticed his outburst.

"You cut off your own son?"

Benton nodded. "I had no choice. The drugs were killing him, killing the good young man I'd made. He was running with the very people I am determined to rid this country of."

"Why us?" Standish demanded. "Why target us?"

"You were timely, convenient. He knew about the meeting, and he knew what the weapons were worth."

"And you, Benton?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are we now on your assassination list for killing your son?"

Whitesides' gray eyes flashed, but he said, "No. You did what you had to do, I understand that. You were attacked, you responded. I hold the man making this new street drug, this poison that addicted my son, responsible."

"And our business deal?"

"I'm prepared to complete it."

"I see," Ezra replied. "I'll have to discuss it with my associates. We lost a man as well."

"I understand. If I don't hear from you within forty-eight hours, I'll have to find another source."

Ezra nodded his understanding.

Whitesides stood and paused, looking down at the man he knew as Victor Styles. "I've lost my son to the filth this country's government allows to roam free in our streets. I will not lose another one. You and your friends have always seemed to understand my position. I hope that hasn't changed." And then he turned and stalked off.

A few moments later Josiah and Nathan joined Ezra at his table, Standish saying, "He said he had no idea what Landry planned."

"Do you believe him?" Josiah asked him.

"I'm not sure," Ezra replied, "but I think I might."

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

Federal Building

1:30 p.m.

The trail Dunne eventually uncovered led through a long string of holding companies, umbrella corporations, and intricate stock deals that took the young agent and Ezra over an hour to sort out. Finally, a common name began to appear.

"Otto Blitzer?" Buck muttered. "Sounds vaguely familiar, but I can't place it."

"It means nothing to me," Ezra stated. "Mr. Tanner, does the name mean anything to you?"

Vin shook his head.

"I'll see what I can dig up on him," JD said. "He's a citizen of Paraguay, so I'm not sure what I'll be able to find."

Josiah and Nathan returned a few minutes later, Sanchez announcing, "All of the men with Landry Whitesides were actually boys – fifteen to nineteen years old – and all of them street kids from the looks of their clothing and the state of their teeth and hygiene."

"Street kids?" Ezra questioned, then nodded. "That confirms what Benton told me. He said that Landry had fallen in with an unacceptable crowd. Still, I find that difficult to believe. Landry Whitesides, the entire Whitesides family, may very well be planning to overthrow the elected government, but they would never willingly mix with common street rabble."

"Drugs, especially an addiction, can change a person's entire personality," Nathan said.

"I'm just telling you what the ME told us," Josiah said. "And after taking a look at their personal effects, I think he's right. Those kids look like they came right off the streets of Purgatory."

Nathan nodded. "A couple of 'em even had old breaks that hadn't been set properly. And there were traces of a new street-drug cocktail in their systems. DEA and DPD are supposed to send over what they have on it, which isn't much. The ME said he heard that they're callin' it 'beauty' on the streets. Supposed to be made by somebody who calls himself the 'Gatekeeper.'"

Vin's head came up at that. "Heard a couple of the kids in the buildin' talkin' 'bout that guy," he said. "Some pied piper who's cookin' up a new drug and handin' it out fer free if the kids'll let him cut 'em up a little."

The pained, disgusted looks on the men's faces made it clear what they thought about that little nugget of information, but the situation was, unfortunately, all too familiar in Purgatory to really surprise them.

"I still have a difficult time imaging any of the Whitesides suffering the company of a gang of street rats," Ezra said. "But if Benton was telling me the truth, then it would appear that Landry had fallen under this 'Gatekeeper's' sway."

"Landry and the other boys all had shallow scars in various stages of healing," Josiah added. "So it sounds like this guy is for real."

"Hey, guys, I've got something on Blitzer," JD called. "A lot of his people have been indicted for various illegal operations, even got an occasional conviction on some of his biggest stockholders, but it looks like no one has been able to tie Blitzer himself to anything."

It wasn't hard for the agents to read between the lines, and they quickly concluded that Blitzer was not only criminally inclined, but incredibly clever about avoiding any direct association with the various operations he was involved in.

"So, what's somebody as rich as Otto Blitzer doing involved in an arms deal with the likes of Benton Whitesides?" JD asked them.

"They share the same socio-economic status and the same circle of friends and acquaintances, one might surmise," Standish offered.

"Yeah, but there has to be more to it than what we're seeing," Buck replied. "This Blitzer guy is too smart to be involved in something that might endanger his empire. And Whitesides might be a crazy millennialist, but he hasn't gone off-shore before."

"It might be that Benton sees Otto as a stepping stone to bigger deals," Ezra said. "He had been hinting that his plans were proceeding more quickly than he'd hoped before our ill-fated meeting yesterday."

"But where does Landry fit in?" Nathan asked rhetorically. He looked at Ezra, asking, "He hasn't been all that involved in his father's business from what you've said."

"No, he hasn't appeared to be," Standish said. "Griffin is being groomed to take over after his father, and Marisol, being a young woman, is marginalized. Landry, from what I observed while undercover, seems willing to do his father's bidding, so long as it doesn't interfere with his pursuit of a good time. Of all of the family members, he was the one least committed to his father's twisted ideals of Arian purity and Christian militarism."

"Which could also explain why he turned to drugs," Josiah added. "If he's not committed, then living with his father would be incredibly stressful. He could have turned to the drugs as an escape."

"But why'd he show up at the meet?" Buck asked the undercover man. "Why attack the people helping his father?"

"Benton suggested Landry wanted to abscond with the weapons and sell them for drug money," Ezra replied and frowned. "There are so many other ways he could have gotten drug money, though."

"Landry might have been acting out," Josiah added. "He was telling his father that he didn't buy his ideological crap by short-circuiting one of daddy's deals."

"So, where do we go now?" JD asked when Ezra was seated at Chris's desk, the receiver to his ear.

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

"The question is: what does Blitzer have to do with Whitesides' militia?" Ezra asked quietly.

"I didn't see any connections to Whitesides in the paper-trail," JD said, "but I'll double-check." He swung back to face the computer monitor.

"Yeah, dig a little deeper on Blitzer and Whitesides," Buck said.

"They've got something cooking between the two of them," Ezra said.

"Better check this pied piper guy, too," Vin added quietly.

Josiah nodded. "Nathan and I will see what we can find out about this new crowd of Landry's," he offered.

"And about this Gatekeeper guy and his new drug," Jackson added.

"Don't it seem strange t' any of y' that they didn't kill me and Ez?" Vin asked them. "That as soon as Chris… went overboard, they turned tail and ran?"

Jackson's eyes narrowed with thought. "Yeah, if they were after the guns to get drug money, maybe the ones on the boat panicked once Landry went down," he suggested.

"Maybe there weren't enough of them left on the boat to take us on," Buck said. "Their ringleader was down, we were on the way, they might have just panicked and run."

"Or maybe Whitesides did find out we were ATF," JD said. "The man could be playing us. And if he did find out, he'd want Chris's head, right?"

Nathan nodded. "Especially after we killed that deal he had going with Kroger back in March."

"Blitzer and Whitesides have money and connections; if either one of them had wanted Chris dead for some reason, they could've hired professional hit men, just like Kroger did in March," Josiah argued. "Whitesides might have his assassination list, but he hasn't been tied to any hits that we know of. And Landry certainly hasn't…"

"There's got to be some connection between Blitzer and Whitesides," Buck argued. "Some connection that includes Chris, because we know Landry and Chris didn't have a history."

"And I doubt a drug dealer would come after an ATF agent," Standish added with a sigh. "We'd be no threat to him."

"Most obvious answer is Whitesides found out who we really are an' had Landry hire a bunch 'a street kids willin' t' take on a suicide mission if they got paid enough t' buy the drugs they's hooked on," Vin said, then stood abruptly and hurried away, muttering something under his breath about needing to get some air.

JD sighed sadly. "I'll do some more digging, see what I can find, but I don't know if there's much left." He turned back to his computer.

Buck and Josiah looked from Dunne to the doorway leading out into the hallway.

"We better go see if we can find him," Buck said.

Josiah nodded.

Ezra and Nathan watched the two men go, Standish saying, "I think Benton told me what he believes is the truth. He thinks of us as kindred spirits. Although we have to consider that Landry might have learned the truth about us somehow. He might have thought he was protecting his father by coming after us."

"Or maybe his daddy was right about him just wanting drug money," Nathan countered. "If he was a junkie, the drugs are going to be the most important thing in his life."

"Perhaps, but in this business I've come to assume that nothing is what it appears to be."

"Nothing except his pain," Nathan said, nodding in the direction Vin had taken.

"Too true, Mr. Jackson, too true."

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

Monday night through Tuesday night

It had started out fairly simple. Seiler had left Larabee with the two teens after telling them to "Enlighten Christopher to the beauty of pain."

That proved to be some kind of a code for the boys to beat the agent nearly senseless. And, somewhere along the way, a third boy joined them, although, much to Larabee's surprise, he turned out to be reticent about participating in the beating, even when ordered to do so by the other two. When his blows had landed, they were light and ineffectual.

Seiler, for his part, stood back, watching. "Yes, yes," he told the boys, "you must first shatter his concentration, disrupt his mind's ability to ignore pain, real pain that can shape his soul and draw out the beauty hiding there… under the skin. A beauty so powerful, so breathtaking it can restore life… restore the one I have been dreaming of all this time."

And, over the course of the following hours, sessions where "real pain" was employed took place. The worst was Seiler's use of an electronic stunner, applied to every conceivable inch of the agent's body.

Larabee screamed and thrashed, vomited and lost control of his bowels and bladder, but the pain didn't kill him. It wasn't beautiful, either, as far as he was concerned. Chris fought back as best he could, using insults and obscenities to no effect. Seiler was immune to them all, lost in his own world, ranting and raving about truth and beauty and eternal life.

Chris's existence quickly narrowed to surviving each encounter with the madman and his sidekicks. He knew the rest of his team would be looking for him, and he knew they'd find him, eventually. He just hoped they found him soon, because he wasn't at all certain he could hold out much longer.

And then Seiler and the teens were gone and he was alone. Alone and hurting and scared, but, thankfully, still alive.

He lay where he'd fallen last, trying to catch his breath as his body began to shiver. They had cut his clothes off of him early on, at Seiler's orders, and now that the sweat was drying on his skin in the cool room, icy fingers were digging into his aching muscles and drilling into his bones, squeezing both until it forced tears from the corners of his eyes.

Come on, guys, Vin , he called silently. Where are you?

He licked his lips, the taste of blood making his stomach twist. God, he was thirsty, but they hadn't left him anything to drink.

He forced himself to his feet and inspected the cell, searching for a way out, but there was nothing. With a sigh he lowered himself to the cold floor and leaned his head back against the wall. At least it was August. It wouldn't get cold enough to kill him, but he still couldn't stop the shivers that left his teeth chattering.

Shock , he realized. Or something like it. Great. Anytime, boys .

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

Wednesday, August 3rd

4:20 a.m.

Later, although Larabee had no idea how much time had passed since he'd been left alone, Seiler stepped back into the cell. He began pacing around the blond, steps short and clipped.

"She's angry with you, Christopher. You know that, don't you? Oh yes, very, very angry."

Chris tried to tune out the man, but the sing-song cadence of his voice cut through his pain and rang inside his head, impossible to ignore. He wasn't sure how, but he knew Seiler was talking about Sarah, his wife, the woman he'd loved. The woman he still loved. The very same woman Seiler had wanted to kill so many years ago.

"She had so much to live for, Christopher, so much to offer the world."

"How the hell would you know?" he snarled. "You would've killed her!"

"No. Oh no, you're wrong, Christopher," Seiler hissed, then smiled benevolently. "No…" He paced across the small room, reaching up to rub his hands over the bare grey wall, stroking the surface like it was alive and responding to his touch. "I wouldn't have killed her… not her, Christopher. No. No, I would have made her immortal! I would have freed her soul and made her an angel, a goddess!"

"You killed women," Chris said, snapping out each word like a slap to the man's face. "You raped and tortured them and when you were done getting your sick kicks, you cut them up and you killed them!"

Panting, Larabee blinked through the strands of hair that fell across his eyes. Although the gritty concrete floor was still cool against his bare skin, sweat was beading on his forehead, blurring his vision whenever it ran down and dripped into his eyes.

Seiler shook his head. "No, no, no," he said. "You don't understand, Christopher. You never understood. Nobody did!" He walked to the door, opened it and stepped out, yelling something. Then he stepped back inside and looked down at Larabee. "She would have understood me. Yes, yes, oh, yes, she would have understood me. Pain is nothing more than a pathway to illumination."

"A pathway to hell," Larabee snapped back.

"I am a gatekeeper; I purified them. I did. I showed them the way to immortality. They live forever now, but Sarah, ah, sweet Sarah… she would have been my masterwork. I could have made her a goddess, with the power of life and death. I still can, you know."

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

The cry of dry hinges snapped Larabee's attention back into focus. One of the boys had returned, this time carrying a wooden box and a jar half full of a greenish liquid. Seiler took both objects, smiling as he set box and jar down on the small table. Then he twisted the lid off the jar, and sniffed the contents.

Larabee frowned. When had they brought that table in? And the wall, the grey wall Seiler had been stroking like it was a lover earlier was now covered with black lines, marking out some kind of incomprehensible design the agent couldn't discern.

Opening the wooden box, Seiler extracted paints, paintbrushes and an old fashioned, single-edged razor. Two of the teens, the same two who had beaten him earlier, inched into the room, their shoulders pressed tightly together as they tried to remain unnoticed. Their glassy eyes shone with evil delight as they licked their lips in anticipation of what was to come.

"Put him back in the chair," Seiler instructed them softly, almost dancing over to admire his work thus far. And, when he was finished, he turned and walked over to where Larabee now sat.

"You're crazy," Chris snarled, the dryness in his throat making his voice rough.

Seiler laughed. "Yes, I know you think I am, Christopher. They all did. But not Sarah. No, not my sweet, beautiful Sarah. She knew the truth, you know. Sarah did. Genius and madness are often confused. Sad, really. So much beauty, so much wisdom, lost to misconception, but I will bring it back. I'll bring it all back. And you, you my dear Christopher, will walk the same path she would have walked. You will walk in beauty… to prepare the path for Him. And when he comes, he will bring her back to me. You'll see. He will bring me my sweet, sweet Sarah, and I will make her a goddess."

Chris shuddered, trying not to imagine Sarah facing this madman. He just had to hang on until the others found him. It couldn't be much longer now.

Seiler giggled, the wild, absurd sound grating on Larabee's nerves. "Oh, Christopher, I can see it in your eyes. You think your men are coming for you. Oh no. No, no, no. Your men think you're dead, Christopher, just as you believe sweet Sarah is dead, but you are both wrong."

Chris ground his teeth together, refusing to be baited.

"They won't find you. No, never find you. They are not even looking. You belong to me now, Christopher, and I will paint the beauty of your pain. I am the gatekeeper. I will open the way for His return, with Sarah, my sweet, sweet Sarah…"

Seiler stepped over to the small table and set the razor down for a moment. He walked back to Larabee and ran his hands over the agent's chest, then smeared the bloody sweat on his palms across a portion of the wall.

"Can you imagine the pain they're feeling right now, Christopher? Thinking that you're dead? Oh yes, they're hurting, they are." He glanced at the two boys and snapped, "Get the newspaper."

The pair stumbled over each other on their way out to do his bidding, but they returned quickly, one of them holding out a copy of the Denver Post .

"Read it to him. But just the sections I've highlighted," Seiler said, picking up his pallet of paints and a brush, returning to his work and adding more sick colors to it, color mixing with sweat and blood.

One of the boys unfolded the paper, and started reading: "ATF Agent feared dead. Special Agent Chris Larabee is believed dead after a shootout on Granby Lake…" He stopped and giggled, his friend poking him in the ribs when Seiler shot them a dark glower. "Local authorities continue to search the lake for the missing agent's body," the boy continued. "Special Agent Vin Tanner, a member of Larabee's team, told authorities that he fired at an attacker who was attempting to kill Agent Larabee, but was struck by an assailant at the same time, causing him to shoot Larabee instead."

Chris's eyes flashed. Shit! If Vin really thinks he killed me… But Larabee's thoughts were interrupted when Seiler stepped up to him and he felt the first feather-light touch of the razor against his skin. He hissed and jerked, but swallowed the pain.

The sound of the glass jar as it scraped along the top of the table followed, then Larabee screamed as the liquid inside was poured over the newly opened cut, burning him like someone had set the wound on fire.

Seiler threw back his head, laughing hysterically as he continued to open shallow cuts on Larabee's body, pouring the liquid into each of them. And each time he did, Larabee cried out, even after he'd ground his teeth together.

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

It took an hour or more before Seiler was finished, but it felt like days had passed to Chris. Then the madman walked out without a backward glance at his victim or the painting that was beginning to be filled in.

Shrugging, the two boys untied Chris and let him fall into a limp pile on the floor. The blond looked up at the painting looming over him, its shape finally becoming clear to the agent. It was a demon, a huge, hideous demon… with Robert Seiler's inhuman, mad eyes.

The reticent third boy joined them, asking quietly, "Think we should feed him something? Maybe give him some water? It's been a couple of days now."

The other two boys looked down at Larabee and shrugged. "Feed him if you want to," one said, then kicked Chris in the ribs, laughing at the resulting grunt of pain.

Larabee pulled himself into a tighter ball, trying to protect himself if the boys continued to attack.

But the boys who had watched his encounter with Seiler quickly lost interest in him. One handed the nearly empty jar to the third. "There's a pepper left in there, man. Give him that if he's hungry." And with that they left, laughing.

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

Thursday, August 4th

1 a.m.

Some time later, Chris rolled over to lie on his back, staring up at the naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. The light stayed on all the time and he'd already lost track of time. On the wall, the painting still loomed over him. More of it was filled in now, but he couldn't remember Seiler coming back to work on it. But then it was getting hard to remember much of anything.

He wanted to climb to his feet, walk over, and piss all over the damn monstrosity, but he doubted he could even crawl that far at the moment. He hurt all over, the pain shifting constantly in patterns that followed the lines of the shallow incisions covering his body. He knew for certain now that Seiler planned to kill him, slowly, in some weird revenge for Sarah's death. Or maybe he really believed that killing him would bring her back. A small price to pay, really, but he didn't want her to come back if she was going to end up in Seiler's clutches.

He sighed softly and closed his eyes, which had filled with unshed tears. God, he missed her. And he hurt, God, he hurt… and he was exhausted, and hungry, and thirsty… and he knew what Vin must be going through, which hurt his heart almost as much as his aching body did.

The door opened again, but Chris didn't bother to open his eyes and look up. No doubt Seiler was back to work on his "masterpiece" some more. Once the painting was finished, Seiler would kill him. Until then, he would make him suffer so his "pain" could be "used to bring out the beauty of the painting, create the gateway," and "pave the way for Him to return with my sweet, sweet Sarah."

It could almost be funny if it didn't hurt so damn much – his pain, being used to infuse the fucking painting of a demon with, of all things, beauty…

But he didn't hear the sounds of paintbrushes on the cement wall, or the soft, mad mutterings of Seiler, so he forced his eyes open.

It was the third boy.

"Roll over," the teen said.

"You gonna make me?" Larabee snarled, in no mood to be cooperative with his captors.

The boy just sighed and reached out, gently helping the agent to sit up so he could began applying a liquid to the cuts on the man's body. The smell registered as the pain began to fade – anesthetic.

Chris studied his benefactor more closely. He was a Latino, although his skin was light enough to pass for Caucasian if it wasn't for his black hair and eyes. He was also a little older than Larabee had first thought; he wasn't sure exactly how old, but he guessed between nineteen and twenty-one. He had the sunken look of a long-time addict.

"Why?" he asked the young man.

"Story would take too long," he replied. "Seiler's crazy."

"You don't have to convince me."

"He's going to kill you."

"Really? I hadn't guessed," Larabee replied a little more sarcastically than he'd intended. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Nothing," the man said softly, sadly. "There's nothing I can do."

"Get word to my men. Tell them where I am."

He shook his head. "I can't."

"Then help me get out of here."

The young man hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. "He'll kill me if I help you."

"You're helping me now."

The boy stood.

"At least tell me your name."

"Gilberto," he said and handed Chris a glass of water, which Larabee drank down in three huge gulps. "I'll try and bring you more, and something to eat if Seiler sleeps."

"What about the other two?"

"They're getting high, but there are others guarding the door if you're thinking about trying to escape." He started for the door.

"How long have I been here?"

The young man stopped, but he didn't turn around. "Almost four days."

Four days? Jesus, it feels more like four weeks , Chris thought as he watched Gilberto's fingers curl around the door knob. "Thanks," he called.

The young man nodded and started to leave.


He stopped, but didn't turn to look back at Chris.

"How old are you?"

"Sixteen," the boy said, then slipped away.

Jesus , Chris thought. What had happened to the boy to age him like that? But he already knew the answer: Robert Seiler.

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

Friday, August 5th

4 a.m.

He was back on the boat, during the firefight, and everything was moving in slow motion. He could see Chris and the thug, fighting; see the knife, slashing close to Chris's throat.

He took careful aim at the man, but then, as if it had a mind of its own, the gun jumped in his hand to aim directly at Chris and he watched, with growing horror, unable to stop himself from pulling the trigger.

In the slow-moving world of his dream, Vin had time to realize what was happening. He had the time to watch Chris turn toward him and meet his eyes, smiling slightly at him.

Then the bullet reached Larabee, and Vin watched as Chris jerked, a blossom of blood spreading across the center of his chest.

Chris's expression changed, too, first confused, and then twisted into a painful grimace. The intense green eyes met Vin's again, this time questioning, accusing. Then the blond's knees buckled and he staggered back against the railing, crumpling, falling into the cold lake water and slipping under the surface. . .

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

Vin awoke with a jerk and a gasp. He cursed softly in the darkness. It was the same, always the same, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

He lay there, panting for breath, sweat running off his skin, tears leaking out of the corners of his eyes. The image of Larabee, staring at him, silently asking him why he'd killed him, refused to leave his mind.

He'd already started to avoid sleeping, but exhaustion drove him to it. And, as soon as he did, the dreams would come, driving him awake again.

He'd tried grabbing naps at the office the last couple of days, but the dreams found him there just as easily as they did in his apartment in Purgatory, or out here at the ranch.

And now, after several days, he was sluggish and short-tempered and avoiding the others whenever he could. And they, in turn, had backed off and given him his space, probably at Josiah's urging. It was hardest on Nathan, who, Vin could see, wanted to help him, but there was nothing the medic could do. There was nothing any of them could do.

Still, they tried. There was always something in the fridge at work to tempt him, and someone had stopped by his apartment to stock his fridge there, too, as well as out here at the ranch.

And, if he did drop off to sleep at work, it stayed quiet until the dreams drove him awake once more.

But worse than the dreams were the pitying looks he got from other agents, or the sad, sympathetic glances from the secretaries. He didn't respond to any of them, knowing he couldn't bear to hear them speak about his loss. So he made sure he got in early and stayed late, hiding in Larabee's office to avoid as many people as possible. But it seemed that no matter when he came in or left, one of the others was already there.

He knew they were doing all they could to track down the connections between Blitzer and Whitesides, but he'd stopped listening to the discussions. Chris's name was coming up less frequently, life moving on in subtle ways that filled Tanner with dread.

But for him, Larabee was the only thing on his mind. He drove out to the man's ranch every day to check on the horses. He fed them, groomed them, and made sure they had water and exercise. He started the Ram's engine, letting it run a few minutes. He checked the rooms for any signs of a break-in, and when he was done, he returned to the living room and lay down on the couch. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine Chris was in the kitchen, making them something for a late supper. But there were no smells of spaghetti sauce simmering, or coffee brewing.

He drifted off to sleep lying there, only to bolt awake calling Larabee's name, which rang hollowly in the empty house.

He hated the way the house itself seemed to reflect the emptiness he felt in his soul, taunting him with the echo. On nights like that he would sit there most of the night, finally driving home in the early hours of the morning, forcing himself to go to bed, and knowing as he did that he'd be awake a short time later.

Living no longer described what he was doing. He existed, and nothing more.

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

Saturday, August 6th

2 a.m.

The only respite Chris got came late at night. The two giggling teens, Billy and Kev, which Larabee guessed was short for Kevin, had been tasked with keeping him awake at night, but they eventually got too high while they worked, and when they did, they stumbled off to sleep, leaving him lying on the dank concrete floor. But he took advantage of those few precious hours, forcing himself to sleep whenever he could, for as long as he could.

Seiler had given one of the two boys the stunner and they both took perverse pleasure in using it on him, giggling as he twitched and moaned. A few times Chris knew he'd been reduced to mumbling his name, rank and serial number, his SEAL training reasserting itself even when all else had failed him. Luckily, the two boys weren't particularly imaginative, but Seiler made up for their lack, returning each day to continue work on his "masterpiece," determined to drag Larabee into the insanity in which he lived.

He hadn't seen Gilberto in a while, and occasionally wondered if he'd gotten caught trying to bring him food or water. He hoped not. The kid was the only one he might be able to convince to help him. And he needed help, soon. He could feel the edges of his sanity beginning to fray.

The squeal of hinges announced Seiler's return, and he had his paints. Larabee wanted to groan, but didn't dare. The madman set to work immediately, Chris's weak cries quickly filling the room.

Billy and Kev came in and sat on the floor, watching, their eyes alight with excitement and longing to hurt him.

When Seiler finished and began dabbing his brush into Larabee's blood, mixing it with his paints and applying it to the walls, the demon almost complete now, one of the boys scooted over to the moaning agent and jabbed a needle into his arm and slammed down the plunger.

Chris felt a rush of liquid fire streak through his veins, and then nothing as he tumbled straight into the hell he was living.

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

Sunday, August 7th

1 a.m.

The demon looking down at him wouldn't let him sleep. It was watching him. He had to escape, but there was no way out. He was in Hell, and there was no escape from Hell – Eternal torment, that's what he had to look forward to.

It was what he deserved.

He'd killed her. Killed Sarah. And the demon wouldn't let him forget it.

He heard the door swing open and flinched unconsciously, hoping it wasn't the laughing man, the gatekeeper, he called himself. He thought maybe the man had another name, but he couldn't remember it any more.

It wasn't the gatekeeper. It was a boy, alone and looking frightened. The teen knelt down next to him, asking, "Can you get up?"

"I— I think so," he rasped out as the teen cut the ropes binding his wrists and ankles. He rolled over and got to his hands and knees, but that was as far as he could go on his own, and he had to rely on the boy to help him to his feet.

"We've gotta get out of here," the teen said softly, intently.

"Who are you?" Chris asked him, then sucked in a sharp breath when he felt the muscles over his bruised ribs tighten.

"The warehouse is on fire. We've got to go – now ."

"Fire?" he echoed, fear rushing through his gut. Hellfire. He would be burning in hellfire for eternity, the grinning demon watching him, hurting him, reminding him over and over that he'd killed Sarah, his angel, his sweet, sweet Sarah.

"Come on, it's gonna go up fast. I spread some gas around."

"Huh?" was all he said, not really hearing the boy's words. Hands pushed him and he stumbled along through what looked like an old warehouse, letting the boy lead the way. Smoke seeped along the floor, turning into snakes that twined about his ankles, trying to bind him there. Around him he could hear the crackle of flames eating away at the structure, eating their way toward him. The demon was coming, fire was his weapon, fire that shot though his veins and exploded inside his head, his gut. The fire was eating his flesh off his bones, burning him, killing him. He screamed.

"Shut up!" the teen hissed, slapping him hard across the face.

"Can't escape Hell, kid," he told the boy, but the teen only grabbed his arm and jerked him along faster.

They turned a corner and were met by thicker smoke filling a hallway, choking him, making his eyes tear. He could see the dancing shadows at the end of the corridor and knew the demon was waiting for him there.

There was no way out of Hell.

But the teen continued to hurry him along, pushing, shoving, dragging, then he stopped.

He fought for a breath, but his lungs were on fire and he was blind. He could hear the demon, hear the sound of his breathing, smell the stench of it, like a sewer. He was leaning against a wall, the bricks warm from the fire and getting hotter so it could eat away at his skin.

He moaned and tried to beat off the snakes climbing up his body, but the boy stopped him, slapping him again, giving him a hard shake that snapped his head back against the wall. Stars exploded in front of his eyes, but he saw it anyway: a door. The kid had found the door to escape Hell after all. He laughed as a blast of clean air swept over Larabee, reviving him enough to realize that he was naked, and pissing down his own leg. This couldn't be happening. He couldn't escape from Hell. No one could.

But he watched as the teen checked to see if the coast was clear, and apparently it was, because a moment later he was being hustled past the same door. They stumbled out into an alley that reeked of stale beer and urine and he had to stop and vomit. Then the kid half-carried him, half-guided him into another building. A few moments later he heard the sound of sirens approaching.

Sirens? His heart jumped and beat faster. Sirens. Help.

Help… please help me , he moaned softly to himself, but he couldn't make his body cooperate, couldn't get his feet to move.

The snakes.

The snakes must have found him. They were holding him here. The demon would come now. It would carry him back to Hell.

He struggled, lunging for a window, but before he could ask the boy to help him, he collapsed, darkness and fear sweeping him away from freedom.

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

2:45 a.m.

When consciousness returned, he had to fight back a sudden surge of panic. It was dark, the air stale and too warm. He was back! He was back in Hell!

It took a while, but he finally realized he was moving.

A trunk? Yes, he was in the trunk of a moving car.

Memories returned, fractured and distorted. Gilberto… a fire… escape.

Reaching up, he pushed against the trunk lid, but it was latched and he was too weak to beat on it. He gagged and coughed, some of the exhaust seeping into the too-close space. His head pounded, flashes of color exploding in front of his eyes.

He swallowed thickly several times, then retched. "No, no, no," he moaned. They'd found him. They were taking him back. He was going back to Hell. "No, no no…"

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

3:35 a.m.

Gilberto opened the trunk and stared down at the battered, unconscious blond inside. He wasn't sure if Larabee was alive or dead until he reached out and shook the man's shoulder, the movement causing the man to flinch away from the touch.

"Easy," Gilberto said soothingly. "I'm sorry. Please, we have to get you out of there."

He revived enough to climb out of the trunk, but slipped, his head and shoulder striking the rear bumper.

Gilberto tried to stop it from happening, but he wasn't strong enough. However, he did keep the man from striking the ground. The boy grunted as he pulled him up, wrestling him until he was on his feet and staggering alongside the boy as he made his way toward a small house.

A house?

Not Hell, then.

He glanced around at the run down neighborhood, but he didn't recognize it. He wasn't sure why he was there, either, or if it was actually there at all. Maybe it was just a dream. He might be dreaming, the demon watching over him like he had been for so long. Watching, waiting… waiting… to what? Kill him? To hurt him again?

To laugh.

Yes, that was it. He made the demon laugh… that terrible, terrible sound… pain and fear and laughter, they were all wrapped up in his head.

"No," he gasped, trying to stop, but Gilberto continued to half-carry, half-drag him along to the back door of the house.

"Shh," was all the boy said.

The door opened a moment later, although no lights came on, and Gilberto guided him inside, speaking to someone softly in Spanish.

"This is the man I told you about."

"Yes. Bring him downstairs."

He was led to another door, then guided down a flight of stairs to a room in a basement. The light that was on there was dim, casting weak shadows across what looked like a doctor's office from closer to the beginning of the twentieth century rather than the end of it.

He was forced up onto the examination table, and he sagged back with a long, low moan as the agony in his head exploded. "No— No more," he gasped. "No."

Another sudden stab inside his skull swept him back into the blackness.

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

Monday, August 8th

7:45 a.m.

"I have… I have t' make a call," he said weakly, unable to open his eyes. But he could hear someone moving around in the room. "Please."

He forced his eyes open and hesitated, knowing that the older woman staring down at him couldn't understand a word he was saying to her, and his Spanish was limited, at best. Still, he had to try. "Telephone. I need a telephone."

She shook her head, but he wasn't sure if she was telling him there wasn't one, or she simply didn't understand what he was trying to say.

He tried to sit up, but the agony that flared in his head was more than enough to make him stop.

She clucked sadly at him and shook her head. Taking a damp cloth, she wiped his brow and spoke softly. "Easy. You are hurt. Rest. The doctor will be back shortly."

He closed his eyes, wondering again where he was, how he'd gotten there, and why the hell did he hurt all over?

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

8:15 a.m.

Although he hated to do it, Buck knew he didn't have a choice, it had been a week now.

Walking over to the door of Larabee's office he paused, took a deep breath to steel himself, and then pushed the door open and entered. The room seemed unnaturally quiet as he set the empty box he was carrying down on one of the chairs and glanced around.

Where should he start?

He sighed, deciding on the walls. And, walking over, he began taking down the certificates, pictures, and other items hanging there. Each one triggered a memory and after four or five, he had to stop.

"Need a hand, brother?" Josiah asked him from the doorway.

Buck slumped back against the desk and shook his head, but then he said, "Yeah, I guess I do."

Josiah nodded and walked in. He stopped at one wall and began removing the pictures hanging there. "You want to talk?"

Buck thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Wouldn't know what to say right now, Josiah."

The older man nodded again, knowing that, when he was ready, Buck would talk. It was in his nature to share his feelings – joy or grief. Vin, on the other hand, he worried about. Tanner was still holding everything inside, and he just wasn't sure the younger man had room for any more grief in his soul.

Buck pushed off the desk and went back to work and, slowly, beginning with stories about the individual pictures, he began to talk and, in the process, grieve.

Before too long, JD and Nathan had joined them, and then Ezra. Boxes were filled, memories were shared, and each of the men was able to say goodbye, although none of them really wanted to. But the limbo that they had existed in was too painful to sustain any longer.

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

11:10 a.m.

He was late again, just like he had been all last week. But he couldn't seem to make it in any earlier. Vin stepped into the office and stopped, watching the five men in Chris's office, but he couldn't bring himself to go in and join them. He wanted to be mad about them cleaning out Chris's office, but he couldn't work up the effort. At least now, when the time came, they'd be able to hand over the man's stuff to his family, or whoever it was supposed to go to.

They'd have to do the same at the house as well, at some point. He couldn't imagine that. He wouldn't be able to be there when that happened, he knew that. How could he, when it was his fault Chris was dead? He knew better than any of them that the man wasn't coming back, but, at the same time, he had no idea how to move forward. Not until they had a body, at the very least.

And even then, what would he do?

What could he do?

Go back to bounty hunting? Stay at the ATF and work under another team leader? He couldn't imagine either scenario.


He jerked under Wilmington's light touch, quickly brushing at the hot tears that were running down his cheeks. How had they gotten there? "Huh? What?" he snapped.

The ladies' man took a step back to give him some breathing room. "We're, uh, finished in the office," he said softly. "I got a call from Chris's lawyer… He wants to see us all in his office this afternoon. You up to it?"

The last thing he wanted to do was go, but he couldn't very well say no, so he nodded.

"Good," Buck said. "We're, uh, gonna stop for some lunch on the way over."

"Ain't hungry," Tanner said flatly.

"Well, get some coffee, then, because I am hungry and I could hear JD's stomach growling in there."

Vin nodded, but he didn't look up and meet any of the other's eyes as they came out to join them. Buck and Nathan led the way out of the bullpen, Josiah and JD next, and Vin and Ezra bringing up the rear.

The undercover agent grabbed Vin's jacket from off his chair and carried it with him, just in case Tanner needed it later. He'd noticed Vin couldn't seem to get warm any more.

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

12:20 p.m.

They stopped at one of Vin's favorite burger places, but the sniper only picked at his food, eating no more than a few bites. Ezra quietly asked the waitress to box up what was left and she did, handing it to him to take.

They arrived at the lawyer's office, a small Victorian house that had been converted into a business just after one, and were ushered in to a comfortable office with two long sofas and several chairs. They scattered, Vin picking the chair in the corner. He folded his arms over his chest and stared out the window into a well-tended backyard.

An older man came in, shaking hands with everyone except Vin, who didn't even seem to notice the man's arrival. He took a seat behind his desk, saying, "I'm Glen Graf, Mr. Larabee's personal lawyer. I'm very sorry that we have to meet under these circumstances, gentlemen."

Graf opened the file folder lying on his desk and took out six letters, passing them out to the men by calling their names.

Vin didn't look away from the window until he heard the lawyer call his. He glanced down, recognizing the writing on the envelope as Chris's. Why the hell had he left them all letters?

When it was clear that none of the men wanted to open their envelopes there, the lawyer cleared his throat and said, "Yes, well, you can read those at your leisure. We, uh, need to discuss the arrangements that Mr. Larabee outlined in his will…" He covered the basics quickly and efficiently. There were items that were to be set aside for his brother-in-law, each of the team, and some of their other friends, but the house, property, horses, and Dodge Ram were all left to Vin.

Tanner's head came up and the blood drained from his face when he heard what he already knew. "No," he said so softly that they almost didn't hear him. "I… I can't take 'em." And with that he stood and walked out.

The others stayed behind, listening to the rest of what Graf had to say, which was just that Chris wanted to be buried next to Sarah and Adam but, without a body, they would have to make do with just a headstone.

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

5:25 p.m.

"I just don't care no more, J'siah," Vin sighed softly. He was sitting in the older man's Suburban, still holding Larabee's letter, unopened. He reached up and rubbed his forehead.


Tanner nodded.


"Naw, ain't too bad."

Sanchez could see the sniper looked exhausted, but there was nothing he could do or say that would help the man sleep better at night. "I have some Advil," he offered. "For the headache."

Vin shook his head, then shrugged. "Nothin' seems t' help much any more."

Josiah nodded, then leaned back and started the motor, a sad, thoughtful expression on his face. He seriously doubted that Vin would be with them much longer. He'd already seen the way the younger man had started staring at the mountains, clearly wishing he could just run away. He only hoped that if Vin did have to leave them he found some peace out there in the wilderness, and that he came home once he did. But he had his doubts about Tanner making it back.

"Where do you want me to take you, your apartment?"

"No," Vin said softly. "Take me out t' the ranch."

Josiah nodded and pulled out of his parking space, suddenly hoping Vin lived long enough to get to those mountains. "Mind if we stop for something to eat?"

"Whatever you want," Vin said apathetically.

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

8:15 p.m.

The ranch. Chris's ranch. Now it was his ranch. He snorted derisively and shook his head. How ironic was that? He'd killed the man who had left most of his worldly possessions to him. What a joke.

A sad, sick joke.

He walked out to the barn and checked on the horses, tossing feed into the troughs in the attached corral. Then he walked over and sat down on some bales of hay stacked inside the building. The large doors were open, the sun slipping toward the mountains, but there was still plenty of light to read by.

He pulled the envelope, now folded into thirds, out of his pocket and held it for several long moments, staring at his name spelled out in Chris's clear, crisp handwriting. He really didn't want to do this, but he knew he couldn't sit there forever and he'd promised himself that he wasn't leaving until he opened and read the damn thing.

It took some effort, but he was able to force his fingers to open the envelope and pull out the single page of white paper inside. Whatever Chris had to say to him, he'd done it on a single page, because the back was blank.

Taking a deep breath, Vin forced himself to open the folds and smoothed them against his thigh. Then he turned the page over and began to read.

Dear Vin,

I was going to start all these letters the same way. Probably too dramatic, really: If you're reading this, I must be dead… But I feel like I have to start yours differently.

I'm sorry, Vin, I'm so damn sorry, because if I'm dead, and you're still alive, then I know you're blaming yourself. And I know there's no damn reason for it, because I know you, Tanner. You did everything you could to change whatever happened. I'm as sure of that as I am of my own name.

So I want you to listen to me. You did everything you could, so let it go and get on with life.

And if I died stupid, like in an auto accident, then there wasn't a damn thing you could have done about it, so there's no reason for you to be blaming yourself for something like that either. So stop, just stop. Please.

The tears that filled his eyes made it difficult to continue, but he wiped them away and forced himself to go on.

I guess you know by now that I'm leaving the ranch and the horses to you. You love this place as much as I do, so I know you'll take good care of it. I hope it brings you some of the happiness I've felt, living out here over the years.

To be honest, I'm not sure what to say to you, Vin. Words have never been something we've needed. The two people I've been closest to in my life, Sarah and you, are the two I haven't had to worry about words with. Hell, this is harder than I expected.

I guess what I'm trying to say is you're family, Vin. And I'm damn proud to have known and worked with you. To be honest, I'm not sure I would have made it if you hadn't come along and dragged me back into the land of the living. And you did it without even trying. Hell if I know how, but I want you to know that I appreciated it, even if I haven't told you. You've been my friend, my brother, my family – you and the others.

But you were my salvation. I know that sounds corny, but it's true. My soul was dead until I met you. But I've learned to live, and I think I've made a difference as a result. And I have you to thank for that.

I wish whatever happened hadn't, but since it has, I just want you to keep this in mind. You're a damn special man, Vin Tanner. And there are a lot of people out there who need you, so forget the guilt and have a great life. Find yourself a good woman to love, then marry her and raise some kids out here, okay? Sarah and Adam and I will be watching out for you until you get here, and then we'll have a party that'll rock the place off its foundation. I love you, Vin. Remember that, too. So please, don't do anything stupid. Or so help me, I'll kick your sorry ass right back, if you come looking for me.

Your friend,


Vin folded the letter up and put it back into the envelope, then folded that back into thirds and slipped it into his rear jean pocket. He didn't deserve the ranch, he didn't deserve the love and friendship that Chris had given him, and he sure as hell didn't deserve the label of "family."

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

11:45 p.m.

He slowly fought his way back to consciousness. He still wasn't sure where he was, but he was sure that wherever it was, he didn't want to be there. But he couldn't seem to stay awake longer than it took him to turn over, take a drink, or relieve himself.

This time, however, he lay, his eyes closed, and listened, but there didn't seem to be anyone around. Carefully, he cracked his eyes open and tried to see where he was. It wasn't the same room he'd been in before – there was no demon watching him, and he was laying in a real bed, both of which were definite improvements, but he still didn't know where he was.

And he needed to find a phone. He needed to call… who? Who did he need to call?

The lack of an answering name frightened him and he tried to sit up, but a blinding flash of agony sliced through his head, forcing him to lie back down.

He could remember a young man, a boy really… Gilberto! Yes, that was the boy's name. But he didn't need to call Gilberto.

Gilberto had helped him… somehow, but he couldn't remember how, or why.

Then a barrage of images flashed through his mind: a boat, a man with a knife who was trying to kill him, and another man, with long chestnut hair who had shot him?

Had he been shot? That might explain the way his body hurt, the way his head hurt.

He lay still, trying to find the gunshot wound by just thinking about his body, but the ache in his head made it impossible… unless the man had shot him in the head?

"Jesus Christ," he hissed, reaching up to feel his scalp and finding a bandage. Surely it must have been a glancing wound or there would be a thicker bandage, right?

He gulped in some air, trying to calm his stomach and his nerves. But it was a useless exercise as he began to realize the true extent of his confusion. He couldn't even remember his own name, nothing at all.

Slumping back against the mattress he silently prayed that he remembered something, anything . But there was only silence in his mind, and under it, the echo of laughter that chilled him to the core.

He forced himself to think about the things he did know, silently praying that the laughter would fade away.

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

Tuesday, August 9th

6:20 a.m.

He awoke, screaming, the images of a hideous demon seeping free of a painting and coming after him only slowly fading from his mind. He ran a trembling hand over his hair and realized that the bandage was gone. Carefully running his fingers through his hair again, he winced slightly when he found the wound.

It didn't feel like a gunshot graze, though, and he wondered briefly how he knew that, but he quickly pushed that fact aside: he had to get out of this place.

Sitting up slowly to keep the pain from erupting inside his skull, he waited a few moments, then stood and made his way over to a chair where some clothes lay, folded neatly. He dressed with deliberate care as he glanced around the room, trying to remember where he was and how he'd gotten there, but there were still only shadows in his mind, horrible, distorted shadows filled with guns and demons and laughing madmen, and the echoes of pain and hurt and loss.

He pulled on his shoes and made his way to the stairs. The climb was almost too much for him, but he forced himself on, finally reaching the top where he sagged back against the wall to catch his breath. His muscles shook and sweat dripped off his chin, but he knew he had to keep going, he had to escape.

The early morning sun made it easy for him to find the back door and he slipped out onto the porch, then staggered across the yard and out onto a broken sidewalk, heading away from the house as quickly as he could, his head down, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans.

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

8:40 a.m.

He shuffled along, turning onto streets at random, trying to find something that might tell him where he was. He passed small shops and businesses, their names Spanish. And the people he passed were Latino for the most part, older men and women hurrying to work, or the market. They ignored him, averting their gazes and hurrying past as far away from his reach as possible.

Nothing looked familiar, but it felt familiar, a slight tingle in his gut that told him the place was potentially dangerous. And, as the morning wore on and more young men began to fill the sidewalks he understood why. He watched drug deals go down on street corners, heard the call of brown-skinned whores propositioning him in broken, accented English, and saw the predatory eyes of the street kids who watched him pass, measuring their chances of taking him on for whatever he had in his pockets, which was absolutely nothing.

It was the eyes of the street kids that frightened him most and, before long, that buzz in his gut had grown into a klaxon, telling him he needed to hide – now.

He slipped into an alley, found a large dumpster behind a restaurant, and slipped into the shadows behind it. Squatting down, his back pressed against the rough, graffiti covered wall, he sucked in some deep breaths and tried to still the panic building inside of him.

The fear, he knew, was real. As real as the scars he'd seen on his body while he'd dressed himself that morning. He'd lost weight too, although he couldn't remember exactly what he'd looked like before. Running his fingers through the scraggly beard on his face he was struck by the wrongness of it, but there was nothing he could do about it.

He stared down at the clothes he was wearing. They weren't his, of that much he was sure, but he couldn't remember what he usually wore either. These clothes were old, worn and stained, and at least two sizes too big for him. They were dirty, too, but he thought he remembered them being clean when he'd put them on… when was that?

Time seemed to slip through his thoughts like water through his fingers. Had he escaped today, or a week ago?

He shivered despite the warm night.


He looked up, the sky dark above him. But hadn't the sun been shining when he'd found the alley?

Time… What the hell was time anyway?

His legs were asleep, but he forced himself to stand anyway, tears pushing their way free to roll over his cheeks as the blood returned to the numbed limbs. When he could walk, he stumbled out of his sanctuary and made his way back onto the sidewalk, shuffling off toward some nameless promise of help and safety that seemed to be calling to him.

An hour, or maybe another day later, he was standing near an old apartment building. Something about it felt familiar, although he couldn't remember what, or why.

He edged closer, drawn by a mural on the windowless wall facing a parking lot. The desert scene captivated him, the colors, the eyes of the children looking back at him… but then those eyes changed into something evil, something that wanted to hurt him. He gasped softly and jerked his gaze away.

An old Jeep sitting in the parking lot sent a chill rattling through his body and he took an involuntary step toward it.

There were no lights shining in the parking lot and he inched closer to the Jeep, staying close to one car and then another, hiding in the shadows. He was a shadow, gliding silently closer to the battered vehicle.

Then he stopped. Someone was sitting in the Jeep. But why was the man just sitting there? Confusion tightened his chest and made his palms begin to sweat. The pounding in his head began to escalate.

The man was young, younger than him, and… familiar somehow.

He couldn't see the stranger's face in the darkness, but he could see it in his mind. He shivered again, crouching lower into the shadows, ready to spring away if he had to. Around him he could feel the neighborhood as it readied for nighttime. Children came in off the street, the homeless drifted into the shelters or their boxes so they didn't lose their beds for the night. It was still too early for the gangs and hookers to come out, but he knew it wouldn't be much longer.

The buzz in his gut returned, warning him he needed to find someplace to hide, and soon. But he couldn't leave, not yet.

The traffic thinned as well, sounds drifting out to him from the open windows on the side of the building – radios, televisions, a few voices. But it was the man in the Jeep who continued to hold his attention.

He eased forward, slipping away from the cars and into a spot in the deepest shadows of the large garbage dumpster sitting along the wall. He settled in, unable to fathom why he was so damn fascinated with the man in the Jeep.

Then he saw it, a flash of light reflecting off the surface of a gun; that man's gun. His heart beat faster. What was the man doing with a gun? Was he one of those who had hurt him?

No, he rejected that idea immediately, even as images of the man firing at him sprang unbidden into his mind. It made no sense! He knew the man wouldn't hurt him, but the visions were clear – this was the man who had shot him. But he had no injuries, no gunshots anyway, unless it was the head wound, but that didn't feel right.

He continued to watch, unable to tear his gaze away as the younger man sat, turning the weapon over in his hands, long, slim fingers running lightly along the cool metal.

Maybe he was on the hunt. Maybe he was going to come looking for him. And then, in a nearly blinding flash of clarity, he understood what was going on. The man was trying to decide whether or not to kill himself. But why?

Me , he knew somehow, but that made no sense either.

Pain flared behind his eyes and he slumped back against the side of the building next to the dumpster. His head throbbed, and small explosions of light erupted in front of his eyes. He knew this man. He knew the man who had tried to shoot him.

But that didn't tell him why he was sitting there, trying to convince himself to live, or to pull the trigger and end it all. And end all what?

He moaned softly, clutching at his head and squeezing, trying to force the pain back, but it kept rising. He turned slightly, heaving. He heard the sound of an engine turning over, but by the time he was able to look up again, the Jeep was gone.

Damn , he sighed silently, not knowing what to do next. There was no way he could find the man, and he couldn't stay there, the cover wasn't good enough to protect him if the others came looking for him. He had to find someplace to hole up for the night.

Why couldn't he remember anything?

How did he know that man? Why was he the cause of the man's obvious anguish when the stranger had tried to kill him? He needed answers, but it appeared that none would be forthcoming, at least not tonight.

He wiped his mouth and forced himself to stand, his hands shaking so badly he couldn't even push the lank hair out of his eyes. Shuffling off, he hunched his shoulders and silently prayed that the man chose to live. It was important to him that the stranger lived, desperately important. He just didn't know why, but he was damn well going to find out.

He had to.

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

9:30 p.m.

Vin drove out to the ranch, unsure why he was going there. He didn't want to be there, but he also couldn't stand being at his apartment any longer.

When he arrived, he parked close to the barn so he didn't have to look at the house, then climbed out and walked in to check on the horses. He knew Buck and Josiah had been out earlier in the day, taking a couple of the animals out for a short ride to exercise them.

The horses lifted their heads as he entered, a couple of them nickering a welcome. Peso and Pony, he guessed.

Walking over to the two horses, he took time to stroke their necks and scratch under their forelocks. He was repaid for his kindness, both geldings rubbing their heads against his shoulder and blowing softly against his neck.

"Yeah, I know," he said softly. "I'll try an' get out here more often an' take care 'a ya like 'm supposed to."

He puttered in the barn, finding small chores to keep him busy for a couple of hours, but he couldn't ignore the pull the house had on him. With a sigh, he finally gave in, walking to the dark structure and letting himself in.

He prowled from one room to another in the dark, not at all certain why he was there, or what he wanted to do. The rooms were silent and cool, almost cold, and empty. His heart felt much the same way.

He ended up in the living room. Standing for a moment, he tried to decide what to do. Finally, he walked over and knelt down, turning on the gas fireplace even though it was really too warm for a fire. The light from the blue flames cast dancing shadows across the room and he sat down on the floor and watched them until his stomach started growling. He ignored it, knowing if he tried to eat he'd just end up making himself sick.

Standing, he had to reach out and brace himself as a wave of vertigo hit. His hand brushed something hard and cold.

Looking up, he stared at the pictures of Sarah and Adam sitting on the mantle and fought back the tears that sprang into his eyes. "'M sorry, Sarah," he whispered. "'M so sorry. I failed him… an' broke the promise I made t' ya."

He picked up the framed picture and carried it over to the sofa, sitting down and holding it in his lap. The smiling woman and child looked up at him, their expressions demanding an explanation from him.

"I know I promised y' I'd take care 'a him," he said, his voice raspier than usual. "I tried, but I— I killed him, Sarah. I killed the best friend I ever had… m' brother. Guess he's there with y' now, ain't he. Playin' with Adam, or holdin' y' in his arms. He loved y', loved y' both more 'n words would ever say, but I reckon y' knew that. Maybe he c'n fergive me one day… 'm just so damn sorry." His throat tightened, cutting off any more words he might have said and he set the picture aside, unable to look into their faces any longer.

He pushed roughly to his feet and began to prowl the house again. He avoided the bedroom – too personal – and the kitchen – the very thought of food making his stomach turn flips.

After a while he ended up back on the sofa, staring into the flames, after he had returned the picture to its usual place on the mantle.

Why hadn't he just pulled the trigger earlier?

He sighed heavily, knowing the reason.

It had felt as if Chris had been standing there, watching him, and he couldn't do it, not with Larabee watching him.

Hell, Chris had probably been pissed as all hell. After all, he must want him to live, to suffer for what he'd done, right? Death would be the easy way out.

His heart aching, he finally lay down on the sofa, his eyes closing as the lack of food and sleep caught up to him. He felt sleep reaching out for him and fought it off for as long as he could, but he was too weak to fight for long and he drifted off, praying his resolve to live would hold.

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

11:45 p.m.

Images swirled around him, fragmented, distorted, like home movies being projected onto funhouse mirrors. Here he was on the boat, shooting Chris, and there he was sitting in his Jeep, trying to decide if he could bear to live another minute.

He watched himself caressing the Glock, remembered thinking how easy it would be, how fast the torment could end. But he could feel someone watching him.

He watched the images in the rippling mirror, then looked through them to join with them. And he was sitting in the jeep again, holding the gun in his hands.

But he could feel someone's eyes on him and looked up slightly, being careful not to raise his head. He half-expected it to be Larabee's ghost come to deny him the release he so desperately wanted, but it was just a bum, standing in the shadows near the dumpster, probably taking a leak, or waiting for him to leave so he could safely scavenge for a meal.

The notion that he ought to get out and go offer the man whatever cash he had in his pockets blossomed and died in an instant. Why should he help the man who'd interrupted his decision?

But he had, and now the decision had been made for him. He couldn't pull the trigger, not now, not here.

He continued to stare at the transient, his fingers curling around the butt of the Glock. Hell, he ought to do it just to piss the man off. Because he knew the man knew why he was just sitting there. Then one of the broken security lights flickered and came on.

The man's eyes widened, as if the unexpected lights had set off an explosion of pain inside his skull.

Vin gasped. The man had green eyes, so much like Chris's… so much like the eyes he hadn't expected to see again.

He had to get the hell out of here – now!

He slammed the Glock down on the seat as the man turned away, disappearing into the shadows. Twisting the key, he turned the engine over, shoved the Jeep into gear, and exploded out of the parking lot, the image of those damn green eyes chasing him all the way out to the ranch…

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

Wednesday, August 10th

2:30 a.m.

Vin woke with a gasp, sitting up on the sofa, shaking, sweat dripping from his chin and into his eyes.

He pulled the bottom of his T-shirt up and wiped his face off, then gulped and pushed himself off the couch and stumbled down to the bathroom, just reaching the toilet in time.

Holding onto the rim, he squeezed his eyes shut and let the pain of the dry heaves punish him for taking his best friend's life. And when it was finally over, he stood and washed his face. He wouldn't be able to sleep here again, not tonight, not ever again he thought.

But he also knew he couldn't drive, not like this. He'd just end up killing some other innocent person who was out on the road.

With a low moan he turned and fled the house, stumbling out to the barn to collapse on a pile of hay. Tomorrow he'd go home. Tomorrow he'd pack what he needed and head up into the mountains for a few days to either clear his head, or blow it the fuck off, and to hell with Larabee's ghost!

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

9:15 a.m.

Gilberto walked the streets of Purgatory, his gaze darting from one side of the street to the other and sweeping over the men and boys who were out. He was looking for the injured man for a second day, and trying to avoid running into Billy or Kevin.

He stopped short, nearly getting hit by an older Jeep that was pulling into the parking lot of an apartment building. Looking after the vehicle as it came to an abrupt halt, he huffed with relief when he didn't recognize the man who climbed out.

Then, spotting the large dumpster, he headed over to check behind it, hoping the man he'd helped had the good sense to find himself a hole to hide in. But there was no one there. He leaned against the wall, shaking his head and telling himself that he should just get the hell out of there before he got caught himself. He didn't owe the man anything more. He'd gotten him out of there, gotten him to a doctor. But he couldn't. The man didn't even know who he was anymore.

He sighed and pushed off the wall, heading back across the parking lot when he was grabbed from behind, Billy slamming him up against one of the parked cars.

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

It only took Vin a couple of minutes to shove a few things into his backpack, then stop and take one last look around the apartment. As much grief as he took over it, the tiny place was still home, and had been since he'd been found and taken off the streets by Tom Redbear, a Comanche bounty hunter who had saved the teenaged Tanner's life with his friendship.

The apartment had been Tom's, but it had become his after Tom had died and old Mrs. Fernandez had kept it empty, waiting for him to get out of the Army.

Two fucking weeks.

If he'd just gotten out two weeks earlier, he would have been there when the cancer had taken Redbear.

He could remember how the news that his friend and mentor was dead had hit him like a fist in the guts. He hadn't wanted to stay in the apartment, but the people in the building had come to depend on Tom, and with him gone there was no one but Vin left to help them. So he'd stayed, and continued to stay even after he'd finished his college degree and landed himself a job with the U.S. Marshals, and then with the ATF.

He started for the door.

The people here liked him. They depended on him. What would they do if he didn't come back?

Jesus. He had no intention of coming back.

He stopped, hand outstretched, reaching for the knob. Christ. He had people here who needed him. And at work.

Buck and Josiah and Ezra and Nathan and JD… Hell, he hadn't been thinking about them at all.

How could he just walk out on them? They'd taken him in, made him their friend, their brother. They'd saved his life more times than he could count, and he'd returned the favor just as many times.

And they were hurting too, especially Buck.

But he'd been too caught up in his own pain to deal with it. And now, here he was, thinking about heaping more grief on their shoulders. Goddamn but he was a selfish son-of-a-bitch.

He sighed and closed his eyes, his head tilting back. They didn't blame him. They didn't hold him responsible, but he did. He blamed himself, and he knew he was responsible for Chris's death. How could he learn to live with that?

And how could he do what he'd been thinking to men he called family?

He felt the tears well up in his eyes. Goddamn it. Why couldn't it be easy? Why couldn't anything in his fucked up life ever be easy?

"Shit," he choked out. "Shit. Fuck."

He forced his eyes open and swallowed past the lump in his throat, hoping it wouldn't trigger another round of dry heaves. When it didn't, he took the last step to the door and grabbed the knob. He wouldn't be going to the mountains today, no matter how much he wanted to. He couldn't do that to the others. Not to his brothers, not to his friends, and not to the people here who trusted him to be there to help them.

This was his real punishment, to live with what he'd done, and the sooner he faced that the better off they'd all be.

And, all in all, he had to admit that he was getting off easy. Larabee, after all, was dead.

He reached down and felt the Glock in its holster. He opened his jean jacket and pulled it free, taking it and his spare to the safe in his closet. He opened it and put both inside, shutting the door before he could change his mind and spinning the tumbler.

Then, with a long sigh, he stalked out of the apartment and stepped out into the hall, heading for the stairs. It was time he started pulling his weight again. He'd go to work, see where the others were on Whitesides and Blitzer, and he'd do what he was being paid to do – watch their backs.

The trip to the parking lot passed unnoticed until he heard the low, predatory growl coming from a teen holding another boy up against the side of Mr. Aznar's car.

Vin stopped just inside the door leading into the parking lot, waiting to see what was going to happen and listening to the boys.

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

"He's pissed, 'Berto, really pissed. Gatekeeper's in his room, paintin' the walls, talkin' about how you and Larabee are gonna die. He already killed Kev, man, used his blood for his paintings."

Gilberto shivered. "I got scared… the fire. I ran. You and Kev should've run, too."

"Gatekeeper's the only one who's got the Beauty, man," Billy hissed. "But he ain't made no more since Larabee got killed in that fire. He had plans for the man, 'Berto. He wanted to save that woman he keeps talkin' about."

"Hey, I had nothin' to do with that fire, man. I just got scared and ran, okay?"

Billy laughed, pressing down and in on the Hispanic boy, grinding Gilberto's ribs against the side of the car. "Fire probably got him faster than what Seiler had planned for that fed, but Gatekeeper's an artist, an angel, 'Berto. He uses pain to turn his victims' bodies into art. Art, 'Berto, beautiful fuckin' art. Like the Beaty. That's like art, man, art for your mind, dawg. I helped him, you know, with Kev. It was a trip. A rush. I could feel him dyin'…"

"You're high, Billy, that's all. That shit's gonna kill you."

"Oh yeah, I'm high all right . . . He was so close, 'Berto, so close to breaking that Larabee bastard. Fuck got lucky when the fire got him."

"Seiler's sick, Billy. He's sick in the head. Nobody paints demons to life."

"Gatekeeper does. He will, now that I found you. He's gonna use your blood to bring Him over, you'll see."

"Nobody deserves to be treated like that!" Gilberto yelled.

"You do, bitch . You ran out on us. Gatekeeper isn't happy about that, but he's gonna give you another chance."

"I don't want another chance. Just leave me alone, man."

"Can't do it, 'Berto. He's an angel, a fallen angel, and he's gonna paint me into paradise, make me some more Beauty so I can get out of this fuckin' place. And he's gonna paint the Prince of Darkness into the world, so he can destroy it, but he needs you, 'Berto. He needs you ."

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

"No!" the one called "'Berto" squealed, and the blatant terror in his voice finally shook Vin free of the paralysis that had been holding him in place. He bolted out into the parking lot.

Billy looked up, catching sight of Tanner, his red-rimmed eyes going wide with fear. He shoved the boy he was holding hard against the side of the car and raced away.

Vin went after him, but he was no match for the drugged-out youth and he quickly lost him in the maze of alleys and old deserted buildings that littered Purgatory.

A warning explosion of white and yellow lights danced in front of his eyes and Tanner stumbled to a stop. My God, my God… Chris was alive. He had been alive.

How long? How long had he been alive? How long had he been held prisoner by some madman who had tortured him?

Until there was a fire? That Chris had set?

Probably. Trying to escape.

And he'd burned to death instead?

Chris really was dead now?

Oh fuck! They hadn't looked for him! They'd just assumed that he was dead, all those days.

Oh God. Oh sweet Jesus, no. No, it wouldn't be!

All those days; all that pain… Chris would have been waiting for them to come for him, rescue him, and they hadn't even looked!

God, God, even as he'd faced the flames he'd probably thought they'd show up and pull him out.

Vin's body began to shake and he dropped to his knees, heaving into the street. And even before he could finish throwing up, wracking sobs tore though his body and he fell to the ground in the alley, wishing that he had his gun with him. But it was back in his apartment. He wanted nothing more than to turn it on himself and erase the pictures flooding through his mind.

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

4:30 a.m.

He dreamed about the man in the Jeep again, his haggard expression one he could sympathize with. Here, in his dream world, he had the chance to really look at the man.

He stepped closer to the Jeep, noting the lines on his face, the dark circles under his eyes that testified to a lack of sleep, and the sunken look that said he wasn't eating much either. But what held his attention the longest was the terrible pain he saw in the man's blue eyes.

All in all, the man looked worse than terrible. He looked gaunt and strangely aged, like a movie extra for a bad POW flick.

He sat so silently, too, so still, it was almost as if his soul had slipped the bonds of his body and it didn't know it should fall over and die.

Then there was the gun, the one the man was contemplating using on himself, and somehow it felt like he ought to understand why that was. But that was impossible. He didn't know the man in the Jeep. Hell, he didn't even know who he was anymore.

Frustration and fear forced him awake and he lay inside his cardboard box, trying to breathe normally. But the dream images and the memories refused to fade.

He tried desperately to ignore the feelings that shook his breathing and cramped his stomach, too, but they refused to release him as well.

He rolled onto his side and squeezed his eyes shut. Whoever he was, he wasn't his problem. And God knew he had enough of his own problems right now, not the least of which was finding out who the hell he was.

Christ, he thought. Maybe the man in the Jeep knew. Maybe he really was the one who had shot him. If so, surely he knew who he was shooting at. And if the memories were wrong, maybe he still knew who he was. Maybe he'd been looking for him.

In either case, the man in the Jeep might have the answers he needed, and he decided that as soon as it was light, he would find that man again, and he would get his answers, one way or another.

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

10:30 a.m.

Buck, Josiah and Ezra were waiting for him at the ranch when Vin arrived that morning.

After he'd dragged himself out of the alley, he'd climbed into the Jeep, intending to go to the office, but he couldn't, not looking and smelling like he did. So he turned onto I25 and headed north, then west, ending up at the ranch.

But now Tanner sat in his Jeep, unable to bring himself to climb out and go inside to face the men, because he knew if he did, he'd have to tell them the truth, and then all hell would break loose.

They'd want Nathan to look him over, or they'd want to take him to a hospital. There would be whispered words to the doctors there, and a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist – someone who would want him to talk about his feelings. And that would mean telling someone what he'd done to his best friend.

He saw the front door open and turned the engine over, putting the Jeep in gear and pulling out of the driveway before Buck could reach him. He couldn't do that, not yet.

The ladies' man heard the sharpshooter's slightly strangled cry over the sound of the engine noise, and then Tanner was gone.

"Damn it," the ladies' man hissed, but there was nothing he could do. If he tried to follow Vin, the sniper might end up bolting and get himself killed. He turned, heading back into the house. They'd just have to wait it out until Tanner was ready to talk.

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

Vin spent the next several hours driving, ending up exactly where he didn't want to be: in the mountains. He was running, and he'd promised himself he wasn't going to do that. Besides, he didn't have the damn gun with him anyway.

He turned around and started back toward the city, knowing that someone would be waiting for him at the ranch when he got back.

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

9:30 p.m.

He was almost home. No, almost to the turnoff for the ranch, he corrected himself. He couldn't think of the ranch as home.

Vin pulled over at a scenic overlook that offered a view of the city below. He tried to imagine telling the others the real truth, but couldn't.

What would it do to them?

He worried in particular about JD. The young man still had a certain air of innocence that they all treasured. If he told them the truth, that innocence might be lost forever, and he doubted any of them would ever forgive him for that.

A long, sad sigh escaped Vin's lips. He was so damn tired of hurting, of blaming himself. He had honestly believed that he'd killed Chris and, as a result, the others had believed it as well. Believed it and forgiven him. It had been an accident, they said. But the truth proved that it wasn't an accident. His self-indulgent pity had cost his best friend his life. Because of him, they'd started looking for the men they held responsible for Larabee's death, not for Chris himself. But they should have kept looking for Larabee. They should have known that the lack of a body meant Chris was still out there, somewhere, and alive.

Even if he had thought he'd killed Chris, he should have kept looking until they had found a body.

But that had been too damn painful. He just couldn't bear the thought of them finding the man's bloated body, so he'd slipped into his own world, wallowed in his own pain and, as a result, let Chris be tortured and killed.

All that time he'd wasted, feeling sorry for himself, blaming himself, and his best friend had been alive, suffering.

And then the same thought that had been haunting him all day returned again. Vin had absolutely no doubt that Chris would have assumed that they'd come to get him, right up until the moment he'd died. And what had he thought then?

Had he felt betrayed, abandoned? Had he forgiven them in those last moments, or had he damned them all?

But somehow he knew Larabee would have forgiven them. He could feel that in his bones. Because Chris would have assumed that they were doing everything they could to find him, to help him. He would have believed that they'd done their best, even if they'd failed, so he would have forgiven them.

But they hadn't done a goddamn thing. He hadn't done a goddamn thing.

And, like it or not, he had to tell the others that. He owed it to them. He had to make them understand that this really was his fault, and his alone.

Once he did, the friendship he shared with them would end. They would hate him, just like he hated himself. His friends, his family, would be gone.

When that happened, then, and only then, he could head up into the mountains and put an end to the pain that made his chest feel like someone had shoved their hand into it and was trying to squeeze all the blood out of his heart, one drop at a time.

Then he could finally find some peace, and go face Larabee on the other side.

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

11 p.m.

Buck woke to the sound of a vehicle pulling up in the driveway. He sat up and stretched, trying to ease the kinks in his back. The fire in the fireplace was set on low, the tiny flames casting shadows but little heat into the room. It was really too warm for a fire, but it had made him feel better to sit there, staring into the dancing flames and remembering better times. Beside, this way he didn't have to turn the lights on, and right now that was a good thing, because he wasn't sure he was ready to face the stark, empty reality sixty watts would reveal.

Glancing around, he wished he hadn't told Josiah and Ezra that he'd be fine, waiting for Tanner to return alone. He could use some moral support right now as he faced the hurting sniper.

He snorted softly and shook his head. What hubris had possessed him, making him think he might have the words that could help heal the young man's pain?

Damn , he thought. Why the hell had Larabee let himself get killed? The man had to know what this would do to Vin.

Vin… He shook his head. He'd caught sight of the sniper's grayish face as the Jeep's tires had spun in the driveway gravel, and wondered what new horror was haunting the younger man. All in all, he was surprised Tanner hadn't imploded yet, but he had a sneaking suspicion it was about to happen.

So he sat there on the sofa, waiting for Vin to unlock the front door and enter. It took the man several minutes, but Wilmington finally heard the rasp of a key in the lock. A moment later, the door opened and closed and he heard the sound of the deadbolt sliding into place.

He waited for Vin to gather his courage, then felt more than actually heard the man approaching. A moment later, Tanner stepped into the living room and asked, "What're y' doin' here, Bucklin?"

"Waitin' for you, Junior."

Vin grunted and headed straight to the small bar in the living room. Stepping behind it, he leaned over and opened the sliding cabinet and took out a bottle of whiskey, setting it on the bar-top and reaching for a glass, which landed with a hollow thunk next to the bottle.

Without looking at the older man, Tanner unthreaded the cap and poured three-fingers of the amber liquid into the glass. Then he set the cap on the bar-top and scooped up the glass, swallowing the contents in one large gulp.

Reaching for the open bottle, he poured himself another round, then held the bottle out in Buck's direction.

"No, thanks anyway," the ladies' man replied.

Tanner shrugged, returning the bottle to the bar-top. His fingers closed around the glass, his hand trembling slightly. The fire from the first drink was still burning his throat and belly, but he wasn't sure it was entirely responsible for the tears that welled up in his eyes.

He lifted the drink and gulped it down like the first, but this time he coughed as the burn intensified. When he reached for the bottle a third time, Buck stopped him.

"Ya forget, Junior, I saw Chris in the same shape you're in now – hurtin', pissed as all-hell, bound and determined to race Satan straight into Hell. He never made it, though, and neither will you."

"Y' don't think so, huh?"

Buck looked up, meeting and holding Tanner's eyes. "Nope, I don't."

"Y' can't stop me," Vin hissed, his accent growing thicker under the influence of the alcohol.

"Like hell I can't, kid. And I won't be alone. There'll be five other men standin' right behind me, just in case you knock me down."

"Don't see 'em here now," Tanner sneered.

Wilmington shook his head. "Nope, you don't, but not because they didn't want to be here. They did. I just didn't think I'd need 'em, but it looks like I was wrong about that."

"You weren't wrong," a deep voice said, causing Buck and Vin both to jump.

"Jesus, Josiah, don't you know better than to sneak up on a man like that?" the ladies' man yelped.

The big man smiled thinly as he walked into the room, followed by Ezra. "Sorry, boys, we didn't mean to startle you."

"With the lights off, we thought it prudent to come in through the back," Ezra added quietly, his gaze on the sniper. "We thought perhaps you both were sleeping."

Tanner snorted and grabbed the whiskey, chugging down several swallows straight from the bottle before he set it back down on the bar-top and wiped his mouth with his shirtsleeve. "Hell, ain't slept in too long t' remember," he mumbled.

"We know, brother," Josiah said softly, his voice full of concern and compassion. "We've seen—"

"An' y' know why, too, J'siah?" Vin snapped at the older man, blue eyes narrowing to dangerous slits. "Y' hear that from God?"

"Nope," the profiler said, his hands coming up in a pacifying gesture. "It's just that the pain you're wearing is too hard to miss."

"Pain?" Vin snarled. "Whatdaya know 'bout pain, Preacher?"

Tanner slipped out from around the bar, Ezra and Buck both taking cautious steps back so Tanner wouldn't feel hemmed in. Vin hated feeling trapped, and right now they knew he was too volatile to take any chances with. The man was deadly.

Josiah, however, had seen something else in the younger man's pale blue eyes and he stayed put, even when Tanner stepped up right in front of him. Sanchez could feel the emotions coming off the sniper like they were physical winds, and they buffeted his resolve, but he stood firm, calmly meeting Vin's eyes.

And, a moment later, Tanner crumbled.

Josiah caught him before he hit the floor and half-guided, half-carried him to the sofa and lowered him down. He sat down next to the trembling man, and wrapped one arm around Tanner's shoulders, pulling him in close to his chest and holding him as if he were a child. Vin's shoulder jerked once, then again a moment later as the rest of the pent up pain and anger finally broke past the walls Vin had built to contain them.

"Oh God, J'siah," he gasped, "it hurts. It hurts so much it feels like 'm dyin'."

"I know, son, I know," the older man said, holding Vin as the sobs began to rack his body. And the tone of his voice told the others that he did indeed know.

Ezra rounded the bar and poured drinks for himself and the others. Buck knocked his back, but Josiah's remained untouched, although within reach on the coffee table.

Buck glanced at Sanchez, silently asking with a glance at the door if he and Ezra should leave.

Josiah gave a slight shake of his head and the pair settled in to wait, uncertain what the night might bring.

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

3 p.m.

He wandered, unsure for how long, or where he went, or should go, but he knew he needed to go… someplace. He knew he needed to find the man in the Jeep, but he had no idea how, and right now he wasn't even sure he'd be able to find the same building where he'd seen him the first time.

He cursed his scrambled mind and kept walking.

"Tammy! Where you been , girl?" someone called.

He stopped. Tammy… Tammy… Tanner. Been? No, Vin.

Vin Tanner. That was the man in the Jeep, the man he needed to find.

And then it all came back to him in a rush, and he knew where he needed to go, he just wasn't sure how to get there. A moment later, it was gone again, and he was more confused than ever, but at least he had a destination in his head and he clung to that, determined to find it, and the man in the Jeep.

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

Thursday, August 11th

1:30 a.m.

Vin awoke about a couple of hours later in Larabee's bed. He got up and padded to the kitchen to grab himself a beer, then went back down to the living room where the others were probably still gathered, no doubt talking about him, and what they were going to do with him.

"You feeling all right?" Buck asked him when he entered.

"Yeah. Fine." Vin took a seat, staring past the sliding glass doors to the mountains beyond, even though they were invisible in the dark. Still, just knowing that they were there gave him some peace. He knew he was putting off the inevitable, but he just couldn't bring himself to tell them what he'd heard.

Ezra, who was sitting closest to him, leaned forward and gave him a sympathetic smile. "I'm famished. I think I'll–"

"Ain't hungry," Vin interrupted him. "Why don't y'all just head on home."

"I don't think that would be a good idea," Josiah said softly.

"Didn't ask fer your opinion, J'siah," Vin growled. "Asked y'all t' leave."

That sent the room into a deep silence.

Buck stood and left the room, returning a few moments later with beers for all of them. He handed them out and sat back down. "Sorry, Junior, but we aren't leaving."

Tanner sighed heavily and stared into the amber-colored liquid as if he thought some of the answers he wanted might rise to the surface along with the bubbles.

"I called Nathan and JD, asked them to come over so we could all have a talk."

"Buck—" Tanner started, but the faint sound of a vehicle coming up the drive reached them and Vin stood, setting the beer down on the small end table and heading for the sliding glass door that led out onto the back porch. "I'll talk when I'm good and ready to," he snapped, and headed out.

Standish stood, afraid they were going to lose two friends before this was finally over. "Vin," he called, not wanting the man to fade into the darkness alone. And when Tanner turned, the Southerner was struck by just how haggard and worn the sniper looked. The sharp pain of the proceeding ten days had somehow settled into a permanent melancholy.

"Don't feel like talkin' right now," Tanner said softly, his voice barely reaching Standish. And then Vin turned and stepped out into the darkness.

Ezra heard the front door open, and Buck's voice, raised in what sounded like worry. He turned just in time to see the big ladies' man and Nathan helping someone into the living room, half-carrying, half-dragging the man. Josiah turned on the lights and the blood rushed from Standish's face, leaving his vision swimming and his ears ringing. "Sweet mother of God," he gasped, his knees going weak.

"Call 911," Nathan said, helping Buck get the sagging man over to the closest sofa.

"But how—?"

"Call!" Buck snapped.

Ezra hurried to the phone on the bar and grabbed it up, punching out the numbers while he also caught Josiah's eyes and nodded to the sliding glass doors. The big man nodded his understanding and headed off to find Vin.

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

"Vin?" Sanchez called as he stepped out onto the porch. He didn't want to end up on the receiving end of a wild punch if he startled the sniper.

"Go 'way, J'siah," came the quiet reply.

The older man couldn't see Tanner in the darkness, but at least he knew he was close by. "Vin, I need you to come inside."

"Told y', 'm not in the mood, Preacher."

"Vin, please, it's important. You're going to want to see this." He heard Tanner sigh, but then there was a brief movement and Vin was standing next to him. "Jesus," he breathed. If the sniper had wanted to kill him, he never would have seen it coming.

"Better be important," Vin growled at him.

"As important as it gets, brother."

Tanner paused when the first low wails of a siren could be heard in the distance and Josiah could see the flash of confusion and worry on the man's face.

"Come inside, Vin. There's something you need to see."

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

"How?" Ezra asked.

"Hell if I know," Buck said, watching Nathan pull open Chris's shirt and check him over for injuries.

"We found him walking down the middle of the driveway," JD said, his face pale, his body shaking.

"Guess he was headed home, just didn't make it," Nathan added.

"Where's Vin?" JD asked, glancing around a little nervously.

"God only knows," Ezra replied.

"'M right here," Tanner grumbled. "What the hell d'ya want?" He had reached the middle of the living room before he saw the man lying on the sofa.

All forward movement came to an abrupt halt. The build of the man lying there was familiar… the color of his hair… the angle of his jaw, even covered in the ragged, untrimmed beard.

He began to shake, his subconscious recognizing the truth before his conscious mind could even begin to question the reality of his perceptions, or accept them. Then the man's eyes cracked open, widening immediately when he caught sight of Tanner.

The familiar green-shaded brown that Vin had seen sparkle with laughter and spark with an intensity that had earned respect for the Larabee Glare from suspects and fellow agents alike. Ch-Chris? He wanted to say the man's name aloud, but it stalled in his throat, which tightened so much he could barely draw a breath.

A roar began in his ears and his vision was suddenly constricted by a band of black that rapidly left him blind as his knees gave out and he began to crumble.

Josiah saw the reaction coming and lunged forward in time to catch Vin before he hit the floor, one arm snaking around the sniper's shoulders, the other under his knees. "Vin," he called as he scooped him up. "Vin, come on, wake up."

The wail of the siren grew loud enough to drown out Sanchez's words and moments later there was a knock at the front door.

JD tore himself away from the spectacle and hurried to answer, escorting the two medics to the living room where they now had two patients to attend to instead of just one.

One medic went to Larabee, the other to Vin, calling for a second unit at the same time.

"He just passed out," Josiah said. "The shock of seeing—"

"He hit his head?"

"No, I caught him before he hit the floor."

The medic nodded and reached out to grip Tanner's shoulder. "Sir," he said, "I'm a medic with the Jefferson County Fire Department, can you hear me? You awake, sir?"

Vin moaned softly and rolled his head away.

"He's been under a lot of stress lately, hasn't been eating or sleeping much for the past ten days," Josiah added. "I guess seeing the man he thought was dead was too much."

"How long has he been out?"

"A minute, if that," Josiah replied. "It just happened as you were pulling up outside."

The medic checked Vin's vitals, including a finger stick to check his blood glucose, which was extremely low. He opened his kit and started an IV with D50.

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

Across the room, the second medic identified herself, then tried to wake Chris, who mumbled and tried to pull away, but otherwise remained unresponsive.

"I'm a medic," Nathan told her. "We just found him out in the driveway a few minutes ago. He was just like this."

"Was he on his feet?"

"God knows how, but yeah, he was. Didn't seem to realize we were there, though."

She nodded. "Okay, can you hold his neck while I check him over?"

Jackson shifted position, making sure Larabee's cervical spine was stabilized while the medic checked the blond's airway, breathing, and circulation. Next was a quick head to toe survey to look for any life-threatening problems.

"He's got a good-sized gash here on his head," she said to Nathan, "but it's been stitched and treated, the infection is slight. Looks like he's really been worked over, though – burn marks, shallow cuts all over, and abrasions at the wrists and ankles. They all look like they're several days old now."

"He's been missing for ten days," Jackson offered.

She continued to work and, with Nathan's help, positioned Larabee on a long backboard with head-blocks.

"How's he doing, Janie?" her partner called.

"Unresponsive, but stable. Vitals are strong. You?"

"Responsive. Strong vitals, but low blood sugar."

The wail of an approaching ambulance reached them and she looked up into the faces of four very worried men. "We'll get him to the hospital and they'll take good care of him."

A few moments later the ambulance crew arrived and they placed Chris on a cot and took him out and loaded him into the back of the ambulance, where the medic's work continued. Nathan went with Chris, watching as the medics gathered vitals, started an IV, and placed the man on oxygen and hooked him up to a heart monitor.

The ambulance medic did a finger stick to check Larabee's blood glucose level and, finding it low, hung some D50.

With Larabee still unresponsive, they gave him Narcan and, after checking with the police who had arrived right behind the ambulance, they started for the hospital.

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

"Come on now, you hurt, sir?" the medic asked Tanner.

Another groan, a flinch, and Vin scowled and blinked his eyes open, staring up at the stranger. "Let me be," he said, trying to sit up to get away from the man.

"Easy now, I'm a medic with Jefferson County Fire Department. Looks like you passed out. When was the last time you ate?"

Vin's brow furrowed. "I— I don't know, a day, maybe two."

"Can you tell me your name?"

"Tanner. Vin Tanner."

"Do you know what day it is?" the medic asked next.

"Uh, Thursday, I think."

"And do you know where you are?"

Tanner nodded, saying, "Yeah, Chris's ranch. And Clinton's in the White House if that's yer next question."

The medic smiled. "It was going to be. How are you feeling?"

"All right," Vin said.

"Any nausea or dizziness?"

"No, not really."

"Your blood sugar's in the basement," the medic said. "I think we should take you to the hospital, have them look you over."

Tanner shook his head.

"Listen to the man, Vin," Josiah told him, but the sniper's attention shifted across the room where Nathan and another medic were working over Chris.

"He all right?" Tanner asked, his voice no more than a whisper.

"Sorry, I don't know," the medic said, but catching the pain in his patient's eyes he called, "How's he doing, Janie?"

"Unresponsive, but stable. Vitals are strong. You?"

"Responsive. Strong vitals, but low blood sugar," he replied, then looked back at Vin. "He's doing fine, so let's just worry about you right now, okay?"

But Tanner didn't look away until more medics arrived, one pushing a wheeled cot that completely blocked his view. "Huh?"

"He's doing okay," the medic repeated. "Now, let's get you to the hospital so the doctors can take a look at you, okay?"

Vin wanted to refuse, but he was so damn tired he wasn't sure he'd make it to his feet without help. And the look Josiah was giving him made it clear the older man would consider him a fool if he tried, so he nodded to the medic, who flashed him a sympathetic smile and called for the other new arrival to bring over the second cot.

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

3 p.m.

Josiah pushed the door open and stepped into Vin's hospital room. The sniper was sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed and waiting. "Okay," he said, "I have your paperwork, so you're all set."

Tanner nodded and slid off the bed, walking over to join the older man. "How's Ch–Chris?"

"He's still out, but the doctor says he's doing good otherwise. You can go see him just as soon as you get something to eat."

Vin groaned. "Hell, J'siah, all I been doin' all day is feedin' m' face."

"I know, but you're making up for lost time – and meals. Now, come on, the cafeteria is on the second floor; food's not bad, either."

The sniper sighed, but he nodded and followed Sanchez to the elevators, the pair riding down in the silence to the second floor. Several minutes later he was seated across from the big man, eating a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, French fries coated in ketchup, and a fruit cup, washing it all down with a large carton of chocolate milk.

Josiah grinned and took a sip of his coffee, the only thing he'd ordered. "Thought you weren't hungry?" he ventured. Blue eyes glanced up to meet his for a moment, then Vin looked back down at his plate.

"Guess I was hungrier than I thought," he said a little sheepishly.

"I'm just glad to see your appetite's coming back."

"Where is everybody?"

"Buck's sitting with Chris and the others are sacked out in the waiting room."

Tanner paused in mid-bite, then set what was left of his sandwich down. "Y'all gonna let me see him?"

"Of course we are," Josiah told him. "Vin, he's your friend. He needs to see you as much as you need to see him."

"But I—"

"I don't want to hear that you think this is your fault."

"But it is," Vin argued. "If we'd just kept lookin'—"

"We all thought he was gone, Vin, each and every one of us. And do you honestly think any of us really wanted to find his body after a week in that lake?"

Tanner shuddered and pushed his plate away. "No."

"There was no reason for us to think that street kids would want to kidnap Chris. We still don't understand why they did it."

"Those two kids," Vin said, memories from yesterday morning returning, "sounded like this gatekeeper guy wanted Chris."

Josiah frowned. "What two kids?"

Ignoring the question, Tanner stood and picked up his plate, walking over and dumping the remainder of his food before adding the plate to a stack waiting to be picked up and washed. He returned to Josiah, saying, "Come on, rather just say this once."

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

Josiah sent Vin to the waiting room on the fifth floor while he went to get Buck. Chris was still sleeping, so the ladies' man agreed to leave him for a short while. They joined the others, who Vin had already roused from their naps, and once everyone who wanted or needed it had grabbed some coffee from the pot a volunteer kept full, they settled to hear what Vin had to say.

"I was gonna tell you this last night, uh, this morning," he said, looking from Buck to Josiah to Ezra. "Yesterday mornin'… I was comin' out of my apartment and I saw these two kids, street kids, in the parkin' lot. They were talkin' about Chris. One of 'em said he'd been killed in a fire; sounded like after he'd been worked over pretty bad by this gatekeeper guy who's makin' the Beauty."

"Why the hell would some damn drug pusher be after Chris?" Buck asked, utterly confused.

"Ain't sure," Vin admitted. "The other kid called him Seller, Sealer, something like that."

"Seiler?" Buck demanded.

"Seiler, yeah," Vin said. "Who is he?"

The blood drained from the ladies' man's face. "Robert Seiler."

"Who is that?" JD asked Buck.

"Jesus," Wilmington said, leaning back against the sofa and running shaky hands over his hair. "The man's supposed to be locked up in the state mental institution – for life."

"Who is this man?" Ezra asked, wishing Buck would just tell them.

Wilmington took a deep breath and gave them a brief history lesson on "The Artist," concluding with, "He really had a thing for Sarah, said all the women he killed were just paving the way so he could turn her into an angel. His statements in court were what got him that life sentence."

"If he was that obsessed with Sarah, he might have blamed Chris for her death and shifted his focus to him," Josiah said.

"And if Landry Whitesides was addicted to the drug, this Beauty stuff, then he might have been willing to go up against us to grab Chris," JD added.

"But that assumes that either Landry or Seiler knew that Mr. Larabee was also Carl Lawson," Ezra ventured.

"Not Landry, he would have told his father if he'd known," Josiah said. "Even if he was rebelling against his father and his ideology, Landry would still have wanted the man's approval. He could have gotten it if he'd told his father his business partner was an ATF agent. It was Seiler."

Buck nodded. "Makes sense. The man was scary; he used to work his way into his victim's life before he abducted them. If Seiler was released, it wouldn't have been hard for him to find out that Sarah Connelly had become Sarah Larabee."

"As well as what happened to her," JD said. "It's all right there in the papers, and they're available online, or at the public library."

"A couple of our busts have gotten Chris's name in the paper, too," Nathan added. "The right search, and he'd know how Sarah died and that Chris was an ATF agent now."

"He was probably following Chris, stalking him like he did the women he killed before," Buck said. "If he saw one of the meets between Chris and Whitesides, and he knew who Landry's father was–"

"Then he'd know he had the perfect in," Vin finished for him.

"Hey, that means this Seiler guy's still out there," JD said, looking worried.

Buck nodded and stood. "I'm gonna go call Travis and DPD."

"And I think it's time I had another talk with Benton," Ezra said, also standing. "Maybe he can point me to some of Landry's new friends. They might know how to contact this 'gatekeeper.'"

"I'll grab Buck and we'll go with you for backup," Nathan said, pushing to his feet. "No telling what Whitesides might have found out by now."

"And I'll go back to the office, see what I can find on Robert Seiler," JD offered. "Like how he got out with a life sentence."

"Vin and I will stay here, keep an eye on Chris," Josiah said. "If Seiler's as obsessed as Buck says, he might try to take him again."

"I'll make sure Buck asks Travis to send some DPD uniforms over," JD promised.

And then they were gone, leaving Josiah and Vin alone in the waiting room. Tanner glanced over at the older man, who was trying to hide a yawn behind his hand.

"Why don't y' try an' get some sleep. I'll go sit with Chris."

Josiah paused for a moment, then nodded. "I'll do that, brother, but after the uniforms get here."

"All right," Vin replied and they rose and made their way to Chris's room, finding the man still unconscious.

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

5:45 p.m.

His eyes opened slowly and he found himself staring into the face of the man who had shot him, maybe. It was also the face of the man he'd seen sitting in the Jeep. It was the face of his friend… his best friend.

The man's eyes were closed, and it looked like he might be praying.

"Vin?" he said softly.

Tanner's eyes flew open, filled with a mixture of disbelief, amazement, and joy. "Chris?" came the equally soft reply.

The name echoed in his consciousness, and he could feel the pieces of his missing memory begin to fall back into place again. He nodded.

Vin reached out and lightly touched Larabee's face. Then he slid his arm under the blond's shoulders and lifted him up, pulling him into a crushing hug. The sniper's body shook as he sobbed, holding Chris as if he were afraid the man might just disappear again if he let him go.

Larabee was more than a little surprised to find himself crying as well, as he hugged Tanner in return.

"Hell, Chris," Vin gulped, "what happened? We thought y' were dead."

"I— I'm not sure," Larabee admitted. "It's still all a little fuzzy."

"I shot ya," Vin managed to force out of his too-tight throat. "I shot y', Chris. 'M so sorry. I never meant t' hurt ya."

"I know," the older man replied, his hand rubbing circles on Vin's back. "I know, Vin. I know."

"Thought I'd killed ya," Tanner moaned. "Then I heard y' was alive, tortured."

"You heard?" Chris asked him. "How?"

Tanner explained. "I knew then that I might as well 'a killed y' out there on the lake. I'd killed y' just as sure as if I had shot ya."

"Vin," Chris said, pulling back a little, but Tanner wasn't ready to let go. "Vin, easy, listen to me. I'm alive. This wasn't your fault."

"Like hell it wasn't," the sniper said, his grip easing enough so Larabee could lie back down. He shoved his hands into his pockets and paced off several steps. "They didn't look fer y' 'cause I was so sure I'd shot ya. If we'd looked fer y' maybe—"

"Vin," Chris interrupted, "this had nothing to do with work, or you, or the team. This was something from my past."

"Seiler," Tanner said, nodding.

Chris felt more of his lost memories crystallize. "He—"

"Buck told me who he is," Vin said. "Man who tried t' kill Sarah."

The blond nodded. "He was obsessed with her, and the other women who lived in their apartment building. They were all art students at the university. Sarah was a double-major, art and psychology; she was planning to be an art therapist. But Robert Seiler fixated on them. Three of the five girls were killed before we got a handle on who was responsible. We managed to catch him before Sarah and Kelly Simmons, the fifth roommate, were killed."

Vin nodded and forced himself to walk over and sit down in the chair he'd pulled over close to the bedside earlier.

"They sent Seiler to a mental institution. How the hell he got out is something I plan to find out."

"And he came lookin' fer ya."

"For Sarah, I'd guess. Kelly Simmons died a couple of years after Seiler was convicted – lost control of her car during a storm and died in the wreck. When he found out Sarah was dead; he blamed me. Said he could bring her back… if I died."

"Christ," Tanner breathed. "How long did he have ya?"

Chris thought for a moment, then shrugged. "I'm not sure."

Vin's head dipped and he stared at the floor. "We shoulda found ya."

"Damn it, Tanner, you did what you could. None of you are mind-readers."

Vin looked up at that, a smile forcing its way onto his lips in spite of his desire to blame himself for what had happened to Larabee. "We missed you, Chris," he said softly, and reached out to grip the man's hand.

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

Monday, August 15th

10 a.m.

Vin walked in carrying a plastic grocery bag with some of Larabee's clothes. He handed it to the man, grinning at his relieved expression.

"Glad you finally got here," Chris grumbled. "Thought I was gonna have to wear the stuff Buck dropped off earlier."

"Wouldn't embarrass y' like that, pard," Vin said as seriously as he could.

Chris maneuvered around to the edge of the bed, still stiff and sore, but it was getting better. He pulled his shirt off.

"Shit, Larabee, what the hell he do t' ya?" Vin yelped, staring at Larabee's back, which was dotted with small red circles that looked like burns and crisscrossed with healing shallow cuts.

Chris blinked and looked down at his chest, which was also covered by the same marks. "Some kind of electric stunner," he said. "And his favorite weapon, a scalpel."

Vin found himself fighting to draw a breath as it struck him again just what his friend had gone through while they'd thought he was dead. "Jesus, Chris, how'd—"

"Don't really feel like talking about it," Larabee interrupted.

"All right," Vin said, making a quick inspection of the room while Chris dressed, insuring all of Larabee's personal items, medications, and the like were gathered and deposited into the gym bag Buck had dropped off yesterday, just for that purpose.

When Chris was ready, Vin stepped out of the room to let a nurse know and, a few minutes later, an orderly arrived with a wheelchair.

Much to Tanner's surprise, Larabee slipped silently into the chair, allowing the young man to roll him to the exit where Buck was already parked and waiting.

Chris climbed into the Ram and settled back, his eyes closing against the throb that had taken up residence inside his skull.

"Ready to go home, stud?" Wilmington asked him.

"The office," Chris replied without opening his eyes.


"You heard me, Buck," Larabee growled.

The ladies' man exchanged a worried glance with Vin, who just shrugged and shook his head, not at all sure what was bothering the blond. "All right," he said, waiting for Vin to walk over to his Jeep before he pulled away from the curb.

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

11 a.m.

"Where the hell is my stuff?" Chris asked, stepping back out of his now-empty office.

The others all looked up, surprise and then embarrassment on their faces.

"Uh, we, uh, packed it all up," Buck said. "Travis was talking about a new man and—"

"But where is it?" Larabee asked them, annoyance fading as he saw the pain on his friends' faces.

"Out at the ranch," Josiah supplied.

Chris nodded.

Buck walked over, saying softly, "We just didn't want a stranger rifling through everything, so we packed it up and took it out to your place. JD and I will drive out and bring it back for you."

"I'd appreciate it," Chris sighed, reaching up to rub at his aching temples.

"Want us to take you out there at the same time?" the ladies' man asked hopefully. "You look like you could use some rest."

Chris thought about arguing, but he knew he needed to lie down. Then he glanced across the room and caught the expression on Vin's face. He shook his head carefully. "Thanks, but I've already got a ride," he said and headed over to Tanner's desk.

Vin looked up after a moment.

"You think you could drive me out to the ranch?" Chris asked him.

"Uh, sure," the sniper said, looking confused as he watched Buck and JD heading out. "Aren't they—?"

"Yeah, but I don't think I could handle the constant conversation without shooting one or both of 'em," Larabee admitted.

Nathan grinned. "Head hurting, Chris?"

"Yeah," he said. "Hasn't really stopped hurting."

"You be sure you take your medications on time," the medic said. "You want a couple of Aleve now?"

Chris thought for a moment, then shook his head, carefully. "No, but thanks, Nate. I'll have to take my pills when I get out there anyway, and then I'm just going to go to bed and see if I can sleep it off."

"I'll drop by this evening to see how you're doing," Jackson said.


"Humor him," Josiah interrupted, "he's gotten a little out of practice the last two weeks."

Larabee fought back a small smile and sighed. "All right."

Chris turned and headed for the door, Vin standing and following him, but Ezra stepped up to block his path, saying quietly, "We'll bring out something for dinner, and some fresh basics."

Tanner nodded, glancing from the undercover man to Josiah and Nathan. He knew he wasn't in this alone, but he was feeling awfully on his own at the moment.

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

12:45 p.m.

By the time they arrived at the ranch Buck and JD had already arrived, picked up the boxes, and left. Vin was both grateful, unsure if he could handle any more sympathetic looks from the others, and a little scared. At least Chris had no idea what the sniper had been through and wasn't watching him like a hawk for the breakdown they all assumed was coming, sooner or later.

"Y' want anything before y' lay down?" he asked Larabee.

"Gonna go see the horses," Chris replied.

Vin scowled. "Y' think that's smart? Y' look like yer 'bout ready t' fall over."

"I'm fine," Chris replied, his tone short and snappish.

"Sorry," Tanner said, his hands coming up in a gesture of surrender when he realized that they were arguing.

Chris blinked and started to say something, but then he shook his head and turned, starting across the open space that separated the house from the barn.

Tanner watched him go, silently praying that he didn't end up falling face-first to the ground before he got halfway there. Damn stubborn fool.

He headed into the house, making some coffee and digging through the duffle bag to find Larabee's medications and setting them out on the kitchen counter.

Chris came in to join him a short while later, accepting a cup of coffee and taking his pills. Then, without a word passing between them, Vin escorted Chris to his room, turned back the bed and waited until the man was settled under the covers before leaving, drawing the door shut behind him.

In the hallway, Vin sighed softly and leaned back against the wall. He silently cursed himself for not being excited about Larabee being home. But he wasn't. Grateful, yes, but not excited. He might have been excited if Chris was acting more like his old self, but he wasn't. This Chris Larabee was something of a stranger to him, and Vin wasn't at all sure he could reach this man. He hoped he could, but he wasn't at all sure he could, or if this man even called him a friend.

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


Tuesday, August 16th

8 a.m.

The following morning, Chris found Vin working out in the barn, cleaning out the stalls. But it was clear that they didn't need to be cleaned. Just like the house didn't. In fact, he couldn't remember ever seeing the place looking so neat and tidy. It was as if Vin had gone on a binge and scoured the place from ceilings to floors, and hadn't missed a single spot in between.

And unlike his office, nothing in the house had been packed up, just put away. Even his dirty clothes had been washed and returned to the appropriate drawers. His sheets had been changed, the dirty ones laundered and put away. Even his truck had been washed and cleaned, inside and out.

It was more than a little disconcerting.

The food in the cabinets hadn't been touched, but the refrigerator was empty. That had been remedied when Ezra and the others had stopped by yesterday evening with several armloads of groceries.

Hadn't Vin eaten here? Josiah had told him that Tanner had been spending most of his time out at the ranch, but it was obvious that Vin hadn't been eating. The man had lost several pounds, and he didn't have fat to spare.

He frowned. What the hell had Tanner been thinking, treating himself like that?

That he'd killed you , the small voice in his head reminded him.

Shit .

He sighed. The whole fucking situation was taking some getting used to. When he'd woken earlier, he'd opened his eyes and stared up at his surroundings, disoriented at first. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since he'd last slept in his own bed, and even though nothing had really changed, it no longer looked like the same room he'd called his own.

He guessed that a part of that was the lingering traces of Vin that clung to the room – slight scents, objects not quite in their usual spots, and the extreme cleanliness. Even the clothes in his closet were now hanging evenly spaced across the wardrobe rack, for Christ's sake.

He'd risen and headed for the bathroom, almost hesitant at first to turn on the water lest he spatter the countertop, but he had, and then he'd climbed into the shower, dressed, and gone to the kitchen to make them some coffee.

He paused, watching Tanner work and frowned. Where had Vin slept?

He'd checked the living room, but there were no blankets on the sofa, so he'd walked back to the closed door of the guest bedroom, turning the knob and pushing the door so it swung open. The bed was made, and he wasn't sure if it had been slept in.

He'd stepped into the room. It had been Adam's once, long ago, and for almost a year after the boy's death the door had remained shut, the contents untouched. But then he'd finally forced himself back into the room to face his memories.

He'd cried and raged against his loss, but then he'd boxed up the toys and clothes and took them down to a local shelter, offering them to the woman who ran the place. And she had accepted them with honest gratitude and concern. They'd gone for coffee, Chris telling her about what had happened to Sarah and Adam.

That was the first time he'd used Adam's name in over a year, and it had felt strangely good, healing. Then he'd gone home and, over the next few months, had transformed the room into a guest bedroom. But there was still a pair of small paintings hanging on one wall, right where they'd been when Adam was alive. They were both pictures of wild horses running across a Nevada desert and he just couldn't part with them. His son had loved them, and he'd spent many a night making up stories about the mustangs in an effort to lull the boy to sleep.

He'd sighed softly then, and sat down on the foot of the bed. Glancing over at the small writing desk he saw the letter he'd left with his lawyer for Vin.

He swallowed hard. God, how hard must it have been for the man, thinking himself responsible for Chris's death and then discovering that the man he'd "killed" had left his home to him in his will. But he'd already told Tanner he was going to do that, so at least it hadn't come as a surprise.

Picking up the envelope, he'd pulled out the letter and re-read it, noting the slightly raised, circular marks on the paper as he did. Tearstains, he realized with a cold chill.

Standing, he'd folded the paper up again and slipped it back into the envelope, then headed outside to find Tanner.

And he had found him, in the barn, cleaning clean stalls. "I never meant to make it harder on you, ya know," he said in lieu of a greeting.

Vin looked up, his gaze meeting Chris's for a moment before it dropped again to the letter Larabee was holding in his hand. "Y' didn't make it worse."

"Yeah, I did. And for that I'm sorry, but you had to know that even if things had gone down the way you thought they had, I wouldn't've blamed you."

Tanner just stood there for a moment, and at first Chris wasn't sure he'd really heard him. Then the sniper went back to work, saying, "Reckon I knew that, too, but it didn't matter. I blamed m'self. It was m' fault y' were dead. I sure as hell didn't deserve anything from y'… 'specially those things y' said in that letter."

Chris walked around so Vin was facing him and held out the letter. "I meant every word of it, Vin. I still do."

Tanner stared at the envelope, but he made no move to take it. "Y' know what hurt the worst?" he asked, his raspy, tight voice barely above a whisper.


"What y' wrote in there… could be I'd say 'bout the same if I's t' write a letter like that fer you. But I knew I'd never get the chance t' do that; never get the chance t' tell y' how much y' mean t' me." Vin looked up then, the pain in his eyes taking Chris's breath away. "Now I got y' back 'n'… I ain't sure y' still feel like that."

"Hell, Vin, of course I do." That seemed to ease some of the distress he saw in the man's expressive blue eyes, but it didn't take it away.

"You've shut me out," the sniper said softly. "Didn't know what y' were thinkin'."

Chris dipped his head. "I'm sorry, Vin," he said and sighed. Looking back up he added, "I guess I'm still trying to deal with everything that happened. Seiler might be crazy, but in a way he was right. I did kill Sarah."

"The hell you did," Tanner snapped. "Man who killed her was the one who put that bomb in the car. He wanted to kill you, but he knew he might kill yer family instead, or kill 'em right alongside you. That's the man who killed Sarah and Adam, not you."

Chris knew Vin was telling him the truth, but he just couldn't let go of all the guilt. He'd nursed it for so long, and so well, it had become a part of him. But he also knew he couldn't be the man he'd become after his family had been murdered either. That man had died, eight months ago, and Tanner had killed him . But not me , Chris thought. I'm still alive, and I'm not throwing away what I have now. Not for the likes of Robert Seiler… not even for a memory .

"I made some coffee," Chris said. "Why don't we go in and get a cup and talk. I think it might do us both some good."

Vin nodded, this time taking the letter when Chris held it out to him again.

As they walked back to the house Larabee said, "I meant to tell you while I was in the hospital, but you weren't around much after I woke up."

"I was out here, gettin' the place ready fer ya."

Chris grinned slightly. "I can see that. But the doctor said I hadn't been shot, not by a bullet anyway."

"What?" Vin asked, confused. "But I saw—"

"You saw me get hit by a tranquilizer dart. I don't know where that shot went, Vin, but you didn't hurt me. Hell, the way you shoot, you might have killed the guy who was trying to slit my throat – damn magician."

Tanner huffed out a breath. "They're sure?"

"Yeah, they're sure. No bullet wounds on my hide, plenty of others, but not that kind, so stop kicking yourself in the ass for that, okay?"

Tanner felt part of the burden he'd been carrying since that day on the lake lift from his shoulders and, suddenly, it was a little easier to breathe again.

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

11 p.m.

Chris dreamed. He was back on the streets of Purgatory, lost and confused, moving furtively from alley to alley, trying to find someone, anyone who could help him.

Then, he turned a corner and stepped into the dark shadows at the corner of a parking lot. Across from him was a building, a large mural painted on one wall.

He scanned the lot, looking for the enemies who were dogging him, but he didn't see them. Instead, he saw someone sitting in an old Jeep, a man, holding a gun in his hands.

He watched as the man turned the weapon over in his hands as if trying to decide what to do with it. There was anguish on the man's face, and he knew, somehow, that he was to blame.


The man was Vin. And, as he continued to watch, Tanner lifted the gun, pressing the barrel against his temple and pulling the trigger.

"No!" he cried.

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

Chris woke with a start.

Jesus , he thought, trying to separate dream from memory. He had seen Vin in the parking lot that night, and Tanner had been on the edge of making the same decision he'd just seen in his dream.

And then, with a sudden and sure realization, he knew the truth: Vin had been dying right alongside him.

He climbed out of bed and dressed, then headed down the hall to the guest room. He wasn't surprised to find it empty, but he was when he saw the living room was as well. Where the hell was Vin?

Fear making his heart pound, Chris stepped out onto the patio where he found Tanner sitting on the steps, staring up at the stars.

"Never want t' feel like that again," the sniper said quietly.

"No way to avoid it," Chris said, reining in all the emotions that were churning through his heart and mind. He didn't want to scare the man off before he said what he had to say. "Sooner or later one of us— It's just the way the world works, especially in our line of work."

Vin sighed softly. "Yeah, guess that's so, but I'll tell y', I'd rather take a bullet then be left behind."

"Yeah, I know," Chris said. "Been there… and almost did what you did… just didn't pick a gun as my weapon of choice."

Tanner glanced back at him, his expression confused.

Chris went over and sat down next to the younger man, staring out into the darkness. "When Sarah and Adam died I didn't want to live, didn't think I could, but I was too much of a coward to just kill myself with a bullet. I picked a slow death, a bottle, instead."

Vin looked away, suddenly ashamed. He hoped Chris didn't really know how close he'd come.

"I saw you, Vin," Larabee said quietly.


"That night, in the parking lot of your apartment building, I saw you sitting there in the Jeep with the Glock."

Tanner's spine straightened. "You saw me?"

Larabee nodded.

"Y' saw me 'n' y' let me go on thinkin' you were dead?"

"Vin, I—"

"What the hell's wrong with ya? Sonuvabitch!" He shot to his feet, shaking with anger.

"I didn't remember who you were," Chris said quickly. "I didn't know–"

"Didn't—? Ah hell, 'm sorry, Chris," Vin moaned. "Course y' didn't know. Between the drugs 'n' all that had happened."

"I was just dreaming about it. That's when I realized— Vin, so help me God, you go and do something stupid like that and I swear I'll kick your ass all the way to Hell when you get over to the other side."

"Couldn't be no worse 'n what I was livin' here."

"Vin, listen to me," Chris said, turning slightly so he could reach out and rest his hand on Tanner's shoulder. "If I die, or get killed, you have to go on. You have to find a way to live, you hear me?"

"Didn't feel much like bein' alone," Vin managed in a whisper.

"You aren't alone, believe me, I've walked this road before. I know it feels like you are, but you aren't. There are too many people who care about you out there – the boys, Nettie, Casey – you know as well as I do that they love you; they care about you. You can't do that to them, not for me, Vin, please."

"Ain't makin' no promises," the sniper replied.

"You're making one," Larabee countered.

Tanner turned, the defiant look in his eyes telling Chris that he wasn't in the mood to negotiate.

"All right, look, I'm asking you to do this for me – a personal favor. If anything should happen to me, I want you to wait a year."


"Give it a year. And then, if you still can't find a reason to keep going . . . well, it always comes down to a choice, doesn't it?"

"Chris, I—"

"A year, Vin, three hundred and sixty-five days. That isn't too much to ask for, is it?"

Tanner drew a deep breath. "Y' don't understand, Chris. I thought I'd killed ya. I gave up, an' because 'a that the others believed it too. They accepted the fact that y' were gone… we never looked fer y'. We never thought there was any reason t' look. Everything that psycho did t' y'… that was my fault. Don't y' understand? If I hadn't given up, we might 'a found ya!"

"Vin, it wasn't your fault. Seiler's insane. He thought Sarah's blood would give him dominion over Hell. He thought killing me would bring her back from the dead, so he could kill her and control all the demons in the world. He was crazy ."

" Is crazy," Tanner snapped. "He's still out there, Chris."

"I know, but what he did to me, it wasn't your fault." He took a deep breath and let his own worst fears escape. "I guess I felt like I deserved what he did to me."

"What?" Tanner snapped.

"I've never really been able to let go of the guilt… never been able to stop blaming myself for Sarah's and Adam's deaths. When he had me, it was like I was finally being punished for their deaths, and I felt… relieved."

"Damn, Chris, now that's just pure crazy talkin'. You didn't plant that bomb. You're not to blame for their deaths."

"And you weren't to blame for mine."

"That's different!"

"No, it isn't. Hell, Vin, seems the hardest thing either of us have to learn is to let go of the guilt. I'm trying, are you?"

Tanner thought for a moment and then sighed tiredly. "I want to," he admitted, "I really want to. 'M so damn tired, Chris. 'M tired 'a hurtin' all the time."

Larabee nodded his understanding. "Look, we're not going to solve this sitting out here tonight. Why don't you come in and get some sleep. We'll both just have to keep working on it a little bit each day. You willing to do that?"

Vin nodded. "Don't see I got any choice in the matter. Y' ain't gonna let me be 'til I say I will."

"Damn straight I won't."

"Anybody ever tell y' yer as stubborn as a stray dog with a soup bone?"

Larabee laughed. "In those words, no, but I've heard it a few times."

"Well, whatever words y' heard, they's true."

"Takes one to know one, Tanner." And Chris stood and offered his hand.

Vin took it and allowed himself to be tugged up to his feet. Then, before he could bolt, Chris wrapped him in a hug and he returned it without even thinking. He'd almost lost the best friend he'd ever had, and he wasn't going to let that happen again.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
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Continues in Death Strikes Twice

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