Magnificent Seven ATF Universe
A Daughter's Love by the Neon Gang

[1] Author's Note: This is a sequel to the story And a Time to Die. The plot for this story is a recycle of the Equalizer episode "Splinters." We just had to borrow it for Vin!

Art by Shiloh

Denver, CO

ATF Headquarters

Monday, 0900 Hours

AD Orin Travis set the phone back into its cradle and looked up at his assistant. "That was Attorney General Teague. It seems our old friend Samson Dower is up to his old tricks again. Get Chris Larabee up here."

"Right away, sir," she replied.

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

Less than fifteen minutes later, Chris Larabee sat across from Travis. They waited for a moment as Cathy Bennett poured them coffee, then offered Chris a fresh butter croissant, which he accepted with a grateful nod.

"The Attorney General sent this over," the AD said, handing Larabee a file folder.

Chris took a bite of his croissant, then accepted the file, flipping it open and reading as he ate. His expression went from angry to surprised and back to angry. "So just because Dower says he'll name a few names they're going to let Trude Hall go?" he demanded when he was done. "That bitch damn near killed me."

Travis nodded. "I am well aware of that, but, the AG seems to think that—"

"There's nothing to keep Dower from lying through his teeth."

"No, no, there isn't. But he seems to honestly care about Miss Hall."

"Oh, come on, Orin. You can't honestly believe Samson Dower cares about anything but his own twisted agenda to turn this country into his idea of paradise."

"No, I agree. That is Dower's agenda, but if he's willing to give us some of the competition, shall we say, that has to be a good thing."

"Agreed," Larabee said as he skimmed over the information in the file again, then looked up at Travis. "And there's nothing illegal about Trudi Hall starting a new business now that she's been released from federal prison. But, come on, pharmaceuticals? After what she did to me?"

Travis sighed. "She's not a chemist. She had to rely on Stanley Ladner skills to get her hands on the poison that nearly killed you."

"And now she's running a company that's full of Ladners," Larabee stated determinedly. "I don't know what Dower's game is this time, but I know he's up to something, and he's using his daughter to do it – again."

Travis stood. "Find out what's going on," he said, taking the file back from Larabee. "And Chris?"

Larabee turned back, meeting the older man's eyes. "Yes?"

"Be careful. Please. Dower's a very dangerous man."

Chris nodded, a half-smile on his face. "Yeah, I remember. We'll start with Hall's facility in the Springs, see where it takes us."

Colorado Springs, CO

Verstand Laboratories

Monday, 1000 Hours

In a well-appointed office, Trude Hall sat, reading over the preliminary results of the Splinter Process. She smiled and nodded to herself, then leaned over and punched a button on her phone. A moment later a man's voice said, "Hello?"

"Gentlemen," Hall said, "I should have something to show you very shortly."

"The preliminary tests have all been concluded?" another masculine voice asked over the speaker.

"Yes, they have. The process can accomplish everything I promised, but why take my word for it? Within a few days' time you'll be able to come to Denver for a final demonstration."

"Excellent. Let us know when you're ready. We'll be there," the first voice replied.

Trude hung up the phone and leaned back, a smile on her lips. Oh, this was going to be sweet… sweet revenge. Her father had been forced to compromise several others who shared his vision of a nation led by Whites only. A nation free of all inferior races and queers, but she knew he had done it for her, and she would make sure that operation this went as planned. Larabee and Tanner would pay for what they had done, pay dearly.

Colorado Springs, CO

Verstand Laboratories

Tuesday, 0215 Hours

Sitting in Josiah's midnight blue Suburban, Chris, Vin, and Ezra pulled on black ski masks, which matched the black pants and long-sleeve black sweaters they also wore.

"Everyone ready?" Larabee asked.

"Always," Vin replied with a cocky grin.

"As am I," Ezra added, his grin clear even behind the mask. "What do they call this, Mr. Larabee, breaking and entering?"

"All right," Larabee said, ignoring the undercover man's tease, "we go in, we find the servers, and we have a little looksee into what Dower's little girl is up to; hopefully without tipping our hand." He looked into the back of the vehicle where JD sat, working on a laptop.

"I'm ready," the youngest member of the team assured Larabee. "You get me connected and I'll be able to see what she's been up to."

"And me and Josiah and Nathan will make sure you're not interrupted," Buck added. "Don't think Travis would appreciate it if one of his team leaders got himself arrested for a B-and-E."

Larabee scowled, but there was no heat behind the expression. "All right, people, let's go."

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

Inside the dark building, the threesome moved silently along a dimly lit hallway. Vin held up his hand, fingers curled into a fist, causing the other two to stop behind him. Then the former black ops sniper moved forward slowly, bending low and glancing around the corner of the wall, peering toward the security desk. One guard sat in his chair, slumped over the console, snoring.

Tanner frowned, then eased around the corner and moved silently to the man, checking him. "Chris," he called softly.

A moment later Larabee and Ezra had joined Vin. They looked down at the man, who was drooling onto a keyboard.

"What's going on?" Chris asked, his voice worried as he watched Tanner try to rose the sleeping man.

"Don't know," Vin replied. "But I don't like it."

"We should go," Ezra suggested.

"Too late now," Tanner said. "They must've known we were comin', or somebody else is breakin' in."

"Keep going," Chris said.

They continued on to the server room, where two other security guards sat, both soundly asleep as well.

"What the hell?" Tanner whispered.

"This has to be a trap," Standish stated, fear creeping into his voice.

"Let's go," Chris said, his gut telling him something was very wrong, too.

As they turned to leave, Vin saw movement. "Ambush!" he called, reaching for his sidearm, but a moment later a smoky fog erupted around them.

Once the air cleared, another door leading into the room opened. Trude Hall stepped inside, followed by three men in white lab coats.

"Excellent," she said, looking at the three still forms.

"They're all alive," one of the white-coated men stated.

"Remove their masks," she instructed.

One of the men bent over and pulled Ezra's free.

Strand smiled. "Ah, yes, Mr. Standish… so lovely, but not what I need." She moved to the next. "And Mr. Larabee, tempting, very tempting, especially given how Travis feels about you. But, no, you're not the one."

Stepping over to the last man, Trude smiled and nodded. "Yes. Mr. Tanner, just the man for this mission." She looked up at one of the guards. "Take Standish and Larabee out to the alley so they can join the others. And no damage."

The man nodded his understanding.

"Mr. Tanner, you're coming with us," Trude concluded.

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

Tuesday, 0500 Hours

Buck groaned and leaned back, rubbing at his head gingerly as he realized that he had been slumped over the steering wheel of the Suburban. Glancing over he found Chris leaning against the passenger door.

Reaching out, he gently shook the blond's shoulder, saying, "Hey, stud, you okay?"

Larabee moaned, but he blinked his eyes open and looked at the ladies' man. "Buck? What happened?" he asked, also reaching up to rub his temple.

"I don't know," he said, twisting around to check the back and finding Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan. Behind them, slumped over his work station was JD. There was no sign of Vin. "Damn," he breathed.

"Where's Vin?" Chris asked, also looking.

"I have no idea," Buck replied.

Larabee leaned over and opened the glovebox. He grabbed his cell phone, then punched the speed-dial number for Travis' office.

Orin picked up after one ring. "Chris?"

"It was a set-up," Larabee said, his annoyance clear. "She has Vin."

"Damn it," Travis said. "I want you back here – now."

"Orin, I–"

"Chris," the AD snapped, "that is not a request. We have a better chance of finding Agent Tanner if we work together, use the resources we have at hand. You know that."

Larabee hesitated a moment, wanting to argue, but Travis was right – they had resources, they would find Vin. They weren't going to find anything here; Hall was too smart for that. "All right," he agreed.

"Thank you," Travis said. "Once you get back, call me. We'll run Hall to ground, I promise you that."

Chris ended the call.

"What are we doing?" Buck asked.

"Going back to Denver."

Wilmington looked like he might argue, but the unconscious men behind them changed his mind.

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

Geest Chemicals

Commerce City, CO

Tuesday, 1645 Hours

Larabee sat across the street in a rented Van, studying the small building. After JD spent the day digging through bank records, business dealings and front companies, and who knew exactly what else, he had found another of Hall's holdings. And it was being run by a man who had recently opened a Caribbean account with $500,000 cash.

Ezra sat in the passenger seat, continuing to look through pages of printouts, trying to track Dower and Hall's involvement down like they had the last time, but they had gotten more careful, hiding behind every business trick they could find or invent. But there was a connection between Verstand Labs and Geest Chemicals, and that was the only lead they had at the moment.

In the back Josiah, Nathan, and Buck used their phones to reach out to informants or run down leads Ezra and JD gave them.

They waited in silence until a security guard finally stepped out to secure the front doors, just after 5 p.m., then Chris drove them around the back of the building to the receiving dock. Chris and Buck entered the building using the forged paperwork JD had created, the guard there not even giving them a second look. The others waited in the Van, in case they needed back-up.

Michael Keith looked up sharply when Chris and Buck entered his office, his brow furrowing. He had left strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed. "May I help you?" he asked, his tone clearly annoyed.

"Hands in the air," Buck said, pulling his sidearm from his shoulder holster and pointing it at the man.

"What?" Keith snapped, his eyes rounding with fear and anger.

"Your hands," Larabee repeated. "Put them up."

The man complied, scowling darkly. "Do I know you?" he asked the ATF agents.

The blond ignored the question. "You should cover your tracks better, Mr. Keith," he said, his tone as cold as the glare he leveled on the man. "The payoff Dower gave you was much too easy to find."

The man's gaze flickered nervously between the two agents. "What's this about?" Keith demanded. "Samson Dower is in prison. I haven't seen him in years."

"What's this about?" Buck repeated, a predatory grin lifting the corners of his mouth. "You left a promising career at Billings Pharmaceuticals, with no warning; files are missing, research reports, samples…"

Keith squirmed in his chair.

"…then you open an account with $500,000 cash. This cash, as a matter of fact," he added, holding up a small silver briefcase. He opened it to show Keith the stacks of bills inside.

"That's my money?" the man yelped, unable to believe they could have emptied his account.

"It is," the ladies' man replied.

"That's my retirement account!" Keith objected, standing up behind his desk.

"Then let's go retire it," Larabee snarled, gesturing with his gun for Keith to move out from behind the desk.

The man quickly complied, anxious to save his money.

Chris pointed to the private restroom off Keith's office.

"What are you planning?" the man demanded. "You have no right to—"

"Move it," Chris growled, interrupting.

Keith frowned, but he led the way into the opulent rest room, Chris and Buck following behind him.

Inside, Chris grabbed Keith's jacket at the top of the shoulder and maneuvered him over to stand in front of the toilet. "Kneel down," he said.


"You heard him," Buck snapped, then slammed his foot against the back of Keith's right knee. "Kneel down."

His leg buckling, Keith had no option but to do as he'd been instructed, but he muttered darkly under his breath.

"Put your hands under your knees," Larabee instructed.

"The floor might be dirty," Keith whined, looking up at the blond and wishing he was armed.

"It'll be a damned sight dirtier in a minute if you don't you what you're told," Buck threatened. "Put your hands under your knees."

"Are you going to kill me?" Keith asked, doing as he was told, his face going starkly pale.

"That's up to you," Larabee snarled, looking perfectly capable of executing Keith. "I want to know what Dower is up to." He nodded to Buck, who had carried in the briefcase. He reached in, grabbed a fistful of cash and released the $1,000 bills, the money falling into the toilet bowl. He reached over and flushed them.

"Are you crazy!" Keith cried, his eyes going wide, his face even paler.

"I'm only going to ask you one more time," Larabee said. "What's Dower and his daughter working on?"

Buck tossed in more of the money and flushed that as well.

"No!" Keith cried, then looked up at Chris, his gaze pleading. "All right, all right! Dower wants revenge on the men who put him in prison, and he's willing to pay good money to do it."

"Where's Trude Hall?" Larabee demanded, knowing wherever she was, that's where they'd find Vin.

"I don't know!"

Buck tossed in more bills and reached for the handle.

"Please! Dower and his daughter are insane! He'll have me killed if I—"

Buck hit the handle, sending several thousand dollars down the toilet.

"Denver! She's working out of a private lab in Denver!"

"What's she working on?" Chris asked.

Keith hesitated only a moment, but it was long enough for Buck to drop an even larger handful of cash into the bowl.

"Don't! Don't flush it! Please!"

"What's Trude Hall working on?" Chris bellowed at the man.

"The company is called Psi-Pharm. It's in Denver. They're doing work on mind-altering drugs, cocktails with psychological warfare applications, but that's all I know, I swear!"

"I want a location – now!" Larabee snapped.

"I don't know! It's a classified lab. They'd don't exactly advertise where they are!"

"What's your connection to Psi-Pharm?" Buck asked, reaching for the handle.

"We supply one of the components for a designer drug they're developing," Keith rushed to tell them. "But that's all! I swear it!"

"I want a name," Chris demanded. "Someone who can get me in the door."

"Robert Woods," Keith said, his shoulders slumping. "He's a lead research scientist at Psi-Pharm. He sent the supply orders to me. If any one can get you in the door, it's Woods."

"And he's in Denver?"

"Yeah. Usually. I think he's on vacation right now," Keith said, talking as quickly as he could.


"Telluride. He's got a cabin there. I swear it!"

Buck and Chris exchanged glances. The ladies' man dumped the rest of the money into the toilet, turned on his heel and headed out of the restroom. Larabee started after Buck, but stopped as he saw Keith begin to reach into the bowl to rescue the cash that floated there. He reached over and shoved the handle down hard.

"No!" Keith cried, jerking his hand back out.

"You can get up now, Keith," Larabee snarled, but the man was slumped over, sobbing over his apparent loss. The counterfeit bills had come courtesy of the Treasury Department.

Psi-Pharm Labs

Denver, CO

Wednesday, 0830 Hours

Trude Hall walked around a circular tank. The clear plastic container allowed her to see the naked man floating on the surface of the viscus liquid that filled it. Tanner's body was covered with large bruises and angry red welts from the beating he had endured. An oxygen mask covered his mouth, and bandages covered his eyes. Earplugs cut off his ability to hear. Thin micro-filaments ensured that his fingers and toes were not allowed to touch.

"Our basic presupposition is that time has no meaning to human memory. Years can pass like minutes, and minutes like centuries. Memory is like a picture painted on glass. Even when after the paint is dry, it can be changed – color can be added to color, light turned to dark. A peaceful man can be transformed into a murderer, or a killer like Mr. Tanner, re-directed to new targets. All that's necessary is to shatter and re-paint his past."

Trude smiled. "A shame you'll never really appreciate this, Mr. Tanner," she said, although the man in the tank couldn't hear him.

She turned to continue to address three men who were there to observe the process. "We call the technique 'splintering,' and it takes place in three stages," she explained, her voice accented. "The first, which is now complete, is physical pain. Pain creates shock, fatigue, and rage, jarring the subject from his normal reality.

"In the second stage, which is where Mr. Tanner has been for many hours now, we isolate him from his own body – even his fingers and toes are not allowed to touch. His eyes and ears are sealed. He floats in a liquid kept at exact body temperature. In this state, time loses all meaning. The present becomes the past, and the future… well," Trude said and smiled, "there is no future."

She walked around the tank before she continued, saying, "Stage three is a reconstruction of reality. Psi-Pharm chemists have carefully formulated a powerful hallucinogenic agent. When coupled with taped messages, played directly into the subject's mind, key moments from his past can be re-created. What he experiences appears totally real.

"Mr. Tanner has developed some central friendships that have changed his life, and one of those friendships will be the point of our attack." She looked at the closest technician, instructing, "Seal it."

A clear plastic lid was lowered into place and locked down, sealing Vin off completely.

Another technician stepped up and opened the drip on the two IV's that ran into Vin's arms. A moment later the former sniper was gasping for breath, his body trembling, his muscles jerking.

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

Lost in an endless black void, Vin wandered, confused and frightened. Out of nowhere a burst of fire from an AK-47 split the darkness like a stab of lightening. Tracers continued to fly around him even after he had thrown himself to the ground. Or at least he thought he had, but it was impossible to know for sure.

He crawled along as images assaulted him, rapid-fire – various raids and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, other black ops missions he'd undertaken, more tracer fire, an explosion from an IED…

Over the din of gunfire and the pain-filled screams that resulted from the IED, Vin heard Larabee's voice. "Yes, sir, I've studied the file."

Then, suddenly, Tanner was sitting in Orin Travis' office. The AD was seated behind his desk, flanked by Josiah and Buck, both of whom were watching him, their expressions disapproving. Pacing in front of him was Larabee.

But why were they all watching him?

"I knew putting him the team was a mistake," Larabee said, his gaze cutting to Travis. "But you forced him on me, over my objections."

What? What was Chris talking about? "What's goin' on?" Vin asked, feeling decidedly nervous.

"What do you want to do about it?" Travis asked, dropping a thick file folder onto his desktop.

"I'll handle it in my own way," the blond assured the AD.

"You'd better handle it," Travis said. "You don't have much time."

"I will take care of it, sir. You can count on that," Chris assured him, then stopped pacing. He looked down at Vin.

The sniper met the man's gaze, noting the distrust in Larabee's eyes. "What's goin' on, Chris?"

"That's the question, isn't it?" Chris countered.

Vin took a deep breath, confused, his head aching. He reached up and rubbed at his temples. "Damn it, Larabee, what's goin' on? I don't even remember comin' here."

"You don't remember meeting us? You don't remember attacking JD and Ezra, then Nathan when he tried to stop you? You don't remember Buck and I stopping you?" Chris sighed heavily. "I trusted you, Vin."

That brought the man's head up. "Wait a minute. What're y' talkin' about?"

"I trusted you, more than anyone one else in the world."

"We all did," Josiah added, his expression angry.

"Yes, we all trusted you, Mr. Tanner," Travis concurred. "But it seems that trust was misplaced."

"What the hell's goin' on?" Tanner demanded, beginning to lose his temper.

"Do you remember our first meeting, Vin?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, 'a course I do."

"Describe it to me."

"You were there, Chris," Vin countered.

"Describe it to me!"

"I was in the U.S. Marshals Service."

"You were in the Army once, too."

"What's that got t' do with it?"

"You were a black ops sniper," Buck added.

"Yeah, I was a sniper. So what? Those skills have saved your asses more 'n once."

"You're expertly trained in the use of weapons," Travis told him. "You're a highly trained killing machine."

"What?" Vin asked. He looked at Chris. "What's that got t' do with our first meetin'? I was with the Marshals then."

"You were under attack," Chris said.

"Yeah, by the bad guys," Vin snapped.

"You were trying to kill them."

"I was doin' m' job!"

"Were you, or were you working for yourself? We saved you from getting shot. What happened next?"

"What?" Vin demanded, confused. He'd been on a fugitive retrieval; the man he'd been after almost killing Nathan before he'd stopped him.

"You were released from the Marshals, at your request," Travis stated.

"Yeah, but—"

"And you started to work for Agent Larabee, isn't that right?" Travis said.

"Yeah, but—"

"How many assignments have gone wrong since you got here?" Buck asked him. "How many times has one of us gotten hurt?"

"What the hell're y' takin' about, Buck? I watch yer backs!"

"Even the men in your old Army unit were killed," Chris reminded him. "You were the only survivor."

"I had nothing t' do with that!" Tanner yelled, the pain of that loss still a raw ache in his guts. "The chopper went down!"

"It is all here, Mr. Tanner!" Travis bellowed, holding up the thick file folder. "All of it, right here!"

"Let me see," Vin said, reaching out for the file, but Travis opened the folder, then slapped the surface of the desk and looked up. "It says, right here, that you infiltrated this team. You're a traitor, Mr. Tanner."


"Look at it, Vin," Larabee snapped. "Look at it for yourself. It's all right here!" He pointed at the file.

"Traitor," Buck said. "We trusted you. You tried to kill me."

"I didn't!" Vin cried, trying to guess what Wilmington was talking about.

"You wanted me dead!" the ladies' man yelled back.

"That's crazy!" Vin shouted back.

"I'm going to give you one chance," Larabee told him. "One chance."

Vin looked at Chris, who was holding a gun on him. "Chris, y' can't believe I'd—"

"Run, Vin. Now," Larabee ordered.

Vin squinted, the light coming in from the window behind Travis growing too bright for him to look at. A fierce wind sprang up, howling in his ears, but he could still hear Larabee's voice: "Run, Vin. Run. Run. Run. Run, Vin."

Telluride, CO

Wednesday, 0400 Hours

Leaning against the wall next to a king-sized bed, Ezra leaned over and tapped the shoulder of the man sleeping in the bed, saying, "Rise and shine, Mr. Woods."

Robert Woods jerked awake, his eyes widening with surprise as he peered up at Standish though sleep-fogged eyes.

Ezra smiled down at him, his Glock trained on the man.

Instinctively, Woods slipped his hand under his pillow and frowned.

"The gun you keep under your pillow is gone," Larabee said, stepping into his field of vision and holding up his Smith & Wesson for a good look.

"Who are you?" Woods demanded, slinking farther down under his covers. "What do you want with me?"

"You're looking a little haggard, Mr. Woods," Ezra said. "I think you need to get away, take a short vacation."

"I am on vacation!"

Standish smiled. "I hear Denver is beautiful this time of year. Get up, Mr. Woods," he said, his voice deadly cold.

Woods climbed slowly out of bed and started to reach for his clothes.

"You won't be needing those," Larabee said.


Ezra grabbed the man's arm. "Come on."

"Look, just tell me what you want; we can make a deal!"

"Oh, we'll deal all right," Larabee growled. "But on our terms, and when we say."

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

Wednesday, 0540 Hours

In the back of Josiah's Surburban, Standish pointed the shivering Robert Woods to a trunk. Standish opened the lid. "Get in," he instructed.

"In there?" Woods squeaked, his face going pale.

Ezra nodded.

"You heard him," Larabee added, gesturing with his gun.

"I can't! I—"

Chris leveled his gun on the man. "You honestly think I give a damn? Dead or alive, you're getting in that trunk. Now!" the blond yelled, making the man jump.

Woods climbed into the small space, his limbs already beginning to shake as Ezra reached out and began to close the lid. "Please! What do you want from me?"

"Psi-Pharm," Chris told him.

Woods eyes went round with surprise. "I can't," he gasped in honest terror.

Larabee nodded to Ezra and he closed the lid a little farther.

"Wait! Please!"

"I want a location," Chris told the man.


"That much we already know," Ezra said, closing the door more.

"No! Please! I'll show you!"

"We were hoping you'd say that," Ezra said.

"One more question," Chris growled. "Vin Tanner, dead or alive?"

"I don't know anyone by that name."

Ezra shoved the lid closed, the latch falling into place with a loud click.

"No! Please!"

"Dead or alive?" Larabee repeated.

"Alive! He's alive!"

"Relax, Mr. Woods," Ezra said, locking the trunk. "It might be a bumpy ride."

"Let me out of here! Please! Let me out of here!"

"As soon as we're in Denver," Ezra informed him.

A low moan was the only reply.

Chris climbed into the passenger seat.

"We ready to go?" Josiah asked.

Larabee nodded.

"Do you think he's telling the truth about Vin?" Ezra asked as he settled into his own seat and put his feet up on the trunk.

"I hope so," was all Chris said.

Denver, CO

Wednesday, 1300 Hours

Checking the monitors, then glancing over at Tanner, Trude Hall smiled. "His heart's beating like a marathon runner. He's progressing well. Put in the second tape," she directed.

A technician did as she'd instructed, Vin's breath quickly becoming ragged.

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

He was running, although he couldn't tell where he was, or where he was going, but all around him he could still hear Chris' voice: "Run, Vin… Run, Vin… Run, run, run… Run, Vin."

Then, suddenly, he was racing along a city street. He stopped, realizing he was standing outside his apartment building. He glanced up, and there, standing on a balcony was Claire Mosley.

"No," he said to himself, "that's not possible."

But he bolted into the lobby, ignoring the people who were there, and sprinted to the stairs, taking them two or three at a time. His heart pounded loudly in his chest, the drumming blocking out all other sounds. His legs and his lungs burned. And then he was standing outside her door. He glanced to the left and right, but the impossibly long hallway was empty. He reached out, his hand closing around the knob. He turned it. The door swung open silently and he stepped into the apartment.

Claire, standing near the middle of the room, turned. She smiled at him, then rushed over to him, throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him. Pulling back, she kissed him, then said, "Thank God. I thought they'd caught you and Chanu."

"Claire, what're y' doin' here?" he asked, some part of him knowing this was wrong – very wrong. Claire had been killed by a local drug dealer. Her father had been sure her boyfriend had been to blame…

"What do you mean, Vin?" she asked. "I was waiting for you, like you asked me to. You said you were bringing Chanu. I didn't know what else to do, so I hid the papers."

"Papers?" Vin asked, his head pounding, making it hard to follow what was happening.

"The evidence on what—"

"No. No, this is impossible," Vin barked, taking a step back from her, his hands coming up to keep her back. "This can't be happenin'."

"Vin?" she asked, her expression pleading. "What's wrong? Where's Chanu?"

"This can't be happenin'!" he yelled at her. Claire was dead. He knew she was dead, and so was Chanu.

"Let's go find Chanu," she said. "You know what my father will do if he finds out about us. We'll run away, like we all planned."

"What?" he asked her, totally confused. He and Chanu had found Claire – dead. Her father had hired a PI who'd framed Chanu for her death… he'd been killed in jail…

There was a knock at the door and Claire started to answer it. He grabbed her arm. "No. Don't open it," he told her.


"It's not Chanu," Vin told her. "They're gonna kill ya."

She smiled. "Vin, stop teasing me." She started for the door again.

"Claire, no."

"I have to answer it, Vin," she said. "I have no choice. Chanu's here."

He lunged forward and grabbed her again. "What're y' talkin' about? You and Chanu are dead!"

"Dead?" She laughed and started for the door.

"Claire, no!" he cried, but it was too late, she had disappeared. He bolted for the door, then stumbled to a stop. He wasn't in the apartment any more.

"I thought you said you were going to help her," Chris said accusingly.

Vin spun around. He was outside again, a gray fog swirling around him, making it impossible to tell where he was. Not far away stood Larabee, holding the file folder Travis had had, and his gun.

"What?" Vin asked.

"It's all here, Vin. How you set Claire and Chanu up. How you traded their lives for—"

"Bullshit!" Tanner growled, taking a step toward the blond, but the gun came up, pointed at him, and he stopped.

"You betrayed them, Vin. You betrayed all of us. Why can't you remember?"

"I don't remember!" Tanner yelled.

"You're a traitor, Vin. A Judas. Run, Vin. Run."

Vin wanted to run, but he was frozen in place. Then a biting wind began to blow, hot, like the breath from the mouth of a volcano, and it burned away his soul, turning his resolve into ash…

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

One of the technicians looked up from the computer monitor he was watching. "I'm getting some erratic readings."

"Increase the dosage," Hall instructed another tech, who immediately dialed up the frequency on the IV drip.

The first man turned back to his monitor. A few moments later he nodded and said, "That seemed to do the trick."

In the tank, Vin's body began to twitch again, and he gulped in air from the mask over his mouth.

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

He was crawling through the dirt, on his belly, too afraid to stand. The darkness clawed at him, rending tears in his clothes and skin. Wisps of gray fog curled around and stung his face and hands like tentacles from a deadly jellyfish. And all around him he could hear the voices of his Army unit, he could hear Trip and Randy's voices, other friends: Traitor… Judas… You left us to die… You killed us, Texas.

Traitor… Murderer… You killed us… Left us to die…

Traitor… Judas…

"No, no, no," Vin chanted. They died in a chopper crash. It wasn't his fault. He couldn't save them. He'd been thrown out on impact…

"What're you doing here, Vin?" Larabee demanded. "We're on a mission. What happened to you?"

Vin stopped and sat there in the dirt. "I don't know," he admitted, completely at a loss.

"What're you doing, Vin?" Chris demanded again.

"Get away from me!" the sniper yelled, then he looked back at the blond. "Y' left me!"

"Left you?" Larabee laughed. "Tell the truth, Vin!"

"I am!"

"Why are all the men you've worked with dead?"


"Answer me!" Larabee snapped. But Vin could not. "Look around!" the blond continued. "Dead! They're all dead!"

Vin shook his head, and as he did the bodies of his old unit changed.

Traitor… Nathan.

Judas… Josiah.

You left us to die… JD.

You killed us, Junior… Buck.

How could you? Ezra.

"No!" Tanner yelled.

"They're all dead, Vin. You're all alone. You killed them all. Each and every one of them. You even tried to kill me as well!"

"No!" Vin cried again. "I've never—"

"Only the Judas is still alive," Josiah's ghost said.

"The rest of us are only shadows," Nathan's ghost agreed.

"You do remember, Junior? Do you remember killing JD?" Buck's ghost demanded.

Images flashed though Tanner's mind: his hands closing around the younger man's throat… his fingers, clawing at his hands, at his face… then his eyes, slowly closing. He let JD's limp body drop…

"I didn't kill JD!"

"It's all here," Larabee sneered, holding out the file folder. "Right here. You betrayed us!"

"I didn't kill 'em! They were m' friends!"

"Friends?" Larabee challenged. "Friends don't murder their friends, Vin. You betrayed them. You killed them. There's only one way out, Vin… death with honor."

Larabee pointed to the ground and Vin looked, finding an M9 lying close to his hand. It looked like his grandfather's old weapon…

"Pick up the gun, Vin. Pick it up," Larabee told him. "It's your turn to die."

Traitor… Judas…

Vin reached out and picked up the gun. He turned it over in his shaking hands, then looked up at Chris, crying, "I didn't kill 'em! They were m' friends, m' family! Like you!"

"Family?" the blond scoffed. "I saw what you did to your family, Vin, remember? I saw how you betrayed your mother, your grandfather. You betrayed all of us! Remember?"


"It's all here, Vin. Why can't you tell the truth? It's all in here," he said, holding out the file folder. He pointed at the ground again.

Tanner looked down, finding the file folder lying where the gun had been.

"All your memories are right there on the ground!" Larabee told him. "Why can't you remember?"

Vin started to reach out for the folder, but fear squeezed his heart. What if Chris was right?

Traitor… Judas… You left us to die… You killed us…

Unable to force himself to reach the file, Vin gripped the M9 tighter. Fear and guilt exploded in his chest. He snapped the gun up, firing at Larabee.

As soon as he did, Vin felt his anger dissolve into a profound sadness and he began to sob as he stared at the bloody body of the man he had come to call friend… brother… family.

"You are a traitor, Vin," Chris' voice accused him out of the darkness. "Traitor… Traitor, Vin… Traitor."

Tanner's world erupted into shattered bits of multicolored stained glass, raining down on him, cutting him into a million aching pieces.

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

Wednesday, 1500 Hours

Buck slipped out of the Suburban and walked over to an electrical box that sat near one of the older buildings in a small industrial park. He used a lock-pick to open the padlock that secured the box, then quickly found the wires he was looking for and attached a small black box to them. That done, he returned to the waiting SUV.

Josiah drove them to the building Robert Woods pointed out, Chris and Woods getting out.

"Give us thirty or forty minutes, then call backup," the Blond told the others.

"Chris, take me with you," Ezra said.

"I can't take the chance," he told Standish. "I don't want Hall to end up with three hostages."

"But two are okay?" Buck challenged him.

"I'm counting on you all to get us out before I become a hostage."

The other agents didn't look happy, but they nodded their agreement, Josiah adding, "You'll be a hostage as soon as you pass the door."

"Come on," Larabee said, holding on to Woods' arm, his gun pressed to the man's side.

"You're a dead man," Woods muttered under his breath.

"At least I'll get some rest," Chris replied tiredly.

"What do you want me to do?" the chemist asked.

"Take me on a tour of Psi-Pharm, Mr. Woods."

The man looked down at his pajamas, and blanched.

When they reached the side of the building, Chris instructed, "Kneel down." Once the man did, the blond added, "Hands on top of your head." When Woods complied, Chris fished into his pocket for a small remote control unit. He pressed the button on the front of the device and, a moment later, the lights in the building went out.

Taking the opportunity, Chris used the butt of his revolver to break out a window pane.

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

Inside the building, everything went dark but, a few moments later, the lights came back up. Hall glanced around, watching the technicians checking their equipment.

"Everything's fine," one of them announced.

She smiled. "Mr. Larabee must be here. It's about time."

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

A few moments later Larabee forced Woods into the laboratory, but he jerked the man to a halt as soon as he spotted Vin floating in the tank.

"Oh my God," Chris breathed.

One of the technicians started to leave, but Larabee's gun shifted to the man. "Stay right where you are. Get that lid off. Get him out of there – now!"

"I'm afraid it's not that simple, Mr. Larabee," Trude Hall said, stepping into view, one of her security people standing beside her. "Your friend is drugged, and on a life support system. If we remove him without the correct preparations, he will die."

"Then start the preparation – now," Larabee snarled, "or your chemist dies."

Trude smiled. "I am not convinced that you would actually kill Mr. Woods in cold blood, but I do have the deepest respect for your convictions, and your reputation, Mr. Larabee, so let's dispense with the formalities, shall we?" She nodded.

The security guard shot Robert Woods twice in the heart and the chemist dropped heavily to the floor.

"Now, Mr. Larabee, I need you to hand over your gun, and put your hands on your head. Do it, or you and Mr. Tanner will both die. Please, you really have no other choice."

After a brief glance at Vin, Chris dropped his gun and put his hands on his head.

"I wondered how long it would take you to find us," she said as if she were making polite conversation. "But then, you are a federal agent, and your team's talents are formidable. I assume they will be joining us soon?"

"Along with the police."

"Ah, I see. Well, we have no time to waste. I suppose you would like to know what it is I want?"

"I'm sure you're going to tell me," Chris replied.

"Yes," Trude said, an indulgent smile on her lips, but her eyes had turned hard and cold. "Yes, I will tell you. You and your team took something away from me. You hurt me, so I have studied you, and you are… flawed. Friendship makes you lose your objectivity. That's why Mr. Tanner was chosen. Well, that and his natural inclinations toward violence. You see, it's not you I'm after, Mr. Larabee, it's Orin Travis. And do you know what his weakness is? You are his weakness, Chris. You and Mary and her son. Poor Orin, such a sentimentalist… But if I destroy you, all of you, I will destroy him."

Chris glanced over at Vin. "So you've programmed him to kill us."

"Oh, very good, very good. But not quite accurate. You see, at this point Mr. Tanner's only been convinced to kill you," Trude said, then gestured for Chris to come with her, leading the blond into a small but well-appointed office. "Please, have a seat."

"I'd rather not."

"Sit," Trude ordered and two security men started forward.

Larabee sat, knowing he was buying time for the others.

Trude smiled and poured them each a brandy, then handed one to Peter, who accepted it, but didn't drink. The woman held up her glass, saying, "To strategy, the international language."

Chris sat back, his eyes narrowing. "I guess you think your strategy is brilliant."

"I view it to be successful," she corrected, then sat down behind her desk. "You know, it was so easy to place some of my father's people in the ATF, then it was simply a matter of dipping into your files in order to bring this all about."

"You mean whatever it is you did to Vin?"

She nodded.

"I'm sure your father is proud," Larabee replied, sarcasm dripping from each word.

"Yes, he is," Trude agreed, looking very pleased with herself. "In the end, he will win. I have buyers here to witness the field test of our new drug. It had to be impressive, which is why I chose Mr. Tanner and yourself. What harder cases could I find?"

Chris leaned back and took a sip of his brandy. "Oh, yeah, we're hard." He took another sip. "And after Vin kills me?"

"Then the rest of you, and finally Orin Travis himself."

Chris glowered at the woman, but said nothing.

The phone sitting on Trude's desk rang and she picked it up, listening for a few moments, before saying, "Good. Thank you," and then hung up. She looked at Larabee. "Mr. Tanner is awake and asking to see you."

One of the two security men stepped forward and pulled up a panel set into the floor, revealing a set of stairs that led down into darkness.

"It has been a pleasure, Mr. Larabee," Trude said, toasting him.

"You're not coming?" Chris asked.

"No," she said, smiling indulgently. "I think you and Mr. Tanner need some time to… renew your friendship."

Larabee stood and walked over to the stairs. After a deep breath, he headed down the steps.

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

In the maze-like room below Hall's office, Chris made his way carefully and quietly in the darkness. His heart was pounding. Vin was a dangerous man under the best of circumstances, and this was far from being the best of anything. He only hoped he could stay alive long enough for the others and the police to find him.

Rounding a corner, he spotted Tanner sitting on a wooden chair across a dark room. He was bent over his knees, like he'd just thrown up. For a brief moment Chris considered trying to hide in the chaotic tangle of boxes and stored equipment, but he dismissed the idea. If Vin decided to find him, he would do it.

Vin remained perfectly still as Chris moved closer, the ring of his footfall perfectly clear in the large room. Tanner had to know he was there. So why wasn't he moving?

"Vin?" Chris called softly, but there was no response. "Vin?" he tried again.

The sniper slowly straightened, and Larabee had to stifle a gasp when he got a good look at the man's face, which was bruised and swollen, patches of skin peeling off. He watched Vin turn his head slightly so he could look at him out of the less-puffy eye.

"Vin? It's me. Are you all right?"

Out of nowhere voices began to echo in the enclosed space: Traitor… Judas… You left us to die… You killed us…

Chris glanced around. "I don't know what those words mean, Vin," he said. "Who's the traitor? Vin?"

Traitor… Judas… You left us to die… You killed us…

"'M not a traitor!" Tanner yelled, bolting to his feet, M9 in his trembling hand.

"No, Vin, you're not," Chris replied immediately, realizing what Trude Hall had in mind for him. "You're right, you're absolutely right. You're not a traitor." But even as he was speaking, he knew it was too late.

Vin jerked the gun up and fired. The shock of the shot knocked Chris to his knees, a painful burning exploding in his shoulder.

"Vin! No, Vin!" the blond cried, his mind racing, searching for a way to get through to the man. "What're they trying to teach you, Vin?" He watched as the sniper shuffled slowly closer, the M9 still pointed at him. "Are they trying to teach you that I'm your enemy? You know that's not true. You know it's not true. I'm not your enemy, Vin, you know that. I'm your friend. I'm your friend." His mind raced even faster, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he had time to really think about what he was saying. "We're a team, Vin. A team. We've been fighting people like the ones who did this to you for over a year. We've saved each other's lives more times than I can count. I'm your friend, Vin, I'm not your enemy. I'm your friend, remember that. Remember that. Don't let them take that away from you. Remember the past. Remember—"

Larabee's voice caught when Vin reached him, then pulled him to his feet, the movement sending a stab of pain through his shoulder. On his feet, Vin pulled the blond right up against his trembling body.

Larabee met the sniper's gaze and the glimmer of recognition he saw there gave him hope.

"Vin, listen, there's something more important, more powerful, than hatred, and that's friendship. I'm your friend. I've always been your friend." He gulped in a breath, sure now that he was getting through to the man, but they had to play this out, they had to make Hall think it had worked in order to lure her to them. "If I've hurt you," he continued, meeting and holding Vin's gaze, willing him to understand, "in any way, please, forgive me. And if I'm going to die now, remember… I forgave you. Remember. And remember that I died your friend."

The gun went off again.

"Ah," Larabee said, his tone almost disappointed, then he fell heavily to the floor.

Vin didn't move, just stood where he was, staring down at Larabee and waiting.

Trude Hall and her potential buyers entered through a different door, hurrying toward them.

"Gentlemen, what more can be said?" she asked. "I think this is clear proof of our success."

"Don't bet on it, bitch," Tanner muttered softly, then he spun, taking out the two security men.

One of the guards fell near Chris, and Larabee reached out, grabbing the man's fallen weapon and aiming it at Hall, who was reaching for the second fallen man's weapon.

"Don't make a move!" Larabee snarled.

Trude met his eyes and, seeing the conviction, set the weapon back down on the floor.

"Stand up," Chris said.

Trude did as ordered, and Chris carefully climbed to his feet, unable to bite back a groan along the way. "Don't do anything that might make me nervous," he warned, biting off the words as he covered Hall, the buyers, and the last security man. "Because I am in pain, and pain drives away my objectivity." He glanced briefly at Vin, who had shuffled up to stand next to him, his M9 trained on the men as well. "It's good to see you… I think. You look like hell."

"Y' don't say," Vin drawled. "I gotta say, Larabee, as a dream y' make for a real nightmare."

"I'm sure," Chris half-growled as he watched the others. "Put your hands up. Hands up!" As soon as they obeyed, he added, "Now, we leave."

Together the two men herded Trude and the others outside, the police having arrived, surrounding the building. The rest of Team Seven were there as well.

Nathan took one look at Vin and raced over to join them, Ezra on his heels.

Vin pressed his M9 into Ezra's hand, and he took it, looking worried. "Vin, are you all right?" he asked.

"Hell no," was Tanner's airy reply.

"Come on, Vin," Nathan said, taking the sniper by the arm and carefully guiding him over to one of the police cars, then helped him sit down on the passenger seat.

"An ambulance is on the way," the officer said, his gaze sweeping over Tanner. "Christ, what the hell happened to you?"

"Beats dead," Tanner muttered in reply.

Buck guided Chris over to the car as well, and the man leaned back against the vehicle, waiting for the medics to arrive. He looked down at Vin and asked, "You going to make it?"

Tanner nodded. "You?"

"Yeah," Chris replied. "You're a terrible shot when you're drugged."

Vin snorted.

Summit Hospital and Trauma Center

Denver, CO

Wednesday, 2000 Hours

The remaining six members of Team Seven stood when a young man stepped into the waiting room. In his thirties, with light brown hair and green eyes, he wore blue jeans, a long-sleeve forest green T-shirt and a pale green lab coat. Tennis shoes that looked more like hiking boots completed the picture of a fit, outdoors man who just happened to be a physician.

"Friends of Mr. Tanner's?" he asked, his voice deep and pleasant as he took in Larabee's bandaged arm and the sling he was wearing. "I'm Dr. Gray Jordan."

"Nice to meet you, Doctor," Chris said. "Chris Larabee," he added, extending his good hand. The doctor shook it, then turned to Ezra and smiled.

"Ezra Standish," he said, shaking the doctor's hand as well.

The physician proceeded until he had shaken hands with each of the men.

"How's Vin?" JD asked when the doctor got to him last.

"He's resting at the moment. We've filtered his blood to help clear the drugs, and the lab is running tests on the samples we took. No broken bones, no concussion, but he is going to be sore for a few days due to the bruises.

"I asked one of our ophthalmologists to take a look at his right eye. He took quite a beating to that side of his face, and his vision's currently a little blurry, but I'm really just being cautious. I think his vision will clear up as the swelling goes down."

"When can we see him?" Buck asked.

"Now, if you'd like. He should be in his room, but I'll warn you, we gave him some pain medication, so he's not going to be awake for long."

"We just want to make sure he's okay," Josiah said, walking with the doctor as he led the way.

Chris followed behind, hoping the physician's optimism was well founded.

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

In his room, Vin shifted uncomfortably in his bed, trying to find a position that didn't make something hurt. He could feel the painkillers beginning to kick in and knew he would be asleep before too long, and oblivious to the pain.

He wondered how Chris was doing, and hoped that the fact that no one had dropped by to see him didn't mean there was some kind of complication. He sighed heavily, worried and unable to do a damned thing about it.

He knew he had an apology to rehearse, but just couldn't bring himself to do it. He was too tried, and his ribs were really starting to ache.

"Damn," he breathed, shifting again and willing the medication to work faster.

A moment later he glanced over as his door opened. Dr. Jordan stepped into his room, followed by Josiah and Ezra.

Tanner's gaze swiftly traveled over his two teammates. Both looked fine. Then Chris and Buck came in, followed by JD and Nathan. Larabee was a little pale, his arm in a sling, a thick bandage visible under the man's sweatshirt.

He offered them a small smile, his eyelids suddenly heavy enough that he had to struggle to keep his eyes open.

"How are you?" Josiah asked, leaning over to give Vin a careful hug.

"Feels like I just went through Hell Week," the sniper muttered, but his gaze locked on Larabee's and he asked, "How 'bout you?"

Chris smiled affectionately. "Be good as new in no time. Seems your aim is as good as always."

Vin nodded. "Sorry 'bout that."

"Don't worry about it," Chris told him. "Get some rest. We'll be by tomorrow morning to check on you."

"We just wanted to see that you were all right," JD told him.

"Be fine," Vin assured them, his eyes slipping closed. "Played with m' head some… but I…"

"He's asleep," Dr. Jordan said.

"We should let him sleep," Nathan said.

Chris nodded. He was more than ready to get some sleep himself. They would come back in the morning, and then the healing would really begin.

Summit Hospital and Trauma Center

Thursday, 0900 Hours

Vin stared at his breakfast, wondering what in the world had possessed someone to call it "food." He pushed his spoon through the oatmeal, then shook his head and settled on the orange juice.

He had just finished that, his stomach grumbling in protest over the lack of anything more, when the door to his room swung open and Buck entered. He was carrying a brown paper bag.

"I hope that's food, 'cause this oatmeal just don't cut it," Vin complained.

The ladies' man smiled and handed him the bag. "I thought you might say that."

Tanner opened it and glanced inside, then closed his eyes and sent a silent prayer of thanks to whatever entity was watching over him. Reaching inside, he pulled out the glazed croissant and took a huge bite. He moaned softly, enjoying the taste and the sugar rush.

Ezra came in and handed him the cup coffee he was carrying.

"I owe y' guys," Vin said.

A moment later the others had joined them, except for Chris.

JD grinned. "Feeling better?"

Vin nodded. "A little sore."

"And the eye?" Nathan asked.

"Better this morning." He took another bite of the pastry, then chased it down with the coffee. Looking up, he asked, "How's Chris?"

"They're checking his shoulder now. He'll be up when they're done," Nathan explained.

"But how is he?" he asked again.

"Fine," Nathan told him.

Vin shook his head. "It happened so damned fast. I couldn't stop myself."

"He's not blaming you," Buck assured him.

"Has every right to," Tanner challenged him.

Josiah sat down on the edge of his bed and reached out to rest his hand lightly on Vin's shoulder. "Don't say that," he chastised him. "They gave you drugs. There was no way for you to fight that, no more than Chris could've fought off the poison he was given."[2]

"That was different," Vin told him.

"Not so different as you seem to think," Ezra told him. "I talked to the chemists; the drugs they were developing are impossible to fight off."

"If that was true," Vin argued, and it was clear he didn't think it was, "then I would've killed 'im."

"No," Josiah countered. "The drugs were impossible to resist, but the programming, that was flawed."

Tanner held the older man's gaze for a long moment, trying to decide if he was telling him the truth, or if he was just trying to make him feel better. He decided Josiah was telling him the truth.

"So," he asked, the first hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, "where'd they go wrong?"

Josiah smiled. "I have a theory about that," he told him.

"I'll bet y' do."

But before Sanchez could launch into an explanation, Larabee pushed his way into the room, his left arm still in a sling.

"Hey, stud!" Buck greeted him. He looked over his shoulder at Vin. "We'll come back later, Junior," he promised. "I have a date with Nurse Candy."

"A date?" Vin asked, his eyebrows climbing. "With m' nurse?"

Buck's smile grew wider. "Yep!" He escaped out the door, the others following.

"He's datin' m' nurse?" Vin asked Larabee.

"You know Buck," was Chris' reply. He crossed to the bed, and stood, looking down at Tanner's smuggled breakfast. "And a good thing, too. It'll give you time to consume the evidence."

Vin looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded and started to work on the pasty and coffee. "How's the shoulder?" he asked between bites.

"Coming along very nicely, they tell me."

"Physical therapy?"

Chris nodded.

"Look, Chris," Vin started, "I'm really sorry about that. I—"

"Stop, right there," Chris told him, then smiled indulgently. He walked over, grabbed a chair, and pulled it up next to the bed so he could sit down. When he was settled he said, "I want you to listen to me, Vin. What happened wasn't your fault. Hall set us up. She thought she had a drug, and a process, to create assassins."

"So you weren't m' only target?"

Chris shook his head. "She and her father thought they were going to have you kill all of us, Mary, Billy, and Travis, but you beat them at their game."

"Something for which I will be forever grateful," added a voice from the doorway.

Both men looked around. Orin Travis walked into the room. The older man looked down at Tanner. "Dower and his daughter obviously didn't count on your… conviction."

Vin grinned slightly. "Stubbornness, don't y' mean?"

Travis smiled. "A rose by any other name."

Chris smiled as well, but he shook head and said, "No, it wasn't stubbornness, at least I'd prefer to think it has more to do with how well we all work together."

Vin nodded. "Yeah, I think that had a lot t' do with it." He fell silent for a moment, his expression turning inward and more serious. Then he sighed and nodded to himself and said, "I was a team player, for a helluva long time, an' I was good at it. I liked being part of a team…" He glanced over to the window, adding softly, "It was like havin' a family, made me feel safe… needed. Hell, wanted. But then they died and I… Well, decided t' go it alone. I didn't want t' feel that kind 'a pain again. Then I met y'all an'… I couldn't say no when y' asked me t' join Team Seven."

He looked back to Chris and Travis. "I've never regretted m' decision." He met and held Larabee's gaze. "You've always been there for me, an' I appreciate it, more 'n y' know."

"That works both ways," Chris told him.

Vin nodded. "Guess that's why it didn't work. What they were tryin' t' make me believe just didn't make sense… but it was powerful."

"Dower and his daughter might be crazy, but they're brilliant," Travis said softly.

Vin nodded. "Reckon they won't be lettin' her out so quick this time."

"No, not this time," Travis agreed, and Chris nodded.

The sniper looked back to Chris, his gaze lingering on his shoulder. "That happened before I really knew what was goin' on… before I realized it wasn't all in m' head."

"Like I told you," Chris said, "it wasn't your fault."

"Maybe, maybe not," Vin replied, "but it was m' responsibility, an' I won't forget that."

"You may not, but I have," Chris told him.

"I spoke to your doctor," Travis told Tanner. "It looks like he'll be cutting you loose the day after tomorrow."

Vin nodded. "Can't happen soon enough. Least I won't have time t' starve t' death."

Looking at the man's pastry and coffee, Travis smiled. "I doubt that's going to happen. I'm sure your team will keep you well-fed."

"I'm countin' on that."

Chris sighed and rolled his eyes. "And I suppose you'll want, what, pizza and beer for lunch?"

Vin smiled. "Damn, Larabee, you're a mind reader. Think y' can pull it off?"

Larabee rolled his eyes again. Partners. Well, they were worth it… most of the time. "I'll see what we can' do, but you should try the food; it's pretty good, except the damn oatmeal."

"Tell me about it," Vin commiserated.


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