Magnificent Seven ATF Universeblankspace
The Red Zone

by Deirdre

Summary: ATF Denver. A case of road rage nearly turns deadly for Chris and Vin, and sets off a chain of events that neither man anticipated.

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fan fiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters, settings or song references. I don't own the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from anything contained in this story.

This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in May 2016.

Part One

Friday, six p.m. Denver

"Come on J.D., I'll give ya fifty bucks." Vin's face fell faster than his woeful plea, "Alright, make it a hundred..." he tapped the spot where he housed his wallet.

"You don't have a hundred bucks in there," Nate chuckled, his dark eyes crinkled in mirth.

"Ez'll lend it t'me..." Vin said with gusto.

"That statement rolls all too easily from your purloined lips," the southerner drawled, "and that is more than a little unsettling."

"Purwhat?" Vin's face screwed up as he turned to Ezra, "Don't be talkin' about m'lips and loins...Jesus Ez, that makes me squirrelly," he wrinkled his face in distaste and pulled back in the chair.

"To appropriate wrongfully," Ezra cleared up Vin's confusion with a bemused smirk.

"That's cause you're a soft touch," Buck lauded, clapping the slick undercover agent's expensive jacket. "Give Vin enough time on the team and he'll have half your savings..."

"I most certainly am not a soft touch," Ezra frowned at the chuckling group.

"When it comes to Vin you are," Josiah corrected, grinning with the rest. "That boy can outcon the Con as soon as he bats them baby blues your way."

"How 'bout it Kid?" Vin tried again, standing up.

"No way!" J.D. moved away, following the rest.


"Sorry Vin," the EMT denied, laughing and hustling down the table.

"To hell with all 'y'all..." Vin growled, "Fine lot o'friends ya turned out t'be. Get more sympathy from a sac' of snakes with their tails tied together. Y'all wait 'til ya need a favor..." he sank back into his chair and buried his head along with his problem.

Most of the team was gathered for the mission. As they checked their gear and went over the coordinates, they awaited their leader. Finally, he strode through the room, his handsome face chiseled in determination. He reached the group and stopped a few feet away, cocking his blond head in curiosity. With hands resting on his lean hips, he gazed at the odd formation.

"We're all set, Chris," Buck jumped up, J.D. on his heels.

"You're ridin' with Vin," Nate relayed, joining the trio.

Chris's eyes roamed the scattered chairs, that held five of his team. They were located at the far end of a long table. At the other end, alone and obscure, sat his best friend. Only the crown of the long, wavy brown locks were visible. Muted snickers from the rest of his crew caused him to squint his green eyes in suspicion. He moved past them, down the length of the table and paused a few feet away.

"Hard day at the coal mine, Vin?"

The short and succinct reply appeared quickly, extending in noble formation from the middle of his right hand. Chris ignored the howls from behind him and leaned forward.

"It's about time you started showing some respect for my authority," he dictated, "I'm sure there's about a half dozen harassment violations that witty response infringes on."

"Reckon ya ought 'a look closer then," Vin's muffled voice rose from beneath his arms, where his face was buried in misery. "...ya misunderstood..."

"Huh?" Chris eyed the finger still extended at him and saw the white bandage covering it. "What happened?" he asked, only to have the other five break into boisterous laughter.

"Shut the hell up!" Vin hollered, drawing his head up, "It ain't funny!"

"Vin?" Chris tried not to laugh at the red-faced fury in front of him.

"One of them critters bit me!" His voice was irate and his eyes were blazing. "Got peed on, spit on, throwed up on, kicked in the nuts; hell it was like facin' a Gatlin'' gun. Shit flyin from every direction...all kinds o'body fluids..." he sassed, eyeing the loud laughter from his friends. "Goddammit it ain't funny!"

"It's fuckin' hilarious!" Buck wheezed, wiping his damp eyes and leaning on J.D.'s shoulder heavily. "Hell, Vin, you'll have cable stations lining up to sign you on. The New Captain Kangaroo..."

"Look out Barney..." J.D. chortled.

"Problem with the assignment, Tanner?" Chris asked raising a solitary sandy eyebrow, while keeping a straight face with great difficulty.

"I ain't going back in there," Vin declared, "Ya can't make me...'sides, I'm injured," he decided, holding up his finger.

"My heart's bleeding," Chris deadpanned, "Human bite can be serious," he pursed his lips and nodded in mock sincerity, "You need to get shots and..."

"Been there, done that," Vin cut him off. "I want out."

"Sorry Vin," Chris rested a comforting hand on his shoulder, "You'll just have to dig a little deeper on Monday morning when you hit the trenches again."

"Aw, come on Chris, please," Vin used his most contrite voice and woeful face, full of blue eyes. The blond wasn't buying the act.

"Get a grip, Vin, it's a daycare center, you make it sound like a war zone."

"It's worse," Vin sat back down and pouted, "At least in a war ya can fire back...dammit...Josiah, yer good with kids..."

"I did my time, Brother, sorry!" the eldest imparted, still grinning. Two bomb scares had been phoned in the week before and each of the ATF agents had to 'volunteer' in the daycare center for two days. For the Texan, his first day seemed endless.

"Come on, we're gonna be late," Chris said, waiting for Vin to move beside him. "Jesus, Vin, you smell like the men's room at a bus station." Chris wrinkled his face and waved his hand. This drew more hooting and loud guffaws from the crew. He eyed the multiple, multicolored stains on the sharpshooter's white sweat shirt and smiled. He saw an all too familiar yellowing-brownish substance crusted in the Texan's wavy hair. The rest of the yellowish-brown matter was pressed into the back of the shirt, near the collar.

"How the hell did you get shit in your hair and all over your back?" Chris asked, backing away from the smell. Then he noticed the large stain on the khaki pants and hid his laugh behind his hand.

"It was a sneak attack," Vin defended, "I was herdin' a pack of 'em into the readin' corner. I had t'go after a couple strays. Soon as m'back was turned, them ornery critters opened fire." His face grew red in anger as the memory came back, followed by a loud burst of laughter. "Shut up!" he hollered to the other five, doubled over and howling. "It was a conspiracy, Chris..."

"I bet they're linked to the Kennedy assassination," Buck agreed, elbowing a chortling Ezra. "What do think, Ace?"

"I agree, with precision shooting like that, I'd check their whereabouts on 22 November 1963, Mr. Tanner." Standish smiled evilly, adding to the fuel.

"Kinda funny none of the rest of us got attacked," J.D. added. 'Guess they just outsmarted you, Vin."

Vin's face suddenly changed and Chris quickly saw he'd had enough. He turned his body, placing himself in front of the embarrassed agent and made a motion with his hand, silencing the rest.

"We'll see you over there," he said, "Move out..." He waited until the others left and turned back to his shamefaced friend. He rested a sympathetic hand on the lone clean spot on Tanner's shoulder. "Come on Cowboy, if we hustle, we can stop at K Mart, there's one on the way."

"We ain't got time," Vin hissed, dropping his head, "If I hadn't been tied up so long in the damn ER..." he kicked the chair, '...just got here a few minutes ago."

"We'll make time," Chris's voice softened, "You got five minutes to run in a get something. You can change when we get there." He saw the other's head bob once as the younger man slid out the door into the cold night air. "Hey Vin, did you highlight your hair? I like that yellow streak going through it." The finger came up again, this time it was a surly response.

+ + + + + + +

"Get out of the Red Zone, Vin," Chris Larabee warned his best friend. His green eyes slid sideways beneath expensive sunglasses, only to encounter an irate face. He blew out a long breath of frustration and eyed the endless line of non-moving vehicles in front of them. Multiples lanes of snarled traffic for a five mile stretch. A hand slapping the steering wheel caused his blond head to turn again.

"Fuck...fuck...fuck..." Vin Tanner snapped, slapping the steering wheel.

"That isn't gonna move these cars any faster, Vin." Chris shook his head at the pinch-faced silence that was his response. The short-tempered Texan had crossed into the Red Zone. The older man rested his head against the sweaty backrest, thinking on how a well-planned outing could have ended this way.

Several weeks before, Chris read about a sports travel group that was affiliated with the Denver sports teams. They were planning an football weekend in San Diego for the Broncos-Chargers game on October 21st. Airfare, hotel and tickets were included. He brought it up at the team's Monday morning meeting and all of the guys decided to go. They had a great time, flying in on Friday night and hitting a wonderful Hawaiian restaurant called Sam Choy's in Point Loma on the water for dinner. Saturday they split up. Ezra spent the day visiting a college friend who lived in LaJolla , Nate and Josiah went to Tijuana. The Texan was up and out early, as was his custom. He ran five miles, had breakfast on the beach and then came back to the hotel, showering and readying for the trip to Catalina Island with Chris, J.D. and Buck for water sports. The quintet spent the day kayaking, scuba diving, jet skiing and para-sailing. They met the other three in Newport Beach at the Newport Pier Seafood Grill. Dinner and a great bar afterwards capped a wonderful day. Sunday started with a buffet brunch with music and then onto the game. Unfortunately, when they got to the airport Sunday night, the flight was overbooked. Chris and Vin were among those passengers displaced. They received first class tickets for the next afternoon, compliments of the airline, for their trouble. The airline also put them up at a nearby hotel.

The early flight was uneventful, but the trip from the airport to Chris's ranch was another story. Vin was dropping Chris off and hoping to get to the gym in the city to workout before it closed at seven. To begin with, Vin's heater was broken and the driver's window wouldn't roll up, so cold air filled the vehicle. The stench of Vin's soiled clothing from Friday night was all too present, having been in the sun for three days. Then, they were just on the last stretch of interstate en route to Chris's, when they got a flat. Vin hurt his hand on the jack and then not twenty minutes later, they hit the snarl. Far up ahead, a tractor trailer jackknifed. For a long time, they inched along, barely moving. The constant hammering of horns by other frustrated drivers, added to the problems already encountered, had begun to wear on the thin nerves of the Texan.

Three hours later, they weren't much further and Vin was ready to explode. Chris offered to take over, but the stubborn blue-eyed mule refused. Instead, he sat and simmered, pounding the wheel and unleashing a string of colorful language. Then, a lane opened on the right, just in front of them. Vin followed the cars in front of them, easing over and making good progress. Chris's peripheral vision caught sudden movement and his cry of warning came as fast as the gray metal blur.

"Vin, lookout! That car's gonna hit you!" He screamed as a beat-up Chevy soared in front of them, nearly causing three cars to hit each other.

"Jesus Christ!" Vin screamed, eyes bulging. "Ya fuckin' lunatic, ya oughta be locked up for pissin' through yer brains..." He raised an irate fist as the trio in the Chevy lingering dangerously.

"Vin, shut up!" Chris warned, turning to grab the out of control Tanner's arm, just as all hell broke loose.

"Fuck!" Vin screamed as gunfire shattered the windshield, spraying glass all over his face. A blue Camaro appeared just in front of him and he swerved sharply to avoid it, going through a guardrail. The car bounced and twisted like a errant billiard ball, all the way down the incline towards a rapidly approaching obstruction. He saw the tree and turned the wheel hard, just before they hit.

Part Two

Cold. The shivering kind enveloped him, raking icy fingers across his flesh. Pain. It gripped his head, jaw and side, only made worse by his shaking limbs. He jerked as a hand touched his face and something cold pressed against his left jaw and cheek. The frigid temperature caused his eyes to pop open. Artificial light cast an eerie pall on the light blue walls. He saw blurry roses dancing on the trim near the ceiling and followed the pattern. Finally his fuzzy vision encountered a face with short hair and glasses.

"W...w..w..a...w...a..s...wr....." he croaked, creasing his brows at the guttural sounds emerging. Along with the nonsensical sounds, was a horrid pain in his jaw. He tried to raise a hand to touch the tender area, only to have it gently overtaken.

"Welcome back," a soft voice said. "Open your eyes and look at me, Mr. Tanner."

Mister Tanner? Vin's confused mind caused his aching head to spin. "" he croaked, blinking at what he thought was his southern friend.

"I'm Mrs. Callahan," the voice answered, "I'll be your nurse overnight."

"O..val...n...ff...t..." Vin muffled, screwing his face at the unfamiliar room. Overnight where? He tried to wade through the mud to remember something...anything. San Diego. Was that where he was? No, he was on plane with Chris. His heart hammered in his chest...plane crash?

"" he garbled, eyeing the still blurry figure. Was Chris alive? He grabbed the arm near the rail and tugged. "...tell..."

Dolores Callahan studied the battered, swollen face on the bed below and her heart sank. She couldn't imagine waking up in a strange place in such a state of confusion and pain. She lifted his hand and took it in hers, studying the pained blue eyes beneath the discolored flesh.

"You were in a car accident earlier today. You're in St. Anthony's Hospital in Lakewood. You're very lucky, it could have been much worse." She paused and moved her hand, motioning over the raised left side of his body. He was turned on his right, taking the burden off the badly bruised torso. "Your car went off the road and struck a tree. Your left side is badly bruised especially your hip, ribcage and shoulder. Your face struck the tree and you suffered a concussion. Also, you lost several teeth and lacerated the inside of your mouth and tongue, as well as bruising that jaw. It's very swollen, the teeth were removed and you've got a lot of stitches in there, try not to talk. With any luck, you'll be out of her sometime tomorrow afternoon. You rest now, I'll be in to check on you later."

Rest? Where was Chris? What about Chris? He intensified his grip on her arm and pleaded with his eyes. "" He froze when her face blanched. She averted her gaze to adjust his IV line. She went to leave and he struggled to get free of the bed. He managed to get the rail down and didn't care about the IV pole. He was halfway out of the bed, when she turned back.

"What are you doing?" She cried, watching his body slid towards the floor. "Terry! Get in here!" She crossed the room as another nurse ran through the door. Between the two of them, they got him back in the bed.

"What happened?" Terry Adams demanded, seeing the upset patient almost on the floor. "Calm down!" she warned him, only to have him grab her frantically. She got him back in the bed, while the older nurse righted the IV pole.


She frowned at the muffled words, putting the pieces together finally. She pressed the weak body back onto the bed, watching his eyes sliding shut. Thinking he was unconscious again, she turned to the senior nurse.

"Is Chris the other guy? The one that was shot in the head?"

"Yes, he's down in the ICU..."

Vin lashed out at the thick, black curtain that fell over his face. He grasped the few words he could and his heart shattered. 'Shot in the head' were the four words that ripped him apart. How was Chris shot in a car wreck? Flashes of distorted faces came into view. A crowded highway, a gray car nearly slamming into him, his own harsh words, fueled by a hot temper and the windshield shattering. Those muddled thoughts overpowered him and sent him into oblivion.

+ + + + + + +

The normally hectic ICU was eerily quiet and the harsh overhead illumination was replaced by the soft glow of the lights positioned over each patient's bed. The nurses were settling in for a long but hopefully, uneventful day. Beth Masters, the Charge Nurse, stopped at bed two and reviewed the new admission's chart. The patient was pulled from a car wreck and appeared to have suffered a bullet graze to the right side of the head. The pretty brunette looked at the still figure in the bed. A white bandage encircled the patient's forehead and he was breathing well through the oxygen mask covering his face. The copious amount of blood was washed away, replaced by a ghostly pallor. The nurse noted that an IV was running well into each arm and the bedside monitor revealed that the vital signs were within acceptable limits. He'd already completed a series of x-rays and a CT Scan.

Turning her attention to the bedside nurse, the charge nurse asked for an update.

"Holly, is there any change in his neurological status?"

"No, he tries to open his eyes when I call his name and his pupils are still equal and reacting to light."

"Good." Beth stated as she held the chart up to peer at the name again. It seems that Mr. Larabee is a very lucky man. Let me know if anything changes but I'd say there was an angel looking out for him today."

+ + + + + + +

It was a surreal scene, the snake lines of traffic increased and the blaring horns ripped through his skull. He seemed to be going backwards. He felt his fury building and hot waves of anger rolling through him. A shouted warning, a blur of metal and a windshield exploding; a rush of cold air and a tree looming ahead...God he was going to hit it...

"Uh...n.nnnh...." Vin moaned painfully and sat up, eyeing the dark room in confusion. Sweat poured freely down his face, accelerated by his racing heart. Once the bed stop spinning around, he hauled down the side rail. Gripping it tightly for a few more minutes, he inched his way closer to the bed stand and poured a glass of water. His lips, jaw and face felt large and rubbery. He spilled most of the water, unable to navigate his tongue. His whole body was screaming in pain, but he had a mission. The conversation between the two nurses was still fresh in his brain. Like Thomas the apostle, he needed physical proof. He disconnected the drip line from the IV, leaving the main entry intact, secured with tape. He shuffled to the chair and picked up a clean gown. It took close to five minutes, every movement on his left slowed down by the waves of pain exploding. But finally, he had the second gown on in reverse, like a robe, hoping to ease the chills he suffered from.

Peering in the mirror in the bathroom, he jumped back in shock, not recognizing the face that looked back at him. The entire left side of this face swollen and discolored. The dark purple bruises looked nearly black and covered the whole half. His left wouldn't be open for awhile and his discolored jaw unreal. It looked like a bad cartoon, distended and blown out. His lips were puffed out and he moved them carefully, spotting blood covering his teeth.

Sighing, he attempted another drink and managed to get some liquid inside, before heading out. The hall was dark and quiet and no nurses were in sight. He thought for a moment and saw the numbers on his door. Three seventeen...third floor, the exit was just two doors down on the other side. There would be a listing in the lobby, he could find the ICU from there. Painfully, he inched his way along, holding the metal rail on the wall for support. His head was pounding so hard he couldn't see straight. It hurt to breathe and he was soon covered in sweat. Gasping, he managed to get the door open and made the long descent. Time was lost as he made the slow journey. He sat down and rested at the bottom of each flight. Finally, he made it to the end and peered cautiously in the lobby, wary of security guards. Finding the dim light area vacant, he stole into the darkened room, heading for the directory. His eyes narrowed, adjusting to the dim light and quickly found the marking for Intensive Care Unit. It was on the first floor. He sat down on the hard plastic table near the sign and rested for quite awhile. Finally, he willed his sore body to move.

He poked his head through the doors on the first floor and saw a nurse approaching. Quietly, he closed the door and backed up to the wall. He waited for several minutes, sweat pouring down his already slick torso. Then he checked again and the coast was clear. He slipped inside, following the signs on the ceiling. Finally, he was there and his heart began to pound. His limbs seemed to have a will of their own, forcing him forward towards the double glass doors. The words 'Intensive Care Unit' screamed at him, causing him to push both hands against his throbbing skull. He forced himself to look, wary of the locks securing the door. Then he saw it and pressed his body against the glass. He slammed his eyes shut, water squeaking through the clenched lids. He took a gulping breath and opened his pained orbs. Chris was in the second cubicle. IV Lines ran in his body and a large white bandage covered his head. His skin was as pale as the sheet that covered him. It was true; his rash actions caused his best friend to be perhaps mortally wounded by a bullet in the head. He pressed his hand against the glass, letting the skin cover the area where Chris lie.

"I...sah...we...C...wis...God..." he sobbed, blinking as interior movement forced him away. He shuffled down the hall, spotting an empty waiting room. Chairs rimmed the walls, magazines littered two large tables and a television hung from the ceiling. The desk was empty, behind a glass wall. But in the front of it, was a table with newspapers and candy. There was a box with coins next to it and a sign stating the twenty five cent charge. Vin fished a quarter out and headed for the payphones on the wall. He must have drifted off, the female voice on the other end jerked his head from where it rested against the cool wall.


"This is the operator, can I help you?" she repeated.


"A collect call?" she guessed, wading through the garbled speech. "Are you handicapped, Sir?"

"Yef..." Vin replied and slowly gave the number. She repeated it back to him and he sighed in relief. "Yef...."

"I need your name, Sir."


"Hold please."

"Shit!" The body cursed and sat up as the phone next to his head screamed at him. "Yeah, alright," he called back, fumbling with the light. He flipped the lamp on and squinted painfully, eyeing the digital readout of four a.m. "What the hell?" he mumbled, picking up the phone. "Hello?"

"I have a collect call from..."


"Who?" Buck repeated, "Vim...Tenyer...Vin? Vin?" he sat up and rubbed his face. "Yeah, I accept. Vin, is that you?"

"Yef..." Vin sighed audibly as the weight on his chest was lifted. His legs were having trouble holding him up and he was extremely dizzy, so he began to speak. ""

"Accident?" Buck was now very much awake and grabbed the notepad next to his phone. "Where are you Vin?"

"Uh...uh..." Vin frowned, as the knowledge disappeared from his foggy brain. "Hoth...pit...ul..."

"A hospital? In the city?"

"No..." Vin's eyes widened, at least he knew that much.

"Are you still in San Diego?" Buck frowned at the heavy breathing and wondered on the almost uninterpretable voice. "How bad are you hurt Vin?"

"" Vin denied, knowing he wasn't in San Diego. ""

"You hurt your mouth, your jaw?" Buck guessed.


"You don't know where you are? Are you in a room? Read me the numbers on the phone, Vin, okay?" Buck paused and listened as for the next several minutes, the numbers came across. He read them back and heard Vin's muffled agreement. He recognized the area code as being near Chris's ranch, out in Jefferson County. His brain scrambled, and a picture from the evening news appeared. A bad accident on the interstate out that way. "Accident," he repeated, "Vin were you in that mess on the interstate, with the tractor trailer?"


"Okay, I can find the hospital. Don't you worry, now. Is Chris with you?" The noise that came into his ear was a strange sound. A sorrowful mixture of a choked sob and painful exclamations, then only a deadly silence. Two words sounded from far away, they weren't garbled and they sent a knife in Buck's chest.

"Oh God..."

Buck pushed his fingers over his eyes as Vin's sorrowful reply hit his chest. The only picture he drew from the awful sound was a fatal one. "Vin, was Chris killed in the accident?" He forced the words out and heard a shuffling noise. Then the horrid, harsh breathing grew louder; Vin was close to the phone again.

"No...dead...I!" Vin choked, smacking the wall near the phone in angry despair.

"What!" Buck wrote down the garbled words as he heard them. "Chris got shot in the head? Are you sure? How is that your fault? Vin, you're not making any sense. Vin? Vin! Dammit, talk to me!"

"Yef..." Vin managed, wiping his eyes and seeing the stilled, pale Larabee body again. "...all ma fult...wode wage...I yull...he shot...Oh God...Oh God..."

"Road rage?" Buck's voice grew harsh and rose in anger. He knew all too well how that temper-fueled encounters on American highways were on the rise. This growing phenomenon accounted for over ten thousand reported cases nationally leading to unnecessary fatalities and injuries. An ghoulish image of his oldest friend shot in the head because of something so foolish riled him"Goddammit Vin! Jesus Christ! You should know better...What the hell is the matter with you?"

The sudden arrival of burning words caused his heart to sink to his feet. "I sah we...sud be me dud...not Cwis!" He repented, as his churning stomach sent him on a new mission.

"Vin! Wait a minute!" Buck screamed as the line went dead with the Texan's with to trade his life for the blond's. "I didn't mean...Vin! Aw, fuck!" The dial tone hit his ear sharply and he hung the phone up, his whole body numb. He replaced the receiver on the cradle and eyed the cryptic message. He ripped off the page and started a clean one, rewriting it as he thought it sounded. He dialed the operator and traced the call to a hospital in Lakewood. She said it was a payphone. He got the main number and dialed, waiting patiently for an operator to answer.

"St. Anthony's Hospital, can I help you?"

"I hope so," Buck sighed, "My name is Buck Wilmington, I'm a federal agent in Denver and I think two friends of mine were involved in a car accident. Can you verify if you have a Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee there?"

"Hold please," the curt reply came.

He heard keys being struck on a keyboard, several beeps and then the voice came back.

"Yes, they were admitted last evening. Tanner is in Room Three Seventeen, that phone number is..."

Buck copied the number down and frowned, it wasn't the one Vin dialed from. A vision of the lost soul wandering the halls with his heart broke filled the large man's brain. "Damn..." he whispered, raking a hand through his hair. "...and Larabee?"

"He's in ICU, there is no phone."

"Can I speak with a nursing supervisor?"

"Certainly, please hold," she replied.

Five minutes went by with the light jazz on the recording hitting his dulled senses. Finally, another voice interrupted.

"This is Nancy DiMarco, can I help you?"

"I'm a federal agent in Denver. Two friends of mine are patients there and I'd like to inquire on their condition. Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee."

"Okay, let's see..."

Buck heard the keystrokes again and several minutes went by, before she returned.

"Tanner, he suffered a concussion, multiple lacerations inside his left cheek and tongue, several teeth on the upper and lower side were broken and had to be removed. His jaw, shoulder, ribcage and hip on the left side sustained severe bruising. He's resting comfortably."

"No, he's not," Buck interrupted, "He just called me from a payphone in that hospital. He's out wanderin' the halls and he's in a bad way. How the hell did you people let him get loose? He's in no shape to be walking around."

"Are you sure?"

"Hell yeah!" Buck hollered, raking a shaky hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, but he just called me collect and he's an emotional wreck. I want him found."

"Where did he call from?" She asked and coped the number down. "I'll get right on that."

"Larabee?" Buck's heart nearly stopped.

"He's in the ICU, he sustained a rather serious head wound. A deep graze to the right side of his head..."

"Graze?" Buck interrupted as hope filled his dark air. "Graze? He's not dying then?"

"No, it's serious, but not fatal. He's not regained consciousness yet and that's why he's in the ICU. All his x-rays were negative. He's been given blood and hopefully, he'll be moved up to a regular room tomorrow."

"Thank God," Buck sighed, "Can you put him in with Tanner?"

"No, the rooms are all private, but I can try to get him one close by."

"Okay," Buck sighed, "Listen, Vin thinks Chris was shot in the head, he's a mess. He's blaming himself. Somebody needs to tell him, Chris ain't gonna die. What police division got the call?"

"I'm sorry about your friend and I have no idea how he found out. We gave orders not to tell him about the severe injury until somebody in the family was with him. I'll make sure I talk to him personally." She concluded and gave Buck the police division who took the accident reports phone number.

"Thanks, " Buck answered, "When can I see them?"

"General Visiting doesn't begin until eleven a.m., however, in your case, I'm sure we can make an exception. I'll be here until nine a.m. I'll escort you to the ICU myself."

"Thanks Nancy," Buck concluded and hung up. Then he dialed the police department and got a copy of the report. He requested the officer fax a copy to their office and then began to dial the team, starting with Orrin Travis.

Part Three

It was five a.m. when Ezra, J.D. and Nathan arrival at Buck's place. The worried agent was already outside, pacing the sidewalk. The cold morning air had his breath in huddled white puffs, swirling around his distraught frame.

"Buck!" J.D. called out, cranking down the window and popping the lock on Nate's GMC Jimmy.

"I sent Josiah ahead," Buck relayed, climbing in the front next to Nate. "No sense making him backtrack." The ex-preacher lived just outside town and near the highway to Lakewood.

"Can you fill us in?" Ezra asked, recalling only Buck's 'Get here now, it's Vin and Chris' message he received less than an hour before.

"I got a collect call at four a.m. from Vin. I couldn't understand him, his speech is all messed up. He was all mixed up, confused, hurt..." Buck paused and sighed, trying to forget the woeful voice. "From what he told me, and the police and hospital verified, they were in an accident near that big tie-up yesterday. It seems they were bottlenecked for hours, then a lane opened up and some jackass sped up, cutting in front of several cars, including Vin. He blew his top and screamed at them, they answered with a gun."

"Oh My God!" J.D. exclaimed, "How bad? Were they shot?"

"Chris got a bad graze in the head, the bullet shattered the windshield. He's lucky, less than an inch and we'd be burying him. He was in ICU overnight, they're moving him out of there later this morning."

"...and Vin?" Ezra asked, already worried about the emotive Texan. Buck's deep sigh and the strong hand scrubbing the face didn't help.

"When the shot came, he lost control and hit a guardrail. The car behind him stopped and the guy jumped out. He told the cops Vin did a great job handling the car. He swerved it so the impact with a tree hit the driver's side. If he hadn't, Chris would have been killed. His whole left side is bruised: hip, chest, shoulder and his face hit the tree. He broke a bunch of teeth and ripped the inside of his cheek. The nurse said he also had a concussion."

"It would appear Lady Luck smiled on us once again," Ezra released a tight breath.

"What's botherin' you Buck?" Nate saw the tension lines increase and the dark blue eyes full of pain.

"He called me from a payphone. He didn't know where he was...he sounded awful. He kept saying it was 'his fault' and "Oh God' over and over."

"A payphone?" J.D. wrinkled his face, "How's that possible? Isn't somebody checking on him?"

"I asked that too, Kid," Buck bristled, "I wasn't so polite. The head nurse promised she'd find him. That ain't the worst part. He thinks Chris got shot in the head. He's wanderin' around that hospital by himself, full of guilt. I didn't help much, I yelled at him too, when he said 'road rage', I went a little nuts..." Buck felt J.D.'s hand squeeze his shoulder from the back seat as his voice cracked.

"We'll find him, Buck." the youth promised.

When they arrived, it was daylight and they approached the main desk. Buck asked for Nancy DiMarco and within minutes she appeared.

"I'm sorry again for the confusion earlier. I want you to know we found Mr. Tanner within minutes of your call and got him back to his room."

"Where was he?" Buck asked, walking beside her as they approached a bank of elevators.

"In the bathroom, down the hall from the ICU. He...uh...vomited and then passed out."

"Goddammit!" Buck punched the wall and Ezra stepped in front of him, as the nurse jumped back startled.

"Easy, Buck, he's safe now." He turned to the nurse. "Was he informed of Mr. Larabee's condition?"

"No, not yet. He hasn't been awake. Your friend Josiah is with him." She waited until the door opened and led them to the ICU.

"I can only take two of you in with me," Nancy informed them.

"You and Nate go in," J.D. suggested, "We'll head up to see Vin and stop back down."

"With any luck, he'll be moved upstairs later this morning," Nancy advised, "He did wake up briefly and was able to speak and react to pain. That's a very good sign."

"Okay," Nate said, entering the room. "You alright Buck?" He saw his friend stop at the foot of the bed and heard the sharp inhalation. He turned to see all the color drain from Buck's face. "Whoa!" Nate moved over, grabbing his arm as the other man swayed.

"Sorry...Jesus, he looks like a corpse..."

"Getting shot in the head does that to you," Nate remarked, easing Buck into the lone chair and skimming the chart nearby. "His vitals are good...he responded well to the neuro-stimuli, with any luck and a bad headache for awhile, he should be fine, Buck."

Buck heard Nate's words but seeing was believing. Until those green eyes looked at him and a that voice he knew as well as his own barked at him, he'd be worried. The bandages was a stark reminder of the head wound underneath and how close a call this way. He slunk down, resting his elbows on his knees and watched the fluids running from plastic tubes into Chris's arm. How many times had he done this?

"We're gettin' too old for this routine, Chris," he murmured, shaking his head.

"There it is," J.D. motioned, pointing to a room two doors down. They paused in the doorway, J.D. winced at Vin's swollen discolored face and slid into the room. Josiah motioned for them to wait outside and quietly joined them.

"How is he?" Ezra asked, not hiding his concern. Buck's picture of a guilt-ridden Tanner wandering the halls with visions of Chris's head blown away was painful.

"He hasn't woken up, but he's having some rough dreams."

"I guess so," J.D. agreed, raking a hand through his hair. "They got a coffee machine around here?"

"I need to stretch my legs anyway," Josiah decided, "there's a donut shop across the street. I'll bring some coffee and donuts back with me. Oh, Orrin called, we're on open alert."

"Shit!" J.D. kicked the wall, "The Boxer Arsonist?" he asked of the serial arsonist that was terrorizing the southwest. The name was coined by a media member in Phoenix, who found out that the F.B.I. in several cities received a copy of an old newspaper clipping about a boxer from the turn of the century. It came two days after each fire.

"Yeah, they think it's going down today or tomorrow," the graying member said rising. "So, be prepared, we'll probably be heading out by eleven or so. I'll give Nate and Buck the heads up on the way out." He turned back at the door, "Oh, somebody stay close to the bed, he's been tossin' around in his dreams."

"Okay," J.D. nodded, then eyed Ezra's clenched jaw. "He'll be okay, Ez."

"Of course he will!" Ezra's voice was unusually gruff. "He is still in arrears of thirty dollars he borrowed last week..."

"Yeah," J.D. smirked at the invisible lie, "that must be it..." The youth watched as Ezra stood at sentry over the battered body. Sure enough, within minutes the garbled groaning began and the arms twitched. The bruised, swollen face screwed up and twisted in the pillow.

"Vin, calm yourself, it's a dream," Ezra said reassuringly, resting a hand on the quaking shoulders. Muffled words came from the swollen lips, but then the body relaxed. J.D. took the other seat, his eyes not missing the purple and blue areas on Vin's hip and back.

"God, that's gotta hurt," he commented. "Shouldn't that have ice or something on it?"

"I don't know," the other replied, but picked up an empty pitcher. "But he might need some if he rouses. I shall return."

"You and MacArthur," J.D. grinned at the famous General's World War II quote. He flipped the television on, keeping the sound down low. He pushed through several channels, before finding a rerun of Emergency. He placed the remote back on the bed stand and saw two blue eyes staring at him.

"Vin!" He jumped up, leaning over the bed. The face held no emotion, not joy, relief, anger or worry. It was void: a pale mask with horrid, garish colors. "Hey, you're gonna be fine. They might even let you out later. Chris is..."

"" Vin mumbled, turning his face away in shame. How could they face him? They? Were the others here? What could he say to them? Buck, God what about Buck? Chris's oldest friend, they'd been through hell and back. "...Buck..."

"He's downstairs with Chris," J.D. moved to the other side of the bed, "and quit doing that! You can't hide from me. Look at me, Vin!" the angry voice ordered, until the distorted face rose. "He's not dead, he wasn't shot in the head..."

"...yef...wuz...hurd...dem..." Vin insisted, hope flickering. The Kid wouldn't lie...maybe...maybe....

"Whoever you heard was wrong," J.D. vented, angry that some gossiping nurse or orderly had caused this pain in his friend's eyes. "It was a deep graze. He's getting out of ICU later." he rested a hand on Vin's arm and winced when it was pulled back. "Do you understand me, Vin?" he heard a deep exhale of breath and saw the empty face reappear. Once again, it was a blank page, not happy, sad or anxious, just dead...void of emotion and very un-Vin like. "You thirsty, Vin?" he said, hoping for a response of any kind. "Ez went to get water..." the head shook once and the eyes closed.

That Chris hadn't been wounded in the head was a stay of execution. But sooner or later, that would change and the switch would get pulled. His rash actions, the inexcusable, uncontrollable rage had nearly gotten his best friend killed. He was numb, the pain in his body didn't matter...the throbbing jaw and hip were penance. He heard Ezra and J.D. talking about him, using words like 'shock' 'adjust' and 'rally soon'. No, he wasn't shocked, he was shamed. He'd adjust alright, making sure his hot head never hurt any one he cared about again. Rally? not likely. He was counting the hours until he could free himself of this plaster and papered prison.

It was an hour later when the shrill signal emerged from both beepers. The dual high-pitched sound sent waves of sharp pain through the aching head of the patient. His eye flew open and he jerked in shock.

"We're on open alert," Ezra answered the wincing eyes. "The Boxer Arsonist..." he updated, dialing the number in the beeper. "Standish...right away. I'll update the team."

"We're to report to the operation mainstay at the Federal Building and we'll be dispersed from there." He leaned over the bed and caught Tanner's face with his eyes. The blue eyes, usually so very emotive and readable, his best feature, were dull and deflated. That lack of spirit worried the southerner more than the physical injuries. "I'll return as soon as we're relieved of duty. We'll get through this, Vin. Don't shut out." He got no response, the eyes didn't blink or give any indication that he was in the room. As they got to the door, a pale voice sounded.


"Rest assured," Ezra smiled at the mangled speech, "all the 'buck's on the team will be covered." He saw half of the unmashed side of the lip turn up and gained a little hope. With a nod and a clap to J.D.'s back, they left.

+ + + + + + +

His hand fumbled again, reaching up to touch the spot he felt sure was gone. Once again, he was rewarded with a bulky bandage where a large chunk of bone and matter should be missing. The pain was relentless, coming in waves of red and black, attacking his every fiber and nerve ending. Even blinking was painful, so he kept his eyes shut. He drifted in and out of consciousness, hearing the buzzing of the monitors nearby, the alert voices of the nurses and the deeper, more direct voices of doctor's giving orders. He felt the light touch of the caregiver's hand to his arm as the IV was adjusted.

"This Chris Larabee, ATF agent?"

A male voice, gruff and crusty, not the foreign dialect he'd been assessing in his void to the doctors. He heard footsteps and smelled the tobacco clinging to the newcomer's clothing.

"Well? How is he? Awake?"

"In and out," Beth answered, "You shouldn't be in here, he's in no shape to give a statement."

"He come around at all?"

"Yes, and he responds to stimuli, Dr. Grant has updated his condition to stable and he'll be moving out of here soon."

"If he's stable, he can give a statement. I need to know what he remembers about the shooter. From what I have, that long-haired kid had a hot head and some kinda mouth on him..."

"Is there something wrong with your hearing?" Beth's moved forward, forcing the middle-aged man backwards.

"Look Sister, I'm Detective Kline, I'm following up on the report about the road rage accident Larabee was involved in..."

"I don't care if you're the King of China, get out!" she forced him into the outer area.

Chris absorbed all the new clues, which would aid him in his quest to plug up all the holes what was left of his throbbing skull. He moaned and shifted, thinking of all his new clues. He had a name, Chris Larabee and a job, ATF Agent. The wound in his head was from a gunshot, a road rage incident. The shooter was a long-haired kid with a hot head and foul mouth..."

"Ahhh..." He rolled to one side, both hands covering the sides of his head. Like a bolt of lightning, the jagged, ripping pain came sudden and without warning. For the first time, he has pictures to go with the waves of agony. As he clenched his eyes shut and rocked in the pillow, a movie appeared. It was slow motion...a highway...long brown wavy irate face and furious blue eyes. The face was red and angry, screaming at him...then a bullet slammed into his skull. He didn't see the end of the movie...he was unconscious, his limp arm fell from his face and through the rail, fingers slowly uncurling.

Part Four

Vin shoved the lunch tray away, selecting only the ginger ale, chicken soup and crackers. His stomach wouldn't tolerate much more. The doctor had been very understanding, giving him painkillers and antibiotics, along with orders for a week at home resting. Nothing but soft, cold food for a few days, his tender jaw and healing gums wouldn't be able to handle more than that. No straws, or sharp objects in the mouth, ice packs for the jaw and hot compresses for his hip; be careful of the bruised ribs. They were tender and a mishap could lead to a break or worse. The nurse eased him into the chair and left the lunch. Once Ezra got here, he could leave. Hospitals had rules that had to be followed and under no circumstance was a patient dismissed without an escort. Luckily, while the doctor was there, Ezra called. He and Buck were finishing up their detail and Orrin pulled some strings to get them sprung early. They'd be back between two and three p.m. Buck would stay with Chris, Ez was stuck babysitting him. Actually, he didn't mind, Ez was smart that way. He knew when to pull back and give you room. He wouldn't push or pry or ask too many questions. Truth be told, he felt like shit and wanted nothing more than fresh air and a long nap at the ranch.

He frowned and touched his aching, swollen jaw. Where did that come from? The ranch...yes, Denver was too far from Chris. He needed time and space to figure out his next move, but at the same time, he needed Chris...Chris...He shook his head and clenched his fist as his anger grew, then dissipated into worry. What would Chris's reaction be? This man had given him the best gift he'd ever received, a open hand and heart. How had he repaid him?

"F..ufff.kk...diot...fuffck..." he threw the lid to the tray across the room and pounded the chair with his fist. He winced and flexed his shoulder, the sudden movement causing all the bruised muscles to scream in protest. He sat staring at the traffic on the highway outside the window. How many others were out there? Other fucking idiots like him...screaming and yelling because of fool cutting you off. He shuffled to the bathroom and began the slow process of dressing. The slightest movement of bringing his left knee up caused so much pain in his ribs and hip, he had tears rolling down his face. Ezra...he didn't have to ask, it was the kind of thing the southerner always thought of; he brought one of his own sweat suits for use. It was soft and the elastic waist made it easy to get on. He never even considered the sneaks and socks...carrying them and sitting them on the bed. The simple acting of dressing had left him covered in sweat and shaking all over. He tried to drink, but his swollen lips and jaw made that difficult. He closed his eyes, one hand resting on his burning side. A deep voice blaring a familiar name caused his eyes to open and feet to move in unison.

"Larabee...three we are..."

"C...w...iss..." Vin mumbled, his shy steps taking him only to the door in his room. He hovered, his heart fluttering in short burst of trepidation, as the nurses bustled in and the orderly left. Finally, Chris was alone and Vin began the longest, short journey of his life. He paused over the bed, tears burning in his eyes at the bandage. The pale face was tense; what lies beneath those moving lids? Would the green eyes look at him with trust again? Despite the increasing throbbing in his hip, he remained at Chris's side, his eyes glued to the injured man's face.

Chris's black cushion was ripped apart, the scorching feathers fluttered around his face. He peered through them, into traffic. Hundreds of cars in multiple lanes...horns blasting...over and over...cold air coursing past him. He tensed up as the long haired stranger appeared again. The features were clear and quiet eloquent in their lividity. The eyes were raging blue pools and the face a scarlet mask of rebellion. Then his world exploded again as his face was blown off.


"" Vin reached over out of instinct, as the nightmare ended and the flailing arms threatened to pull out the IV line. The eyes shot open, bright green beacons pulsing with alarm gazed up at him. "..'" his hand danced like a new butterfly testing uncertain wings.

"No I ain't okay!" Chris seethed, his eyes widening and his pulse racing like a car at the Indy 500. His chest constricted and as some invisible hand threw a fire-tipped javelin through his temple. The movie came back...but the body was front of him. It was the same long-haired man...the one who shot him. Thoughts gathered in his fevered brain sending messages: killed...death...shot...head...bullet...fury...anger...screaming insults. He had the balls to be here...His anger uncurled like python, he wanted to choke the life from this jerk.

"...I sah..we..." Vin's voice was small and drier than sandpaper. The hand still fluttered, losing its battle. He didn't know what to to make out the irate eyes glaring at him with open hatred. He didn't blame him. Hell, he had every right to be pissed off. Man nearly gets your head blown off for acting like an asshole...

"Sorry!" he screamed, clutching his head as a hot javelin pierced his eyes. The heat from his throbbing skull consumed him, flames licking at the edges of his brain. "You fuckin' lunatic," Chris snarled, "You damn near got me killed. Sorry? I'm the one with a chunk outta my head and you're sorry? That's rich. I'm sorry too, that you're not dead," he roared.

"...hup...ya..." Vin moved in, his heart overruling his head. His hand was thrown violently back.

"Help!" Chris spat, fists clenched. "You wanna help? Get the fuck out of my room you stupid fuckin' son-of-a-bitch! Get out..." Chris screamed, jerking at the bars, trying to get out of the bed and hurt back. "Get out or I'll bust the other side of your face! Get out!"

"Mr. Larabee!" A dark skinned, pretty nurse ran by Vin and shoved Chris back into the bed.

"Get off me...get him out! I don't want rights...patient...the hell kind of hospital is this? Who let that animal in my room!" Chris screamed, shoving the nurse aside. "Get a cop...arrest that fuckin' bastard!"

Vin saw her push the red button near Chris's hip and two more nurses moved in, their forward motion balancing his stumbling, backward steps. The pain went away, replaced by a bitter numbness. Every emotion he had was destroyed. The words replayed over and over, screaming at him. Who was it that said 'the truth hurts'? He didn't hear the nurses talking with Chris. He didn't hear the one in the hall who ran with a mild sedative. He didn't breathe again until he was on his knees, hugging the porcelain throne. The meager lunch came up and the little bit of water followed it. The dry heaves came next, leaving his ribs on fire and his eyes tearing. He kicked the door shut with his bare foot, embracing the darkness that followed. He huddled between the toilet and the shower stall and pressed his face against the cool tiles. Nobody saw the tears that fought their way free; there was no hand on his back, no comforting touch. He was alone again...was that how it should be? If he had been alone in the car, Chris wouldn't have nearly been killed. How high was the price you paid for belonging? Was it worth it? So many questions overpowered his mind, interspaced with Chris's verbal whipping. He wiped away the last salty remnant of his weakness and embraced the cold shell inside. If he was alone, he wouldn't have this broken heart. If he was alone, he wouldn't feel the knife in his guts...the one that those green eyes were shredding.

"...sah we..." he whispered, clenching his eyes shut, trying to dispel the vibrant image of the irate blond's face.

+ + + + + + +

"Damn it's quiet in here," Buck said to Ezra as the pair strode up the hallway in the hospital. It was just after three p.m. when they arrived at Chris's room.

"What the hell?" Buck said, picking up the "no visitors" sign on the doorknob. Ignoring it, he opened the door, only to find the bed inside empty. When he poked his head outside in the hall, he flagged a nurse. "Excuse me, we're ATF agents, friends of Chris Larabee. Where is he?"

"Hold on and I'll check, I just came on duty at three," she said, backtracking to the nurse's station. She conferred with another nurse before returning to the pair of men in the corridor. "He's having a series of x-rays done, it's not likely he'll return for a few hours."

"What's with the sign?" Buck thumbed the object.

"That's usually by the patient's request." She motioned for them to follow her to the nurse's station. Again she spoke to the chart nurse, who joined them.

"Hi, I'm Angela Brandon. I was the one who spoke with Mr. Larabee earlier. It's by his request that the order was placed there. You are good friends of his?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded, "I go back over twelve years, we're partners that long..."

"He has an amnesic condition, which we suspect is temporary, due to the swelling and damage to his head."

"Amnesia?" Ezra frowned, "but you feel it's temporary?"

"Absolutely, he's already having flashbacks. He dodged the bullet in ICU, putting together enough clues to get him up here. The wound was serious and he'll be here for a few days, we need to monitor the swelling."

"But why the sign?" Buck asked again.

"I was told by the duty nurse on the shift before, that he had a visitor, shortly after he arrived in the room. It was the young man that was driving the car..."

"Vin Tanner," Ezra filled in, "...he's a close friend...a very close friend."

"Not today he wasn't, he was stranger and well...there was an incident."

"What kind of incident?" Buck's hackles rose.

"The shouting kind...the angry kind...bad enough that we had to give Mr. Larabee a mild sedative."

"Shouting match?" Buck's face screwed up and he shook his head, "I guess Chris was a little upset bad?"

"From the nurses who witnessed it, quite violent. His memory returned enough to give him flashes of the incident. He saw your friend's face, he saw the rage and heard the bitter words , then relived the bullet hitting him. He thought your Mr. Tanner was the shooter. He didn't mince his words or language and inflicted rather harsh verbal abuse." She paused and scanned the area, "Jasmine, can you come here for a moment..." She waved to a nurse at the elevator, ready to go home. As the pretty, dark-skinned nurse joined them, the made the introductions. "These are friends of both Mr. Tanner and Larabee. I'd like you to tell them what you heard."

Both agents remained silent, only their faces drawn in tension and worry, revealed the horror they felt as the repercussions of bullets like 'animal', 'lunatic' 'bastard' and the rest of the verbal assault came to play.

"Jesus!" Buck rocked back on his heels. "How's Vin?"

"Thank you Jasmine, that will be all" She waited until they were alone again. "I spoke with him when I came on duty. I think he understood what I told him, he didn't say a word. I felt awful for him...he seemed so alone and withdrawn."

"God..." Buck pressed both hands on the counter and dropped his head. How could it get any worse? "...and Chris?"

"The doctor spoke with him about an hour ago. We're told not to force him to remember, that could lead to a worse situation. From their conversation and other flashes Mr. Larabee got about a ranch, some of his men, a trip to San Diego...the doctor is confident his memory will return completely in short order."

"Is he going to remember the confrontation with Vin?" Ezra asked, already worried about Vin's emotional state.

"That's hard to say...time will tell. I'm sorry, I'm late for a meeting. If you have any more questions or concerns, have one of the nurses beep me...I'm on until eleven. Oh, Mr. Tanner can go, he's been discharged. He only needed someone to escort him from here. You an fill his prescription at the pharmacy," she handed Ezra the doctor's orders, " I don't think he should be alone..."

"He won't be," Ezra stated, taking the slips of paper, "and thank you."

"How do you want to play this?" Buck asked the southerner as they left for the two rooms.

"Let's assess Vin's condition first," he suggested, "I don't think he would want this painful episode broadcast to anyone."

"So you think we shouldn't let on that we know?" Buck guessed.

"For now, " Ezra mused, as they approached Vin's room, "I think with all the healing he has to do, it would hurt him further to think we knew about this. He would be ashamed. We can give him support and comfort and faith. He needs that most of all, to reassure himself his position with Chris."

"What about Chris?" Buck asked, "What if he never remembers? Then Vin has to carry that weight. He ain't that strong, hell nobody would be..."

"But he's smart and a survivor," Ezra assessed, of the world-wise Texan, "If he is drowning, he'll reach out...he'll come to us...he's too smart not to."

"Vin?" Buck called out, entering the empty room. He spotted the sneaks and socks on the bed and eyed the rest of the room "Vin, you here?" he tapped on the bathroom door. "You okay?"


Buck and Ezra waited, but no further response came. Five minutes went by and Buck tapped the door again.

"Vin, are you sick or something? What are you doing in there?" He heard a painful intake of air ?and then shuffling sounds. The door opened and Vin turned and squinted as his eyes adjusted to light.

"Jesus!" Buck repelled, eyeing the horrid, swollen, discolored face. He saw Vin wheezing and holding his side. Then he understood about the socks and shoes. "The doc okay'd you to leave. You need a hand?" The head dipped once and Vin shuffled to the chair. Buck gave Ezra a worried look. He'd seen Vin in just about every situation work related and off duty as well. He never recalled seeing the total lack of emotion. The blue eyes were dull and listless, the face shadowed and the bruised body was slumped in defeat. He was shivering and trembling, but neither pressed him. Ezra got the socks and shoes on and Vin stood, picked up his meager plastic bag of belongings and shuffled out the door.

"I'll get your prescription filled and meet you in the lobby," Ezra said, leaving Buck with Vin.

"Aw, hell..." Buck hissed, rubbing his neck. "Hey Vin...wait up..." He jogged after him, noting that Vin never looked near Chris's room. He was slowly walking towards the elevators. Hearing Buck's voice, the body stopped. He caught up to the younger man and moved in front on him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "Listen, I just wanted you to know...I know you think you're looking at all dark clouds right now, but the sun will shine again. Ezra's gonna take you home and..."

"No..." Vin shook his head, "...wance..."

"Wance?" Buck paused, "Ranch? Chris's place?"

"Yef..." Vin nodded, "...hum t'fur..."

"Oh, the city's too far from Chris?" Buck understood, "That's a good idea, Chris won't be out of here for a few more days. You look like ten miles of bad road, Slick, you get some rest and don't let Ez take any of your money."

Despite the coat and sweat suit, he couldn't get warm. He shivered as he eyed the elevator that led outside. Try as he may, he couldn't get Chris's heated words or face contorted in hate from his mind. The nurse mentioned the amnesia being temporary, but that didn't take the pain away. Part of the icy grip on his insides, was the realization that his best friend was right. It was his fault, his temper had nearly gotten them both killed. Sitting all afternoon in the dark confines of the cool tiled bath, he made a decision. He'd take whatever steps necessary to change. He'd seen ads posted before for classes in stress management and such...books, there had to be books on controlling your temper. He'd heard that meditation helped...he intended to use the next couple weeks as his springboard into the new Vin Tanner, one whose fast mouth and sharp tongue wouldn't get his best friend or any of his other friends, killed. Killed...the image appeared again, Chris's head exploding. He jerked back and bit his lip.

"...I sahwe...Bucwin..."

Buck felt a machine gun was emptied in his guts. If the soft, raspy, mixed up words from the swollen, stitched up mouth and jaw weren't painful enough, there was the awful desperation in the limp blue eyes.

"Hey, look at me, Vin Tanner." He said quietly and waited for the head to rise. "It's killing me to see you busted up inside like this...but you gotta know...and this is important..." He gripped both of Tanner's shoulders, "that we're all here to help you, no matter what. We're a team and you're a part of us now, when one hurts, we all hurt. We'll get through this together, Vin, whatever it takes."

" fult...tempel...tempel...fuffck..." Vin fisted both hands, only to have two larger ones grab them.

"Cut that out and stop actin' like a spoiled kid," Buck barked, "We got the police report, we know about the road rage. You're human Vin, and I know you got a short fuse. It was an accident...and you paid a helluva price to learn a lesson...but it will get better." He paused and released Vin's hands, turning his own over and offering it up. "You got this, Slick, you know that right?" He saw the head nodding and Vin shivering again. "Okay, I'll be over want more company?" he noted of the rest of the team.


"Yeah, I hear that, " Buck nodded, "I can't never sleep in hospital bed either. Ezra's got your pills and get some sleep. Things will look a little better in the morning, Vin. We'll bring you back to see Chris."

Vin felt Buck's strong hands grip his shoulders in a show of support as he left. But standing there, watching without interest as the numbers on the elevator panel descended, he never felt so lonely in his life. The bell sounded, the doors opened, but he didn't move. A voice from another visitor behind him, roused him.

"Going down?"

Perfect choice of words, he thought of the woman's question. "...yef..." he shuffled into the elevator. "...way dun..." he shook head and took a painful inhalation of air as the doors slid shut.

Part Five

The trip to the ranch was quiet, much too quiet. Ezra kept shifting glances sideways at Vin, who remained motionless. The seat was reclined enough for him to rest. The eyes were closed, but Ezra knew Vin wasn't asleep. The bobbing Adam's apple and fists curling up were signs of the inward battle. Finally, they arrived.

"Vin, we're here..." He said quietly and got out of the car. He got Vin on his feet and took the keys from Vin's hand. He made only one stop on the way, to a supermarket. He carried the packages upstairs and by the time he was done, Vin was already in the guest room off the den, fast asleep. Ezra put the containers of yogurt, pudding and applesauce in the refrigerator. He also bought protein powder to make Vin milkshakes. The doctor thought it best to leave Vin on cold, soft food until he examined the tender interior of the damaged jaw and gums, later in the week. He filled a quart container with a snap on lid with coke and ice and carried it to Vin's side. He saw the slight body shivering under the blanket, and retrieved a thick quilt from the closet. He pulled it over Vin and tapped his shoulder.

"I have your pills and a cold soda," he offered and waited for Vin to sit up. "Just rest the tip of the straw on your lip, no further." He saw the shaggy head dip and the pill disappeared, along with a good amount of soda. "I'll leave it here, with a basin as well, in case you get sick. Vin, I'm just outside..." He gave the slumped shoulder a good squeeze and turned away. Just as the door was closing, he heard the soft, painful lisp.


"You're most welcome," he sent back, shutting the door.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was watching the news at early afternoon news in Chris's room, when the blond made his return. The tall man waited patiently, while his friend was settled in the bed. He tossed the newspaper on the chair and walked over, stiffening a bit at the cold stare that was regarding him. The familiar features were set in a stranger's face.

"Hey, Chris," Buck offered, "It's Buck the x-rays go?"

Chris's brows drew in and he stared hard at the tall man with dark hair and a mustache. He winced and rubbed his head as images appeared, of him with this man. Laughing, drinking beer, picking up girls, then new ones emerged; tense faces, guns drawn, shooting in a field, arresting people, the other strange faces came back, a boy with black hair and hazel eyes, a dark skinned man with soulful brown eyes and a large man with gray hair and smoky eyes. They all wore navy jackets with ATF in gold on the back.

"Sorry..." he offered, shaking his head. "Everything's all work with me?"

"Hell yeah," Buck sighed, cocking his head, "For about twelve years now...we've been through Hell and back, Stud." Buck grinned, then his smile disappeared when the pale face below locked in pain. A sharp hiss and moan was followed by the IV'd hand covering his face, fingers laced on the bandage. "Chris?"

Stud. The word brought a sharp pain and more pictures appeared. A beautiful woman with a small boy; the Buck was there too, laughing and tossing the boy high in the air. The woman was snuggled in his arms, his own face was looking at her with unprecedented passion. A name assaulted him...

"Sarah..." Chris gasped, eyes darting around the room, another face with a name, " Buck?..." he turned to the man above him, puzzled, then the clouds parted, "Buck!"

"That's my name, don't wear it out..." Buck teased, grabbing the single flailing hand and gripping it tight, helping the injured man to ride out the storm. The body sagged, the hand went limp and Chris was unconscious again. Buck placed the hand on Chris's chest and pulled the blue thermal blanket up over him. He settled back in the chair, at Chris's side, where he felt the most comfortable.

+ + + + + + +

By the time Buck got to the ranch it was after nine p.m. He put a bag of Chinese food on the table, while his loud voice announced his arrival. Ezra appeared, got him plates, utensils and a cold beer.

"How's Vin?" he asked, dropping his coat on the hook by Chris's back door. Ezra got a beer for himself and sat across from him. He decline the offer of food, there was plenty, but the southerner had eaten already.

"I'm not sure." Ezra took a swig of Coors Lite and sighed, "He's been sleeping most of the day, and very distant when he's awake. He ate some yogurt and pudding about five o'clock. That reminds me, he has medication due."

"I'll get it," Buck said, grabbing a small white bag, "I got him a giant milkshake from the gourmet ice cream place he and the Kid like in town." He took the pills the other dispensed and stood up.

"He's on the sofa in the den," Ezra said, reading the information Travis has emailed about the Boxer Arsonist.

"Hey Vin!" Buck sat on the coffee table next to the battered body and winced. The external disfigurement was bad enough, but the internal wounds were agonizing to look upon. Vin's eyes, usually animated, stormy, exuberant or angry were totally a corpse's. "Here, this should slide down easy enough, it's number five..." he baited of the chocolate confection, knowing it was Vin's favorite.

Vin knew Buck was trying and he roused himself from his pondering mode. He sat up and swung his legs over, keeping the blanket in place. "...fanks..." His stomach was upset and he didn't tell Ezra that the dinner had come back up with a vengeance. He didn't want the sweet treat, but didn't want to disappoint Buck. He took a good sip and licked the foam from his upper lip. "...Cwis?"

"He's doing a lot better," Buck noted, "His memory is coming back, earlier this afternoon, he remembered Sarah, then remembered me. Right before I left he asked about the team, the Boxer Arson his memory is coming back okay. How you doin', Slick?"

Vin knew Buck wasn't talking about the bruises littering his body. He shifted, placing both hands on the edge of the leather sofa and frowned, eyeing the mesmerizing flames dancing in the fireplace. "I...get hulp...tempel...bad...I mull" he felt his face flush and his eyes burn. Try as he might, Chris's words still rang in his ears.

"That's the first step, Vin," Buck gentled, easing his large hand on the downcast shoulder. He didn't miss the pained eyes or the flush of emotion. "Whatever I can do..." he offered and saw the head bob and rise. A hand snaked out from under the blanket and locked onto his forearm, a gesture usually reserved for Larabee only. He saw Vin's mouth open and close without a sound. He gave the small Texan a smile that warmed the room as much as the fire. "You're welcome..."

Knowing how much Buck valued Chris's life, that gesture meant the world to Vin and gave him renewed strength to carry out his plan. He eyed the melting milkshake and felt the mouthful he'd taken rebelling. "Fweezel..." he handed it up and heard Buck chuckle.

"Sure...stomach rocky?" Buck guessed and saw Vin nod, "You toss up that wonderful dinner Ez told me about?" The head nodded again and Buck winced. "How about a mug of tea?"


"Yeah, I know, I'll make sure it's got enough sugar. You want that herbal shit Ez has that makes you sleepy?"


"Okay, you hang tight, I'll be right back, I'll make sure it's cool, I know you can't have hot stuff yet."

"Everything okay?" Ezra asked, returning from the study where he emailed Josiah and Orrin about some ideas he had. Buck was halfway through his mini-Oriental buffet.

"Yeah, I gave him some of the shit...uh herbal tea of yours and he's out like a light. He took the pills too."

"...and..." Ezra saw Buck studying Vin's back, which was visible from where he chair sat. The den was off the large kitchen and the Texan was turned away, facing the back of the sofa. Just a small thatch of brown hair shown above the quilt he was wrapped in.

"He's all torn up inside, but he promised that he's gonna make it right, about his temper. This really scared the hell out of him."

"To say the least," Ezra agreed, "I've got some CD's that might help, Nature sounds, Native American flute and chimes and such. Quite restful."

"Chris has some books in the study...I'll dig them out for him." Buck replied

"How is our esteemed leader?" Ezra nibbled on a fortune cookie.

"His memory is coming back, he remembered me and Sarah first, then before I left stuff from work came back to him. He's in a lot of pain, though," Buck whispered, not wanting Vin's radar ears to perk up. "They did some tests this afternoon," he paused, "I stopped by the nurses station on the way out. They want to keep him for a few days, something about his CT Scan."

"We'll inquire further when we get there in the morning," Ezra decided

+ + + + + + +

Buck was up early, putting more wood in the fireplace and stacking it beside, so Vin wouldn't have to go outside to get any. He made a pot of coffee and had his 'world famous' Wilmington omelets ready to sauté. He heard a thump and turned the burners off, leaving the ham, peppers, cheese and other ingredients waiting. He paused in the den and heard severe gagging sounds.

"Shit..." he hissed, running to the guest room and flinging the door open. Vin was on the floor, trying to pull himself up and not throw up at the same time. "Hold on..." Buck grabbed the smaller man, but realized they'd never make it to the bathroom. He got Vin to the basin Ezra left, which in Vin's frantic movements, had been swept to the floor. As if vomiting weren't bad enough, forcing your muscles to go the other way over a battered, bruised body was truly painful. By the time the last dry heaves finished, Vin was weak, teary-eyed from pressure and gasping.

"...Bucwin..." Vin blinked, not realizing through his fog who was pulling him up.

"Yeah, hold on now..." Buck eased him back on the bed and made short trip to the bathroom for wet towels and water. While Vin cleaned himself off, Buck got his medication and some Gatorade. "Maybe this will stay down...bad dream again?"

"...dead...face bwown up..." Vin muttered of the horrid nightmare about Chris.

"Yeah, that's tough," Buck agreed, "You drink that down and get back under those covers. I'll bring you some pudding in a little while."


"I know you'll be fine," Buck interpreted the message. Vin had already read his face; the sniper knew he and Ezra were heading to Denver for an afternoon meeting with the ATF task force. They were stopping to see Chris on the way back to work. Josiah and Nate would come back up for a dinner visit and stay over at the ranch. "I could find a nice, soft curvy babysitter for you?" He teased, but worried when the same emotionless face turned away. He shook his head and went back to the kitchen, making breakfast for Ezra and himself. Ezra appeared with the empty Gatorade container.

"Sick again?"

"Yeah...bad dreams..." Buck answered, "Juice?"

"Thanks," Ezra got the toast done and cut up some melons. The two ate in silence, each wondering on the problem at hand. They were ready to go at eight o'clock and Ezra took a container of iced herbal tea and two puddings into the patient. He paused over the body in the bed and frowned. The swollen, discolored, distorted face was hard to look upon. "Vin...Vin..."he shook the shoulder gently, until two blue slits appeared. "We're leaving now, are you sure you'll be alright?"

"...go..." Vin coughed, wincing as the spasm hit his bruised ribs. "...fanks...Eth..." he took a good sip of the tea and shivered again.

"If you're up to it, try to eat some pudding. There's two protein milkshakes ready to go..."

"..kay..." Vin nodded, peeling a pudding open and dipping a spoon inside. He finished one, took a long swig of tea and buried himself again under the warm blanket. He fell sound asleep, when he awakened, it was almost noon. He stiffly maneuvered his body to the shower, glad his stomach wasn't as sour. The hot water rained down, chasing the chills away. He idled, lingering under the steam and rested his face against the tile. By the time he got dressed and to the kitchen it was twelve forty-five. He drank some more tea, a protein shake and finished a pint of cold egg drop soup. He eyed the clock and got his coat on. He took Chris's keys and slowly, painfully limped down the stairs to Chris's Mustang. He slid behind the wheel and turned the engine over. He cut the heat on, letting the warm air kiss his throbbing face as he made his way to the hospital.

Part Six

"Dammit!" Chris hissed, flipping the television off. He laid back against the pillow, realizing no matter what position he was in, his head would still pound. He closed his eyes, wishing he'd told the nurse who left the lunch tray to shut the blinds. The afternoon sun was like a ax hatcheting his tender wound. He blinked and shifted his body painfully, wary of the IV lines and saw a shadow jump back past the doorframe. Frowning, he left his gaze there for a few moments, but the hall remained empty. He rested his burning eyes again, glad that Buck and Ezra were gone. As much as he appreciated them visiting, he was glad when they left. There's nothing worse than trying to remain alert and 'perky' for your visitors when you feel like shit warmed over. Sighing, he shifted again and adjusted his body. "Shit!" he cried out, as the sunlight penetrated his throbbing skull. Then the harsh light was gone and the coolness enveloped him. He peeled an eye open and the shadow appeared again, and he caught a profile and long brown hair.

"Vin?" He called out and saw a body stalling near the door. Ezra and Buck warned him that Vin's face was busted up, but seeing it was another story. The left side was distorted, grotesquely mis-shapened with purplish-black bruising marring the entire half. The left eye was reduced to a slit and stitches lined the marred lip. But the right eye was wide and full of pain, something that went so deep it took Chris's breath away. "Jesus, Vin...I had no idea...I mean Buck said your face was a mess but...Vin, why are you hovering in the damn doorway? Get your ass over here..."

Vin didn't move, his heart wanted to, but his legs wouldn't budge. He twisted the paper bag in his hand and continued to avert his gaze.

"I can't smell that bad," Chris tried, knowing Vin was feeling low. But the face remained a long mask. "Unless you're the one who stinks..." Still no motion. "What the hell did you come here for if...wait a'd you get here?"


"Drove?" Chris repeated, the lisping voice supported the nurse's report that Vin's left jaw, gum and cheek inside were torn up. " mustang?" He didn't intend for his voice to be so sharp and regretted the tone when the shaggy head fell forward. "Fine...suit yourself...hold up the fuckin' doorway..." Chris's head was pounding and he laid back, casting an arm across his face. He drifted awhile and heard movement, opening his eyes he saw a blue shirt. He raked his gaze upwards and caught the younger man off guard. The mask was down and a replaced with a guilt ridden face.

"...I sah we...Cwis...mah more...pwahmis..."

"I'm holding you to that one, Tanner, I mean it," Chris stated in a direct tone, pulling no punches. "It's not worth getting killed over...I want your word, Vin, you do something about that hot head of yours before one of us ends up in the morgue."

"...pwahmissed!" Vin snarled, fisting both hands. He knew Chris was angry, he could read the tension in the face and the glare was penetrating. "...sud sah we!" he vented, not able to control his raging emotions. He still saw Chris's head exploding and then heard the awful words from yesterday morning. Bitter truths that spilled forth; the blond didn't even know the pain he'd caused. "...fufckth..." he pounded the bedrails.

"That lasted long," Chris quipped, reading the irate eyes. "That's what I'm talking about. You gotta get that under control...." His advise was interrupted by the rage-shaken body turning back to the door. A paper bag was thrown at him, spilling his favorite power bars onto the bed. "Freeze!" Chris gritted, and the body jerked and froze. "Get your stubborn Texan ass over here." Vin reluctantly came back, pausing at the foot of the bed. He saw the dark circles, didn't miss the severe limping and recalled Buck saying Vin was throwing up. "Talk to me, Vin..." he said plainly, offering his unopened root beer.

Vin stared at the face and saw the green eyes soften in compassion and maybe a hint of understanding. He limped closer, wincing as his hip protested. He eyed the can suspiciously and wrinkled his nose. "...fwat?"

"No it's not flat," Chris retorted, "You got balls, you know that. Man offers his last root beer..."

" wike woot beel..." Vin shot back, moving a step closer to the chair.

"Me not liking Root Beer is beside the point," the blond objected, "well?" The can lingered and Chris found a smile forming when the unsteady hand moved a little closer.

"...twuce?" Vin asked of the offering.

"Twuce," Chris repeated, grinning as the unmarred lip trying not to laugh. "You're losing, Tanner, might as well give it up...let it out..." he coached and rummaged through the power bars. "Wait a minute..." he chuckled and cocked his head, examining them closer. "Did you get these from my car? From the glove compartment? He a saw the marred lips jerk into a brief attempt at a smile. "Helluva gift..." he laughed, replacing them in the bag.

"...fawt dat conts..." Vin defended, over his hammering heart. "...bwoke..."

"They got an ATM machine in the lobby..." Chris answered the younger man with a grin.

" come empy hunded..." He scowled, reaching for the bag. "...give buck..."

"Give it back?" Chris's voice rose. "I bought the damn bars last week, no you can't have them back...Cheap son-of-a-bitch..." Chris grinned and saw Vin struggling not to join him. Then Vin hissed and grabbed his jaw.

" muck fun...Wowabee..."

Chris couldn't help it and when his name came out twisted up, he laughed outright, relaxing as at last the injured sharpshooter sat down. He eyed the soda disappearing and settled back in his pillow.

"So how's Bug Bunny these days, Elmer?" He asked and smiled as the soda shot back out, all over Ezra's designer sweat shirt.

"...Cwis..." Vin choked, "...pwease...hults..."

"Sorry, Vin," Chris winced, watching at Vin clenched his eyes shut and held the cold can against his left jaw. He yawned and fought the wave of stupor, but lost.

Vin waited until Chris was fast asleep and stood up, walking to the window. He gave Chris his word and he meant it, not matter what it took, he would change. Nearly losing his best friend was a horrid wake-up call. Until he did that, the rift he still felt between them would exist. He couldn't get the words Chris screamed the day before from his brain, no matter how hard he tried. As four o'clock approached, he decided to head back to the ranch, his pain medication was overdue and his jaw, hip and side were pounding with fury. After hitting the ATM, he had a couple errands to run. He stood up, the rested his right hand on the cotton clad Larabee shoulder.

Chris felt the light touch and one eye opened a crack. His heavy head was full of muck and he couldn't fully rouse himself. He saw Vin had zipped his jacket and had keys in his hand.

"...heading out..." he croaked, fighting to stay awake.

"...yef..." Vin answered, " bock wader dis week..."

"Hmmm?" Chris sighed, trying to keep his eyes open. "Vin..." his hand shot up, offering in gesture what his foggy brain couldn't get his lips to say. He clasped the forearm with all he had and let the curtain drop.

"...pwahmis...Cwis...yuh no be assamed..." Vin throat tightened, "...pwoud cawl fwend 'gen..."

Somehow through the thick mud that filled Chris's head, those words came through like spring water. It took him several minutes to put them together and his eyes shot open.

"What the hell do you mean ashamed?" he hissed, pushing himself up on one elbow. "I am proud to call you friend...Vin...Vin...shit!" he swore at the empty room. As he settled back down, his handsome features were drawn and puzzled. "Dammit, Cowboy..." he flinched as the shaky lisp and tortured words combined with the swollen, battered face. He winced and rubbed his own chest, as that image pierced right through. The physical injuries would heal, but how could he help Vin's inner scars? What was the mystery still lurking in the bottomless blue eyes?

+ + + + + + +

"Damn that smells good..." Nate tossed his coat on the chair by the kitchen door.

Josiah was stirring a large pot of spaghetti sauce. He turned and grinned, wagging his gray eyebrows. "It can make the blind see..."

"You're full of shit, Josiah..." the other chuckled, pulling a cold bottle of red wine from the bag he carried in and placing it on the table. Josiah took a large loaf of garlic bread from the oven and began to slice the aromatic toast.

"How's Vin?" the EMT asked, draining the linguini.

"Well," Josiah placed the hot bread on the table, next to the large tossed Caesar Salad. "I've seen low and he's way beyond that. He holed up in Chris's study...I'll go get him."

"You sure?" Nate frowned, "He loves pasta...don't seem fair, him not having any."

"He's got his own batch, nice and chilled. Orzo with butter and parmesan...with a pudding chaser." Josiah noted, pointing to the pasta chilling on the countertop. "I'll go hunt him up..."

It didn't take long for the large strides to reach the Larabee study, an architect's dream in western memorabilia. He entered the handsome room and paused over the slumbering body. Vin was asleep at Chris's desk. His head resting on his crossed arms. Josiah cocked his head and read the notes the younger man had written. Under his sleeve were lists of steps to remedy temper problems, printouts from the computer about road rage, highlighted in yellow, new books from a store in town on Anger Management and Self-control lessons. Also lying haphazardly were CD's with meditative music and one with Celtic flutes and harps. He saw Nate appear in the doorway and shushed him. The tall, dark man entered the room and smiled at the over-eager, exhausted student.

"He sure don't let moss grow under his feet..." Nate admired, eyeing the tools Vin chose.

"Gimme a minute," Josiah mused, rubbing his chin, "I want to talk to him...I got a friend that might help." He moved and picked up the cordless phone, "I ever tell you about Sandy McHugh?"

"McHugh..." Jackson furrowed his brows. "He's a professor or something Mexico?"

"Yeah...near Eagle Nest Lake, beautiful town right near the mountains..." Josiah nodded, "I've known Sandy since the Army, over thirty years. He's good at this...if I'm not mistaken, he has seminars a couple times month for Anger Management and Stress Control."

"I'll turn the sauce down, take your time." Nate moved past the desk and paused, "He's pushing himself too hard...he's got healing to do and should have rested today. He's gonna feel it tomorrow," he fretted, resting a hand on Vin's back to gently wake him. "Maybe I can convince him to take a hot bath, that'll help..."

"You never invite me to take a hot bath," Josiah said solemnly, getting the number from information, "I think my feelings are hurt."

"That day ever comes," Nate laughed, "You can shoot me...You okay Vin?"

"...Nate..." Vin winced, sitting up to fast and having his hip, ribs and shoulder scream. "...ahhh..."

"Easy now," Nate coached, easing the smaller man upright, "...flex a're stiff from sleepin'...After dinner, you take a nice hot'll loosen right up..."

"...tay..." Vin nodded, walking gingerly around the room.

"No, not yet," Nate put his hands up, "You wait here, Josiah wants to talk to you..."

"You've been busy," Josiah commented, eyeing the books, CD's and notes. "I wasn't prying..." He stated honestly and saw Vin nod and limp to join him. "This is a great step, Vin, and the hardest one. You identified the problem and accepted the realization that you need help to fix it. You done good, Son," he grinned and patted the sharpshooter's shoulder. "But it's not a quick fix, it takes continual measures and exercises, staying on the right track once you find it...I think I can help you with that path, Vin. I have a friend, Sandy McHugh, we joined the Army the same day, I've known him over thirty years. He's a fine man, a professor down in New Mexico. Twice a month, he offers seminars in Anger Management. If you'd like, I can call and talk to him..."


"Yeah, like uh..." Josiah walked to the computer and pulled the internet up. "He has a website...I bet the classes are listed. There..." He patted the chair and Vin hobbled over and sat down. "Look at that," the graying agent read over Vin's curly head, "It says in the mission statement that their goal is to provide a structured, hands-on approach to teach anger management and control. It will show you the steps to take in identifying the problem and what techniques to help you cope with the stress control. Sound good?"

"...yef..." Vin lisped, his good eye wide in anticipation, he moved the mouse over the word 'courses' and eyed the list. He felt his dying flame of hope flicker and strengthen, as his eyes picked out several from the long list. The rules of anger management, defense mechanisms, identifying the problem of Road Rage and how to conquer it..."

"...wode wage..." he turned to Josiah who nodded . He cast his eye back on the screen and continued to scan. Identifying if you are an 'imploder or exploder', keeping a journal, the wheels of emotion, understanding anger and charting your own anger scale. He stopped midway through the list and looked back at the phone. "...'siah...hulp..."

"I was just waiting for you to ask, Vin," the older man said warmly, squeezing the back of Vin's neck. "I'll call Sandy and find out when the next seminar is, they usually only last a few days. You ever been near Eagle Nest?" He asked and saw Vin screw his face up in thought. "North Central New Mexico, near the Sangre De Cristo Mountains..."

Vin shrugged and thought for a moment more, "...montins...westful..."

"Yeah, that's one reason why Sandy holds the seminars in Eagle Nest. It's a beautiful little spot. You can stay in town or outside in a cabin..." He saw Vin's eyes perk up and grinned, "Yeah, that's what I thought, Nature Boy..."

Vin grinned and continued to read about the seminar courses, exercises and high success rate. For the first time since that beat up car shoved it's way in his path, he felt hopeful. He did a search on Eagle Nest and saw pictures of the pretty, mountainside town. He looked up at Josiah's deep voice broke the stillness. He pointed to the bathroom and saw Josiah nod. He limped out of the room, as the other began his conversation.

"Damn you're getting old, Sandy..." Josiah smiled, "I'm you doing? Am I married yet? Hell no!" The eldest boomed, "How's Annie...that's great...five grandchildren! Damn impressive, Sandy...Listen I have a favor...when is your next seminar?" The smile split his face and he nodded, writing down dates. "Great...about that favor," he eyed the doorway and thought of the dejected, beat up soul. "His name is Vin Tanner, he's special Sandy...he needs help." Josiah spent a few minutes giving the instructor details on the accident and on Vin. "I can't thank you enough...Best man at my wedding?" Josiah laughed at the other man's request. "You got it...Can you get him a cabin outside town? You sure? No, he don't care if it's old and beat up, that's right up his alley. Tuesday...he'll be there. I'll bring him down. Yeah, it'll be good to see you too. Thanks Sandy."

Vin walked into the room as Josiah was ending his call. The older man turned to him and gave the thumbs up.

"...wem mext semimmar..." Vin's anxious voice inquired.

"Is next Tuesday soon enough?"

"...weelwe?" Vin's eyes widened, as Josiah nodded.

"You're all set. Sandy's got an old cabin he doesn't use anymore outside town. Said you can stay there, just bring your own linens and food. It's about a mile's walk to the lodge where the classes are every day. I'll take you down on Monday and get you settled in, they last three days." Josiah walked around the desk and headed for the door. He clapped a hand on Vin's shoulder, "Come on, Vin, I'm starving..."

Vin's nose tilted as they got closer to the kitchen. Something teased him with scents of hot garlic bread and meatballs and sausage in simmering sauce.

"...puthetti?" His voice rose as the aroma assaulted him.

"Got yours all ready," Nate grinned, shoving the bowl of cold orzo's and a protein shake at the now silent sniper. "...even made you an appetizer..." he popped the lid off of caramel-chocolate pudding. The dark-skinned agent laughed outright at the Tanner nose wrinkling and the face turning into a scowl.

"...ffufck..." Vin slumped in the chair, ducking as Josiah's large hand ruffled his hair.

"Now now..." the ex-preacher used a mock-stern tone, "watch that mouth..."

"Don't worry, Vin," Nate said, pouring the steaming sauce over a bowl of linguini. "I can put some leftovers in the blender for you..."

"...puthetti thake..." Vin's nose wrinkled again and he reached for a spoon.

"Here you go," Josiah said, handing him the implement.

"...fanks..." Vin said, taking the spoon and then the large hand, "...'siah...ful hulpin'..."

"You're welcome, Vin," Josiah smiled and sat down. They talked quietly about Vin's upcoming trip and each man expressed to the injured one, how proud they were of him and encouraged him to do his best. Nathan couldn't help noticing Vin wincing and shifting in his chair. Finally, the bowl of orzo was completed and the Texan stood, then hissed, his hand flying wildly.

"That hip givin' you fits?" Nate guessed, steadying the slim man. "Come on...I got some salts I can put in the bath. Then you're takin' your medicine and gettin' to bed. You pushed yourself too hard..."

Josiah cleaned up the dishes and made dessert, taking it into the den. Nate joined in and picked up a dish of vanilla ice cream, which was covered with crème de menthe.

"Cigar?" Josiah asked, nodding to the box nearby.

"Maybe later," Nate replied, looking back at the door where Vin was soaking in a steaming tub. "I sure hope your friend can help him. I've never seen him so low...I can't help think there's something else botherin' him."

"Yeah, I got that impression, too," Josiah concurred. "There was parking stub from the hospital in the trash can in the kitchen..."

"Well that explains it," Nate sighed, dipping his spoon in the minty creation. "You think Chris let into him?"

"I don't know..." the reply came, "but I have every confidence in that boy. He'll do fine at that seminar. Sandy's course is sought out by customers all over the country. He's that good..."

"Maybe it would be a good idea for Vin to get down there early," Nate thought aloud, "He takes to mountains and streams like fish to water. Might put him in the right mood..."

"Yeah, " Josiah agreed, "I'll talk to him about it...maybe I head down there with him on Saturday."

As the flames danced in the fireplace, the two old friends grew silent, each sipping coffee and pondering on the path their young friend was undertaking.

Part Seven

It was just after six p.m., when the pizza toting duo exited the elevator. Buck and J.D. entered Chris's room, just as the nurse was helping him walk. His dizzy spells and long hours in bed over the last few days, had left him weak and unsteady. She settled him in a chair and nodded to the two visitors, as she left. Nate was in the other corner of the room, reading Chris's chart.

"Am I gonna live?" Chris asked, watching Nate scour the pages.

"Well, Boss," the other replied, "near as I can tell...fifty or sixty more years..."

"Hey Chris!" J.D. gushed, striding into the room. "We got him! Ezra was brilliant, that stupid torch-happy freak never knew was hit him."

"Cranston?" Chris eyed Buck who nodded, "...damn...that's a catch..." He took a slice of pie and bit off the end, before placing it on the paper plate provided by the youth.

"The Kid's right, Ezra outdid himself. Set himself up as the spoiled, money hungry son of an eccentric mother with a warehouse to unload...He's giving his statement down at headquarters."

"CNN even called, they wanted to interview him..." J.D. noted, "When you gettin' out of here, Chris?" He took a slice and sat on the upturned trashcan at injured man's knee.

"Not soon enough!" the blond replied, taking a soda from J.D. and popping the top. "Monday, maybe...some damn test keeps comin' back wrong. Where's Vin?" He eyed the room warily.

"He's not up to snuff," Nate answered, eyeing the others carefully.

"What the hell was that?" the leader demanded of the all-knowing-glance.

"He pushed himself too hard on Tuesday," Jackson replied, joining the others near Chris. He sat on the bed and sighed. "He was so stiff and sore Wednesday, he could barely move. Today he met with Orrin and stopped in the office."

"What?" Chris again saw the others exchange a wary glance. "Somebody give him trouble?" the blond angered, "he lose his cool?"

"No," Buck sighed, taking a seat next to Nate on the bed. "He doesn't have a cool...or any other emotion...he's like..." He ate his piece half-heartedly, thinking on the day they'd been through.

"...a zombie..." J.D. said crossly. "I couldn't look at him after awhile. He did his monthly report, you know how hard that many times his trashcan gets kicked across the room or a coffee mug goes flying..."

"Cursin', stapler bangin', kickin' the printer..." Buck smiled at the image of the crusty, red-faced agent. "But he never made a sound...not even when the printer jammed and he lost his report. It took him three hours to do it again..."

"Shit..." Larabee winced, knowing how hard Vin worked at doing a complete, thorough job.

"He not only killed his temper, he took everything else too...not a smile, a frown, nothing...just this blank look."

"Where is he?" Chris asked, rubbing his pounding temples.

"Uh...Josiah took him back to the ranch. He passed out..."

"What!" Chris jerked his head. "What do you mean? What happened?"

"He's been having headaches on and off all week." Nate input, "I told him to knock off at three...his head was hurtin' so much he couldn't keep his eyes open. I made him rest on the couch in your office. I took his report to Orrin..."

"What was he doing at work? He's not supposed to be working..." the leader frowned.

"He wanted to talk to Orrin," Buck said, "Then we all got tied up with the arson case. We got back and he was already half done the report.. Me and Josiah came back from central, where we went to see Ezra..." Buck sighed, "Vin was at the printer, mumbling something about his forensics pages. He went white as a sheet, gave a short cry and went down."

"Why the hell did they discharge him?" Chris raged. "Jesus, he looks like a truck hit his face, he can't walk right, his jaw and mouth are wrecked...Passing out? Christ, he was driving my car on Tuesday..."

"Don't think I didn't give him hell for that!" Nate scowled, finishing his pie, "Damn fool could have killed himself..."

"Why didn't they keep him? What kind of hospital is this?" Chris vented, they saw Buck hiding a smile. "What the fuck is so funny?"

"You are, 'Mom'," The rogue teased and saw Larabee blush, "He's okay...he was only out a few minutes. We took him to the Infirmary. He's still comin' off his concussion and he supposed to be resting."

"Which is where his sorry ass will be until Saturday!" Nate barked.

"What's Saturday?" Chris asked, and Nate filled him in. "Damn..." Chris rasped softly, his admiration for his best friend filling his chest. "Good for you, Cowboy..." he whispered, laying his head on the back of the chair and closing his eyes. The dizzy spells were followed by raging headaches. He lifted an arm and Buck and Nate got him back in bed, where he fell into a fitful sleep. The troubling dreams came back, the accident and then something else. He was screaming, raging, out of control...but his victim was faceless. He moaned and tossed, finally sinking into a bottomless black hole.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was dressed in a sweat suit and sitting in a chair when Vin got to the doorway. It was just after eight a.m on Saturday. He and Josiah would be heading for New Mexico. The ex-preacher was outside, waiting in the car. He knew Vin needed to speak with Chris privately.

"Hey," Chris beamed, seeing the fading bruises on the still swollen face. "You're losing your color, Sport...Come on in...You okay? Buck told me you passed out. What the hell were you doing at work? Dammit Vin..."

"...enough..." Vin smiled, limping to the bed and sitting down. "You...look...better..." Vin said slowly, need time to get the words working past his swollen, tender jaw and tongue.

"Aw, hell," Chris grinned, "I miss Elmer Fudd..."

"Fuck yer...sorry...ass..." Vin paused, his jaw aching, "Larabee..."

"That's Wowabee to you..." Chris chuckled, "I hear you got your traveling shoes on..."

"Yeah," Vin nodded, "'siah's friend...teaches..." he winced, rubbing his jaw.

"Don't talk..." Chris coached, eyeing the folded papers in Vin's hand. Upside down, he could make out the words 'Anger Management' and nodded.

Vin saw his looking and handed it over, then waited nervously as Chris scanned the papers. He watched the blond fold them back up and smooth the wrinkles out. For several minutes, neither spoke. Then he saw the blond head rise up and the emotion in Chris's eyes.

"I'm proud of you, Vin Tanner," Chris said thickly, "This..." he held the paper up, "is some big fuckin' step...You're a better man than me, Cowboy..."

"No!" Vin hollered and immediately regretted it, doubling over and grabbing his face. He clenched his eyes closed as the waves of pain exploded in his face. He felt a hand on his back and a warm breath on his cheek.

"You okay?" Chris asked, seeing tears of pain in the blue eyes. He waited until the head nodded once and then sat next to Vin on the bed. "I mean that, Vin. Josiah told me you bought books in town on Tuesday, started in right off, making lists, printing out stuff, highlighting it, reading articles and books on facing the fire..." he broke off, "It took me years to make that step. To conquer the dragon in the mirror. I chased that fuckin' demon's tail for years. I was a coward, I lashed out at everything...broke stuff, wrecked cars, trashed my apartments, got suspended, put Buck in the hospital. Years, Vin...I'm still a student, I work at it everyday. But you had the courage to bite off the head straight off...Christ, I admire that...that takes real guts, Cowboy."

For several minutes, Vin was unable to speak due to the pain throbbing in this jaw. Then it was the heavy sensation in his chest that stopped the words. He not only heard Chris's praise, he felt every word sink deep inside. He would keep them there, using them to give him strength when times got difficult and the 'dragon' rose it's head.

"Thanks...Chris..." Vin said slowly, closing his eyes as a hand gripped his neck. The sensation put a shiver all through him and his chest constricted. Mabye now, the nightmares would stop. Maybe he wouldn't see Chris's head exploding or hear those bitter words screaming at him again.

"It's gonna be okay, Vin," Chris vowed, putting pressure on Vin's neck. "I'll be right here, you feel boxed in, like you're gonna explode, you call me." He offered, then squinted as the shaggy head rose. The eyes well in emotional overdrive and then... "Jesus, Vin, you're drooling..."

"" Vin slurred, swiping the saliva running from his mouth. "aw,'s that...gum medicine..."

"Dammit Vin," Chris moved, "Don't be wiping your spit on my pants..."

"...sheeth...not punts..." Vin's tongue felt thick and he rushed his words.

"Hey, Elmer's back!" Chris grinned, wrinkling his nose as Vin's healing jaw caused him to dribble again. "I hear they got nice rooms across the way at the Nursing home...course you'd have to wear one of the short gowns with your ass stickin' the hell out...and you got no ass..."

"Shtop...hults..." Vin slurred, leaving out a trail of saliva and smacking the smirking blond's arm.

"You better get going before you drown me in Tanner spit." Chris decided, giving Vin a box of tissues. "Here, a little something from me..."

"Hothpital tissues..." Vin scowled.

"It's the thought that counts..." the smirking blond countered, rising with the younger man. "Listen, you'll do fine," he rested both hands on Vin's shoulders. "You've already aced this in my book, Tanner. You got balls the size of Texas..." He paused, seeing something he didn't like in the shifting blue eyes. Fear? What was Vin afraid of? "The accident? Is that bothering you? You can't turn back the hands of time, Vin. It's all over and I'm fine. It won't happen again, I know that." He paused, but the fear remained. "No grudges Vin, okay?"

But it wasn't okay and Vin knew it. The fear still remained, of the words spoken on Monday. Those caustic utterings from a man with Larabee's face. A stranger who spoke the truth. He couldn't help it, that stranger's voice rang true. He shook himself free and turned to Chris nodding and taking the tissues.

"Vin!" Chris urged, snapping his arm onto the other's forearm. "Good Luck..."

"Thanks...Chris..." Vin said slowly, swiping the saliva. "...wash yull...yer..." he corrected. "...back..."

"No thanks, the nurse washed it this morning," Chris replied with a grin, "...and she has great hands..." he laughed at the other man's smile. "You watch you own back, don't let some husky mountain woman kidnap and ravish you..."

"...wavish?" Vin cocked his head and winked. "..hmmm..."

"See you next week, Cowboy..." Chris smiled as the Texan shuffled to the door.

+ + + + + + +

Time flew as swiftly as the mountain stream near the cabin that had become home. It was just three rooms, more than 'rustic', no frills and covered in dust, but Vin loved it. He spent the first couple days cleaning it, stocking it with food and taking long walks, using his journal and books to gage his temper radius and write down his feelings. The town was very picturesque. Josiah took him to meet the McHughs on Saturday night, they were guests at dinner. They were an open friendly couple, she a tiny blond bundle of energy and he a tall, dark lanky deep thinker. Vin took a walk with him after dinner around the town and felt immediately at ease, opening up to him and answering some prodding questions.

Sunday and Monday were a blur. Josiah left Sunday at noon, and Vin trudged happily into the mountains. Before he knew it, Tuesday arrived and the classes began . The eight hours each day flew, the Texan's mind was spinning with all the new information he was learning. He studied so hard at night, his headaches raged and forced him to rock himself to sleep. But as each exercise with the group and self-evaluation passed, he felt a calming inside. By Thursday afternoon, when they were in the home stretch, he was in the 'I can do this' mode. Armed with the tools of his new knowledge, he felt reborn and the air smeller sweeter. He called Chris, his exuberance on the phone giving the blond a huge grin on the other end. Thursday night the group had dinner at the Lodge together. Sandy gave them each a certificate and included a hand written note to Vin. He cited how much courage it took Vin to make this step and how that would help him conquer his temper.

It was late when Vin arrived back at the cabin. Sandy had graciously offered it to Vin for as long as he wished to stay. He decided to stay at least through Sunday, he found the mountain air, pine trees and rushing stream better medicine that the pills he was taking. He tossed another log on the fire, stretched out on a sleeping bag in front of the snapping flames and fell asleep wearing a deep contented smile. He couldn't wait to show Chris what he'd learned.

+ + + + + + +

It was the end of a long week for Chris Larabee. He sat in his den, watching the flames in the fireplace leap and move. He'd been discharged on Monday, but the ramifications of the head injury dictated that he not remain alone for three weeks. Buck moved in, it was a natural fit. Buck and he went back so many years, they were like an old married couple. Able to tolerate the others moods and differences and embrace the kinship. Most of the week was a blur, that headaches and blackouts giving him fits. Today, he was awake all day, alert enough to take a walk outside and visit his horses. But the barn seemed empty with the slow, drawling teasing tone of Vin Tanner. He smiled again, thinking of Vin's euphoric voice on the phone earlier. The words rushed together in excited breathless bursts. He knew he was wearing a drunken grin, the first he'd had all week. It felt good, damn good, to hear Vin's voice. He glanced at the mantle clock and rose, stretching his back. One a.m and high time to get to bed.

Buck sat straight up in bed, cocking his head. He rubbed his eyes and squinted in the dark. Too many years of experience told him not to ignore this silent warning. He tossed the blanket off and padded into the hall, cocking his head at attention. He was nearly to Chris's room, when the air-shattering screaming began.

Chris tossed fitfully, covered in sweat and moaning. His chest glistened in the moonlight, as the thin film of moisture clung to his muscular frame. The dream was the same...he was screaming obscenities, his face contorted in hatred. The words that pushed between the foul offerings were also the same: bastard, son-of-a-bitch, lunatic, animal. He was violently attacking someone with a verbal hatchet, chopping the victim into bloody, broken pieces. But tonight, the dream changed, the faceless victim was revealed.

"Vin!" Chris screamed, as the broken blue eyes appeared. ""

"Chris!" Buck flung himself at the bed as a fist shot up and clipped his lip. "Jesus..." he muttered, grabbing the flailing arms and pinning them to the bed. The taut body buckled, fighting the strong arms that held it prisoner. "Chris! Wake's's..." he paused as the green eyes snapped open. "You with me?" He asked seeing the eyes wide and unblinking. The wet chest was heaving and gasping. Finally, the damp blond head nodded. Buck moved from Chris and turned the light on. "What the hell was that?" he asked, seeing the leader shaking from head to foot. "You okay?"

"No..." Chris whispered, tossing his frame from the bed. He sighed deeply, raking a trembling hand through his short, damp hair. His cotton pajama bottoms were damp as well.

"Same dream?" Buck pondered, having made this trip every night.

"No..." Chris said, " was Vin..." He closed his eyes, trying to fight the headache. He licked his lips and stood, grateful for Buck's arm as his knees buckled a little. "I need a drink..."

"Okay," Buck agreed, walking beside the shaken figure as they went to the study. He got a brandy for Chris and one for himself. He sat on the sofa and Chris in the big wing chair.

"It was awful Buck," Chris recalled, "I was screaming at him...calling him names...cursing him...wishing him dead...Christ, what a nightmare...them damn fuckin' eyes of his...Shit..." he gulped the drink, welcoming the burning trail it left. The glass remained frozen at his lips, when he saw Buck avert his face. " to me..." he rasped, his stomach falling through the floor.

Buck took a deep breath and brought his head up. He stared right into the green icy twins and bit his lip. He knew this moment was bound to come, at least they were alone.

"It wasn't a dream, Chris..."

"What?" Chris choked, his voice barely audible, drowning out by his thundering heart beating. He saw Buck clench his eyes shut and then he felt like a dozen knives stabbed his tense gut. "Buck?"

"It was last Monday...right after you left the ICU. You still had amnesia, you didn't recognize him. He didn't know you lost your memory. He saw them wheel you into the room and came over. You thought he was the one who shot hurt him, Chris..."

"Jesus fuckin' Christ..." Chris hissed, pushing his body back into the chair, trying to will it to devour him. "How bad?" he asked, when Buck's lips pressed together. "All of it, Buck...I gotta know..." As Buck quietly rehashed the soul whipping, nearly verbatim, Chris's insides went through a fiery shredder. By the time Buck finished, he'd moved to Chris's side, but the older man pushed him away. "Go away, Buck..." he rasped, downing the rest of the amber liquid.

"Not this time, Chris," Buck gentled, "Nobody knows but Ezra and me...Vin don't know we know..."

"What time is it?" Chris said, pouring himself some more brandy.

"What?" Buck turned his head, finding the wall clock, "Uh..four a.m...why?"

"Get packed, we're leaving in an hour." Chris drained a small bit of brandy and rose, his body fueled by determination and will. "I gotta see him, Buck. I gotta make it right..."

Twelve years of experience told the mustached man not to argue. He put a hand on the other's shoulder and gave a squeeze of support. He moved across the room and called Josiah's voicemail at the office, updating him only that he was taking Chris to see Vin. It wasn't even five a.m. when they made their way to the car. Buck eased the seat of his Jimmy all the way back. Chris was reclined and belted in. "You get some shut-eye," he ordered, turning onto the highway. "We got us a Tanner to find."

Part Eight

It was just past noon when they arrived in the tiny town nestled in the mountains. Buck stopped at the lodge that Josiah mentioned the classes were held at . The young man behind the reception desk gave him directions to the cabin that the McHugh's had outside town. Chris was out of the car and in the door, before Buck had the motor turned off.

"Vin!" He called out, eyeing the tidy abobe filled with signs of Tanner. Vin's clothes were neatly folded on a bench under one window. At the table, piles of books, articles and a stack of printouts were waiting. He ambled over and leafed through them, not missing the note from Sandy McHugh, praising Vin for his courageous decision. He felt himself nodding, his chest tightening.

"Looks like he's out..." Buck mused, dropping their duffle bags on the floor. "Chris, you okay?" The taller man didn't miss the fact that the blond was pale and ragged looking.

"Yeah, just a little dizzy..." he admitted, sitting at the table. Buck pressed a cold soda from the cooler on the floor, into his hand. He drank a mouthful and pressed the cold can against the side of his face.

"Look at this..." Buck paused next to Chris, eyeing the impressive array of study material. He handed Chris a leaflet he found about a ranch outside town with horseback riding, ATV Tours and rafting. "I'll tell you what," Buck didn't hide the pride in his voice, "Vin sure is something. I don't know if I'd have the guts...I mean to realize so fast..."

"Yeah," Chris sighed, rubbing the tension between his temples.

"You look awful, Chris. Why don't you chill out here for a couple hours. I'll take a ride over to this ranch," the rogue noted of the activities circled in red on the brochure, "...and try and find him. You get some rest, I'll be back in a little while."

After Buck left, Chris tossed his jacket on the empty chair next to him and read through some of Vin's handouts and exercises. By accident, he stumbled on the short essay Vin wrote on what caused him to seek out the class. As often as he'd seen the steadying force in those blue eyes, reading in the Texan's own hand how since the moment the bullet hit the windshield, his heart was ripped apart was painful. He pushed himself from the table and thought of his cruel words uttered at Vin. He wondered about that violent tirade. Although he knew the younger man was made aware of his amnesia, he had a gut feeling that Vin still carried the wounds of those words. He had to make this right...he rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and walked outside to clear his head.

The air was always cleaner and sharper near the mountains. The wind lifted his the tendrils of his fair hair and he inhaled it's sweet scent. He was about to go back inside, when he spotted boot tracks by a path behind the house. Moving closer, he grinned as his fingers moved over the image of a coiled snake that was on the bottom of Vin's boots. He headed down the short path, calling his friend's name.

Blissful. That was the right word to describe his mood at this moment in time. Resting against a rock with his arm behind his head, turning his face to the glorious sun, Vin Tanner was blissful. He sighed and sat up, resuming the passages he was writing in his journal. So intent was he on pouring his soul onto the virgin pages in the book on his crossed-legs, he didn't hear his visitor approach.

Chris paused in the overgrowth of bushes by the side of the road, leaning against a tree. His features softened as his cast his eyes upon the slim figure basking in the warmth of the noonday sun. The soft breeze lifted the long brown locks, the trademark buckskin jacket was tossed to the side and the slender fingers were flying at record rate across the blank pages in a leather bound journal. His smile broadened when Vin lifted his face to the sky, the fine features were relaxed and at peace. He moved forward, his sneaker breaking a branch under his feet. The change was instant and so swift, he backpedalled, losing his balance.

"Jesus, Vin!" he hissed as the body whirled, blue eyes alert and a knife was whipped from the belt on the faded jeans.

"Good way t'get killed," Vin said in an even, cold voice, shaking his head as he turned back to his book, closing it and shoving it under his jacket, along with the knife.

"I wasn't spying on you..." Chris reacted to the defensive posture and movements. "I'll leave..." he turned back, only to be called upon.

"Chris..." Vin stood up and turned to the older man. "Ya look like ya sit down before ya keel over, Old Man..."

"Not so old that I can kick your scrawny ass, Tanner," Chris grunted, extending his hand and clasping the one offered.

"It's good t'see ya Cowboy," Vin offered, his light eyes crinkling in warmth.

"Same here..." Chris returned, clapping the back of the faded denim shirt.

"Wasn't expectin' ya..." Vin quizzed, his sky eyes narrowing as they easily read the anguish in the green ones. "What's wrong?"

"Listen Vin, we need to talk." he eased himself down onto a spread of rocks, while his friend remained standing. "I've been having nightmares...well, since the accident. But this week, they changed. I wasn't in the car, I was in a hospital room, screaming obscenties at someone. Filthy, awful words..." he bit his lip, eyeing the mountain peaks as the image rammed into his tender head. He didn't miss all the color draining from the younger man's face and the eyes widen in unadulterated pain. "Buck...he's been stayin' at the ranch, doctor's orders," he paused, "he heard me calling out...he told me...he wasn't a dream...God, Vin, I'm so sorry..."

"Reckon I deserved it," the clipped reply came as bricks started building a wall around his tender soul.

"Don't shut me out, Vin," Chris grabbed the stones going up and threw them aside, with one strong , heartfelt penetrating glance. "Those words...came from someone...lost...hurt...full of fear..."

"...still the truth..." The words were bitter and the eyes icy blue and cautious.

"No, Vin, you're not an animal," Chris rasped, swallowing hard. "That demon I screamed at died in the car wreck. Like Phoenix, you rose from the ashes. The man who I stand before now is taller than most I've known. Someone who had the courage to look hard at himself and right the wrong. Christ, I admire that..." he moved to stand directly in front of the confused body, wrestling with emotions. "Though I've belted you and flayed you, By the living God that made you, You're a better man than I am Gunga Vin."

"Gunga Vin?" Tanner chortled of the takeoff of Rudyard Kipling's famous work, Gunga Din. The face broke into a warm smile, the light was back in the pale blue eyes and the soft laugh that cascaded down the mountainside, lifted a weight from both men.

"Gotta nice ring to it, don't you think?" Chris eased, drinking in the smile he'd longed to see again.

"Don't give up yer day job, Cowboy," Vin tossed back, taking the hand offered and then embracing the body with it. "I missed ya..."

"Yeah..." Chris couldn't get any more words out. He eased away from Vin, feeling the hole inside him close. Tanner was healing, the rift was mended and all was right with the universe again. He moved away to the edge of the canyon, looking across the landscape. "You about done with your chicken scratchings? Buck's gonna be worried..."

"Bucklin brung ya?"

"Yeah...he saw some brochure from a ranch, thought you went horseback riding."

"Got that penciled in fer Sunday..." Vin quipped, "Ya bring food?"

"Food?" Chris wrinkled his brow, "No, I didn't bring food. I was busy fighting off nightmares..."

"Just neighborly is all..." Vin smirked, walking ahead. He could feel Chris's wheels turning in his mind. "Don't take t'freeloaders..."

"Freeloaders?" Chris called after the lean legs in front of him. "You got give the word squatter a whole new meaning. Hell, you might as well change your address..." he noted sourly of the sharpshooter's frequent visits to his ranch. "...eatin' me out of house and home..."

"..ain't the same..."

"The hell it isn't..." Chris puffed, slapping his neck, "Shit!" he slapped a spot on his lower jaw, "Vin!" he screamed, as his legs buckled and his throat began to swell.

"Chris!" Vin moved in quickly and caught the staggering figure. He saw the wasps hovering and eased Chris down, quickly taking off his buckskin coat, covering Chris's upper body. "Hold on...they're leavin'..." he waited until the offensive beasts were gone and peeled the coat away. "Where's yer EPI stick?" he asked of the dosage of adrenaline contained in a pen-like device. It would ease the symptoms of the Anaphylactic Shock that Chris was now enduring. The team leader suffered severe reactions to wasp stings. The respiratory distress would be followed by swelling, hives, difficulty breathing, and faintness due to dropping blood pressure.

"" Chris stuttered, as a huge wave of nausea and dizziness assaulted him.

"Listen up," Vin directed, turning the rapidly swelling face towards him. The blotches were already appearing and Chris's throat was thickening at a rapid rate. He knew the injection was vital to keep the stricken man conscious and alive, until he got him help. The blond was already having difficulty breathing and swallowing, "Chris! Stay with me!" he slapped the red patchy face hard and the eyes shot open. "Ya gonna throw up?" The heaving shoulders gave him his response and he quickly and deftly turning the choking body over his arm. Once Chris was done, he made sure his mouth was clear and sat him up, leaning the gasping body against a tree. "Chris...Chris...focus on me..." he coached, waiting for the muddled green eyes to find his, "I can't tote ya, it'll take too long. I can run back and get the EPI and be back in a few minutes. Okay...ya understand...I ain't leavin' ya..."

"...go..." Chris nodded, and leaned his head back, trying to overcome the urge to vomit again and pass out. He rested his eyes for what seemed like only a minute, when he felt a hand on the side of his neck "Vin..."

"Yeah..." the Texan was gasping, having run faster than he had in his whole life. He rubbed his trembling hands on his knees and assessed Chris's rapid pulse, pink color and swelling throat. They were out of cell phone range and town was too far. "Chris, I need t'put it in yer'll buy us a few hours..." he noted of the intramuscular stick. He saw the damp blond head bob and quickly set about his task. His frustration grew at the skin tight jeans, that made it difficult to maneuver.

"...good" Chris stuttered, his glazed eyes catching the Tanner features screwing in frustration. Truth be told, he missed the crusty cursing. He hoped Vin hadn't changed so drastically, he'd taken too much of his personality away. Finally, with on good tug, the pants were free.

Vin grabbed a hunk of Larabee's muscular thigh and jabbed the dosage of epinephrine into the wall of muscle under the skin on the side of the leg. Chris tensed, gasped and then began to choke.

"Aw, hell...ya gonna get sick again?" Vin asked as the body groaned and doubled over.


"Shit!" Vin swore, moving into action. Diarrhea was another symptom of the allergic reaction.

"...poor choice of words..." Chris gritted, as the abdominal pains gripped his tender insides. He faded in and out, vaguely aware of Vin's strong presence.

Water. Vin cleaned Chris up and got his pants back on. He cocked his head and remembered the water bottle and fruit he'd brought with him. He cast his eyes back to the spot where he'd been writing. Tossing his coat over the shivering victim, he tapped the blotchy, swollen face. "Chris...I'm gonna get some water...okay?"


Vin trotted back to the clearing and scouted around for the paper bag. It had blown down the hill and he half-ran, half-slid to the bottom. It was nearly full and that was good. He picked it up and turned back, just as a woman's muffled cry caught his ears. He moved on instinct, a few feet away to a large section of overgrown bushes. His eyes widened in shock at the semi-naked young girl, whose dull eyes now stared unblinking at the afternoon sky. She was cut on the thighs, chest and breasts. The brute that knelt over her, wiped the knife that he'd used on her on his pants. He grabbed her breast and twisted it cruelly, grunting in pleasure as he continued to rut her unresisting body. A rage filled him, so intense was his hatred for this animal that he sprung at the villain, one thing on his mind.

Carl Winters never knew what hit him. One minute he was shuddering in rapture, the next neck was snapped. Clean and easy, in one jerk, Vin saved the state a lot of time and expense. He shoved the animal's body off the young girl and checked for a pulse, even though in his heart, he knew she was dead. He felt his stomach churning and wiped the blood spurting from her slit throat off his hands. He bowed his head and asked for God's grace, before gathering up her torn clothing. Her long denim coat was intact and he covered her with it. He never got the chance to stand up, a rifle slammed into his left side, breaking the still healing ribs. Hot pain shot through his whole body as his air was cut off. He gasped and doubled over, grimacing as a harsh hand yanked his head up by the hair. A knife was pressed to his throat, the blade cutting the skin, as hot, fetid breath assaulted him.

"That was my brother you killed, you long-haired freak..." Evan Winters hissed, his clean shaven looks and lean body gave a false appearance of a military man. "...and you're gonna be sorry you ever fucked with my family..."

As his hands were tied behind his back, the thin cords cutting into his skin like jagged teeth, he thought of Chris lying helpless on the road nearby. One kick to his knees forced his legs apart. The cruel hand pulled his hair even harder, forcing his head back. Two more bodies appeared, as lean and mean as the one behind him. The older one was about forty, his eyes so dark they were nearly black. A long scar ran from his eye across his nose and past his mouth. The other was a younger man, about twenty-one. The baby-faced looks and wide blue eyes under shorn blond hair didn't hide the killer inside. Vin felt a trickle of cold sweat run down his back as they descended. The first several blows to his stomach, caused him to nearly lose consciousness...then his head was snapped up and blows rained down on his face.

"Get out Goldie," Evan grunted to his cherubic baby brother, "We're gonna teach this faggot a lesson..."

Vin blinked stuporously, hearing only every other word. He was dizzy, disoriented and bleeding from a cut on his lip. He was pulled to his feet, the steel grip of the marine-like body behind him the only thing keeping him standing upright. His legs sagged and his chest was on fire.

"No..." he grunted in his semi-conscious state as the baby-faced killer put on brass knuckles. The explosion of pain brought bursts of colors before his dazed eyes. "...ris..." he coughed, curling up as his body crumpled to the ground. He was turned onto his back and through the blood running down his face, he saw the knife again...slowly taking the buttons off his shirt and exposing his chest.

"Does prick-eating-faggot have two g's?" The maniac laughed, drawing circles with the tip of the knife around Vin's right nipple. "You know my spelling is awful..." Bobby Winters pressed the blade in, drawing a small line and grinned at the sharp inhale of breath from the dazed victim. "You know, Evan, he sure is pretty..."

"Prettier than most of the whores you bring home," the older brother teased, kicking the bleeding prey hard between the legs.

"We're losing time," Mark Winters, the eldest of the quartet argued. "We gotta take Carl and..."

"Carl's dead and it's his own fault," Evan spat in disgust. "He couldn't control himself...fuckin' freak..." he said of the convicted rapist. "He should have left her on the road," he said of the hitchhiker.

"You should have never sent him to that bar for beer, " Mark spat back, "We'd be in the air now on our way to Mexico. Shit..."

"It's not my fault," Evan raged, kicking the bound man in the back in frustration. "How did I know he'd pick up that slut?"

"For a slut she was pretty smart, she got his keys and damn near got away...and wrecked the car in the process..."

"She got what she deserved," the baby-faced killer replied, running the blade along the pale throat of his gagging victim. "So will this hump...gonna cut him up real pretty...might take a few hours..."

"Now we got no wheels and we're gonna miss the plane." Evan tossed back of the ride they were expecting to Mexico. Carl and Mark had escaped from prison four days before. Thomas Winters, an ex-con himself on the run from the law and the father of the monstrous brood, had been living south of the border for many years. He'd gotten quite a reputation and accumulated wealth in the drug trade. Evan and Bobby came north as soon as Carl called, the night they broke free.

"Maybe not..." Mark dropped next to the dazed young man who stumbled upon them. He took in the worn boots, long hair, tanned face and rugged appearance. "You a tracker?"

Vin eyed the cold dark eyes and coughed a wad of blood at him. The knife slashed his side, causing him to hiss and jump.

"You ain't too smart, are you faggot?" Bobby sneered, pressing the knife to Vin's breast. "Next one pops your nipple right off...answer him!"

"" Vin coughed and bit his lip as the blade cut him again. Then another thought slammed into him. Chris...if he didn't get help, he could die. Through the waves of pain, he tried to formulate a plan. He drew his battered, bloodied face to the leader and nodded once.

"I thought so...I can smell you nature freaks a mile away." Mark stood up. "Get him up...he's gonna lead us out of here."

"We can't just leave Carl..." Bobby protested.

"You from around here freak?" Evan yanked Vin's hair again and eyed the marred face, one eye rapidly swelling and closing.

"...cabin...back a mile..."

"I'll get keep the pretty, little faggot on a short leash. We're gonna drop my brother off at that cabin. Then you're gonna take us to Widow's Pass, we got a plane to catch...and you better not get us lost, or I cut your nuts in half..."

As they stumbled along, it was all Vin could do to stay awake. His mind was filled with too many decisions. How to save Chris? How to get out of this mess? Where the hell was Widow's Pass? Buck...his heart quickened, maybe he would be at the cabin and see them coming. First goal, get to the cabin.

"Who the hell is that?" Evan stopped, yanking Vin's head back and pressing the knife to his throat.

"What the fuck's wrong with him?" Bobby knelt by the semi-conscious blond man propped against a tree. His face was swollen and covered with blotches.

"...shock...allergic...wasp..." Vin uttered, trying to remain neutral and not let the enemy see his fear. He took a painful breath and thought on the exercises he learned in class. Stay in control...take deep breaths...visualize your rage...logic overcomes anger...stay in control...recognize the problem...think...listen...stay in control...breathe. He remained outwardly calm, even as Evan drew a gun and placed it against Chris's temple.

"We'll I guess we just better put this poor bastard out of his misery," he laughed, drawing back the hammer.

Part Nine

Buck found the Bar K ranch easy enough and made his through a large throng of people. The smell of sizzling meat filled the air, reminding him that he was overdue for lunch. He eyed the large, rambling ranch house, the corral with all. kinds of fine horses and the table under the overhang of the porch. Two young women sat behind the makeshift desk, answering questions and taking money. Wearing his world famous Wilmington smile, he walked towards the verandah.

"Mornin' Ladies!" he boomed, ducking under the overhang. "Buck Wilmington at your service..." he offered, eyeing both pretty girls. The blond blushed and turned away, but her attractive partner didn't. Her pale cocoa skin accented her fine features, set off by large hazel eyes. She leaned over and returned his grin, wearing an inviting one of her own.

"I'm Vanessa LaMaine and you're new around here..."

"Well now, you are a smart young woman," Buck shook the offered hand.

"Honey, if I had laid eyes on you before now, I'd have plenty more interestin' things to keep me busy this morning."

"Damn!" Buck laughed, shaking his head, "I gotta get down here more often. Listen, I'm looking for a friend of mine. Vin Tanner?" Buck waited and saw them squint and shake their heads. "Uh...smaller than me, mid-twenties, slim, long way brown hair, killer blue eyes..."

"Better looking than you, Sugar?" Vanessa purred.

"Well now, Darlin' that's damn near impossible...I suppose old Vin's passable in a good light." Buck pulled his wallet out, flipping through until he found the group shot taken at Nate's last birthday. "Here...he's the one on the far left..."

"I would have remembered something that fine...Uhmmm uhmmm..." she eyed the handsome young man in the photo. "Amy?" she passed the photo over.

"Yeah, was here a couple days ago...signed up for horseback riding and river rafting," she flipped through the log book in front of her. "Sunday...nine am...he's due back...Sorry?" She guessed when she saw his smile fading.

"Yeah..." Buck sighed, "I was hopin' he was up here. Guess I'll have a look around town."

"Well, now what is your rush, Sugar," Vanessa walked around the table and linked arms with the tall, handsome stranger. "I happen to know some real cozy spots...tourist free..."

"Aw, hell..." Buck muttered, feeling his pulse race as the warm body pressed into his side. "Tanner...I'm gonna skin your sorry hide..." he swore and pulled himself free. "I'm sorry, Darlin', duty calls...I gotta find Vin in a hurry. But uh...I'll be staying over the weekend..."

"I'll be waiting..." Vanessa purred, "I'll be at the Willows tonight, I waitress there seven till closing. It's in the lodge..."

"Yeah, I passed a sign coming up here..." Buck recalled, "Till then..." he bowed and departed.

+ + + + + + +

Chris's eyes shot open and then he closed them again, thinking he was losing his sanity. He swore he saw Vin bleeding and beaten on his knees. The cock of a gun in his ear, told him this nightmare was real. He opened his eyes and the snake inside began to uncoil. The only thing he could see was one blue Tanner eye, dull and cold, the other was swollen shut. Blood covered most of Vin's face. Bloody gashes marred his chest as well. A cautious flick of his eyes counted a dead man, three dangerous live men, two with guns, one with a knife...a large knife pressed to Vin's throat. His stiffened fingers moved under the dusty buckskin jacket that was covering him and found Vin's knife. The blue eye locked onto him, as if sensing his actions. The head moved every so slightly, denying the attack. He trusted Vin, so he slid the knife back into the inner pocket of the lining.

"...s'yer funeral..." Vin coughed, already realizing the dark-eyed one, Mark, was the one to reason with.

"Spread the fucker's brains and let's get going..." Evan demanded of his younger brother, who had a glazed look in his pale blue eyes.

"Hold it..." Mark ordered, squatting in front of the battered, bleeding prisoner. "What's that supposed to mean? You know him?"

Vin continued to try to control his breathing, fighting every lungful of air which caused his chest to fill with fire. He stared long and hard at the ugly, scarred face and ignored the blade that was drawing blood on his collarbone. Stay in're the boss...breathe in like the tide...ebb and're in control...

"Answer him!" Evan screamed, kicking him in the back and grinning in sick satisfaction when the victim gasped in pain and grimaced.

"You fuckin'... touch him... again...and...I'll...mail...your...balls...home to...your mother...for stew..." Chris warned, eyes flashing.

"Shut the fuck up!" Bobby pressed the gun to the ragged breathing blond's throat. Then he moved the gun to the gasping body's knee. "Start talkin' faggot or I'll make him hurt..."

"Who is he?" Evan demanded, but still Vin remained silent, "Search him..."

Bobby kept he gun on Chris's knee, while Mark stepped over Carl's dead body and squatted beside the shivering, swollen man. He winced at the blotched face and rapid breathing. He tossed the jacket aside and saw the bulge in the back pocket. "Put him on his belly..." he ordered and Bobby violently threw the trembling blond to the ground, pressing a foot to the back of his neck.

It took all the strength Vin Tanner had in him to remain silent and stock still. But he never moved, didn't even blink. He locked onto Chris's eyes and sent a silent message to follow his lead. He saw the eyes blink and the head nod.

"Well...well...well..." Mark said, pulling the wallet free. "We got a high-falutin' piggie...a fuckin' Fed..."

"Shit!" Bobby said, cocking the gun and pressing it against the back of the damp blond hair. "Let's do him now..."

"...stupid...stupid..." Vin hissed, wincing as Evan's free hand pulling his hair painfully.

"You ain't fuckin' Siskel and shut he fuck up ...nobody's interested in your comments." Evan growled.

"Evan!" Mark warned, seeing too much of Carl in his headstrong middle brother. "Start talkin' Nature know this pig?"

"...he's m'brother-in-law...come down fer the week...stayin' at the cabin..." Vin supplied.

"Can I kill him now?" Bobby pleaded, "I ain't never wasted a Fed..."

"No...just wait a minute..." Mark moved in, warning his temperamental youngest brother. "Get your head outta your ass, Bobby. He's a fuckin' fed...we off him and we're as dead as Carl. But on the other hand...he might clear some roadblocks for us if things go south."

"Yeah," Evan agreed, seeing the valuable bait. "We can use him until we get to the plane...then we can off him..."

"Hey!" Bobby's eyes gleamed, "We can throw him out of the plane over Texas somewhere... splat!" he laughed manically, giving Vin a chill.

"We're losing time..." Evan hauled Vin up, "Mark you get Carl, Bobby keep Hive Man on his feet. Go on Faggot...find that funny stuff or he gets one in the knee. I can put plenty of lead in him and keep him alive."

"...he's m'kin..." Vin turned to Mark and waited, the older man nodded.

"Cut him loose, Evan, he can tote Hive Man..."

Vin turned Chris over and made no move to speak, he knew every eye was trained on him. He sat the blond up and stared at him long and hard.

"Trust me..." The blue eyes directed.

"Lead the way, Cowboy," The green replied silently.

Vin gently eased the shivering body into his hide coat. He got Chris to his feet, pulled one limp arm over his shoulder and winced as half of the muscular team leader's body weight fell on him. Every broken rib protested, pushing to get free through skin and muscle. Blood ran down his chest, mingling with sweat and causing a thousand shards of pain.

Vin kept one foot in front of the other and prayed to see Buck's head in the window. No car out front, his heart sank. He stumbled on the porch and was thrown to the ground, causing his breath to leave him. The pressure and pain from the broken ribs exploded, causing tears to spring in his eyes. He clenched them shut, biting his lip to keep from crying out. He felt a thump as Chris landed beside him.


It was a voice so soft and light, like butterfly wings on the wind. He heard the care and concern long before he managed to peel his good eye open. He managed to smile through his crimson masked face and tried to remain calm.


"Shut up Faggot!" Bobby screamed, kicking Vin viciously between the legs. "Or I'll pretend you're that whore Carl wasted..."

Through the explosion of color and shapes that danced before his agonizing eyes, Vin saw Chris Larabee turned into something dark and feral. He saw the face blacken in rage and the lip curl up as Lucifer himself settled on the blond's features.

"Let it go..." he gritted, grabbing Chris's arm. He waited until the Prince of Darkness returned to Hell and the green eyes returned.

Mark returned, having deposited Carl inside, he was eating a sandwich and drinking a beer. He squatted next to the battered prisoners and sneered at Vin.

"Your brother-in-law, he ain't looking to good..." he eyed the swollen, blotched face.

"Corpse ain't gonna open the road fer ya..." Vin grunted, sitting up and waiting for the pain to ease up in his tender groin. " and water..."

Mark eyed the long-haired man and stood up. A few minutes later, he returned with a single bottle of water and container of yogurt.

"Yer all heart..." Vin hissed, lifting Chris up and easing him against the porch rail.

"You don't like the menu, Freak?" Bobby muffled, through a sandwich. He moved forward and grabbed his crotch. "I'll give him something tastier than water..."

Vin's lips curled up and he clenched both fists, until the inner voice broke free. Stay in're the boss...logic over anger...breathe...stay in control. He tapped the blotched cheek and waited for the eyes to open again. "Got some water, Chris..." he coached and the slack lips parted. He got several small sips into Chris and used his fingers to feed the shivering man the container of peach yogurt. After taking a good gulp of water, he used a small bit to wash some of the blood from his face. He was already feeling lightheaded, he wondered about the many bleeding slashes on his chest and also the possibility of a punctured lung. Evan came out and yanked him by the hair, throwing him down the steps. From his side vision, through a red-hazy curtain, he saw Chris trying to stand. He shook his head negatively and the blond got the demon under control again.

"Get up, Faggot, it's time to go. Which way to Widow Pass?"

Vin managed to get to his knees and doubled over, the pain cutting him in half. For a terrifying few seconds, he thought he'd pass out. Can't do that...Chris needs you...keep moving. Widow Pass? Widow Pass? some time...then he thought of something and his eyes lit up.

" ain't far...right through the woods..." he dictated, moving to get Chris.

"Oh no..." Mark moved in. "You go with Evan. Me and Bobby will take good care of Goldilocks here...You so much as sniff of trouble and he gets a bullet in each knee...Get moving!"

So they set out and Vin tried to keep focused. Every step was painful and his hands were tied behind him again. Evan kept a gun pressed to his side and every time he stumbled and fell, a boot landed on some part of his anatomy. The painful blows were worth it, it allowed him to see Chris for a few seconds, before he was hauled up again.

"You sure this is right?" Mark called ahead, dropping the blond unceremoniously. "We've been walking for close to an hour. Bobby, run up the road and see what you find."

Vin crawled over to Chris and nudged him with his shoulder. Reluctantly the eyes peeled open.

"Ya with me, Cowboy?" Vin gasped, watching in amazement as the trees and sky spin around him at a dizzying pace.

"" Chris managed, shivering uncontrollably. He was so cold...and every breath wasn't won without a hard battle. He knew was the Texan was thinking about...the shot of adrenalin would be wearing off in a couple hours. If they didn't get to a hospital, he could die.

", hell..." Vin surrendered, too weak to tell Larabee off.

"...your taste is slipping..." Chris grunted, eyeing the motley gang.

"...recognized the ugly one..." Vin panted, blood and sweat rolling in his eyes "...dead one...him...prison...break...Mexico...plane..."

"Widow's Pass?" Chris guessed, shaking so bad his teeth rattled.

"Uh huh..."

"We near there?" the blond asked, watching Vin remain still, but seeing agonizing pain reflected in the lone eye that remained open.

"..hell if I know..." Vin coughed, then saw Chris's shoulder hunch and his chest spasm. The green eyes disappeared, leaving demonic white orbs in their place.

"Fuck!" Vin screamed. "Cut me loose...he's choking..." he felt his body shoved face first into the dirt as the cord was cut, along with a nice part of either wrist. "Chris..." he moved over and pulled the choking body over his arm. He forced his fingers in the gaping open mouth, running them to the back of Chris's throat. That worked...the vomit came and the body sagged against him.

Seeing neither as a threat, Evan moved away, hearing his youngest brother's voice calling in excitement.

"...yogurt sucks..." Chris wheezed, finally pulling his eyes open.

"..snob..." Vin returned, voice shaking in fear. Chris had come too close to leaving him and that wasn't acceptable. He kept on hand around Chris and hoped that his plan wouldn't fail.

"What's up?" Mark asked, as the youngest jogged to meet them.

"There's an old country's got a truck outside. Just some old man inside. I saw some maps through the window..."

"Yeah...yeah...okay..." Mark decided, "Get the faggot and his kin on their feet..."

Vin nearly cried in relief. The plan took the turn he'd counted on. Now to get Chris to understand the next curve in the road. The dangerous one...the one were Larabee would have to die. They stumbled forward, each supporting the other like a pair of drunken sailors on leave. Mark was in the lead, Evan the rear. Bobby ran ahead, bursting in the store and screaming at the geezer behind the counter.

"You want to leave to cash your pension check next month Pops, you just play it cool." He shoved the old man towards the cash register. "Open it and put all the money in a bag..." He saw the few bills disappear and grabbed the small bag, shoving the man to a chair. "Evan tie him up...You alone Pops?"

"Huh?" the old timer squinted, "Can't hear...don't got my aid on..."

"Never mind!" Evan hissed, shoving the prisoners into a display of soup tins and sending them to the floor. "Have a look around, you find anybody breathing, you waste 'em," he ordered, sending his blond brother to occupy the out of control temper. Mark appeared a few minutes later, wiping his hands. "Well?"

"It'll get us there...needs a new tire and some won't take me long. Where's the map?" He followed the nudge of the head and rifled through the brochures on a rack.

Meanwhile, Vin moved over near Chris. The blond was curled on his side, not moving. Vin unbuttoned Chris's coat and eased it off, then laid it on top like a blanket. He bent low, eyeing the violent brothers while he moved his lips near the leader's ear. Chris was gasping audibly, struggling for every breath and his eyes were sliding shut.

"Chris" he waited and two slits appeared. "How's yer Hamlet?" he whispered and saw the sandy brows furrow. " dead..." he clarified.

" ...b...b....bone?" Chris gasped, trying to stay awake.

"Listen..." Vin hissed, pretending to lift Chris as he whispered the plan in his ear.

+ + + + + + +

"What's going on?" Buck demanded, seeing the state police cars barring his path back to the cabin. A young officer approached, hearing the request.

"Got a murderer running loose. Sorry, nobody gets through."

"A murder?" Buck thought of Vin being missing. "Shit...I got friend whose missing. Who got killed?" He flashed his badge and got out of the car.

"Young girl from town, only seventeen." the rookie replied, inspecting the badge. "You up here on business?"

"No," the relieved man replied, "Where'd the murder take place? I got a sick friend in a cabin out near Eagle Lake. I don't want to leave him too long."

"Eagle Lake?" another cop walked over. "Did you say a cabin?"

"Yeah, it belongs to a professor, uh...McHugh. My friend Vin Tanner was staying there. He's ATF too. So is Chris Larabee, I left him there a few hours ago. Vin wasn't there and I went hunting him. Why?"

"We found a dead man in McHugh's cabin."

"Dead..." Buck pulled back in shock. "Who..."

"Blond, mid thirties, good build..." the anxious first year cop replied.

"Aw, Christ!" Buck rocked back, dropping his head in his hands. "What the fuck did I do? Jesus...My God..."

"Wait a minute!" A loud voice ordered. "Little, get your rookie ass to that roadblock, you got traffic backing up. Damn fool greenhorn..." he muttered, walking the stricken man's side. "I'm Captain Jefferson and you can breathe again. The stiff is Carl Winters, rapist and murderer, escaped from prison about three days ago with his older brother. The old man is a drug czar in Mexico, send his two youngest up north to pick them up."

"Thank God..." Wilmington sighed, raking a hand through his hair. That didn't calm his stomach much. Vin and Chris were still missing...and killers were on the loose. Desperate men to vile things...visions of their carved up bodies filled his brain. "Any leads?"

"Yeah...the F.B.I. tracking them thinks they either have help or hostages. Too many tracks near the cabin. They lead down a dead end road to a little country store. The road only extends a half mile past the store. They're moving in now..."

"Hostages?" Buck's head shot up. "Look, I got a couple friends missing...I gotta know..."

"Yeah, I understand," the cop sympathized. "But you're out of your jurisdiction. I'll tell you what. You can ride with me in the cruiser. The Feds will have visual through the camera's they're setting up. You can stay at the command post and watch from there. It's the best I can's just down the road from the store."

"Yeah, okay..." the dark head bobbed and followed the graying senior policeman to his car.

+ + + + + + +

"You stupid fuckin' asshole!" Bobby screamed at Mark, "You wouldn't listen to me...I wanted to off him with that slut, but let him turn your head. You turned faggot in that like the looks of that pretty ass of his, you wanted him for yourself..."

"What the hell are you rambling about, Bobby?" Evan moved in, separating his brothers.

"We're fuckin' trapped. That road dies just south of here...there's cop cars fuckin' up the road we came on..." the baby-faced killer screamed. "Now get outta my face, I'm gonna slice that faggot from his balls to his the livin' shit right outta him..."

"No!" Mark shoved the irate blond. "As long as they're alive, we got pawns...they die...we got nothing..."

The ringing phone broke up the tension. Mark moved to answer it, picking the receiver up slowly.

"Yeah...Winters?" he flinched. "No, it's fuckin' Snow White...No, you listen to me Prick, I don't give a flyin' fuck if your F.B.I or P.I.G. I'm calling the shots. Hostages?" he wheeled around and saw the helicopter. "You get that flying pigmobile outta here of I'll kill the pig in the pen...Laramie or Larson or What the fuck is his name?" he called to Evan who had the blond's ID. He tossed the wallet to Mark. "Chris Larabee...ATF...yeah...he's alive..." he looked at the old man who had pissed his pants. "We got Larabee's brother-in-law too, some long-haired faggot. Listen, you got a half hour to back off or the kid gets it...the blond guys already on his last leg...some fuckin' bug thing...he's covered in hives..." Mark hung up and looked at Evan. "He's gonna call back..."

Buck didn't move, he saw the images clear enough through the camera the F.B.I used in the helicopter. The sadistic killer's words didn't help. Chris must have been stung by a wasp...he looked awful...then what Buck thought was a pile of clothes moved. "Vin..." he sighed, "Jesus..." the Texan was a mess, he looked as bad as Chris.

"What's he talking about?" a brusk agent with a white crew cut asked.

"Anaphylactic shock...Chris is allergic to wasps..."

"We got EMT's on standby and a chopper, we'll get them out..." the other advised. "Call the asshole back..."

Vin saw the three arguing about what to do next. It was time for the showdown to begin. He flicked a gaze at Chris who looked like a guest at the morgue. He nodded once and the blond head dipped in response.


"Vin!" Buck screamed, hearing the terror in the sniper's voice through the phone that the felon dropped. His blue eyes were riveted on the images on the monitor. Vin was jerking Larabee's body around like a puppet without strings. The blond head lolled and rolled, the eyes were closed. Finally, the body was laid on the ground. He saw Vin snarl something at the laughing blond kid next to him. The sadistic looking leader appeared still clutching the phone, moving next to Chris The next two words, spoken without any feeling and so cold it chilled Buck to the bone. They came from the bloodied lips of the sharpshooter, who gently closed the unseeing green eyes.

"He's dead."

Part Ten

Buck blinked and shook his head slowly, as if to clear cobwebs. Dead? No...Chris...he couldn't be gone. While his eyes remained trained on the screen, his ears picked up the audio through Mark Winters phone.

"Check for a pulse..." Evan urged his brother, while keeping a knife Tanner's throat.

"Check for a pulse..." Mark parroted, "Do I look like fuckin' Marcus Welby?"

"Who?" Bobby asked, wrinkling his face.

"Never mind!" Mark barked, "Give me that compact," he ordered, pointing to a cosmetic case. Bobby ripped one free and handed it over. Mark kept the small mirror in his mouth, as he pressed one hand on the hive-covered, swollen face and the other used to yank the slack blond's mouth open. He then pulled the mirror out and held it over the stilled man's nose and mouth. Minutes went by and no condensation appeared. "He's done..." he slid a hand down the body's chest, his own fingers were stiffened from the cold, but they felt nothing beating below. "Looks like your it, Nature Boy, get on your feet..."


The single word slid through Vin's tense lips and he pushed past Mark, dropping to his knees. It was too real and he felt his guts shredding. His hands trembled violently as they rested a moment on Chris's face.

"...m'sorry Chris..." he whispered, then pulled the buckskin coat over his best friend's face and upper body. He bent over, as if to straighten the corpse out and moved one hand deftly under the tan hide coat. Nimble fingers found the knife and moved it to Chris's waiting hand. He felt one hand move and grip his under the coat. A surge or euphoria shot through him, but his face remained stunned and shocked. He hung his head low, the matted, blood-encrusted hair draped over his face like a veil. But it gave him just enough room to shift his eyes around.

Evan was next to them, the knife in one hand, but his head was turned away, gazing at the flashing lights of police cars up the road. Bobby was bundle of nerves, the gun shifting from hand to hand, eyes going from Evan to the doorway where Mark went. The eldest had gone to the garage next to the store, to find bomb-making material. Now...the time had come and Vin tapped Chris's thigh. With a low growl, he sprung past Evan and using his last ounce of strength, took the baby-faced killer with him. They sailed into a display of canned soup, landing in a river or tin. The first shot Bobby took, went wild, hitting the ceiling. Vin grunted and felt a burst of fire explode in his side, as the second shot found it's mark.

Chris felt Vin's call to arms and moved in unison with the slighter man. As Vin took out the youngest killer, he launched his body at Evan. With his face screwed up in disgust and his lips curling ferally, Chris drove the blade home. He sunk the knife deep in the killer's gut and then gritted his teeth, ripping the weapon upwards. Winters never had a chance, his dead weight pushed both of the them back down. Chris struggled with both the weight of the large body, and seeking to help his comrade. Despite the violent tremors that shock was bringing to his body, he managed to shove the brute aside. That effort cost him all his reserve and he sucked in air greedily, through chattering teeth, as the room swum around. Then the shots rang out and he saw Vin's shocked eyes widen. Then a third shot sounded and the Texan's eyes closed and he collapsed on top of Bobby Winters.

"No..." Chris choked, reaching a single hand out towards the tangle of limbs. He could only see Vin's legs and one hand from this angle. Five bloodied fingers, uncurled and limp. "Vin..." he whispered, surrendering to the cold that engulfed him, the icy sensation had little to do with the shock he body was in, it was a deep freeze...and the sight of those stilled, five bloodied fingers, sent him into a black pool of ice.

For several agonizing seconds, Vin Tanner thought he was dead. Then he realized that both his red-slicked hands were pressing the wrist of the baby-faced killer. He moved his head painfully and saw the dead boy's eyes gazing at the display of homemade baked goods nearby. A sea of relief overcame him. Then he used the little gas he had left to reach his only goal - Chris.

"Chris...Chris..." he grunted, rolling over painfully. "Chris..." he crawled back towards where the unmoving Larabee lay silently. As he reached his best friend and collapse against the wall, he used his last bit of strength to bring the cold body up against his own. Blood and sweat poured from Vin and his breathing was ragged and painful. He tugged and tugged until the damp blond head was tucked under his chin. The leader's back was resting against the sharpshooter's chest. With his crimson-coated left hand, he held the shivering body against his own, grabbing the buckskin coat and pulling over the shocked man's upper body. Between the coat and his own body heat, he held Chris close, hoping to tame the tremors. His right hand still clutched the gun, the sticky fingers gripping it with little force. "" he gasped as a wave of flames erupted in his chest.

+ + + + + + +

"Move...move....move...!" The CO barked, sending a half dozen F.B.I. agents and local police down the road towards the gunshots.

"Not stay here!" he barked to a deaf Buck Wilmington.

Buck brushed past the overweight agent and ran faster than he had since his high school quarterbacking days. He zigzagged over rocks and jumped small bushes, sailing towards the store

"Chris! Vin!" he screamed. "Fuckin' shoot!" He warned, as Mark Winters appeared from the side.

Mark heard the shots and ran through the garage back to the store. The sight of his dead brothers took his common sense from him and he left his back open as a target. He saw Vin Tanner clutching that blond to his chest like a sacred trophy. The battered matted head rose and the gun came with it, wobbling feebly in the weak man's hand.

"You're dead Freak..." he snarled, laughing manically as the bleeding man moved his body to shield his friend's from fire.

Vin heard the gunshot erupting, and braced himself, but no bullets struck. He looked up just in time to see Mark Winters do a macabre dance of the dead, as a dozen bullets struck him. Confusion rained over the wounded agent, as the loss of blood and shock his body was now in, caused him to panic. He saw bodies moving towards them...all with guns. Chris...protect Chris...his mantra became. He raised the gun and tried to shoot, nobody would hurt Larabee, not on his watch.

"Take it easy, Buddy, we're on your side," the lead agent warned, sending an arm up to force the others back and out of harm's way. "Put the gun down...we got Medic's here to help you and your friend."

"You'...t...t...touch...'im...I'll kill...kill...ya..." Vin warned the enemy, gripping Chris tighter with his left hand. He blinked against the surreal scene as his vision turned and twisted. He was looking at the distorted faces through a red film. The gun wobbled again and he jerked it up.

"You can't go in there," two agents moved toward the tall, dark man flying towards them.

"He won't hurt me," Buck vowed, "I'm on his ATF team...get out of my way..."

"Okay," the lead agent halted the forward progress. "But you wear a" he took his own off and strapped it on the taller man. "Slow and easy...he's in bad shape...we got a helicopter comin', ETA two minutes..."

"Okay, thanks" Buck replied, stepping gingerly into the room. He moved past Mark Winter's corpse and saw Vin's arm rise unsteadily. He felt an inward surge of warmth at the raspy threat Vin issued and his heart clenched at the sight. Chris was nestled backwards against Vin's chest, under Vin's coat. Only the top of the blond hair and a snatch of forehead was visible. "Vin, put the gun down now...nobody wants to hurt you. We need to get you to a hospital."

Vin heard some of the words...somebody was calling him by name. He lowered his arm a bit, then panicked, it was a trick. He raised the weapon again at the tall blur that was now kneeling in front of him.


"You're too close!" the F.B.I man warned as the tall ATF agent moved in and knelt down in front of the bleeding young man.

"You look like shit, Slick!" Buck tried, making no move to take the wavering gun. He smiled as the lone blue eye able to open, widened and the bloody face rose up towards his. The childlike voice that emerged cut the older man deeply.

"Bucklin..." Vin gasped, peering through the blurry red curtain. "Oh God...he's dead...I tried...I...I...sorry...Bu..."

"Vin!" Buck caught the slim figure as his eye rolled back and he slumped sideways. He gently moved the bleeding body to the ground, cradling his head. One hand snagged out and touched Chris's throat. A pulse was still coursing...he moved aside as a sea of EMT's swarmed over the two injured men.

+ + + + + + +

Funny thing about hospitals, they tend to look the same. Buck stood and stretched his long legs, walking around the private room. He entered the bathroom and splashed water on his face, jerking it upright when he heard a low moan. He dried off and peered through the doorway. Chris Larabee was still covered with splotches, but they were fading. A IV with Benadryl was attached to his arm, which moved in time with the restless head. Buck ambled over and gently kept the hand in place, while waiting for the eyes to focus.

"Welcome back..."

"Buck?" Chris yawned, blinking fuzzily around the strange room. He saw the IV in his hand and frowned. He began to shiver, despite the blanket and watched as his tall friend got a blanket from the closet. "Thanks...Christ I'm cold..." Chris yawned again, shaking his head slightly to try to clear it...something was wrong. His sandy brows drew together as flashes of the event jumped into his mind's eye. One image was burned on his brain...a bloodied hand...a bloodied Tanner hand...a dead man's hand. "Oh..." he sank his head in the pillow and covered his face with his good hand.

"You okay?" Buck saw the color drain from Larabee's face and bent over the bedrail. "Chris? You want me to get the nurse?"

"No..." Chris rasped, his chest gripped in pain, "Where is he?"

"Downstairs...they're not done with him yet." Wilmington noted of the fallen agent who was on the operating table.

"What?" Chris jerked his hand away, anger surging through his body. "What's the matter with you? You know how he hated that...How could you let them do that do him? Jesus Christ, Buck," he repulsed, his stomach swirling at the thought of Vin Tanner gutted like a deer, while some a pathologist and medical students gawked at his organs. "Get out!"

"Wait a minute!" Buck put his hands up defensively, never seeing Larabee so angry. The taut face was livid with anger and the eyes were burning like green coals. "It wasn't like I had choice...they know what they're doing. As soon as they're done with him, I'll..."

"...done with him?" Chris seethed, "He's not a fuckin' piece of meat. He meant something to me Buck...He...God...Vin..." He bit his lip and felt his eyes burning, he gripped the shit with his fists and felt his heart hammering. He began to shiver again and wondered if the cold he felt now would ever leave.

Buck's face screwed up in puzzlement and he tilted his head slightly, trying to piece the puzzle together. Like a punch from a heavyweight boxer, it hit him...'meant something to me'...'meant' past tense. Chris thought..."Shit...I'm sorry Chris. He's not dead...God, I didn't realize...he's in surgery downstairs. What did you think I meant?"

"Autopsy..." Chris managed, suddenly dizzy and giddy.

"I'd never let anybody cut him," Buck vowed, "You got my word on that," he held his hand out and felt the cold one grip it. "Jesus, you're colder that a witch's tit..."

"Nice Buck," Chris wrinkled his nose and eyed the pitcher nearby. "How 'bout buyin' the next round?" he inquired, "and filling me in..."

"Sure," Buck quickly poured a large cup of ice water and handed it to the thirsty man. "They're a little worried about your blood pressure. You're gonna have to stay a few days for observation. They're checkin' you blood every couple hours and collecting urine for a test, something about histamines...and you're lungs are a little cloudy..."

"Vin?" Chris gasped, having consumed half of the water.

Buck rubbed the back of his neck and his feature became somber. He shut his eyes for a moment, recalling the harrowing helicopter ride...all the blood pouring out of Vin's chest. "He's a mess...the bastards got him good. His face is all busted up, he's got broken ribs, a concussion, bruised kidneys, cuts all over his chest and he took one in the side..."

"How long?" Chris finally asked.

Buck glanced at his watch, which was approaching six p.m. "It's been about three and half hours...he had internal bleeding, they think it hit something. They were worried about his bowel...that's bad news..."

Chris remained silent for several minutes, absorbing the information. His eyes following the drips of the IV tubing and his mind wandered back to that calm persona. The cool Tanner that kept them alive, the plan that saved their lives.

"You should have seen him, Buck," he said gently, not hiding the pride in his voice. "Talk about cool under pressure...he was amazing. I'd be dead now...he got the EPI stick, got the adrenalin in me...kept me warm, he never lost control. Then those bastards beat him...called him names...taunted him. He barely moved...or talked...every time I lost it, he leveled me out with one stare. He thought of the road to that store, he knew it was a dead end. He thought of the playing dead...He's one helluva friend."

"Yeah, well I'm glad it worked out," Buck shook his head, "But it damn near killed me...scared ten years outta me. You went limp in his arms...he let out a sound...Hell, it wasn't human...Goddamn sorry-assed Texan..." Buck's voice was clipped. He saw the pride radiating from Chris's eyes and felt himself smile.

"I'll drink to that..." Chris grinned, downing his water.

"When we rushed the store, he was holding us all off with a pistol..." Buck relayed, "Had you clutched to his chest with one hand, waving that gun and spewing threats with the other. "Blood pourin' outta him...damn eyes defiant..."

"That's my boy," Chris choked, getting the vivid picture. "You call the team?"

"Yeah, can't get anybody...Oh, I did get Orrin, he should be here soon. I left messages all over the place."

"How come you're here?" Chris wondered.

"'cause you were here..." Buck's voice was wounded and his eyes showed it.

"I didn't mean it that way, Buck," Chris apologized. "You know I'm grateful. Wouldn't be the same if I ever woke up in a hospital without seeing that damn mustache..." Chris teased and was glad for the grin it brought. "I just thought with Vin in surgery..."

"They're gonna call this line," He nodded at the phone, "Besides, I'm on duty..."

"Duty?" Chris asked.

"You need to be observed, in case you have a reaction."

"How long?"

"Twelve hours or so..."

"Lucky me."

"Not to worry, Stud, I've got some great the time I saved your hide in that raid in Colorado Springs..."

"Twelve hours..." Chris moaned, sinking back on the pillow, "It's gonna feel like twelve weeks."

"Chris Larabee?" A voice asked from the doorway. "I'm Ted Stevenson of the F.B.I. If you're up to it, I need some questions answered."

+ + + + + + +

J.D. tossed his keys on the table of his apartment and flicked the television on. He was returning from the kitchen, taking a long draw from the beer he'd just snagged. He opened a half-empty bag of potato chips and settled on the couch, rummaging through the newspaper. He had a mouthful of chips, when he noticed a familiar face on CNN.

"Buck!" he choked, spewing gummy chip residue all over the place. He turned the volume up and his jaw dropped, as the reporter continued to speak.

"...still in surgery. From what we were told, he lost a lot of blood and the bullet nicked his kidney. He also sustained broken ribs, a concussion and numerous cuts, abrasions and bruised kidneys. The other injured man, identified as Chris Larabee, also an agent with Denver's ATF, is being treated for anaphylactic shock, a severe allergic reaction to a series of wasp stings to his neck, face and chest. He is listed as stable and is expected to make a full recovery. "

"Denise, was that worried face behind you a friend of the injured agents?" the commentator asked of the file footage taken earlier that afternoon.

"Yes, I was told by Mel Harte, the F.B.I. spokesman, that he is Buck Wilmington. He brought Larabee down to Eagle Nest to visit Tanner. Tanner apparently, had completed a seminar and they were joining him for the weekend. Tanner stumbled upon Carl Winters raping and killing the young woman. The Winters brothers then took both men hostage, leading to the shootout at Avery's General store. The F.B.I. also arrested several of Thomas Winter's men at an airstrip nearby. I'm sure news of losing all four of his sons, won't set well with the drug lord in Mexico."

As she moved closer to Buck, J.D. had recovered and was dialing Ezra. "Turn CNN!" he screamed, "A shootout of some kind in Eagle Nest...Vin and Chris got kidnapped by some gang of killers," he answered the southerner's shocked question. "Taos?" J.D. stammered, seeing the hospital identified at the bottom of the screen.

"How badly were they injured?" Ezra asked, watching the tape of a blond reporter approaching Buck outside the hospital. The tall agent looked shaken to he core and was with two men who appeared to be F.B.I. agents.

"Chris has anaphylactic shock, he got stung by some wasps. Vin sounded shot in the side from the sound of it, busted ribs, concussion...Jesus...Ez. What the hell happened? Damn!" he moved to the answering machine, seeing the blinking red light under a pair of gym socks. "Listen, you call Josiah, I'll get a hold of Nate. If we leave now," he eyed the hour of six p.m., we can be there by eleven. Nate'll drive...he's got the most room...okay..."

The other four were in the field all day and came home, without going to the office. Buck probably called them. The first message was from Buck, giving few details, the second was from Nate, having heard his own voicemail message from Orrin Travis, who was flying down to Taos. Within the hour, the quintet was headed south, and J.D. finally got Buck on the phone. Knowing that cell phones are not allowed in hospitals, the youth had the older man paged.

"Buck! We're on the road, we'll be there by eleven with any luck. Any news on Vin?" He asked. "We tried calling the hospital, but they wouldn't tell us anything."

"Hey Kid," Buck wearied, taking the phone at the nurse's station "We just got word from the doctor. Vin's gonna be laid up awhile, but he'll be fine. The bullet nicked his kidney, they have to monitor his renal function and hemoglobin, he lost allot of blood. He'll be in ICU for a few days, then moved to a regular room for about a week. I'll tell you what, from what Chris told the F.B.I., Vin kept his cool...saved both their lives."

"How's Chris?"

"Good. His blood pressure's low and he needs IV treatment...they're gonna keep him a few days. His lungs are a little cloudy and they want to keep an eye on that. I stayed with him while the F.B.I. took his statement in the ER. You should have heard his voice, he was so proud of Vin..."

"We're bustin' up, see you soon," J.D. said, wincing as the static on the line bit his ear.

"Okay, Kid...Orrin just got here, he's in with Chris. Don't worry..."

"I'll be glad when this month is over..." J.D. noted and heard his best friend laugh weakly. "See ya Buck!"

Part Eleven

"He twitched," Chris moved forward in his wheelchair, eyeing the pale body on the bed. Vin's face was bruised, battered and swollen. Cuts marred the damaged chest, purple and blue scoring the broken ribs. A Foley catheter measured his urine output, the crimson tinge still made Chris wince. Two IV's ran into the stilled body, an arterial line for blood pressure and sampling and as well as an antibiotic cocktail on the other. Oxygen ran into him via a nose cannula. The dull wheeze he produced was complemented by the slight rise of the colorful chest.

Nathan sighed and rose from the chair on the other side of the bed. Vin had been unconscious for almost twenty four hours. The nurse saw signs of Vin stirring an hour before and called up to Chris's room, to update the group gathered there. Once the blond found out, he insisted on being there to reassure Vin. He'd have enough to combat the awful beating and blood loss, Chris didn't want him weighed down with worry.

"He did," the blond insisted, his penetrating gaze fixed on the swollen, purple lids. "There...he did it again!" Chris moved closer and picked up a limp Tanner hand. "Come on Vin...get your eyes open. My ass is hanging out of this damn gown..."

"...ris..." the weak rasp came over the wrinked face, eyes still shut. A cough emerged, causing intense pain and he felt a strong hand holding his. "...God..." he cried, the pain slamming his lower back, side and chest at the same time. Tears ran from his eyes and he felt another hand on his back.

"Easy now, that's gonna hurt for awhile."


"Right here, Vin," the tall agent bent over the bed, watching the eyes opening. He got a damp cloth and wiped Vin's face. "Come on now...get them blues open..."

A dark blur with teeth finally cleared up to reveal a tired Jackson face. He managed to grin back up at the older man and lifted his hand, taking the one offered. "Hey..."

"Hey yourself!" Nate returned, smiling at the sleepy face. "'bout time you woke've been out of surgery for almost twenty hours." He saw the confused features and filled him in, "You're gonna be fine. You're in Taos in Holy Cross Hospital in the ICU. In addition to that pretty face you're sportin', you got broken ribs, bruised kidneys and the bullet that hit you nicked a kidney."

"Damn..." Vin sucked air and noticed his other hand was missing. He turned his head painfully and saw a pale face nearby. "Chris?" he frowned, trying to recall what happened. What did happen? The woods...a wasp...Chris in shock...He sighed and shook his head. "Ya okay?"

"Thanks to saved my life, Cowboy."

"Yeah?" Vin found a small smile. "Damn I'm dryer than a dead buzzard in July..."

"You want some ice chips?" Nate offered, looking around.

"I'll get them," Chris reached over to the bed stand and got the pitcher. He carefully measured outa spoonful and fed the anxious parted , parched lips. The soft moans of satisfaction gave him a weary smile.

"Thanks..." Vin managed, his eyes fighting to keep open. "...I'm okay...ain't yer ass...should be...bed..."

"They're changing the linens," Chris supplied, fixing Vin's blanket.

"...need t'slap some Depends on yer runnin' ass..." Vin yawned and winced as his back flared up.

"I gotcha..." Chris said, supporting the agonized man with a grip on his hand. "Go on back to sleep, I got your back."


"Count on it," Chris returned, feeling warm again finally.

+ + + + + + +

Ten days later at the hospital.

Vin had been exceptionally quiet all week. After three days in the ICU, he was moved to a private room. Chris was discharged after two days, but remained in Taos to be near his friend. The team came up for the weekend, and were to a man, worried about the lack of Tanner in Vin. Gone were the crusty comments, colorful cursing, snarling retorts, snapping comments, scowling and other Vin-isms. Each tried to push Vin into snapping, but it didn't work. He remained quiet and withdrawn. The others were down the hall, giving the leader a moment alone to address the problem.

"The doctor says you can go home in a couple days..." Chris looked up from the chair he was sitting in. "You're welcome to stay at the ranch. I'll be back on light duty next week, but..."

"Thanks, Chris," Vin said, "sounds good."

"Vin, what you did last week..."

"Ya ain't gotta keep bringin' it up," Vin eyed the other, "Ya thanked me six ways from Tuesday."

"I know Vin, but I'm worried about you. You haven't been the same since the shooting...maybe even before. There's a part of you that's been missing since that accident..." He saw the body jerk and heard the painful intake of air. The slim hands gripped the bed sheets and the eyes grew wide and fearful. "What? Don't hold back on me..." He implored and saw the raw fear shining from the expressive blues. "What are you afraid of?"

"Me..." Vin choked, swallowing hard. "I keep seein' yer head blown off...cause I lost m'temper..."

"Oh Vin..." Chris sighed, raking his short blond hair with an anxious hand. He moved over to the bed and leaned on the rail. "Look at me, Tanner." He waited for the shaggy head to rise. "You can't make yourself into something you're not. You got a temper, that's not gonna change. What did change...and I saw it...on that mountain with those killers...was your self control. You held all the were incredible Vin...I could have never been that cool. You did it, Vin. You beat that dragon in the Red Zone."

"But what if...I snap keep seein' yer head..."

"Well maybe now that you talked about your fears, that will go away. I miss you, Cowboy...I want my Tanner back, every feisty, cantankerous inch of him." He saw the wall come up and knew Vin was done talking. He eyed the clock, nearing eight p.m. Visiting hours were over. "I'll see you tomorrow..." He gave the leg a pat and headed for the door.

"'night Chris..." the voice called out in the dark.

"Goodnight Vin."

"Well?" Josiah asked, watching Chris approach. "That don't look so good..." he noted of the long face.

"I don't know," Chris blew out an air of frustration. "I tried...he's having trouble...he's afraid he'll lose his temper again...keeps thinking about the accident."

"This sounds like a job for the Dynamic Duo," Buck boomed, ambling over to Ezra. "Come on Ace," he hauled the protesting man upright. "We got work to do..."

"Unhand me this instant," the southerner protested, while eyeing Vin's doorway. He suddenly got an evil grin and arched a single eyebrow at the leader.

"I don't want to know!" Chris put up both hands, "Just make sure the Fire Department isn't involved or the bail bondsmen."

+ + + + + + +

The next afternoon

"Are sure that thing works?" J.D. whispered, peering out of the bathroom doorway.

"Yeah, we tested it," Buck said of the aroma producing device on a shelf over Vin's head and out of view. "You'll see..."

"Hopefully soon," Ezra winced, "This room was not meant for five men to hibernate in..."

"Shhh!" Nate warned, "He's waking up."

They had set up the room while Vin was in physical rehab. He remained sound asleep since returning, but part one of Buck and Ezra's plan was beginning to rouse the recovering man.

Vin's breathing was deep and even. He was cast in a wonderful dream. He was lost in Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory, in a grove of cocoa trees. He bit the trunks of deep chocolate, picked ripe milk chocolate drops from the laden branches. He dove into a field of white and dark chocolate flowers, inhaling the heady scent. He groaned in ecstasy, giving his hidden friends a good laugh.

"Damn!" Buck whispered, hearing the rapturous moan and seeing the drunken smile the sleeping man wore, "She must be somethin' else..." he interpreted of the dream.

"Not everybody has smut dreams," J.D. whispered.

"Did you say 'wet' dreams?" Buck hissed, "What the hell kinda statement..."

"Would you two shut up!" Chris warned, "That's not what he said..."

"He's waking up!" Nate whispered, causing all the others to converge on the crack in the door. "Josiah, get your knee outta my butt..."

"That ain't my knee," Josiah chuckled, giving Buck a laugh.

"Buck get your ass outta my face," J.D. shoved the obtrusive thigh.

"Recess is over!" Chris warned of the schoolyard antics.

Vin licked his dry lips and kept breathing deeply. What a heavenly smell. Chocolate, rich and succulent, melting in mouth, the silken texture caressing his tongue. He moaned again and the wolfpack snickered, causing the head wolf to thwack three heads. Vin peeled an eye open and saw a large basket. He pulled himself up in the bed and realized his dream was real. Chocolate...a basket every size, shape and form.

"Damn!" He yelped, ripping off the green plastic covering and ignoring the card. There were truffles and stars, caramel clusters and rounded cherry cordials. "Shit...s'gotta be six or seven pounds..." he marveled, beaming like a thousand watt bulb. Both hands dove into the treasure chest, he let them roll through his fingers, like a drunken pirate. Unbeknownst to him, his childlike wonder was giving his friends a memory they'd never forget. He eyed the confections carefully, before selecting a dark chocolate truffle, dusted with cocoa powder and drizzled with pink. He popped it in his mouth, sank back on his pillow and sighed in contentment. The trip to heaven was short lived. The face wrinkled up, the body shot forward. The eyes grew dark.

"What the hell?" He spat out the remains and eyed the mushy green interior. He clicked his tongue, tasting the residue that remained. "What kind of fucked up chocolate is this?" he clicked again and his face flamed. ", hell, I swallowed some..."

J.D. and Buck were laughing so hard, they had to bite their hands to keep from exploding. Tears ran down their faces; Ezra was smirking and Nate was fighting hard to control himself. Josiah was smiling warmly and Chris Larabee was relaxing for the first time in several weeks. He recognized that cranky face; it was one his missed the hell out was his Tanner face...and it was home.

"" Vin's voice rose like a soprano in a tight clench. "...fuck..." he kept biting them and encountering creamy vegetable interiors. Spinach, peppers, carrots, broccoli...all his beloved chocolate ruined. His eyes narrowed and his fists clutched a group of the vegolates into a multi-colored, mushy choco ball. Suddenly a clear picture of the culprit formed. "GODDAMMIT BUCK!" he swore.

"Me?" Buck mouthed silently, tears running down his face from his convulsive laughter, he thwacked Ezra, whose idea it had been. The conman was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

"I bet he's laughin' his two-timin', connivin', skirt-chasin', bed-hoppin' ass off somewheres..." Vin ranted, still smelling the heady scent of the forbidden fruit. All those hours of lustful pleasure...ruined. "...I'm gonna fix it so's his nuts will dry up and fall the hell off..."

That was the straw the broke the camel's back and the loud laughter exploded from the bathroom. The door spilled open and the five ATF agents fell into the room. Buck was rolling on the floor, clutching his sides. J.D. wasn't much better. Nate and Josiah were doubled over, even Ezra was chuckling hard. He stared hard at his best friend, who wore a single evil grin.

"It ain't a Goddamn bit funny!" Vin raged, making his 'chocolate' ball larger, it now was bigger than a softball.

"The hell it isn't..." Buck protested.

"Y'all got a fucked up sense o'humor...pickin' on an invalid..."

"Invalid?" Ezra scoffed, "You hardly looked weak and frail when those two nurses were engaging you in physical activity."

"Huh?" J.D. wiped his tearing eyes. "Two...Geez Vin..."

"Now see what ya done!" Vin scowled, "Ya got the Kid's mind in the gutter. They was helpin' me with m'muscles...I was all stiff..."

"Indeed!" Ezra grinned, giving the Texan cause to scowl further.

"I'll bet they were..." Buck laughed, not able to control his mirth.

"Playing doctor?" Chris raised a single eyebrow. "Shame on you, Tanner."

"Ya think that's funny," Vin warned, lifting his heavy, melting, soggy massive weapon. "I'll show ya what's fuckin' funny..."

"Vin, I wouldn't, if I were you..." Chris warned.

"If ya were me, ye'd have more circulation in yer damn's a wonder ya can take a piss..."

"He's back..." J.D. high-fived Buck as Vin took aim and the others dove for cover.

"Vin..." Chris tried to back up, but wasn't fast enough. "Vin, put that damn thing down."

"Fuck off!" Vin snapped, unloading his missile with deadly precision. "Hah..." he gloated as the gooey, mushed vegetables and chocolate ran down Chris Larabee's face. It was in his hair, his collar and part of one ear as well. He didn't say a word, just turned and walked out of the room.

"It was nice knowing you, Slick," Buck warned, hauling J.D. from the floor.

"I'll make sure your service is done tastefully," Josiah grinned and ducked out of the room.

"You're one crazy white boy," Nate shook his head, saluted and left.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra nodded, "It was a pleasure."

"Can I have your bike?" J.D. asked of Vin's prize motorcycle. He laughed and joined the others. By the time they got to the lobby, Chris emerged from the bathroom by the exit, having cleaned himself off. He saw Ezra and Buck lingering and nodded to the triumphant pair.


"We done good, Pard!" Buck slapped the leader's back, relieved to have Tanner back on the team. "You coming with us, we're gonna get bring back some dinner."

"No, I have some work to do..." Larabee noted, with a secret smile.

"That don't look good," Buck shook his head.

+ + + + + + +

Later that night, about seven p.m.

Vin yawned and opened his eyes, trying to squint in the dark. He saw a body in the chair next to him and a glint of blond hair.



"Why's the lights out?"

"Didn't want to disturb you."

"Oh..." Vin licked his dry mouth. The pizza the gang brought for dinner was spicy and he was dry as a bone. "Hey, Chris...can ya get the light. I'm awful thirsty."

"Sure, Vin..." Chris oozed, standing and turning on a dim light over the patient's head. He smiled smugly behind Vin's back as the blue eyes widened in anticipation. There on the tray in front of him was a quart cup of coke, icy cold and glistening with condensation.

"Aw, hell..." Vin gasped, his mouth salivating. "What the fuck?" he yanked his hands and discovered he was in soft restraints attached to the railing. His ankles were bound as well. "Ya had yer get me outta this rig...Chris...Chris..."

"You know, it's getting late..." Chris pushed a button on a cassette player over Vin's head on the shelf, he also pushed the aroma maker, sending the rich, chocolate fumes into the room. He then flipped on the television to Lawrence Welk reruns, which were in a marathon on a local station.

"No..." Vin chirped weakly, realizing his fate. "I'm sorry Chris...come on...Chris...No..." he jerked his hands, then his face froze when the familiar song began to play. "I'm gonna kill you!" He roared, jerking his arms unsuccessfully as the first stanza of "American Pie" assaulted him. If there was one song that annoyed the hell out of him, it was this one.

"Payback's a bitch!" Larabee saluted at the door and slipped into the hall. He kept his ear to the door, an his smile lit up the hallway. The cranky, crabby, crusty, cussin', fussin' Tanner was back.

"...gonna fuckin' fry his balls and serve 'em t'the buzzards...Hell, probably give 'em indigestion..." the voice paused, "I knew yer out there...get yer ass in here and fight like a man...Goddammit Chris..." Then there was silence as the song ended on the cassette player, only to start up again. "No!" Vin wailed, trapped in Hell. His feverish eyes went from the icy cold soda just inches from his dry mouth, the polka on the television; the scent of chocolate was overwhelming and Don McLean's voice was like an axe in his head.


The blond smiled and ambled down the hall, where Buck was waiting. He pushed the elevator button and watched the numbers light up.

"You ain't gonna leave him like that?" Buck worried, "Chris, he could hurt himself."

"Gimme a little credit Buck..."

"How long?"

"The tape's two hours..." Chris laughed.

"Two hours?" Buck chuckled, "He'll be in the psycho ward by then..."

"I'm going down to get the newspaper...ten minutes should do it."

As the elevator opened, they both smiled as a sad voice managed to find it's way through 'the good old boys drinking whiskey and rye'....As the doors slid shut, they heard the Texan's refrain

"...I ain't gonna ferget this Larabee...ya simple son-of-a-bitch..."

"It sure is good to have him back..." Buck mused and noticed the smile plastered on Chris's face. A smile that took him back in time, to the man before the storm.

"Damn straight..." the blond agreed.


Feedback to: