Dead or Alive

by mcat

ATF Universe

May 28, 2000

Disclaimers – Nope, I don't own them, or the current universe we're playing in. I always give them back when I'm done. A little worse for wear, maybe...

Author's Note – Thanks for the title, Tiff!

Buck Wilmington rolled out of bed with a groan. Shuffling over to the opposite side of the room, he hit the top of the alarm clock, silencing the annoying noise.

"Shit," he mumbled, reaching up above his head to stretch the sleep out of him. "Another day another dollar," he continued on his way to the shower.

He was happy to not have to rush this morning, as he hadn't all week. JD was in Boulder for a training seminar. He didn't have to shout at the younger man to get out of the shower or to stop using up all the hot water. He wouldn't have to fight over the first cup of coffee either. But, overall, he missed his young roommate. That's why he'd invited the rest of the team over for some beer and poker after work.

Half an hour later he was heading back into the bedroom when he heard the front door close.

"I'll be out in a minute, Vin!" he shouted.

The mustached agent's prized Trans Am was in the shop again, so Vin had offered to pick him up for work. The sharpshooter had arrived early the last couple of days, eagerly taking Buck's offer to make breakfast for the two in return for the rides.

But as Buck felt the cold steel at the back of his neck and heard the distinctive click of a gun being cocked, he realized that it wasn't Vin that had come in the front door.

"Do you feel lucky, Wilmington?" the man holding the gun threatened.

"Cooper," Buck growled, somehow recognizing the sinister voice.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked into the apartment building, whistling a light tune as he went, scanning the front page of the paper. He stopped just in front of Buck and JD's apartment and put the paper under his arm. He sent a silent curse to his friend when he found the door unlocked. He couldn't remember how many times he'd told Buck, JD or both, to lock their door. Not that he locked his own, but he had good reasons.

"Buck! You left your damned door unlocked again!" he called as he entered the apartment.

He was just about to call out again, when he caught sight of the older man, handcuffed to a chair in the kitchen and heard him shout, "Vin!! Look out!!"

But it was too late. Vin hadn't even had time to reach for his gun when someone shoved him toward the wall. He caught sight of the man's gun and made a grab for it, instead.

Buck watched in horror, struggling against the handcuffs that held him, as the younger agent fought with Billy Joe Cooper, both men vying for possession of the weapon. He flinched as the shot rang out and Vin's head snapped to the side.

"NOOOOO!!!" he screamed as he watched Vin drop limply to the floor. "YOU FUCKING BASTARD!!" he shouted at Cooper. "VIN!"

Buck watched as Cooper toed Vin's form over, revealing the bloodied head and face of the sharpshooter. The veteran ATF agent blinked back tears as he caught sight of his friend's still, vacant gaze.

As Cooper turned, to maniacally stare at Buck, he said, "He's dead, Jim," mimicking the famous Star Trek line.

+ + + + + + +

"You headin' over to Buck's tonight, Chris?" Nathan asked, getting some papers out of a case file.

"Yeah, you?" he returned.

"Nah, Rain's dad is in town, we're taking him out for dinner," the dark agent replied.

The blonde nodded his head.

"I'm going to have to take a pass on that one, as well," Josiah's deep voice intoned.

"You got hot a date, too?" Chris asked, smiling.

"If you are referring to escorting my mother to the theater," Ezra piped up, "I would please ask that you refrain from calling it a 'hot date' in my presence."

"Oh, come on, Ez," the former missionary countered, waggling his eyebrows, "Maude's a fine looking woman."

"Yes, she is," the southerner agreed. "But mentioning the woman that bore and raised me and then speaking of her on a 'hot date' in practically the same breath, is not the type of thing a son likes to hear."

"Okay, so what about you, Ez," Nathan cut in. "Do you have a date tonight? Or are you coming to Buck's?"

"Any games of chance, perhaps with some currency, on the agenda?" he asked.

"You're coming, Ezra," Chris replied with a smile.

+ + + + + + +

"What the hell do you want, Cooper? What the hell is worth dyin' for? 'Cause you gotta know that I'm gonna kill ya," Buck got out, finally taking his eyes off Vin's.

"Oh, that's a laugh," the other man replied, leaning close to the ATF agent. "How do you think you're going to do that, when you couldn't even save your buddy over there?"

Realizing, as the guilt set in, that Cooper was right, he spit in the man's face, before saying, "Then I'll just have to wait until we meet in Hell before I kick your ass."

He received a backhand across his face for the remark, but he didn't care. Vin was dead and it was all his fault. His attention was brought back when Cooper mentioned Chris's name.

"Thought that would interest ya," he smiled. "Yeah, it's Larabee, I'm after. I know that you two go way back. That he'd be willing to make a deal for his best friend."

"Hate to tell ya, pard," Buck responded. "But you just blew any chance you had with Chris Larabee when you killed him." He paused to look again at Vin's body, still shocked at what he saw, before continuing, "I'm on the outs with the man. Vin Tanner is, was, his best friend," he choked out.

"Don't matter," Cooper dismissed. "Still gonna make him cut a deal. He wouldn't want either of his friends, dead or alive, to be blown to bits... like someone else he knew," he laughed.

Buck watched in silence as the man opened up a duffel bag and began placing explosives and wiring onto the kitchen table.

+ + + + + + +

"Hey, Chris?" Josiah called from the supervisor's doorway. "I know you told Buck and Vin they could come in late today, since they worked late last night watching Hendrick's warehouse, but," he said, pausing to look at his watch, "it's almost ten-thirty. Buck's got that pre-trial at eleven-thirty."

Chris, who'd been too busy with his own reports to notice the time, checked his own watch.

"You try his apartment, yet?" he asked.

"Yeah, and both their cells, too," Josiah replied, concern in his voice.

"Alright," Chris sighed, rising from his desk. "I'm supposed to go with him down to the courthouse anyway. I'll head over to his apartment, see what's up. More than likely, the Jeep's transmission went again and they're both out front trying to fix it."

He grabbed his jacket and a tie from his bottom desk drawer before heading out of the office.

"Give us a call whether you find them or not," the former missionary called to him, receiving a backhanded wave as a reply.

+ + + + + + +

Buck just glared at Billy Joe Cooper, watching as he connected wires to the plastic explosives he'd brought. He couldn't believe that the man had still wanted revenge after all these years. Almost five years ago, now, he and Chris had busted Cooper and his kid sister Bobbie Jo for running guns and drugs across the Mexican border. Bobbie Jo had been killed shortly afterwards, in a prison fight.

"So you ready to hear the plan, Wilmington?" Billy Joe asked. Not waiting for a reply, he continued, "I'm gonna wire this place inside and out. Anybody tries to rescue you, or if you try to escape...Boom. Unless, of course, Larabee gives me what I want."

"And what's that?" Buck asked.

"He's gonna offer me money. He's gonna offer me immunity. He's gonna offer me anything I want," Cooper began. "But you know what I want? You know what I'm gonna tell him?" he asked, getting face to face with the mustached agent. "I'm gonna say, 'I want my sister back, you son of a bitch!' and then I'm gonna blow this place!"

"Can't believe you're smart enough to understand that movie, let alone try to quote it," Buck retorted. "Besides, if I remember right, you're the one that got Bobbie Jo killed. She was gonna blow you in for a lighter sentence, wonderful sister that she was."

Buck received another backhand across his face before Cooper grabbed him by the chin.

"You're too smart, Wilmington," he said. "Smart and right. This isn't about Bobbie Jo. This is about me and my current employment," he continued. "You see, Larabee's got his nose in my business again. I saw your buddy over there at one of my associate's warehouses last night. I knew he had to be one of Larabee's boys the minute I saw him. Then, sure enough, I saw you nosing around, too."

"What else do you expect ATF agents to do when there's gun and drug runnin' scum like you around?" Buck asked sarcastically. "We're gonna take you down."

"Well, let's just say, I'm not about to let Larabee interfere this time," Cooper replied.

"When Chris gets here, and he will get here," Buck began, "he won't give a shit about your 'current' employment. He's just gonna shoot ya, outright."

Cooper began laughing again, stopping to say, "Not if I give him the chance to save your sorry ass, Wilmington. Or at least he'll think he'll be able to save it."

+ + + + + + +

Chris drove his big truck through the streets of Denver, heading towards Buck and JD's apartment. He kept checking his watch, as he seemed to hit red light after red light. At eleven o'clock he called Josiah and told him to give the court a call and see if they could postpone Buck's pre-trial conference for another day. Most of the time, the lawyers and DA's did all the talking anyway.

He was about to put the cell phone back into his pocket when it rang.

"Larabee," he answered, hoping it was Buck or Vin.

"Agent Larabee," Cooper's voice replied. "So good to hear your voice again."

"Who is this?" the ATF supervisor asked, a bad feeling about the caller standing the hairs at the back of his neck on end.

"Oh, you've forgotten me already. I'm hurt," the madman retorted. "Wilmington didn't forget me."

"Who are you and what have you done with Buck?" Chris demanded, pulling the truck over to the side of the road.

"Wilmington's fine... for now," Cooper replied. "How long he stays that way depends on you."

"Who the hell are you?!" the ATF supervisor demanded again.

"Does the name Billy Joe Cooper ring a bell? Or how about a gong?" the gun smuggler asked.

"Cooper," Chris said coldly. "Thought you were still in prison."

"Well... I'm baaa-aack" he sing-songed. "Got out for good behavior," the younger man added. "But that don't matter none. What matters is that if you don't want Wilmington to get blown to pieces, you'll back off on Hendrick."

"What's your time frame?" Chris asked.

"You let us make our deal this afternoon and you can have Wilmington by midnight," Cooper replied. "You try to get into the apartment before that and it and everybody within three hundred feet of it get blown to bits."

Chris was about to say more when the line went dead. He dialed the office as he continued on toward Buck's neighborhood.

"Sanchez," the big man answered.

"Josiah, it's Chris," the leader began. "Buck's in trouble. Get the file on one of my old arrests – Billy Joe Cooper. Get any updated info on him since I sent him to prison."

"What's going on, Chris? And what about Vin?" Josiah asked.

"I don't know about Vin," Chris sighed. "Cooper called me and said he had Buck. Said we should let Hendrick's deal go down today or Buck and anyone near his apartment will get blown up. My guess is that Buck's still there and the place is wired."

"Doesn't sound good," the former missionary responded. "If that's true, what about his neighbors? We'll have to get them out of there."

"I know," the blonde replied. "Call Denver PD. See if you can get ahold of Sergeant Bill Green. He's an old friend of Buck's and mine. He's one of the community police officers for Buck's neighborhood, too. He'll have the best idea of who's still around or who needs evacuating."

"I'll get right on it, Chris," Josiah said, then added, "Should we call JD?"

Chris turned a corner and pulled the truck over to the side of the road. He was just down the block from Buck and JD's apartment building. Close enough to see Vin's Jeep parked out front.

"Chris? Did you hear me?" Josiah called.

"Yeah, get JD back here," he replied. "He'll be able to help out with the building and apartment layout."

He turned off his cell phone before Josiah could ask any more questions. Something still wasn't right. Vin's Jeep was there. Yet Cooper didn't mention him. So where was the sharpshooter? And why wasn't he answering his cell phone?

He stepped out of the truck and began to walk down the block, careful to note anything that didn't seem to belong. He'd been to Buck's place enough to recognize some of the cars and people on the block. But he stayed clear of the apartment building. He didn't want to risk anybody's lives.

His cell phone rang again and Chris cringed at the sound of Cooper's voice.

"I think that's close enough, Larabee," the man warned.

He'd been finishing up wiring the apartment and was about to make his exit when he caught sight of the big black truck down the block. He watched with interest as Chris checked out the neighborhood. He only had a short time to make his getaway with his remote for the explosives before Larabee had the entire neighborhood surrounded.

"Where are you, Cooper?" Chris asked, menace in his voice. "Why don't we just settle this between you and me, leave everybody else out of it?"

"Because that wouldn't be any fun, now, would it?" Cooper replied.

"Fine," the ATF agent replied coldly. "You've got Buck. At least let me clear the rest of the apartment building before anyone else gets hurt."

"Well, you haven't mentioned our deal, yet," Billy Joe countered. "I guess if you're worried about this place blowing up, then I guess there ain't no deal. Hell, maybe I oughta just push the button right now."

"I never said we wouldn't deal, Cooper," Chris replied, hedging for time. "But we've got people in Hendrick's warehouse. I'll have to notify them, pull them out, so that the deal will go down without a hitch. I'm gonna need some time."

"I don't know..." Cooper went on. "You know, maybe I'll just blow this place up anyway, just for shits and giggles," he added, looking at Buck as he did.

"You haven't hurt anyone yet, Cooper," the blonde agent began. "Let's just end this right here."

"But we've only just begun, Larabee," the other man cut in. "Here, why don't you ask Wilmington about your other friend."

Chris was confused for a minute before he remembered Vin. Then he heard Buck's voice.

"Chris?" Buck called into the phone, already dreading what he had to tell his old friend.

"Buck, you alright?" Chris asked, concern in his voice.

"I'm fine for now, pard'," he replied. Shit.

"Buck? What about Vin?" he asked. He'd heard the tone of Buck's voice. Something else was wrong. "Buck?"

"Vin's dead, Chris," Buck replied quietly, looking over at the younger man's body.

Before he could say more, Cooper moved the phone away from Buck and began to talk to Chris again.

"So now you know I'm serious, Larabee," he said, smiling. "If the deal doesn't go down without a hitch at two o'clock this afternoon, you'll be minus another best friend," he added before ending the connection.

Chris barely heard Cooper's last words. Buck's voice kept repeating in his mind. 'Vin's dead, Chris. Vin's dead...'

+ + + + + + +

Buck watched as the madman double-checked the wires around the apartment. A movement caught his eye and he looked back at Vin. 'Holy shit!' he screamed to himself. 'Vin!'

The injured sharpshooter was just that – injured. He was still lying almost completely still, but the ladies' man saw him blinking his eyes. Buck's heart raced with joy as he realized that Vin was, indeed, alive. But a tuneless whistling from his bedroom reminded him of the danger that still lurked.

"Vin!" he whispered harshly. "Vin! Stay down! Pretend you're dead!" he ordered, a plan coming to mind.

But Vin didn't hear Buck's words. Ears ringing loudly, his world was one of pain. His head throbbed and ached and his stomach felt as if it would heave any second. As his first coherent thought began to form, it was one of wonder. He wondered why he was lying down on the floor of Buck's apartment. He wondered why he felt so awful. Had they had the poker party? He didn't remember it at all, but if this was the resulting hangover, then it would be no surprise that he didn't remember it. An image of Buck, naked, sitting at the kitchen table came to mind. 'Ezra must have cleaned him out playing cards,' he thought at first. But no. That wasn't right. He opened his eyes again, only to slam his lids shut. It hurt too much to keep them open, to fight to keep the room from spinning. 'Maybe I'll go back to sleep,' he said to himself, slipping back into the darkness.

"That's it, Vin," Buck whispered. "Just play dead for a while. As soon as Cooper leaves, you can get us outta here."

No sooner were the words out of Buck's mouth that Cooper returned to the kitchen.

"Well, Wilmington, looks like this is it," he said as he packed up his duffel bag. "I gotta say, it's been fun."

"Yeah, well, Cooper, like I said before," Buck began, "I'll see you in Hell."

"You're gonna have a long wait," Billy Joe returned with a smile, and left the apartment.

Buck heard him doing something to the lock, probably setting the last of the explosives. He looked around the apartment and shook his head at the sheer amount of wiring and explosives Cooper had rigged up.

"Vin? Vin, he's gone, you can get up, now," he called to his fallen friend. "Vin?" he called again, getting a little worried when the younger man didn't respond. "Vin!"

+ + + + + + +

Chris was still near the apartment building. He'd told several people that he knew lived there not to go in. He didn't tell them why, just told him to trust him for a bit. He'd had to restrain one woman that wanted to go in anyway, to get her dog, fearing the worst. Luckily, Bill Green, his friend from DPD, showed up just about then and took her off his hands. It was also the same time that the fire alarm for the building sounded. Several people began coming out of the building and Chris searched for Cooper, knowing that he did it for a distraction, not for the benefit of the building tenants' safety. He was about to go into the building, hoping that the distraction could work to his benefit as well, when his cell phone rang.

"Larabee," he answered.

"I'm long gone, Larabee," Cooper spoke. "So don't bother looking around for me. And I wouldn't try to get into Wilmington's apartment, either. You open that door or any of the windows and the whole place blows. Oh, and by the way," he added. "Anybody tampers with the mechanisms or anything, without my authorization code, the whole place blows. And if today's meeting gets busted..."

"I know. The whole place blows," Chris finished, tired of the conversation and situation.

"That's the ticket," Cooper replied, ending the call.

Chris got about two more feet toward the building when he heard his name being called.


He turned around to find Josiah, Nathan and Ezra running toward him. Looking around the neighborhood, he noted that Denver's police and fire departments were also arriving and cordoning off the streets. He turned back to the trio as they began talking at once.

"Chris, what can we do?" Nathan asked first.

"Any idea as to Mr. Cooper's whereabouts?" Ezra asked.

"Did you find Vin?" Josiah asked.

"You boys can take over the scene. Buck's apartment is wired," Chris began his response. "Any attempt to open or tamper with anything will blow the place, according to Cooper. I don't know where Cooper is now, but I'm betting that he's heading off to meet with Hendrick, which is where I'm going," he finished, starting to walk toward his truck.

"What about Vin?" Josiah asked, just as confused as the rest of them at Chris's abrupt departure.

Chris stopped and turned around. Looking at his three men, meeting their expectant gazes, he replied, "Vin's dead," his voice barely a whisper, and turned to continue on toward his truck again.

"WHAT??!!" the three agents exclaimed, rushing to meet up with their friend and boss.

"What do you mean, 'Vin's dead'?!" Nathan demanded, standing in front of Chris, blocking his path.

"You heard me," the blonde responded. "Cooper put Buck on the phone. Buck said he's dead. Now you three get Buck out alive, while I go after Cooper." He easily pushed past Nathan's shocked form and finally reached his truck.

The men were brought back to the present when Bill Green approached them.

"I'm Bill Green," he introduced himself. When Josiah was finished introducing the ATF members, Green continued, giving them a report. "I've talked with several of the neighbors. Most of the building tenants are at work or school. Only a handful are here during the day. Same with the buildings next door. We're evacuating the entire block, though, just to be sure."

Josiah, taking the lead, thanked the Sergeant for his report and walked with him to the command center vehicle that was being set up.

"One of the women that lives down the hall from Wilmington says she thought she heard a gunshot," Green spoke as they walked. "But she wasn't sure, said her TV was on."

The three ATF agents slowed their pace then, connecting the gunshot to Vin.

"She heard right," Nathan said quietly. And replying to Green's questioning look, added, "We were told that one of our men is dead up there."

"I'm sorry," was all the police sergeant could say.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin? Come on, pard'," Buck begged as he scraped the chair across the kitchen floor. "Wake up now, Vin. Time to get us outta this here mess."

Buck's earlier elation about Vin not being dead, but only injured, was quickly fading as Vin refused to respond to his calls. He continued to talk to Vin, tried to rouse him, as he continued to drag himself and the chair he was handcuffed to, towards him. He smiled when he finally heard a low moan from his friend.

"That's it, Vin. Wake up," he urged.

Vin moaned again and turned his head. He kept hearing something. The ringing in his ears muffled it, but he thought it sounded like someone calling his name. He opened his eyes and rolled to his side, sudden nausea overtaking him.

Buck winced, but continued his journey, as he watched Vin's retching. "You must be hurtin' somethin' awful, Vin," he spoke aloud, recalling the signs and symptoms of a concussion, knowing that Vin was experiencing them. "But don't worry, soon as you and me get outta here, we'll get ya all fixed up."

"Buck?" Vin called weakly, between the painful coughs he let out, trying to clear his throat.

"I'm right here, pard'," he replied, only a few feet away from Vin, now.

The sharpshooter groaned, trying to get onto his hands and knees. He wasn't successful. Each time he got his hands underneath him, his balance would shift and spin with the rest of the room and he'd end up on his side again. Buck continued to talk to him, to get his attention and urge him on.

"Vin? You got a handcuff key on you?" Buck asked, finally reaching Vin's side. "Vin?"

He gently nudged the injured man with his foot, when Vin still didn't react to his voice or presence. Vin groaned again, but looked up wearily in Buck's direction. Through the blood soaked strands of hair covering Vin's face, the ladies' man could see the dazed and unfocused look in Vin's eyes, knew he wasn't with it.

"Vin, can you hear me?" he asked. "Vin, come on, pard', we're in a heap a trouble, here and I need you to wake up."

Vin blinked his eyes and tried to focus and understand the words, but the damn ringing in his ears made it nearly impossible for him to understand what Buck was saying.

"You're naked, Buck," he blurted out. "Buck naked."

"Yeah, Vin." Buck replied. "Cooper caught me with my pants down. But right now-,"

"Buck, buck naked. Duck, duck, goose," Vin continued rambling, almost giggling.

Any other time, Buck would have laughed at the words, but right now... Shit.

"Vin! Come on, Vin, listen to me!" he shouted, getting frustrated. "Vin, your keys. Do. You. Have. Your. Keys?" he spoke slowly and precisely.

Vin stopped his nonsense talk and looked up at Buck.

"Keys?" he slurred. "In the Jeep," he added and began to drag himself towards the front door.

"No, Vin! Don't go near the door!" Buck shouted, grabbing at Vin's legs with his feet.

+ + + + + + +

Chris approached the warehouse on foot. He'd parked his truck several blocks away, so that he could get on site without being noticed. Ever since Cooper told him to lay off Hendrick, he'd been mentally going through the casefile, trying to figure out where the gunrunner fit in. They'd been working on Stan Hendrick's case for about a month now. Team Two, who originated the case, had asked for manpower assistance when several of their team members came down with the flu. He'd seen the surveillance photos of all the major players involved, gone through the lists of names and aliases. He never saw Cooper in there. He would have spotted him in an instant. So why was he suddenly popping up in the picture?

He was startled and then angry with himself when his cell phone rang. He answered it quickly, grunting out his name as he looked around, hoping no one heard the phone ring. Team Two's leader, Mark Dangler, told him that he'd pulled his team out of the operation. They weren't taking any chances. If Cooper was able to spot Chris's men, then who knew what other ATF agents had been found out. The ATF obviously wasn't going to completely withdraw – Dangler told Chris that they'd keep up surveillance from their outer posts. Chris ended the call and turned off the phone. He did not want to be disturbed again.

+ + + + + + +

Buck sighed in relief when Vin stopped struggling. He'd managed to hook his feet around Vin's legs and stop the injured sharpshooter from reaching the door.

"Easy, Vin," Buck soothed. "Just stay put, now, okay?" He looked down at Vin and grimaced as the younger man began to suffer from dry heaves. "Shit," he cursed after a few minutes when Vin lost consciousness again.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah and Nathan followed the Denver PD bomb squad into the building. They stopped just outside Buck and JD's apartment and cursed when they saw the wiring attached to the door.

The leader of the bomb squad turned to his men, his look telling all that saw that it was not going to be an easy task to disarm Cooper's work. "Through the ceiling," he told them, knowing that it would be quicker to cut a hole in the upstairs apartment's floor to get into Buck and JD's apartment.

Two of the men left to gather the necessary equipment.

"Buck? Can you hear me?" Nathan called from the doorway. "We're gonna try to get you outta there! Just sit tight!"

"Nathan!" Buck shouted back, relief evident in his voice. "Don't touch anything! Cooper's got this place wired tight!"

"We know, Chris filled us in. What about the ceiling?" Josiah asked. "Think we can come through that way?"

"Yeah! And you better hurry! Vin's hurt real bad!" The ladies' man looked again at the sharpshooter's still, unconscious form.

"Vin's alive!?" Nathan exclaimed. "But Chris said you said..."

"I was wrong!" Buck rushed. "Tell Chris! And get in here!"

+ + + + + + +

"How much longer?" Ezra asked himself, looking at his watch.

It was almost one o'clock. They had one hour in which to get Buck and Vin out of the apartment before Hendrick's deal either did or didn't go down. One hour before Cooper decided to blow the place up – because they all knew he would do it. Regardless of whether the deal went perfectly or not.

He'd been trying to get in touch with Chris – to tell him that Vin was still amongst the living. But apparently Chris had gone into stealth mode – turning off his cell phone and pager. They knew he had gone after Cooper and they had Team Two's men searching for Chris near Hendrick's warehouse. But it was difficult – when Chris Larabee didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be.

He listened to the sawzall cutting up the hardwood flooring in the apartment above Buck and JD's. The tactical medics from Denver PD's SWAT team, along with Nathan, were standing by with their gear, ready to rush Vin to the hospital. Buck had told them what he'd seen of the gunshot to the sharpshooter's head, how Vin had been responding...and not.

"Ezra, what's going on?"

The undercover agent turned to find the familiar and bewildered face of JD Dunne.

"Mr. Dunne," he began. "Apparently one of Mr. Larabee's old nemeses has taken it upon himself to take out his revenge by placing explosives in your and Mr. Wilmington's apartment."

"Is Buck alright?" JD asked quickly. He'd only gotten sketchy details over the phone when he was recalled to Denver. "Josiah said he was still in there."

"As far as we know, and he's told us personally, Mr. Wilmington is in perfect health," Ezra replied. He didn't know how much JD knew about Vin. The southerner wasn't sure what condition the sharpshooter was in either, so he didn't mention anything about Vin to JD, yet.

"Where's Chris? What can I do?" the young agent asked, then.

"To tell you the truth, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied. "I don't know."

+ + + + + + +

Vin tried to cover his ears. The loud noise that seemed to surround him only served to intensify the already excruciating pain that had taken up residence inside his skull.

"Stop it! Stop it!" he cried out, curling up into a tight ball.

"Easy, Vin," Buck called, trying to soothe him as he scooted closer to the injured man.

But he could only listen to the painful cries and watch helplessly as Vin rocked back and forth on his elbows and knees, his hands jammed up tight against his head.

"Will you guys hurry up!" the ladies' man shouted up toward the ceiling.

A few more cuts and the sawzall had finished, and more pieces of wood flooring and plaster ceiling dropped into the apartment. Buck watched as a man's head popped through the opening and took a look around.

"Come on, hurry up!" Buck shouted impatiently.

A rope ladder soon dropped down from the high ceiling and after it came several members of the Bomb Squad. Buck heard one of them shout for the medics to another man still upstairs.

"It's about time!" Buck muttered as the first man unlocked the handcuffs that had kept him restrained. As soon as he was free, he and the officer went to Vin's side. "Vin?" he called, prying the sharpshooter's blood covered hands away from his ears. "Come on, Vin, it's time to get out of here, now."

"No! Don't touch me!" Vin shouted, lashing out at the two men, hitting the DPD officer in the jaw.

The officer was about to grab Vin when Buck intervened with a restraining hand. Never taking his eyes off his fellow agent, talking softly, trying to reassure him, Buck quickly told the officer, "Do me a favor. Go upstairs to the bedroom and grab me some clothes, will ya? Maybe he'll be calmed down a bit by the time you get back."

The officer nodded slowly and rose, taking in the scene of the other Bomb Squad officers checking out the apartment.

"Buck? You okay?" Nathan called as he climbed down the ladder.

"I'm just fine, Nate," he replied. "But Vin here needs some help. Only he doesn't quite realize it," he added, noting that the sharpshooter was slowly backing up, heading for the door again. "One of you boys want to guard that door for me?" he called out, hoping one of the Bomb Squad officers would pick up on the fear his voice held.

"I got it, Buck," Nathan replied, circling around the pair. "Hey, Vin? Whatcha doin' hangin' around with Buck?" he called to the sharpshooter, hoping a familiar, non-threatening voice might help. "And what's he doin' naked? You two got somethin' goin' on we should know about?"

Vin listened warily to the man speaking. He was trying to understand the words, but the pain and dizziness wouldn't let him. Images of a man with a gun in Buck's apartment kept flashing in his mind. He knew he needed to get out of there. He turned and bolted for the door.

+ + + + + + +

Chris spied the brown pick-up truck from his position just south of Hendrick's warehouse. He'd seen it pull into the parking lot about ten minutes ago, but the vehicle just kept circling around, not stopping, but still seeming to be waiting for someone. He knew it was Cooper. The man never was long on patience. He also kept the circling up to keep an eye on his surroundings, Chris knew, so he had to plan his approach carefully.

He took out his cell phone then and turned it on. Hitting one of the numbers he had in the speed dial program, he waited for the southerner to answer his call.

"Standish," came the expected reply.

"They out yet?" he asked.

"Almost, Mr. Lara-," Ezra began, but before he could finish, the line was dead.

Chris knew he had to bide his time. He didn't want to approach Cooper too soon. He didn't want to risk Buck's life. And he knew that Cooper would be expecting him – he was the real prize, after all. So Chris took a seat amid the tall grass overlooking the parking lot, content to wait things out – for the moment, at least. He'd check in with Ezra every fifteen minutes or so and once he knew Buck was safe, he'd make his move. Then he wouldn't have anything to lose. That's when the truck came to a stop.

"I know you're out there, Larabee," Cooper shouted out above the truck's engine.

Chris watched as Hendrick's car entered the parking lot, then. It stopped near Cooper's truck and the men got out and greeted one another. Cooper went to the side of the truck and lifted the tarp that covered the bed. The ATF supervisor caught a glimpse of the shiny black metal weapons tucked inside. He wasn't expecting that. Hendrick was supposed to meet up with someone else – Steve Carson.

And then he found himself in a quandary. Stan Hendrick, gunrunner extraordinary was about to get away with buying illegal weapons. Because Billy Joe Cooper held a detonator in his hand. With a flip of a switch the man could blow up an entire city block, and with it, kill another one of Chris's friends. But then Chris realized that it really didn't matter whether the deal went down or not. Cooper was going to flip that switch. If he took him down now, then at least Hendrick would go with him. And then the little voice playing Devil's Advocate in Chris Larabee's head again reminded him that a rescue was in progress. Even more lives were at stake. Shit. Another phone call to Ezra was needed. Maybe in the two minutes or so Chris had before Hendrick and Cooper left the parking lot, the apartment building would be cleared.

He waited once again for the southerner to answer his phone.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin!" Nathan shouted, roughly tackling his teammate to the floor. He wrestled with the sharpshooter for a few minutes, trying to gain control. "Get a Reeves down here!" he shouted to the other medic.

Two minutes later, that medic, Nathan and Buck, who was now wearing a pair of sweatpants and a tee-shirt, were wrapping Vin up in a Reeves stretcher. The flexible contraption contained the wriggling, injured man without injuring him further and allowed his rescuers to carry him across Buck's apartment and then up the ladder to the apartment upstairs.

Ezra sighed audibly as the men ran from the apartment building to the waiting ambulance. When his cell phone rang, he turned it on, answering with his usual "Standish," greeting.

"Did you get them out yet?" Chris asked.

Ezra replied, "Yes, Mr. Larabee. And Mr. Tanner is..." before the phone call abruptly ended and "...alive," after.

+ + + + + + +

Chris began his descent down the small embankment and toward the parking lot before his phone was even turned off. His handgun was out and pointed at Cooper during the entire walk. Whether Hendrick and his men actually hadn't seen him or whether they realized that they were not the ATF agent's intended targets, they continued to close their business transaction. It was when they closed the car doors and started off that Chris shouted to Cooper.


The man responded by holding up what appeared to be a detonation device in one hand and a handgun in the other.

"Ball's still in my court, Larabee!" the man replied. "Don't think anybody's had time to dismantle my work yet. And besides, I think you're a little early."

"You've had your deal with Hendrick," Chris countered. "You've got your money, he's got his guns. Now give me the detonator."

"Or what?" Cooper asked.

"Or the ATF team that stops Hendrick on the other side of this warehouse tells him that you set him up," Chris replied. "Now hand over the detonator."

Cooper froze for a second before a feral smile came to his face.

"I guess no matter what I do, I'm dead, huh, Larabee?" he spoke. "Guess I'm gonna go see Bobbie Jo a lot sooner than I thought. Least this way, I'll take another one of your friends with me," he added and moved to flip the switch in his hand.

A look of utter surprise spread across his features then, centered on a small red hole in his forehead. Chris crossed the distance between the two of them in seconds, catching the detonator in his hand before it could hit the ground. The ATF supervisor looked to the hill behind him and saw Mark Dangler, standing almost exactly where he'd been only minutes before, lowering a rifle.

Chris nodded his thanks to his fellow supervisor and headed for his truck, not bothering to look back, ignoring Dangler's calls to him.

+ + + + + + +

"Where the hell is he?" Buck asked, not for the first time, as he paced around the hospital's waiting room.

"I can't believe Chris thinks Vin is dead," JD muttered, also not for the first time.

"We've checked all his favorite haunts," Josiah said as he and Ezra entered the room. "He's dug in deep."

"How is Mr. Tanner faring?" the southern agent asked, taking a seat, resting his tired feet.

"Unconscious again," Nathan replied from his seat. "Bullet grazed deep, hit bone. He's got a severe concussion – at the least."

"But is he gonna be alright?" Buck asked. "He was...Hell...I don't know how he was. He was in and out of it so much," he continued, scrubbing his hands through his hair.

"Won't know for sure, 'til he wakes up again," the dark agent replied. "Just wish we could find Chris and at least tell him Vin's alive," he added.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee knew he should call his men. At the very least, he should call Buck. He knew Mark Dangler would have told them what had happened to Cooper. And they would at least know that he was alright. Physically, anyway. But as he sat in his truck, staring at the old motor home in the woods, he wondered how long that description would last. Vin was dead. Vin was dead because of him.

He got out of the pick-up and walked through the maze of trees to the Winnebago. He couldn't even smile at the half-painted out "W" on its side, giving it the nickname "Vinnebago" that he and the others had loved teasing Vin about. He found the spare key Vin kept hidden in a rusted out hole on one of the side view mirrors and opened the door. He hesitated before going in, feeling morbid about being in a dead man's home. But he needed to be there. He needed to see Vin's things. Say goodbye to the sharpshooter somehow. Alone.

And so, he found himself sitting on the lumpy couch, fiddling with Vin's lure-covered fishing hat. The one Vin had said he'd gotten from Charlie Flint, the motor home and hat's previous owner. "I'm sorry, Vin," he whispered, finally letting the tears fall.

+ + + + + + +


The ladies' man came instantly awake at the sound of his name being called. The raspy whisper was barely audible, but when one had been waiting ours to hear it, that raspy whisper was like a shout from a mountaintop.

"I'm right here, Vin," Buck replied, putting a gentle hand to Vin's shoulder.

He watched as Vin struggled to focus on him. The sharpshooter had been in and out of unconsciousness for almost twelve hours, now. Buck wondered if his waking up this time would be any different than the last, three hours ago. He stopped Vin's weak hands as they reached for the bandaging that swathed his head.

"Nuh-uh. Don't touch," he gently admonished. "Just gonna hurt."

"What... what...." Vin sighed; frustrated that he couldn't collect his thoughts well enough to form a complete sentence.

"You've got a nasty concussion," Buck sighed his reply – so far this wasn't any different than the last. "Bullet grazed your head, point blank range. Thought you were a goner, for sure," he added. He watched as Vin tried to put the pieces together, tried to figure out what to say.

"Don't... don't remember," he finally said, panic striking him as he looked at Buck again.

"Don't you worry, none," the mustached man quickly soothed, gently pushing Vin's shoulder back down onto the bed. "Ain't nothin' to remember. It's over. The bad guy's dead and everybody's okay, now." His explanation had gotten shorter. He knew Vin wasn't up to anything more in-depth. "Go on back to sleep now."

Vin calmed down some, but deep down, he knew he shouldn't have. Somehow, even though he didn't have a clue as to how or why he wound up in the hospital, he knew there was something Buck wasn't telling him. There was more to this than just him getting shot. But at the moment, the only thing he could think about was going back to sleep. Getting rid of that constant pounding in his head.

When Vin's eyes closed again, and Buck saw that the sharpshooter was truly asleep, the ladies' man slumped back into his chair. He wished he could fall asleep so easily. But worry filled his thoughts and he didn't know who to worry about more – Vin, because they still weren't sure whether the sharpshooter would make a full recovery or not, or Chris, because he knew that his old friend was sure to be in self-destruct mode.

He looked up when JD's head poked into the room. The younger agent motioned for Buck to come out into the hall.

"What's up, JD? You get ahold of Chris?" he asked, hopeful.

"No," he replied with a shake of his head. "Josiah's stayin' out at the ranch, Nathan's at the office, Inez said she'd get the word out to some of the bars and she's not leavin' the Saloon. Nettie's got all the Federal

Buildings watched – man you'd be surprised at who that old lady knows," he added, getting off topic.

"Anything else?" Buck asked, breaking JD from his thoughts.

"Oh, the bomb squad finally got all the explosives in our apartment cleaned out," the young man said with a smile.

"Finally! Some good news," the older man sighed, running a hand through his hair.

JD saw the stress and tension his friend was feeling. "You alright, Buck?" he asked.

"Yeah, kid. I'm fine. Just tired. Worried."

JD nodded, understanding. "Vin'll be fine. And we'll find Chris, too."

+ + + + + + +

A painful moan came from the man in the bed. Buck braced himself for another round. Each time Vin woke up, not remembering what had happened or not even remembering waking up the last time, became harder and harder for him to deal with. He knew, deep down that it did not bode well for Vin. He took a deep breath and waited.


"Right here, Vin," he replied, putting a gentle hand to Vin's arm.

"My head hurts," the sharpshooter spoke.

"I know. It's gonna hurt for a few days, at least," Buck responded. "You remember what happened?" he asked tentatively. The conversation was already taking a different direction. He was hopeful.

"Not really," he replied. "You said I got shot." It was said as a statement, but the glazed blue eyes needed confirmation.

"That's right, pard'," Buck said with a smile, gently patting Vin's arm. "But you're gonna be just fine, now. Just need some rest."

Vin nodded slightly, wincing at the pain it caused. "Think I'm gonna just rest here with my eyes closed a bit," he whispered. He knew he needed to ask Buck something. He vaguely remembered the ladies' man telling him that he'd gotten shot. That the bad guy was dead. That everyone was okay. So what did he need to ask him? What wasn't fitting in? He was too tired and his head hurt too much to think straight anymore. Later. Later he'd ask Buck to explain things again. Then it hit him. Buck was here with him.

"Where's Chris?" he asked urgently.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was still sitting in the Vinnebago. An empty six pack of beer lay strewn across the floor. He wanted more, but wasn't quite willing to get up and go to the stream where Vin kept his stash, in Nature's refrigerator.

The guilt of Vin's death at his old nemesis' hand still consumed him. The sharpshooter was an innocent. They hadn't even known each other when Chris had last seen Cooper. "Jesus fucking Christ!" he swore, carelessly throwing an empty can across the room. He looked up when he heard more than the can crash to the floor. "Shit." He rose unsteadily to his feet and went to see what damage he'd done. He stopped then, frozen, when he spied the picture of the seven men of his team lying at his feet. The one Vin had had taken at one of their more recent building search training sessions. He picked it up off the floor and looked at it through the cracked piece of glass. The picture was a little scratched, but the frame was intact. He knew what he had to do.

"Shit, Vin," Chris whispered. "You'd probably be the first one in line kicking my ass right now." He found his jacket and pulled out his cell phone. Taking a deep breath, he turned it on and hit the speed dial. He was disappointed, but not surprised that Buck didn't answer his phone. He hit the next number.

"Standish," came the reply.

"Ezra," he began, only to be cut off by the southerner.

"Mr. Larabee, don't say another word! Just listen to the next three words I tell you," he ordered. "Vin. Is. Alive."

"What the hell are you-," Chris sputtered, only to be cut off again by Ezra's words.

"I'd tried to tell you that during our last conversation, Mr. Larabee, but you wouldn't allow me. And now, we've been trying to find you for the past fifteen hours..." Ezra tried to explain.

"Where is he? How is he? What the hell happened?" Chris demanded, sobering up, if only emotionally.

"Last I heard, Mr. Tanner was in stable condition at one of our local hospitals," the other man replied. "And I won't tell you which one until you tell me where you are, so that I may send a suitable escort and prevent you from what I'm sure would be driving while intoxicated." He'd heard the slight irregularity in Chris's voice. Knew from past experience how Chris tended to be when things hadn't gone right. And thinking Vin was dead definitely fit into that category.

Chris heard the tone of Ezra's voice. He was right, too, he realized as he looked at the empty six-pack. "I'm out at the Vinnebago," he said, giving in.

"Fine. I do believe Mr. Sanchez is the closest. I'll dispatch him post-haste," he replied.

+ + + + + + +

"Where's Chris?" Vin asked again, fighting against Buck's restraining hands.

"Chris is just fine, Vin. Don't you worry none," the other man admonished.

"Then why isn't he here?" the sharpshooter demanded. "What aren't you telling me?"

Alerted by the shouts and monitor alarms, two nurses entered the hospital room and helped restrain the struggling sharpshooter. They finally had to sedate him.

As Buck sunk back into his chair once again, one of the nurses reappeared.

"A Mr. Standish just called for you," she said, reading the written message. "He said that they 'found Mr. Larabee' and are 'enroute,'" she finished, handing Buck the note, hoping that he would at least understand what it meant.

Buck stood up with a smile and picked the young woman up, swinging her around in a circle. At her protest, he kissed her and put her down gently, saying, "Darlin', that's the best news I've heard all night."

+ + + + + + +

An hour and a half later, Chris entered the room. Buck stood up and immediately went to his old friend.

"I'm so sorry, Chris," he began. If he hadn't have believed Cooper in thinking Vin was dead and then told Chris...

"Not your fault, Buck," Chris quickly interjected, putting a comforting hand on the other man's shoulder. "Josiah told me what you said happened. How is he?"

"He's come to a few times," Buck replied. "First few, he didn't know what was goin' on. Only this last time was he really lucid. Doc said it was to be expected, but shit, Chris, I was scared."

Chris saw the emotions play across Buck's face. Saw the effects of the hours of stress on his mind and body. "Sit down, Buck. You look worse than me."

The ladies' man smiled at the remark. "Impossible," he replied, but sat down anyway.

+ + + + + + +

Several hours later, Chris was awakened by the soft grunts and moans Vin made as he began to wake up.

"About time you woke up, Cowboy," he said as he rose and stood next to the bed. "Been waiting all morning for you."

Vin blinked several times, attempting to rid himself of the heavy fog that clouded his mind. "Chris? Buck?" Confusion and pain reared their ugly heads within his own again. "Shit," he cursed and closed his eyes.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Vin," Chris whispered as he sat back down.