by Deirdre

ATF Universe

Part 2

It was a relatively quiet morning in the ATF office. The wing assigned to Team Seven consisted of several large workstations, with sprawling desks, separated by tall dividers. Chris Larabee, the leader of the ATF super team, had a large office, backed by a floor to ceiling window that overlooked the mountains. A large conference room and the cantina, an all purpose room which housed a small kitchen, completed the center.

Ezra Standish and Josiah Sanchez were the only ones in the branch, which was attired in the motif and colors of the American Southwest. Chris had a division meeting and from there, was meeting Nathan Jackson at the Courthouse to conclude testimony at a trial. Ezra looked up as the tall ex-preacher stuck his head around the coral-hued partition.

"Mornin' Ez. Get you some coffee?"

"Thank you, Josiah, that would be most accommodating," Ezra replied, handing the other mans his mug.

A few minutes later, Josiah returned and handed the steaming brew to the younger agent. Ezra expressed his appreciation and then frowned. Sanchez stood uncertain and addressed the curious look.

"Something wrong, Ezra?"

"It would appear my morning repast is missing."

"Hold on Mr. Fancypants, they're comin'" Buck crowed, rushing through the glass doubledoors that lead to the hall, "Wouldn't kill you to stop at The Swiss Kitchen once and awhile. It'd give them moths in your wallet a chance to dust off their wings."

"I'll have you know, my dear Mr.Wilmington, that I have not yet been reimbursed from the last three evenings of food and frolic. If you'll recall, you six disappeared faster than rats on the proverbial sinking ship."

"The Lord does love a man with a generous heart..." Josiah added, patting Ezra's shoulder.

Ezra just rolled his eyes and followed Josiah into the cantina, where Buck had laid out two large boxes. One contained croissants and bagels, the other pastries and doughnuts. Josiah was spreading some jalapeno-and-garlic cream cheese on a bagel, while Buck poured some coffee.

"Aren't we missing someone?" Ezra asked, spreading apricot marmalade on a croissant.

"Mmpph?" Buck asked, through a mouthful of a large cinnamon bun.

"Short fellow, dark hair, large eyes, talks non-stop...ring a bell?" Ezra inquired of J.D.

Buck held a finger up, took a sip of coffee and swallowed the pastry before replying.

"Junior and the Kid were on stakeout last night. They had car trouble, didn't get back to Vin's 'til about three a.m. They'll be in later. When's Chris and Nate due?"

"Unless their testimony is postponed again, not until noontime." Sanchez replied, pouring another cup of coffee

+ + + + + + +

Vin ducked his head down and squinted through the passenger side window of his Jeep. The sun, reflecting off the snow-encased street, seemed more brilliant than usual. He cursed softy, when the disc jockey on the radio announced that it was half-past the eight a.m. hour. Suddenly, a small crack was appearing in his well thought out plan. He lowered the opposing window and stared at the doorway of the townhouse the boy shared with Buck. Leaning on the horn, he made himself known. Finally, the door opened and the youth appeared. Clad in jeans, sneakers and his Bronco's jacket, J.D. Dunne looked like a high school senior, rather than a trained government agent.

"Come on J.D!" Vin hollered, "Y'all move slower than molasses in July."

"Sorry Vin!" Dunne apologized, climbing in; "I got changed as fast as I could. Buck got two phone calls and I had to put Peaches on hold while I took Cupcake's message. Then I couldn't find one of my sneakers. I wish Buck wouldn't clean up, I know just where everything is, even though he says my room is a pigsty."

"Yeah...I get the picture," Vin interrupted the rambling younger man, "Peaches and Cupcake? Y'all got give old Bucklin credit; he sure does know how to pick 'em. Ain't one of 'em ever have a last name."

"You ain't kidding. You know, Vin, sometimes I think they're using aliases."

"Ya might have somethin' there, J.D.," Vin chuckled at the boy's serious tone.

"I'm real sorry, Vin. If we screw this up, it'll be all my fault." J.D. commiserated, at having volunteered the two to replace two members on another team, for the prior night's duty.

"Nah...Don't y'all worry none. We'll get to that auction by nine. We should have plenty of time to get 'em and get to the office, before Chris and them get wind of anything."

"I sure hope so," Dunne's wide hazel eyes lit up, "You think we'll get them, right? Buck's eyes would just about pop out of his head."

"Sure will be a nice surprise," Vin agreed, "'member how disappointed they was a couple months back, when we was in Silverton and we looked up that old timer?"

"Yeah...Buck and Chris were sure mad. Driving all the way over there and then the geezer changes his mind. What are the odds, huh? Him dyin' with no heirs and all his whole collection of antiques and Old West memorabilia going to auction. Boy I can't wait, Vin!"

Vin grinned warmly at the youth's broad smile. Boy sure was crazy about Buck. The four of them had taken a trip to the mountain town of Silverton, Colorado two months back after reading about some antiques for sale. Chris collected antique firearms, and anything involving the Civil War. His great-grandfather was a decorated officer for the Union. Buck loved anything connected with the Old West, and had some great pieces on display in his townhouse. The auction was being held downtown, from nine to eleven a.m. Vin and J.D. had gone online and downloaded a list of items to be sold. There were several guns, swords and other Civil War mementos, and more than a dozen spurs, an antique Texas Rangers badge, rifles, branding irons, a peacekeeper, and more.

J.D. and Vin decided to treat their two friends, since each of the older men had a birthday in the next few months. Vin winced, when he pulled up the outside of the downtown hotel, where the sale would be held. A large snake line surrounded the building.

"Oh, Man, look at the line!" J.D. whined, "It's limited seating, right? What if we don't get in? I can't believe we had a stakeout last night."

"Yeah, talk about bad timin'...iffen we'd camped out here overnight, I reckon we'd be right up front," Vin agreed, then saw the dejection in J.D.'s eyes, "Come on J.D., ya never know, we might get lucky."

J.D. reluctantly followed his friend out of the car and over to the long line. He got an uneasy feeling that the rest of the day would follow suit.

It was just after ten-thirty a.m. when Chris and Nathan left the Courthouse. The judge had postponed their testimony until nine a.m. the following day. Chris had come over to the Courthouse with two other ATF agents and would get a ride back to the office with Nathan. As they approached a major intersection, Chris took a doubletake out the passenger window.

"Something wrong, Chris?" Nathan asked.

"Maybe, could have sworn I just saw Vin's jeep."

"Lot of Jeeps look like his. Why would he be over this side of town?"

""Yeah...guess you're right. Sure looked like him though."

"You ain't being paid to stand around!"

The bark of their team leader and his early appearance caused the three men to move. Chris entered his office and slammed the door, without looking back. They watched as he immediately punched several numbers on the phone and launched into a loud dialogue. Buck stopped Nathan, whose desk was nearest to his.

"What's eatin' him?"

"Couple of things. Trial got pushed back again and we got bumped off the Martinez case."

"WHAT!" Josiah boomed.

"My thoughts exactly," Ezra agreed, "We have a considerable amount of time and effort invested. Why the change?"

"Chris didn't say, but he's steaming. He's on the phone now, trying to get clarification. We got word as we entered downstairs."

"From who?" Buck demanded, as angry as his teammates, "Goddammit, all these weeks of stakeouts, tailing that no good... not to mention all the work Ezra did to get inside. What the hell..."

"I know Buck, I ain't a happy camper either," Nathan frowned, "Kevin Smith was waiting for us in the Hub," Nathan noted of the ATF's corporate office of the first floor, "He just said we're off the case and Chris would get the details later. Where's Vin and J.D.?"

"They had car trouble last night on their way back last night. Didn't get to Vin's until three. I finally got Vin on his cell phone. They're on the way."

"LET'S GO!" Larabee barked, headed for the door, without looking back, "It's going down inside the hour and we've only got ten minutes to go over the details. I'll fill you in on the elevator."

"I sure hope Junior and the Kid get here soon," Buck whispered to Ezra.

"I hear you, Buck," Ezra agreed, "Mr. Larabee is not in any mood to listen to reason, even from our two fledglings."

"What happened Chris? Why did we get pulled?" Buck demanded, holding the elevator door open for the others.

The flanked their boss, who opened a map. The recognized it as one of the warehouses they'd staked out, supposedly tied to Enrico Martinez, a gunrunner for a cartel in South America.

"We're not off the case...not anymore." His voice was low and they could see the vein in his temple throbbing, "Rumor has it he's getting nervous...and moved the sale up. You all know the drill; Team Three is backing us up along with the FBI. Nate, Josiah and Ezra will cover the east entrance; Buck, J.D. and I will be on the southside. Vin, I want you....Vin?" Chris looked up as they approached the garage level, and noticed the absentee members, "Where are J.D. and Vin?"

"Uh...they're late, Chris, you see..." Buck offered, just as the elevator door opened.

"LATE! Whaddya mean, late?" Chris's already short fuse burned even lower.

The other four winced inwardly at the sight of J.D. and Vin laughing and trotting to the elevator, roughhousing en route.

"Where the hell have you been?" Chris exploded, "It's damn near eleven a.m. I'm glad you two are having such a good time, clowning around, while the rest of us work."

"I...uh...we...sorry Chris...we had car trouble...and I got stuck at his house...well that is until a little while ago...his car..."

"Smooth, J.D., real smooth..." Buck whispered, grabbing the flustered Kid's shoulder.

Chris glanced at his watch at back to Buck, "Car trouble...both of you...for four hours? You know this isn't High School, you can't stroll in during fourth period. Nevermind, I'll deal with you later," he gritted, noticing the dozen or so agents in the garage who'd heard the irate Larabee's loud tirade and were staring.

He remembered the fast glance of a Jeep and it's long, wavy haired driver and cast his icy gaze to the longhaired sharpshooter. Vin stared him down, not the least bit intimidated by 'the glare'. His face was taut and the often-bright blue eyes were stormy. Vin wasn't readable, but J.D. could never lie. What his stammering didn't give away, those large hazel eyes did. He was lying through his teeth. The team leader wasn't going accept some lame excuse. They both knew what the word responsibility meant. As they approached the undercover vehicles.

"I don't hear you saying anything," Chris's low voice and steely eyes met the sharpshooters.

Although Tanner never said a word, the team leader could read the 'Go to Hell' message clearly in the stormy blue eyes.

"Fine. You ride in the van with Josiah and Nathan; they'll fill you in. You're in the loft, sixty degrees from center. Don't forget your flak jacket." Chris ordered harshly.

"I ain't a fuckin' I look six years old?" Tanner said, glaring at Larabee and then slamming the door.

"Let's move!" Chris said, climbing in beside Ezra, who was behind the wheel.

"You ride with Josiah, Kid," Buck said, guiding the silent young man toward the van and opening the door near Vin so he could hear, too. "You got a job do, you gonna be all right?" Buck waited for the slight nod; "Chris will be fine once we explain everything. He's having one bear of a day and you and Junior got the worst of him."

"BUCK!" Chris shouted.

Buck rubbed the back of the dark head and gave Vin a thumbs up through the glass. Vin gave a slight nod, but his eyes caught Larabee's and grew hard. Buck climbed into the backseat of the car and slammed the door."Hit it, Ez," Buck exclaimed, "You ought to be real proud of yourself, Chris. Nice work back there."

"Quit protecting them. They were supposed to be on duty, not out goofing off."

"Goofing off?" Buck raged, "J.D. is still a kid, for Christ's sake, but he's also a damn good agent. How many times has Vin ever been late? You could set a clock by that boy. He's in earlier and stays later than any of us. His middle name is responsible."

"They were four hours late Buck. I needed them here, not fooling around."

"Vin's car broke down, last night late after they finished stakeout. They didn't get to Vin's until after three. He called in first thing, said they're were on their way. I was trying to tell you that before you carried on like a banshee and embarrassed them in front of half the Department."

"I think Mr. Tanner showed remarked reserve," Ezra quietly noted, "I chance to say that a more befitting action would have been to...clean your clock?" He eyed Buck's nodding head in the rear view mirror.

The rest of the short trip was uncomfortably silent. As soon as they arrived, they were dispatched, meeting up with their respective teams. They crept into position, and waited for Martinez and the seller to arrive. Chris and Buck moved into position behind some large crates. J.D. joined them, hesitated and moved between the two older men. He secured his vest and checked his weapon, turning his cap backwards. Chris glanced sideways and in the filtering light, J.D. looked like a kid going to a masquerade party. He caught the boy's eye and gave a slight smile, squeezing his shoulder. Keeping the silence, he let his sincerity show through his eyes, by rubbing the boys neck and nodding. J.D. understood and nodded back, and Chris felt all the tension leave him. One down and one to go.

"Team Seven...check in," Larabee whispered into the comm-link clipped to his shoulder.

"All set, Chris," Josiah said of their threesome.

That left only Tanner. Chris glanced upwards and followed the pipes and narrow walkways overhead. He couldn't see the lanky sharpshooter.

"Vin...are you in position?" Chris whispered, "Vin?"

"Sorry...I was out clappin' erasers."

Chris heard the snickering near and far as the rest of his team heard Tanner's wry reference. Buck couldn't seem to stop giggling. Chris turned, so Buck and J.D. couldn't see his mouth turn up slightly. Vin's comment was a joke to the others, but a message to Chris. One they both understood. Neither wanted to enter a firestorm on bad words. "Buck, enough, it wasn't that funny." Chris hissed.

"Yeah, it was..." Buck gasped, recovering, "That boy sure can deliver a line."

Then the doors opened and the room was repainted in a somber tone. Tense minutes fell by the wayside as the dozen and a half agents waited. Martinez had a dozen-armed men and the buyer brought a contingent of ten with him. They watched and waited...until the money exchanged hands. Then all hell broke loose.

"Freeze! ATF! Throw down your weapons!"

The bullets flew fast and furious for several minutes. Buck and J.D. scattered and Chris ran around the perimeter, chasing four of Martinez's men out the door. From the corner of his eye, he saw a body drop from the rafters. The shock didn't allow the gravity of the potential ramifications set in. He ran up the street with two F.B.I agents following him. They cornered the quartet and exchanged rounds. Finally, the foursome were all subdued. Chris ran to check one of the agents, who was on the ground.

"How bad?" He asked, dropping down.

"Went right through," the senior agent nodded, clutching his arm, "Go on...check on your men."


"Yeah, I'm fine," the wounded man sat up, as Chris walked away, "Hey, Larabee..."


"Helluva team you got there."

"Preaching to the choir," Chris grinned, signaling to approaching officers.

Then the horrific vision of the falling body reappeared. Chris broke into a run and shouted into the comm-link."Team Seven...check in."

"Mr. Sanchez and myself are fine." Ezra noted.

"Me and the Kid are okay...Nathan's tending to some of the wounded." Buck's voice boomed.

"Vin?...Goddammit Vin, answer!"

Chris ran into the large warehouse and his worried gaze flew around the room. He heard the distant wail of the ambulances and saw Nathan bending over a still form. The only thing visible was the ATF letters on the discarded flak jacket, which was lying several feet away.

"...Shit...Vin..." His voice died off as he woodenly walked forward, heart heavy.

"Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, anytime, catches thieves just like flies..."

Chris spun around as Buck and J.D's familiar greeting to the eagle-perched sharpshooter. Vin had the uncanny ability to disappear and reappear at will. Scaling anything in record time. He was safe. Turning back to Nathan, he inquired on the causalities.

"We didn't lose any. Three Agents wounded. Martinez is dead, so's more than half his men. The buyer too. Rest are rounded up and on there way downtown."

"Thanks, Nate." He patted the black man's shoulder and made his way across the room.

The other five members of the team were disrobing the flak jackets and other protective equipment, in front of a large truck. Buck saw Chris' dark face and tried to warn Tanner.

"Heads up, Vin."

Vin, looking even smaller without his gear, met his boss's angry gaze. The exchange was brief and the sniper went about discarding his gear. His long wavy hair fell around his shoulders, free of the confines of the navy ATF hat. The flak jacket came off next, as Larabee's irate voice was heard.

"Goddamit Vin! Why didn't you answer?"

"Couldn't..." He replied, holding up the jacket, with a large hole on the shoulder, where the comm-link had been clipped.

"You okay?" Chris moved in to peek under the Aerosmith Tee shirt the younger man wore.

"I'm fine. Can't say as much for that poor feller what tried to shoot me. Sure is a long way down."

Tanner noted, pulling on a sweatshirt and his leather jacket.

Chris didn't reply and took a seat on the floor of the open truck. He sighed and stared at the ground. He saw the familiar boots Vin wore and followed the torso up until he met the blue eyes, now at peace again.

"What?" Vin asked, spotting Larabee's troubled face.

"I thought it was you..." came the quiet reply.

"Shit, I ain't gonna go out like that...smashed up like some melon on the highway. Wouldn't wanna deprive all them weepin' women fussin' over my handsome corpse. Ain't that right, Buck?"

"Right as rain, Vin," Buck grinned, smacking Tanner's back and heading off to join Josiah, Ezra with Nathan, "Come on, Kid, let's con Ezra into buying lunch." He pulled J.D. with him and gave Chris a wink, knowing his oldest friend needed to be alone with Vin.

"Listen about this morning, I was out of line. If you want take a punch...I got it coming."

"Well, I don't know about that. Iffen I bust my hand on that hard head of yers...I'll be out of work and ye'll have a busted jaw. Since ya only average about half-dozen words a day...I'd end up on the losin' end of that deal. about I whup yer sorry ass at pool tonight instead."

"Cocky son-a-bitch, aren't you Tanner?"

"So I've been told."

Part 3

Nettie Wells looked up from the behind the desk and waved to Rain, Nathan Jackson's pretty wife. Rain was an M.D. and volunteered two afternoon's a week at the John P. Kelly Community Center. She was staying late to give free flu shots and would wait for Nathan to pick her up. The Center was thriving, thanks to some very special men. The once rundown building had been abandoned for years until Jack Kelly became the guardian of a hardheaded, skinny, unsmiling thirteen-year old troublemaker, named Vin Tanner.

Orphaned at five, when his mother died, Vin spent more than a few dark years in foster care. Nettie knew the boy still bore inner scars from some of the abuse, and it pained her. This ethnically mixed neighborhood was where Jack Kelly's office was. The ex-marine was a private eye and Nettie was his secretary.

They encountered Vin late one night when they returned to the office. The startled boy was ransacking the office, looking for money. He brandished a knife and his wild eyes and long hair caused her to be momentarily frightened. Then she saw the pain, deep within those very readable eyes. He was scared, once glance at Jack told her, he saw it too. They spent the next half-hour talking to the lonely boy. He didn't say much, but Jack absorbed every word. It was obvious Vin had no home and admitted the money he was looking for was for food. Jack made him a deal, to exchange the knife for a meal at a local diner. Vin's eyes grew hard, and his hand wavered.

Nettie couldn't remember exactly what words she used, but something about her tone and smile, told Vin to trust her.

They exchanged more smiles as the ravenous boy ate heartily. Jack's gentle nature soon had the hard shell Vin had built around himself over the years to soften. Jack didn't push him, but sought the boy out every day. They shoot hoops, go to a Nuggets game or just talk. Jack knew about Vin's horrid childhood and his lack of education was painfully obvious. He was a bright boy, but without the necessary tools to read and write, he was forced to the dark side of the neighborhood.

The only way out to him was through unsavory means. That's when Jack stepped in and changed Vin Tanner's life.

He sought Vin out with an idea, and the boy balked at first, but finally relented. Jack filed all the paperwork, and became Vin's guardian. Nettie helped him improve his reading, writing and math skills. He was a quick learner and especially enjoyed books about history. Jack became a father figure to Vin, scolding him when necessary, counseling, providing a shoulder to lean on. He taught Vin everything he knew about the business. By the time he was eighteen, the boy became a first rate tracker, and developed an outstanding ability for precision shooting.

Jack bought the run-down building up the street from his office. He wanted a safe haven for boys like Vin, somewhere to turn to, instead of turning to a gun. It was a painstaking effort, but the neighbors became involved. It seemed like somebody had a nephew, uncle or cousin who was a plumber, contractor, painter or electrician. The Center took shape and with Jack's leadership, volunteers sprung up from the nearby businesses. A mentoring program was introduced, several afternoon's during the week, a doctor was available, and Nettie knew by the shine in Jack's eyes, it was his crowning achievement, next to Vin.

Shortly after Vin's twenty-second birthday, Jack died of heart attack. Vin was shattered, but Nettie kept him going. He took over the business, but without his much-loved mentor, his heart wasn't in it. He was restless, moody and withdrawn. Until one day a few months later, when he decided to spend a long weekend camping in the mountains. He needed some time alone, to think about his future. A loner by nature and suspicious by experience, he had few friends. He missed Jack and could almost hear the gruff voice scolding him for being so down in the mouth. He left before dawn, hopping in his Jeep. He enjoyed the freedom of the wind reviving him. He stopped a few hours later, halfway to the lake, where he'd camp.

It was almost seven a.m. when he pulled up to the gleaming, chrome diner, a relic from the fifties. He paused inside the door as a group of men, carried on in a large booth nearby. They were a curious mix. From what appeared to be a teenage boy to a large man with graying hair. He felt a pang on envy, hearing the laugher and commentary of the group of good friends. Vin's eye's caught a blond man, who's stoic profile looked out the window. There was something about him... Vin broke his gaze before the other man saw him. He moved to the other side of the diner and straddled a stool, sitting alone at the counter. After ordering, he made his way into the restroom to get washed. Taking off his leather jacket, he washed his face and hands. As he dried his face, he noticed the youth from the group, staring at his back. He scowled at the boy in the reflection in the mirror, causing the youth to blush and exit.

When he returned to this seat, he noticed the jovial group of friends had become silent. He caught a few well-placed glances and realized they were observing him. The kid most likely spotted his piece and figured he was aiming to rob the place. He ate his pancakes slowly and made his way to the register. He felt the presense behind him and knew it was the blond man. He left his wallet splayed open, waiting for his change, and allowed his P.I. license to show. He pulled away, past the window as he left, and gave the gawking kid a wave. The blushing face gave him a grin, all the way to his campsite.

Later that afternoon, fate intervened, returning from an unplanned five-mile hike. Below him, by the lake, he spotted four of the men from the diner. The kid and a tall man with a mustache were on the ground, the later shaking his head and rubbing his jaw. The kid's wide-eyed stare drew his own gaze to the left.

He spotted a rowdy threesome, one holding a knife to the throat of a black man. They were rednecks, loud, crude and abusive. The blond man, who he took to be the group's leader, was trying to reason with the louts. Their drunken state made them far more dangerous. Vin felt his blood boil, as the disgusting insults were hurled at the helpless man. He spotted two more of the men, hiding among the brush, discussing a way to help their trio in trouble. He tread quickly over to his small tent and retrieved his rifle.

Vin scanned the entire perimeter and spotted a group of rocks to the right and high above the knife-welding felon. He quickly made his way to the well-hidden fortress. He glanced down, catching the piercing green eyes of a fair-haired man, for a split second. The other man seemed to know what he was thinking and nodded. Vin returned the silent transmission and took aim. Vin lined him up in the sights of the rifle. His first shot hit the center of the brute's wrist, sending the knife through the air. The blond took out the drunk nearest him, the two hidden men, rushed from their hiding spot, seeking to join in the melee. Vin's second shot took the third loser's knee out, stopping his reach for the knife in the dirt. Nathan Jackson, fell to his knees, gasping for breath. He joined the rest of the team, looking skyward

Vin heard the whistles in appreciation and the shocked exclamations. He stood on the rock, gripping the rifle in one hand. The three bigots were being tied up and he saw the blond giving directives. Again their eyes met and Vin Tanner felt a weight lifted from his shoulders. He didn't realize he was grinning until the blond threw him a half smile.

Later that night, he was on an old pier, legs dangling over the water. The sun was about to set, a vision he never tired of. He drew up the line from the icy lake, which held his six-pack. He paused, his senses alert and tingling. Smiling, he pulled two cans off and tossed one behind him. He heard the soft chuckle, as the tab popped and the somber man took a seat a few feet away.

"Helluva shot..."

"Rifle weren't too bad either..." Vin drawled, casting a twinkling blue eye over to his new friend.

The voice was familiar to him, as if it had always been there. They sat in silence, enjoying the front row seat to nature's curtain call and embraced the quiet companionship. Vin felt a calmness inside, a before unknown serenity invaded him.

"Sure is pretty..." Vin broke the silence, as the orange orb kissed the horizon.


"Y'all staying up at the cabin, yonder?"

"Yup...Yours?" the sandy-head nodded to Vin's campsite.

"This here's the backdoor, that's the parlor..." Vin nodded to his small tent.

"Figured...We got plenty of room."

"Thanks...I got four good walls and a starfield for a roof...'bout as good as it gets..."


The blond stood and turned, as if expecting Vin to follow.

"Coming? Got the grill going."

"Thanks..." Vin stood, recalling the fishing gear, "...but I ain't much for lake dwellers."

"Twenty-ounce Texas cows, poker and beer?"

"Reckon y'all just twisted my arm," Vin grinned, extending his hand, "Vin Tanner."

"Larabee, Chris Larabee."

A short time later, they came to a clearing. The large cabin's porch was well lit, and music blared from a radio. Vin watched the friends, relaxed and cavorting, and paused, suddenly shy.

"Bark's worse than their bite..." Larabee offered, sensing Vin's uncertainty.

"Where the hell you been?" the mustached-man boomed, approaching, "Last time you get to invite a sniper to supper. Buck Wilmington..." Vin grinned despite himself, taking an instant liking to the gregarious man who slapped his back and gripped his hand, "Some eye you got there, Son. Jesus, when's the last time you ate?" Buck teased, running a hand along Vin's chest, "Josiah, give the Boy a hefty one, he's all bones..."

Vin just shrugged, uncomfortable with the attention. He eyed the steaks, and table groaning with food. The others made their introductions and he felt something take hold in his gut. A warmth...belonging...whatever it was, it felt good.

"Sure is nice of y'all to have me to supper. Didn't bring much with me...don't like comin' empty handed."

"You ain't empty handed..."

Vin turned and took the hand extended by a dark-skinned man, "Thank you..." Vin felt his hand enclosed by both of Nathan Jackson's, who's brown eye's welcomed a new friend. By the end of the weekend, he was on his way to becoming the newest member of Team Seven. The future was bright again, as bright as the glint in his new best friend's green eyes.

Once the team found out about the center, they became involved as well. Nathan, J.D. and Buck organized and coached teams in a variety of sports. Josiah offered spiritual guidance and told the kids great Bible stories. Ezra was the biggest surprise; the kids took to him like fish to water. His accent, speech, clothing and mannerism's held them spellbound. His magic tricks and slight of hand games were a huge hit. Ezra would never admit it, but the adoration his newfound fanclub really touched him.

"Ezra Standish, you hold it right there!" Nettie exclaimed, making her way around the desk.

"Miz Wells, always a pleasure," The Southerner kissed her cheek

"Honey, you can fool the rest of the world, but you can't con me," she scolded, "Where's you coat? There's freezing rain falling outside, you can't leave in that jacket."

"I'm only going to my car, it's just outside, I am touched by your concern, however..."

"However my butt," she smacked his arm, "You'll catch your death, running around like that. Land sakes, sometimes you men don't have the sense God gives a fool."

"Amen to that!" Rain called out, from across the corridor.

"I promise you, I shan't let any germs accost me," Ezra charmed, and leaned closer, whispering, "But it is refreshing every now and again to get a good scolding, Thank You Dear Lady,"

"Don't come sniffing to me when you're laid up with the flu." She shook her head, voice trailing off.

"Mr. Tanner, is that you?" Ezra said, spotting Vin wading through a pile of sweatshirts, donated by a local sporting good store.

"Hey, Ez, " the young man's blue eyes sparked, as he smiled at his friend.

"I'm suprised to see you here," Standish replied, "I thought you and our other illustrious hockey star had practice this evening."

"Shit!" Tanner fell back on his knees and slapped the wall, "I forgot...damn, I'm already an hour late. Thanks Ez." He nodded to the exiting agent.

He quickly dialed J.D.'s cell phone and got Rick, who also held the cell phones while the guys were practicing.

"Hey, Rick, it's Vin...Listen, tell J.D. I'm on my way and wait for me. Thanks!"

By the time Tanner arrived at the arena, J.D. was the only player left. Vin didn't get all his gear on, only his skates, jersey and helmet. "Jeez, I'm sorry J.D. I was at the Center and lost track of the time."

"Don't sweat it, Vin, I need all the practice I can get. If it will make you feel better, you can buy the first round at Max's."The two practiced for about an hour and then went to the locker room. Vin stowed his gear and waited for J.D. to finish. He slowed his breathing as a tremor worked within him. He felt a chill run up his spine. His inner alarm sounded, telling him something was very wrong. He was about to holler for J.D, but as he reached for his gun, a hand clamped over his mouth. He fought hard, but the strong chemical smell was quickly taking him into a black void. His knees buckled as he fought a losing battle against the noxious fumes. He stamped his left foot down hard on the attacker's instep, balled his fist up and slammed it back into the brute's groin and when he heard the groan and felt the man fall forward, he turned and slammed the ball of the hand into the man's nose.

Vin staggered drunkenly, his unfocused eyes trying to see. He reached blindly for open locker door, needing something to hold his legs up. He tried calling out for J.D., but the words couldn't find their way out of his throat.

"What the hell..."

Vin heard the second attacker and tried to move, but his legs buckled. He felt the back of his collar grabbed and the exploding pain as he was slammed into the concrete wall. He knew before he heard the laugh, who was responsible. His last thought before he sank into blackness, was of J.D...and what he'd done to him.

"Vin? Hey, Dude turn on a light, I can't see. Vin?...Are you..." J.D. squinted in the dark locker room, still dripping from the shower. He was in jeans, a clean jersey and socks. His shivering was due more to fear than the coldness from the ice rink. He saw the outline of Tanner's form, lying motionless on the floor, bound hand and foot. "VIN!" He cried, leaping without thinking.

He never saw the first blow. When he regained consciousness, he blinked back the harsh light that stabbed his eyes. Pain ricocheted throughout his head; his throat instinctively rebelled against the gag in his mouth. His hands were tied to a pipe overhead. He blinked hard and tried to remember what happened. A low moan drew his attention. His eyes shifted left and caught sight of Vin Tanner, bound hand and foot, but not gagged. J.D. cried out against the gag, smelling the vomit and realizing something was very wrong with Vin. His friend was pale and dazed; his eyes were cloudy and unfocused. Vin's head moved slightly and J.D.'s eyes widened at the blood that covered the top right side of his friend's head.

J.D. struggled with everything he had in him and his eyes grew wide when he saw the three thugs approach. They wore masks, but J.D. knew, by the laugh, the menacing brown eyes and his gut instinct. He glared at Scott Adams and his muffled cries struck the bully as humorous. He nodded at one of the two thugs, who roughly hauled Vin up, by his hair. Squatting in front of him, he slapped the dazed man's face hard and goaded him.

"Wake up pretty boy, its show time. You got a front row seat and Dunne is the star of the show. "

Angry at the lack of response, J.D. recoiled as the brute slapped Vin hard on the face, drawing a moan and split lip. Vin blinked and struggled to focus, and seemed unaware of his surroundings.

"You gave him too much of that stuff," the shortest of the thugs whined, "I told you it was dangerous. Look at him, he don't even know what planet he's on."

"He will," Adams snarled, "Give him a little more time. We got all night, ain't that right Loser?" J.D. recoiled as a solid punch connected with his abdomen. He glanced around the dilapidated room, shivering as cold air rushed by from a broken window. The dank smell of dust, dirt, mildew, urine and other foul odors hit him. J.D. didn't hear any traffic or other pedestrian sounds. They weren't in the metro area...just where were they? How long had they been here? He'd have to hold out, for Vin. He needed to get his friend to a hospital. He stared hard in the dim light at Vin, pleading with him to hold on. He never saw the sharpshooter look so helpless.

Vin Tanner had been shot, stabbed, beaten, and a variety of other painful encounters, but never had he felt so sick. He couldn't lift his head, he felt sure they're was an ax stuck in the side of it. The rancid odor told him the stickiness he felt was his own vomit. He stared at the garish faces that seemed to be larger than life. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. A fear gripped him and he realized something was very wrong. Someone was in trouble...someone he knew. Why couldn't he think? He tried to close his eyes and push the pain away, but a vicious slap, drew them open again. He heard the hollow laughter and blinked, pushing his mind with all he had. Slowly, bits of reality started to sink in. Ezra's face...sweatshirts...J.D.'s skates...J.D!,

that 's what was wrong. He felt his stomach lurch, and curled up starting to gag. But before he could push himself up, he was hauled up by his hair and pushed outside into the dark hallway. He retched until his sides ached; tears ran down his cheeks. He collapsed onto the floor, gasping for air. Water...water...not even saliva...his mouth was so dry. Coughing and sputtering, he was taken back to his original position and tried to focus on J.D. God the Kid was a mess, blood running down his face, covering his shirt. His shout of protest came out as a weak mumble, but J.D.'s head rose and their eyes met. "Here, you go Pretty Boy," a voice leered, holding a cup to Vin's parched lips.

Vin gulped without caution and coughed, curling up as his stomach fought the bitter taste of vinegar.

"You're still slow on the uptake, Skinny Vinny," Adams leered, grabbing Vin's hair and pulling hard, "You didn't think I was gonna give you water, did you?"

J.D. fought hard, sending a silent message to his friend. Hold on Vin, just a little longer. Vin seemed to sense him and met his eyes, nodding. J.D. realized that nobody would be looking for them until morning. He told Buck he'd spend the night at Vin's and come in with him. Too many hours...Vin needed help now. He watched as his slim friend sank to the floor, pale and shaking. The dark-haired youth cringed as a rat scurried by, pausing on Vin's neck and sniffing. Vin's eyes recoiled at the sight of the vermin, but he was too weak to fight. J.D. growled beneath his gag and fought against his bindings, despite the pain.

"Showtime, Tanner!" A light of lunacy shone from Adams eyes's as he met Vin's confused stare, "You're still champion of the weak, protector of the wussies. How's it is feel? You got as much chance of saving Dunne here," Adams backhanded J.D. hard, "as you did that stinkin' Indian kid..."

Indian kid? Vin winced, somewhere on the edge of his memory...a horrible nightmare...but he couldn't find it. Then the assault began and J.D became their punching bag. Vin's mumbled cries fell on deaf ears. His reeling mind couldn't tell if it was one hour or ten. He was lost in a nightmare world, with obscene figures and garish shapes. The voices were distorted and the pain in his head was relentless. He wanted to pass sink into oblivion, but it was not to be.


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