by Deirdre

ATF Universe

Part 7

Chris entered the darkened office and flipped on the light switch. Buck made his way to J.D.'s computer and sat down, looking for something. Chris disappeared in his office for a few minutes and returned carrying a gym bag, and paused by the desk."What are you looking for?"

"J.D.'s key...he's got access code written down and hidden inside his desk. Spare key!" Buck turned over a model of the Batmobile. J.D.'s desk housed many miniature action figures and sports trinkets.

"I'm gonna go down to the gym," Chris noted of the first floor fitness center, "and get a fast shower. Call Lotus Petal. I should be about twenty minutes."

"Will do, Boss, " Buck replied, grabbing the menu for the Chinese restaurant at the corner.

"Start with the DMV," Chris's voice faded, as he headed down the hall.

An hour later, cleaned body, clothes in place and belly full, Chris read the printouts of the information that they had compiled on Scott Adams. He frowned, tapping his fingers on table in the conference room.

"It ain't much," Buck ran a weary hand through his hair, "It's like the guy didn't exist until a year ago."

"Not as Adams, anyway..."

"No address...just a post office job..." Buck scratched his head, "...this guy's a phantom."

"...or a felon...he's not living on air alone. He's got income coming from somewhere. How about the Scorpions?"

"I'll check there tomorrow morning," Buck frowned, "Wish I could have been there when they questioned those two goons." Sighing, he took a long swig from the bottle of ale in front of him.

"Hmmm..." Chris thought, as he dialed a number.


"Hey, Lady," Chris greeted, relaxing as the thought of her filled his head.

"Mary..." Buck slapped his head.

"They're fine...we got lucky..." Chris paused, "He's gonna be fine...the doctor's pushing fluid and

rest, you know...he'll rest, if I have to tie him up. J.D. too, the bastards busted him good...Kid's as tough as nails." Chris took a slow sip of his beer and nodded to whatever Mary Travis was saying, "Yeah...that old Brewery...mixed up some chemicals, chloroform and some other stuff, clubbed him good too. " He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, "He looked awful...scared me good...they got him loaded up with painkillers and antibiotics." Chris leaned forward, pulling his long legs off the table, "Sure he like to see you...I don't know, the afternoon I guess, he's pretty doped up. Listen Mary, I got a favor. Can Buck and me stop over? Fifteen minutes? Thanks...Me too," his face flushed slightly and he hung up.

+ + + + + + +

Mary Travis and her six-year old son Billy lived in the metro area. The attractive widow was an editor for the city paper, where she started ten years before, upon graduating college, as a reporter. She was dressed simply in jeans and a yellow sweater and paddled barefoot into the kitchen to put coffee on. She carried three mugs, spoons, sugar and cream, on a tray and set in on the coffee table in the table in the living room. The two-bedroom apartment she shared with Billy was perfect for them. Chris came several times during the week for dinner and Billy and Mary spent alternating weekends with him at the ranch. It was clear the Chris cared deeply for Billy, who adored the tall blond. Mary knew she lost her heart forever, the minute she first fell into his cool jade eyes. A knock on the door drew her back.

"Hi Buck," she greeted, accepting a kiss on the cheek. "Sorry to be bustin' in on ya this late," he apologized, tossing his coat on the dining room chair.

"A girl would be crazy to pass up an opportunity to see Buck Wilmington on a Friday night," she teased, gaining the grin she hoped for, "Buck, can you get the coffee for me?" She nodded, as Buck left the two lovers in the doorway.

They shared a lingering kiss and he ran his fingers lightly up her spine. He cupped the base of her neck, caressing the tender area behind her ears. He kissed each of her eyelids and rested the side of his face against her hair, enjoying the scent and silky texture. She rested her head on his chest, enjoying the sensation of his breath dancing on her cheek. She broke the embrace and took his coat.

"Did you guys eat? I could heat up something."

"No thanks, Mary. We got takeout." Chris offered, sitting on the couch.

"So what's up?" She asked, sliding next to Chris.

"The cops picked up two of the three men who jumped J.D and Vin," Buck started.

"But the ringleader, a sub-human animal..." Chris paused, and Mary saw the green eyes grow hard and icy, the tenderness was replaced by hostility.

"Named Scott Adams," Buck jumped in, "got away. We ran his name and came up short. No employer...seems he only traces back a year ago. No tickets, warrants, nothing."

"An alias..." Mary pondered, "How old is he? Does he have an accent?"

"Early thirties," Chris stated, sipping his coffee, "No pronounced accent. We were hoping you might be able to get something from Lou."

"It's worth a try," she nodded of a senior reporter who covered the metro police, "He likes Vin. I'll give him a call in the morning."

Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Buck's dark profile, sprawled in a chair by the fireplace. It mirrored the one Chris wore. She sat forward and took Chris's chin, turning it towards her.

"You two promise me you won't do something crazy. Leave the police take care of it."

"Easier said than done," Buck noted.

"So you think beating this guy up...or the answer. That's crazy and it won't do Vin or J.D. any good. It won't take their pain away."

"You didn't see him, Mary," Chris growled, jumping up, "He was laying in filth, chained like an animal, in that shithole of a dump, covered in blood and vomit...shaking all over. Christ, there were rats crawling on him. They're not sure yet, if he don't have some damn rat fever."

Chris stood apart, every muscle on edge, jaw clenched, eyes hot. Mary looked to Buck, hoping to convince him, but then there was J.D. It was no secret how crazy Buck was about the likeable boy.

"So let me get this straight. After you two get arrested for assault and battery for starters, you go to jail, the other five get transferred and the Seven is finished. How does that solve anything?" She walked over and stood in front of the man she loved and stared hard, seeing the pain in his soul through the tortured eyes, "I care about him, too, Chris. I still see the tormented teenager in those emotional eyes of the man's he become. I know how you feel, but..."

"No, you don't" he said quietly, squeezing her hand and turning away.

He was right, of course. She'd known Vin for several years, meeting the quiet, soulful and hidden teen, while interviewing Jack Kelly. Over the years, she gained his trust and felt a deep affection for Vin Tanner. After her husband died, and she took on more demanding hours, often it was Vin who'd baby-sit for Billy. Billy was crazy about the urban cowboy, too. She knew what Chris and Vin shared was special. Vin touched a part of Chris Larabee's soul that he thought was lost forever. Vin understood Chris like no one else did and often was the only one who could reach him. They shared a place in space and time that no one else would ever occupy.

"It'll crush him, you know. You'll hurt him far worse that this Adams did." She stated, touching his shoulder.

He turned, and she answered that puzzled look.

"You'll be lost to him. Locked away, or worse. For what? Revenge?"

"What if it was Billy?"

"I'd think up a hundred ways of killing the bastard. Ripping his heart out and holding it in my bare hands," she took his hand, "But isn't thinking and doing what separates that moral from the immoral?"

The ringing of a cell phone interrupted the silence. Chris looked back and nodded to Buck, who was next to the leader's coat. Buck reached in and answered.

"Wilmington...Hey, Nate," Buck put a wary hand up, spotting Chris's head whip around, "Hey, that's great, thanks Nate, I'll tell him."

"Everything okay?" Chris asked.

"Josiah talked them into putting Vin in J.D.'s room. Also, Nate said Vin's bloodwork is still negative. They'll keep testing him, but with no fever, Nate seems to think he don't have that rat fever."Buck watched as Chris expelled some air and gave a small smile. Buck eyed the two and made and stood, nodding to Mary.

"Thanks, Mary, Think I'll head on home. See you tomorrow at the hospital, Chris."

"'night, Buck..."

She cleared the dishes away and watched as he stood, glancing at the twinkling lights of the city. She crept up behind him, wrapping her arms around the slim waist and leaning up to his neck."Don't be long..." She whispered.

He finally made his way down the hallway and paused to peek into Billy's room. The blond boy had thrown his quilt off and Chris entered his room. He straightened out the small tangled limbs and tucked him in good. He brushed the bangs off the sleeping tyke's forehead and brushed his lips against it.

"Night, Pard." He whispered.

"Night, Chris." Billy mumbled.

She was almost asleep when she felt his warm flesh against her back. He pulled her close, and nibbled at the soft spot where her neck met her shoulder. His hands traced a familiar path down her hip.

"Missed you, Cowboy," she murmured, turning to meet his lips.

Part 8

Chris unscrewed the thermos and filled his mug with the steaming beverage. His long legs were encased in black jeans, now sprinkled with straw from the barn. The windburn on his cheeks only enhanced his rugged good looks. He embraced the crisp air and eyed the expanse of land. He arrived home just after two a.m. and fell into a deep sleep. The new dawn and Mary's words had quieted the storm inside of him. He paused and looked at the interior of the barn, clean and swept. Fresh straw and water were available for the horses, and the shelves that he'd been meaning to install for months, were now up.

He whistled sharply and watched Sam's dark head rise from the far end of the field. It was almost nine a.m. and after breakfast, he'd be heading to the city. Josiah called at seven, when he arrived back on the scene, stating both patients seemed happier to see the box of doughnuts he carried, rather than himself. He said Vin looked much better, and J.D. was pretty sore, but alert.

The tail-wagging retriever bounded up to his master, placing two large paws on Chris's heavy burgundy flannel shirt. Chris tried unsuccessfully to duck the tongue-lashing.

"Settle down, now...You hungry?"

The anxious bark, followed by the race to the kitchen door, gave the rancher his answer. Closing the barn door, he capped the thermos and made his way towards the house. He poured some dry food into Sam's dish and pointed. He stuck his head in the freezer and pulled out some blueberry pancakes. Tossing the discs in the microwave, he picked up the phone and punched the speed dial. He opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of grapefruit juice and a container of maple syrup.

"Hey Pard, How are ya?" He greeted the likeable six-year old.

"Chris! Hi! Are you gonna come over today?"

"Yup. Your Mom around?"

He winced as the phone was dropped and heard the boy's voice trailing off. Several seconds elapsed before the sultry voice was heard.

"Hey handsome, I missed you this morning."

"Thought I bring Sam and stay over tonight."

"Billy will be thrilled. You headed to the hospital?"

"Yeah...stopping at Vin's to get some stuff for him. Can you pick up Miss Nettie and Casey


"No problem...tell them I stop by the center at two o'clock. I just talked to Buck, Vin's awake and complaining . He and J.D. were watching cartoons."

"Fussin' and cussin'...that's my boy." Chris grinned, "Nothing like a sugar rush on top of a loaded I.V. to get the day started," he mused, thinking of Vin munching doughnuts.

"Yeah...sounds like he's on the road to recovery. Look, I gotta get Billy to practice. I'll see you later."

"Looking forward to it, Lady." He hung up the phone as the bell on the microwave went off.

"You're kiddin', right?" He answered the dog's hungry eyes, staring at his plate.

Straddling the stool in the kitchen, he placed the steaming flapjacks on the bar, overlooking the living room. He gulped some juice, right from the carton. Pouring the syrup, he heard a low whine and grinned down at the soulful brown eyes.

"Do I look like Vin?" He asked, knowing his friend couldn't resist Sam's baleful stare and slipped him table food, when he thought Chris wasn't looking.

At the mention of the name, Sam's dark head cocked and his ears went up. Padding to the living room, he looked up the steps to the loft above, and barked. Wagging and waiting, his head cocked back and forth. Chris continued eating and grinned. It had taken no time for Vin to become Sam's best friend, after all Vin was a big kid. He loved nothing more than wrestling, chasing, playing catch and sneaking snacks to the handsome dog. Sam was crazy about Vin and now waited for his playmate to appear.

"Sorry, Pal, he's not here. How about we go for a ride? Go see Billy?"

Sam raced to the door and stood on his back legs, batting the hook, which held his leash. Chris finished his meal, tossed the paper plate away and placed the syrup and juice back in the icebox. He then grabbed the gym bag, he'd packed for himself and clipped the dog's leash on. Sam jumped in the passenger side and Chris climbed aboard. Chris dropped Sam off at Mary's before heading to the Center, where Vin had an apartment on the top floor.

Entering, he spotted Casey teaching a group of small youngsters how to make a collage. She waved and motioned to an older girl, about fifteen to take over. Wiping the glue off her hands, she followed Chris into the office, where Nettie was on the phone. Chris tried to charm off the glare she shot him. He sank into a chair and waited until Nettie hung up.

"Wipe that grin off of your face, young man," The silver-haired woman charged, "Don't think that smile is going to get you off the hook. Why the hell didn't you call me yesterday? If Casey hadn't have stopped over to see J.D. last night..."

"You're right, Nettie," he said sincerely, "I'm really sorry. Guess I wasn't thinking clear."

"Well..." She paused, knowing when it came to Vin, Chris Larabee often had tunnel vision, "Just don't let it happen again."Chris nodded and turned to Casey, "So you woke Buck up?"

"Yeah. He looked as guilty as you do. He felt awful. I talked to J.D. this morning, he's sounded groggy." The second year college student added."Painkillers...he's gonna be fine. Mary'll pick you both up at two. I'll have the boy's cleared out

by then and you can have a nice visit."

"Who did this, Chris?" Nettie demanded.

"Scott Adams and two friends of his. He's on a team in the league with J.D. and Vin. We don't have the motive yet. J.D seems to think it's tied into Vin's past. Name mean anything to you?"Nettie frowned and thought hard...Adams?. "No, Chris, I don't know him. I've known Vin for years. I don't recall him speaking of a Scott Adams."

"Vin's got a lot of dark secrets in 'im." Chris said, "Adams is buried there, somewhere. Vin wasn't in any shape to talk yesterday. I'm gonna try today."The cell phone in Chris's pocket rang and he flipped it open."Larabee. Hey Buck, how you holding out?"

"Better now that wrestling finally came on..." Buck complained, crossing his feet on J.D.'s bed, "You got know idea how long a morning is until you suffer through them God-awful cartoons."

"They're classics..." a voice hollered from the background.

"So are polyester leisure suits. Are you attached to them too?" Buck tossed to J.D.'s roommate.

"How are they, Buck?" Chris queried.

"J.D.'s sleeping...they gave him some pills about a half hour ago. He's pretty sore, ain't moving hardly at all. Vin's free again..." Buck smiled, thinking of how happy the sharpshooter was without his catheter. "Him and that I.V. pole have been wandering all over the room. He looks a whole lot better."

"You get anything on Adams from the Scorpions?"

"J.D. gave me the name of the league organizer. A guy named Frank Bennet. Seems he keeps all the records. I called and got his wife. She said he'd be in the arena office most of the afternoon. I'll take Ezra with me."

"Okay, Hold down the fort, Buck," Chris issued, "The Calvary's coming."

"Hey Chris, bring some grub, huh?"

"Will do." Chris put the phone away, "I'm gonna pack some stuff for Vin," he rose and waited for Miss Nettie to make her way around the desk, "I'm really sorry."

"I know, Son. You just make sure that skinny backside of his stays planted in that bed," she said hugging the tall man and closing the door behind him.

+ + + + + + +

"J.D. you in? Ante up..." Chris paused hearing Buck's voice outside the door, "'re raising two bits...I'm in...Ezra?"

"I'll see you and raise you...Mr. Tanner?"

Chris ducked into the room and his eye's narrowed suspiciously. J.D. was sound asleep, with five cards resting on his prone chest. Buck's long legs were resting on the bed, Ezra sat on the other side, and a dozing Vin, slumped in a chair, completed the foursome. He tossed Vin's bag onto the foot of his empty bed and walked over to the makeshift card table, J.D.'s bedstand.

Buck and Ezra didn't look the least bit guilty. J.D and Vin were both asleep, Vin's head rested on his chest, and his cards were on still in his hand.

"You two have no morals." Chris's lip twitched as Buck picked up J.D.'s cards and bet for him.

"Hell, it ain't our fault if they conked out on us, is it Ez?. No sense wasting a good game."

"Precisely, Buck," Ezra agreed, glancing at Vin's hand, "Mr. Tanner bets..."

"Hold on there," Chris said, snatching the cards, "What did you do to his hand?"

"Moi?" Ezra sounded shocked.

"Vin wouldn't bet on a hand this bad."

"You 'cusin' us of cheatin', Pard?" Buck's feigned-indignant voice called.

"Just stating the facts," Chris answered, eyeing J.D.'s hand and shaking his head, "Games over...I brought some sandwiches."

"I'll get some liquid refreshments from the machine," Ezra announced, disappearing.

"Come on, Junior, let's get you back to bed," Buck said, reaching under Vin's arm.

"I ain't sleepin'..." a rasp emerged, as the bleary eyes rose, "I's just restin' my eyes for a bit. Who the hell took my cards?"

"Afternoon. Nice to see you looking almost human again."

"Chris?" Vin turned painfully and squinted up at the dark figure, whose arms were folded across his chest.

"Come on, Vin..." Buck eased him up and helped him shuffle across to the bed.

"Nice ass..." Chris complimented.

"Aw hell," Vin growled, feeling the draft on his exposed backside, peeking through the hospital gown.

"Don't pay him no mind, Junior," Buck said, easing Vin into his bed, "He's just jealous. It is a nice little ass though." Buck ribbed Chris, and both men laughed.

"Shut the hell up, both y'all. You bring me some clothes?"

Chris nodded and unzipped the beat-up bag. He took out two pair of sweatpants, shirts, socks, underwear and sneaks and placed them in the chest of drawers, nearest the bed. He took out a small black bag, housing Vin's toiletries.

"...'preciate it," Vin yawned, reaching for the doughnut box, only to have his hand slapped.

"Ow!!! What's that for?"

"I ain't Uncle Buck," Chris warned, "...and you're not eating any more junk until you eat some real food."

"They's real eggs and flour and such in 'em." Vin protested as the box disappeared across the room.

"Buck?" Vin tried, sending his best soulful stare.

"Sorry, Son." Buck shrugged, taking out the sandwiches and laying them on J.D.'s stand.

"You bring me somethin'?" Vin's eyes widened as Chris's hand disappeared in the beat-up bag.

Chris and Buck exchanged a grin, Vin looked like a kid on Christmas. Chris took out some magazines and a book, still in the bag from the store. Vin rifled through the magazines, and smiled at Chris. "Thanks Chris, I'll pass 'em onto J.D. when I'm done. What's this?" Vin asked, reaching in the plastic bag. "Hey....hey this is great..." Vin's eyes lit up, along with his smile, "...been eyein' this up for quite some time."

Buck walked closer and watched over Vin's bedside, as the younger man's fingers gently caressed each page. It was an oversized volume on the history of the Indians in the region. Legends, lore, beliefs and customs, beautifully displayed - complete with glossy photos. Buck winked at Chris, who drank in his best friend's smile.

"Thanks, Cowboy," Vin's soft voice floated up, his eyes remained glued to the book.

"Gentlemen, shall be dine?" Ezra called, placing the box, with an assortment of soda's and chips on the empty chair near J.D.

"Y'all got a Bronco burger with bacon in there?" Vin's head strained to see across the room, "Maybe some Cajun fries?"

"Mr. Larabee procured the sandwiches," Ezra warned, shooting Vin a sympathetic smile.

"You got Chicken Salad," Chris unwrapped the sandwich for Vin, "...and you'll be happy with it,"

Chris waited until they were done eating and glanced at Buck. Buck shook his head, indicating he hadn't spoken to Vin about Adams. Chris gathered up the wrappings and empty soda cans and threw them away. Turning, he made his way to Vin's side.

"Vin, Where do you know Scott Adams from?"

Vin's face darkened with anger and he gathered his hands into fists. Easing his aching head back on the pillow, he felt a flush of anger color his pale face.

"Didn't meet him until he joined the Scorpions last year. Know'd right off he was no good. Got a bad feelin' about him."

"From what J.D. heard and the two goons they picked up confessed to. Adams was after you for revenge of some sort, from your past." Buck offered, fixing J.D.'s pillows.

"My past?" Vin thought hard and shook his head, "Can't recall ever crossing paths with the likes of him."

"He's had it in for Vin from the beginning," J.D. mumbled, sending potato chip crumbs flying

all over his chest.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Buck slapped his arm.

"But he has...don't like me a whole lot either. The cheap shots and that mouth of his are bad enough...not to mention Vin's tires." J.D.'s hand immediately flew to his mouth and his eyes widened, at the slip of his loose tongue.

"Tires?" Chris puzzled, throwing his eyes to Vin.

" didn't tell 'em?" J.D. asked shyly, looked at Vin, who remained in muted anger.

"What about Vin's tires?" Buck asked.

"They've been slashed a couple times," J.D. uttered

"You report it?" Chris directed to Vin, who looked up and shook his head, "Why not?"

"Couldn't prove it..."

"What about the letters Vin?" J.D. urged, and regretted it, upon seeing Vin's shoot him an angry look.

"Letters?" Chris stood, arms folded, glaring at Vin, "What kind of letters?"

Vin remained silent, staring at the sheets.

"Can I tell him, Vin?" J.D. asked, more afraid of Chris Larabee's wrath then Vin's scowl.

"Why stop flappin' yer gums about me now?" Vin growled.

"Both times the tires were slashed, there was a note inside. Calling Vin awful names."

"Why didn't you say something?" Chris exploded, not containing his anger.

"Weren't nothing to say, Chris. I had no proof. Hell, it could have been anybody."

"It wasn't just anybody, and if you had spoken up, maybe we would have caught him...before he used J.D. for a punching bag." Larabee's voice was hard and cold.

Vin's head painfully shot up and he glared at Chris. The others winced at the icy issuance Chris delivered. Vin flung himself away from them, facing the wall, breathing heavily. Chris knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that would hit Vin hard, and hurt him. It was a message he needed to feel.

"You ain't alone anymore, Vin. You got us now. You gotta learn to trust us to help you." Chris said softly, before turning back to the others.

There were several awkward moments the followed. The room was draped in silence. J.D. kept stealing furtive glances at the group. He looked over at Vin, huddled in the bed.

"I'm sorry Vin, I know I promised not to tell. But, if you would have died because of him..."J.D.'s voice broke, "I wouldn't ever forgiven myself."

Vin turned and sat up, throwing his feet off the bed. Pausing to get his balance, he grabbed his I.V. pole and started forward, stopping at J.D.'s bed. He saw the tear running over the bruised face and wiped it away. Swallowing hard, he met J.D.'s frightened gaze.

"Man's really rich iffen he has one good friend in his life," Vin paused, feeling Ezra's arm on his shoulder, "Guess that makes me a fuckin' millionaire. I'm proud to be yer friend J.D...ya was only looking out for me, cause you cared. Guess I got a bit of learnin' to do...about this brother business."

"Well said, Mr. Tanner," Ezra squeezed the downcast neck and glanced at the open door, "Now if you would be so kind to cover your well defined assets. You're giving the young ladies in the hall quite a show."

"Huh?" Vin looked around at the nurse's aides eyeing his exposed rear, "Aw hell...why didn't warn me," he turned, skittered sideways like a crab, and got back to his bed.

The room echoed with laughter and Vin's blush settled down as he fell asleep.

Part 9

By the time Casey, Nettie and Mary arrived at two, J.D. was awake. He was stiff and sore, but kept his sense of humor, trying to take the fear from Casey's eyes. Chris eased J.D. into a wheelchair and Casey captained it down the hall. Nettie went to refill both boys' water pitchers. Mary made her way over to the bed, standing on the opposite side. Chris was reading the Stock Market report from Ezra's discarded paper. He was sitting next to the bed. Vin was sound asleep, his arm protectively over his new book. Mary leaned down and kissed Vin's forehead and brushed her fingers through his hair. "Deja-vu..." She whispered, not wanting to disturb Vin.

Chris looked up and smiled. This was almost the same spot where he'd first met Mary. A few weeks after Vin joined the team, he and Ezra had been injured in an explosion during a drug bust. Chris still remembered the horrible feeling, after the blast...spotting Vin's hand sticking out of a pile of rubble.

Mary glanced at her blond lover and recalled the event as well. The news carried the story as their six o'clock lead. She spotted the ATF team and turned the sound up. Hearing Vin's name, identified as one of the injured, she raced to the hospital. Vin had mentioned the six men he worked with, extensively during those early weeks. She's seen the change in him, he was blossoming, really coming into his own. He'd found a true niche...and real friends. And then there was Chris Larabee. She saw the look in Vin's eyes when he spoke of Chris.

She remembered pausing in the hospital doorway that night. She saw a haggard, tired body sitting next to Vin, gripping his limp hand. She stood in the darkness, not wishing to disturb the scene. One look to the handsome, blond stranger's face, spoke volumes. It was more than the depth of compassion in the haunted green eyes, it was the voice...low and heartfelt...the free hand stroking Vin's hair. She slowly walked to the other side of the bed. Chris was so intent on pulling Vin back to the world of the living, he didn't see her for awhile. Then he looked up...and saw the tears running down her cheeks.

"That was a close call..." Chris recalled, folding the paper and rising.

"Anything new?" She whispered, easing the large book from Vin's arms and covered him up.

"Nah, he'll stay on the I.V until tomorrow afternoon. They're gonna send him home with a week's worth of ...uh..penicillin, just to be safe."

"Buck still around?" She asked, kissing him lightly.

"No, him and Ezra are following up a lead. You got anything?"

"Lou called, he can meet us over at Fiona's," she said of an Irish bar near the paper.

"Let's go." Chris said, stepping out in the hall and dialing Buck's phone.

Lou Camarillo saw Mary come through the door of the traditional Irish bar. Cloaked in dark wood and accented with brass, it looked like it belonged in Dublin. He waved to the trio and they joined him at the empty table.

"We'll have a round of Guiness," he gave the waitress their order.

"Thanks for the help. What do have Lou?" Chris said, shaking the man's hand."Anytime, Jack Kelly was a good friend and that kid...well there's something about him. Anyway, your young friend's intuition was right. From what Stolski told them, Adams has had Tanner on his mind since moving to Colorado last year."

"How's this Stolski know him?" Buck asked, taking a sip from the dark stout, "J.D. said he ain't on the team."

"No, Grier is on the team and just paid to help deliver Tanner and Dunne. He's kept his mouth shut. One of Stolski's associates from prison knows Adams. When Adams was looking for some muscle, he mentioned Stolski. He served five years for assault...seems he's got a nasty temper."

"Why Vin?" Mary asked, nibbling on a pretzel.

"Stolski lives near Sante Fe, said that Adams contacted him about ten months ago...said he might have a job for him. Then about two weeks ago, he called him again and asked if he wanted to make some money. Stolski's been in prison twice, and needed the money. He told the cops that Adams told him he owed a payback to an old friend. Five hundred questions asked."

"Vin can't place Adams beyond last he never met him until then. We're missing a big piece of the puzzle." Chris frowned, taking a long draw on his beer.

"Well, I'm afraid that piece will have to be supplied by Vin... Grier made bail. Adams kept him in the dark, he knows nothing. Stolski's wanted for robbery and murder back in New Mexico...he's being extradited in the morning."

Lou winced in sympathy, at Buck's colorful string of curses, "I'm not sure of the particulars...but when I called a hour ago to see if Adams had been picked up yet, the desk sergeant updated me."

"What did you and Ezra find out?" Chris glanced over to Buck.

"Got an address, Ezra's checking it out. Bennet called Adams this morning, after he found out about Vin and J.D. He kicked him off the team. Adams was already suspended and there were too many complaints from bar owners, about his temper," Buck hedged, momentarily.

"What?" Chris's eyes narrowed.

"Bennet opened Adams locker...there were some pictures of Vin...with 'X''s on his face."

"Damn!" Chris seethed, "Get a hold of Josiah, Nate and Ezra. I don't want Vin and J.D. left


"I called Jackson's precinct and spoke with his Sargent. They were sending a detective over. Ezra's waiting on him."

"Alright..." Chris sighed, "Lou, this is my cell phone number, you call me, anytime, if you hear anything."

"Will do, Chris."

+ + + + + + +

Chris was still in a foul mood when they arrived back at the hospital. Buck and he would stay until seven p.m. Nathan would take the seven to midnight shift, with Josiah taking over at the witching hour.

"You get a hold of Ezra?" Chris asked, breaking the silence."Not yet, left a message on his machine." Buck answered.

"I'll pick you up here at seven. We'll meet Ezra and Josiah at that Mexican place near Josiah's." Chris dictated, as they entered the hospital room. The door blocked Vin's bed, but they that J.D. was sleeping.

"Where do you think you're going?" Chris roared, spotting the disconnected I.V. next to the completely dressed Tanner. Larabee looked at the tired features and eyes dulled with pain.


"Circus?" Chris stammered, the unexpected answer catching him off guard.

"Gave Billy my word...aim to keep it."

"You take that thing out yourself?"

Vin looked at Chris eyeing the I.V. and nodded, waiting for the backlash.

"They got trained personnel to do that, so the needle don't get pulled off and..."

"I know'd what I was doin', it ain't the first time..." Vin stopped seeing Chris's raised eyebrow over the glaring eyes, "...nevermind."

Chris paced, running his hand through his hair, trying to control his temper. His eye caught the trashcan and he picked it up.

"What are ya doin? Leave that be..." Vin argued, trying to get at the can.

"You threw them in here...didn't you? How many, Vin?" Chris hollered, grabbing the discarded tissue.

"Had to dump them...they make me dopey..." Vin declared of the painkillers.

"Oh, I think you're doing a good job of that all by yourself." Buck warned.

"How were you going to get Billy? How were you going to get to the Civic Center? Your head's about to fall off and don't tell me you're not in any pain. What the hell where you thinking? Adams is still on the loose, you want Billy caught in the middle of that? Vin..." Chris's exasperated voice died out as he smacked an open palm against the wall.

Vin sat silent, shoulders slumped, eyes defeated. Mary made here way over and sat next to the young man, taking his hand. She tilted his chin up and gave him a smile. He looked at Chris's tense back, which was just in front of him.

"I promised him..." He said quietly, "I know all about being six and busted promises."

Mary bit her lip and wrapped her arms around Vin, who's head dropped onto her shoulder. She saw Chris's back relax and he turned, the green eyes no longer harboring anger. He sat on the other side of Vin. and patted his leg.

"Vin, the circus is here all week," Mary soothed, "Billy will understand...he knows you're in the hospital."

Chris eyed Mary, and added, "How about we all go...later in the week? Okay? No busted promises."

"Reckon that'd do..." Vin agreed, "Can I call him? I don't want him waiting."

Mary and Chris saw the distant look in their friend's eye as he recalled some painful memory from his youth. Chris took out his cell phone and dialed Mary's where Nathan and Rain were babysitting.

"Hey, Pard! How you doing?" Chris nodded, "You're playing cards? Ezra's not there, is he? No reason," he smiled, hearing the rest of them chuckling, "Listen, got somebody here that wants to talk to you. Hold on, now."

He handed the phone to Vin and squeezed his shoulder.

"I'm fine, Billy. These old doctor's just being careful." Vin paused, nodding his head, "Good Boy...y'all take of Sam for me. Give 'im a big hug for me, okay? Listen Billy, I been thinkin'...maybe it'd be better if we went to the Circus later this week," Vin winced, rubbing his temple below the bandage, "I know I promised ya...but...Thanks, Billy. See ya, Slugger...I love y'all too."

Vin shrugged his sneaks off and allowed Chris to help him with his sweatshirt. He had an ATF tee shirt on and lay back on the bed. Mary buzzed the nurse, saying Vin's line had come out. Finally he looked up at them.

"That little feller's really somethin'" Vin rasped, "He's drawing me some pitchers. He said..." Vin stopped, "...he'd hold onto me real good at the's I don't fall. Ain't that somethin'?" He eyed both his friends, head sinking in the pillow.

"He learned from the best," Mary said, kissing Vin's cheek, "You get some rest, okay? No more trips...or I'll tell Miss Nettie."

"Yes, Ma'am," he smiled sheepishly.

+ + + + + + +

Rio Diablo was crowded. The low key Mexican restaurant was a neighborhood favorite. The seven often met there, enjoying the authentic cuisine. Chris, Buck and Josiah were already sipping on Corona's, and munching on Quesidilla's.

"Where the hell is Ezra?" Chris's impatience was showing.

"He'll show...although I am getting a little worried. It's not like him not to check in this long." Buck glanced at his watch and noticed it was nearly five hours since he'd heard from the Southerner.

"Speak of the devil..." Josiah waved to the handsome, green-eyed gambler.

"Ezra ain't you got anything cotton in that wardrobe of yours?" Buck asked, eyeing the expensive suit.

"Mr. Wilmington, Are you trying to get into my to speak?" Ezra coyed, causing Buck to grin and roll his eyes.

"Where have you been?" Larabee demanded.

"It took quite some time for the gold-shielded sleuth to arrive. We had a little chat concerning Mr. Tanner and Dunne's health. He agreed to post a guard until they're released tomorrow. He was on his way to talk them, when I left."

"Did you find anything at Adam's house?"

"A large closet is more like empty room...loaded with vermin. According to the newly emigrated neighbors, and I might add that was a challenge...since I am not fluent in Southeastern Asian dialects, no one has ever occupied it."

"So we're back to square one..." Josiah sighed, signaling the waitress.

"Oh, and Mr. Tanner's Jeep was located a short distance from the Adams residence. It was totaled and set on fire."

"More good news," Nathan shook his head.

"It seems peculiar to me that Mr. Tanner cannot remember this villainous creature. He's seems hardly the type that you could forget." Ezra thought outloud."Yeah, you know, Chris, I been wondering about that too." Buck frowned, peeling the label off his beer, "You think he's holding out on us?"Chris thought for a moment before answering, "No, his eyes were blank when I asked him. There wasn't even a flicker."

"Maybe we've been looking under the wrong rocks." Josiah eyed his companions.

"Meaning what?" Chris asked.

"Maybe it's Vin's background we need to check."

"He'll blow a fuse, " Buck winced, "He don't ever talk about his past...not much anyhow. He ever talk to you Chris?"

"About Jack and running with the gangs. Nothing from his childhood. You know Vin..."

"Still waters run deep..." Ezra added.

"Buck, you think you can handle both of them for a few days. Be good to keep the two of them together and you're place isn't as isolated as the ranch."

"Hell yeah, but Vin ain't gonna like that."

"No, but he'll do it..." Chris nodded, picking up his Shrimp Fajita, "I can play dirty pool, too."

"How so?" Buck asked, digging into a Burrito.

"He won't want to risk Nettie, Casey or any of the kids getting hurt...if Adams shows up."

"An excellent idea." Ezra agreed, cutting his Jumbo Vegatarian Quesidilla.

+ + + + + + +


"Vin...Listen to reason..."

"I'm fine, Chris. I don't need you nursemaidin' me!" The younger man snapped, blue eye's flashing."Actually, I'll be nursemaidin' ya..." Buck said, easing J.D. into a wheelchair.

"Why are you being so difficult?" Chris loomed over Vin, sitting on the bed, "You signed yourself out, despite the doctor's warnings about headaches and blackouts...ya damn fool," Chris shook his head, disgusted.

The seven watched Vin's angry eyes and tense stance. Dressed and ready to go, he was waiting on his prescription. He crossed the crowded room and stood by the door, eyeing the hall impatiently.

He felt Chris behind him.

"Okay, Hotshot...have it your way," Chris said quietly, "But it's on your conscience if Nettie, Casey or any of the kids gets hurt."Chris and Ezra were closest to him and saw the brief flicker of fear cross into the blue eyes. Ezra laid a hand on the smaller man's shoulder.

"The sight of you huddled in that five-story commode is one that burns in my mind yet. He's desperate, Vin...capable of any horrific action. Do you really want to risk their lives?"

Vin didn't look up, crossing the hall to take a drink from the water fountain. They were right. Ezra's words drew a gruesome picture of a basketball court littered with wounded children...Nettie or Casey caught in a fire. He still harbored deep guilt over J.D.'s mangling. He'd never live with himself if Nettie, Casey or one of the kids were hurt or worse.

He paused at the fountain, wiping his mouth. A thought snuck into his head. This was his fight, wherever Adams remembered him from, it was his past. He wouldn't risk any harm coming to his friends. Those green eyes of Larabee's had the uncanny ability to see right into his mind. The tall blond could look at Tanner's face, eyes or body language and gage just what was going on. Buck couldn't read him that good and would be gone all day. That would leave Vin free to use J.D.'s computer and motorbike to track Adams. He felt a small smile creep onto his lips.

He returned to the room and sat on the bed. He squinted painfully up at Buck, the sudden flurry of movement left his head ringing. The painkillers were too strong, he only took them at night.

"Y'all gonna have them little, bitty hotdogs wrapped in dough?"

"Hell's Sunday right? Gameday...Broncos - Redskins..." Buck slapped Vin's shoulder.

"How 'bout them teeny bagel pizza's?" Vin cast an eye up to the mustached-man

"...and eggrolls and wings and all that other crud you and J.D. love. Even got that fancy Root Beer you like."

"Well...okay." Vin agreed.


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