by Dierdre

ATF Universe

Part 1
Friday night, six p.m. Federal Building, Denver

"Damn, I thought this day would never end." Buck Wilmington noted as he headed for the parking lot next to the Federal Building.

"Hot date?" Nathan Jackson asked, spotting Buck glaring impatiently at the elevator numbers lighting up above them.

"Two..." Buck winked, giving the dark-skinned agent a broad grin.

"You sure you're up to that, Stud?" Chris's low voice joined in. "You're not exactly twenty-one anymore."

"Age has nothing to with it." Buck crowed as the doors opened and the three stepped inside. "This here is U.S. Beefcake...100% prime." He bragged, hooking his thumbs in his belt, causing Nathan Jackson, to groan outright.

"Lord, please save this Boy from himself." He shook his head, "and from all the poor, unsuspecting women in Denver.

"What?" Buck scowled, watching Chris shake his head.

"Nothing." Chris answered innocently, "Just a shame, that's all..."

Nathan hid his grin behind his hand and watched Wilmington's dark blue eyes narrow as he stared at his oldest friend suspiciously. The blond was the picture of innocence, staring at the descending numbers on the panel.

"What's a shame?" Buck asked, taking the bait, "Just because you decided to go courtin' a widow, don't mean this rooster's ready to give up the henhouse."

"You on duty tonight, Nate?" Chris inquired of the trained EMT.

"No." Nate shook his head. "I've got a nice dinner, some wine, music and moonlight lined up for my Lady."

"Sounds nice." Chris nodded as the elevator bell rang and the doors slid open.

"Hold it..." Buck jogged after the pair, who were discussing 'mood music'. He tugged on Chris's arm. "You didn't answer my question."

"Well," Chris eyed the expansive lot looking for his car, "I figured if we were at the Saloon, I could save the Team the embarrassment of seeing your naked butt splashed all over the television." Chris answered; referring to a previous engagement that left the would-be-Casanova in an embarrassing predicament. Nathan held his laughter in check, but his quaking shoulders gave Buck a frown.

"Shut the hell up, Nathan. That wasn't funny." He directed, smacking the younger man on the back.

"The hell it wasn't." Nate chuckled, "I don't know who was more startled: you, the girl you were with, the one that slapped your face or the television crew."

"Don't think I forgot about that." Buck paused, remembering. "Them two juvenile delinquents are on my hit list."

Chris's lips turned up as he recalled the event.

The team had been on a conference in the Florida Keys. Buck wasted no time in getting to know the natives. Before the others had even finished unpacking for the two-day seminar, Buck had a date with Marissa, a six-foot blonde he met on the plane. He'd planned on meeting the stunning vision at eight p.m. for drinks in the bar of the lobby. That was fine until he, J.D. and Vin went to a four p.m. briefing in the conference room on the fourth floor of the hotel. The other four members of their team were due at the five o'clock session. J.D. and Vin opted for the early session, hoping to get it over with and explore the nightlife in the area.

The room was crowded and he found himself looking for a seat, after the two younger agents grabbed the last pair in the last aisle. He ended up going back in the hallway and searching for an extra chair from the adjoining room. In his haste to retreat after finding a chair, he bumped into a pretty redhead who was barely dressed. April had no last name, and was the 'entertainment' for a conference of salesman being held later that night. Before he could stop himself, he'd made a date with the dancer at midnight.

Marissa was a chemical engineer, who flew in from Miami. She had a free day before leaving for a consulting job in St. Thomas. She planned on scuba diving the next day. She was beautiful, funny, smart and sexy as hell. Buck oozed charm and the two hit it off. The drinks let to a heated romp in Buck's room and a trip to the Hot Tub.

While Romeo romanced the Fair Maiden in the Hot Tub, J.D. and Vin were headed out to a nearby club to hear a local rock band. The two recalled Buck bragging and decided to stop by the Hot Tub. As they stepped out into the hall, they noticed a lush redhead, barely wearing her skin. J.D. was too stunned to speak, but Vin wasn't as shy. The redhead asked if they knew Buck. Vin's dancing eyebrows and broad grin preceded the invite. They were just heading down to say hello to Buck.

A local television crew was leaving the hotel, having interviewed a famous singer who was in town for a celebrity charity event. They were passing by the heavy foliage around the Hot Tub, when they heard a scream, a long explosion of colorful swearing and a splash. The cameraman turned his camera back on and raced around the corner. The Latino reporter did all she could to control her smirk. A tall, good looking man wearing only a mustache was sputtering pronouns, trying to placate an angry redhead, who slapped him but good. The shrinking blonde he'd been cavorting with was already wrapping her robe in place. She slapped the other cheek and quickly retreated. The redhead began spouting more expletives and followed the tall blonde. Buck smelled a rat and his gaze scanned the nearby foliage. A familiar laugh caught his attention. Before he could bellow the Texan's name, the giggling pair of pranksters appeared.

"Damn, Bucklin..." Vin's eyes widened as he moved a rubber tree plant in front of the dripping Adonis, "...the boys are shrivelin' up..."

"Dead meat...both of you. There ain't gonna be enough left of you two to fit in the overhead rack on the plane. You're gonna regret this..." He growled, attempting to grab the hysterical pair and thrash them.

"Smile Buck." J.D. ducked the large arm coming for him and pointed to the camera. Buck cursed and slid back under the water. Vin and J.D. were literally rolling on the ground, laughing. The cameraman shook his head and left. Vin managed to get control of himself and jogged after them, unbeknownst to Buck, who was dressed and running around the pool area after J.D.

Several weeks later the seven men were gathered in the conference room. It was late and they'd been through a rough ordeal for over a week. An especially grueling encounter with an arms dealer had ended with a chaotic shootout. The positions of the team had rendered several different versions of what happened. They're had been some glaring errors in procedure and after hours of reports being rewritten, the accusations were getting personal. They were all tired and Chris's nerves were frazzled. He felt like a teacher in a kindergarten class. The video image faded, and he sighed, squeezing the bridge of his nose in a lost attempt to quell the pounding pain.

"J.D., call Dennis and see if the other tape is available." the leader said of the backup surveillance van. Vin eyed each man in the room carefully and rose from his chair. "Where do you think you're going?" Chris snarled.

"'scuse my friggin' manners!" Vin said tersely and sat down then raised his hand. "Mr. Larabee, I gotta go to the bathroom. Can I be excused?" He snapped and shot out of the room, feeling Chris's eyes bearing on his back.

Fifteen minutes later, they were seated again. Seven tense faces with tired eyes, headaches abounding and features wearied. The screen on the monitor came to life and there stood Buck in all his glory. For a moment, the uncomfortable tension that had grown over the last few hours remained, then a deep voice shattered the air.

"I thought that only happened in cold water." Josiah said with a straight face.

A snicker was heard...then a chuckle that turned into riotous laughter. J.D was safely across the room, but Vin didn't scramble fast enough. "You're dead meat, Tanner." Buck's chair toppled as he grabbed the smaller man and got him in a headlock. Vin was laughing so hard, tears were running down his face. After the ruckus died down, and Buck heard commentary from all his teammates, the proper tape was displayed. The new angle answered some lingering doubts and the report was finally completed. The team dispersed, teasing the now grinning Buck Wilmington all the way to the elevator.

It was late when the leader completed the last of the report and forwarded it to the division head. He shut off the computer and was surprised to see a shaggy head snoozing outside his office. Vin's head was resting on his crossed arms ontop of Ezra's desk, which was just outside Chris's office. The blond paused a moment and thought on how easily Vin had solved the explosive meeting. The brief spell of levity had dissolved the tension that left Chris frustrated. The problem was solved and even his pounding headache was nearly gone. He tapped the back of the soft flannel shirt and waited for the head to rise. A yawn preceded the opening of the blue eyes. They regarded him sourly.

"It's about damn time. I's just about passed out from starvation." He stood and stretched, "I'm feelin' a mite generous tonight. How about we hit Austin's for a couple steak sandwiches. I'm buyin'"

"Austin's sounds good." Chris agreed, holding the glass door for Vin, "But it's my treat. Thanks Cowboy." He said, squeezing Vin's shoulder as they entered the elevator.

"Ya know..." Vin tossed back, eyes twinkling, "Ain't it about time I get paid some of them big bucks from yer paycheck. Seein' as how I'm doin' yer job fer ya and all."

"Don't push it, Vin..." Chris warned as the elevator moved.

+ + + + + + +

"Chris..." Nate waved his head in front of the unblinking green eyes. "You with us?"

"Huh..." Chris blinked and approached his car. "Did you forget about the fight tonight?"

"Hell, no!" Buck replied, unlocking his car, "I got that squeezed in between dinner with Charlene and a midnight rendezvous with Becky." he said of the pay-per view Heavyweight boxing match. J.D., Vin and Chris were coming over to watch the ten p.m. event.

Chris just shook his head as his oldest friend waved and departed.

Friday Night, seven p.m., Buck's condo.

"Hello" Buck responded, juggling the phone on his neck as he pulled his boots on. "Nate?" He frowned and dropped his foot. "Everything okay?"

"Fine Buck. I got a favor to ask." Nate paused, "Casey was supposed to sit for us, but she's tied up for another hour or so. We've been planning this night for over a month."

"That's a shame, Nate," He said sincerely. He knew how hard the couple worked. They'd been foster parents to the six- month old infant for almost three months. The mother was an old friend of Rain's who became addicted to drugs. There was no father. While the mother completed her rehab, the infant was at the Jackson's. Buck recalled all too well how many mornings Nate came in looking tired. "What can I do to help?"

"Casey can make it by eight, but we'll miss our reservation. We're already running late. You're place is only ten minutes from the hospital. Can Rain drop Jasmine off there? We got a fill-in until Casey comes to pick the baby up." Nate asked, ready to redial his wife, who was waiting at the daycare at the hospital.

"Sure Nate..." Buck frowned, "What do you mean by a 'fill-in'? Who is she?"

"It's not a she." Nate replied, "...should be there any minute."

"Not a she?" Buck's head rose as the doorbell sounded. "Looks like the sitter is here. Hold on." He jogged down the stairs and opened the door a crack. His head shot back in surprise at the bold blue eye that winked at him.

"Hey, Bucklin." The lean form greeted, slipping by Buck and heading for the kitchen.

"Vin?" Buck recovered. "Nate is this a joke?"

"Does it sound like one?" the terse reply came. "Jasmine knows Vin. He's our regular sitter."

Buck paused, hearing the harsh tone, "Sorry..."

"I'm sorry, Buck. I didn't mean to snap. I miss my wife...you know? It seems like forever since we've been alone."

"Hell, Nate." Buck grinned, "If I had a wife that pretty, I'd be late for work everyday. Have a good time."

"Thanks Buck. Rain will be there in ten minutes. Casey will be by to pick Jasmine up in about an hour or so."

Buck clicked the phone off and followed Vin's path to the kitchen. The Texan was leaning into the refrigerator. Buck cast his eyes over the other man's shoulders as packages of deli cuts, cheese, mustard and a jar of roasted peppers began to disappear. "I prefer Hot Dogs or Bologna." Vin stated, dropping his armful on the countertop and slicing a long, crusty roll. "But I reckon this'll do."

"Sorry for the inconvenience," Buck chimed, and watched the stack of Roast Beef, Turkey and cheese disappearing fast. "Don't be shy Vin. Hell, it wasn't like I was planning on eating that or anything."

"What's that smell?" Vin's nose wrinkled as he cut the healthy sandwich in half.

"Smell?" Buck's head shot up and he sniffed the air in the kitchen.

"Yeah...like a dead critter." Vin deadpanned, "Yer gonna kill her 'afore ya even finish orderin'. Ya still wearin' Rapturous Roadkill?" He smirked of the tall agent's cologne.

"Listen Son," Buck chastised, leaving the younger man munching at the table. "I was wooing women while you were chasin' popups in the sandlot. You got a long way to go to catch Old Buck." He walked into Living Room to get his car keys. His eyes lit up as an idea was born. By the time he got to his car, his grin was a mile wide. He rubbed his hands in anticipation "Payback time..." He sang as the engine roared.

Friday night, Buck's Condo, nine p.m.

"What are you doing here?" J.D. said surprised as Buck came through the door, bringing the cold night air with him.

"I live here, Kid." Buck tossed back and nodded to Chris, who was drinking a beer and watching the end of the Nuggets game on television.

"Where's Vin?" He asked, not seeing J.D.'s partner in crime.

"Beats me..." J.D. shrugged. "Maybe he went home to get something. It's still early."

The dark-haired youth noted of the ten p.m. fight time.

Buck nodded and hung his coat up. He grabbed a beer and headed back into the living room.

"You're early." Chris said as the body crossed in front of him.

"Turns out Charlene switched flights with a friend," he said of the flight attendant. "She had a nine o'clock flight, so we grabbed a couple drinks in the airport lounge. "I'll call Tito's and order the pizzas. I got a movie we can watch while we wait."

"What movie?" J.D. asked, wondering why Buck as fiddling around with his movie camera.

"Adventures in Babysitting II" The tall agent replied, slipping the tape into the VCR and rewinding it.

Part 2

By the time Buck ordered the pies, the tape was rewound. He pushed the play button on the remote and settled onto the couch. The camera showed a time of seven-ten and Vin answering the door. Buck kept the fast forward on as the baby was deposited along with a diaper bag and infant seat. Rain disappeared into the kitchen while Vin knelt in front of Jasmine, who was kicking her feet in the infant seat on Buck's coffee table. Buck pushed the play button and they settled back to watch. Vin sat down on the floor, with his legs under the table. He smiled as he pulled it closer and his voice softened. "How ya been?" Vin greeted, as the animated infant wiggled her body and kicked her feet. He used the end of the bib she was wearing to wipe the drool off her chin. "Y'all gotta cut that out. Ya look like a little drunk. Ya hungry?" He asked, catching the flailing chubby fist, "Me too..." he grinned, putting it in his mouth and pretending to eat, an action which delighted his small charge, who smiled and kicked her feet. "Yer Aunt's got come grub comin'...I gotta wait 'til later to eat."

"He's got a lotta nerve." Buck addressed the picture. "He damn near cleaned me out of lunch meat."

"He's a growin' boy," Chris grinned as the infant's eyes followed Vin's animated efforts. Her small face was shining in delight. He'd never seen this side of his best friend. He wasn't surprised. The child inside the Texan had shown itself in many ways. Vin's compassion for the weak, small and helpless shone through on many occasions. This tender side they were seeing, had been exposed before, with children, animals, the sick and elderly. Chris admired how easily Vin made those tendencies palpable. He wished he could display his emotions so easily. One day there would be a little Tanner, and that kid would be the luckiest baby ever born. If there was anyone born to be a great father, it was Vin Tanner. Rain appeared in the picture.

"Now Vin..." She said, placing three jars on the table. "Make sure she eats the some of each. Not just the fruit."

"I ain't a rookie, Rain..." He disarmed, and picked up the rubber tipped spoon. "I know all about mixin' up the colors and foolin' 'er." He dipped in the yellow chicken first. "Ain't that right, Sugar Plum..." He grinned, as the baby's jaws worked and the food went down. Rain kissed the infant on the forehead and waved as she headed to the door.

"You have the number if..."

"Goodbye Rain." Vin cut her off, spooning some peaches into the anxious mouth, "I got it covered. Casey'll be here in a little while. She'll take Jasmine to yer place. We got all kinds of phone numbers." He waved as the anxious Aunt finally left.

"Y'all must make it hard fer the rest of them kids over at the day care," Vin cocked his head and ran his finger along the silken cocoa colored cheek. The baby's dark curls shone and her dark eyes were lit up. She followed the familiar voice, content to have him near. "Y'all bein' so much prettier than the other babies." He complimented, spooning a healthy amount of beans into her mouth. This wasn't what she was expected and in near slow motion, the small pink tongue appeared and the beans followed it. The babysitter scowled and sat forward, spooning the mess back in the reluctant mouth. "Cut that out...ya gotta eat the green stuff. It's good fer ya."

"Get a load of Vin." J.D. chuckled, "The only green food he eats is cupcake icing."

"I don't know, Kid," Buck answered, "ever seen some of the food in his 'fridge? All kinds of shades of green going on." He added, then smiled warmly as he caught the dopey grin plastered to Chris Larabee's face. An uncharacteristic softness shone in the green eyes, once again reminding him of how damn lucky they were that Vin Tanner entered Chris's life. Thanks to quiet Texan, Chris Larabee was starting to breathe again. He was laughing, relaxing and enjoying life. Vin Tanner didn't even know the power he had, but Buck did. He glanced again at Chris's face and tipped the glass bottle at the screen Vin's image in a silent salute. The dopey grin Chris wore was a welcome sight.

Vin's persistence paid off, and in no time the meal was completed. Vin rummaged in the diaper bag and produced a cotton diaper. He tossed it over his shoulder and unstrapped Jasmine from her seat. He held her face close and blew raspberries against her neck, giving the viewers each a grin as the baby's laughter filled the room. "Hey there...Y'all gonna talk fer me...Come on now..." He coached watching her studying him closely and her jaw working. "That's it...say somethin'...” Her arms and legs danced with the effort. "Come on...I ain't got all night. Say something purty fer Uncle Vin...Come on Sugar Plum..." He brought her face closer and rubbed noses with her, then kissed the chubby cheek before easing her on his shoulder.

"Damn, Junior's a natural." Buck marveled, at the tender scene, "Who'd have guessed?"

"You're disappointed..." Chris turned, raising a knowing eyebrow, "...not the video you were hoping for?"

"Hell, no." Buck tossed back, along with a long swig of beer, "I thought the boy would be all thumbs. Sure brings back memories..."

Chris didn't reply, he felt a momentary pang of pain as Adam's infant face appeared in his mind's eye. Vin would have loved him, like Buck did. He recalled how easy it was for Buck to handle Adam from the time he as born. He felt a surge of disappointment that Adam would never get to know Vin. His best friend could have taught his son so very much, especially about honor and courage. There was no man Chris admired more than Vin Tanner. Seeing Vin's heart displayed so openly as he cared for the small infant, made Chris dream of things that could have been. He found his smile widening, hearing Vin's soft voice speak tenderly to Jasmine. Vin's face was relaxed and he seemed a lot younger. His hand rubbed the baby's terry-clothed back until a loud belch was heard. They all chuckled at that and the broad grin Vin wore.

"Damn..." Vin laughed, pulling the baby off his shoulder and holding her in the air in front of his face. "Ya sound just like Bucklin."

"Hey..." Buck chastised the screen as J.D. and Chris laughed.

"Aw, hell." Vin's face fell, "I ain't suppose to swear around y'all. I'll lose this gig and that would make me sad. Y'all sure make me feel good. Ya know that? Yer my little Sunshine Lady....yes ya are..." He cooed, and yelped as she grabbed a handful of his long hair. "Hey, ya wanna see the guys? Ya wait right here." He deposited her back in the seat and buckled the strap. He disappeared out of the camera range and reappeared a few minutes later, holding an eight-by-ten picture. He set in on the coffee table and unbuckled her.

J.D. grimaced as Vin's image held the baby tucked under his arm, like a football. "Some expert...look at that." He scoffed.

"They like that." Chris said softly, remembering. "I used to carry Adam the same way."

Vin settled in the rocker and Jasmine was reclining in the crook of his arm. One small fist disappeared in her mouth. The other grabbed for the photo. "Yer droolin' again..." He complained, wiping her chin. "Can't take ya anywhere. I know ya got teeth comin'...hold on...I'll find yer chompin' thing." "It's called a teething ring." Chris addressed the screen with a smirk and shook his blond head. Buck hit the nail on the head; Vin Tanner was a natural.

"Here it is..." he produced a hard rubber pretzel and she immediately began to devour it. Her large brown eyes stared at the picture. "I know it ain't as excitin' as Sesame Street or that dopey purple critter ya like. This here is Josiah." He pointed, "He's a good man. He's real smart, but he don't never talk down to ya. He's real spiritual...that means he knows about God and stuff. Many's the time he's comforted me, I can tell ya. I feel a whole lot better knowin' he's my friend." Vin nodded and moved his finger, "This here is Ezra. He's a real puzzle sometimes. He'd like to let on that he don't care...he uses real big words. Half the time I don't know what the hell...oops..." He squinted, "sorry, there I go swearin' again. Just my luck yer first word will be a swear word."

"...or y'all." J.D. teased, smiling at how the image of Vin and the infant made him feel so good inside.

"Anyhow," Vin nuzzled the baby's head with his lips as he spoke, "Like I's sayin', half the time I don't know what Ezra is talkin' about. But he don't got me fooled. Ya see, Ez never had much of a home life. His Ma ...well...she's an odd duck. Some folks wasn't meant to have a child. Ez covers up a lot of his insecurities with them big words. But I see right thru 'im. He's a good man. Now I know ya know this guy." He finger paused at Nate's face. "That's yer Uncle Nate. He's a fine a man as yer likely to meet. Strong, honest, brave..." he cocked his head. "he sure does holler at me a lot. 'specially iffen I'm sick or hurtin'. Come to think of it, they all lose their temper at me when I'm busted up...sayin' I'm onry and such nonsense."

"You are!" Chris, Buck and J.D. chimed at the same time, then broke into laughter.

"Can y'all believe that?" He smiled as the baby offered her soggy, rubber pretzel to him to taste.

"Go on Vin, take a bite," Buck laughed, spotting the chagrinned look on the handsome Texan's face.

"That's okay Sugar Plum," He nibbled the wrist instead of the dripping rubber ring. "Y'all eat that yerself. Now, where were we? Oh, this here is J.D. He's real smart too. He went to college back in Boston. He's a good right hand man in a fight. Ya ought to see what he can do with a computer and he plays a mean game of Ice Hockey. Buck calls us the 'Terrible Twins of Terror' . He don't appreciate it our sense of humor. Reckon it's him bein' so old is all..."

"Damn straight." J.D. chimed at his partner in crime, offering his beer in a toast and ducking as a pillow sailed by his head.

"That brings us to Bucklin." Vin paused as Jasmine banged the pretzel against the glass covering the image, leaving a wet, spit puddle on the glass. Vin's eyes crinkled in warmth as he wiped the spit off. "Ya know, Jas...if yer lucky...real lucky...y'all will have a friend like Bucklin one day and y'ell count yer blessin's like I do. He's..." Vin's voice dropped, "well...he's a damn fine Agent...Oops.." He winced, and sighed. "He moves good, he's smart on his feet. Ya never gotta worry about yer back when Buck's on the job. He'd like to think he's good with woman. Fer some reason, they take to him like bees to honey. Ya gotta wonder what they're thinkin'...huh...ain't that right." He smiled as the baby gave him a broad grin. "But mostly...Buck has this heart inside him." Vin swallowed hard and the room got quiet as the three viewers' saw the emotion in his eyes. "I reckon it must be some kinda world record or somethin' ...bigger than Texas even. He makes me feel like I'm somethin'...ya know. Ya see I ain't as educated as the rest of the team. They all got degrees from college...I barely finished high school. But ya know...they never let me feel it. That starts with old Bucklin. I'm a better person for knowin' him...and that's a fact. He can make ya feel warm when it's freezin' outside."

"Hell, Junior," Buck's voice hushed, in a tone filled with such tenderness, it caused Chris to turn his head, feeling the emotion riding in Buck's eyes, "Don't you know you got us all beat by a mile. You're in a league of your own." He offered, with a slight smile and tipped his beer bottle. Chris clinked the bottle with his own and met Buck's eye with a favorable gaze.

"This here feller...with the yella hair...that's Chris." He said and smiled as Jasmine gave her opinion with a wet hiccup. "That was my first reaction too, when I saw that glare of his." Vin paused and kissed the baby's cheek. "People what don't know him...they think he's cold and don't feel nothin', course he has a tendency to growl a bit, that don't help. They think he's a mean old cuss..."

"Something stuck in your throat Buck?" Chris asked, raising a sandy eyebrow at the smirking man's cough.

"...boy's got a point, Chris." He murmured and felt a smack on his leg.

"They don't know him at all. He cares more than anyone I ever met...down real deep, ya know?" He sighed, stroking the silken cheek; "He had his own little boy...a long time ago. The little feller and his Ma are in heaven now. I don't know where he got the strength to go on after..." He paused and held her close, nuzzling the top of her head. "I can't imagine the pain...that's real courage." He assessed his voice thick with pride.

"I'm sorry Chris..." Buck winced, knowing the reference to the tragedy was painful. He stole a sideways glance and saw the tightness on Chris's features. It was eerie almost, how at the same time both best friends, one in the video and the other sitting next to him, housed the same painful expression. Buck was still in awe of the bond the pair shared.

"He saved my life and that's a fact. Ya see, Jas..." he mock-chomped on the fist she offered, causing her to laugh. "'afore I met Chris, I was all alone, cold all the time, inside ya know? Sometimes he gets loud and he tends to shout alot. He's not real patient...especially when one of his family is hurtin'. That what we are...see. None of us has any kin, so we became our own family. He's...well...he's the finest man wearin' boots. I'm proud to have him call me friend. He's a part of me...even if we're split up; I can still feel 'im. He got shot a few months back. I ain't never been so scared." His voice dropped to a whisper, causing the hiccuping infant to turn her head. Vin grabbed her fist and rubbed it against his cheek. "Iffen he died, reckon the best part of me would have died right along with him."

Chris clenched his jaw and felt his face color. It was one thing to feel what Vin's words, he felt the same way inside. But to hear them spoken with such reverence and deep feeling, was something else. He recalled the fuzzy image of Vin's worried, drawn face when he came out of surgery. Everytime he opened his eyes, over the next hazy, pain filled days, that same worried face was hovering near, and then there were those eyes. Blue pools riddled with emotion. They cut through Chris Larabee like a knife. He credited those eyes with his decision to live. He couldn't imagine what would happen to the other half of his soul, if he gave in to the grip of the Grim Reaper. Vin's soft voice pulled him back to the present.

Vin put the picture on the table and put her in front of him, her legs pushed off his chest and she bounced happily. "Yer gettin' strong...yes ya are..." He cooed and frowned as the face scrunched up and the body stiffened. "What's wrong?" He asked then got a thought. "Ya got some action goin' on down south?" He inquired, placing his hand on her bottom and feeling the vibrations of the passage of food. "Well, I reckon we ought a wait a spell, make sure yer done. Don't want to put ya through that twice."

J.D. was seeing a new side of Vin and enjoying it. He envied the Texan's natural ease with the infant. He liked her well enough, and had been with Casey a couple times when Rain had them baby-sit. But he could never be so free, and felt himself smiling again as Vin decided to change the baby. His brow's furrowed in worry and he gazed at Buck across the room. What else had Buck taped secretly? He thought on Buck's veiled threats and wondered about some of his amorous adventures with Casey.

"All done, Sugar..." Vin blew several raspberries against Jasmine's stomach and her musical laughter filled the room. "That weren't so bad...hmm." He pondered, slipping her into her pajamas. He eyed the rolled up disposable diaper in his hand. "Think we ought to throw this away or hide it somewhere. Wonder what Bucklin's gals would say iffen they found a diaper?"

"You dog..." Buck muttered, shaking his head as the Texan disappeared out of the picture. He made a mental note to check the trash. Vin reappeared and sank back into the rocker. He eyed the blinking infant and grinned.

"Ya tryin' to say I'm borin'?" He asked, as one chubby fist rubbed at the tired eyes. A big yawn followed and Vin smiled. "Hard day at the daycare? Them big kids what's already toddlin' around like little drunks givin' ya a hard time? Ya wanna talk about it?...huh?...Come on and tell me..." He soothed, and smiled at the gibberish sounds that she made. "Really? If they bother ya again, ya tell Uncle Vin...I'll take of 'em. Yes, I will..." He cooed, holding her up close to his face. "God yer beautiful." He sighed. "If ya was mine I'd be bustin' all my buttons. I have yer picture plastered all over...totin' ya everywhere...I'd be a real Fool Boy... yes Ma'am I surely would."

"What do you mean 'would be a Fool Boy'?" Buck teased, enjoying this side of Vin.

"Ya think one day some unfortunate gal will take pity on this Old Texan?" He asked the drowsy infant. "I sure hope so...I love to have a little gal like y'all. Reckon I'd call her Katherine. That was my Ma's name. She died when I was a little feller. Sure wish I could remember her." He stopped and shifted the lethargic baby. His eyes got cloudy and he placed her on his chest, her head resting under his chin. He stroked her back tenderly. "We ain't never been in this fix. Y'all is usually awake the whole time or sleepin' already. Reckon ya ain't interested in rock or cowboy songs. How about we just rock and I'll hum a little?"

Vin's long legs made a steady rhythm and his humming was not distinct right away. Then his face frowned as a very distinct song took hold. He cocked his head and hummed louder, his puzzled features told the viewers that he had no idea where the tune came from. He kept his strong hands supporting and stroking the baby, but his mind was far away. The blue eyes were seeking something and Chris felt a rope of tension in his stomach.

"Hey, I think I know that song..." Buck mused. "Can't place it..."

Vin's mouth moved silently as the words attempted to break free. His voice was distant and unsure as a door to the past opened without warning. "Smile...tho' yer...Smile...tho'..." He stopped and started, his voice catching. His eyes narrowed as the haunting words invaded his muddled mind. He swallowed hard and his Adam's apple bobbed.

What is it Vin? Chris beckoned of the image. What's got you so rattled?

The blue eyes darted left and right, trying to catch the images newly awakened as the attacked him. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The voice was steady now, rich and warm. It was laced with such sorrow and the ballad so haunting it silenced the trio watching. They all felt the stunning change of atmosphere and felt their chests constrict. Chris felt like he was having a heart attack, his chest was so tight. He felt the familiar pain invade him, as it did whenever Vin was hurt.

Smile tho' yer heart is achin'...Smile even tho' it's breakin'
When there are clouds in the sky...ye'll get by...
If ya smile through yer fear and sorrow...smile and maybe tomorrow.
Ye'll see the sun come shinin' through fer ya..

There was a loud audible gasp on the tape as Vin struggled for control. His eyes never opened but a lone tear snaked its way crookedly down his cheek. Buck heard Chris's sharp intake of breath. He stole a glance as saw the pain etched in the blond's face. Chris has his beer bottle in a death grip and Buck could feel the worry radiating off him. The mustached agent felt like a mule had kicked him. His brilliant idea had backfired and shot him in the heart. He kept his eyes on the screen as Vin's hand continued to stroke Jasmine's back. She was sleeping soundly, resting against her protector's strong heart. He took a deep breath and his moving voice once again filled the room.

Light up yer face with gladness... Hide every trace of sadness...
Although a tear may be ever so near... that's the time ya must keep tryin'
Smile what's the use of ...

His voice broke and he took another long shuddering breath and fought to regain control. Chris felt every bit of the Texan's pain and sensed how important it was for Vin to finish. Whatever memory it triggered has been long buried and Vin desperately needed to feel it. He didn't have to see the blue eyes to know what they held. He watched Vin furrow his face and fight to finish. He held his own breath and nodded in encouragement.

You can do it, Vin. Chris thought silently, sending his message, Go on Cowboy, you need to finish it.

As if Vin felt the silent beacon, he took a deep breath and continued. The tears ran freely down his face, and his voice wavered as he finished.

Smile, what's the use of cryin'...Ye'll find that life is still worthwhile..
If...If...If ye'll just smile.

There wasn't a dry eye in the room. J.D. swiped at his eyes and didn't have to turn to know Buck was doing the same. Chris was fighting hard; his sharp intake of breath told the dark-haired youth what they all knew. Chris and Vin shared the same pain. Vin's jaws worked and his eyes finally opened. Buck wished they hadn't. Vin spoke loudly through his eyes and they'd all gotten used to that. But now those blue saucers were full of pain and longing. So much so it hit Buck right in that big heart of his.

"No...no..." Vin rasped, shaking his head and looking at the ceiling. "God...Oh God...Ma." He took a very unsteady step and stopped. He clutched Jasmine against him and took a series of deep breaths. Just as he put her in her seat, a knock on the door startled him. He jumped slightly and panicked. He grabbed the burping cloth, dried his face and rubbed his eyes. He kissed Jasmine's cheek and his trembling hands buckled her in safely. His lips brushed against her cheek.

"I love y'all." He whispered in a raw voice and stood up. His face was very close to the camera and the emotional tidal wave that he'd been assaulted with hit the three viewers hard, right between the eyes. "Damn..." He hushed, wiping his eyes and heading for the door.

Chris's chest jumped as if he'd been hit by a bullet. His jaw tightened and he struggled to control his feelings. Why was it Vin affected him like this? Why did he have the strong urge to take away the pain that seared from the blue eyes right through his soul?

"Hey Vin." Casey bounced by, and stood over Jasmine. "You've got the magic touch."

"...belly's full and bottom's dry." Vin rasped, wincing inwardly as his telltale voice.

"What's wrong?" Casey spun around and then saw his face. "What happened?" She asked, resting a hand on his arm. "Are you alright?"

"Got somethin' caught in m'throat." Vin managed. "I best get a drink."

"Okay, I'll get Jasmine in her snowsuit, and head outside. You get the bag. You sure you're okay?"

Vin nodded and departed. A few minutes later the door shut. Buck wanted to move to shut the tape off, but was frozen in place. His limbs were as numb as his mind. Chris flicked it off and caught the anguish on Buck's features.

"I'm sorry, Chris." Buck rasped painfully, raking a hand through his dark hair. "I didn't think...It was a dumb idea. Jesus, what did I do?"

"Wasn't your doing, Buck." Chris eyed the other man carefully. "Your tape didn't cause that. That was something that was buried deep inside him. Maybe it was time for it to come out." He patted the other man's knee as the door bell rang.

"I'll get it," J.D. offered, reaching for his wallet.

"J.D. this stays in the room." Chris warned, "unless you hear it from Vin's lips. Nobody finds out."

"I wouldn't say anything." J.D.'s flashed angrily, "I'd never hurt him. He's my friend too, Chris. You don't have the market on his feelings." He lashed out, waiting for Chris to nod. A few minutes of silence occurred as the delivery boy was paid. Chris stood and eyed Buck carefully. Guilt washed over the handsome features and the blond set out to correct it.

"Leave it alone, Buck." Chris advised, gripping the other's shoulder. "If you hadn't taped it, I wouldn't have seen it..."

Buck turned sharply and nodded, catching Chris's eye. The meaningful stare lingered and gave the tall agent his release. Without the tape, Vin would have just buried the painful episode, and nobody would be the wiser. But Chris had seen it, and was the one person who could help Vin. "Okay...Thanks, Chris." He managed in a small voice.

"He left his jacket. He must have hauled out in a hurry. I'll swing by his place." Chris nodded and headed for the door.

"You coming back?" Buck asked the departing blond.

"Not likely. I don't how I'm gonna find him. Tape over that, okay?" He advised, seeing the dark head nod. "See ya Monday. 'night J.D." He nodded and departed.


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