by Dierdre

ATF Universe

Part 9

It was almost ten p.m. when Buck and Chris returned. Vin's bike was in the back of Chris's truck, covered in a tarp. The task had been completed in near silence, the only commentary involving loading the bike. Buck followed Chris into the dark house. He flipped on the light and saw Chris standing just inside the doorway to the den. He followed slowly as Chris finally entered the room.

A fire crackled in the fireplace, basking the room in warmth. The only thing visible under the heavy blanket and quilt, was the top half of Vin's face. Chris stood over the injured man, unclenching his fists. He reached a hand down and froze, unable to complete the task. He drew the hand back and walked to the fireplace. Buck saw the sweat on Vin's forehead and pulled the heavy blanket off. The quilt was enough with the warmth of the fire. Following the ER doctor's orders, he shook Vin's shoulder gently. The face screwed up without waking and the right hand moved to swat the intruder. The soft yelp as the injured wrist made contact with Buck caused the blue eyes to shoot open.

"What's wrong?" Vin gasped, cradling his arm.

"You know the drill," Buck sympathized.

"Aw, hell." Vin complained, his face creased in annoyance. "Vin Tanner. Sunday Night. Ranch. Clinton still President."

"Good enough." Buck agreed, eyeing the plastic quart bottle with a protruding straw that was tucked in the crook of Vin's arm. "You need a fill-up?"

"Nah..." Vin whispered, already dozing off.

Buck adjusted the blankets and moved to find a seat across the room. Chris was in the kitchen.

"Hungry?" He asked.

"I could eat," Buck replied, knowing Chris needed to talk.

Chris made steak sandwiches. Buck grabbed two beers from the fridge and took a seat at the table. Chris picked the sandwich up twice and put it back on the plate without taking a bite. Buck eyed the wounded conscience seeping out of the green eyes across from him.

"You beat yourself up enough, Chris. It's done. He's hurtin' right now, but he'll come around. You scared him good. He's still licking his wounds, it's gonna take time."

"If I lost him, Buck..." Chris kept his eyes guarded, but Buck saw the shoulders drop. He didn't need to see the green eyes to know the pain they held.

"That's a two way street." Buck advised, taking a large bite of his sandwich and washed it down with a swig of beer. "I saw what losing you did to him...he was shattered. He needs you, Chris. He won't walk away."

"If he was smart, he'd run." Chris self-berated.

"Pity party?" Buck stood, "Not to my liking."

"Stay..." Chris breathed and waited for Buck to resume his meal. He caught the dark blue eyes and stared hard. "Why'd you stick by me? I need to know..."

"You gotta even ask that?" Buck's genuine wounded tone and eyes caused Chris to give a wide-eyed glance.

"I put you through hell, Buck. Damned near killed you...You never let go..." Chris hushed, "I never even thanked you. I'd be dead now, you know that. I'm grateful for that a lot more."

"Truth be told Chris." Buck said seriously, "I'm here for the women. You attract them like flies. My Mama didn't raise no fool."

Chris's lips turned up a bit and he gave a soft chuckle. He finished his sandwich and took the dishes to the sink. He paused, thinking of the tape upstairs. "She did a great job with that tape."

"Yeah...Adam was so proud of it." Buck smiled, recalling the two of them watching it that day after the trip to the zoo.

"I've been selfish Buck." Chris slid back into the seat and took a gulp of beer. "All these years I had that tape up in the top of that closet. I knew it was there and I ignored it. Almost like slapping Sarah in the face."

"What made you look?" Buck asked.

"I got to thinking about Vin. He can never hear his mother's voice again. See her smile, wave, laugh or cry. The only thing he has is a small picture. I watched him Buck, during the video. He loved it...his face was lit up like a kid on Christmas. Do you know what he'd give to have a tape like that? I saw that last night...how selfish I've been. I was a lucky bastard to have Sarah and Adam and that should be celebrated, not hidden away."

They sat in silence, each recalling happier times. Adam's laughter, Sarah singing, Christmas dinners and the wedding. Buck stood and stretched, eyeing the clock.

He yawned and rubbed his lower back.

"I'll keep an eye out. Get some sleep." Chris directed, relieved when Buck didn't argue.

They walked out of the room together. Buck paused at the base of the steps that led upstairs. "Hey Chris," He said softly, laying a hand on the dark sweatered shoulder. "I'd say Sarah was pretty damn lucky too. I know I am."

Chris needed to hear that and feel the words. He took the pat on the back and gripped the muscled shoulder. "Thanks Buck..." He rasped, sending the other man upstairs.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was dreaming. He was a kid again and the carnival was in town. He ate too much junk and it was so hot. He felt the sun beating down on him...he couldn't escape it. The roller coasted he was on was making his stomach churn. The ride didn't stop...he couldn't get off.

Chris heard the rapid change in breathing from the body on the sofa. He crossed the room and saw the sweaty head thrashing. The bad arm threatened to come up again. He laid a hand to the damp neck above the collar of the flannel shirt.

"Easy Vin...you're dreaming" He warned, frowning at the wet skin. He waited until Vin got over the nightmare and regular breath appeared. He padded into the kitchen and got a basin, clean towel and water.

Vin eyed the beautiful landscape in front of him. A field of wildflowers near a rushing river on a warm spring day. He was so thirsty and the water so clear. He dropped down and took a long gulp. He splashed it on his face and neck, basking in the relief.

Chris wiped Vin's face and neck. He heard the sigh of relief and saw the features relax. The breathing became less labored. He brushed the wet tangled hair off Vin's face and laid the cloth there. His heart ached at the sight of the horrid bruise. How could he hurt this gentle spirit? How many men get a gift as fine as the one lying in front on him? He saw Vin smile and sigh. He looked so young and vunerable.

Vin felt wonderful. The water was so refreshing and the air so sweet. The flowers were vibrant...colors that he'd never seen before. He bent over to inhale their sweet scent and saw a white gown.

"He's not perfect. He's only a man. He made a mistake. It isn't his first and won't be his last."

Strangely, Vin wasn't afraid of Sarah. He felt as if he'd known her all his life. She was beyond beautiful. Her face radiated gloriously. He stood and offered her the flowers. She smiled and his heart soared. She brushed her delicate hand down his face. He shivered at her touch.

"He needs you Vin. You share his soul...You delivered him from darkness. You're the reason Adam and I can rest. He was so lost for so long, but not anymore. For that, I'll always love you." She smiled and kissed his cheek. "Embrace him, Vin...heal him. I've got two cowboy's now to watch over." She smiled again and embraced him. He felt as if the sun burst inside him. There was a burst of white and then she was gone.

"Sarah...don't go...Sarah...Sar..."

Chris removed the cloth and was preparing on crashing on the other couch when Vin's delicate call came. He froze over the sleeping body, eyes wide and heart hammering. What dream of Sarah had given Vin the deep sigh and contented smile? He waited until Vin was sleeping deeply before returning to his own chair. He settled in and dozed fitfully, hearing Vin's soft call of Sarah's name.

Vin felt sure he'd swallowed sand. His dry mouth was like the Sahara. He peeled his eyes open and stared at the beams above him. He felt Chris nearby and began to think.

Was he hiding the truth from himself? Was he lashing out in anger or fear? Anger at Chris Larabee for what he'd done or Angry at himself for allowing his heart and soul to meld with the other. Was that the real reason for the anger? That Chris might have left him...causing a coldness like he'd never encountered? Sarah's words came back...'He's not perfect...he needs you...soul sharer...deliverer...Too many words. His head began to thrash.

He was too hot...and threw the heavy quilt off. He sat up and felt the room spinning and causing his stomach to churn. He knew what was coming next. He pushed off the table with his good hand and stood up. Every cramped, stiff muscle screamed in protest, his head began to pound. The room started spinning at a record rate. His legs buckled as his stomach lurched.


The body leapt with the agility of a cat. He caught Vin as his legs gave out. He felt Vin hunch over and knew what was coming. He put one arm around Vin's waist and took the left arm around his neck. He half carried the gasping man into the bathroom. He saw Vin eyeing the toilet.

"No way...not with that knee. Here..." he pulled the smalltrash can from under the vanity and set it in the sink. He held the long, matted hair aside and supported Vin from behind as he lost the soda he'd consumed. Finally, the heaving ceased. Vin was a river of sweat. He eased the trashcan from the sink and ran the water. Vin soaked the small hand towel and shakily wiped his face, neck and chest. He was shivering uncontrollably. Chris realized the flushed face was not due to the heavy blankets.

"Sit." He directed, easing Vin onto the toilet. He fished out the digital thermometer and turned to Vin.

Vin was hot...and he hurt all over. The familiar stiffness after a fall was painfully setting in. His head was pounding and his stomach was at war. He heard Chris's order and opened his mouth.

Chris frowned at the lack of complaint. Vin wasn't fussin' or bitchin' about being babied, and that worried the blond. Vin's teeth were chattering and the thermometer was bobbling dangerously. Finally, it beeped and Chris pulled it out.

"Shit..." He eyed the 101 and frowned. "Come on, I got Tylenol in the kitchen." He directed, hauling the shivering body upright. He kept a good hold on Vin until they got to the kitchen. He eased Vin into a chair and got out a can of Ginger Ale. He popped the top and placed it in front of the flushed face. He spotted the nearby cabinet where the Tylenol was.

"I'm feelin' kinda poorly, Chris."

Chris's hand froze on the bottle. His head swiveled at the sad, shivering figure. The shaggy head rose and those forlorn eyes touched him. Not hate or anger, rather a kinder light...forgiveness. He hands fumbled, trying to open the bottle. He pulled the chair next to Vin closer.

"Open up." He commanded and dropped the pills in.

Vin picked up the soda and took a good sip. Why was it so cold? He closed his heavy eyes and huddled. He drifted for a little while and then felt a gentle nudge. He peeled one eye open and saw a mug of broth. He wrapped his good hand around it and celebrated the warmth. He took a few minutes, sipping the savoring liquid and letting the warmth spread inside. He thought on his rocky stomach.


"You gonna get sick?" Chris asked.

"Best be prepared."

"Finish up and we'll get you upstairs to a real bed." Chris advised. He helped Vin to his feet and paused. He felt like a herd of buffalo tramped on him. How could he have hurt Vin so badly? If it wasn't for the sensitive spirit next to him, he'd have never made peace with Sarah. Vin quietly gave him the courage to face himself. The lean Texan became his mirror, without hesitation and knowing the risks. He felt ashamed and undeserving. His eyes flicked as the sky blue ones looked right through him, the only one who could.

"Never been so scared..." Vin rasped, "Can't lose you, Cowboy."

"I'm sorry, Vin." Chris replied hoarsely. "Jesus God I'm sorry." His voice faltered and he stared at his right hand, forming a fist. The vision of it crashing into his best friend's face haunted him. Vin's agonizing eyes and faltering voice...fearing a suicide. "I don't deserve you, Vin...I nearly ruined the best gift I'd ever been given. I..." His chest constricted and he dropped his head in shame. He felt the arm snake around his neck and took a deep breath of strength at the half-embrace.

"Ya goin' soft on me, Larabee?" Vin teased, "Hell, I'm gonna make me a pile of money. 'tween this and ya bawlin' last night..."

"You're pretty brave for a cripple." Chris pulled away, wiping his eyes. Vin raised his free hand and rested it on Chris's chest.

I'll always be right here, remember?

I'll never forget. Thanks, Cowboy.

Buck saw the silent exchange from the stairs. "You two mind keeping it down? That damn psychic shit's giving me a headache."

"Gimme a hand, Buck." Chris asked, as Vin's leg's buckled. "He's burning up."

Buck took the stairs two at a time and grabbed Vin around the waist. Chris took the other side and they attempted to get the fevered man upstairs.

"Leave me be...I ain't a child" Vin protested, wiggling weakly.

"Then quit actin' like one." Chris commanded.

"Aw, hell." Vin gasped, gulping air and holding his abdomen.

"Dammit, Vin, don't heave on me." Chris grunted as they reached the door of the guestroom.

"What's a little spillage between friends." Vin hissed, fighting the waves of pain.

"Spillage?" Buck and Chris said at the same time.

"Boy's been hanging around Ezra too much." Buck shook his head, pulling the blanket down. "I warned you about teaming them up."

"Shit..." Chris sagged as Vin fell against him.

"Here." Buck grabbed the unconscious man's legs. "Easy...watch his arm."

Vin was finally settled in bed and covered up. Chris rested a hand on his damp forehead. "He caught a chill...I'll stay with him. I left Josiah a voicemail about the two division meetings tomorrow. You head over to Forensics and talk to Carl. See if they got the results of that explosive back yet." He dictated of the next day's schedule, he wouldn't be keeping.

"You okay?" Buck asked, seeing the old Chris again. The fear and hopeless look was gone. Confidence reigned supreme.

"I am now." Chris replied, eyeing the sleeping man.

3 months later

"Hold on, I'm coming." Vin called, jogging to the door. "Chris!"

"Bad time?" Chris asked, hearing the surprised tone.

"No...just surprised is all. Come on in. Beer?" Vin offered.

"It's only eight a.m. Vin," Chris grinned, "That's a little early for me."


"Did you make it?"

"Yeah, almost fresh." Vin's eyes danced.

"I'll pass."

"Y'all is goddamn snob." Vin complained. "Who ever heard of a Cowboy Coffee Conniver."

"Connoisseur..." Chris corrected, chuckling, "Slow week for crosswords?"

"Is that fer me?" Vin dodged, trying to see whatever Chris held behind his back. "Ya get me a present?"

Chris smiled at the boy inside Vin who was showing himself. He didn't show this side often and maybe with time, that would change. "You been a good boy?"

"Come on Chris, quit foolin' around." He scowled grabbing the bag. He peeked inside and pulled out a connected trio of five by seven frames. In the left frame were the lyrics to 'Smile'.

"I thought you could put your mother's picture in the center and the letter she gave you on the right."

"That's a right fine idea." Vin agreed crossing the room. It took a few minutes, but when Vin set it on the stereo, Chris saw his Adam's apple bobbing and felt the smile. "It looks nice, don't it."

"Perfect I'd say." He observed as the head turned towards him. "You're welcome. Get dressed, we'll be late."

"Late fer what?" Vin frowned, "Flight ain't fer four hours."

"Not any more, it's pulling out at ten - get dressed. Something without holes, Vin."

"What?" Vin's eyes dance mischievously, "And miss the chance at embarassin' ya?" He grinned, disappearing into his room.

A half-hour later they were on the highway. Vin eased back in the seat as the airport loomed ahead. He shifted his gaze from the metropolitan skyline to the driver. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. He saw Chris steal a glance over at him and his lips quirk.

"Ya gonna tell me?" Vin asked.

"Depends on what that simple mind of yours has concocted."

"How much ya in fer?"

"I'm wounded, Vin" Chris mocked pain and clutched his chest. "That you would think I'd take the opportunity to enhance my capital at your expense."

"Don't go Ezra on me, Cowboy." Vin smiled. "How much?"

"Five Hundred."

"Yer outta yer mind!" Vin ired, "Nothin' like puttin' a little pressure on me."

"Figured that would help. You work under stress in real time, you should in showtime."

"That why yer comin' along?"


"Yer just itchin' to haul out them braggin' rights, ain't ya?" Vin cross-examined. "Dale Turner just rubs y'all the wrong way." He noted of the Head of the Dallas Branch of the ATF. The two were journeying to a National Weapons Handling Expo in Dallas. Vin had to go, as the Team Seven sharpshooters's held every record in the State. He was one of the dozen agents chosen nationally to display their talent. But Director's weren't required.

"He's a prick." Chris tossed, then gave a half smile. "I've been waiting years for this."

"Y'all don't respect me fer my mind." Vin sniffed, suppressing a grin. "Ya make me feel like a piece of meat."

Chris just smiled and raised an eyebrow. "One hundred percent Texas Prime."

Both laughed and entered the Denver Airport Complex. Two days later, after the last demonstration was complete, Chris stood at the edge of the arena. The red velvet rope separated the audience from the participants. Chris watched the overhead video screen as Vin's name soared to the top, surpassing all comers with no close second. His handsome face split into a grin. A cheer arose and he moved through the crowd towards the end of the obstacle course. The final event was a display of accuracy and precision at night. The sectored off area had been darkened and recreated a warehouse and alleyway. The area was now lit up and he saw several of the other sharpshooters congratulating Vin. He wasn't a man that gloated, but today might be an exception. Dale Turner badmouthed Vin at Southwest Regional a few months before. Vin never knew about the disgusting remarks, and it took both Buck and J.D. to physically contain Chris's rage.

"Thanks guys..." Vin nodded, accepting the backslapping. He looked up and saw Chris approaching, beaming with an almost paternal pride. His face split into a grin and he left out a victorious war cry.

Chris smiled as Vin raised both fists in the air and whooped. The Texan was glowing, his handsome face split by a beautiful grin of victory. Chris felt a surge of pride at how much the ex-bounty hunter had grown in the last nine months. Although he still was more at home under the sky, with only the eagles for company, he had matured. He didn't shy away from strangers and disappear into the corner. The confidence he'd gained as a member of Team Seven was growing by leaps and bounds. It was never displayed better than at the Rocky imitation before him. Chris grinned smugly at Dale Turner, who was a few feet away, looking like his shorts were two sizes too small.

"Mess with the best..." Chris started, raising his right hand.

"Die like the rest..." Vin replied triumphantly, high-fiving his best friend.

"Nice work, Cowboy." Chris complimented, slapping his back.

"Piece o' cake, Boss." Vin tossed, eyes shining. "I'm gonna get my civvies on. Where ya gonna be?"

"Counting my money." Chris replied. "You finish your review?" He asked of the form each sharpshooter had to complete, rating and ranking the new weapons they tested.

"Sorta..." Vin hedged. He hated reports and thankfully, this one wasn't long.

"You get changed and get started," Chris clapped the champion's back. "I'll look it over for you."

"Good enough." Vin agreed, giving a series of war cries as he departed.

"Beautiful day, isn't it Turner?" Chris said smugly, approaching the red-faced loser.

"Damn bastard got lucky." The terse reply came. "Scrawny boy looks like a goddamn hippie."

Chris's lips formed a grim line and his green eyes grew steely at the acidic words and the evil look Turner was giving the euphoric Texan whose jubilant cries echoed in the hall. He moved in turned his glare up to high.

"Denver Children's Hospital." He gritted of the expected check. He used his index finger like a lance and forced the reptillian agent into the wall. "That 'boy' has more guts that your whole fuckin' department. He was more of a man at the age of five than you'll ever be, you ball less wonder. You spout another filthy word about him and I'll put you into early retirement."

Turner nodded slightly and jerked himself free. Chris made his way backstage and eyed the agents, division directors and military personnel milling about. His green eyes moved slowly around the hectic area, until he saw Vin. He edged closer and paused, allowing the smile to form. Vin's blue chambray shirt made the sky eyes even more vivid. Vin's face scrunched up as he chomped on a pencil. The shaggy head cocked left and right at the paperwork before him.

"Good thing that wasn't a part of the competition, Champ."

"Hey, Chris." Vin spit out the pencil "I'm almost done."

"Damn fine shootin', Son." A deep voice boomed.

Both heads turned as a tall, powerfully build silver-haired man approached. He held out a hand to the victorious sharpshooter. Vin returned the shake, wincing slightly at the powerful grip. Chris's face broke into a warm smile of recognition.

"Thanks," Vin shrugged, "Them Wheaties work wonders." He grinned.

"Hell, Son," The authoritative voice countered, "that ain't something you pick up on the firing range. It's in your blood, you were born to it. I don't that I've ever seen better."

Chris's parental smile erupted again and he saw Vin's face color. If he only knew just how high a compliment he'd received. He extended his hand and let the warmth show in his eyes.

"Good to see you again, General."

"Should have figured you had a hand in this Larabee." The older man directed, "You always had an eye for the very best."

"Women, whiskey and warriors." Chris grunted, getting a lewd laugh from the Commander and from Vin. "Skinny sharpshooters are my specialty."

"Hey," Vin scowled, smacking the blond's arm. "Y'all watch yer back, I'm a might scrawny, but I'm all muscle. I could hurt an old timer like y'all."

"Vin, this is General Jack McGettigan. He was the C.O. Buck and I worked for in Special Ops."

Vin nodded and shook the General's hand again. "You still riding with that Old War Dog?" The General asked of Buck, grinning at his recollection of the outgoing young man.

"Yeah...got him trained just right. Wouldn't be fair to unleash him on the free world. I thought you retired?"

"I did. I'm teaching at Quantico. You ever get back East, you stop by."

"I'll do that." Chris agreed, shaking the hand of a man he respected greatly. "It was great seeing you, Sir, take care."

"Same here, Chris." The General returned and placed a hand on Vin's shoulder. "You stick with him, Son, he's the best I ever taught."

"Ya never taught me..." Vin crowed, eyes dancing as he ducked Chris's smack to the head. "Thanks, General." He nodded as the imposing force exited.

"That," Chris's eyes followed him. "is about the finest man I've ever met. He's the reason I'm here today."

Vin didn't miss the strong tone that oozed respect. The General must be quite a man, meriting such praise from Chris Larabee was rare. He completed his review and handed it to Chris. The blond made a few spelling corrections and handed it back. He went with Vin to the area set up for Administration. Vin gave his paperwork to a clerk and they turned to leave.

"Hey Tanner." a voice called. Both heads turned and Chris recognized Matt Harris. The thrity-five year old black sharpshooter from St. Louis was the four time defending champ. His smiled and held a hand out to the victor. "Congratulations. I can't think of a better man to pass the baton to."

"Thanks, Harris." Vin's voice was sincere. He'd read a lot about this man, who had more metals for bravery that any other ATF agent. "This here's my boss, Chris Larabee."

"Your reputation precedes you," Harris said, shaking hands. "It's an honor."

"Same here." Chris nodded, also familiar with the legendary sniper.

"Do me a favor?" the black man said, wearing a slight smile. "Keep this youngster in Denver, okay? That kind of pressure, I don't need." He noted, winking at Chris while Tanner looked down to zip his jacket, he continued. "Although I won't making that speech tonight."

Vin's head jerked up and his eyes grew like blue saucers. His hand froze on the zipper. He eyed both stone faces and swallowed hard. "What fuckin' speech?"

"Nice Vin." Chris winced. "The one that you're gonna make after you get the trophy."

"At the banquet tonight..." Harris interjected, "Black tie...television crews...Departmental Brass up the wazoo." He pressed, "Photo session with Miss Texas...gonna be quite a night."

Vin's face blanched. He looked like he ate bad meat and had no where to spit it out. Harris's face was stoic, but the suspicious victor narrowed his eyes as he saw the slight tug of Chris's lip. He punched Chris in the arm and scowled. "That weren't funny. Y'all is a pair of sick fuckin' Feds. I ought shoot the pair of ya grinnin' jackasses."

Chris and Matt burst into laughter and slapped palms. Matt shook Vin's hand again and wished him well. "I see you next year, Tanner. You won't be so lucky."

"Ya might be right," Vin's eyebrow arched, "Y'all will qualify for them senior citizen bonus points."

Vin and Chris both laughed and waved as the other man departed. They walked to the parking lot and headed for the car. Vin jumped and smacked the Expo poster taped to the wall nearby. "Damn I feel good." He exuded, clapping Chris's back, "Come on, Old Timer, I got a hankerin' for a rare steak, a cold beer and a hot woman."

Chris doubled over laughing until tears ran down his face. It took him several minutes to recover. He wished he could bottle this euphoria coursing through the younger man's veins. Vin was riding high and Chris loved every minute of it.

Eleven a.m. the next morning

Vin watched the green signs on the interstate. Chris moved into the right lane and exited. He glanced sideways at Vin, his stomach clenching. He wasn't sure what reaction his trip would yield. Vin was chattering about the lush brunette they'd met the night before.

"If y'all got any sense ya would have gotten her number. She musta been some kind of acrobat." his voice died when he saw the destination. "Hey, why ain't we taking the Airport Exit?" He turned and saw something flicker in Chris's eyes that unsettled his stomach. "What's goin' on, Chris? Where we goin'?"

"I got something I need to show you." He said quietly, seeing the apprehension building in the blue eyes. "Please, Vin?" He asked touching the younger man's shoulder. "Trust me, okay?"

"Okay." He sighed, trusting Chris without questioning further. Later on, Vin shifted restlessly, the endless highway taking a toll. Finally, they exited. "Sulphur Springs?" Vin said distractedly, cocking his head. "Don't recall bein' here 'afore." He furrowed his brow, eyeing Chris suspiciously. "Where ya haulin' me off to?" The irate passenger demanded.

"It's a surprise. Patience is a virtue."

"I ain't no saint and never claimed to be virtuous." Vin chimed, "Where the hell are we going?"

"Do you remember much about when you were a kid?"

"Nah...Birth Certificate says Austin, but the foster homes I got bounced 'round in were down Waco way."

Chris pulled into a parking lot next to a diner. He slid out and glaring in annoyance at the overbearing sun. He poked his head in the window and eyed Vin, who'd yet to move.


Vin ambled over to the entrance of the clean, but not very modern eatery. "What kind of snipe hunt is this?" He crowed, annoyed. "I've been pretty patient, Chris. Ya start talkin' or I'm walkin'"

"Let's go inside." Chris said quietly.

Vin frowned at the soft edge to Chris's voice. Chris wouldn't even meet his gaze. What's he worried about? What could be wrong? What the hell is in Sulphur Springs?

"Hey..." Chris waved a hand in front of the dazed blue eyes.

They ordered coffee and sandwiches. Vin was hungry and made short work of the Bacon Cheeseburger. He stabbed a group of fries oozing in cheddar cheese and eyed Chris's half-eaten Turkey Sandwich. "Somethin' wrong with your Critter Club?"

"Vin, I..." Chris expelled a painful breath. "There's something I gotta tell you."

"Aw, shit..." Vin hissed, dropping the fork with a loud clang as fear coursed through him. "Don't ya be tellin' me about some damn unpronounceable disease."

"Huh?" Chris eyes narrowed and then his face relaxed. "I'm fine Vin. This isn't about me. It's about you."


"Come on, " Chris said, tossing the tip on the table and picking up the bill. "Let's take a walk."

They were only a block away when Vin saw it. He stopped dead in his tracks and shook his head. He stood frozen...his legs numb and his skin tingling. His heart was hammering so hard it hurt his chest. He began breathing too rapidly and started to hyperventilate.

"Slow down." Chris ordered, placing a hand on the heaving chest. "...or you'll pass out."

"She's in there, isn't she?" Vin rasped his voice small and unsteady.

"Yeah...I got a map." Chris pulled out a diagram that the Cemetery Caretaker sent him. "If you follow the drive, you shouldn't get lost. It's marked on..." "Ya ain't coming?" Vin squeaked, gripping Chris's forearm with intensity as strong as the eyes that beseeched him.

"If you want." Chris dropped his head. "I thought you might want to see her alone."

Vin didn't reply. Chris took the lead and started to walk forward. Vin took a few unsteady steps and found his legs. By the time they crossed through the iron gates, they were walking side by side. Vin wrapped his arms around his chest and eyed the garden of stone. Chris suddenly stopped and laid a hand on Vin's shoulder.

"Three rows down, seventh one from the end. You go talk to your Ma. I'll be right here." He guided, putting both hands on the stiff shoulders and pushing them forward.

Vin licked his dry lips and eyed the spot Chris indicated. He suddenly felt shy. How silly was that? He loved his mother. Why couldn't he move his legs? He felt his chest constricting and his head swimming.

"I can't do this, Chris." He gasped, trembling.

"The first step is the hardest, Vin." Chris gentled, "Come on, Katherine Rose has been waiting a long time to see her boy."

He felt the strong arm around his shoulder and let himself be guided. His legs were shaking badly by the time they got to the grave. He sucked in a mouthful of air when he saw her name. He dropped to his knees and traced the letters in awe. Like thunder and lightning, images slashed through his brain. A yellow raincoat with an orange duck on the pocket...splashing in puddles with her holding his hand...making cookies...her coughing...her crying...rocking him...the machine beeping...cuddling against her...the voice sweet and warm in his ear.

"Smile tho' your heart is aching. Smile even tho' is breaking..."

Chris heard the painful audible intake of air and flinched. He stood behind Vin, who was on his knees, rocking, lost in thought. The second intake was even more audible as more memories assaulted the grieving young man.

"When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by,
If you smile through fear and sorrow, Smile and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun somes shining through for you..."

"Mama...don't cry...." he gasped, through a five-year old's eyes. His hand reached out caressed the air, as if stroking the unseen face. "Mama...Oh God..." He choked, as a shuddering sob escaped. The sweet voice died out and the boy curled closer needing to be near her.

Chris gripped both of Vin's shoulders and rubbed his back. He heard the battle and knew Vin was fighting a losing cause. "Let is out, Vin. You'll feel better."

"I gotta finish..." Vin rasped, eyes full and glassy. "I'm a Tanner. I'm gonna finish it...for her. She's been waitin' on me...worried that it wasn't done." He sniffed.

Chris kept his hands bracing Vin's neck and shoulders. He raised his eyes skyward and implored Katherine to give her boy the strength he needed.

Vin felt the strong fingers massaging his neck and drew from Chris. He took a deep breath and began tracing the letters in her name with his fingers.

"Light up yer face with gladness..."

Chris winced at the choking, strangulated sob filled lyrics. He continued his massage and felt the shoulders slump a bit.

"Damn...it hurts..."

"That's 'cause you love her so much. Close your eyes Vin." He instructed, ducking his head sideways and looking. He saw the emotive blue pools trickling water. "Trust me..." the eyes closed without hesitation. "Leave the hospital Vin...go home...to Katherine. She's not sick anymore. She's singing it with you...in a field of wildflowers." He coached, ducking and seeing the lips moving. "That's it, Cowboy..."

"Hide every trace of sadness. Although a tear may be ever so near.
That's the time you must keep on tryin', Smile, what's the use of...

Chris flinched at the heaving gasps as the tears rained down. He intensified his grip and bent over, leaning close to Vin's ear. "You're rounding third, Vin. Home Plate's ahead.

You're a Tanner, right?" The wet face nodded once and the chest shuddered twice.

"Take a deep breath. You can do it." Chris guided massaging the slumped shoulders. "Get your head up, Vin..." He said firmly and saw the head rise.

"...what's the use of cryin' You'll find that life's still worthwhile if you'll...you'll...Just Smile"

Chris dropped to his knees and caught Vin as he slumped forward. He wrapped his arms around the quaking shoulders as twenty years worth of tears rained down. He held on as the body shuddered from the effort and the painful sobs led to a coughing spell.

"Easy Vin. I don't want to wear your cheeseburger home on the plane." He teased and heard the pathetic laugh. Vin pulled away and separated himself. He took the napkins Chris offered and wiped his face. Several deep breaths later, and with the reassuring grip on the back of his neck, he finally found his voice.

"I got some catchin' up to do." He decided, his voice wavering but strong.

"Take your time. I'll be around." Chris stood, his job done. They snapped arms and locked forearms in one fluid motion. Emotive blue eyes, full of gratitude locked onto the green ones, full of pride.

Thanks for standin' by me Cowboy.

Chris grinned and gripped the back of Vin's head in a heartfelt tug.

I'm proud of you.

Chris walked across the churchyard to bench in the shade. He sat and rested, letting his mind wander. A myriad of pictures played in front of him. His wedding day...Adam's first step...Buck's unbelievable strength...and Vin...His lips turned up as the Texan's cranky face crept up.

"The Boy's a Tanner." He mused, laying back and resting his eyes.

"Well, reckon I beat yer ear long enough." Vin decided, standing up. "I don't want to keep Chris waiting. How the hell am I ever gonna repay him?" Vin whispered, chest tightening at Chris's moving gesture. "Oh, Ma, if ya see Sarah Larabee, ya tell her I'm on the job." He bent and kissed the top of the stone. "I love y'all." He said a silent prayer and turned and made his way up the hill and over to where Chris was snoozing.

"Wake yer ass up," He smacked the extended black jeans, "I ain't got bail on me. Just my luck y'ed get picked up fer loiterin'"

"Keep sassin' me Boy." Chris warned as the made their way to the gate "It's a long walk back to Denver."

"Y'all would be miss me too much."

"Like the plague." Chris retorted, ruffling the brown hair. "Let's go home."

"Hey, Chris." Vin paused, suddenly very serious. "Ya go no idea what this means to me."

"You just told me, Tanner," he returned quietly, studying the intense thanksgiving shining from the sky blue eyes. Vin walked ahead, casting his face to the sun and basking in its warmth. He felt rejuvenated, reborn and full of life. Chris smiled at the sheer joy on his friend's face. That alone made it all worthwhile. He turned back briefly and found Katherine Rose's stone.

I'll always protect him. Sleep in peace.


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