Disclaimer: No we don't own them, no were not making any money off of them and yes well put them back after were done temporarily, anyway.
Notes: Selene would like to thank Brate for agreeing to write with her and having the patience to do so. Brate would like to give a thank you to her partner, for giving her new insight and a fresh look at the characters, and to Gemini for once again being the fastest beta in the west.
Vin Tanner knew the federal government had enough evidence to put William Van Dyke in prison, but Chris Larabee, leader of Team Seven, wanted to make sure Van Dyke would be sent away for good. It was supposed to be a simple bust; the agents hardly even needed to attend the final mission briefing.
Unfortunately, the bust had gone quickly to hell Ezra had been made.
Somehow Van Dyke had known the smooth-talking man was an ATF agent. Apparently he'd only come to make sure that Standish wouldn't be a threat to his business -- he wanted him dead. The gunrunner and his men came in with guns blazing just seconds after J.D. yelled through the headsets that it was a setup.
After that, Vin didn't remember much but confusion. From his position up on the landing, he concentrated on taking out the henchmen, confident that his team members on the ground would take care of Van Dyke and keep Ezra safe.
Once all the gunfire died down and he saw Ezra still standing, the sharpshooter breathed a sigh of relief. Van Dyke hadn't succeeded in his mission to kill the undercover agent. When Chris' usual call for everyone to report in didn't come, Tanner assumed he was busy with the suspects.
"Everybody check in," he said through his headset, presuming the role of commander.
"Larabee? Report, Chris."
"Where is he? Somebody check on Chris!" Vin yelled through the headset while he ran down the stairs to the floor where the rest of the team was. He almost fell down when he heard Standish's soft voice over the radio.
Vin doubled his speed and scanned the area in search of Ezra. When he saw the body beside the undercover agent, Vin felt his knees collapse beneath him. Chris was lying on the cold hard floor with blood welling out of his left side. The red liquid stained his dark shirt and spread out onto the ground. Ezra was kneeling beside him, putting pressure on the wound while yelling for Nathan over the radio.
For Vin it was as if he could only move in slow motion. He walked over to his friend and knelt beside him. Not able to take his eyes off the wound, Vin watched as the blood seeped through Ezra's fingers. The sharpshooter took Chris' hand into his. Oh, Lord, his hand was so cold! This couldn't be happening!
"Hang on, Chris, just hang in there," he murmured over and over again.
He never noticed Nathan running over to treat his friend. He never noticed the ambulance arriving, or the medics working on Larabee. His entire focus remained on Chris. He only became aware of the rest of the world when Josiah pried his fingers from Chris' hand.
"Come on now, son," the large man whispered. "You need to let go of his hand, they need to take him to the hospital. Let them take care of Chris."
Vin released his grip, feeling as if his world was crashing down around him. He didn't remember much after that: the ride to the hospital, the long wait in the waiting room, the doctor coming to talk to them -- it was all a blur in his memory. He remembered finally being allowed into Chris' room.
The sharpshooter settled beside his friend, prepared for a long wait. He heard his other friends come into the room at various intervals, talking softly. After a few hours, Josiah, Buck, and J.D. left to take care of things at the office. Vin remained on watch, silently pleading for his friend to be all right.
In the evening, Josiah returned to give the rest of the team a ride home. Buck and J.D. had already gone back to the townhouse they shared to get some rest. The profiler convinced Ezra and Nathan to do the same, but no amount of discussion would remove Vin from Chris' side.
Tanner stayed awake all night talking softly to Chris, urging him to wake up. Although the doctor had assured them Chris would be fine, Vin would not be convinced until he saw those green eyes open and heard his boss yell at him to get some work done.
When Chris still hadn't woken by the time the team returned in the morning, Vin could see that the doctor was starting to get worried so he asked Nathan to find out all he could about Chris' condition. The medic returned shortly, with assurances that the blond should recover completely.
Once again, the team moved in and out of Chris' room, with Vin the only constant attendant.
By late afternoon, Tanner was almost in a panic. His self-control was failing with the startling realization that he might lose his best friend. After being alone for so long, Tanner had been hard- pressed to put his faith in something, and yet he had the team, especially Chris. Now it could be over and he wasn't sure he'd be able to survive.
The others had gone down to the cafeteria for some coffee, and Vin was holding Chris' hand when he felt a slight pressure. "Chris?" he asked anxiously. "You with me, Cowboy? Come on, Chris, let me see that glare of yours."
Chris' eyelids fluttered and eventually opened. He blinked a couple of times. "You " he croaked, "look like shit"
"And a good morning to you, too, sunshine." Vin laughed. He knew he must look a sight with a two-day growth of beard and dark circles under his eyes. "You're not going to win any Miss America competitions yourself right now."
Chris gave a weak imitation of his usual glare. "Wise ass," he whispered before his eyelids slid closed again.
Vin sank back in his chair with a sigh of relief. Chris really was going to be okay.
Vin shut the door of his apartment and leaned back against it, closing his eyes. The emotions of the last two days were finally catching up with him. After hearing that Chris had awoken, the other team members had ganged up against Vin, telling him that he needed to go home and get some rest -- or at least a shower and a change of clothes. Reluctantly he'd agreed. He felt so tired. It was not surprising seeing that he hadn't slept in almost forty-eight hours. Vin opened his eyes and looked around the nearly dark apartment. The only light came from the Christmas tree, blinking in the corner. Vin smiled a little and thought back to when he and Chris decorated it together, only days before."Where do you want it, Vin?" Chris panted. The elevator in Vin's building wasn't working, as usual, and they'd had to drag the tree up three flights of stairs to Vin's apartment. Amazingly, the tree had survived intact.
"I was thinking in the corner there." Vin pointed to where he'd set the tree stand earlier.
"Seems like a good spot," Chris agreed.
They carried the tree over and placed it inside the stand. While Vin walked into his bedroom, Chris went to the kitchen and filled up a pitcher with water to put in the stand. Vin came out with two boxes; one was clearly marked "Christmas Lights." He took the top off the boxes and looked to Chris for directions.
"What goes on first?" he asked.
"Lights," Chris said, seemingly surprised that Vin had asked.
Together they hung the lights on the small tree. Vin's apartment wasn't large and they'd agreed a big tree would take up too much space. Then there was the additional point that Vin didn't have many Christmas decorations. After the lights were on, the two men looked into the second box Vin had brought out. Inside were some ornaments: a few angels, a couple of bells, one small dove, two bigger ones, and some Christmas balls.
"My ma and pa bought these for each other," Vin said with a faraway look on his face as he held up the large dove ornaments. "She told me they were doves of love." Then he picked up the small dove. "This one was for me. 'Baby dove of love' mama called it."
Chris smiled and put a hand on Vin's shoulder. He didn't have to say a word yet Vin knew he understood.
After they took the rest of the decorations out of the box, Vin discovered some handmade decorations at the bottom.
"I forgot all about these," he said softly, pulling the ornaments out. He set them aside with reverence. "My ma and I made these our last Christmas together."
"Didn't you hang them when you decorated last year?" Chris asked
Vin looked at him for a second as if weighing how much to say. "I haven't had a Christmas tree since she died," he admitted. "At the foster homes they had their own decorations. Once I was out and on my own, I worked. The holidays are great for catching bounties," Tanner said with a wink and a grin.
"Why have one this year then?" Chris asked, even though he must have already known the answer.
Vin sent a shy smile and said, "I got a family now."
"That you do," Chris agreed with a big smile, and the two men finished decorating the Christmas tree together.
Yeah, Vin thought, a family. He walked across the room and sat down under the tree, looking up at the lights. The colorful lights streamed across his face as he turned his thoughts inward.He had come so very close to losing Chris -- too close. Although he'd only been with the team for a couple of months, there had been an instant connection to Larabee. And, while some of them had gotten hurt before, it had never been anything serious; a graze to the arm was the most they'd had to deal with. Somehow it had never occurred to Vin that some of them could get seriously hurt or worse. Yesterday's events had been a rather rude wake up call. He didn't think he could handle it if someone got killed and his new family was torn apart.Vin sat next to that Christmas tree all night, reflecting on the differences between his life now and before he had joined the team. It had been lonely at times, but there was never any danger of anybody being taken away from him. If he didn't care, he didn't hurt.By the time the morning sun started to rise above Purgatorio, Vin had made his decision. He sat down and wrote his resignation to Orrin Travis. Then he wrote a letter and addressed it to Team Seven's office. He'd drop them off on his way out of town.Tanner went into his bedroom and packed some essentials. Returning to the living room, he took the three dove ornaments off the tree and placed them carefully on top of his bag. Sliding on his jacket, Vin grabbed his bag and walked out of his apartment, closing the door as he left. He got into his jeep and drove away.He didn't look back.
Ezra Standish was in hell. There were no two ways about it; it was hell, pure and simple. Squeals of laughter emanated from all around him, people talking happily to each other, shouting, greeting, and hugging. Christmas decorations were everywhere. In his current frame of mind, the ATF agent felt more like the Grinch. Or maybe Scrooge was a more appropriate reference.
"You had better appreciate this, Mr. Tanner," he grumbled. "This is the first and last time I will endeavor to go on a mission such as this." Even as he said the words, he knew he didn't mean them. The truth was, Ezra was very, very worried about Vin -- they all were. It was not like him to run off. They had only known Vin for a short time, but in that time he had became a part of their family. And that was something very rare for Ezra; he wouldn't let a family member go without a fight.
Sighing, he took the short letter out of his pocket and read it once again.
I'm writing to say goodbye. I'm quitting the ATF and leaving Denver.
The last couple of months have meant more to me than any of you will ever know, but it has to end.
Please, don't try to follow me.
Stay together, stay safe,
Why, Vin? Ezra thought. Why just take off all of a sudden?
It just didn't make any sense. Something must have happened after Vin left the hospital. Ezra clearly remembered Vin say he would be back in a couple of hours. When Vin hadn't returned by the next morning, Ezra started to wonder. At first he wasn't too concerned, given that Vin hadn't slept at all since Chris was shot. He figured the exhausted man had crashed once he got home. But when Vin didn't return by that afternoon, the rest of the team shared their worries as well.
Calls to Vin's apartment and cell phone went unanswered, so Buck and Ezra had decided to go to the office to see if Vin was there. That's when they found the letter. They called Nathan on his cell phone, informing him of the situation. He told them to come back to the hospital. When they got back to Chris' room, their leader knew something was up right away. And Chris, being the most stubborn man to ever walk the earth except maybe for a certain Texan, didn't give up until he'd found out what had upset his team.
Ezra took a deep breath and handed over Vin's letter. Chris took it and read it, his face impassive and stony. Finally he looked up with pain-filled eyes and told Ezra, "Find him... find him and bring him home."
Not knowing what to say, Ezra had given his customary two-fingered salute and immediately left.
He'd spent hours calling anyone he could think of: Nettie, who didn't even know Vin had left; Vin's neighbors in Purgatorio; the youth center where Vin volunteered. No one had any idea where he might have gone. That's when Standish decided to take more drastic measures he searched Vin's desk. The sharpshooter was notoriously private, but Ezra rationalized that whatever Vin had left was now government property and therefore he was able to go though it.
He'd hit pay dirt an old address book. There weren't many entries in there, but Ezra decided to try them all. On the fifth name he got lucky. The phone number was for an old bounty hunter friend of Vin's, Zachary Delany. Mr. Delany had informed Ezra that Vin was coming to stay with him and his wife. The problem was it was the twenty-second of December, and Delany lived in Detroit, a four-hour flight from Denver. This close to Christmas would make it nearly impossible for Ezra to get a flight out.
It had been.
All of his machinations landed Ezra on the only flight available in the coach section --surrounded by children hyped-up on sugar, on their way to visit ill-fated relatives.
Ezra got off the plane and out of the airport as fast as he could. It was an enormous relief to get away from the pressing crowds and travel-weary flyers. He caught a cab and gave the driver Vin's friend's address.
The ride took half an hour and the cab stopped in front of a small, but well-kept house. It was a two-story, with walls of light-colored bricks. The windows were wide and high, with light red curtains behind them, which matched perfectly with the cream window frames. It had a wide garden all around it, full of evergreens, so even in the middle of winter, the garden looked alive.
He told the cab driver to wait and stepped out of the vehicle.
Ezra sighed deeply with jealousy. What made the house so special, he realized, was that it looked like a home, not just a house. The candles behind the windows seemed to say, come on in and warm yourself. There wasn't an excess of Christmas decorations, just a string of lights that hung from the roof and colored lights on a big tree in the middle of the front garden.
While Ezra was still admiring the house, the front door opened up and Vin appeared in the opening.
"Ezra?" he called out, a mix of confusion, longing, and anger on his face.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied. "Finally."
"Didn't I tell y'all not to follow me?"
"You did indeed put such foolishness in writing, but I thought you had merely taken leave of your senses."
"I said what I meant," Vin insisted, leaning against the now closed door, with folded arms and a frown on his face.
When Ezra saw Vin's look of irritation, bordering on anger, he decided that honesty was the best policy under these circumstances.
"You can't just leave us, Vin," he said, barely audible. "We're a family, and you can't just leave family. I don't know where I would be right now if it wasn't for you and the team. I need the team. I need you in the team."
Vin honestly didn't know what to say. He hardly knew what hit him. Not only had Ezra called him Vin for the first time he could remember -- hell, until now he almost didn't think Ezra knew his first name -- but he had also spoken plainly, in words Vin could understand without needing a dictionary.
He could tell Ezra meant what he said, but the sharpshooter couldn't go back to Denver. Vin couldn't live with the thought that one day one of them would get killed, and their family would end. He would not be able to go through that. Vin was more certain of that than he had been of anything his entire life.
"Aw, hell, Ez," he said, hoarsely. "I I just I can't. I can't go back. Just leave. Please?" His voice was a plea. "Leave and forget about me." With that Vin turned and went inside, before Ezra could see the tears streaming down his face.
He watched surreptitiously as Ezra stood in that same spot for a long time, unmoving. Eventually the undercover agent turned away and got back into his cab. As it drove away, Vin wondered briefly if he'd done the right thing.
Backing away from the window, he went into the bathroom and splashed some cold water on his face. Glancing up, he looked at his face in the mirror. He had shaved the beard off, but there were still dark circles under his eyes. He took a deep breath, and then another. He had made his decision and would stick to it. It was for the best.
Drying his face, he went in search of his friend. Vin had known Zack a long time. It was Zack who first introduced him to bounty hunting. Vin had stopped a robbery at a convenience store and the robber had happened to be a wanted felon. Before the police had arrived, another man came in, Zack Delany. He told Vin how he'd been tracking this guy across three states, looking for the bounty on the man. When he saw how well Vin, an untrained youngster, had done against the nasty villain, he told Vin he could use a partner. Vin, fresh out of the army with no job, agreed and Zack had taught Vin everything he knew. They were partners for a few years, before parting ways. Zack fell in love with and married Sandra, and Vin had ventured out on his own.
Zack looked at Vin through worried eyes when he came into the kitchen. Vin hadn't told him much of what happened, but the man was wise enough to guess most of it "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Fine," Vin assured his friend. "So, this bounty you're after he close by?"
"Yeah," Zack said, letting the matter drop for now. "My informant gave me an address where he should be tomorrow. Want to help? It'll be like old times."
"Sure." Vin nodded as he rubbed a hand across his face. "I think I'm going to hit the sack. Been a long day."
"Yeah, sure, you know where the guestroom is. Sandy will be back from her mom's tomorrow. We'll leave then."
Ezra parked his Jag in front of Chris' house and leaned his head back on the headrest. Nathan had called to tell him that Chris was being released and Buck would stay with him at the ranch until he could take care of himself again.
Now Standish had to go in and tell Chris that Vin wouldn't be coming back. He'd rather face fifty gunrunners than have to tell the man he hadn't been able to convince his best friend to return to the fold. "No sense in putting off the inevitable," he muttered as he climbed out of the car and entered the house.
When he walked into the living room, he swallowed when he saw the look of hope and expectation on Chris' pale face.
"He wouldn't come back," Standish reported softly. "He told me to go away and forget about him."
"I think I'll go to bed now," Chris said, pushing against Buck, who'd tried to help him up. He slowly walked out of the room, avoiding eye contact with them.
"If Vin doesn't come back, it'll destroy him," Buck stated with certainty.
Standish couldn't disagree.
Vin stalked softly around the dumpster, gun in hand and ready. Zack was coming from the other side of the dark and dirty alley, maneuvering their prey toward him. Slowly but surely they were closing in on Isaac Smith. He was a big, dark-haired man wanted for murder.
Before Zack could grab him, Smith turned around and kicked him hard in the gut. Then when the bounty hunter was doubled over, the felon slammed him against the dumpster. Zack twisted and fell on the ground with a cry of pain. Smith snatched Zack's gun and aimed it at the fallen man, only to have it shot out of his hand by Vin. The big man cursed, grabbed his hand, and took off running.
Letting the bounty go, Vin hurried over to his friend. "Are you okay?" he asked anxiously, checking Delany for injuries.
"Yeah, I just twisted my ankle." Zack sighed and winced in pain. "Maybe cracked some ribs. I'll be fine." He saw the stricken expression on Vin's face. "Occupational hazard right?" he joked, trying to lighten the mood.
"Yeah," Vin said softly. "Occupational hazard." He helped his friend to the car and drove directly to the hospital.
Once again Vin found himself in a hospital, waiting on a friend. Again he had company. He'd called Zack's wife, Sandy, when they took his friend in back to the back of the ER. She rushed over as soon as she could.
Now as he sat comforting her, the phrase "occupational hazard" kept tumbling around in Vin's mind. The events of the last couple of days went shooting by his mind's eye. Memories kept haunting him: the years he had spent working with Zack, the time he had worked alone, and the months he had been with the team.
By the time Zack returned with his ribs taped and his ankle wrapped up, everything had clicked in Vin's mind. Whatever he was going to do, there was always a chance he might lose someone. What was it he'd heard Chris ask Nathan once? "Because you lost them, are you sorry you ever had them?"
Would he be? No, he would never be sorry to have known any men on the team. There was a chance one of them could get killed, but with all of them working together, there was a better chance that they would survive until they were old and grey.
It was the life they'd chosen. It was an occupational hazard.
By unspoken agreement, the six remaining members of Team Seven had gathered at the Larabee ranch on Christmas Eve.
The television was playing yet another re-run of "A Christmas Story." The men tried to pretend as if they were enjoying the movie, but the atmosphere was morose. A tall Christmas tree illuminated the area, but the festive decor just seemed to make their moods darker.
J.D. ignored the television as he wondered how Vin was doing. This was J.D.'s first Christmas without his mama and he thought he would be spending it with family. In a way he was, but it felt off without Vin.
Nathan kept an eye on Larabee, making sure the blond didn't overexert himself as he usually would when injured. But this time, the lean man merely sat around and moped. Admittedly, Nathan was feeling the same way. With his own family so far away, he'd been looking forward to spending time with this one.
Josiah knew how much the young sharpshooter had been looking forward to this holiday. Vin had admitted to him that it would be the first Christmas he would be celebrating since his ma had died. Now he probably wouldn't even be doing that since he had gone back to working as a bounty hunter.
Buck sat, nursing his bottle of beer. The others often accused him of loving too many women, but the truth was he was deeply devoted to these men. And now, with the loss of one of his best friends, he was trying not to lose any more. Unfortunately, he was having a hard time seeing through his own misery to help the others.
Ezra was wallowing in self-recriminations. He thought there was something more he should've done to convince his friend to come back with him. His mother, Maude, was off on another one of her "holidays" and would be until well into the next year. With her gone, once again he was relying on his team to get him through. Yet due to his failure, the group lacked its usual esprit de corps
Chris wouldn't allow himself to think of his missing friend. How wrong he'd been to think he'd found the other half of his soul, something that had been missing since Sarah and Adam died. Now his heart, which had been filled, was empty once again. He couldn't believe someone could endure such pain a second time.
Six heads popped up at the sound of a car coming up the drive. They sat, waiting, for whoever had arrived. The sound of footsteps approached and everyone turned to look at the door. There was a soft knock and then it opened to display a nervous Vin.
"Can I come in?" he asked, clearly expecting the answer to be no.
No one dared move, thinking that they might scare him away.
Finally Chris snapped out of his trance. "You're always welcome here," he said.
Vin smiled in relief and walked into the house, closing the door behind him. He hadn't gone three steps before his friends, eager to welcome him back, surrounded him.
Everyone moved away as Chris slowly walked up to Vin. The two friends stared at each other for a long moment before Larabee stepped forward and hugged his friend. Tanner returned the embrace. Stepping back, Chris smacked Vin across the back of the head. "Don't you ever do that again!" he said emphatically.
"Sir, yes, sir," Vin answered with a snappy salute before he was drawn into another hug, this time by Josiah.
They had retreated to the living room and were relaxing when Vin shouted. "Oh, no, I resigned!"
"Orrin said he got some stupid letter saying you'd quit," Chris said. "Figured it was a Christmas prank and threw it away."
Vin wiped his brow in exaggerated relief.
J.D. leaned back against the couch and looked around the room at his reunited friends. "All's well that ends well."
"Not quite," Josiah said with an evil smile directed at Tanner.
"What do you mean?" Vin asked, suddenly wary.
"Nettie is going to want to talk to you about your leaving without telling her."
"Shit!" Vin knew he was in trouble. No one could stand up to the wrath of Miss Nettie. "There goes Christmas!" the Texan lamented to the delight of the others.
Their family was restored, and stronger than ever.