by Holly

ATF Universe

Denver Memorial ER later that night

It had already been a long night as Chris sat in the ER waiting room for word on Vin's condition. Though the room was over half full he had a corner all to himself. He hadn't even noticed the sudden departures of those unfortunates who had been seated nearby when his dark visage had skulked into the corner. No, he was too preoccupied with the ‘what if' game. His mind kept going over the evening's events. How had he missed it? All that blood. Why hadn't he checked sooner to see if Vin was hurt? Why had he let Vin leave the store like he did? Why did shit like this happen?

Just after Vin had passed out and as he desperately fumbled with his cell phone to summon help, he had discovered the bullet wound in the younger man's lower right side. It looked to have entered and exited through the flesh with little damage, but Chris was no expert and it wasn't like Vin had much in the way of extra flesh on him as it was. He didn't dare think of what vital organs might have been hit or what blood loss alone could mean. It had been nearly two hours since the shooting and if Vin had been bleeding the whole time, maybe even internally…

Chris felt a chill run down his back that had nothing to do with the thin cotton material of the button down dress shirt he wore. His own cotton undershirt had been sacrificed, ripped from his body in a frantic attempt to staunch the flow of blood until the paramedics could arrive, Vin's own being too stained with the blood of two people to be of much assistance.

Chris sat not only second guessing his every move of the evening, but also warring with whether or not to call the rest of the team. It had been a horrific few weeks. The case they had been working on had taken its toll. Sleep had been scarce and rarely undisturbed while Vin and Ezra had been undercover and the operation had put them all through an emotional and physical wringer. They all needed some downtime, even if for just a few hours.

Nathan had professed to finally having a night at home alone with the love of his life, his wife Rain. Josiah had spoken of helping out at one of the missions to ‘regain a greater sense of his own blessings'. The team's youngest had spoken of nothing besides his girlfriend, Casey, all day and the movie they were planning to see that night. While the ever-shameless ladies' man had been boasting about the waitress he had met the night before and easily maneuvered into a date for the night. It also hadn't escaped Chris's notice that the group's undercover agent, despite his exterior appearance, was still suffering from fatigue, both physical and emotional. Chris didn't want to disturb any of them. That was the whole reason he had sent them home a little early that day, even though Vin had resisted, saying he just needed a little extra time on his report and having the place virtually to himself might help his concentration. They all needed a respite and he guessed five out of seven wasn't bad.

‘God, if I'd only made him go home with the others.'

Checking his watch, Chris was surprised that it was only 10:05. Time was dragging by at a snail's pace and yet he still felt as if he'd been waiting for hours. Maybe he would just wait another hour and see if he had any more word on Vin's condition before he disturbed the rest of the team. Hell, he'd better have some answers by then or heads would roll and they'd likely be calling security on him.

A strange feeling swept through him and he looked up to find a sight that nearly made him cry out with relief. Buck Wilmington stood just inside the waiting room doors, his deep blue eyes scanning the crowd furiously. Seeing Chris in the corner he walked over and Chris noticed that JD was with him as the younger agent stepped out from behind his best friend and mentor. With long strides Buck covered the room in seconds and now stood before his leader and close friend. Knowing the question before it could even be voiced he simply said.

“Cindy called.”

Chris just nodded. He wanted to speak, but he couldn't because the lump in his throat was just too big. The strange burning in his eyes and the tightening of his stomach signaled the overwhelming emotions stirring within him. The team wasn't the only one who was tired and worn out. The worry that came with leading this ragtag bunch of men could turn a man's hair grey. Many a morning Chris had found himself staring into the mirror to see if his had turned overnight. Well, tonight was definitely going to add quite a few of the wiry hairs to his head.

Knowing Chris well and reading the worry and exhaustion buried deep within the steely green eyes, Buck sat down beside him and smacked his hand on the blond leader's knee. “From the look on your face, pard, I can already tell you haven't heard anything and you're chomping at the bit, so me and the kid here'll just keep ya company. Maybe make sure no innocent bystanders get hurt in the process.”

Buck's smile, though strained from his own worry, was still a welcome sight and the easy banter eased a bit of the tension from the blond's aching shoulders. He hadn't wanted to disturb the others but he had also needed them here. It was hard to admit, especially to himself, but he had wanted nothing more than to see one or more of the team walk through the doors. And now with his wishes answered he was nearly overwhelmed with the relief he felt.

“The others are on their way.” JD offered, unsure what else to say. “Cindy called Buck and he called me. I called Nathan and Josiah and they were heading over to Ezra's to let him know. He'll probably just ride with them.” It was a statement of unquestionable fact.

Chris's eyes flashed a quick look up. “I was gonna wait until I heard something.” There was a touch of annoyance and defensiveness to his voice. “Didn't want to disturb…”

“Hell, Chris, you know we'd want to know.” Buck stepped in, annoyed a bit himself that Chris hadn't called him immediately, but understanding. “Besides, we're already about as disturbed as you can get.”

Chris watched Buck's dark eyebrows waggle at his own snide comment and the smile that followed held a touch of warm camaraderie that was like a big huge security blanket enveloping his soul.

“Now,” Buck's tone became more serious as he looked up to see the other three members of the team hurrying into the waiting room and immediately joining the group. “Since the gang's all here, why don't you give us a rundown of just what Junior got himself into this time.”

“Wasn't his fault.” The sharp defensive tone caught them all off guard. “Sorry. Damnit all to hell.” Chris cursed quietly as he swiped his hand down his face. Then looking up at his team and seeing no recrimination, only concern and understanding, he began to rehash the evening's events.

Two days later

Chris had gotten an early start Friday morning in order to get some paperwork out of the way. Everyone had been relieved that Vin's injuries had, for once, not been too serious, though the blood loss and a mild infection had forced them to keep the younger man for observation for a couple of days. He would likely be released from the hospital later in the day, and with the weekend ahead the team's leader had decided to take part of the day off. The plan was to pick up the reluctant patient, who he knew would be chomping at the bit to get away from the hospital, and head on out to the ranch with him. Vin would likely grumble that he could take care of himself ‘just fine' and that he didn't need a nursemaid or babysitter, but then he would eventually give in. At least Chris hoped he would.

Though normally not one for a lot of talking, during this last stay in the hospital for observation Vin had proven to be overly silent. The others' visits had been more tolerated than welcomed and the conversations woefully one-sided. Chris feared that the lone wolf in Vin was making a reappearance because of whatever had really happened in that convenience store. And more importantly what piece of the past had been dredged up. Chris had read and reread the report. It was succinct and to the point with no flash, but still it seemed as if something were missing. And it was the missing pieces that had him worried. Unsure how to broach the subject and knowing Vin would only talk when and if he was ready, the weekend at the ranch would hopefully provide a two-fold purpose.

On one hand Chris could keep an eye on the healing young man and make sure he didn't overdo it. The wound wasn't as serious as some of the other multitude he had suffered in the past, but a bullet wound was a bullet wound and blood had been shed. Whether the sharpshooter liked it or not he would need to allow his body time to regain its strength and equilibrium. And somehow a weekend in Purgatorio just didn't seem to fit the bill.

Secondly, Chris could gauge Vin's mood and reactions to see if he would need to prod the truth out of the younger man. It wasn't something he really wanted to do, but sometimes a festering wound needed to be lanced before it could heal. And Vin meant too much for him not to at least try. So sharpening up his courage and honing his mental strength he prepared for a weekend battle of wills.

As he walked into his office and hit the lights he felt his gut clench. This had been a really bad week for his stomach and his nerves. On his desk an envelope sat propped up against his nameplate. The long piece of granite had been a present from his team after their very first successful bust as Team Seven. His name was scribbled on the front in an all too familiar scrawl.

Vin's handwriting was only a little better than chicken scratch, but despite his dyslexia he had made great strides in the last few years to improve his written and grammatical skills. The self- correcting computer programs helped immensely, not only with his reports, but with Vin's confidence as well. Despite the roadblocks he had found within the educational system as a child, Vin had a way with words. And even if he didn't always voice his feelings, Chris had discovered that despite the difficulties it was sometimes much easier for his friend to express himself with the written word.

Reaching down for the note he couldn't help but notice the CD that lay beneath it. Carefully removing the folded piece of paper within, he swallowed the overwhelming urge to call the hospital and find out how in the hell they had let Vin out at such an hour of the morning. The letter had been typed up on the computer, which meant Vin had wanted to be sure Chris could read it.

Hey Cowboy,

I bet that vein in your forehead is just about ready to pop right now and them ears of yours are beet red. First off, I'm okay. Bet you thought I was going to say fine. Doc Carlisle worked the night shift and I managed to get sprung early. He mentioned something about me worrying the gray right into his hair or hair right out of his head or something like that.

Chris snorted, knowing exactly what the doctor meant. His own hair was suffering the consequences of looking after men who put their lives on the line on a daily basis.

I just need some time to think and don't want you to worry none.

Too late.

I'm going to take a day to say goodbye to an old friend. I'll be back. And if you don't mind I was thinking I might come out to the ranch tomorrow. Not that I really expect you to mind since I kind of figured that was where I was going to end up anyways. It's just that I need some time first. The other night dug up a whole bunch a stuff I was trying real hard to forget.

Chris blew out a short frustrated breath. ‘God, Vin. What the hell happened?'

When I saw the look in that kid's eyes it just reminded me so much of Pete. Need to make my peace with it or at least try. I been there. I know how it feels. I was pretty damn close before myself. It's hard not to when you're out on the streets all alone and believing that it'll never get better. Guess I'm rambling pretty good now but I left you that CD I was talking about. Just listen to cut ten and that should explain a lot. Thanks, and I'll see you tomorrow.


Noticing the CD on the desk in front of him he noted that he had never heard of it or the artist. The deep blue cover seemed to match his current mood, but the pretty smiling face was a stark contrast to what he expected to soon hear. Tearing his way through the shrink wrap he carefully placed the disk into the drive on his office computer. Sound quality be damned, he needed to understand what was plaguing his best friend and like any good investigator, he needed to examine all of the evidence ASAP.

Chris listened as the music began filling the room and the gentle feminine voice rose in a melancholy tone.

It's midnight at a liquor store in Texas
Beneath the neon, close up's just begun
When a boy walks in the door and points a pistol
He can't find a job, but oh, he's found a gun

The words flowed over him, the gentle voice growing with passion as the haunting tale unfolded, enlightening his mind and weighing down his heart.

He pulls it off, no trace of confrontation
He lets the old man run out in the street
And he knows that soon they'll come with guns a blazing
And already he can feel that great relief

To most the story contained within the lyrics would be seen as tragic, but for Chris it was so much more than that. It was Vin's past laid bare.

Oh how many travelers get weary
Bearing both their burdens and their scars
Don't you think they'd love to stop complaining
And fly like eagles out among the stars

In his mind's eye Chris imagined a scrawny half-starved teenager with a look of utter despair clouding big blue eyes as he waged a lonely war against the world around him. The image shook him to his core and he sat numbly as the song played on.

As the music faded out Chris rubbed his hand down his face and stopped the CD from playing further. He had heard enough and now felt emotionally drained. With this new knowledge came an even stronger need to help Vin. He would anxiously wait for Vin to come to the ranch tomorrow and they would talk because this was a burden meant to be shared. However difficult the words would be to hear or the emotions to bear, Vin was his brother and some things were easier to withstand when the load was shared.


Chris's night was not spent in restful slumber. What little sleep he had gotten was constantly interrupted by haunting blue eyes and the images of children lost in the darkness. Though Vin's childhood was no secret the depth of the struggle the young Texan had faced just seemed to grow with each tidbit of information. If not for the depravity he had witnessed during his days as a police officer and again with the ATF he might not have believed some of it.

His own childhood had been more along the lines of Norman Rockwell, compared to Vin's life as he was shuffled around through foster homes and group facilities. His teenaged struggle of life alone on the streets was nearly unfathomable. At fifteen Chris had been worried about getting his father's old car fixed up before he turned sixteen, while Vin had been worried about dodging the street predators and where his next meal might be coming from. And yet despite the differences in the lives that they had lead, each had suffered pain and loss along the way, shaping who they had become and also giving the two men a great deal in common.

Both shared a clear-cut sense of justice and went to the extremes to see that it was carried out as much as possible. Having survived some of the worst life could throw; they had emerged cautious but strong. And their brotherly bond built upon trust and loyalty was undeniable.

All of these thoughts had kept Chris tossing and turning in the bed for the last hour. Staring back at the alarm clock he noted the time and groaned loudly. 4:45AM. Knowing that there was no point in trying to go back to sleep he pulled his aching body from the bed and groped around in the semi-darkness for the sweats he had discarded what felt like only a couple of hours before. Slowly making his way into the kitchen he decided no more light, other than the small fluorescent one he had left on overnight above the sink, was necessary. No point in adding more fuel to his already pounding headache.

The coffee pot was ready and he turned it on, moving slowly toward the sink to wash his hands and grab a mug in the cabinet to his left. Glancing up out the window over the sink his eyes were drawn to a dark shadow just outside of the ring of light provided by the utility light next to the barn. For a second he thought his mind and eyes might just be playing tricks on him, then the shadow moved.

His heart leapt into his throat with the slight movement. That slouch and that profile. Even in the dark, with only an outline visible, he knew who it was. But the recognition did little to ease his racing heart as he noted that the familiar slouch was a bit more profound than usual.

Chris was out the door and headed across the backyard like a streak. The closer he grew the more worried he became as no reaction from the figure was noticeable. At least not until he grew closer and noticed the white knuckled grip on the second slat of the railing and the slight lift of the shaggy head at his approach.

“Damnit, Tanner.” Chris kept his voice soft, but the concern in his tone would have been mistaken by most other people as anger. Vin knew better.

Reaching Vin's side he slipped an arm around the tense shoulders, feeling the slight tremble rippling through the lean muscles. “You're a freakin' mess, you know that.”

“Yeah.” The raspy word was more breath than substance, only furthering his worry. “But I shore do keep things interestin'.”

Chris just shook his head as he helped his recovering friend into the house.


It was five hours later when the two friends sat down on the back deck steps for a cup of coffee. Vin had been so exhausted when Chris had discovered him out back that he had nearly had to carry the younger man to the spare bed.

Despite the sharpshooter's vehement protests that he was fine and just needed to rest, the blond had called Nathan to get a second opinion. After getting his own sleepy brain around the situation the team medic had reassured the leader that despite appearances Vin was likely correct in his insistence that he just needed rest, but if there were any other problems to be sure and call him back.

Now glancing to the side without moving his head, Chris could tell that the tension he had seen and felt within Vin earlier was still present. Though the skin was no longer as pale it still showed the telltale signs of the injury the younger man had incurred only a few days before. Yet Chris was certain that the physical wound paled greatly in comparison to the gaping emotional wounds that had been ripped open with the incident.

Vin kept a lot bottled up inside. Ever since he was a child he had learned that to stay quiet was best. To share his doubts, his fears, or even his hopes only brought ridicule and the chance for the fears to become reality and the dreams to be squashed. It was just safer to keep it all inside, to swallow it and move on. He usually only talked when he felt it was necessary and even then sometimes he wondered why he even bothered.

So why did he feel so compelled to talk now? Why should he share his past failures or his regrets with the very man whose respect he valued most? Only a few years back he would have laughed at the idea that he needed anyone or anything, but right now he was certain that without Chris's regard and friendship he would be more lost than he had ever been out there on those cold streets so many years ago.

“Pete was the first guy that ever stood up fer me.” The words started to flow and he didn't seem to have the strength to stop them. And truth be known, he didn't really want to. “I'd only been in town for about a month. I just took the first bus out a Dallas when I ran away from the last foster home.” Vin's voice turned wistful.

“It was headed for Denver and I'd remembered this picture book my ma had of the Rockies. Just seemed right somehow.”

Chris sat, not moving, afraid to even take a drink of his coffee lest he shatter the moment and cause Vin to clam back up. There had been a few times before when Vin had shared bits and pieces of his past, even then it was mostly just bare mentions and nothing substantial. This time he knew this would be a view of the younger man's life that he had suspected, but never gotten a true sense of. Even as unsure as he was whether he wanted to really know the raw facts, he was certain that this was something Vin needed to share. And he would do whatever it took to help his best friend fight the demons that haunted him.

“Hadn't been in town much more ‘n a month. Money was nearly run out and got jumped by a couple of older kids that wanted to introduce me to the gutter and themselves to what little cash I had left. Next thing I knew someone was pullin' ‘em offa me and beatin' the shit out of both of ‘em. This other kid that didn't look a whole lot older ‘n me… Somebody that I didn't know from Adam just up and saved my life.”

Vin paused for a few moments to compose himself as the emotions that had been exhumed the other night in the convenience store once again surged through him.

Chris could feel the tension in the hard set of Vin's shoulders just as if it were his own. Not only did he and Vin sometimes seem to share the same thoughts, but also the pain. Almost like the fabled Corsican Brothers. When Vin ached emotionally, so did Chris.

“He sorta took me in. Showed me the ropes. How to survive on the streets. Where to go, where not to. How to find food, a place to sleep. And how to avoid the predators.”

Chris felt a shiver run through just at the thought of a scrawny young teenager fighting to live and survive on the cold cruel streets of Denver.

“He was from here, but his parents never were too keen on him. Life on the streets seemed safer to ‘im than staying at home. But every now and then he'd go back. Just for a night or two to get clothes. To try and find some extra money.” Vin remembered the next part like it happened just yesterday. That last night in the alley burned in his memory, full of ‘what ifs'.

“It was after he'd come back from there. He's all bruised up and sad like. I didn't know how to help so I just kept my mouth shut and stayed close. Til that night.” Anger at what had happened and what he didn't do flowed through him like molten lava, firing his blood and making his hands clench into fists. “I didn't know… I shoulda done…” Vin felt his throat closing up as the last words practically exploded from him.

“Hell, the gun wasn't even loaded.”

Vin felt his jaw lock and his eyes began to sting. It was too hard to speak. Too hard to breathe. Not only had he let Pete down so many years ago, he hadn't been able to save that boy just the other night.

Chris saw Vin's tension emerge into a barely restrained rage. The younger man's jaw was so tight that the cords in his neck were beginning to protrude. Without being sure why, he was certain that his best friend's last words held a double meaning. A horrible nightmare from the past had been reborn as Vin had watched tragedy repeat itself.

The words of the melancholy song began to play in his head like background music. Chris closed his eyes against the dampness and swallowed against the lump in his throat as the song again took him back to the streets and a lost and lonely pair of boys.

He pictures the arrival of the cruisers
Sees that old familiar anger in their eyes
And he knows that when they're shooting at this loser
They'll be aiming at the demons in their lives
Oh how many travelers get weary
Bearing both their burdens and their scars
Don't you think they'd love to stop complaining
And fly like eagles out among the stars
The evening news, it carries all the details
He dies in every living room in town
And in his home a bottle's thrown in anger
And his father cries, "We'll never live this down."
Oh how many travelers get weary
Bearing both their burdens and their scars
Don't you think they'd love to stop complaining
And fly like eagles out among the stars

Vin felt his anger drain into a deep heart aching sadness. He hurt for his friend Pete, whose hope had been shattered by the very people who had given him life. He hurt for the young kid who had seen no way out of his young life of torment to a future that had been full of possibilities. He hurt because he had not been able to save either one of them. And most of all he hurt for himself, because he understood exactly how they had felt.

The head dropped and the shoulder length hair swept like a curtain across Vin's face, closing off Chris's view. But he didn't need to see Vin's expression. The slight tremble in the slumped shoulders and the shaking hand that was raised to his friend's face told him more than enough.

A war began to rage within Chris's own heart. What should he say? What should he do? The words ‘I'm sorry' or ‘I understand' sounded so inadequate in his own mind. He wanted to reassure Vin. To somehow ease his pain. But that was impossible. Or then again, maybe not.

Reaching out Chris gently laid his rugged hand on the back of Vin's neck and with a light squeeze offered the only real thing he could. His support. It didn't seem like much but experience had taught him that a burden shared was a burden lightened. And he would give anything to lighten his best friend's load, taking on as much of the weight as he could.

Vin felt the warm hand touch his neck and longed to just let go. So much time had passed. All of the guilt and remorse. The tears left unshed. The gentle squeeze that followed seemed to drain him of his last vestiges of control and the tears slipped through his fingers, falling silently onto his lap. Chris's hand never breaking contact was the lifeline he clung to, pulling himself back once the pain was spent.

The grief would linger, but the crushing weight that had been upon his heart for the last few days was easing. As if a new strength had swept in to help him pry loose the hold it had upon his soul. That new strength radiated from the man beside him and the firm hand upon his neck.

Chris waited, never letting go and gently massaging the tense muscles of Vin's neck as the trembling at first grew worse and then slowly began to ease. The moment felt both awkward and right at the same time. He had lost count of the times Vin's mere presence had brought him comfort even when the younger man hadn't even realized it. Their friendship was both simple and yet complex. An easy companionship that had weathered its share of storms just in the short few years they had known each other. Life had a way of testing even the strongest of bonds, but they had not only survived, the bond had grown stronger in light of the trials.

The ringing of the phone drew Chris's attention but he hesitated, not ready to release the hold he had on Vin. Without even looking up Vin gauged his hesitation.

“Best get that. Probably one of the boys.”

The quiet roughness of Vin's voice did little to reassure Chris. Besides, the answering machine was on he told himself as the ringing continued to echo from inside the house.

Vin didn't wish to lose the contact either, but needed to get himself back together and this was as good an opportunity as ever. “Iffen ya don't get it and it's Nathan, he'll just call out the others. I'd sure hate to explain to Travis why the National Guard had been mobilized.” The light humor didn't seem to reach his voice. Pulling away from the hand Vin stood up stiffly without looking in Chris's direction.

“Reckon I'll just head down and check on Peso for a bit.” Vin slowly moved toward the barn, but Chris still let the answering machine catch the call as he watched until his friend disappeared inside the barn. Only then did he move to check his machine and head off any search and rescue efforts. It probably was Nathan or one of the others checking up on Vin.

It was nearly thirty minutes before Chris had a chance to wonder about his sharpshooter. After returning Nathan's call and fielding three more from the other members of the team he began to worry that the younger man hadn't returned and was just starting to turn toward the kitchen to head out the back door when he heard the familiar creak of its screen door. Quickly he sat down in the recliner and grabbed the remote, turning the TV on to cover the fact he had been worried. He waited, hearing the clank of glass and the running of the tap water.

“Iffen ya wanted to convince me that you've been sitting here watching TV then you'da done better to find something to watch beside Designing For the Sexes.”

The soft drawl was full of amusement and Chris cursed Ezra Standish and his television viewing choices. He hadn't even looked at what was on, expecting it to still be on one of the sports or movie channels. He should have known. Why couldn't it have been Josiah or Nathan who had last possessed the remote? At least Turner Classic Movies or The Discovery Channel would have been more believable. Even Buck and JD would have likely hovered somewhere between ESPN, The Cartoon Network, or that channel that showed westerns all day. No, it had to be Standish and HGTV.

Well, so much for subterfuge. “I was about to come looking for you. Just got off the phone with the boys.”

Vin had expected Nathan to call, but why were the others all together? “Working on a Saturday?”

“No.” It took a minute for Chris to understand the question. “They called separately. Just checking up on us.”

Vin knew it wasn't them, but him they were ‘checking up' on and the warmth it infused deep within him helped to chase some of the chill that seemed to have taken up residence in his soul. Friendship was a lot more than just a word and didn't begin to express how he felt about these six men who had stormed their way into his world, knocking down barriers left and right, and bringing a new sense of family to a lost and lonely spirit. He could never repay the kindness they had shown him since he had joined up with Team Seven, but if it took the rest of his life, and he prayed to God it did, he would do his damndest to return the favor each and everyday.

“They're good friends.”

Vin's quiet remark brought Chris's head up to study the young face of his best friend. The features were worn with worry and the eyes looked older than he could ever imagine himself being, but the shoulders were straighter and the slouch less pronounced. Slowly, Vin was starting to deal with the events, both past and recent.

Standing up from his recliner Chris spoke with certainty, his green eyes staring straight into blue. “Takes one to know one.” The silent message was clear. ‘You're a good friend, Vin.'

“Thanks.” Vin swallowed, averting his eyes for a second before returning them to stare Chris directly in the face. “Don't seem near adequate considering… They's just kids. Never had a chance.”

“They made the choice. We all make the choice. To remember or forget. To go forward or go back. To live, survive or to just give up and die.” Chris wasn't about to let Vin carry these two deaths on his shoulders any longer.

Vin knew exactly what he was saying but wasn't about to let go that easily. His anger flared without reason. “I shoulda been able to stop them. I knew how they felt. Pete mighta left me behind that night, but I saw that look in his eyes. I saw the pain, the surrender. I should have followed him, talked to him, something.”

“Now wait…” Chris tried to interrupt, stepping closer, but Vin was on a roll.

“No!” Vin held his hand up to ward off Chris's approach more mentally than physically. His Texas drawl deepened even more as the weariness of his body grew.

“No absolution. I know what yer gonna say. I's jist a kid myself, but I ain't a kid no more. I shoulda done things differ'nt the other night. Took the gun away from ‘em. T'weren't loaded. I figured that out, wasn't totally sure til it was too late, but I shoulda tried harder. I saw that same look Pete had, knew what it meant. I been there myself, know how it feels to not see any way out of the pain. And all you can think of is to just give in. Surrender. All you want is for it all to be over and done with. I'seen that defeat in my own eyes.”

Chris's own anger and resentment rose like a dark demon from hell, charging through his taut muscles like ripples in a pond. Anger that Vin would blame himself and anger at the life that had made him feel that way. But even as the anger flowed, he made a concerted effort to swallow it back down, along with the acidic coffee that was churning in his gut. Instead his voice, edged with his deep concern, held understanding.

“And you think I haven't?” Chris allowed his armor to crack slightly as he opened up a dark piece of his own past. Memories of the man he had been not too long before he had met Vin Tanner.

“Do you have any idea how many nights I sat right here, right in this den with only two things as my companions? A whiskey bottle and a gun.”

Vin flinched with the other man's admission. Though Chris had spoke of his lost family, the dark times after their deaths was only mentioned in hushed and sparing words.

“How many nights do you think I spent staring at my gun and wishing I had the guts? It took me a long time and the help of some pretty incredible friends to realize that it took a hell of a lot more guts to go on living than it would have to take the easy way out.”

All of the argument and anger drained out of Vin and he leaned forward, bracing one of his hands on the back of the couch. Chris moved forward, instinctively reaching toward his still healing friend in worry. But his hand stopped in midair when the shaggy head swung up and deep blue eyes caught his gaze.

“Guess we've all faced a demon or two in the past. Had times, days we'd rather just forgit. Regrets can eat ya alive iffen ya let ‘em.” The truth of his own words resounded in his ears like the tolling of a bell. “Jist hard to let ‘em go sometimes.”

“It helps when you've got someone just as stubborn to pry your fingers loose.” A tight turn up of Chris's lip was nearly imperceptible as he continued. “I know that from experience.”

Giving Vin a few seconds to let that thought settle in, he continued.

“They were young. They had lives no one should suffer. But they made their own choices. I just don't like seeing you pay the price. We have enough to do to survive the consequences of our own decisions without borrowing someone else's.”

Their eyes stayed locked on each other, each seeking something within the other's gaze. A sign or some recognition. Neither man completely sure what it was exactly that he sought. Understanding? Support? A shared sense of loss? Maybe even a touch of forgiveness? But within those world hardened gazes dwelt so much more. The treasure they found was a depth of friendship like they had never known before, gleaming within the eyes of a brother who would fight hell itself to right any wrong or ease any suffering the other might endure.

Vin felt a peace settle over him like a warm blanket on a cold winter's night, enveloping him with its gentle spirit of brotherhood. He was not alone and his pain was no longer his own. To choose to wallow in self-doubt and regret would not only hurt him, it would cause harm to something much more precious to him. Something he had vowed to protect at all cost. It would hurt Chris.

Watching closely, Chris saw the change as Vin's face softened and the sky blue eyes shifted slightly. The choice had been made to move on.

Both men straightened and moved to their customary positions. Chris sat down in the recliner and Vin stretched out gingerly on the couch, keeping his teeth gritted until he was settled.

“The boys wanted to come out tonight. Bring some food and some videos. I told them I'd see how you were feeling and let them know.” Chris had turned the television back on, quickly changing it to the prevue channel. But his eyes drifted toward his injured friend, still trying to gauge his state of mind.

“Sounds good.” And it did. Vin knew he hadn't exactly been hospitable over the last few days and he wanted, no; needed, to let his friends know that it hadn't been because of anything they had done. Plus he just wanted to be around them. A night of lunacy with the bunch of men he considered his family was just what the doctor ordered. “Maybe you could tell ‘em to bring some stuff fer me.”

“What did you forget? I know you leave enough stuff here to make it through a few days on short notice.” It was strangely comforting that Vin felt comfortable enough to leave extra clothes and toiletries out at the ranch for emergencies.

“Well, I was thinking that ya might not have stocked up properly for my arrival. Ya know. Maybe a bag of them itty bitty snicker bars, a couple of twelve packs of coke and some orange soda'd be good too. And I've gotta have pork rinds and tater chips iffen I get ta feelin' weak between meals and all.”

Vin didn't have to look to imagine Chris's eyes rolling back in his head in disgust.

“Good God, Vin. That's an intestinal time bomb just waiting to happen.”

“You're jist jealous ‘cause them there ulcers of yourn won't let you enjoy such cuisine.”

“And just who do you think gives me these ulcers?” Chris's left eyebrow shot up with his query.

It still amazed Chris that someone who could face down a crazed gunrunner without any change in facial expression, a man who could bluff his way through practically any situation, and a man who could keep a straight face through some of the wildest practical jokes imaginable, could, in his very presence, hide nothing. It had been only a small pull around the corners of Vin's eyes that had been the telltale sign that the last little jibe had not been taken solely in the jest it was meant. The younger man's emotions were still too raw, his mask a touch too difficult to maintain in light of the physical and emotional exhaustion he also tried unsuccessfully to hide. And if Vin's accent got much thicker, an interpreter might be needed soon.

It also didn't escape Chris's keen understanding that part of the reason he so easily read his best friend was because he was the same way about things. Quick to try and swallow the pain and try to hide it behind a stoic exterior. And with that understanding came a realization that the best thing he could do for Vin at the moment was get him to sleep some more. Any residual turmoil could be better dealt with when Vin was rested and feeling more like himself.

“Why don't you take your meds and lay down for a while? You've got to be way past due and I'll have some hot soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for you when you wake up.”

Vin read right through Chris's intentions and couldn't help but agree. He was ragged in mind, body, and soul. A good nap was calling his name loud and clear. So tired was he, that all he could manage was a simple nod of agreement.

“Besides, you'll need your rest before the troops arrive. Hell, I'll need a nap before then.” Rising from the recliner Chris let a tight grin touch his lips. Hopefully having the others out would offer even more comfort and support to Vin. There was nothing like getting Team Seven together to make for a rowdy and fun evening. They were nothing if not entertaining.

Quickly grabbing a glass of water from the kitchen and the pain medication Vin had brought with him, Chris hurried back into the den before the sharpshooter changed his mind on being so compliant. Laying the pills in the open palm and handing him the glass he looked up and caught the unveiled look of gratitude that lay within his friend's deep blue eyes. At that moment he completely understood the saying of ‘windows of the soul' for that was what those soulful orbs were. And Chris was touched beyond measure that Vin trusted him enough to allow him such a rare glimpse. As hooded as Vin could be, his openness was just as full and honest.

Swallowing the pills quickly, Vin then shifted the glass to his left hand, raising his right toward Chris who instinctively took it. Their hands firmly locked around each other's wrists in the special handshake that had been born from the first day they had met, neither man sure how or why, just that it felt right, almost as if they had been doing it for hundreds of years.

The firm grasp, coupled with the look on Vin's face, said more than any words could have voiced. Chris's own face was firm in his own thankfulness that he had been allowed to offer some assistance to a man he felt closer to than a brother.

Whatever the future held or whatever might lie out among the stars, together they would face it and together they would survive.

The End

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Out Among the Stars written by Adam Mitchell