In the Depths of My Despair by the Neon Gang


Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #13, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels and Sierra Chaves are the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-29-2008. Art by Shiloh

"Chris!" Vin yelled, but he wasn't sure the older man had heard him. Without hesitation, the sniper grabbed hold of the rope that tethered him to the scaffolding in the old warehouse and stepped over the side of the narrow walkway, repelling down toward the ground as quickly as he could.

"Chris, behind you!" he yelled again.

A flash of brilliant white light edged with blue and orange, and accompanied by a deafening roar engulfed him.

The explosion came out of nowhere, catching ATF agents and bootleggers by complete surprise. Each man inside the building was struck by an invisible fist that sent him hurling away from wherever he was standing, slamming him to the ground or into any obstacle that happened to be in the way.

Smoke immediately curled up, becoming trapped in the rafters and making it difficult for anyone to see Vin as he dropped toward the warehouse floor.

His descent came to an abrupt halt, though, and for a split second he hung, suspended in midair before beginning to fall again…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin regained consciousness with a sharp gasp, his eyes still clenched tightly shut against the searing light, his ears still ringing from the deafening roar. His hands came up, ready to fight. All his mind registered in that waking moment, though, was pain – sharp, overwhelming, consuming.

Then Josiah was there, capturing his hands and saying, "Whoa, easy, Vin. It's okay, son, you're in the hospital. Do you hear me? You're all right."

Instinct kept Vin fighting to escape even as the older man's words tumbled through his mind, bouncing off fear and confusion. His hands were captured again, the words finally rattling into some kind of sense.

"J'siah," Tanner managed to gasp.

"Easy, Vin, I'm right here," returned the profiler's voice.

"Chris. Where's Chris?" the sniper asked, trying to look for the man.

"He's being treated, just like you are," Josiah said calmly.

"I saw Timmerlin," Tanner said. "He was comin' up behind Chris."

Josiah shook his head. "He might have been, Vin, but he and Chris were both caught in that blast. Timmerlin's dead."

That sent a shock slicing through the sniper, helping to clear his mind. "Chris?"

Josiah knew he had to be honest with the younger man. "We haven't heard anything yet. He was out cold when Nathan found him."

Vin groaned and the doctor and nurses moved in. "What happened t' me?" he asked Josiah. "The 'plosion?"

"The fall," Josiah corrected as the medical staff began its work. "Must've been at least twelve, maybe fifteen feet."

"You're a very lucky man, Agent Tanner," the doctor added. "I'm going to send you down to X-ray, then we'll see what else needs to be done."

As they started to move him, Vin looked frantically for Josiah. "Find out what's goin' on with Chris," he said.

The profiler nodded. "I'll do that. I'll see you when you get back from radiology."

"Okay," Vin said, wishing his head would stop pounding so he could think straight. He gritted his teeth and tried to remember…

The last image of Chris he had was… of the blond crouched down, ready to move in on two of Timmerlin's men. Then he'd seen Timmerlin himself, coming up behind Chris. He'd yelled, he remembered that much, then stepped over the edge to repel to the ground. He didn't have a clear shot where he was…

He had been headed quickly for the floor of the warehouse…

He'd yelled again…

Chris had come up in a crouch, spinning to look behind him…

And then…

Nothing. The blast must have caught them all at that moment.

He relaxed back on the gurney with a groan. Damn…


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The world exploded, and he had no idea where he was. Fear coursed through his body, making his heart beat frantically, a weird, faint echoing chime matching each beat. Had Timberlin's men gotten the drop on them?

He'd heard Vin's frantic cry, and he'd started to turn, just catching sight of Timmerlin, but then… Nothing.

No, not nothing…

The world exploded, and a fiery red-orange fist slammed into him, picking him up off the ground and slinging him forcefully into… something.

But Timmerlin and his people must have caught up to him after that. The pain flaring through his body must surely be their fault. His friends would never treat him so unkindly, no matter how bad his mood got, and it had gotten pretty bad of late.

But that was Tanner's fault…

Had Vin done this? he wondered.

No… No, Vin would never do anything that would make him hurt like this…

So what the fuck had happened? And where the hell was he? If he was moving, then in what damn direction?

It felt like he was moving, or maybe that was just the unending agony that seemed to be chasing itself all over his skin.

God, it hurt. Really hurt… Worse than anything he could remember, and if there was something worse, he didn't think he wanted to remember.

There! What was that?

It came again and he recognized it for what it was: a light touch on his arm, then another on his cheek. The gentleness of the touch penetrated the confusion.

Sarah? he called, but he knew, somehow, that was wrong…

He focused on the touch, needing the succor it promised. That was not the touch of an enemy. Not Timmerlin…

Sarah? he called again, but had no idea if he'd spoken.

The touch returned, still light, still caring and, for a moment he was sure he was lying in bed with Sarah, the woman's fingertips running over his arm as she took care of him…

But that wasn't possible. He never hurt like this in their bed…


It had to be Vin. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he did. He groped for the touch, feeling the skin on his arm crack and ooze as a result of the movement. What the hell…?

Nothing was making any sense. Then he recognized it, the thick veil of drugs separating him from the unimaginable pain that waited just across some invisible threshold there in his mind… But the drugs were also keeping him from reaching Vin, and he wanted to know what the hell was going on. He needed to know – now.

Chris tried to push past the chemical barrier, but the stabbing thrust of the agony that met him stopped him cold. He didn't dare venture past that foggy line…

Then he felt a wave of relief sweep over him. Vin seemed to be aware of his efforts, and the ever-so-light touches continued, trying to soothe him, trying to let him know he wasn't alone…

Vin, he said, wanting the man to know he was there, too, but he couldn't hear anything but static.

That confused him, and he tried to force his eyes open, but he just couldn't.

The fear returned and, forgetting about the pain, he tried to rouse himself, but he felt so… heavy, so sluggish… Then another stab of the raw agony had him cowering back again, fleeing to the safety of the drug-induced fog.

The drugs, they were too strong, the pain too raw to deal with. He was better off here, in the silence, in the fog…

And, given the pain he'd felt in his arms and legs, in his chest, his head was the worst of all… Maybe failure was a good thing this time.

Besides, Vin was here. If Vin was here, he was safe. He knew that as certainly as he knew his name or that the sun would rise again tomorrow.

Without conscious thought, he tried once more to open his eyes, seeking reassurance the man he knew was there, really was, but this time he became aware of an uncomfortable tightness stretching over his cheeks, and something pressing over his eyelids, keeping him from opening his eyes.

Curiosity and trepidation mingled and he reached lethargically for his face, but his wrist was captured in a careful grasp, his arm gently pushed back to the bed.

Bed? But hadn't he decided he wasn't in bed?

Hospital, he realized. Not home… He turned unseeing eyes to where he sensed Tanner must be.

"Vin," he called, and this time he felt the word moving past his throat, over his tongue, and past his lips, but he didn't hear it. In fact, he couldn't hear anything except a strange rushing noise that reminded him of dried leaves being blown along over the pavement in a strong locomotive wind.

Strange, he thought, but he couldn't find enough energy to actually worry about it.

He felt his arm being lifted up, then something closed around his padded fingers.

Padded? No… wrapped… Bandages, he realized. What the hell happened to me?

A moment later his uncovered fingertips were being pressed against something warm and bristly that moved.

Confusion swept over him again, rocking the fragile boat of consciousness, but realization swept in behind it like a strong north wind and his thoughts were propelled along with enough speed that it took his breath away.

Vin was holding his hand to his face and nodding… But… why?

Then he knew.

He'd called Vin's name and Tanner was letting him know that it was him… But why didn't he just say so?

Another realization hit: Because he couldn't hear Vin. He couldn't see Vin.

Blind and deaf…?

Good God, what had happened to him?

Explosion, whispered his mind.

He'd been caught in an explosion?

Raw, naked fear surged through him as the memory returned – warehouse, fire, smoke, Timmerlin… Jesus, what had that explosion done to him?

Vin was squeezing his fingers tighter now, still holding them to his cheek… What…?

Oh, he was shaking his head now… Why?

Telling him not to panic, he guessed. But he needed to know, to understand what had happened to him.

But even as he fought to hold on to the strength the fear had given him, he felt it slipping away, like sand between his fingers. He coughed and tasted blood, but was too weak to respond to the new fear that fact sparked.

Then, his attention was diverted. Something was pressing against his bottom lip… He tried to turn his head away, but the object returned.

Oh, a straw! he realized.

He opened his lips and the straw slid between them. He sucked, more out of instinct than anything conscious. Cool water bathed his raw throat. It felt wonderful, and he realized he was thirsty… very thirsty…

He sucked on the straw, drawing more of the water down his raw throat, losing himself in the sensations it created, but then the straw was taken away.

"More," he pleaded weakly, but he wasn't sure he'd said it out loud or not.

The straw didn't return, but his hand was lifted again, and he could feel the brush of air as Vin said something just above his fingertips…

Sorry, he guessed. Vin was sorry he'd had to take the water away… Maybe he'd been drinking too much, or too fast… Vin wouldn't do it unless he had to.

He was too tired to respond, the darkness surrounding him getting deeper, which, he knew, didn't make any sense, not if his eyes were covered and he could see, but it sure felt like that.

He tried again to reach for his eyes, to make sure that was what was creating the darkness, but this time his hand didn't move.

He stopped, frowned… Okay, one of his hands was still pressed to Vin's cheek… Tanner was shaking his head again. But the second…

He tried again, and again it refused to rise.

Restrained? He was restrained? What the hell for?

That apprehended Chris' attention. Why would his hand be restrained? He hated it when he was restrained…

Instinct took over and he tried to rise, but a hand pressed lightly against his solar plexus stopped him. It remained stubbornly in place until he surrendered the fight, too. Vin. What the hell was going on?

And as soon as he relaxed, Vin pressed his finger to Chris' lips.

Was Vin warning him to be quiet, to be still because they were still in danger, or did he just want him to rest? He wasn't sure.

But he was lying in a bed, not on a floor, so chances were they weren't still in the warehouse… Warehouses didn't have beds…

He felt Tanner's touch shift, he felt Vin's hand come to rest ever so lightly on the crown of his head.

Ah, okay. Vin just wanted him to rest.

Probably wasn't a bad idea, really. He was tired, so tired even his bones ached, and the veil of the drugs that was holding the pain to a tolerable level seemed steadfast… He didn't need to worry. Vin was there. Vin would watch his back.

He relaxed some more and felt his consciousness being swept up by sleep. A moment later, it carried him away.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Josiah smiled thinly when he stepped into Chris' room to find Vin there as well. "I told the doctor this is where he'd find you," the older man commented. "He didn't believe me. Said you couldn't have gotten this far. But I know how stubborn you can be, don't I."

Vin looked up, eyes glazed with a mixture of exhaustion and the pain medication a nurse had given him earlier. "He woke up," he said quietly.

"Now that's the good news," the profiler replied, honest relief in his voice. "The bad news is, you look like shit, brother. What do you say we get you back to your own bed?"

Vin shook his head. "He was scared, J'siah, really scared. I want t' be here when he wakes up again."

Josiah frowned slightly. "Vin, you heard the doctor, you need to rest, too. Your back—"

"I'm fine," the sniper interrupted, shaking his head.

"Vin, you have a mild concussion, bruised ribs and a vertebra with a hairline fracture in it, that's not 'fine' in any book," the big man rumbled worriedly.

Vin tried to glower at the man, but he was just too tired to pull it off. "I ain't leavin'," was all he said, opting for stubborn instead.

"Fine," Josiah replied on a sigh, his hands coming up to rest on his hips. "I'll just stand here… wait until you pass out, then have them cart you back to your room."

"Ain't gonna pass out," Vin returned petulantly, but he knew he wouldn't put any money on that. The world was moving just a little too fast for him to rule out the possibility. And the occasional burst of yellow and white dots in front of his eyes told him Josiah might not have to wait all that long, either.

"No, not if you let me take you back now," the profiler told him.

"But what if—?"

"Vin, I just talked to the nurse. Chris will be getting another dose of sedatives in ten minutes. Once he does, he's going to sleep for six or seven hours. Why don't you shoot for the same? Then I'll bring you back here myself."

Vin caught the man's eyes and held them as he said, "Your word."

Josiah nodded. "And you know it's good."

Vin hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded. "Come get me," he told the older man, "don't think I c'n wheel this damn thing all the way back t' my room again."

Josiah snorted softly, wishing he knew how Tanner had managed it in the first place. Crossing the room, he made his way around Chris' bed and, taking hold of the handles on Vin's wheelchair, wondered how long he'd really be able to keep the sniper in his bed. He would be willing to bet it would be less than six hours.

He carefully negotiated the obstacles in the room and had Vin out in the hallway before the sniper could reconsider.

Seven minutes later, Tanner was back in his own bed, his eyes already drifting closed.

"You get some sleep, brother," Josiah told him. "Chris'll be fine for a while."

"Y' keep 'n eye on 'im for me," Vin managed to whisper as his eyes closed completely. "He ain't figured it out yet…"

"I'll tell you what, I'll go sit with him until Ezra gets here, then I'll grab something to eat and be back to get you. Deal?"

Vin nodded, his eyes remaining closed. "'Kay… don't wan'… 'im t' be scared like that…"

Josiah smiled as he watched the sniper drop off to sleep. Vin's loyalty was something to be marveled at, and he wondered if Chris had any idea just how deeply it really ran. But then they were all close, doing whatever they could, whatever they had to do, in order to protect the others. A band of brothers, that was what they were, and he was honored to be counted in their ranks.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It took him a while to realize that he was… somewhere… and there was a sense of familiarity to it, too… He thought, maybe, he should recognize it, but he couldn't be sure, and he really wasn't able to concentrate well enough to pursue it. He was just… floating… waiting?

For what?

For who?

Vin, he decided.

That sharpened his concentration and he reached out for the man he expected to be there… And the bottom dropped out from under him and he spiraled in what felt like a freefall. He tried to grope beneath him, but his hands didn't move. They felt clumsy, thick… swollen?

No, bandaged, he realized, but then the thought was gone, stripped away as the acrid odors of the hospital assailed him, and he choked on the taste of blood and… vomit.

Okay, that couldn't be good.

The smells and tastes wrapped around him, buoyed him, stopping his descent, but he wasn't in a place he didn't want to be in.

What the hell was gong on?

Where was Vin?

Memories rushed in – light, heat, pain, fear… Oh, shit. The explosion.

Had he imagined it?

No, he didn't think so.

Had he imagined seeing Vin falling?

No, probably not… Christ.

But that didn't make sense. If Vin had fallen, then he couldn't have been here with him earlier, could he?

Hell, it was Vin he was talking about, of course he could be there, even if he'd fallen… Damn stubborn fool…

He wanted to know what was going on, so he tried to sit up… and gasped as burned skin and bruised muscles protested his action. Thankfully, somebody immediately eased him onto his back.

God damn that hurt!

"Vin," he called, and the soothing touch from before returned. It took him a few moments, but he pieced it all together again – explosion, pain, hospital… something wrapped around his head, and around his hands… and that same strange rushing sound in his ears…

"Vin," he said again and the touch became a little heavier.

Okay, so Vin could hear him, even if he couldn't hear himself… The knowledge was more comforting than he expected.

He might be as helpless as he could get, but he wasn't alone. Vin was there, and if Vin was there, Vin would watch his back and take care of him.

He tried to lift his hand, but, just like before, it was trapped. Just as well, given how his skin felt, he decided. But the attempt had Tanner's touch shifting from his shoulder to… his wrist to… his head. Okay, what was Vin trying to tell him?

"Vin," he said again, and this time he felt two taps on his shoulder.

Confusion lasted a few moments, then he realized what it meant: yes.

He could communicate with Vin!

"Hospital?" he asked unnecessarily, just to check.

Two taps: yes.


Two taps.

"I can't hear."

One tap: no.

So, Vin already knew.

"Will it come back?"

Two taps, stronger this time.

"My eyes?"

Also two strong taps.

Thank God, he thought, realizing only then that there could have been a different answer to both of those questions – ones that could have doomed him to a life like this… Jesus…

He felt Vin's hand tighten on his shoulder. To show his support, he realized. The sniper had figured that out, too.

"How long?" he asked, straining to hear the words he was saying.

Vin's hand brushed lightly over his shoulder, probably as close to "I don't know" as he could come up with.

"They don't know?" he tried.

One tap.

Well, damn… Still, things were better than they could have been… much better… And Vin was there. That simple fact made him feel tremendously better just by itself.

However, the aches were becoming clearer, too, and he knew he'd groaned when he shifted, searching for an elusive comfortable position, and felt it vibrate through his chest. He obviously wasn't in full control of his body just yet, and that made him anxious and, all right, cranky…

But Vin was rubbing his shoulder again, reading his feelings with his usual skill, assuring him that he wasn't alone…

"Guess I look like hell, huh?" he asked before he thought much about it.

The resulting two reluctant taps made him wish he hadn't asked. He tried to shift again and felt Vin's hand leave his shoulder.

"No!" he yelped, a wave of fear washing over him, reducing him to something akin to blind panic. And he had to chuckle softly to himself at that – a blind man in a blind panic… now there was irony for you. But then he felt a sob hitch his breath, dangerously close to breaking free.

What if he'd lost his link to the world? What if Vin was gone? What if Vin was—?

The hand was back on his shoulder, fingers squeezing lightly, thumb rubbing over the material of his hospital gown.

The relief that flooded his consciousness was both embarrassing and frightening in its intensity. Thank God. Vin… He hadn't left him. Vin was there. Thank God, Vin was there…

Reaction stole the strength he had left, which wasn't much, and he sagged against the bed, his body trembling. A moment later he felt a straw being pressed to his lips and he opened his mouth and sucked in a mouthful of the cool water. Several more swallows followed before he was too exhausted to draw another.

Vin was rubbing his shoulder again, the gesture as welcome as it was calming.

"You'll stay?" he asked, knowing it probably sounded needier than he'd like, but right then he didn't give a damn.

Two emphatic taps.

He smiled slightly, the action making him aware once more of the skin on his face. "I look toasted?" he mumbled.

Two taps, but light, almost playful, which meant he'd heal up okay… Thank God for that, too.

Other questions floated through his mind, but he didn't get the chance to ask them, sleep pulling him away again before he could remember how to form the words.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"How's he doing?" Buck asked in a whisper.

Josiah looked up from his Bible and offered the ladies' man a small smile. "Last time the doctor was in he said it was going better than he expected."

The relief that washed over Wilmington's expression was the same as what the profiler had felt when he'd heard the news, too.

"Vin?" Buck asked.

"Back in his own bed, finally," Josiah replied. "They're moving both of them into the same room later this evening."

"Knew there was a reason I liked this place," Buck replied. "They're practical."

"Who's practical?" Ezra asked as he walked into Larabee's room. "Surely you're not talking about Mr. Tanner…"

Josiah opened his mouth to reply, but was beaten to it when Vin's voice answered for himself.

"Ain't like y' got the corner on practical staked out fer yourself, Ezra."

Standish turned, watching as Vin hobbled into the room. The sniper looked terrible, but the determined expression on his face made it clear he wasn't going to be denied his objective.

Josiah stood, letting Vin come over and ease himself gingerly into the still-warm seat at Chris' bedside. "You sure you should be back this soon?" the profiler asked quietly.

Vin looked up at the older man, knowing Sanchez wasn't pushing, just concerned about him. "Nurse told me they need t' change some 'a Chris' bandages in a little while. Thought he might do better if I was here," he told them, his defiant look surfacing again as he waited to see if someone objected.

Buck just nodded. "Good idea," he said.

"Absolutely," Ezra concurred.

Both Buck and Ezra had been present the day before when two nurses and a doctor had undertaken the task. Chris had had to be sedated, twice, and neither of them wanted to see a repeat performance of that disaster. They had told Josiah about it, too, so the profiler was on Vin's side as well.

"How are you feelin'?" Buck asked the sniper.

Vin started to say, "I'm fine," but he stopped himself, thinking for a moment before he said, "Headache's a little better. Ain't good yet, but it's tolerable. Gettin' more 'n more sore, though… They been giving me somethin' for it, 'n' the moist heat helps some, too." He shrugged slightly. "Guess it's just got t' get worse before it c'n get better."

"Yes, well, if it becomes too much, you will let one of us know. We'll see to it you're returned to your room so you can rest. You know as well as we do that Mr. Larabee wouldn't want you to suffer on his account."

Vin looked up at the men, then asked, "Y'all ever gonna get around t' telling me what happened the last time they changed these bandages?"

All three men had the good sense to look ashamed of themselves, but not one of them wanted to tell him.

"Vin, you needed to rest," Josiah began.

"We didn't know it was going to hit him like that," Buck added.

"The doctor and nurses were as gentle as they could be, and the sedatives did seem to do the trick… eventually," Ezra concluded.

Vin just glowered at them for a moment, then said, "How did y' think he was goin' t' react? He can't see, he can't hear, and he probably doesn't know what the fuck's goin' on, just that somebody's hurtin' 'im. Y' should 'a stopped 'em 'n' come 'n' got me."

"Next time," Josiah vowed. Something similar had happened when the staff had treated Chris' burns. But that time Vin had been there, and one touch had stilled the blond. "I give you my word."

Vin smiled thinly at that. "Reckon that's all I need t' hear."

Buck and Ezra both looked relieved.

"I'd just like to know how the hell he knows it's you," the ladies' man said. After all, he and Larabee had been friends a hell of a lot longer than Chris and Vin had, but nothing he'd tried had gotten through to the man.

Vin just shrugged. "Don't rightly know; he just does."

"Doesn't really matter how," Josiah said. "I for one am just glad he does."

"Precisely," Ezra concurred. "Anything that can ease the situation is a blessing."

"Amen, brother," Josiah replied, nodding.

"That's the truth," Buck agreed, shooting Vin a grin. "'Sides, it about time somebody else took care of that stubborn ol' cuss."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The hands were back, the ones that brought pain… He felt a surge of panic – unable to determine what they intended to do to him this time – and realized that, for the first time, he understood how Vin felt when he was trapped in some small, dark place. It was completely terrifying… overwhelming… He was out of control, at their mercy, and he wanted it to stop.

He knew they had given him drugs, he could feel the oppressive weight on his consciousness, like a wet woolen blanket that was molding itself over his mind and suffocating his thoughts… He wanted to fight, to escape, but he couldn't force his body to respond, and that made him mad.

And it was that anger, coupled with the lack of control, that finally unhinged him. In the blackness, unable to hear, unable to see, unable to avoid the hands that touched him, hurt him, his mind exploded. He growled and shook in his restraints. He roared with impotent rage.

Rational thought slipped away, separated from his mind by the very drugs that were supposed to subdue him. He howled and threw himself into the fight, no longer able to remember that he was in a hospital.

The hands gripped him tighter, pinning him down. He felt his skin stretching taut, like his sanity. Primal instincts overrode whatever was left of his consciousness and he snarled and fought harder.

He was trapped inside a coffin, struggled with Death and there was no way in hell he was giving up. But Death was winning.

He swung his head from side to side, tried to sink his teeth into whatever was there, keening as he did. Then, throwing his weight against the restraints that bound him into that black box, he arched up, determined to break free.

He felt a needle bite into his arm and swung his head to the other side, trying to stop whoever was trying to kill him, but he felt them skitter back. The small victory emboldened him and he howled, throwing himself against the restraints again. But he could already feel his strength fading quickly.

Still, the hands that had been holding him were suddenly gone, replaced a moment later by a single pair.

They gripped his shoulders, giving him a sharp little shake, then released him. He felt the restraints slipping off his wrists, and then he was being pulled up into a sitting position. That single pair of hands pulled him against a firm, flannel-covered chest, arms wrapping around him, holding him tightly. He could feel the vibrations as words were spoken. He surrendered to the feeling of safety and love that rushed through him.

Sagging slightly, he let himself be held, comforted.

A beard-stubbled chin pressed against the top of his head… Vin.

Vin's chest continued to vibrate as the man kept up a steady litany of words he couldn't hear, but it didn't matter. It was Vin. He was safe now.

He felt a small hitch catch in his own chest, embarrassment and relief warring for supremacy.

He relaxed more, ignoring the tears that seeped from the corners of his eyes, soaking into the bandages that covered them. Vin's hand moved over his back, and he realized it was trembling slightly.

He had done that.

He had scared Vin.

Vin was gentle, careful, soothing, not hurting him… and he had scared Vin… That wasn't right. Vin was only trying to help him…

The drugs rushed up like an incoming tide, draining away the anger and the fear, leaving him weak and shaking. Frustration and helplessness surfaced to replace the fading emotions, but it wasn't too bad. Vin was there…

Vin continued to rub his back, to talk to him…

Thank God Vin was there… Feeling the man hold him freed more of his tears, his usual inhibitions shattered in the wake of his panic. He started to shake, cold snaking into his bones.

Vin pulled him closer, which made him feel warmer, but new pains were beginning to make themselves known. But, somehow, Vin seemed to know where they were, and his hands shifted, one pressing against his right side, the other shifting to rub his shoulders, loosening the knots that had formed there.

He sighed with relief, letting the drugs do their work, sinking into that fog where he could hide and escape the worst of the flaring pain.

Once there, he focused only on Vin – the man's hands, the man's chest, the man's chin, the vibrations as he spoke…

And, somehow, he knew what the words Tanner was speaking were: It's all right, Cowboy… I've got ya… I've got ya… It's gonna be all right now… I've got ya… Ain't gonna leave y' alone again, I promise…

"Don't let go," he thought at Vin, or maybe he said it out loud, willing the man to hear him.

I won't let go, Vin replied, giving him a slight squeeze.

He nodded, feeling the weight of exhaustion bubbling up to drag against his limbs and consciousness like a strong tide. "Stay," he breathed.

I'll be right here, I promise…

He nodded, not even fighting as he was lowered back onto the bed. He didn't care when the strangers' hands began to work on him, even knowing that those strangers must have witnessed his descent into terror. Vin was there with him, Tanner's hands wrapped around one of his bandaged hands…

He lifted his hand, fingertip finding Vin's cheek. It was damp.

Tears? The idea seemed wrong somehow, but he wasn't able to follow it, consider it, the drugs keeping him safely in the center of the fog.

What they were doing hurt, he knew that, but he didn't feel it, not in a way that mattered, anyway. All he felt was the concern coming from Vin, the presence of the man, anchoring him to sanity. He let the tips of his fingers become his world – his eyes, his ears – and what they told him was that Vin was there, Vin was watching out for him, taking care of him… just like always.

His gratitude swelled, pushing more tears from his eyes, but he didn't notice them, too caught up in what his fingertips had discovered. Vin loved him.

He thought, maybe, he should already know that, but this was different, deeper. They were best friends, brothers, but he felt something new seeping through his skin. They were family.

He wanted to think about that, to "ponder on it," as Vin would say, but the fog made that impossible. Maybe he could return to it later…

"Vin," he breathed.

Two light taps answered.

He smiled slightly, all he could manage as sleep began to steal him away.


Two more taps – light, loving… Yes, they were family…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin felt Chris slip into sleep more than anything else. Around him the doctor and nurses continued to work. His back and ribs were hurting so badly he wanted to scream, but he ground his teeth together and forced himself to keep breathing.

He should have been here earlier. He should have been here before they started to work on Chris, but they had come and taken him down for another X-ray and an emergency ahead of him had delayed them…

A throb shook through his back and chest, almost matching the one in his head, and he knew he wasn't going to be able to hold out much longer.

"How much longer, Doc?" he managed to ask.

"Almost done," one of the nurses replied for the physician. "You did great calming him down."

Vin nodded, silently praying for them to hurry. Across the room Josiah, Buck and Ezra were huddled together, waiting for them to finish with Chris as well. As soon as they did, Vin knew his friends would be clamoring to take him back to his room, and this time he wasn't going to argue with them.

Chris' panic-attack this time had been more violent than his first, and it had taken considerably longer for Vin to get through to the blond. Holding him like that had been the only thing he could think of to break through the man's fear, but it had cost him dearly. The muscles in his back and along his ribs felt like they were on the verge of being ripped apart. He could barely breathe and the yellow and white dots were making a comeback, swelling up and exploding in front of his eyes with alarming frequency now.

Then he felt it, the hot rush up the back of his throat…

"Gonna heave," he gasped and, a moment later, he was throwing up into a plastic basin one of the nurses had managed to shove under his chin just in the nick of time.

The contraction of the muscles around his middle caused the pain to flare, white hot and stinging, and that forced his stomach to empty again. He groped for something to hold on to as his vision was suddenly lost in a field of exploding colors. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to shut it out, but it was impossible.

"Grab him!" one of the nurses yelped.

Vin felt hands grabbing onto him and, for a split second he completely understood Chris' reaction, but then he heard Josiah's voice, followed by Buck's and Ezra's and he knew he was with friends. They would take care of him, of Chris…

He let them move him away from Chris, someone holding a basin up for him as he retched again, someone else wiping his face with a damp cloth. Then a straw was pressed to his lips and he sucked in some water, swishing it around his mouth and spitting it out into the basin.

"Easy, Vin," Josiah's voice rumbled quietly next to his ear. "Come on now, I'm going to help you into your wheelchair and get you back to your room – your new room."

"Chris," he rasped out.

"They'll be moving him to the same room just as soon as they're done with him," Buck assured him.

Vin nodded, letting Josiah lift him up and settle him into the wheelchair. "Somebody's gotta stay with Chris," he got out, his stomach on the edge of revolt again.

"I'll stay," Buck replied, adding, "You two get Vin back to his room before he passes out."

"Come along now," Ezra said then, "you've done everything possible for Mr. Larabee. Those sedatives will have him sleeping the rest of today and tonight. It's time you got some rest as well…"

Vin nodded, wondering why it was he couldn't find the strength to force his eyelids open, but it didn't really matter. Chris was all right for now and his friends were there to take care of both of them…

"Nathan, why don't you stay so you can talk to the doctor when he's done," the sniper heard Josiah say and he sighed softly, glad the medic was there, even if he had no idea when he'd arrived. Nathan would be able to translate the medical jargon into something he could understand…

"Buck, you want me to go with Vin or stay with you?" Tanner heard JD ask as his wheelchair began to move.

"Go with Vin, we'll be along as soon as they're done here and we have a talk with the doctor," was Buck's reply, and the last thing Vin heard before he slipped into the gathering darkness.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

When Vin woke next it took him a long moment to realize where he was: Hospital. Or what was happening: A nurse was changing his IV.


That was new. The last time he'd been awake he hadn't had one.

Then he remembered: Chris.

He grunted and tried to lift his head from his pillow, but as soon as his back muscles engaged to accomplish the feat they immediately sent tongues of fiery agony spreading through him.

"You lay still, Vin, you hear me?"


"Easy, Vin, I'm right here," the former medic said, and Vin felt the man's hand settle lightly on his forearm.


"Sound asleep, thanks to you and the sedation," Nathan replied, his hand rubbing lightly over Vin's arm. "You, however, overdid it, so you just lay still and let that muscle relaxant and moist heat do their work."

Vin forced himself to relax, becoming aware for the first time of the pleasant warmth that cradled his back – that would be the moist heat – and the fuzzy tingle on his tongue and the lethargic weight of his limbs, which spoke clearly of the muscle relaxant. With some careful concentration, he managed to lick his dry lips, then said, "Chris… how…?"

"He's fine, Vin," Nathan reassured. "The doctor's really pleased with his progress, too. The burns are healing great. He doesn't think there's going to be any major scarring. His eyes are healing, too."

"He still can't hear…"

"I know. That's harder for them to determine. The specialist said she thought his hearing should return on its own in another day or so. We'll just have to wait and see if there's any permanent hearing damage, though."

"He's… gonna be okay?"

"Sure looks that way," Nathan told him, patting his arm lightly. "Now, you want to hear about you?"

Vin smiled thinly at that. "Me? Naw, I'm fine…"

"Yeah, right," Nathan said and chuckled softly. "You know you have a mild concussion, right?"

"The midget usin' that jackhammer in m' head kind 'a let me know," Vin replied.

"Ouch," Nathan responded, wincing slightly. "Okay, so, a mild concussion… How about the bruised ribs, you remember those?"

"Yep, it's all comin' back t' me."

"I'll bet. Throwin' up like that didn't do a whole lot to help those, so, next time, ask for help, okay?"

"Mmm," Vin replied.

"Oh, and that hairline fracture in two thoracic vertebrae…"

"Two? Hell, Nate, think I'd rather not know anymore," Vin grumbled.

Nathan grinned. "Bottom line: You and Chris both need to rest and let your bodies recover. The doctors think you'll both be fine in two or three weeks. If you rest."

"Does it look like I'm workin' here?" Vin asked.

"Not now."

Tanner's eyes cracked open. "Anybody ever tell you y' got a piss-poor bedside manner?"

Nathan's smile widened. "You ever wonder why I didn't become a doctor?"

That prompted a soft snort of laughter from Vin and his eyes closed again, even the dim light in the room making his head hurt more. "Good thing, too… y' probably talk half your patients int' just givin' up and kickin' the bucket…"

"Yeah, well, looks like you and Chris are both going to live to annoy me another day."

Vin's eyes opened again and he lifted his head slightly, wincing as it began to throb just behind his eyes. "Did they move Chris…?"

Nathan stepped to the side so Vin had an unimpeded view of the second bed in the room. Chris lay in it, still and quiet. "He's right there," the Black man said.

Vin sank back down onto his pillow. "Least now I'll be here when they have t' work on 'im."

"One of us will be, too," Nathan said. "We're going to take shifts, so one of us will be here to help you. So, you make sure you get some sleep so you're up to helping him when he needs you, okay? And we'll make sure he's okay while you do, understand?"

"Yeah," Vin said airily. "You're a good friend, Nate."

"Damn right I am," the man replied, but the compliment warmed him. "Now, why don't you follow your medic's advice and get some sleep. They aren't going to bother Chris again until tomorrow morning, so you've got a good ten hours to apply that hard head of yours to that pillow."

"Bossy, too," Vin muttered, but he was already drifting off, secure in the fact that one of their friends would be watching over them.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin woke to the sound of a soft moan coming from the other bed in the hospital room. He sat up slowly, glancing over to where Chris was lying in the second bed. When another soft whimper escaped the blond, Vin pulled back the covers, grabbed his IV pole and eased himself carefully out of bed, shuffling stiffly over to Larabee's bedside.

Reaching out, he rubbed Chris' shoulder soothingly, saying, "Easy, Chris, it's okay now."

Larabee groaned once more, then quieted as Vin continued to rub the man's shoulder and his upper chest.

"He all right?"

Vin glanced over his shoulder, nodding when he saw Buck entering the room. "Yeah, I think so."

"He waking up?"

"Not sure," Vin replied. "Heard 'im moanin', so, maybe…"

"You hear anything from the doctor?" Buck asked.

Vin shook his head. "He usually comes 'round after lunch."

Buck moved over to stand next to Vin. Looking down at Chris, the ladies' man said, "I hope there's been some progress. I mean, can you imagine not being able to hear or to see? Man…"

Vin shook his head. "It's gotta be hell…"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The first thing he became aware of was the touch… A light, gentle touch that made him feel safe…

It caught his attention and he floated inside the feeling… It was so warm, so good…

Vin… Was that Vin?

Buck? Was he hearing Vin and Buck?

The scratching sounds were still there, too, surrounding him, but they weren't as loud as before and, in the distance, he was sure he could hear Vin and Buck…

He moaned as he tried to force himself to full wakefulness, but the sedatives blocked his way. As he struggled closer to consciousness, he reached out, catching words…

"…ing… doctor…"

That was Buck.

"…'round lun…"

That was Vin.

He could hear them! Well, sort of, anyway… Still, the relief he felt was swift and deep and he relaxed into it, letting it carry him along until the sedatives released him.

When they did, he quickly became aware of the pain that still assailed his body, but he knew immediately it was better than it had been before – tolerable. He sighed with relief.


He frowned. Was that a voice? He wasn't sure. "Vin?" he called, knowing it must sound slurred since his tongue felt about two sizes too thick and as dry as a desert.

Two taps on his shoulder, and then a straw was pressing against his lips. He sucked down a couple swallows of water, then swished the next one around in his mouth before swallowing it. "Say something," he stated, hoping he wasn't whispering or yelling.


"Louder," he said.


He huffed out a frustrated sigh. "I think I can hear you a little," he said. "Hard to tell."

A moment later he felt a breath against his neck, and then he heard, "…'bout now?"

"That's a little better," he said. "There's a rushing sound in my head…"

Two taps on his shoulder, then the feel of breath on his cheek and neck.

"…better 'n… days…"


Two taps.

Days… damn. But that was considerably better than it not getting any better at all… Still, he had another concern… "My eyes?"



"…goin'… fine…"

"How long before these bandages come off?"


Damn, days again. But, once more, better than things not getting better at all, so he really couldn't complain. He was still scared, but he could hold it together for a few more days… As long as Vin was there.

"You stay?" he asked, hoping it didn't sound like he was begging.

Two resolute taps and, "…boy."

"You just call me a cowboy?" he asked.

Two quick, playful taps.

"Goddamn pain-in-the-ass Texan," he grumbled.

Two more taps and, he was sure, the sound of two voices, laughing…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

He floated to awareness effortlessly for the first time in he couldn't remember how long. The familiar buzz in his ears and head was still there, but less intense, as were the aches and pains that popped randomly into consciousness.

Somehow, he didn't know how, he knew he wasn't alone, and that fact made him feel comfortable, safe, despite the darkness and the hurts.

Then something captured his attention – the buzz of voices. He couldn't make out what was being said, but it didn't take long before he recognized the familiar hum of Vin's voice.

He concentrated on that…

"They're checkin' his eyes tomorrow, but the doc said it could take another week or more for his hearin' t' go back t' normal."

He relaxed. Yep, definitely Vin. He'd know Vin's voice anywhere.

"I think he's wakin' up."

He felt displaced air, then warm fingers encircled his wrist.


Having Vin address him directly like that surprised him and he jumped slightly. The fingers tightened, then let go.


Two quick squeezes as he heard, "How y' doin'?"

He thought for a long moment, then said, "Okay… I think. You sound funny."

A joyful noise erupted from someone, or maybe several someones, and the reaction, as well as the reason for it, tugged a smile from him. He felt the fingers move, touching his arm, his shoulder, his neck, then they carded through his hair.

"'Bout goddamn time."

The words conveyed a great deal of information with their fervency, tinged as it was with exhaustion and… relief, he decided.

His eyes stung as he moved his arm – he was no longer restrained – across his chest, fumbling for a moment, then finding Vin's hand, his fingers curling around it roughly. "Never thought I'd be glad to hear that damn Texas accent," he said, realizing his own voice sounded as raspy as Vin's usually did, his throat no doubt singed by the explosion, just like his skin.

"Hell, Larabee, y' don't usually listen t' me anyway…"

He reached up, his other hand coming to rest on Vin's thigh and he realized the man was sitting on the edge of his bed. Still, being able to reach out and touch the man gave him an anchor in his sense-deprived world, and for that he was grateful. He grimaced as his muscles responded to his movement. "Sore," he stated.

"Y' got thrown pretty far in that blast," he heard Buck say. "You remember?"

He thought for a moment, details of the bust slowly filtering into consciousness. He nodded. "Anybody else get hurt?"

"Just a couple of the bad guys," Vin told him.

He snorted, feeling the relief well up, then dissipate. "What about my eyes?" he asked.

"Flash burns," Vin told him. "Doc says they'll take the bandages off tomorrow, see how you're doin'. You're gonna be fine, though."

He lay there, trying to decide if he believed Vin. But Tanner hadn't ever lied to him. Well, except for one thing… "You were hurt, too."

"I'm fine."

He sighed. "Buck?"

"Junior's gonna be fine," the ladies' man assured him. "If we can keep him in his bed long enough for him to get some rest."


He felt Tanner's fingertips dig slightly into his shoulder and he patted Vin's hand, understanding. Then it struck him – he could hear. They could talk again, but they didn't really need to, never had… "Go rest," he told Vin.

"Ain't tired."

"You want me to make that an order?"

"Hell, Larabee, ain't like y' can see if I go or not."


"All right, all right, I'm goin'," Vin said, and he felt the man slid off the edge of the bed.

When Vin took a step away, he almost called him back, the lack of an anchor nearly plunging him into a panic again, but he knew Vin was still there, would be there. He was already feeling the draw of sleep himself.

"Vin…" he called and, a moment later, he felt the hand back on his shoulder.

"I'll be right here," he heard Tanner say.

"You really okay?"

"Banged up a little, but I'll be fine," Vin reassured him. "Y' get some rest, y'hear me?"

"I hear you," he said, a sleepy, silly grin spreading across his face. "I hear you…"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"…'n y' hear me?"

An unfamiliar, unexpected touch on his arm startled him awake and he unconsciously tried to blink the sleep out of his eyes only to discover that he couldn't. "Huh?"

"Easy, Chris, it's just the doctor."

Vin? Hadn't he told Tanner to get some sleep?

"What?" he asked, still trying to clear his mind as he felt Vin's hand slip underneath his so they were palm-to-palm. "Vin?" he asked, worried now, even though he wasn't sure why.

"Chris, can y' hear me?"

He nodded.

"Good, then listen t' me. The doc's goin' t' take the bandages off your eyes so she c'n get a look at how you're doin'."

He nodded again, but his heart immediately began to beat faster and his breath quickened. He felt Vin's fingers tighten around his hand and he squeezed back, grateful for the man's understanding, and more so for his presence.

A moment later a woman's voice sounded close to his ear, saying, "The lights are dimmed, but it will probably seem bright to you at first. I want you to try to relax and let your eyes adjust naturally. Ready?"

He nodded, thinking, Relax? Yeah, right. It's just the rest of my life we're talking about here, Doc… He felt Vin's fingers tighten again and, this time, they maintained the tighter grasp.

He blew out a breath and said, "I'm ready."

He felt a vibration as the head of his bed was lifted so he was sitting upright, then, a few moments later, delicate, warm hands turned his head so he was facing straight forward.

"Don't move," he heard her tell him.

He felt the press of scissors against his scalp and felt the bandages being separated. An outer portion was removed, then he felt her fiddling with the wrappings around his eyes. He felt the strips as they were wound off, irritating the healing skin beneath. The last one pulled at his hair, making his head itch.

An odor he couldn't immediately identify assailed him, but then he realized that it was his hair, which was obviously in dire need of a wash.


He reflexively squeezed Vin's hand twice.

"The doctor said your face 'n' arms are doin' great. It was mostly first-degree burns and a few blisters," Vin told him, relieving a fear he hadn't even yet comprehended.

"That all?" he asked, more afraid now that the bandages were being taken off. "Any scars?"

"He doesn't think so," Vin replied. "Still as handsome as ever, right, Doc?"

"Absolutely," Chris heard the woman say.

"He say when I can go home?" Chris asked, trying to keep himself occupied so he wouldn't fidget.

"Couple more days, if y' promise t' take it easy for a while. I told him I'd take y' home and see to it y' behaved yourself."

A couple of days… Well, he should be able to handle that, especially if Vin was here… "Well, Doc?" he asked the woman.

"Almost there," she replied as air caressed his face as the last layer of gauze was removed. "All right, Agent Larabee," she said soothingly, "I'm going to take off the pads covering your eyes. Don't open them until I tell you to."

The pads stuck to his skin, making him wince slightly as they were pulled free. His breath caught in his throat as he waited for her to tell him to open his eyes.

"A little longer," she instructed him. And then, finally, "All right, open your eyes, slowly…"

He concentrated, willing his lids to rise, and they did, albeit too slowly for his taste. He blinked, then flinched as light burst into his vision, triggering a memory – Vin calling his name… a flare of blinding white light… Vin, falling… an overwhelming roar of sound…

"Easy, Chris, easy," Vin whispered into his ear, breaking the memory's hold. "C'mon, now, open your eyes…" It was a command, quietly spoken, but irresistible.

He gulped and his eyelids fluttered open a crack. He squinted into the light. Sweat had broken out on his face and he squeezed Vin's hand with all the strength he possessed, but his grip relaxed as, slowly, the sliver of the room he could see came into blurry relief. He opened his eyes a little farther.

Two faces swam into his field of vision, one pretty and thoughtful, the other pale with fatigue, concerned. He gave that one a shaky smile. "Damn, Tanner, you look worse than I do," he grumbled.

A wobbly grin spread across Vin's face. "Like hell I do," he replied.

He couldn't think of anything to do but sit there and grin weakly at the man who had saved his sanity. Thankfully, Vin didn't look like he minded.

Then the doctor said, "Well, it's time we see how you're doing…"

What followed was a series of bright lights shining into his eyes, each one making his head hurt a little worse than the last. Then she was pulling on his eyelids, leaving the skin around his eyes feeling raw and enflamed. There were moments when he was ready to launch himself at the woman and strangle her with his bare hands, but Vin sat there through it all, literally holding his hands and offering a litany of encouragement.

Then, suddenly, the doctor and Vin were both gone and the room fell into blessed darkness. He sighed with relief.

A nurse was there, helping him to take a pill, and he was too tired to even bother asking what it was for. He closed his aching eyes and sagged back against his pillow as the nurse lowered the head of his bed so he was lying flat again.

He turned so he was lying half on his side, facing toward the door, hoping he'd hear it when Vin returned. It struck him then that it didn't hurt to move anymore – well, not much, anyway…

He felt the air stir and wondered if Vin had returned.

He cracked his eyes open and was relieved to see the man coming over and sitting down on a chair that was there by his bedside. He wondered briefly just how many hours Vin had spent in that chair when he ought to have been lying in his own bed across the room, resting. Too many, he decided, given the way the man looked.

He felt Vin's hand come to rest on his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.

"Think I expected to…" He trailed off, his voice catching.

"Yeah, I know," Vin replied. "I was scared, too."

He blinked his eyes open, the movement feeling like scrubbing sandpaper over his eyeballs. "Too bad it was your ugly face I saw first," he teased. But Tanner did look like he needed to sleep for about a week.

Vin laughed. "Could 'a been worse," he said. "Could 'a been Buck who was sittin' here."

Chris grinned sleepily. "Glad you were here," he offered, his heartfelt gratitude clear in his voice.

Vin just nodded, reaching out to tenderly cup his face. "Doc says you're gonna be just fine. Your eyes are doing great."

Chris sighed with relief, eyes falling closed again. He felt Vin move, then he was gently eased over onto his back. A moment later, Vin's hands were lightly massaging his bruised, unexercised muscles. He moaned softly. "Feels good…"

"Get some sleep," Vin said in his ear.

He sank deeper into the sensations Vin was creating, basking in the afterglow of pain draining away. Even his head didn't hurt so badly anymore. "Thanks, pard," he mumbled.

"Anytime, Cowboy."

"You just call me a cowboy?"

"Naw, just your broken ears playin' tricks on ya."

"Aren't broken," he mumbled.

"Must be your head that's broke, then."

He chuffed out a weak laugh, knowing Vin would be there when he woke next, just like he had been… The ministrations continued and he drifted along closer and closer to sleep, feeling the caring fingers easing the remainder of his aches away…

You can face anything, he decided, as long as you have someone there to walk the trail with you…

And he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather have beside him than Vin Tanner.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Josiah walked into the now-familiar hospital room to find Vin dressed in street clothes. The sniper was still moving a little slowly, and he'd lost a few pounds, but, all in all, he was on the road to recovery. The profiler knew the man's back would remain painful for another week, at least, but the crushing agony the man had been fighting had faded to something Tanner could tolerate.

"Looks like you're ready to go," he greeted.

Vin looked up and nodded, the circles under his eyes still darker than Josiah would have liked. "He have a restless night?" the profiler asked, his head jerking slightly to indicate Chris.

Vin nodded again. "Woke up a couple 'a times… Think havin' the bandages off made it harder for 'im t' sleep."

"I talked to the ophthalmologist. She sounded very positive."

Vin grinned. "Yep. Looks like his eyes are gonna be fine. Ears are still off, but they think that'll clear up in a couple more days."

It was Josiah's turn to nod. "You were both lucky."

"Ain't gonna argue that one," Vin replied, setting about checking the room for anything he didn't already have shoved into two large plastic bags that the hospital had supplied.

"How's your back feeling?" Josiah asked, walking over to look down at his friend and boss. Chris was sleeping.


"Vin…" The profiler heard the huffed out sigh and grinned. Vin would prefer it if they forgot about him and concentrated on Chris, but they weren't going to do that.

"Still sore, but it's gettin' a little better every day."

"I'm still not sure you should be taking care of Chris by yourself," the older man said. "I'd be happy to stay out at the ranch with you, at least for a couple of days."

Vin shook his head. "I'll be fine, J'siah, really. As long as I take the pills they gave me it really ain't that bad."

"Then I better hear that you're taking those pills," Josiah told him in his best no-nonsense voice, which prompted a grin from Tanner.

"You're just a big ol' mama hen, y' know that, don't ya?"

"I cluck with the best of them," Josiah admitted proudly.

"Nate's got y' beat," Vin grumbled. "Sonuvabitch already counted m' pills so he can make sure 'm takin' 'em like I'm supposed to…"

Josiah chuckled. It was a tactic they used with Vin and Chris. "We just want to make sure you're taking care of yourself, Vin. We care about you."

"Yeah, I know," Vin grumbled, his cheeks turning a soft shade of pink.

"So, when are they cutting Chris loose?"

"Tomorrow mornin'," Vin replied. "Buck said he's gonna take m' Jeep out t' the ranch today; he'll drive us out there tomorrow." He looked up at the big man hopefully. "Was kind 'a hopin' y' could stay with Chris for a little bit. I need t' get over t' my apartment an' pick up some stuff, clean out the fridge…"

"Already done," Josiah told him. "We cleaned out the fridge and straightened up there, and out at the ranch. In fact, Ezra, Nate and JD are shopping right now to restock the ranch's fridge and freezer. Buck's doing the laundry and tidying up. And I'm here to keep you company until they get done."

Vin's eyes rounded. "Y'all did all that?"

"We're working on it," Josiah replied with a smile. "Like I said, Vin, we car—"

"Yeah, yeah, I heard y' the first time," Tanner retorted, cheeks turning a deeper shade of pink.

"Bet he'll be glad to get out of here," Josiah said, making a strategic change of topic.

"Both of us will," Vin agreed, watching as Josiah began helping him to pack his and Larabee's belongings.

As Josiah worked, he kept a careful eye on Vin, noting that the younger man still couldn't twist easily, and bending over was definitely a bad idea. It worried him that Tanner would be out at the ranch, alone with Chris, but he knew Vin would call for help if he needed it – for Chris' sake, if not his own.

It was doubtful he'd call if he was having problems himself… The boy was too damn independent by half. Nathan had wanted them to take turns, staying out at the ranch with Vin and Chris, but he'd nixed the idea. They needed some space, neither of them used to the constant attention they'd been getting at the hospital.

The next day

The smell and the softness of his sheets, pillowcase and pajamas all told him he was home – finally. He raked his fingers through his hair, a small smile on his lips as he basked in the familiarity of it all.

Damn but it was good to be home… He marveled at the word for a long moment. There had been a time when he'd been sure he'd never think of anyplace as home, ever again, but the pain of loss had slowly eased, aided, he knew, by the steadfast friendships he'd built with his team.

Still, it sometimes caught him by surprise when he realized the sharp, stabbing grief he'd once felt had faded into a nostalgic sadness that was more friend than foe these days. He no longer felt alone. He had a home. He had family…

He rested in those feelings, refusing to fight them any longer. There was no reason to. His wife and son were dead, but he had a new life now. He wasn't sure if he ought to feel guilty about that, but couldn't quite bring himself to do it. Sarah would have wanted him to be happy, he knew that. She would have wanted him to go on living, to find love again…

Love… Well, he wasn't so sure he'd find that again. But he felt loved, thanks to Vin and the others.

He blinked his eyes open. A cozy darkness filled his room, a faint yellow glow shining around the edges of his shut door. Vin was still up, watching TV or maybe a DVD, which meant he must have been asleep for several hours…

He glanced over at the bedside clock and confirmed his suspicions. Nine hours, in fact; he'd gotten home before noon and it was after dinnertime now.

Maybe now he'd finally stop sleeping so much. He'd slept a lot in the hospital, had dozed on his way home, and had still been so exhausted by his homecoming that he'd gone straight to bed as soon as he'd made one pass through the house to reassure himself that all was well.

Vin had accompanied him on his trek, filling him in on all the details concerning the horses and the ranch, work, making sure he knew all was well beyond the walls of his home. He'd listened, not really paying attention, content to reacquaint himself with his home. For a few moments it had all seemed… normal.

But the explosion had most definitely taken a toll on him. Even now he still had to move gingerly to avoid sharp stabs of pain from healing muscles and bones. And light and sound still grated on tender eyes and ears. But he wasn't complaining. This beat the alternatives, hands down.

But, he was willing to admit, he still had a ways to go before he was back to what passed as "normal" among this band of brothers.

Vin, too, for that matter.

He had finally gotten an opportunity to talk to Vin's doctor yesterday. Tanner was still stiff and sore, but he never would have known it to look at the man. How Vin managed to hide his discomfort was a mystery, one he'd never allowed himself to explore too deeply, knowing he wouldn't like the reasons.

He rolled over slowly in his bed, stretching with care, then caught a scent in the air. Chicken? Barbecue, anyway. And whatever it was, it had to be a whole lot better than what they had been feeding him in the hospital. Whoever had come up with "soft meals" ought to be shot as far as he was concerned.

Yep, it definitely smelled like Vin had been staying busy rather than resting like he was supposed to. Thank God the others had come out and cleaned and restocked or there was no doubt Tanner would have felt he'd had to do that, too.

Damn stubborn Texan…

He crawled slowly out of bed, feeling more like an old man than he wanted to admit. He paused for a moment, enjoying the feel of the thick carpet under his bare feet. Then, with a soft groan, he tottered to the door and out of the room.

The lights in the living room were on and he squinted against them, the brightness painful. Objects in the distance were still blurry, but he could make out the figure in the recliner by the couch and headed over to it.

Vin had slid down in the chair, his eyes closed, his mouth open as he slept while the TV played on, the channel set to CNN.

He paused, staring down at the younger man, wondering how much sleep the sniper had actually gotten over the past week. He guessed that most of it had probably been snatched in that hospital chair that had remained at his bedside, so Vin would be there whenever he woke, anxious and needy…

He hadn't realized just how important it had been, knowing Vin would be there, his island of sanity in that silent, dark world… There was no way Vin could have know how important it was, but, somehow, he had.

It hadn't been his most shining moment, he had to admit. In fact, he was more than a little embarrassed by how he'd reacted, but no one had said anything, and Vin had every right to chide him, but he knew Tanner never would.

Vin had risked injury, had endured pain, and for what? To make sure he wasn't afraid? The enormity of it coursed through him, making his eyes water.

Oh, yeah, he had family, he was loved, no doubt about it.

Vin stirred, his face creasing with pain as he moved. His eyes opened and he peered up owlishly at him for a long moment, as if he wasn't sure what he was seeing was a dream or real. Then he blinked and grinned before worry caught up to him.

"Hey, y' okay? Y' need t' sit down?" Vin scrambled out of the chair, reaching for his arm.

"I'm fine," he said, "just hungry. I smelled the barbecue."

He watched as Vin straightened carefully, his smile returning. "Y' are, huh? Well, I c'n fix that." He waved his hand in the direction of the kitchen and Chris started off.

Vin stayed half a step behind him – hovering without touching.

The aroma grew richer as they neared the stove. Vin walked over and pulled out a chair for him at the kitchen table. Resisting the urge to open the oven door to see what was on the menu, he crossed to the table and sank down into the chair instead.

Vin flicked off the main light in the kitchen, working in the illumination offered by the smaller light over the stove. Coffee was made, baked potatoes were prepared, along with small salads. When all was ready, Vin went to the oven and removed the baking dish, carrying it to the waiting trivet on the kitchen table and setting it down with a flourish.

Chris sniffed, enjoying the tangy smell. "What is it?"

"Baked chicken in honey barbecue sauce."

His mouth watered. "Might have to give you a raise for this," he said, dropping a napkin into his lap and reaching for the aluminum foil that covered the dish.

"Ack!" Vin scolded, lightly smacking his hand and then carefully picking at the corners of the foil, loosening it before snatching it off.

The chicken tasted as good as it smelled, the tender meat falling off the bones, the sauce sweet and tangy. His potato was perfectly done, too.

He stopped occasionally to inhale deeply before digging in again, savoring each bite until it was all gone. He looked at his untouched salad and decided he was full. Leaning back, he worked on finishing his coffee while Vin polished off his meal, as well as Chris' untouched salad.

"So, how are you feeling?" he asked the sniper.


He sighed softly at the involuntary reply. "Vin…"

"Really," Tanner returned. "Look, m' back's still a little sore, sure, but it ain't nothin'." Vin meant every word.

Chris sighed softly to himself.

"Y' want anything else? I c'n put some of them turnovers in the oven if y' want some dessert."

He shook his head, already feeling sleepy. "Naw, I'd probably fall asleep and end up face-first in it."

Vin grinned. "Naw, I'd catch y' before y' got that far."

"You always do," he said quietly.

Vin flushed. "Why don't y' go on back t' bed, then. I'll get this stuff in the dishwasher 'n' bring y' your pills."

He nodded, pushing slowly to his feet. Helping was what he ought to do, but he knew his energy was draining away like water from a bathtub. "You can do that in the morning."

"The sauce'll be harder 'n a year-old gumball if I leave it set out all night," Vin replied. "I'll be in there in a couple 'a minutes."

He puttered back down the hallway, slipping into his room and detouring to the bathroom before finally climbing back into bed again.

Laying there he listened to the sound of the water running in the sink, then the rushing noise as the dishwasher came on. Another minute or two passed, then he heard the bedroom door open.



"Can y' sit up so y' c'n take these?"

His eyes still closed, he sat up and held out his hand. Two pills were placed in his palm and he popped them straight into his mouth and held out his hand again. This time the bottom of a glass touched his open palm.

He rotated his hand over, his fingers closing around the glass and lifting it to his lips so he could wash the medication down. When he was done, the glass was taken from him.

He lay back down, listening as the glass was set on the coaster on the night stand next to the bed.

"I'll be in the guest room, so if y' need anything, just give a holler," Vin told him.

"Vin," he called.


He paused then, not sure he should ask anything more from the man who had been his rock for so many days. "Uh… you, uh, think you could… stay for a little while?"

"Sure," was the immediate reply and he could hear the affection in the man's voice. It made his chest feel warm.

A moment later he felt Vin sit down on the edge of the bed.

"You can lie down if you want," he told the sniper.

There was a brief hesitation before he felt Vin rise and he listened to the man as he walked around the bed and then lay down on top of the covers. A couple of moments later he felt the touch of Vin's hand as the younger man began to lightly rub his back. He moaned softly in pleasure.

"Feel good?"


"Go to sleep, Chris."

He felt himself relaxing, drifting closer to sleep. He'd discovered he could get a hell of a lot of information from a touch. It could be reassuring, soothing, sympathetic… It could convey worry, humor, fear… It grounded him, buoyed him up, carried him… It was so much richer than he'd ever imagined…

He drifted on the edge of sleep, attention turned to read what this touch spoke to him, and it came in a single word… Love.

He recognized it.

Vin loved him.

Brother. Family…

He drifted off knowing he would never be alone again.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

He was groping his way along a long hallway, using his hand on the wall to guide him. It was cool, and he shivered slightly. An encroaching feeling of dread weighed on him, making his heart beat faster and faster. But balancing that feeling was another one: hope.

He was getting closer to something… safe.

Hurrying along, hoping to find whatever it was he was looking for, he stumbled, almost falling. He realized then that he couldn't hear anything, or see anything…

Fear exploded in his chest. Was he blind and deaf?

What had happened?

Had he and Vin been caught in the explosion?

Was Vin all right?

Getting more upset with each passing moment, he pressed on. Then, suddenly, the wall was gone. He stumbled to a stop, hands groping around him, trying to find… What?

He didn't know.

He was breathing hard, his heart thundering in his chest, but he wasn't sure why he was so damn scared. But he was. He was terrified.

Then, out of nowhere, he felt the hands…

Vin. It was Vin. Relief flooded through him. Thank God.

Vin's arms wrapped around him, drawing him in, holding him, comforting him…

He felt the fear melting inside himself.

He still couldn't see or hear, but he didn't need to. He was safe so long as Vin was there.

He sucked in a sharp breath and surfaced from sleep…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Hearing Chris moan softly, Vin rolled over and pushed himself up onto his elbow, wincing as his back protested the move. Glancing over at the nightstand, he saw it was just past three in the morning.

Larabee moaned again, his head tossing a little on his pillow.

"Chris," Vin called softly, giving in to the inevitable and lowering himself back down to the bed to ease the ache in his back.

Another moan.

"Chris, it's okay…"

In the darkness Vin heard the blond suck in a sharp breath and immediately reached out, his fingers closing over Chris' shoulder. "Easy, Chris, it's okay… you're home now, 'n' I'm right here."

"Vin?" Larabee called, sounding sleepy, confused… maybe a little petulant, he decided.

"Yeah, I'm right here," Tanner told him, scooting a little closer as he lightly rubbed the older man's chest. "You okay?"

There was a brief pause, then, "Think it was a dream… can't really remember…"


"Don't think so," Chris replied, sounding honestly confused. "Maybe, but I don't think so…"

"You need some pain meds?"

That sent his pondering off track and there was more silence as Larabee considered the question. His head hurt a little, but that was it, really. "No… just got a headache."

"Then you should take something," Vin told the man.

"It's not that bad," Larabee said, the words coming out a little airily as Vin shifted his attention to Chris' head, stroking his fingers through the man's hair and gently massaging his scalp.

In the darkness Vin could hear Chris' reaction and he grinned, continuing to soothe Larabee, enjoying the opportunity to do it for the man who had given him so much.

"Think y' c'n go back t' sleep?"

"Think so…" Chris managed on a long breath.

"Good," Vin replied, his grin widening. "That's real good… Go t' sleep; I'll be right here…"

"You're always there when I need you," Chris said quietly, slipping into sleep.

"Always will be, too," Vin replied, continuing to stroke through the blond hair even after he knew Chris was asleep once more.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

iousness slowly, enjoying the languid trip, basking in each new awareness. He was home…

Vin was lying behind him, sleeping…

He listened to the sounds of the birds chirping beyond his window, remembering again what it had been like when he could neither see nor hear. He had been terrified, confused, desperate, but Vin had been there… just like he always was.

When had Tanner become his rock?

Not that it mattered. He was.

At the time he'd had no idea Vin had been hurt as well, but now he knew. His talk with Vin's doctor had been very educational, and he'd followed it up with talks with Josiah and Buck. He was still a little pissed at both of them. They should have made sure Vin stayed in his own bed, resting, like the doctor had wanted him to.

But he understood why they hadn't been able to.

Still, Vin had endured agony to be there for him, and that made him feel… guilty.

Cracking his eyes open, he glanced over at the still-sleeping man. A fractured vertebra must hurt like a son of a bitch, and two twice as much. But he couldn't remember Vin complaining, not even once.

That, he knew, was what family did for one another.

Somehow, in the depths of his own despair, he'd found family, found love again. And if that didn't classify as a miracle, nothing would.

Hard ass Chris Larabee was finally moving on… Vin and the rest of the men on his team were his brothers, his family, and they had given him the strength he hadn't had himself, the strength to keep going until, now, he was finally past the immobilizing grief and sadness… He was living again.

He marveled over being able to see the sniper lying there and sent a silent prayer to God, thanking him for the recovery of his sight and his hearing. He wasn't at all sure he could have survived in a silent, dark world like that…

And thank God Vin had been there, too. He'd been a beacon of light, of hope, in the middle of that sea of despair… Yeah, definitely his rock.

Vin had kept him from going crazy… even if it had cost him.

Would he have been so willing to suffer for Vin if their situations had been reversed?

He prayed the answer to that was yes.

"Hmm?" Vin murmured, his eyes cracking open.

"You awake?"

"Think so," Vin replied. "Y' okay?"

"I'm fine," Chris replied. "I… I just want you to know… what you did in the hospital… I don't think I could've made it through that without you."

Vin grinned for a moment, but then the expression faded. "Damn, Chris, I was so damn scared it wasn't goin' t' get any better…"

"Yeah, me, too," Chris admitted. "But you gave me something to hold on to. I needed that, Vin, more than I can tell you."

"I'll always be there, Cowboy."

"I know. It's what family does, but I didn't appreciate it until it was all that stood between me and… I don't know what, exactly… oblivion… insanity."

Vin reached up and squeezed his arm, but his tone was teasing as he said, "Ah hell, Chris, we already know yer crazy…"

Larabee smiled. "Yeah, crazy to put up with the likes of you."

"Mmm," Vin replied. "Gonna have t' put up with me for a long time."

"That's all right," Chris told him. "You watch my back and I'll watch yours… deal?"

"Deal," Vin whispered, the happiness he felt surging through him like a fever.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A short while later both men rolled carefully out of bed and then headed straight to the two bathrooms in the house. The cascades of hot water eased some of their aches and pains, and, once they were done, they dressed and shuffled down to the kitchen to get something to eat.

Vin chuckled softly as Chris passed him, heading straight for the coffeemaker.

"What?" Larabee asked.

Vin shook his head.

"What?" Chris repeated.

"Just thinkin' I was gettin' a sneak peep 'a what you're gonna look like when y' get t' be an old man…"

Larabee's eyes narrowed as he fixed the coffee. "You think you're moving with any kind of grace and youthful vitality right now, Tanner?"

Vin blinked. "Movin' better 'n you are," he replied, trying to look smug.

"You know, I might've been blind there for awhile, but I know a bent-over-shuffle when I see it."

Vin grinned. "Guess y' really are cured, huh?"

Chris returned the grin. "Looks that way."

Vin's amused expression was replaced by one that reflected his deep affection for the older man. "Yeah, well, guess we both got lucky this time."

The blond nodded, hoping their luck continued to hold. He didn't want to lose any more family. Glancing out the window he noted that it was going to be a beautiful day. Maybe he'd call the others and have them come over; it was time they celebrated life, brothers, family…